POP MUSIC : 10 QUESTIONS : Nick Cave
A ustralian performer Nick Cave, who appears on Friday at the Wiltern Theatre with his band the Bad Seeds, first unleashed himself on the world in 1986 as leader of the punk band the Birthday Party. A snarling musical beast that raked its claws across the face of pop culture, the Birthday Party self-destructed in 1982, freeing Cave to form the Bad Seeds in 1983. Cave and the Seeds’ sixth LP, “The Good Son,” a lyrical song cycle light years away from the musical scorched-earth policy of the Birthday Party, was released in June to glowing reviews.
An enfant terrible of legendary proportion, Cave, 33, has done a remarkable job of growing up in public. Three years ago he kicked a serious drug habit, and last year saw the publication of his first book, “And the Ass Saw the Angel.” Five years in the works, this epic, hallucinatory work of fiction is set in Faulkner’s South and reprises the themes central to Cave’s songwriting: morality in all its permutations, specifically, good, evil and desire.
Compulsively productive, Cave is at work on his second novel, and says the Seeds’ next record is “boiling away in my head.” Speaking by phone from the Manhattan office of Mute Records, he was considerably more cordial and well-spoken than his wicked reputation might lead one to expect, as he reflected on his beliefs and creative drives.
Question: You’ve developed a very powerful persona; to what degree has it taken over your personality?
Answer: That’s hard to know, although I’d say the media had a bigger hand in creating that persona than I did. These days I spend so much of my time as a public figure that I basically see myself as that person and feel more comfortable in that role. When I return to a normal situation where I’m not working, I find it strange and alien. This is a dangerous turn of events because my time as a musician is limited. This can’t go on forever and when it stops there’ll be a problem, because essentially my sense of self-worth comes from what I produce and the attention it gets, and that’s a bad situation. One of my big fears is drying up, and the more I create, the more I feel myself shrinking beneath the backlog of work I’ve done.
Q: You’ve changed quite a bit since you debuted in the ‘70s; have your fans changed with you, or do they still want you to be the wild boy in black?
A: That’s hard to say, although I do know our audience gets bigger all the time, particularly in Europe. We took some big risks with the new album, but people have warmed to it really well, so our audience does seem capable of extending itself. Obviously some early fans wrote me off years ago because the audience we have now is quite different from the one the Birthday Party had. Regardless of how the audience felt about it, I had no interest in continuing to make music like the Birthday Party. When I look at the Birthday Party now I can finally understand why they were such an important band, but at the time I really couldn’t. That band operated in a completely intuitive way and we were laughing as we traveled through it and didn’t take it seriously. Now I can see that it was a unique band that belonged to no kind of movement, and was very honest and powerful.
Q: Did the fact that you have a career as a musician make people reluctant to take your novel seriously?
A: Definitely. The book probably wouldn’t have sold as well had I not had a name in music, but even the critics who obviously liked the book were grudging in their praise simply because I was a musician. Musicians are at the bottom of the creative pyramid and authors are at the top, and many people think it’s unacceptable for someone to attempt to jump from the bottom to the top of the pyramid.
Q: You’ve often mentioned the Bible as a major influence on your writing; do you respond to it as a great work of literature, or as a moral code you attempt to live by?
A: I regard it as a great work of literature, although I was seduced by it when I was reading it a lot as preparation for writing the novel. The more I read it the wiser it seemed. I’m no longer enchanted with it in the same way and haven’t read it for a while, but I still find it an incredibly beautiful book. The Gospel according to Luke is unbelievable--there’s something so visionary and sad in the way it’s written.
Q: The theme of justice surfaces repeatedly in your work in a way that suggests you believe everyone reaps what he sows. Do you think people get away with things in life?
A: People obviously get away with a lot. While I was writing the book I had this vague notion that there is some form of final justice in life, yet the world I created in “And the Ass Saw the Angel” is an unjust one and the good characters come to the most gruesome end. I wrote the book that way because that’s the way the world is--it’s a cruel place.
Q: Much of your work is rooted in a mythical interpretation of the American South uniquely your own; what shaped your perception of the South?
A: Books and films mostly--it certainly wasn’t first-hand experience because I’ve never been to the South but for one night I spent in Georgia. I saw a bit of kudzu and that was it. Actually, the American South has a lot in common with Australia and much of the book is based on first-hand knowledge I got having spent my childhood in the country of Australia. I became acquainted with small-town ignorance then.
Q: How large a role did drugs play in shaping your attitudes toward creativity?
A: When I was taking drugs I saw myself as being much more prolific than the people around me, and I figured that had to do with taking drugs--that they were directly responsible for my creative output. Now I’m not so sure. The belief that drugs made me able to work was probably my greatest fear when I stopped taking them.
Q: You’ve often expressed your admiration for Elvis in his final years; what do you find compelling about his work of that period?
A: The film “This Is Elvis” has excellent footage of his final Las Vegas concerts and in that film you see a man who had everything and didn’t have to carry on, but for his own reasons continued to carry on. Those are some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen--really frightening and painful performances--and there’s a quality to them that just wasn’t there when he was younger. You see him wrestling with a kind of loathing for himself, and I find that very moving.
Q: What’s been your greatest disappointment in life?
A: I used to believe that if I could do certain things--write a book or be a successful musician--that I’d be transformed into a happy person, but it doesn’t work that way. To tell the truth, nothing I’ve accomplished has brought me a great deal of pleasure--but then, I’m a miserable bastard anyway. Anyhow, having discovered the truth about “success,” the thing that motivates me to keep working is the feeling of total panic I experience at the idea of not being able to create.
Q: Brian Eno once made the observation that artists who focus on dark themes not only explore those things, but also generate more of them. Do you agree?
A: No. Without sounding too ridiculous about this, I know that for me, writing about these things probably prevents me from actually doing some of the things I write about. If I can create a character to do my dirty work for me then that’s enough--I’m satisfied.