[Q&A] Nick Cave on getting primal with Grinderman, wasting time in Hollywoodland, and dealing with Robert Fripp

Grinderman, L-R: Martyn Casey, Nick Cave, Jim Sclavunos, Warren Ellis

There have been numerous attempts by famous rock frontmen to form a sideband in hopes of disappearing into the just-one-of-the-guys-in-the-band guise (see: Bowie in Tin Machine as one of more interesting modern examples). For post-punk legend and all-around renaissance man Nick Cave, though, Grinderman is less of a side-project than a mutation of his dayjob in the long-running Bad Seeds-- especially since the band is made up of three other fellow Seeds. In a sense, it's more of a temporary reconfiguration meant to sift the gritty rock out of the dense songcraft that is the Seeds' modus operandi. We featured Grinderman in a piece previewing their upcoming can't-miss gig tomorrow at House of Blues; below, find the complete transcript of our conversation with the man himself:

Was the Grinderman project, initially, meant as a kind-of shake-up of your aesthetic approach?

You know, we wanted to do something that had a different approach, for sure, because the Bad Seeds had gotten to be up to about eight members and we had developed this sound-- we’d done Abbatoir Blues and Lyre of Orpheus and it was this kind of massive sound, this juggernaut sound, and I wanted to go back to something that was more... simple and raw, I guess. And it was very difficult to do that with so many members. That was really the problem: I’d bring a song along and everyone would jump in and play something on it and it was really difficult to get a more reduced sound. So I’d been talking to Warren a lot about this, and just decided to go in with just a few of us and make a different kind of a record. The Bad Seeds are still extremely important, so we tried this out by giving it a different name. That’s how Grinderman started, and that record was a real success for us, it had a great impact on the Bad Seeds. It kind of shook things up within the Bad Seeds, it gave a lot of the other members who weren’t in Grinderman a license to playing a whole lot of noise. And so it had a really good effect, and plus people liked it. And when it came to doing another record, it was a bit of a no-brainer, in more ways than one.

When you started Grinderman, how intentional was the sound? Did you go into it thinking it would sound the way it does, or was it more about the smaller band approach, and you’d see what it would wind up sounding like?

Grinderman was an approach, definitely. That’s the difference between a Grinderman record and a Bad Seeds record, it’s the approach. It’s about the way of writing songs: in the Bad Seeds, I write the songs by myself in an office, and it’s something that I do by myself and then bring the songs to the band. By contrast, all Grinderman songs, or at least all the material we’ve done with both records, have been the result of these kind-of five-day improv sessions where we just get together and play music. I don’t go in with any music or lyrics; I improvise lyrics, they improvise music and we record everything and we don’t listen back to anything.

That seems like a really daring thing for you, given that so much of your work with the Bad Seeds is based around essentially a storytelling aesthetic. I’d assume that it must be a challenge in Grinderman to come up with a totally different kind of musical inspiration.

Well, one of the things that I wanted to get away from in Grinderman was that when you listen to a Bad Seeds record, you tend to listen to the lyrics and the story, and I wanted to do something that was much more musical, and much more of a kind of sonic adventure. As opposed to doing music that is only there to support the vocal narrative. I mean, I still write narrative songs, that’s just the way I think and that’s not going to go away. But in Grinderman, it’s much more fractured and abstract and much more atmospheric. And pretty soon, you give up trying to figure out what the song is actually about and what the story is about in a Grinderman song, and it becomes more about the music than the lyrical story. And to be honest, it’s something that was very liberating, in a way.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about doing something less story-based, since in addition to doing both the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, you’ve also done a ton of film screenplay work (The Proposition, work on a Gladiator sequel, and many other projects), in addition to the novel you completed and published recently (last year’s The Death of Bunny Monro)-- I’m curious how all of these different directions work for you?

Well, sometimes beautifully, with a kind of wonderful synchronicity. But the way I try and do it is I don’t work on a whole lot of things at the same time, I complete one thing and then I’m off on the next thing. And I don’t take on other things and allow them to pile up, I try to keep some kind of sense of order to the whole thing. Sometimes that works, but to be perfectly honest, it’s getting harder and harder, because some of the areas that I’ve been flirting with in some kind of way I’ve been successful at. Especially with the film world: that can take up a lot of time and a lot of space and my priorities can affect the Bad Seeds.

Yeah, I can see that the film world is a different type of collaboration that’s far less direct as doing music.

Well, the thing about film, especially script-writing, is you just never know if anything’s gonna get done. It’s completely frustrating until you realize that actually it’s a money gig. And that’s the sort of thing that I was never that interested in, I don’t need to do that sort of stuff. The scales are sort of falling off my eyes and I’m seeing that basically people sit down and write scripts and if you’re extremely lucky, one actually gets made. So within that aspect of what I’m doing, I’m not sure how much I’ll continue with it, even though I’m getting a lot of offers to do it. But I think it’s a lot of wasted time, a lot of the time.

When the first Grinderman album came out, it was really successful, and a lot of people picked up on band’s subtext being all about a sort of midlife crisis. What did you think about that whole thing?

Well, that was all typical sloppy lazy journalism, you know? There’s actually something going on within Grinderman that I find really interesting, and maybe that idea of a midlife crisis has something disconcerting and uncomfortable about it. I mean, I personally don’t feel like I’m going through any more of a crisis now than I’ve been going through the last forty years! But there is something interesting going on in Grinderman that’s unique: that we’re actually alking about certain issues and playing a certain kind of music and those two things are often at complete odds with each other, and it’s creating this sort of dark dynamic, and it’s being played by people over 50, and for people under 15, sometimes!

We just did a European tour, and it’s the first time we’ve done a proper tour-- we did a few gigs for the first record, a handful. But the audience for this tour, the kinds of people we’re getting are really different: long time fans, really really young people, people who have no idea about Nick Cave, or the history or the legacy or all that sort of shit. And that’s been really kind of interesting and encouraging, and the concerts have been incredible. I mean, usually on a tour, the music kind of hits this plateau where the music doesn’t develop any further on that particular tour, and yet it really has with Grinderman, it just keeps getting bigger and more complex and more interesting.

Grinderman 2 is a really diverse record-- a song like “Palaces of Montezuma”, for example, is almost a poppy tune-- and in some ways the band seems to be evolving to a different place from the sort-of knuckledragging aspects of the first album. I’m curious how much of that is intentional, did you go into this record with a different conception of the band?

Well, what happened was we did this five-day session for the second album, and what we did is that we listened to it all back and took pieces of music that sounded interesting and had potential-- a good bass line, a cool lyric-- and put it on a CDs. But when me and Warren left the studio, I said to him “I don’t really think we got much.” And he said “Yeah, I don’t really think we did either.” And we just sort of walked away thinking that it wasn’t that successful, that five-day stint.

And then a few weeks later they sent the CDs to me, I was somewhere in Australia and I played them, with a lot of trepidation, in the car when I was driving somewhere with my wife. And I was thinking “Wow, this is really amazing stuff!” And I pulled over the car and rang Warren in Paris and said “Have you heard this stuff? It’s great!” And he was like “I know!” And I think what had happened was that it just wasn’t like the last record, it was something entirely different. And that something that the process can give us that is difficult for me to get with the Bad Seeds, how Grinderman isn’t really in control of the outcome because it’s somewhat improvised. We kind of go off, musically, lyrically. It’s a different thing.

It’s interesting to hear that, because it seems clear that if you had just wanted to, you know, do a “hard rock” side project and melt people’s faces, you could have done it a much easier way, you know? But with Grinderman, you guys are clearly going for something different...

We are, we are going for something different. We have no idea where it’s going, we have no idea what the next record will be like, or if there will be a next record. I dunno, the music kind of goes where it wants to go.

On the new record, you have that one track, “Super Heathen Child”, with Robert Fripp on guitar...

Yeah, that’s like an extended bonus track that’s only on special versions of the album. I have a real soft spot for that particular song, and I kept listening to it and thinking “Christ, I really wish this song had a really long guitar solo at the end,” and I was picturing in my head the guitar solo sounding kind of Fripp-like. And I mentioned it to my wife and she said “Well, why don’t you ring him up and ask him to play on it?” So we did, and he said “Yeah, sure.” So I went to England and found him and went into the studio with him, and he wanted to know what I wanted. And what I did want was one of those kind of nasty evil kind of guitar solos that he used to do very early on with Crimson and Eno, I didn’t want any ambient stuff at all, obviously. And he considers himself a stylist, that he can play anything he wants to play. So he pulled out his stuff from his attic and started playing and it was just amazing!

Yeah, it sounds awesome-- and it’s so great to hear him play that way, since he always seems hesitant to play that sort of way anymore...

Well, I’ll tell you, the engineer we worked with was a guy who’s worked with him for years, and he was really pleased. And really, he wasn’t hesitant at all. He’s a really strange guy: he talks about himself in the third person, like “Well, the guitarist feels that this version of the song is one that he is pleased with.” But his aim is to serve: “Whatever you want, that’s what I’m here for.” It’s a remarkable approach.

Fripp has always been one of those “I’m here to serve the music” kind of guys-- which in a way seems kind of similar to the way you’ve been working on Grinderman.

Well, my biggest worry with Fripp was a problem I had of asking him to play in a certain style. Because if someone came up to me and said “Could you play on our new record” and I went “Oh yeah!” and then they said “I want you to like you did in the Birthday Party,” I’d smack ‘em in the face! But he very much saw that as a reference point and attempted to get that thing. And really, he didn’t play anything like the way he used to play, he just played something that was totally right for the song.

In some ways, it seems like people can see Grinderman as a challenge to the Nick Cave persona-- like people look to you and say “Do that Nick Cave thing you do” and this band is kind of a reaction to that.

Well, look: to me, it’s all about keeping the songs alive and the songwriting process alive. And I know when things get repetitious or when things are just hitting a brick wall, and part of the way that I keep the whole thing alive is to do other stuff, whether it’s script-writing or writing a novel or a musical score or whatever. Because it takes you away from what you’re doing and you learn stuff. And I’m always learning things and bringing it back to the Bad Seeds. So Grinderman is in no way an attempt to negate or belittle what the Bad Seeds have achieved, which I’m really proud of. It’s more about keeping the Bad Seeds alive. Grinderman is kind of like the novel-writing or whatever, it’s all stuff that exists outside of the mothership, you know? And I think everyone in the Bad Seeds appreciates it because if I hadn’t done all that other stuff, there’s no way that the band would have survived as long as it has. Because you just can’t tether yourself to one thing eternally without running out of ideas and repeating yourself and getting tired of it all.

The thing now, with the Bad Seeds, is that we’re in an amazing situation, having made fourteen albums or whatever, where no one out there or in the band has a clue what the next Bad Seeds record will be like. Because, you know, I don’t think we’re gonna make a rock and roll record, a Grinderman record, but who knows? It’s just a great situation to be in, where we’re still able to go through that agony of trying to work out where to take something next, and a lot of bands don’t have that agony because they just have to do the same thing over and over and over again, because they’ve just gotten themselves into that situation. So: it’s all good.
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