Considering all the artistic irons he’s had burning in the fire in recent years, it says something that Nick Cave seems fixated on one thing and one thing only at the moment.
What comes through loud and unmistakably clear when the iconic singer calls the Straight from a Milwaukee tour stop is that he couldn’t be more grateful for the Bad Seeds, a group that’s seen by some as his backing band but is really something much more.
It’s because of the Bad Seeds, Cave suggests, that he received some of the most reverential reviews of his career for last year’s much-lauded Push the Sky Away. It’s because of the Bad Seeds that Cave, who hasn’t exactly been a touring machine the past two decades, is back on the road for the second time in 12 months. And most importantly, it’s because of the Bad Seeds that he’s excited about what the future holds, namely making a new record.
Over the last half of his long and storied career, Cave has proven to be a multitalented threat, mastering whatever discipline he’s chosen to tackle. The 56-year-old is a recognized author (works include 2009’s psychosexual novel The Death of Bunny Munro), occasional actor (Ghosts… of the Civil Dead), and celebrated screenwriter (2005’s gloriously violent western The Proposition). Working with Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis, he’s produced soundtracks (The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) that are mesmerizing in their beauty.
Cave can pretty much do whatever he wants as an artist at this point in the game, secure in the knowledge that no one in his fan base will be disappointed. But the Brighton, England–based husband, father, and certifiable legend is smart enough and driven enough to know when he’s on a roll, and that has everything to do with where he’s headed next. Once he’s done wowing disciples with his current round of live dates—which will include a string of intimate shows in his native Australia—Cave wants to head back into the studio. To do anything else would be to deny the gift of inspiration that the Bad Seeds have bestowed upon him.
“We did a tour last year, and we really enjoyed it,” the gracious and engaging musician says, speaking from a hotel room. “Some of that was changes within the band, in the lineup and even in the way that we were playing. We also put a record out that we really liked, and the concerts reflected that in a positive way. There’s just something about the songs themselves, about the way that we’re playing them, about the types of songs that we’re playing.”
Pausing for a second, and then laughing, he continues: “I dunno—maybe it’s just where we are in life, but there’s a kind of pleasing collision of things that have happened at the moment. I mean, I’ve got a really good band at the moment, and that’s beyond anything, really. The band is everything, and it just sounds different than it did 10 years ago because it’s a different lineup.”
Front and centre in that lineup is Ellis. Those who witnessed Cave and the Bad Seeds completely destroy the Vogue last spring know full well that the violinist, guitarist, and occasional keyboard player has had a monumental impact on the group. Part of that is his borderline-hypnotic showmanship; coming across as part shaman, part wild-eyed prophet, and part unbridled lunatic, Ellis puts on the kind of one-man spectacle where he’s nothing less than Cave’s equal as a performer.
Ellis played a major role in the version of the Bad Seeds that recorded Push the Sky Away. As Cave notes, the band is indeed different than it was a decade ago, with multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson returning to the fold after departing in the mid ’80s. What’s had the greatest impact on the creative side of things, though, is the shift in Ellis’s role in the group, which gradually took place after the departure of long-time Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey in 2009. Where Harvey tended to act as an arranger, Ellis—who first guested on 1996’s essential Murder Ballads—has become an integral part of the songwriting process.
“The thing with Warren is that it’s become increasingly collaborative,” Cave says. “My only concern, ever, is to keep the source, the kind of wellspring of songs, full. Or at least so that there is still the kind of potential there to give me something. I do that in a collaborative way, and I always have, so that I can generate ideas—small ideas that get enlarged in that collaborative process, no matter who in the Bad Seeds that might be.
“At the moment, and it’s been this way for quite some time, I’ve worked very closely with Warren in anything musical, whether it’s film soundtracks, or Grinderman, or the solo shows that I do. They all involve Warren in some way.”
Clearly a man who appreciates something special when he stumbles onto it, Cave is happy to share the spotlight with Ellis, who also has his own long-running band, the Dirty Three.
“Warren is a remarkable showman,” he offers. “You go and see the Dirty Three, and you can’t take your eyes off him. So it would be remiss of me to kind of—well, you know what I mean.”
What Cave is, of course, acknowledging is that Ellis is an essential part of the majesty that is the Bad Seeds live. And, just as importantly, that Ellis has re-energized the Bad Seeds. The rejuvenation started in many ways with the 2006 birth of Grinderman, which has released two records to date. Cave credits the brutal and assaultive side project—which, in addition to him and Ellis, also includes Seeds bassist Martyn P. Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos—with saving the Bad Seeds. He gently suggests the Bad Seeds were starting to become splintered, turning decision-making into a strain.
“Grinderman had a great effect on the Bad Seeds for a lot of reasons,” he notes. “Some other members of the band didn’t think so, but I thought that Grinderman had a very positive effect on things in general.”
There was, however, collateral damage. Cave seems to suggest that Grinderman alienated Mick Harvey, who’d been his right-hand man for 36 years, dating right back to their time together in postpunk trailblazers the Birthday Party.
“Some members of the band really liked Grinderman and the records,” Cave says. “But I don’t think that Mick did. And I think maybe—I really don’t know—but maybe that was the beginnings of a kind of unrest with Mick.”
That the Bad Seeds have rolled right along since the shakeup that was Harvey’s departure shouldn’t have surprised fans, seeing how change has been a constant for the band. Cave has been famously restless as an artist. The cancerous, coal-black cacophony of The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) bears almost no resemblance to last year’s broodingly beautiful Push the Sky Away. Cave followed up his blood-spattered masterwork Murder Ballads with the piano-heavy ode to love that was The Boatman’s Call. The Bad Seeds have exploded the boundaries of pop with the darkly theatrical Your Funeral… My Trial, reinvented Americana with the gothic triumph Henry’s Dream, and reimagined the Bible with the garage-y Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!.
But for all that he’s accomplished as a recording artist, it’s playing live that remains Cave’s great love.
The reverence with which he approaches the business of showmanship is driven home in the excellent, about-to-be-released new movie 20,000 Days on Earth; working closely with Cave and those around him, directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard imagine a single day in the songwriter’s life. In one of the film’s many revelatory moments, Cave is shown hanging out with Ellis in a countryside house, the two of them discussing great shows they’ve been lucky to witness. To watch them marvel over the live power of Nina Simone is to understand the importance they place on being, first and foremost, great entertainers when the lights go down.
There have been rare shows over the years, Cave admits, where it was difficult to find that special place where he and the audience feed voraciously off each other.
“At certain concerts, that hasn’t happened. What tends to happen is that I can push on through to where the concert itself takes over, and I’m no longer thinking too much about it. But before that happens, there seems to be a moment of excruciating scrutiny that goes on, where you feel like you’re under an extremely bright light. So sometimes that happens. But, really, not so much these days.”
Consider that a sign that, even though the Bad Seeds shouldn’t feel shiny and new to him because of the band’s longevity, that’s anything but the case. Listening to Cave talk, you eventually start to feel that getting back into the studio isn’t the only thing he’s excited about at the moment.
“Something definitely happens where you step through the looking glass when you get on-stage,” Cave says. “It’s just a different experience from real life. If that makes any sense.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to witness the brilliance of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live, it totally does.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play the Orpheum on Monday (June 30) and Tuesday (July 1).