Nick Cave is one of the most respected singers and songwriters in the world, whose storied 30-year career has seen him lead innovative and influential punk-infused rock 'n' roll bands like the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, not to mention collaborating with Kylie Minogue and Johnny Cash, among other notable artists. He has created stirring soundtracks for films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and composed the acclaimed screenplay for 2005's The Proposition, which was set in his native Australia. His first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, was hailed as a remarkable debut upon its publication in 1989. 20 years later, Cave has just released his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, the tragically twisted tale of a middle-aged sex addict in Brighton, who's driven to his own demise. The Death of Bunny Munro is now available on Harper Collins Books and Cave made time to chat with us about it during lunch in Toronto.
I don't think he's a sex addict.
No. "Sex addict" is a kind of modern phrase, which suggests that he's in recovery of some sort.
He's a sex maniac. He's certainly a maniac, in the sense that, through the course of the book, he's driven insane by his desires.
I see him as a fiend who starts out likeably enough but then kind of crumbles before our eyes into this figure who is, in fact, damn near impossible to like. Who is Bunny exactly and, as his creator, where do you suppose he comes from?
Well, it's funny that you don't like him. People have varying views on this particular character. Some people warm to him tremendously. A lot of women don't like him but are happy about his existence because they feel I've revealed something about the male psyche that they've suspected all along. Yes, and there are other people who just think he's a nasty piece of work.
So, where do you suppose he actually comes from; what inspired you to create Bunny Munro?
It actually started off as a screenplay that I wrote for John Hillcoat, who made The Proposition. It was gonna be our second film that we made together. He came to me and asked, would I write the next screenplay for him, and he wanted a film about a travelling salesman. He was particularly interested in that subject matter ― why, I'm not actually quite sure. So, I took it away and concocted a story that had things that I was actually quite interested in as well, and also this travelling salesmen theme. We interviewed some travelling salesmen, watched various documentaries, read about them, and discovered certainly a kind of underbelly or darker world that existed of womanizing, alcoholism, and drug-taking.
So, kind of standard things you might associate with travelling on the road, as a musician perhaps?
What is the connection between sexual conquest and good salesmanship?
Well, obviously he's using his powers of persuasion, as a salesman, which he's actually quite good at or he thinks he's quite good at, in order to get into the pants of the various women that he comes across. He's on a desperate flight away from love I think, and intimacy, as addicts often are.
You said he wasn't an addict.
Well, as addicts do…he wouldn't call himself an addict.
I'm not a doctor by the way.
No, no, me either.
The novel really does seem to be fuelled by dysfunction; whether it's between Bunny and his wife, his son, and his father, or this landscape that's literally on fire at first and then baptized in rain later, and terrorized by a devil-like serial killer. What exactly inspired the crooked little world you've conjured in this book?
What I try and do with my songs, the books I've written, or the screenplays, is to create an alternate world of some sort. But it needs to be recognizable, in the way that dreams are recognizable but alien at the same time. I think largely what I'm doing is creating dream worlds, and The Death of Bunny Munro is very much like that. Time slows down and speeds up…
There are spectres, there are hazy moments…
Absolutely, it's a dream-like world.
The language you use is kind of beautifully vulgar throughout, kind of blunt and bawdy; why did you opt to render the story in this manner?
Why was I vulgar? The guy's a sex maniac!
He is a sex maniac but you've chosen to divulge his innermost thoughts, as plainly as possible.
Y'know, the thing that was important to me was that this character, as monstrous as he is, is recognizable to us. Or that we actually recognize something of ourselves in this particular character. It's an examination of the sexually predatory seam that runs through the male psyche that, happily, a lot of men that I've talked to about this book have admitted feeling.
You really feel like you're revealing something about men in this book.
I think so, yeah―something that men get very uncomfortable talking about. And women seem to be very thankful for the creation of this particular character because it seems to expose something in men that they've long suspected (chuckles).
It's insightful, I see. Music figures heavily in this book, particularly that of female artists like Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne, whose body parts are described in vivid detail here. What were you trying to convey about Bunny based on his musical tastes?
I think Bunny's not really that concerned with music, right? He's more concerned with who's making the music. So, he's a big fan of Beyoncé, Avril Lavigne, Kylie Minogue, and so on.
Beautiful, beautiful women.
Yeah, very beautiful women.
But he does seem to get into the songs, eroticizing the music itself.
That particular song, yeah. I don't want to go into detail about that Kylie Minogue song, "Spinning Around." But yes, that's his theme song for various reasons, which you'll find out if you read the book.
You've proven to be one of the most prolific and compelling songwriters of our time yet your output as a novelist has resulted in two books, released 20 years apart. How do you suppose your work as an author relates to your impulse to write music?
Well y'know, I'm basically a musician, a songwriter. That's what I'm primarily concerned with. That's what I've put an enormous amount of time into doing over the years. But I don't think I could've done that or carried on making records unless I was doing other things as well. Once I've made a record, it takes a lot out of me to do that and the desire to get as far away as possible is intense. So, I do something else ― write a screenplay or, in this case, write a novel. I find that kind of reignites my desire to get back into music again. Very soon after writing The Death of Bunny Munro, I went back into the studio and recorded a new Grinderman record. So, these other projects that I work on, really keep the music alive.
Do they happen simultaneously?
No, no they don't.
You just take a break from music completely to write a book.
Yeah, although, having said that, I did write this novel on tour. I wrote it on the tour bus and hotel rooms. I wrote some of it in a hotel room in Toronto actually.
Did you not write part of this book on your iPhone?
Well I, yes, I wrote a little bit of it on my iPhone.
Why would you write on your iPhone?
Well I'd just got this iPhone; I'd never had one before. Y'know, I'm not very good with technology. But it's got this very simple little keyboard and you can type on it. It seems to have a mind of its own. You can type one thing and it puts the right thing in its place. So, basically, I didn't even write the first chapter. The iPhone technicians wrote the first chapter of the novel.
Well, they seem to know what they're doing if I might say. Now that's he's fully formed, do you think Bunny Munro has ever manifested himself in any of your songs?
No I don't.
Have there ever been moments where a song idea has turned into a story or a screenplay or vice versa?
No. They're very separate things, y'know? I don't write songs in the way I think a lot of musicians write songs, in that the songs just basically come out of them over a period of time and, once they've got a certain amount written, they'll go and make a record. I actually sit down on a particular day ― it's on my imaginary calendar ― "Today I start the new Bad Seeds album," and I sit down and I write it. The purpose of this is that I want to be able to create a particular, separate, idiosyncratic kind of world and that means having to immerse myself, for a period of time, in that particular bunch of songs. That's why all my albums all have a specific kind of sound from each other. They are different worlds.
They are, actually. I read somewhere that you treat it like shift-work. You'll go into an office space and, as you say, "Today's the day I'm gonna write the record," and you work on it they way someone else might work an office job.
Yes I do, yeah.
And you can do that?
Well, why not, y'know?
You don't get writer's block or anything?
Yeah I do get writer's block but, just because a worker doesn't feel like working, doesn't mean they don't still have to go into the office, right? I sort of see myself like that; I see myself as a worker. It's not to say that I despise my job or something like that; I actually love doing it. So, it's not really a discipline. I'm driven to go into that office and I love doing it. But I see myself like a worker who, happily, loves his job.
Why do you write books so sporadically?
Well, because I got a day job! (laughs) The first book was an experiment to see whether or not I could write a novel. It took three years or something like that to write that novel and it was very difficult and, in many ways, kind of very destructive. I spent too long inside that book I think. And it kind of put me off the whole idea of writing a novel altogether. It took me 20 years to realize that it could be done in a different way.
Hm. Can you tell us more about this Bunny Munro iPhone app?
There was huge excitement about it within the publishing company ― that this app was being created especially for my novel and that this was the first time that you'll actually be able to read a book on an iPhone. It made huge news; it was cutting edge and was gonna change the way we read books and all this sort of stuff. I largely had nothing to do with that whatsoever. I was picking up the newspaper and seeing that I was changing the way that people were gonna read books. So, what I did do was to make an audio book initially, where I read the entire novel. And then me and Warren Ellis scored the… scored the book… hang on [picks up iPhone].
Your iPhone is actually ringing.
[…finishes brief phone call with his wife] That was an iPhone.
It's like your iPhone knew we were talking about it.
This is my fourth or fifth one because I keep dropping them and they break very easily.
Right. Okay, you were saying you'd changed the way people read books…
Well, the thing that I'm really hugely proudly of with this whole Bunny Munro thing is the audio-book because me and Warren Ellis basically scored the seven-CD thing of me reading the story. So, it's got music to it. It was sent to the States where it was spatialized, which is this kind of sonic wizardry that they get up to where, if you listen to this thing with headphones on, it's like a hallucination or a psychedelic trip of some sort. It's really like no audiobook that you've heard in your life.
I am really very excited about that. And the app people have basically taken that idea and applied it to an app, so that you can read the book on your iPhone. Then, when you have to get off the underground and walk to work, you plug your headphones in and touch the word, and I continue reading to you. There's optional music that I've created. There's some icon you press and my face comes up and reads the book to you! So, it's this whole interactive thing. And you can actually use the iPhone as a vibrator that you can use, while you're listening to me read the book.
I actually just threw that last bit in there…
Well, it seems appropriate, given the book.
It's called 'iBrate.' (chuckles)
The wave of the future! Excellent! Well, finally Nick, you remain one of the busiest and most respected artists working today. Whether it's music or literary or film or whatever, can you tell us all what's next for you; what are your plans beyond telling people about The Death of Bunny Munro?
Well I made a new Grinderman record. Yeah, that's it. I don't actually work too much. I work at one project at a time. I'm not really sure what I'm going to do after that.
I know that The Road, the Cormac McCarthy novel, which has been turned into a film ― you've scored that haven't you?
When's that coming out?
It's been doing all of the festivals. It's been doing great. People love it and John Hillcoat's done this wonderful job of putting to film an incredibly difficult book.
Now your iPhone is talking to you again. Is that a text?
Yeah. It's from Eastwood Guitars. A great guitar company!
Okay, so people can look out for The Road and the new Grinderman record?
Yeah, and I've written another film script for John Hillcoat for a new movie. It's from a book called The Wettest Country in the World and it's set in the depression. It's about… well, it's a new film and he's trying to get that together.
Any chance that Bunny Munro might make it to film?
I hope so yeah. It was initially, so maybe we can get it up and running now that there's a novel. That adds a bit of weight behind the whole thing.
Check out Exclaim!'s "Writer's Rock" article featuring Nick Cave here.