Nick Cave finds outside pursuits help Bad Seeds’ music grow

Nick Cave finds outside pursuits help Bad Seeds’ music grow
Nick Cave performs at the Beacon Theater in New York in March.
(Jennifer S. Altman, For The Times)

NEW YORK — Nick Cave, the moody Australian statesman of majestic post-punk folk rock, was only midway through answering the second question of an early interview in Manhattan when he stopped the conversation to try to clarify a point.

Settling in at a corner table in the sumptuous lobby of a boutique hotel downtown, dressed in a striped satin shirt and black sport coat, Cave had been describing the improvisational approach he and his band, the Bad Seeds, took to writing the nine songs featured on their latest studio album, “Push the Sky Away.”


The acclaimed collection, which was released in February, marks the group’s 30th anniversary, and its release has prompted Cave to tour the U.S. , including a sold-out three-night stand at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre.

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The new method, inspired by the experimental howlings of Cave’s recent Grinderman project, was designed to help the band break out of a traditional songwriting process rooted in verse-chorus-verse structures.

The goal, Cave said, was to craft a different kind of record featuring a very personal kind of music.

“For a long time, I’ve felt a need to get away from that kind of generic ballad. What I mean by generic … I haven’t had a coffee yet,” he apologized, failing to complete the thought. “I’m hugely self-critical in the morning.”

If Cave, as an artist or a songwriter, has faults, creating workaday material is hardly among them. Effortlessly ageless at 55, the lanky rock poet who resides in the British coastal town of Brighton has been likened to an amalgam of Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop and Don Draper, a dark bard with a wicked sense of humor able to channel both fury and grace in his sinewy baritone.


Audiences will see two sides of the multi-faceted frontman at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this weekend, where he’ll play a set with Grinderman on Friday night and one with the Bad Seeds on Sunday.

The dual performances serve in a way to highlight how Cave has spent his time over the last several years. He launched Grinderman as a “parallel” project in 2006 with Bad Seeds Warren Ellis and Martyn P. Casey, in addition to drummer Jim Sclavunos. The garage rock outing seemed designed to allow the musicians to channel their collective id with songs like “Heathen Child.”

Cave also penned the 2009 novel “The Death of Bunny Munro,” which the British newspaper the Guardian described as a “sad, scuzzily hysterical tale of the titular door-to-door salesman, obsessed with sex, sex and more sex.” Then he wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film “Lawless,” his third cinematic collaboration with director John Hillcoat. Set in the American South during Prohibition, the movie about three bootlegger brothers earned its R rating with graphic throat-slittings and an operatic shootout.

Cave found the experience somewhat unsatisfying.


“L.A. is full of screenwriters,” Cave said. “I don’t know why. On many levels, it’s such a thankless occupation. But the great thing about it is that it makes making records seem so intimate and pure.”

“Push the Sky Away” dials down the volume on some of Cave’s signature preoccupations. There’s still plenty of sex and death and mayhem — neither the grandeur nor the drama has disappeared — but instead of the thunderous assertiveness of previous records, the deft minimalist arrangements give the songs a haunting, hypnotic quality that intensifies with repeated listenings.

Reviewing the album for The Times, Randall Roberts said “those with a patient appreciation for Cave’s dramatic sense, and the ways in which his singular musical voice has evolved over years, will find much to focus on within.”

That evolution owes much to Cave’s outside pursuits.

“If all I did was the Bad Seeds, we would have made a few records and that would have been the end of it,” he said. “It’s involving myself in other things that keeps the Bad Seeds alive to me. It disrupts the kind of reactive mechanism in a band, where you make a record and you either do something that’s the same as the last one or different than the last one.”

Cave attributes the stillness found in the music in part to the departure of longtime Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey, who left the group in 2009 and is due to release his latest solo album, “Four (Acts of Love),” on June 11. When Cave and his collaborators headed into the studio to record “Push the Sky Away” over the course of three weeks in the south of France last year, they discovered that the absence of a key instrument created a new opportunity.

“We fully intended to have a guitarist,” Cave said. “After we started playing, there was just this space that the other instruments kind of floated in that didn’t have anything holding it together, that chugging rhythm guitar that relentlessly plays through much of my back catalog, that kind of rhythm guitar, that space-eating thing. Suddenly you took that out and everything kind of free floated.”

It also changed the way Cave’s own vocals can be heard in the songs. “I’ve always been at war with the guitar,” he said. “All vocalists are fighting a war with the electric rhythm guitar.”

Songs like “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues” are discursive, literary exercises that wander familiar Cave terrain yet sound surprising and original — much has been made of the latter’s reference to Miley Cyrus floating in a pool in Toluca Lake — while “We No Who U R” and the title track feature local French children providing backing vocals. (“We just rang up the local school and asked them to send some kids over,” Cave said. “They didn’t know what they were singing.”)

The closest thing to a traditional Cave ballad might be “Wide Lovely Eyes,” a love song inspired by his wife, model Susie Bick, who appears nude on the album cover.

Released on Cave’s own Bad Seed label via Kobalt, “Push the Sky Away” debuted at No. 1 on the chart in his native Australia, his first record ever to do so. In touring to support its release, Cave played a string of four intimate club shows in which he and the Bad Seeds performed the album in its entirety, recruiting local youth as background singers for various shows.

For his sold-out stop at the Fonda in Hollywood on Feb. 21, the youth choir from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music had the honors. At subsequent shows on the more comprehensive U.S. theater tour, between seven and 30 children in each city join the band onstage for every performance — it was the Harlem Voices singing backup at the Beacon Theatre dates.

“It’s really amazing because you’re singing this song and all of a sudden you get to the chorus and all these little kids come in. It’s very moving,” Cave said. “It’s unexpected.”

The children don’t remain on stage for the duration of the performance — they’re ushered offstage before the band, accompanied by a string section, launches into the caterwauling crescendo of classic Cave tracks, including his profane version of the traditional “Stagger Lee,” an outrageous ode to a licentious villain with an itchy trigger finger.

“I have no problem about the kids hearing ‘Stagger Lee’ personally,” said Cave, the father to a set of 12-year-old twin boys with Bick. “I’m sure they’ve heard a lot worse. There’s enough uncomfortableness going around ‘Stagger Lee’ than to have a bunch of kids standing around while we’re playing it.”

As for what fans might expect at his Coachella appearances, Cave offered few clues. Even after a caffeine spike from a hand-delivered latte, he couldn’t quite describe how the two sets from his two disparate acts would come together. But the veteran showman wasn’t worried — at least not on his own behalf.

“Sitting here right now, we have absolutely no idea how we’re going to do that,” Cave said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get the Grinderman thing together. But part of Grinderman was always that skin-of-the-teeth kind of thing. The actual Bad Seeds gig, we’ve got children onstage and strings. We don’t have as much time because it’s a festival. People might like it, people might not. I hope for the kids’ sake people like it.”


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