The Peculiar and the Grotesque
Of course, sitting 56 floors above Manhattan, decked out in a tailored suit, and smoking thin, hand-rolled cigarettes, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything Cave might want that he can’t get. He’s joined by Grinderman drummer Jim Sclvunos, whose done recent duty in Cave’s solo projects; their equally bearded mates of long-standing include Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis and bassist Martyn Casey, both familiar names to Bad Seeds fans. It’s appropriate that Cave is refusing to do interviews alone for Grinderman — for the first time since the seminal Birthday Party days, Grinderman is a band, a gang of men.
Grinderman harkens back to the Birthday Party days in more ways that — there’s an aggression and fire in this project that, while it’s never disappeared from Cave’s muse, has been tempered by more "mature” recent projects that focussed lyrically on marriage and domestic contentment. Gone is the image of Cave brooding at the piano, replaced by him raging up front with a guitar.
The name comes from a Memphis Slim song that Cave, in typical cheeky fashion, has flipped on its head; in the original, the "Grinder Man” is a immensely popular lothario unable to keep up with demands on his, um, time. Cave’s vision of Grinderman is the opposite, not just in the rejections of "No Pussy Blues” but in an overall sense of dread: fear of aging and declining influence haunt Grinderman. "What the record is about in the most general terms is impotence and not being able to have a true effect over anything,” Cave reveals. "It’s unsparing but humorous,” Sclavunos adds. "Certain things about the way people perceive you come to the forefront of your mind.”
Nick Cave first grabbed the world’s attention as the front-man for the legendary post-punk outfit the Birthday Party. Formed in Melbourne, the band was inspired by the explosive Australian punk scene, as well as no wave influences from abroad; they relocated to London in the early ‘80s, where they recorded their first record, the critically acclaimed Prayers on Fire. They quickly became notorious for raucous live performances that erupted in drug- and alcohol-fuelled rows between band and audience; BBC Radio DJ John Peel helped spread the gospel by ceaselessly spinning their first single "The Friend Catcher.” A move to Berlin found kinship in bands like Die Haut and Einstürzende Neubauten, whose Blixa Bargeld became a seminal figure in the Bad Seeds. Amidst poverty and chaos, the Birthday Party’s run came to an end with the 1983 release of the Mutiny EP.From the ashes of the Birthday Party grew the Bad Seeds. Formed in 1984, they introduced themselves with From Her to Eternity, which featured originals and covers of Leonard Cohen’s "Avalanche” and Elvis Presley’s "In the Ghetto.” The title track is a great example of the early Bad Seeds sound — a frenzy of torturous feedback, tense keyboards and pounding drums of damnation, with Cave howling at/for a woman. The prolific Bad Seeds’ released two albums in 1986 that showcased different sides of the band. On Your Funeral/My Trial, one side is sentimental, the other violent, and was Cave’s articulation of a tangled, melancholic vision of love, women and sexuality; the second album was Kicking Against the Pricks, a covers album of dirty, punk-blues versions of the Velvet Underground, Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker.
By the time the Bad Seeds released what is arguable their seminal record, 1988’s Tender Prey (which features Cave’s signature song "The Mercy Seat”), Cave was increasingly identifying himself as a writer. He was working steadily on what would become his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel (released in 1989), a dense Southern gothic novel that explores redemption from the putrid, ugly, pathetic and violent impulses of humanity.
Despite the fact that he’s never published a follow-up novel, writing has become a secondary career for Cave. In 2005, his first screenplay made it to theatres in the form of The Proposition, a gory Australian outback western. Other literary pursuits include two collections of short plays, lyrics and poetry, entitled King Ink and King Ink II, in addition to teaching a poetry class at a writing academy in Vienna. From those teaching experiences, Cave released a spoken word album of two lectures on love songs, God and the Bible. In "The Secret Life of the Love Song,” Cave reveals the defining essence of any love song worth its salt: the presence of sadness and longing.
Sadness and longing are pillars of many Bad Seeds records. On 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, songs centre on his piano and lyrics, a more stripped down sound than Cave had ever put forth. Its meditation on lost love and heartache continued a few years later on No More Shall We Part, where Cave explores romantic love, redemption and God, this time from a much more stable base. By the time it was released in 2001, Cave was a married man with twin sons. But beneath its seemingly serene surface, the dark undercurrent still flowed. After the underwhelming Nocturama in 2003 came the ambitious double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Balanced between gospel group-backed bursts of energy and quieter explorations, it saw Cave both fully content and questioning his role as a writer, performer, father and husband.
Imagine what the heroin-addicted hooligan of the Birthday Party would say about the Nick Cave of Abattoir/Orpheus — a married father, living in relative suburban comfort, with a day job. That’s right — Cave’s work evolved to the point where he took to writing in an office, separate from his newly domesticated life. In that context, it’s no surprise that he wanted to get rowdy, and Grinderman is the direct result.
From the outset, Nick Cave wanted to switch things up. First off, he’s playing guitar, a decision that automatically puts him on less sure footing than he’s had in years. And instead of mapping out plans at the office, Grinderman spent their formative time in the rehearsal space. It was only after five days of all four men playing music that Cave started to flesh the ideas into songs, taking demo recordings and finalising lyrics. When that process was done, the record was completed very quickly, in just a couple of days.
"Just make it short and punchy was the only thing we really kept in mind all the time,” drummer Jim Sclavunos says. "But we didn’t really talk about it very much until after it was all said and done.” No doubt, Nick Cave is very much at the fore of Grinderman — "It’s Nick’s decision, really. He guides the ship,” Sclavunos says — but fundamentally changing the process brought these old friends into unexplored territory.
The transition from solitary writer to band leader is reflected not just in Grinderman’s collective musical howl, but in its lyrical concerns as well — there’s a palpable masculinity on display, just not in expected ways. In the Memphis Slim’s "Grinder Man Blues,” a blooming, raunchy sexuality is on display, and the Bad Seeds certainly had moments of male sexuality expressed with full bravado (the bucking satyr of "Loverman,” for example). Yet the sexuality on the self-titled Grinderman album is fraught with self-awareness. Reflecting on the album’s title track, Cave says "To me, it’s an extremely affecting song, and there’s certainly posturing that goes on, but underneath, the whole thing is on very shaky ground. I think a lot of women that have been listening to the record respond to that, because we are inundated with the opposite side of the coin. You only have to turn on music today and male posturing is an absolute epidemic.”
Cave’s fresh perspective stems in part from removing his muse, his lyrical crutch, his protector and demon and desire. As an obsession and a reality, the woman has been central to the Bad Seeds in particular. And she’s taken every possible form in his work: Cave has belittled, reviled, mourned, demonised, comforted, angered and loved women with both desperation and grace. There have been accusations of misogyny regarding his duet with Kylie Minogue on 1986’s Murder Ballads, while in later years, women have often appeared in the form of a nurse.
Cave banished the woman from Grinderman on purpose. "I didn’t want the female character protecting the male character, which often happens on my records and my songs.” Yet like phantom limb, there’s a nagging itch brought on by her absence in the lives of Grinderman, who are left alone and lonely. "I’m all I’ve got, and what I try and write about is my relationship with the world,” Cave says. As he nears his 50th year, "age becomes a preoccupation. You become more and more ineffectual and kind of invisible.”
Cave and Sclavunos enjoy some banter about aging, avoiding mirrors and being powerless; it’s effective but unconvincing, at least in terms of how it personally affects them — they’re far too suave, too confident and too successful to really buy in. But Cave is such a potent writer, and such an effective poker face, that he convinces you — on record and in person — that he’s writing from the heart, a balance he’s maintained throughout his career. After all, when he got married and content, that was reflected in his writing, despite the fact that the subject was "no really a rock’n’roll thing to write about.” Given his past nods to autobiography, is it that hard to imagine that Cave really has been afflicted with the "No Pussy Blues”? (Actually, yes it is.)
Presenting a radically different image, refusing to put his name up front (the Bad Seeds were always billed as "Nick Cave and,” in part to separate them from the mid-‘60s Texas garage rock band of the same name), Cave is moving away from the focus on himself. Press photos only feature the whole band, and the album artwork contains minimal information and no up-front band shot that would make it an easy sell to Cave’s fan base. It’s all part of a desire to reclaim some of the mystery of rock’n’roll, of an age when blogs and celebrity culture didn’t reveal every aspect of musicians’ lives to the world.
Reminiscing back to an bygone era of rock’n’roll heroes, Cave says "It didn’t matter about their habits. They did enormous good in the world because they existed as godlike characters that you could aspire to in some ways.” Sclavunos agrees: "It’s hard to imagine who’s going to fill those shoes when everything is so humdrum these days.”The opening track on Grinderman, "Get It On,” laments the disappearance of just such a mythic rock figure. "He now seems like an alien figure from another time,” Sclavunos sighs. "He’s peculiar and grotesque.” "With a groovy beat,” Cave adds dryly.
It’s interesting that Grinderman contains so many elements, both lyrically and musically, that nod to Cave’s career-long work, yet at the same time, be devoid of so many of them: women, longing, sadness and the sound of that sombre piano. Just as the Birthday Party’s sound was messy, loud and haphazardly aggressive, so too is Grinderman full of buzzing, imposing sounds. There are Grinderman songs that toy with an aggression for which Cave has been admired and reviled. There are moments that blur the distinction between taking the piss and letting off steam. Likewise, the softer sounds of the Bad Seeds can be heard in other Grinderman elements.
While they want to recapture the majesty and mystery of rock’n’roll’s past, it’s difficult to say if Cave really believes he could fill that role. For every true, heartfelt expression from the self-aware auto-biographer, the irreverent provocateur is never far away. For every element of Grinderman that suggests bridges to his past, there’s a roadblock that detours in other directions.
Maintaining his stated desire to give Grinderman its own, distinct identity, Cave will return to the Bad Seeds for a new record, work that will start this summer. To what extent the experiences of Grinderman will impact that band remain to be seen, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about rising to the occasion once more. "I’ve always tried to write about my own preoccupations, whatever they are, whether they’re fashionable or fit within the context of rock’n’roll music or not.” It’s safe to say that those preoccupations will continue to titillate, provoke and disturb.
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