An Interview with Nick Cave
Nick Cave is best known as the bandleader for the Bad Seeds and for the Birthday Party. In 2006, after years of composing murder ballads and songs of damnation, a few of his bandmates formed Grinderman, a stripped-down garage-rock version of the Bad Seeds, with Nick singing and playing guitar. Fans and critics who thought he was destined for residency on the Vegas strip got the wind knocked out of them.
Cave, now fifty-one, stopped using heroin several years ago. Occasional rehab and some time in jail over the years didn’t stop his continued usage. He doesn’t condemn heroin or drug use, but he did say that it was interfering with his creativity and that’s why he finally stopped. Now, during those slow days before turning on the juice to become Nick Cave the performer, he can concentrate less on his next fix and more on writing, both screenplays and fiction. A recent screenplay, The Proposition, was directed by John Hillcoat, and Cave has just finished his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro. Originally a script for Hillcoat, Bunny Munro was put on permanent hold when the director began work on an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Cave scored. Instead of letting it sit, Cave adapted the script into a novel about a sex-obsessed door-to-door salesman.
I met Cave at his hotel room in San Francisco during his Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! tour with the Bad Seeds. He admired my rings and I told him someone would have to cut my fingers off to get them, because they’re rings my grandmother bought for my grandfather in the 1940s. He said he’d pawned a lot of his rings for dope.
I. “IT’S GOOD TO BE OUT.”
THE BELIEVER: I was at both Grinderman shows in San Francisco.
NICK CAVE: We’ve gotten real good now. I loved doing that tour. But I’m finding coming to the States quite difficult. I had very mixed feelings about it, I don’t know why. We don’t really make any money when we tour America with the Bad Seeds, anyway, because there are so many fucking people and it all costs so much. With Grinderman, the whole sort of thing kind of dropped back to how things used to be fifteen years ago or something like that in terms of what hotels we stayed in, and what areas of town we stayed in, and all of that sort of stuff, and suddenly it was this feeling of being reunited with an aspect of America that I think the Bad Seeds had lost touch with. It was really exciting. I guess my perception of America was very much becoming, you know, there’re certain areas in each town that all look exactly the same, and they’re just sort of corporate-controlled areas and they could be anywhere, and I guess my perception of what America was was that it was just all kind of melting into this one big corporate kind of thing that happens on every High Street in every city in the world. So it was very exciting to do that very short tour, because we were just dumped into kind of the real areas of these cities and it was like, “Oh, fuck, that’s right, that’s what America’s actually like.” And on so many levels for me it was very exciting to come back and do that tour, and it feels very much like that with this Bad Seeds one as well. The more money you make, everything just starts going up and you don’t even notice it. You start staying in better hotels, the cars that drive you to the gig get better without your even realizing it, and that changes your perception of the country. So anyway, I’m having a fucking ball.
BLVR: Was there a possibility that if you didn’t do those few dates with the Grinderman shows, the Bad Seeds might not have toured America?
NC: I was certainly adamant that I wanted to come back to tour with the Bad Seeds and do a decent American tour, you know.
BLVR: It’s been a while.
NC: It’s been a while. It’s an insane place, America. But you know, it’s just great. There’s an energy that exists here, that still exists here, that just doesn’t really happen anywhere else, in any English-speaking country. I mean in England and stuff like that there’s just nothing going on at all as far as I can see in terms of just on the street, there’s nothing. It’s just kind of ugly and kind of violent and kind of exhausted.
BLVR: What’s the difference in America?
NC: As fucked up as it is, there’s something going on. I don’t know what. It’s good to be out. But it’s only the third date of the tour, so ask me in about two weeks and I’ll say get me out of this fucking place.
BLVR: The Grinderman live sets have really seemed to infl uence the Bad Seeds sets.
NC: Yeah, I play guitar, it just involves me in the band to be able to do that. I don’t do that in every song. I felt for a while that I wasn’t a member of the band. Being a front man and being a singer out there, you can kind of lose contact with the music.
BLVR: Is there a vulnerability in being a front man?
NC: You don’t actually have any control if you don’t have an instrument. With a guitar you have an enormous amount of control over the trajectory of the song, and as a singer, too. I like it, playing guitar.
BLVR: You’ve been touring so many years with Mick Harvey and the same lineup of guys. What does it feel like being on the road with them now as compared to being on the road with them, say, twenty years ago?
NC: I don’t seem to lose my luggage quite as often. Having said that, I left in a hurry from L.A. and I left half my clothes in the hotel. That doesn’t happen that often anymore, and I was just remembering at the time about how often that used to happen. I mean, all the time. There was always some fucking disaster, some major disaster going on.
BLVR: What about now? Do you need a little more time in the morning to shake it out?
NC: Well, it’s not that, it’s just you don’t have to take people to the hospital and you don’t have to give them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; things are easier in that respect. When somebody doesn’t answer the door in the morning, you usually just have to knock a little harder rather than ring the ambulance. Things have changed.
BLVR: And they still made it onstage for the night? Even when they had to get out of the comatose state… with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?
NC: It happened a lot.
BLVR: How did you make it through?
NC: You can always bring someone back.
II.“YOU CAN BE THE DIRECTOR WHO FUCKS UP BLOOD MERIDIAN, BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE THE WRITER.”
BLVR: What’s life like in Brighton?
NC: It’s good. I just get left alone—that’s the good thing about it for me. And I have this kind of boat hull that I go to and lock myself away and just work away at things and no one bothers me and I can get a lot done. I can get what I want to do done. That’s the purpose that suits me. I can do a lot more there than I can do in London, for example.
BLVR: Because of the recognition factor?
NC: That, and there’s always someone, you’re just available. In London you’re available to do a whole lot of stuff that I’m not particularly interested in doing. In Brighton I’m just that much farther away. I’m not available in the same way to everyone, so I can’t go to the opening of this thing and I can’t have dinner with this person. I’m an hour away.
BLVR: Is a new Grinderman album in the works?
NC: Yeah, that’s the next thing we’re going to do. Next year is the year of Grinderman. We’re going to make a new record and do a tour and all that sort of shit. Because we only got this one album, and when we tour we only got this, it’s fucking ridiculous, we only have these eleven songs. We now have a couple of new ones, because Wim Wenders asked for a couple of songs for his new movie, and I said we can only do it if Grinderman can do it, and he was like, all right, whatever.
BLVR: The last Grinderman album, you guys approached it where you banged it out and did a lot of improv.
NC: We don’t want it to be like the last record. We want it to be a new sort of a record, and we have to work out what kind of thing that will be, and we have a lot of ideas. Me and Warren talked about it a lot, but things change. You talk about making a certain kind of record one month, and then the next month you’re on a different sort of thing, so who knows. On that Grinderman record there’s lots of sort of different things on there really. You kind of think that it has a kind of a sound to it, but actually when you look at the songs, they’re quite different from one another. Something like “Electric Alice” is a very different sort of a song than “Love Bomb.” They’re all really pointing in different directions of where the band can actually go.
BLVR: How about the sound tracks you’re doing, like for The Road?
NC: Yeah, that’s pretty much done. We heard today that it got through. They all saw it; everyone’s very pleased with it. I mean, the finances and whoever looks at the fucking films gave it the thumbs-up. Whoever looks at the movie. The people in the suits. The suits gave it the thumbs-up. And the suits can say, “No, get someone else to do it, get Hans Zimmer to do it.”
BLVR: But you still get paid even if you get dropped?
NC: Yeah, but you don’t get paid that much. With me and Warren [Ellis, Cave’s frequent collaborator], a lot goes into the sound tracks. I would’ve hated that, because it’s really beautiful, this sound track.
BLVR: How is the film? Have you seen a rough cut?
NC: It’s great, it’s a really good movie.
BLVR: You and Cormac McCarthy is an inspired pairing.
NC: Ridley Scott offered me a rewrite; he owns Blood Meridian. He owns the script for that and he sent it for me to read. And it wasn’t working, the rewrite, so I just sent it back and said, “I don’t want to be the guy who fucked it up. You can be the director who fucks up Blood Meridian, but I don’t want to be the writer.” You have to change that story so much in order to make it a palatable Hollywood film, because it’s just kind of linear, it’s just violent and there’s no trajectory. There’s no dramatic arc or anything like that. So many compromises would’ve had to have been made to that story to make it a kind of pleasing film, and I wasn’t prepared to do that.
BLVR: You’re doing a lot more screenwriting these days.
NC: Well, I get asked, but I don’t do most of it. I’m doing John Hillcoat’s next film. I’ve written that into a novel now. Yeah, I just got about five pages left, I was just on the—
BLVR: You seriously only have five pages left on your first draft?
NC: Well, this isn’t the first draft. The hero’s dead, I’m just doing the final.
BLVR: Where do you find time?
NC: I was doing it, and now I’m here.
BLVR: I interrupted you.
NC: Yeah, you interrupted me on the final pages.
BLVR: I’m the asshole.
NC: Tell your grandchildren. If you read it and toward the fifth-to-last page it takes a sort of nosedive, you can blame yourself.
III. “IT’S IN OUR HORRIBLE REPTILIAN BRAINS.”
BLVR: You know, when I talked to you last year, you said, “Maybe in ten years I’ll write another novel.”
NC: I don’t know what happened with that. I’ve changed. I’m on Penguin, and Penguin published And the Ass Saw the Angel twenty years ago. I had a couple of weeks off, or something happened, and I just didn’t have anything to do on a particular day, and I saw a copy of And the Ass Saw the Angel and I started to read it. I haven’t read it in twenty years, and it seemed all right, but that book just seemed to have these problems. It was never edited. I mean, I did sit down and edit it with the publisher, but I never really sat down with a proper editor to knock that book into shape. So it’s this sprawling kind of meandering sort of thing. I just thought I could edit it and read it onto a sort of a five-box CD set or something, and do it in a particular kind of way that made it a more involving thing. To me it seemed kind of good but also just sort of faulty, you know. So I rang up Penguin and said, “Let’s edit it, let’s sit down and get someone in there.” Because, like, the first forty pages you just don’t know what the fuck’s going on, and we could just do what should’ve been done with it when we released it. They were very excited about the prospect, and they’ve now gone and done it. I wanted to do the actual audio thing with Canongate, this other publishing company. I rang up Canongate and I said, “Do you want to do that, I’m very happy to do that,” and when I said that I said, “And maybe I’ll write another book for you if you’d like that,” and they said they’d really like that. Then a week later I just thought, Fuck. And then there was the script, the Bunny Munro script that I had written that hadn’t gone anywhere for various reasons, because John had gone to Hollywood to do The Road, and The Road was this big film and the Bunny Munro thing was this little English film that I had written. So I just thought, Fuck it, I’ll write that into a novel. And I just sort of started immediately looking into that.
BLVR: Are you happy with it?
NC: Yeah, I think so.
BLVR: How many drafts did you go through?
NC: I basically did it on tour. We did the European tour with the Bad Seeds and I just sat in the bus and wrote it by hand. It’s in three parts, and I got halfway through the third part by the end of the tour. The tour was three weeks or four weeks. I wrote it, like a first-draft kind of thing, and then I put it in a more careful way, typing it, whatever you do; put it into the computer; but I’ve been real careful about it. I’ll have to sit down with an editor next and kind of move things around slightly, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s there.
BLVR: Do you know who the editor’s going to be yet? Do you know his work from other novels?
NC: No, I don’t know which ones he’s done, no. But he’s good; he’s a clever dude. I’ve just been going crazy with it. It’s been really exciting writing it, because I haven’t written anything, I haven’t written any extended prose, fiction, I haven’t written real fiction for twenty years or so, apart from film scripts and screenplays. And it’s so much fun writing fiction, because you can do just whatever the fuck you like. In a novel you have an enormous amount of freedom that you don’t have when you’re making a record, let’s say. There are certain places in songs you just can’t go—it just doesn’t really work. I’ve always tried to go different places in songs lyrically, but there’s a part where you can’t really go any further, and part of that is because it’s got to be condensed into something that’s four minutes long or whatever. And narrative stuff is difficult in songs because people don’t want to have to listen to songs and hear a fucking story all the time. They just want to get their rocks off. So suddenly there’s just this incredible freedom when you’re writing fiction to actually do whatever it is as you like. To be as violent as you like; to be as pornographic as you like.
BLVR: So violence and porn really make their way into this one?
NC: The porn.
BLVR: Did you have to do a lot of research on that?
NC: On the porn aspect? Well, I have done my fair share. We’re tossing up whether to call it Sex Maniac or The Death of a Sex Maniac or something like that. Anyway, it is about a guy who is incapable of seeing life in any other ways than through the poverty of his imagination, which is sexual in every way. I mean, he would probably fuck a cloud if he could. But as the book goes on you find out that he’s insane on every level. Anyway, it’s been an absolute pleasure to write.
BLVR: Do you think there’s a little bit of Bunny Munro in all of us?
NC: There is in me. I think that there’s a lot of Bunny Munro in us—um, yeah, I mean, yes. The men that have read the book have all said the same thing. Especially about the thought patterns that go through his head at any given time. So I guess what I was trying to do with the Bunny Munro character was to create something that was monstrous, or became more monstrous as the book went on and that we recognized and we were shocked to find that we even sympathized with. And it became increasingly difficult with that character because the more you learn about the character you realize that you really shouldn’t be sympathizing with this guy. Well, not sympathizing with him, but relating to him in some way. The man’s a serial rapist as it turns out in the end, so he’s not a good guy. I think he hasn’t learned to be good, this character. But I think what’s in Bunny Munro is innate in all men, but we learn other things. We learn to be intimate and empathetic. The predatory way and violence of the character are innate. It’s in our DNA. It’s in our horrible reptilian brains. It’s not going to go away.
BLVR: Do you think the novel would’ve turned out differently if you didn’t first write it as a screenplay?
NC: If it wasn’t a screenplay? It would’ve been harder to write. But the great thing about writing a screenplay first is that you can deal with dialogue in a different way. You’re concentrating largely on dialogue, I mean, that’s what that screenplay was, so. And that’s often the most difficult thing around a novel—is to do convincing dialogue. So that had to work in the screenplay, first of all, and it’s very important in the book.
BLVR: What about film rights to Bunny Munro? Will it end up as a film?
NC: Well, if someone wants to offer me an enormous amount of money, I can set it in Florida or something. I know whom I want to get to play the Avril Lavigne character, I know that for sure.
BLVR: Who would that be?
NC: Well, Avril Lavigne, of course.