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Cover Story: Nick Cave

| January 30, 2009

Nick Cave
Nothing But A Number


“I think that for me,” says the gentleman in fitted brown slacks, Chelsea boots, and a white dress shirt (unbuttoned to the sternum) with red pinstripes, “the older you get you know what you want – you know what you need, the things that you need. I think I’ve always known that in a way. It becomes simpler. Your common needs become more streamlined. You know what you don’t want, you know what it’s a waste of time to pursue, even emotionally what’s a waste of time. You can pull in and out of things a lot quicker. When you’re younger maybe it’s in your interest to wallow around in stuff and look up what that’s all about.”

Sitting in a Chicago hotel room on a Sunday morning and saying things like this, it’s easy to believe Nick Cave is the devil. First, he’s interrupting church. Second, the jowl-to-jowl mustache and shoulder-length cut (Cave always has the most interesting hair, doesn’t he?) paint a sinister demeanor. Meeting him for a half-hour interview, he uses the reflective pause as a weapon, an extra magazine for his rifle to riddle you with a casual spontaneity that leads you to believe every word he says.

But third, he has discovered the fountain of youth. At 51, not much more is expected of Cave. When the millennium opened, then 43, his brash, apocalyptic fervor had tamed itself into a penchant for red wine and piano ballads. It wasn’t a bad change, but it certainly didn’t keep people from drawing “now that he’s done with drugs” parallels. But his Grinderman side project and last year’s Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds offering, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti), deal in a feral energy reserved for men half his age. And it’s not nearly all he has left in the tank: World tours, screenplays, film scores, and, just this morning, his second novel . . . you’d be forgiven for assuming he has just learned of a terminal illness and is frantically tying up loose ends.

“It’s not in my interest to pay any attention to what I’ve done,” he says. “It’s too time consuming. Counter-productive. And I think it’s in my nature to work on something as if it’s the greatest thing that’s going to be done ever – in the world. And then finish it and drop it and embark on something immediately. That’s always been the process.”

Ageing is an issue with which Cave is fascinated – he almost sees it as a challenge.

“The older you get,” he says, “the world takes things away from you. I gave up drugs – it was like having my fucking arms chopped off. And drinking,” he scoffs. “I had some throat problem and had to give up smoking. I went to this throat guy in Denver the other day and I have to give up spaghetti sauce. It seems that the world is conspiring to make my life as unpleasant as possible. So when I go down and start working– they haven’t thought of a way to turn off my imagination. I’m sure they’ll find it. I’m sure that’ll be bad for the health.”

They can’t stop him if they can’t get in a word.

“There are ways that they try and do that – whoever ‘they’ are – and if you start writing things – there’s a sort of trajectory that you’re supposed to go on as you grow old,” Cave smiles. “You have your peak and then you peeter out and become wise and draw dignity into your life, all that sort of stuff. And if you don’t, they call it a midlife crisis, or you’re a dirty old man. So there are tents to rein in the imagination. Fuck that. They can have the spaghetti sauce.”

What he might be alluding to is the attention afforded “No Pussy Blues,” a Grinderman track written from the perspective of a graying Casanova. Cave takes particular pleasure in doing what he oughtn’t, and when others delight in it he almost seems turned off. And this is a person who’ll take things as far as they’ll go.

“I’ve had work rejected,” he notes, proudly. “I wrote Gladiator II for Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe rang me, out of the blue. ‘It’s Russell here.’ He read The Proposition [a wild-west, Australian outback screenplay Cave wrote] and he wanted to see if I’d write Gladiator II, and I’m like ‘Russell,'” he impishly mocks in a Hollywood accent, “‘You fucking died in Gladiator.’ He had this idea that was hugely appealing to me, which I’m probably not allowed to say in case he wants to get someone else to do it. And Ridley wanted to do it, and Ridley told me he wanted to do a real popcorn dropper – kids sit there ready for Gladiator II and think, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I’m like, ‘Cool, I like stuff like this,’ and banged this thing out, and [the story] ended up in Vietnam – it was quite cool. Ridley said he really liked it, ‘But there’s no way anyone in the world is going to make this.’ And Russell didn’t like it at all.”

He does maintain reverence for artists he deems greater than himself (lyrically, he’s a compulsive name-dropper). His latest project, with fellow Bad Seed and Grinderman Warren Ellis, excites him immensely.

“I just finished the novel, sent it off last night to the publisher,” he says. “So I’m in the middle of The Road at the moment, the soundtrack to John Hillcoat’s new film of the Cormac McCarthy book. The film’s great, and it’s a real privilege to be a part of that. I did get asked by Ridley Scott recently, in response to The Proposition, if I’d write Blood Meridian, the Cormac McCarthy book. One of the towering literary achievements of this century, and he’s got the rights to it. But this book, unless you completely change the book and the trajectory, you can’t write a script – a Hollywood-style movie. It’s just flat. There’s no arc and all that sort of shit. I kind of turned that down because I didn’t want to be the guy who fucked up Blood Meridian. The Road is a different sort of book. It’s also a very linear story, but at the heart of it there’s this gorgeous kind of story about a father/son relationship under the most mind-boggling conditions. And so both the book and the film have this emotional thrust that pulls you through this stuff. It allowed us to make some very beautiful music because the situation’s so hopeless – the apocalypse has happened; ain’t nothing left except to endure – that we could really, we were able to do more than in other films that we’ve worked on.”

The best ever?

“When I’m making a record I’m always feeling like it’s gonna end history and the whole trajectory of music’s going to change after this record. And then you master it and you get it in your hands and you’re like, ‘Well,'” he laughs. “It’s a fucking record, like any other record, and you busy yourself with the next one. I’m a perpetual optimist, thinking one day it’s gonna happen.”

By ratcheting up his workrate, Cave is raising the odds considerably.

“I’ve got a laptop now – that’s changed things immensely. You can just never stop.” That’s a danger, no? “Are there other things in life? There’s the porn channel, I suppose. But that’s . . . ”

. . . for dirty old men.

Steve Forstneger

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