If sometime during the early eighties, aspying an emaciated Nick Cave prance menacingly about in an oversized nappy (truth!), somebody told you this guy would be instutionalised in twenty-odd years’ time, it’d be white cells and black marias that sprang immediately to mind, not sweeping admiration and fondly-remembered duets with Kylie Minogue.
Yet here he sits before us, tailored to within an inch of his life, thoughtful in between sips of tea from under a kempt moustache, allowing himself the odd chuckle at the absurdity of it all.
The Grinderman project Cave struck up last year with Bad Seeds bandmates Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn Casey was roundly applauded, and now his fourteenth album with the day job, Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, is meeting with uniformly glowing reviews – can this formerly heroin-addicted social pariah do no wrong these days?
"With the Grinderman thing, although that’s been largely accepted by people, I know it would be very difficult to ever…" Cave trails off. "It’s that thing of being young and going on stage and people don’t know who you are, and you got a whole lot of people that just fucking hate you – that’s really exciting."
At a packed London date last year with Grinderman, Cave could be seen during the encore prowling the stage with one of his heroes, Alan Vega of Suicide, clearly relishing the opportunity to get up people’s noses while a steady trickle of disgruntled audience members deserted the venue. Nowadays, it would seem, confrontation is a rare thing to be cherished.
"We played in Madison Square Gardens with the White Stripes and there was definitely this polarising thing going on where halfway through the set it felt like it was gonna all go horribly wrong, like everyone was gonna start booing ‘cos they just wanted to see the White Stripes.
"When that happens you just kind of figure ‘fuck you’ and the music just becomes something else, the point of it becomes different. But there was an element we were really digging as well and that felt fucking great, I have to say."
Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! is an album informed by the Grinderman experience (the first, informal sessions for the record were held with the four-piece line-up); stripped of the pomp and circumstance that characterised Lyre Of Orpheus / Abbatoir Blues, lean and hungry and secretly sorrowful with Warren Ellis’ crackling atmospherics like background radiation after the bomb drops.
It’s also – whisper it – really rather funky.
Cave's unperturbed: "Ahh the Bad Seeds are funky! Well it depends. The Boatman’s Call wasn’t funky. I think some of the stuff was written on this tiny keyboard with a built-in drumbeat that my kids had. It had this really evil little organ sound to it and I was extremely frustrated with the piano ‘cos everything that I wrote sounded like a fucking ballad, so I started writing on this, I wrote ‘Today’s Lesson’ and ‘Albert Goes West’ I think. Then I took the keyboard into the studio, anything you played on it was just instantly kind of catchy."
Jim Sclavunos, drummer with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, elaborates: "We like to try and do something new with every record and sometimes we actually manage to pull it off. There are always people not quite ready to follow with whatever step you’re taking on a particular record and there’s always this tug-of-war with fan expectations. I mean it is a carefully considered record but it’s not like some cynical gesture of novelty for novelty’s sake."
Is there much dialogue about what direction a Bad Seeds album is going to take before going into recording sessions?
Jim: "What tends to happen is that it gets flagged up a while in advance and especially Nick and Warren have a lot of conversations ahead of recording. By the time we get in there it’s been pretty thoroughly considered. It’s probably more what we don’t want it to be, to be honest. A majestic structure of positivity is built on an ashen plane of negatives (laughs)."
'There She Goes My Beautiful World' on 'Later With Jools Holland'
I ask if Sclavunos thinks Grinderman’s success has cut the band any slack in terms of shifting the goalposts for what’s expected of the next Bad Seeds record, but he seems inclined to think the contrary.
"I think it’s made the weight of expectation and potential accusations that much more dangerous. But with everything that’s potentially negative, you know you take a lemon and you make lemonade. Grinderman opened up a lot of possibilities that would never have been considered before.".
As for Abattoir Blues (hailed in some quarters as the Bad Seeds’ finest hour but in retrospect probably more of a relief coming after 2003’s disappointing Nocturama), Cave speaks of it in monstrous terms, not disparagingly but almost as something that got way out of hand.
"We wanted to get away from the congested sound of that last record," he says. "There was just everything chucked on there, it was like this massive fucking juggernaut. We wanted to do something that was sinewy and less cluttered. Abattoir Blues is like this giant clogged artery, it’s really heavy, and I wanted this record to feel lighter because a lot of the lyrics are quite weighty on this record.
"I thought if I could put them with music that was more rhythmic and feel-orientated I could get away with these lyrics, and that seems to be the case. People have said it’s a joyful record, that it has a good sense of play about it and I’m pleased about that because I was able to slip in some fairly evil shit (laughs)."
That’s not ‘evil shit’ as in the blood-soaked musings on the nature of good and evil of yore, so much as a fragmented portrait of personal and political apocalypse that’s very much grounded in the here-and-now. ‘Grotesque’ is the word that keeps cropping up in conversation, and the arm-swinging sidewalk shuffle of the title track, a tale of Lazarus come to modern day New York, is a prime example.
"That song reminds me of this painting James Ensor did called ‘Christ’s Entry Into Brussels’ where Christ is on a donkey entering contemporary Brussels, and it’s a very kind of grotesque overview of humanity. That’s what it feels like to me, and the record needs to be seen as a whole in that way.
"To me the record’s all about these threads tying together in some way; it becomes a kind of grotesque tapestry of sorts, there’s all this stuff going on, and once the songs have found a logical trajectory they change so you never know what’s going on with them, they’re digressing all over the place so it becomes this carnival of the grotesque. And there’s all the kind of clamour and upbeat music that goes with a carnival."
The song also alludes tacitly to the Lazarus of the secular world, legendary escapologist Harry Houdini, inviting all manner of comparisons with Cave the artist and religious skeptic.
"I threw that stuff in because I was reading Larry Sloman’s biography of Houdini, and I actually dedicated that song to him (Sloman). To me there were interesting echoes between those two characters but it doesn’t aid anyone in particular knowing this to know what the song is about."
But with a songwriter for whom the lines between metaphor and religious faith have always been deliberately hazy it seems too interesting a line to drop so readily. What about those lines he cited in his lecture on the love song; Jesus’ teaching that “wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them”. Is it not something of a cop-out to describe God as purely a linguistic phenomenon?
"That we create him you mean? I thought that was really good, the point I took great pains to put forward in that lecture was articulated really nicely. You just saying that’s bringing tears to my eyes, I’m not gonna do it any justice. No-one wants to sit around listening to me waffle on about the nature of God (laughs).
'Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!'
"What I try to do with songs is to make them interesting enough lyrically that they excite people’s imagination and what they’re actually about seems to be a sort of secondary thing, particularly on this record. I mean I don’t think anyone actually listens to a song and walks away having learned something, you walk away being inspired."
This seems true enough. But even in his wilder, earlier incarnations Cave’s vision has always been a singularly literary one, and perhaps his comments make more sense in the context of an artist who seeks out his muse inside office hours and holds in contempt the pontificating idleness of rock star pursuits.
"You don’t wanna learn something from a rock star, do you? I mean, here’s a person that has absolutely no idea of what the fuck is going on and is so divorced from the real world. They have no authority to speak on anything and it always irks me when I hear some of these people trying to speak for the people."
Cave gives short shrift on requests for clarification regarding recently-reported comments on Thom Yorke’s status as a songwriter for the people.
"Getting advice from Thom Yorke,” he sighs, "would be like getting measured by the undertaker. But Radiohead have made a nice new record."
He might not be voicing anyone’s concerns but his own, but Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! remains, in its oblique way, as pertinent a record as the Bad Seeds have ever made, full of images of apathy and thwarted desire and voices from the dead.
"What I fell into through the writing of this record," says Cave, "was that the characters seemed to be in a state of inactivity or intense apathy, they were kind of comatose, repeating endlessly the same kind of movement without any effect. They’re completely absent from the event in some way, and that seems to me to echo a genuine malaise in the western world."
‘Night Of The Lotus Eaters’ deals specifically with that subject, but for a song pertaining to the real world is full of fantastic images that have its central character suspended in an aquarium doing hula dances for the hungry.
"We’ve got a ten-minute version of it, we’re gonna do a great video for that one," Cave says. "It’s really beautiful. Once again it’s about one thing but then it veers off; to me that verse takes a personalised viewpoint of a generalised subject that I’m talking about throughout the rest of the song, that feeling of just floating and being looked at and examined.
"At some point through the writing of this record early on I gave myself a mission to abandon the idea that everything needed to be concise and the narrative trajectories had to be neat, because normally my songs are extremely logical stories with a beginning and end. I allowed it to meander more and I had a really great time with that._"
Another song on the record, ’More News From Nowhere’, deals with the fear of obsolescence with a narrative that sees our (possibly deceased) protagonist’s advances on a series of former lovers spurned. Is Cave similarly tempted to cannibalise his own past, artistically speaking? Is fear of obsolescence a motivating factor with his work these days?
"No it’s not... I have a particular temperament that has a fundamental need to start up new things and if I have one talent it’s that I can see through an idea, I don’t abandon it, even if the idea is complete folly.
"Then when I’ve finished I’ll drop it like a fucking hot potato and start on the next one. I’ve always had the feeling that what I’m working on at the time is the most important thing in the world and then two weeks later I can’t even see what the fuss is all about. It’s worrying that in ten years’ time or whenever I decide to stop I might look back and think what a fucking waste of time that was."
But does he worry that, if and when he decides to call it a day, his myth ceases to be in his hands?
"I hadn’t thought about that. Nah, I don’t worry about anything. Well I do worry… just not today."
And why would he? With the Bad Seeds’ critical stock seemingly at an all-time high, Cave sounds happier than ever digging his own inimitable grave.
Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! is available now on Mute Records. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds will play a brief tour of the UK in May; dates run as follows:
4 Glasgow Academy
5 Birmingham Academy
7 London Hammersmith Apollo
8 London Hammersmith Apollo
9 London Hammersmith Apollo
Click to read DrownedinSound’s dissection of Nick Cave’s back catalogue.