After several years fronting gothy art-punks the Birthday Party, Nick Cave ventured out as a solo artist with a new band, the more traditionally rock-focused Bad Seeds, in 1983. In addition to his Birthday Party bandmate Mick Harvey, the longest tenured original member of the group was Blixa Bargeld, who played expressionistic guitar in the Bad Seeds as a side gig to his long-running industrial group, Einstürzende Neubauten.
During his 20-year Bad Seeds tenure, Bargeld cowrote a handful songs, including the haunting “Stranger Than Kindness,” and occasionally duetted with Cave, notably on “The Weeping Song.” He left the group in 2003 for undisclosed reasons and has ever since focused his attention solely on Neubauten.
At a 2018 concert in which Cave took questions from the audience, he addressed Bargeld’s importance to the Bad Seeds. “He is, as far as I’m concerned, always a member of the Bad Seed fraternity or whatever it is,” Cave said. “The thing about Blixa is that he always brings something different to the process and has always been an incredible force in the studio, as well. It was a great blow to us to lose him, actually. … I miss him very much. I emailed him on his last birthday and I’m still waiting for a reply. But I do love him very much.”
Cave addressed Bargeld’s exit specifically in Faith, Hope and Carnage, a recently released book by Cave journalist Seán O’Hagan. The book contains a long Q&A between the authors and covers Cave’s grief after the death of his son Arthur, his strong religious convictions, his creative process, and much more. In this excerpt from the book, Cave reflects on the unusual way Bargeld quit the group.
Is it fair to say that you have always needed a creative partner, a foil as it were?
Yes, I think so. Throughout the years, that has tended to be the case. I could do it on my own, but I don’t think I’d do it nearly as well. The people I’ve worked with have brought a huge amount to the table. That began with Mick, and then [Birthday Party guitarist] Rowland [S. Howard] came along with his extraordinary guitar playing and musical inventiveness.
Can I ask about your creative relationship with Blixa, which, to put it mildly, ended pretty abruptly?
Well, Blixa is the least nuanced person I’ve ever met in my life. With him, everything is black or white. I admired that in a way, because he’s able to make difficult decisions in the studio. I found that enviable because I was often indecisive. That brutality of thinking, that resoluteness, that German-ness, is what Blixa brought – alongside his distinctive guitar playing, of course.
Did you ever write a song together?
No, we never sat down and wrote together. In fact, most of Blixa’s guitar was laid on the tracks as overdubs after the song was recorded. That was his preferred way of working. Blixa liked to spend a lot of time deciding what he was going to play and then methodically applying it to the song that was already there. And he did that in a very beautiful and considered way. He really thought about the song, the lyrical content, and what his contribution should be, conceptually, rather than just strumming along, which a lot of guitarists tend to do. I really appreciated that. Blixa never thought his job was to carry the song. He thought his job was to augment the song. In my experience, that’s very rare.
Given all that, his departure from the Bad Seeds must have been a difficult moment.
It was, yes. The suddenness of it. It was typically Bargeld in its cut-throat ruthlessness.
How did he let you know he was leaving the band?
He sent an email. Out of the blue. “I’ve decided to leave the Bad Seeds.” A weird “Dear John” letter of the most rudimentary and unsatisfying kind, almost as if it had been written by a robot. I was stunned. I loved him. He was a giant. For me, he’s very much a symbol of a certain, extremely fertile period of the Bad Seeds. And he took a lot more with him when he left than just his presence. He took a point of view, a way of thinking and a way of working. I think he just found that our way of making music had become too traditional. Having said that, his contributions to the records we were making, post-Boatman’s Call, had become pretty inconsequential. In the end, he did the right thing by leaving. He ripped apart the band and allowed us the opportunity to change, to grow. It was the shock that we needed.
Were there no signs that Blixa was unhappy before the email arrived?
I think the last time I recorded with him, he stormed out of the studio. He was angry with me, or himself, or the world. It was often hard to tell with Blixa.
[Note: This video features Mick Harvey on guitar.]
What were you recording?
We were recording a song for a Wim Wenders documentary about the blues [The Soul of a Man]that he was making for Martin Scorsese. Wim had asked various musicians to perform his favorite blues songs. I wanted to go against type and do a super-upbeat version of “I Feel So Good” by J. B. Lenoir, mostly because, at the time, the thought of the Bad Seeds doing some slow, lugubrious oh-so-worthy blues cover filled me with horror. But these up-tempo songs are tricky and not as easy as they seem. They require a certain amount of technical finesse that Blixa, despite being one of my favorite guitarists, lacks. Plus, I suggested to the band that we base our performance on the Muppets – just totally frenetic and mad and super-whacked-out.
Anyway, Wim is there and he’s filming away, and we’re jumping about the place like fucking idiots, doing take after take, and Blixa is getting increasingly frustrated by the whole thing because, well, I guess he couldn’t get to grips with the song. I don’t know. Also, in certain situations, Blixa doesn’t have a very well-developed sense of humor, to say the least. And he has a famously explosive temper. It’s impossible to exaggerate the performative level of Blixa’s fury. Eventually, he just leaps to his feet, throws down his guitar, and screams those immortal words: “I didn’t get into rock & roll to play rock & roll.” Just to be really annoying, I said, “What about the Muppets?,” at which point he marched over to me and shouted, “Fuck the Muppets! You be a fucking Muppet!” Then he marched out of the studio, and I think that was the last time I ever saw him, as a member of the Bad Seeds.
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Quite a moment!
Yes and never one to waste a good catastrophe, I turned to Wim and said, “I hope you filmed that.” But Wim is just standing there with his mouth open and the camera hanging by his side. And I’m like, “Wim, tell me you fucking filmed that!” But he hadn’t. I think he was being respectful or something.
Excerpted from Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Lightning Ltd (on behalf of Nick Cave) and Seán O’Hagan. All rights reserved.