1 A Beautiful Kind of Freedom
Seán O’Hagan: I’m surprised you agreed to do this given that you haven’t done any interviews for a long time.
Nick Cave: Well, who wants to do an interview? Interviews, in general, suck. Really. They eat you up. I hate them. The whole premise is so demeaning: you have a new album out, or new film to promote, or a book to sell. After a while, you just get worn away by your own story. I guess, at some point, I just realised that doing that kind of interview was of no real benefit to me. It only ever took something away. I always had to recover a bit afterwards. It was like I had to go looking for myself again. So five or so years ago I just gave them up.
So how do you feel about this undertaking?
I don’t know. I do like having a conversation. I like to talk, to engage with people. And we’ve always had our big, sprawling conversations, so when you suggested it, I was kind of intrigued to see where it would go. Let’s see, shall we?
When I spoke to you back in March (2020), your world tour had just been cancelled because of the pandemic. I have to say, you sounded remarkably philosophical about it.
It was a strange moment, that’s for sure. When Covid hit and my manager, Brian, told me that we wouldn’t be going on tour, I felt this kind of emptying out, like the whole world had dropped out from under me. We’d all put an enormous amount of thought and effort into how we were going to present Ghosteen live – we’d been rehearsing with ten backing singers and created a whole visual structure for the show that felt completely unique and very exciting. A lot of work, mental energy and expense. So when I heard it definitely wasn’t going to happen, I was initially horrified. It struck at the very core of my being because I was this thing that toured. It’s what I was.
Now, I say this with great caution because I know how disappointed the fans were, but, to be honest, that feeling of existential collapse, well, it lasted about half an hour. Then I remember standing in my manager’s office and thinking somewhat guiltily, ‘Fuck! I’m not going on tour. And perhaps for an entire year.’ Suddenly, there was an extraordinary sense of relief, a sort of wave washing through me, a kind of euphoria, but also something more than that – a crazy energy.
A sense of potential, maybe?
Yes, but true potential. Potential as powerlessness, ironically. Not the potential to do something, but the potential not to do something. It suddenly struck me that I could just be at home with Susie, my wife, and that was amazing in itself because we’d always measured our relationship in terms of my leaving and my returning. Suddenly, I could see my kids, or just sit in a chair on my balcony and read books. It was like I had been given the license to just be, and not do.
And as it went on, there was the sense that time was out of joint, the days just drifting into each other. Did you feel that?
Yes, time seemed altered. It seems almost wrong to be saying this, but on one level, I really loved the strange freedom it gave me. I loved getting up in the morning and having another day where I could just exist and not have to do anything. The phone stopped ringing constantly and very quickly my days became beautifully repetitious. It was oddly like being a junkie again, the ritual, the routine, the habit.
Now, I’m saying all this even though the previous tour, when we played the Skeleton Tree album live, was one of the defining periods of my professional life, just being on that stage every night with that fierce energy coming off the audience. It is difficult to exaggerate the extraordinary feeling of connection. It was life-changing. No, actually life-saving! But it was also seriously punishing, physically and mentally. So when the recent tour was cancelled, the initial disappointment was replaced by a feeling of relief and, yes, a strange and wayward potential. I feel guilty even saying this, because I know how devastating the pandemic has been for many people.
From the chats we had back then, it was clear that you sensed early on that the lockdown would be a time for reflection.
I instinctively felt that. I remember feeling that it really didn’t seem right to try and do a performance online from my kitchen, or from my bathtub, or in my pyjamas, or whatever else it was that some artists were doing back then, all those artless and conspicuous displays of fellow feeling. It felt to me like it was a moment to sit inside history and just think. I felt chastened by the world. I had a weird, reflective time throughout that Covid summer. I’ll never forget it, sitting on my balcony, reading a lot, writing loads of new stuff, responding to questions on The Red Hand Files. It was an interesting time, despite the constant background hum of anxiety and dread.
I remember that we were talking on the phone right at the start of the pandemic, and you said, ‘This is the big one.’
Yes, I think I’d just read something that really brought home to me the sheer immense power of the virus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable we all were, and how completely unprepared as a society. You and I were both pretty spooked by this invisible thing that was outside the door. Everyone was. It really did feel like the end times had arrived, and the world had been caught sleeping. It felt as though, whatever we assumed was the story of our lives, this invisible hand had reached down and torn a great big hole in it.
That makes me think of the idea of the disrupted narrative I have heard you talk about in relation to your songwriting: how both the subject matter and meaning of your more recent songs have become less straightforward and more elusive.
Well, exactly. My songs have definitely become more abstracted, for want of a better word, and, yes, less dominated by a traditional narrative. At some point, I just grew tired of writing third-person songs that told a structured story that began at the beginning and moved obediently towards their conclusion. I just became suspicious of the form. It felt unfair to inflict these stories on people all the time. It felt like a kind of tyranny. It was almost as if I was hiding behind these neat, manicured narratives because I was afraid of the stuff that was boiling away inside me. I wanted to start writing songs that were truer somehow, that were authentic to my experience.
Specifically to your more recent experience?
Yes. Which was one of rupture, I would say, same as most people’s. But purely from a personal point of view, living my life within a neat narrative didn’t make much sense any more. Arthur died and everything changed. That sense of disruption, of a disrupted life, infused everything.
In terms of what you and I are doing here, it is difficult for me to go back there, but it is also important to talk about it at some point, because the loss of my son defines me.
I totally understand. So telling a straightforward story in a song, however dramatic, became altogether less important to you?
Yes, but I didn’t step away from highly visual songs; it’s more that the storylines became more twisted, entangled, mutilated – the form itself became more traumatic. My music began to reflect life as I saw it.
That said, the songs on my last few albums are still narrative songs, but the narratives have been pushed through the meat grinder. Ghosteen, for instance, is still telling a story. In fact, it’s telling a vast, epic tale of loss and longing, but it’s all busted up and blown apart.
It’s certainly a very different kind of narrative, much more ambitious, even conceptual.
Yes. Radically different. There’s nothing linear about those songs. They shift direction, or rupture, or, worse, atomise before your eyes. The songs exist on their own freakish terms, really.
I sense that some fans have not been altogether happy with where your music has gone.
Yeah, there are definitely a number of disgruntled older fans who wish I’d go back to writing so-called ‘proper’ songs, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. There is a deep nostalgia for the old songs and it follows our band around like a dozy old dog. I guess the Bad Seeds have been around for so long, and undergone so many iterations, that some people feel very attached to the past or, more precisely, to their own pasts, to the so-called better days. So the idea that we would make a different kind of music seems to them like a kind of betrayal almost. And I understand that in a way, but you can’t allow the nostalgic or sentimental impulses of certain long-time fans to hold back the natural forward motion of the band. Thankfully, there are so many people who are eager to journey with us, to experience the lovely discomfort and danger that comes from attempting something new.
For me, Push The Sky Away, which you released in 2013, seems with hindsight to signal what was to come, with certain songs like ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ and ‘Jubilee Street’ sounding somehow looser and less linear. Would you agree?
Well, it’s certainly important because that’s when Warren and I started writing the music together. Creatively, that was a seismic change for me and not something I ever expected to happen – to have an actual songwriting collaborator with whom I have a deep synchronicity. That was a radical change that came out of my frustration with the traditional way of doing things, which was to write a song and present it to the band.
Could we talk about how Ghosteen was made, particularly the creative dynamic between you and Warren?
I suppose the big change was that, by the time we wrote Ghosteen, Warren and I were purely improvising. I would play the piano and sing, and Warren would play electronics, loops, violin and synth, with neither of us really understanding what we were doing or where we were going. We were just falling into this sound, following our hearts and our understanding of each other as collaborators, towards this newness. We spent days playing more or less non-stop. Then there were more days of sifting through it all and collecting the bits that sounded interesting. And, in some instances, that was maybe just a minute of music or a single line. After that, it was really about constructing songs from these lovely, disparate parts. Our editing process was initially akin to collage or a kind of musical assemblage. Then we’d work at building songs on top of that.
It sounds, dare I say it, like there was an element of winging it involved.
No, that’s really not the case. We weren’t just two guys who don’t know what they’re doing. There’s a deep intuitive understanding between the two of us, and, of course, twenty-five years of us working together. It’s an informed improvisation, a mindful improvisation.
By ‘mindful’, do you mean meditative? Or considered?
I mean that it’s intuitive, but also considered, if that makes sense. In terms of the lyrics, I’m never improvising from scratch. That’s important to stress. Having done a tremendous amount of thinking about the project, I come to the studio with loads of ideas and an enormous number of written words, most of which, by the way, are discarded. Nevertheless, there is always what you might call a lyrical context, and there are also certain dominant or overarching themes that have preoccupied me in the weeks or months leading up to the sessions. It’s a very liberating way to work.
So to be clear, you are not improvising in the way that jazz musicians improvise on a melody or a theme?
No, it’s more that we are trying to arrive at a formal song through the perilous process of improvisation, to stumble upon form through musical adventuring. I think that might be key, that we are actually using a kind of mutual unknowing in an attempt to catch songs.
I imagine that process could go horribly awry in the wrong hands.
Well, it does much of the time. But you only need ten songs, ten beautiful and breath-taking accidents to make up a record. You have to be patient and alert to the little miracles nestled in the ordinary. One of Warren’s singular talents is to be able to hear the potential in something that is unformed and in its infancy. He is amazing in that regard. He hears things in a wholly unique way.
One of the reasons we work well together is because I have the ability to see words weaving themselves around a piece of unformed music, tying it together, making sense of it. It’s a visual thing, to see the song, to give it a rich narrative intent.
So when you’re working in this way, do you also spend hours in the studio meticulously editing the lyrics?
No, never. When I’m working on the songs at home, they take a long time to write, a lot of thought and a real care and dedication to the form. But when we’re in the studio, I’m a butcher who is happy to cut the legs off a treasured lyric in a heartbeat. In a way, the lyrics lose their concrete value and become things to play with, dismember and reorganise. I’m actually very happy to have arrived at a place where I now have an utterly ruthless relationship to my words.
I have to say, it sounds like quite a brave, even reckless, way for a songwriter to work.
Well, improvisation is essentially an act of acute vulnerability. But it is also a path to creative freedom, to wild adventure, in which the things of true value can often emerge through musical misunderstandings. Our improvisation is rarely harmonious. It’s often a struggle for dominance, but then suddenly it just falls together for a moment or two – a bit like warring lovers!
Temperamentally, the two of you are quite different, I guess.
Yes, but we’re usually in tune with each other, even though we are coming at things from very different directions. A little thing can nag at me and put me off the whole song, whereas Warren’s always looking at the bigger picture. He’s much more instinctive than me. He can see the beauty of things earlier than I can. It’s a great gift.
But you also have to understand that Warren doesn’t really care about lyrics in the way I do. He’s much more interested in emotion and sound and music. From early on, he’ll be saying, ‘This is fucking amazing!’ whereas I am really uncertain right up to the wire. It just takes me a lot longer to arrive at a song. Somehow that difference sets up the right kind of dynamic.
Given that you have such an investment in getting the words right, is it accurate to say that this process of discarding and dismantling, while liberating, may not work for certain types of songs – ballads, say?
Well, you couldn’t do it with a Hal David lyric.
Or, indeed, some of your own songs?
No. That is true, but I’ve made over twenty albums and I can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over. You have to operate, at least some of the time, in the world of mystery, beneath that great and terrifying cloud of artistic unknowing. The creative impulse, to me, is a form of bafflement, and often feels dissonant and unsettling. It chips away at your own cherished truths about things, pushes against your own sense of what is acceptable. It’s the guiding force that leads you to where it wants to go. It’s not the other way around. You’re not leading it.
Copyright Â© 2022 by Lightning Ltd (on behalf of Nick Cave) and SeÃ¡n Oâ€™Hagan