Bad seed's big harvest
Life in a seaside town seems to suit the prolific Nick Cave, who has his fingers in music, literature and film, writes Alexis Petridis
Nick Cave, tanned and beautifully suited, is receiving the press in the upstairs room of a charming gastropub in Brighton. Born in Australia and variously resident over the years in Berlin, London and Sao Paulo, he has spent the past decade becoming one of the English south coast seaside town's most celebrated residents.
Rock king Cave, as the local newspaper persists in referring to him, seems remarkably visible around the town, perhaps because - nothing if not a proper pop star - he declines to dress down. He was once seen in DIY superstore Homebase dressed almost exactly as he is now and some years ago, a journalist who suggested that he might consider kicking back in a pair of jeans and trainers at weekends was given short shrift.
Brighton has even found its way into the Bad Seeds' new album, Push the Sky Away. The cover was shot in Cave's bedroom, a few streets away from where we are sitting. It features his wife, model Susie Bick, naked - not his idea, Cave says. He walked in on Bick's photoshoot for a French magazine, the photographer pressed the shutter button and that was that.
The city seeps into the lyrics too, on a song called Jubilee Street: the titular home of Headmasters' hairdressers, the Jubilee Library and a branch of Tesco Express rather improbably taking its place amid the more classic Cavian lyrical concerns of violence, sex and strikingly drawn visions of Armageddon.
Cave remains rock's premier purveyor of the latter, capable of seeing intimations of the end times in the most unlikely places. "Texting is apocalyptic on some level," he muses, when the title of Push the Sky Away's first single, We No Who U R is mentioned. "It's a reduction of things. Maybe the last book, the last thing that ever gets written is just a 'bye', you know, 'goodbye' in text speak."
The thing is, he says, he didn't really want to move to Brighton in the first place: it was his wife's idea. Before that, his visits to the town had left a rather negative impression. "Brighton," he says, "was where I used to come to try to get clean. So all I knew about the place was sweating it out in a hotel room for three days."
Cave has protested in the past about the cliche of journalists contrasting his past (dissolute, drug-sodden, given to punching audience members and interviewers alike, so bohemian in his personal arrangements that his two eldest children were born 10 days apart to women on different continents) with his latter-day life as a happily married, teetotal, non-smoking musical elder statesman, charming and witty interviewee, and polymath man of letters: the author not merely of 19 albums, but two novels, the foreword to an edition of the Gospel According to Mark and two films: 2005's award-garlanded The Proposition and 2012's more coolly received Lawless.
But sometimes it's hard even for him not to juxtapose the present with the past. Push the Sky Away was recorded in a residential studio in France. In the video of the album's making, it looks rather beautiful, but it was an experiment in communal living that even now he seems faintly astonished the band undertook.
"I don't think anybody of our age, settled in our ways, wants to go and live with a bunch of other guys like that for three weeks in a place where you can't even leave the grounds. You're in this room, then when you've finished in the evening, you go up the stairs, go to sleep, then come back down the stairs and go straight back into this room. It was intense. It's like rehab or something like that."
Cave says the surroundings influenced Push the Sky Away's "journeying and atmospheric" sound: it feels markedly different either to the churning garage rock of its predecessor, Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, or the visceral din of Grinderman, his side project with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn P. Casey. He was keen, he says, to "move away from guitar-orientated music and that classic Nick Cave ballad style, to let a little bit of air and a little bit of light in". Still, some things never change. "I don't think the lyrical concerns have altered particularly."
Cave once said he became interested in scriptwriting because "it's a more effective medium for violence than songs". Today, he not only seems unsure if he still thinks that ("I must have said that to the American press") or even if he still wants to write film scripts at all. On the one hand, he has "dear friends" in Hollywood, and there is "still a lot of talk" of making a film of his novel The Death of Bunny Munro, about a priapic, drink-sodden travelling salesman in early Noughties Brighton. On the other, he says, scriptwriting is "dog work", as happened with Lawless.
"On Lawless, there was an unbelievable amount of note-taking," he recalls. "I think it was in the end compromising ... in the end I wrote things that I'm embarrassed about. I mean, they're not going to like me saying that. There's just a couple of things here and there, but it only takes a line or two and that's all you can hear. I still think Lawless is a great film, I'm really, really pleased with it. But sometimes too many people get involved, I think.
"What you're really after when you see a film or listen to a song is a singular vision, and I'm not sure how much of that you really get in Hollywood."
For an artist with a remarkable body of work behind him - and who is furthermore in the midst of a creative purple patch during which critical adoration seems to be a foregone conclusion - Cave occasionally seems a surprisingly self-doubting character. After 30 years of live performance, the prospect of getting onstage still fills him with dread. Whenever he releases a record, he says, he finds himself gripped by the fear that he is "going to be exposed, people are going to realise I was never really that good anyway, someone's going to come round and find out I was supposed to be a different person or something like that".
There's part of him that would like to retire, he says. "I think that's the greatest feat of artistic honesty there can be. To lay down the gloves and say, that's it. But I don't feel I'm there, I don't feel I've arrived at the finishing line."
But his output seems more torrential than ever: since he turned 50 in 2007, he has made four albums - two with the Bad Seeds, two with Grinderman - scored and recorded seven film soundtracks, published both a novel and his collected lyrics, and written a film.
"To a fault, I get overexcited by things. So someone says to me: 'Do you want to do this?' And I'll go: 'Oh yeah! I can do that! I can do that! Sure!' And then a week later, I'm like, 'oh f**, I've got to do that f***ing thing.' It's a bit of a problem for me and it's a problem for the people I work with."
He smiles and says, rather heavily. "But now I've f***ed up my entire screenplay-writing career singlehandedly with this one interview, I've probably got loads of time on my hands. Anything out there? I do theatre, standup."
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