Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

An article what I wrote for the new Beat Happening.

As dark clouds hang from the edges a of humid summer afternoons, so Nick Cave has spent four decades looming at the peripherals of Popular Culture; glowering and jowly like Cerberus�s pup, the eternal flames of Hades have flickered in his heavy, lambent eyes, a deathly glare cast over the tyrannous world stretched before him. As introductions go this may appear a mite heavy on the Brimstone, and for this I apologise, but it is not without just cause: Cave has built an unparalleled body of work incorporating music, film and literature and dealt almost exclusively in the language of foul parables and Biblical retribution. If, in the dark church of counter culture, Mark E Smith is the Hip Priest then Nick Cave is rightfully ordained the Black Bishop, growling from the pulpit with woeful tales of an iniquitous, Old Testament God- not the kindly old Man with a white beard and fair, open hands, but the one with the leather jacket who gets drunk at parties and pretends he�s the Devil.

Morbidity and the macabre run through Cave�s writing like a thick black rope, perilously anchored to nihilism at one end and a twisted Calvinism at the other. Be it with The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, or Grinderman, or in his writing of novels and screenplays, he�s persistently delved into the darkest reaches of the human conscience with a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet. Alongside long-term conspirator Mick Harvey and cast of various other players, he�s been responsible for a varied cannon of music that rarely fails to confound: from the furious No Wave noise that resonated through early Birthday Party releases, to the triumphal fatality of �The Mercy Seat� and the gothic schmaltz of �Where The Wild Roses Grow�, the Man and his Seeds have never strayed too close to the path. This all-encompassing approach to writing music stems from his formative years in a post-Saints Melbourne.

�There was a time when Australia had a very healthy underground scene where people knew they had no commercial hope whatsoever and consequently they just played music for the sake of it, rather than for the sake of an audience�� he told Rolling Stone in the early Eighties. Later in the same article he describes his feelings towards the popularity to which his then band The Birthday Party were having to become accustomed. Prescient of the wariness towards mass acclaim that has stuck with him ever since, Cave confesses

�[We�re] playing to the masses, which is part and parcel of being successful, but it means playing to a large number of people who have no idea of what we�re on about at all. The more we continue the more successful we become and the more we find ourselves playing to that sort of audience. It becomes depressing and frustrating and I�m not sure if we can carry on like that�.

And so it was that he embarked on a tirade of music so ominous and varied it has attracted only the most committed of congregations. Like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen before him, Cave�s bleak sermons on the life�s iniquities and the sorrows of true love have escaped the attention of the godless hordes, but rung true with an ever growing number of believers.

Just as the Good will out, so continual artistic endeavour will eventually triumph against the indifference of others. With their fourteenth studio album �DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!� the Bad Seeds have created a record that, whilst still besotted with all life�s seething undercarriage, rattles with an instinctive, primeval groove. It�s music you can fuck to, just as long as you�re not paying too much attention to the lyrics. This newfound mojo isn�t something Cave stumbled across naturally though; rather it�s been a premeditated travail that has taken time and perseverance.

�This new record was really hard to write. It took a really long time. I mean, lyrically, it took a really, really long time. It took months to sort of clear the decks and get rid of any Grinderman influences and any Bad Seeds or �Nick Cave� style influences. I tried something that was a bit different, not something I could accomplish overnight. It�s a process of exorcising the past until you eventually come up with a line you wouldn�t have written before. It�s exciting when that happens, because you�ve written a song that takes you somewhere quite different to anywhere you�ve ever been.�

This is exemplified early in the record with �Today�s Lesson�, a taut garage workout with a sing-along chorus that belies the songs malevolence. Inspired by a story told to him by his wife, the young protagonist�s blossoming womanhood attracts the attention of an older man with �a certain appetite�. With lyrical aplomb only acquired after a lifetime of writing, Cave shudders with the line �He likes to congregate around the inner section of Janie�s jeans / Mr Sandman, the inseminator, opens her up like a love letter and enters her dreams�. As I said, don�t listen too intently to the lyrics if you�re in the process of emptying knickers.

�[It�s] probably the grooviest and most right-on song I�ve ever written, but it is also arguably the darkest and most evil. It�s about young girls attracting the attention of older men.� Cave admits. �Marilyn Monroe is famously quoted as saying �I�m always running into people�s unconscious�. That�s is a very chilling line, and that�s really what this song�s about. There is only so much murderous male attention and nefarious transferred erotic desire that any woman can take before, well, atomizing�.

The direct and unnerving nature of the lyrics is reflected in the music throughout �DIG�, the foot stomping blues of the title track and baleful Southern funk of �Moonland� both enjoy a space that has been missing from The Bad Seeds most recent releases. This has been largely informed by the process they underwent whilst writing for the Grinderman project.

�The Grinderman record had a huge impact. We were able to go out and create a bunch of music, then bring back ideas that we thought would work within the Bad Seeds. I mean one obvious similarity between the Grinderman record and �DIG, LAZARUS, DIG!!!� is the amount of people playing at any one time. It�s very much a pared down, basic band, much smaller band than on the �Abattoir Blues� record, where there�s a lot of people playing at the same time� says the most recently inducted member of Australia�s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Fellow Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos concurs with his stoney eyed Capitan and believes the two projects enjoy a symbiotic relationship

�Once we opened up to some of the new sonic possibilities we found working together in Grinderman, the tendency for some of those ideas to sneak into The Bad Seeds working environment was quite natural. With such an overlap of line-ups between the two bands I think it was inevitable�.

Perhaps this convergence between Grinderman and The Bad Seeds stems from Cave�s experimentation with the writing process- he wrote the first set of Grinderman songs with a guitar, an instrument he was otherwise unfamiliar with, and it�s widely recognised that this naivety informed the immediacy of the new material. In writing �DIG� the Bad Seeds have transposed this approach to the arrangements, an experience Cave found liberating

�It had gotten slightly out of hand, because our band�s grown bigger and bigger. I would go in with a song and everyone would just jump on an instrument and start playing it, so it was very difficult to hear the song in any other way than everybody playing everything all at once. I realised it�s much harder to subtract instruments than to actually add them!�

With the two projects enjoying such symmetry it must be difficult to keep the boundaries from blurring, but Sclavunos insists there is, and must be, a clear distinction

�The main difference for me is that the Bad Seeds arrangements are pieced together quite differently than Grinderman. There’s more room to move or improvise in Grinderman. It’s a supple intuitive four-piece, whereas The Bad Seeds is a larger band that usually benefits from a stricter orchestrated ensemble approach.�

This orchestral sensibility reaches a climax on the dystopian fairy tale �Hold On To Yourself�. As the Black Bishop dons his denim vestments and pledges that �Jesus only loves a man who bruises�, the interplay between guitars and strings becomes suitably spiritual. The instruments brush against one other like layers in a moth eaten flamenco dress and Senor Cave delivers lines with the piercing blow of banderillas. Even more than the drama in the songs performance it�s the arrangement that consumes; a masterful employment of repetition and deviation during the five minutes leaves you feeling like you�ve not had a song on, rather that you�ve sat through a particularly harrowing and beautiful film. Which leads us very neatly to The Proposition. Cave�s revisionist Western exposes the hypocrisy and exploitation endured in a Nineteenth century Australia and questions the legacy left by Empire Building. His accompanying score is, like the film, striking, emotive and inescapably futile and owes a great deal to the Dark Knights writing partner Warren Ellis. A member of the Bad Seeds since 1994, Ellis has been instrumental in turning Old Blue Eyes on to loops.

�With some of the songs, the nuts and bolts of the thing are taken care of by me and Warren�, says Cave. �Rather than starting off with a bunch of chords, the songs start with a certain kind of musical dissonance. They come from a non-chordal atmospheric kind of place.
Warren will send me a loop that is really just a sound, and I�ll have it on my computer and write to that. We�ve used this method of writing to loops with the soundtracks and then on the Grinderman record and now on �DIG��.

In a way it�s fitting that music from the films has come round to influence Cave�s writing, given that his music has been such an inspiration to generations of film directors: Wim Wenders (who said of Cave �He was the Darkest thing anyone in Berlin had ever seen, a TRUE underground hero), John Turturro and whichever chancer was responsible for Kevin & Perry Go Large have all felt compelled to include his work in their OST�s. His latest project is a soundtrack for The Road, a tale from a post apocalyptical America released early next year. It can only be presumed that this score will prove more challenging than his contribution to Shrek 2 soundtrack. As they say, The Devil makes work for idle hands.

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A life in music, especially one that enjoys the longevity of Nicholas Edward Cave�s, is likely at some point to become the subject of public scrutiny. Throughout his career Cave has always kept something of a distance when it comes to the media, especially during the early Nineties when his duet with Kylie thrust him into the realms of Top Of The Pops and Saturday morning Kids TV. However, since starting a family and relocating to Brighton the man has mellowed somewhat, and enjoys a far more amicable relationship with the press. Granted, it�s usually the Brighton Argus inquiring after his plans to rejuvenate the dilapidated West Pier, but it�s all part of Cave�s progression from wilful outsider to Elder Statesman. Furthering this process, an exhibition that meticulously catalogues his career has opened in his hometown of Melbourne.

�I�ve been forced to look at photographs, live footage that I�ve never seen before. I�m totally superstitious about things like that, but it�s actually not that bad. They�ve got all my lyrics and drawings and shit� I look at it all as if it was the life of another person, and I think that if I were a fan of this person, I�d actually find it quite exciting. I feel that finally looking back at all of it is very healing; especially of the feelings I had at the time. It gives you a sense of nostalgia.�

Watching the video for �Nick The Stripper� you empathise with his rose tinted outlook: a baby faced satyr with HELL emblazoned across his pigeon chest writhes around a pole and emits a guttural bark that seems unsuited to wiry frame from whence it was spewed. Maybe it�s the crude sets and poor direction, maybe it�s the deplorable quality of a third generation VHS uploaded on to You Tube, but something seems amiss, even by Birthday Party standards. At this point in his life Cave was, you see, The Devil�s Apprentice; a YTS gargoyle barely equipped to tend the dark fire that burns within, contorting across the stage like a fish in a condom. Quarter of a century later and a calm has settled. He has grown into his face, which is now replete with the wrinkles that come with knowing and a Zapata moustache that you only find in Border Towns. True, the same deathly stare is cast from those eyes that could weld rivets, but the anger has been replaced by an austere fervour. After years at the edge of the pit he has finally become master of the flames. With the clarity of a past master and the dogged assurance of a veteran outlaw, the Black Bishop can rest his feet upon the pulpit and feel comfortable beneath his Mitre, for he knows that Old Nick is within him and the best is most probably yet to come.

4 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. nice work, bro

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