On March 28th at New York's Beacon Theater, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds followed a spectacular encore thrashing of "Tupelo" – a swampy homage to Elvis Presley and John Lee Hooker on the 1985 album The Firstborn Is Dead – with shocking stillness: the title track from the group's new album, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed). Against rippled spires of church-like organ and not much else, Cave – who still carries, at 55, plenty of harrowing confession and brimstone in his baritone – delivered the song's final verse with a plain, thankful gravity: "Some people say that it is just rock & roll/Oh but it gets right down to your soul/ You gotta just keep pushing."
The next day, Cave is sitting in the lobby of his Manhattan hotel, clutching a cup of take-out coffee and affirming his belief in those lines. "I was walking around Melbourne, trying to find the last verse of the song," the Australian-born singer, songwriter, novelist, film composer and screenwriter says in an accent unaffected by his many years living and working abroad. "It just came to me. It felt beautifully reductive."
"Music doesn't come naturally to me," Cave claims. "Sitting at a typewriter, writing a script – I can do that. But there is a mystery in music, the process. That's why I return to it, why it gives me such pleasure."
Thirty Years On
For the next hour, Cave sat with Rolling Stone to examine that mystery, its price and rewards in a wide-ranging conversation frequently punctuated by his direct, challenging stare. Subjects include the new album, a record of provocative musical restraint and lean cutting narrative; the Bad Seeds' 30th anniversary; and Cave's blooming collaboration with the group's violinist Warren Ellis. The singer admits some trepidation over his looming workload at Coachella – two sets apiece with the Bad Seeds and the gnarly splinter group Grinderman. "God knows how we're gonna do that," Cave says with a worried laugh. "We'll just have to rehearse at some point."
He is also hesitant to make too much of the Bad Seeds' improbable birthday. Cave is touring with a critically revamped lineup – minus founding guitarist and Birthday Party mate Mick Harvey, with returning multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson and new guitarist Ed Kuepper of Aussie punk legends the Saints – and he is anxious to take it into the studio. "I feel a duty to the Bad Seeds," Cave says. "It's unique, like some bizarre experiment. I'm standing outside, watching how it goes, how it progresses.
"It is," he adds with that stare, "very interesting."
In and Out of Control
As I watched you last night, swinging between the new material and your ferocious immersion in older songs like "From Her to Eternity," I thought, "This guy is absolutely in control – and totally unhinged."
I've been working on the control more. The control is much harder than the unhinged bit. To do both together is taking some work.
There are still heated discussions after the gig, the same ones we've been having for 20 years about "The Mercy Seat" – of not letting that song run away from you.
Certain songs are living things. "Your Funeral, My Trial" [from the 1986 album of that name] – we played it four or five times on this tour, in a row. One night, I just felt it had drawn its last breath. It died in front of me as I was singing it. I said to Warren, "That's it for that one." We don't play the hits. They are the songs that have the power to survive.
The new song you opened with last night, "We No Who U R," was built on a very slender premise – the weird hip-hop-like menace in the loop that runs underneath.
That was something Warren did, the backing thing with the drum. He said, "What do you think of that?" And this thing happened – nothing we could deconstruct. We were just stuck with it [grins], and I sang over it. Working with Warren is amazing. We very much work as a songwriting team, on this record and in Grinderman. It's not "He did this and I do that.' We're just Cave-Ellis.
What is the difference between that creative relationship and the one you had with Mick Harvey until he left in 2009?
People talk about me swapping collaborative partners, discarding one for another. This is not true. I never wrong songs with Mick. I never wrote songs with Blixa [Bargeld, Bad Seeds guitarist from 1983-2003]. Songs came about because someone starts a bass line, someone bashes in and a song finds itself on the way. So this is quite a new thing with Warren.
When did you first sense that "thing"?
When we were recording [1996's] Murder Ballads, someone told me to check out Warren's group, the Dirty Three, who were playing in a pub down the road. They totally blew me away. I said to Warren, "Man, come and play with us. We're making a record." He said, "Well, I've already played with you." He had played all over [1994's] Let Love In. I hadn't been in any condition to be cognizant of this fact (grins).
Something was there from the start. But there was a lot of control issues going around the Bad Seeds – who could do what, where your place was. That gradually changed. The beauty of Push the Sky Away is no one filled in Mick's guitar space. He left, and there's just an absence – not of Mick, but of guitar. Instruments float around the periphery of something that's not there – the rhythm guitar that usually chugs through everything [laughs].
Superstition and Songwriting
Last night, you introduced "Wide Lovely Eyes," from the new album, as a song "for my wife, about my wife, because of my wife." Which sounded sweet enough until you sang the verse about the mermaids hanging "from the streetlights by their hair."
My wife is very superstitious about my songs. She's always worried about songs that suggest the end of things. She believes that, on some level, the songs know more about what's going on than we do. That particular song is about the anxiety of Susie going away – not leaving me for another guy, but just going away. It describes this walk she does. I can see it from my window as she walks through this park, down to the sea.
This is the nature of what I do in songwriting. People have these sacred moments between each other, things they are put through. But in the deal between me and my muse, I'm not allowed those sacred moments. They have to be distorted. That's what that song is about.
Was there a point where you could hear your songwriting shift from the blues-driven violence of records such as "The Firstborn Is Dead" to something more durable and stately, like "God Is in the House" [on 2001's "No More Shall We Part"]?
There was a moment with the Birthday Party, a song called "King Ink" [on 1981's Prayers on Fire]. I remember looking at [guitarist] Rowland Harvey when we recorded it, going, "There is something in there that is ours." But in those days, there was a lot of working out what songs were, how to write them. There is a kind of spew and language that is difficult to read on the page, just a blah of stuff . . . .
That eventually becomes bone and muscle.
Eventually [laughs]. There are a few albums where that doesn't happen. Some of them go on and on. To me, that's a fault that continues from "Tupelo" right up to No More Shall We Part. There should have been some editing.
I could say the same thing about Dylan. Have you sat and listened to "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" recently? It was important as a gesture. But man, what a train wreck [laughs]. I don't mean that.
Salvation and Rebuilding
You're playing with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman at Coachella. How much has your time with the latter changed the way you work with the Bad Seeds now?
It was hugely important. Grinderman saved the Bad Seeds. Starting Grinderman caused a massive problem in the Bad Seeds, for certain people. Mick [Harvey] thought we'd gone mad, that we were putting our legacy in the shredder. But the point of Grinderman was the economy of the idea – stripping things back, dealing with the language which was getting more congested. Grinderman was tearing all that apart, going back to something.
The new Bad Seeds record has its own sense of rebuilding. There is a cleansing effect to the music's restraint.
I've talked to Warren about this. We want to make another one right away. Because this one is suggesting things. This is what makes records important. It's not the success, in terms of other people liking it or not – like [2003's] Nocturama, which seems to be loathed by a lot of people. To me, that album was important, because it taught me so much as I made it.
But in learning these things, I apparently have to turn in a substandard record [laughs]. Maybe I shouldn't be inflicting these life lessons on the listener.
That's the nature of work and art. If all you saw was high points, you would have an incomplete story.
There's a humanity about that. You can't trust an artist that just makes good records. Who needs one of them?