Nick Cave: Saint Nicholas And The Nocturnal Muse

“Will someone give this guy an Oscar already?” It’s a question Nick Cave fans must be asking these days. No, not in regards to the wiry legend’s acting skills, although he has popped up on the big screen a few times. Rather, what many argue Cave merits is at least a nomination for the ace work he’s done crafting soundtracks, especially in recent years. With Warren Ellis almost always by his side – whether it be with the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, etc. – the two have composed music for three critic-friendly films since 2005: “The Proposition,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “The Road.”

On February 2, we’ll find out if “The Road” earns any Academy Award notices. And if Cave and Ellis will be among the potential honorees. In the meantime, Tuesday will see the CD release of the film score, which came out digitally in late November.

“The movie is about the loss of things, the absence of things, the lack of things,” Cave said in a press statement. “The lack of the wife/mother is present in every frame of the film. The delicate edifice of the film holds theache of her absence, tenderly and by the tips of the fingers. The music was composed as a direct response to the film. A light, haunting, simple score with a sense of absence and loss at its heart.”

With violin, piano, wind instruments, sound loops and percussion, the score makes yet another case for Cave’s limitless supply of talents. In celebration of the man behind the music – and the still-new novel, “The Death of Bunny Munro,” among countless other works – here’s an out-of-print interview I conducted with Cave a few years back, prior to the release of his Nocturama album with the Bad Seeds.

[Go here to read the full, never-before-published transcript.]

Saint Nicholas And The Nocturnal Muse

To the parade of downtrodden love-me-nots frowning all the way from here to Australia, Saint Nick is not some gin-blossomed alchie hurtling parcels from the winter sky. Neigh, he is a frosty-white soldier of their own kind, one who whiplashes love and humanity with an acid tongue at every turn. Few performers if any can match this singer/pianist/author’s precision for detail, or equal the level of earnestness with which he coddles every word and note. He is Bob Dylan turned to the dark side. He is the Boy Scout den leader you wish you never had. He is Nicholas Edward Cave.

Ever tall and slender, today’s 45-year-old Caveman has been making music for well over half his life: First with the nail-bitingly nihilistic Birthday Party, then with the expansive, dexteric Bad Seeds. The Seeds have lasted with him for more than 11 studio records, even through his side collaborations with PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue and Johnny Cash.

Nocturama extends Cave’s winning streak of black humor, literary novelty and kaleidoscopic narrative, touching more so on love and less so on God than 2001’s bare-boned No More Shall We Part. An irrefutable linchpin in the Cave canon, the landmark closer “Babe, I’m on Fire” is a 15-minute rampage in which he assails every imaginable bipedal character – from menstruating Jews to proud kangaroos, from Chinese contortionists to backyard abortionists.

A nifty name for a night animal’s hideout, Nocturama also includes aid from producer Nick Launay, with whom he collaborated more than 20 years ago, ex-Ian Dury bandmates the Blockheads and former Saints singer, Chris Bailey.

We contacted Cave at his seaside base in Hove, England, where he was wrapping up another routine day of solid work at his nearby office.

Word has it you’ve hit a real groove, that you plan to release an album a year?
I don’t know about “hitting a groove,” but I would like to put out a record a year, if I can get the time to do it. Get the time not to do the record, but to write it, really. We’re limiting our touring so that we make more records, like they used to do in the old days. I think that we’re encouraged by the industry to put out records once every two or three years. I’d like to do things quicker, have them tumble out. It takes the white off the records, really. And it gives you room to fail. If you put out a record every three years, you can’t afford to fail. So, consequently, you can’t afford to take risks. I’d like to take more risks.

Did you feel like you were too much of a perfectionist before?
Well, no. I don’t think I have the patience to be a perfectionist. Our policy in the studio is to get in there and get the thing done as fast as possible. This last one we did in a week.

You didn’t rehearse much, right?
No, we didn’t. We’ve worked together for quite a long time, and we know what we’re doing. It shouldn’t take us that long to record, really. I find it more spontaneous that way, more improvised. This record’s certainly more improvised, and I find that kind of exciting.

The lyrics are a lot less quantitative than the last time around, no?
There are fewer. That was deliberate. I wanted to make a record that gave much more room for the music to move around in. Songs that weren’t quite as burdened with words. So the words were written quite quickly, as well. They were worked on, but they feel a lot rawer to me, and more direct.

That’s quite the time signature on “Dead Man in My Bed.”
Yeah, it is. That’s based on “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. [He laughs.]

That’s the only way I could remember the time signature, was to go, “My body, da-boot-y-li-cious. My body, da-boot-y-li-cious.” No one could play it, so I just suggested everyone sing that in their heads while they played it. Thankfully, we had [Bad Seed] Mick Harvey, and he’s quite adept at weird time signatures. He was in the Birthday Party, after all.

Because the lyrics are so limited throughout the record, did you feel by the end that you had a lot to get off your chest with “Babe, I’m on Fire”?
Well, I didn’t feel the lyrics were very “limited.” I just wanted to write songs that were lyrically simpler and that themselves were shorter than the last record. On the last record, I felt a great need to pile on the words. I shied away from that this time. “Babe, I’m on Fire,” has a very simple rhyme scheme going on, and it kind of got stuck in my head like a bad song. Every moment, I kept thinking, “Oh, fuck, there’s another verse,” and I’d jot it down. It ended up being many, many verses. [Try 39!]. It’s actually a comic song about rhyme, really.

You didn’t have Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in mind when you wrote it, did you?
Um, I’m not familiar with it.

It’s also an epic of sorts. Had you been in touch with Nick Launay all these years?
Not at all. He produced a Birthday Party song [1981’s “Release the Bats”], which he did a great job on. I can’t remember that session very well, anyway. But no, I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since. Mick Harvey ran into him prior to the record in Australia, and I talked to Mick about wanting a producer, and Mick suggested him. He was great. Works there in L.A.

How did he impact the record?
I think he was very constant about his ideas and able to stand outside the band. He listened.

Was this the first time you’d worked with The Blockheads?
Well, the Blockheads are on it because I’d recorded a couple Beatles songs with them for the “I Am Sam” movie. They were fast … and they did backing vocals on “Here Comes the Sun.” I was so impressed by the way they did them – they just walked in, and in 10 minutes they’d done them all. And it’s something I detest doing, backing vocals, so I just got them into doing it.

You also brought in Chris Bailey for that song.
He’s a great singer, he can just belt it out. I’d seen him around during the making of this record and invited him on. He’s an extraordinary singer and had a huge influence over me and the rest of the people in Melbourne, where I grew up, with his band The Saints.

So in sum, what have you learned from Nocturama?

It feels like each record we do gets stripped down more and more, especially in the way we go about recording. There are now virtually no overdubs whatsoever. It’s just live. That feels to me, at the moment at least, like the most exciting way to make music. I want to continue doing that.

That’s the same idea you want to continue with into the next record?

Well, I have no idea what the next record’s going to be like.

You’re just writing lyrics right now?
I’ve written a couple songs, but there’s a lot of other work I’m doing at the moment. I’ve stopped writing songs for a bit.

What sort of other work …
It’s stuff I can’t talk about, actually.

Are you getting back into fiction?
No, no. Well, it’s fiction, but it’s not a book.

You work what, 10 hours a day in your office?
Yeah, about. It gets earlier and earlier. I’m usually in here at 7:30, and I get out at 5:00.

Is everything in your life regimented? Do you eat the same thing every day?
I eat a tomato omelet for lunch every day. I love them.

Any sort of salad dressing or garnish?
[He laughs.] No, we don’t garnish anything. That’s an American thing.

And then what about for dinner?
My wife cooks. She’s one of the most extraordinary women in the world, but her cooking’s a little bland. [He laughs.] What, is this for the food section?

Food is something we can all relate to! Do you ever…
Complain? Frequently.

…cook much yourself, try your hand at it?
No, I don’t. I can cook sausage and avocado pasta, which I’ve developed into a fine art over the years. Apart from that, nothing else.

Any new music caught your ear?
To be honest, I haven’t been listening to any music at all. Sometimes I get sick of music. I go through stages. Other times, I can’t stop playing it. I play it when I need to, and at the moment, I’ve been working really hard on this thing I can’t talk about. I mean, very hard. But basically, I listen to the same stuff I’ve always listened to: Bob Dylan, really. And Van Morrison. Neil Young. Nina Simone.

Have you experienced writer’s bloc when it comes to music? When you’re in a good rhythm, do you feel the need to take advantage of it?
I have very frustrating days in the office, where I am at the moment. But I always come in. Some days nothing happens. Except that you dream, and you wait, and it’s always some process going on. But I don’t think I’ve experienced the kind of bloc where you write and think it’s shit. When I get into working on something, I feel like it’s the best thing. It probably isn’t, but it’s the way I feel at the time I’m doing it.

Is it frustrating when, at the end of the day, you feel like you haven’t accomplished much?
It’s very frustrating, yeah. I guess it’s that constant fight where one half of me is weighed down by the gravity of what I’m supposed to be doing. I have a lot of voices in my head that alert me to what I’ve done before: “Is it as good as that?” “What about the next record, is that going to be any good?” But I’ve learned to recognize these voices, and I switch it over and go in with the idea that it really doesn’t really matter that much, and all you can do is fail. And to approach the thing with a sense of humor. If I can do that, if I can make that switch, then I’m generally alright.

Originally published in Filter issue #4, February/March 2003.

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