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What’s Wrong With Being Sexy? Nick Cave & Jim Sclavunos Of Grinderman Interviewed
John Doran , September 9th, 2010 09:07

Big Jim and Old Nick talk to John Doran about JFK’s spine, Steve McQueen’s cock and why women love Grinderman

"At the most we gaze at [the vast edifice] in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins."
WG Sebald Austerlitz

The House Of Barnabas is a literal refuge. A large Georgian terrace overlooking Soho Square, it is cluttered with its own history. Built with rum money whipped up by a family of planters exporting from Jamaica, when sold it became the offices of the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers, overseen by Sir Joseph Bazalgette - arguably the most important figure in the history of this once shitty city. His ghost must be on holiday today as London seems once again in the grip of some fetid fecal miasma, heated over by the vinegar strokes of summer. Up and down Greek Street men in neon orange safety vests and yellow hard hats amble about amongst a maze of compressors, pulsing tubes, open manhole covers, giant septic vans and portable road signs. Only inside does the air become cold, minted and sharp.

The wrought iron railings along the wide five storey stair case bow out toward the generous stairwell. This is a cantilevered crinoline staircase, so-called because it allowed room for the wide crinoline skirts of 18th Century ladies to ascend unfettered. Since the end of WWII, The House Of Barnabas has been a women's refuge, sheltering and helping a more stream-lined, less extravagantly dressed kind of lady.

Down a corridor and behind an unmarked door 'Big' Jim Sclavunos and 'Old' Nick Cave are luxuriating in expensive looking leather arm chairs. They look like the apostles from either end of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper but with all the intervening characters snipped out of the frame. They lean in toward each other conspiratorially.

Cave, who is somehow even slimmer and longer than you'd imagine, appears to have been rolled through some giant chrome pasta maker, like flesh linguine, straight into expensive and well-selected clothes. He has sketched a large crucifix onto an A3 sheet of paper and annotated it with lines, bubbles and notes. The cross is ostentatious - certainly not sans serif - Greek Orthodox style or perhaps it has been drawn in tribute to St Barnabas himself, the founder of the Cypriot Church.

Cave murmurs: "...and around the base perhaps we could have... I don't know... worms?"

Sclavunos, who looks like a spaghettified Buddha in a sex tourist suit, emits a basso profundo laugh.

Cave slings back prescription pills during the interview and apologizes several times for being under the weather and not on good form. But when transcribing back I notice that illness or not, he speaks in perfectly formed English, something that is much, much rarer than you would think. Even those who write perfectly often speak in half-formed, drifting sentences, that need to be tweaked or tightened, the speaker subconsciously relying on the interpretive powers of the listener's brain to fill in the gaps. He isn't the demonic interview prospect he's sometimes painted as and he and Jim make a great double act, chuckling away and raising quizzical eyebrows at each other. Grinderman was a natural stage in Nick Cave's progress. With the twin album set of Abattoir Blues and The Lyre Of Orpheus in 2004, they pulled themselves out of the relatively fallow Nocturama period. But even so, it felt like they'd hit a glass ceiling and were a respectful South Bank Show or Radio 4 documentary in waiting… But then came the parallel project, the side project, the above and beyond project, that he was crying out for. Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis – who was in the process of replacing Mick Harvey as Cave's lieutenant – got the call, as did Big Jim on drums and Martyn Casey on bass. All of them already Bad Seeds. In order to throw off the writerly shackles of convention Cave elected to give up the piano for the electric guitar, something he had only eight weeks' worth of self-tutoring in and also to abandon his usual careful songwriting style for a chaotic immersion into improvisation and lyrical ad lib.

These self-imposed rules immediately revivified Cave and cohorts. Gone were the ballads, the pristine post modern and referential song writing. They were replaced by what many took for a midlife crisis but was probably more just a shot in the arm. Cave's spectacularly untrained and brutish axe work matched the feel of their debut like one of his own well tailored suits fitted his skeletal frame. This was only mid-life panic in the sense that it was a successful attempt to reconnect with the teenage self… musically anyway. Cave played guitar exactly like some deranged 17-year-old who'd never had sex. Distortion, flange, echo, everything turned up to 11. It sounded like he was trying to play with boxing gloves on and it was quite magnificent.

Now, three years later, the call has gone out again, the razors have been thrown away and the howling Grindermen are back with an album that's even more intense, priapic and psychedelic than the first.

So what I was wondering about was, when does the beard growing cycle start? Do you get the call from Nick saying, "Throw away the razors... it's time for a Grinderman album"?

Jim Sclavunos: There's no call necessary. You can just feel it in the roots of your follicles. The beard is crying out to be grown. But there's no real cycle, it's just that I get sick of it every now and then and just cut it off and that's the demarcation point for getting rid of it.

So there's no sense in which you have to groom yourself or civilize yourself for the Bad Seeds?

JS: Ha ha, no...

Nick Cave: Jim's had a horrendous beard in the Bad Seeds.

JS: It was a horrible straggly thing that I never got around to shaving.

I guess no one's going to tell Martyn what to do. And I mean in tonsorial and all other matters.

NC: He can't grow facial hair. He has some kind of congenital disorder.

JS: It's very sad actually. It would make him very sad to see your luxurious beard John.

NC: He tries but he's got that Peter Pan disease. He's very childlike.

You say he's childlike but out of all the Grindermen, he's the only one I'm afraid of. I'm quite relieved he's not here to be honest.

NC: I'm afraid of him.

JS: I don't like to admit it but I am as well.

NC: I tell you what... if he punches you, you fucking know about it. I've been punched by him several times over the years...

What over?

NC: Well the last time wasn't even that long ago... But I've been clubbed by his bass at sound check across the back of the head which almost knocked me out. I won't go into the reasons why... but I was being a bit of an arsehole.

[both laugh]

NC: Drug related.

JS: Drug related.

NC: [sighs] Drug related.

It only occurred to me today that you and Mark E Smith are exactly the same age. There's something to be said for looking after yourself after a certain age.

NC: Looking at Mark?

Looking at Mark.

NC: [sighs with exasperation] Beauty... is... more than skin deep...

[both laugh]

NC: I mean, you turn into what you are... your face starts to take on the reverberations of your inner self.

I think it was Martin Amis who said that you get the face you deserve by the time you get to a "certain age"...

NC: Well, there you go. But mine was better than that!

WG Sebald said that all large buildings are made with a view to what their ruins will look like. Is Grinderman a holiday from all the weight and perception and baggage and expectation that comes hand in hand with being in the Bad Seeds?

NC: No. Holiday is the wrong word although it is enormously enjoyable, unlike going on holiday. I see it as a kind of parallel project. I brought that term back from France, over here they call it a side-project but I don't see that it's ever been anything other than a serious endeavour. It's a parallel project and that's what it feels like to me. The reason why we've done the second album was because the first one was really successful on so many different levels. Not only was it a good record but it put a firecracker under the Bad Seeds. Everyone in the group really liked the record and it gave everyone in the Bad Seeds a kind of licence to make a whole load of noise again. It sort of shook up the record company quite a bit. It had a positive effect all round. But I don't know what all that has to do with WG Sebald.

But do you feel there is a lot of pressure on you when you are in the Bad Seeds from legions of fans, critics, yourselves. Is Grinderman a clean canvas away from all that?

JS: There certainly are a lot of pre-conceptions about the Bad Seeds. There are a lot of expectations attached to that band.

NC: But I'm like that about it myself anyway. I'm very proud of what we've done with the Bad Seeds. What we've achieved. The amount of songs. The amount of good songs there are. And I do feel some sort of duty to continue with the Bad Seeds and to continue to try and write good songs. And if there are ways that I can find that help that endeavour like Grinderman for example - which is a whole different way of writing songs, and it has been enormously helpful with writing Bad Seeds songs - I will go there.

I've seen this knock on effect in action I think. When I saw the Grinderman gig at Minehead ATP, you supported yourselves as the Bad Seeds...

JS: That was actually the Nick Cave solo band.

Ok but it felt like... how could you follow Grinderman? It was so exciting that how could you follow it with anything but another really exciting show that was busting out hits and classic songs and a powerful performance... anything less would have been an anti-climax.

NC: I do remember that having done that Grinderman show we came on stage and hit harder. We hit it much harder than we would have otherwise.

JS: And that was our first show [as Grinderman]. We'd never presented Grinderman live before so I guess we could be allowed a certain amount of... uncertainty.

But that's what made it so fucking exciting. That sense of not really knowing what to expect. [Before one song as Grinderman, the adrenaline must have been flowing as Nick swung at his guitar and actually missed it, causing them to have to start it again] That was like the best show I saw all year.

NC: Grinderman?

Both of them back to back.

NC: Yeah, it's funny I remember coming out and starting up something on the piano. And it was some basic Bad Seeds song that I've been playing for, like, a hundred years, 'West Country Girl' and there really was violence in the version of it. It was like BAM! [mimes slamming fists into piano] It really reminded me of this concert I saw with Nina Simone at the Meltdown in Melbourne. When she got on stage she was old... she could barely walk... she'd had a stroke... and could barely get to the piano. [hunches over and shuffles as if going toward invisible piano] And she sat down and just hammered into this set and I sat there riveted because there was a do or die thing going on with her on stage. And I recognized that in that particular show that we did. And I think it affected the Bad Seeds in general in that way. But that said, I can remember there were several members of the Bad Seeds who weren't part of that solo show who were going, "What the fuck is this shit? What the fuck are they doing? What's this terrible version supposed to be?" [mimes a cat scratching] But they came around in the end.

JS: Yeah, they came round in the end. They saw that it wasn't going to go away. And they know that the more negative comments we get the more that we're spurred on usually.

And it seems to me that Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! was a totally different record to what you would have been made if it hadn't been for Grinderman. I love Abattoir Blues and The Lyre Of Orpheus but this was just more... energised.

NC: It was stripped back as well. Before we were doing Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! it was very difficult to come in and do a stripped back song. I would sit down at the piano and everyone would pick up something [mimes percussion shaking] and it was this massive sound and very difficult to get away from. But it's a great sound. It's a great big juggernaut of sound that the Bad Seeds create. But what we wanted to do with Grinderman was something smaller, stripped back with more air and more space in it. And I think that's what the Bad Seeds like about the Grinderman record. And that allowed me when I came back to say, alright, let's just have you and you and you on this song. We don't need all that other stuff. And people were happy to do that. And we hadn't really done that since The Boatman's Call. Something had happened in the Bad Seeds after The Boatman's Call and it was actually very difficult to create any sort of music that wasn't really congested.

Kid Congo Powers said [in UNCUT] that he thought you were doing your best work post Grinderman and that you'd found a new, uplifting sound. I guess that could be a double edged sword for both of you, if your reputations are based partially on this obsessiveness with angst, apocalypse, tar black misanthropy... having a lot of light streaming into the room.

NC: [laughs] I don't know if we have moved away from all that.

JS: Yeah, I was wondering about that.

NC: I think that "apocalyptic" and "misanthropic" are still words that you can apply to Grinderman on some level.

Sure. But with Grinderman it's leavened by a wry sense of humour.

NC: There always was a sense of humour. I think with Grinderman there's a real openness with the actual recording of the album and you can hear us enjoying it. The new Grinderman record is a very serious, very dark record. It's funny for sure but there's a real malign thread running through it.

But do you think that the humour is closer to the surface? Does the fact that it's more tongue in cheek mean you can get away with more on, say, a track such as 'Heathen Child'?

NC: It's not tongue in cheek, 'Heathen Child'.

Well, I guess you could be forgiven for thinking that after watching the video...

NC: Well, yeah, it's funny but tongue in cheek suggests that it's kind of ironic or something like that. Yeah, there are funny moments for sure but irony kind of suggests that you're taking a kind of lofty position and I don't think it's like that. There's certainly a lot of self-deprecation that goes on and there always has been. I mean, I got half way through my career when I suddenly realised that all these songs that I thought were really funny, I realised that no one else thought they were funny. I think there's a sense of humour that I have that people don't share. People don't get it in England I don't think. They didn't get it in America. They got it in Australia in some kind of way, maybe. I think I had to broaden that humour around Abattoir Blues and all that kind of stuff, things became more explicitly funny. I was even writing comic songs like 'Lyre of Orpheus' which were supposed to be funny. But I never feel that irony is a big part of what I do. I think a lot of people hope that I'm being ironic but the truth of it is... a lot of the time I'm not.

JS: There's always been a sense of humour. You couldn't say that O'Malley's Bar, for all its nastiness, isn't fucking funny almost throughout. I guess Murder Ballads is a good example of the humour of the Bad Seeds.

So am I right in saying that Grinderman is completely improvised in the studio?

JS: At the outset, yes. And then we edit heavily and then Nick refashions whatever words he's come up with during the initial improvisations.

NC: We turn them into songs basically. Most of what you hear on that record - and all of the music - is completely improvised.

What about the lyrics?

NC: I improvise lyrics through those initial days... but you know, when I come to actually writing those lyrics up, I try and stick largely to the themes that were coming up at the time. there's a certain charge to take some of that stuff and make some kind of sense out of what's been ad libbed. I take some kind of strange idea and make it into something pleasing. That's the idea anyway.

JS: It's the same idea that's applied to the music really because a lot of it is just thoughts that happen to have an appealing aspect. It has to be turned into a song. It has to be sculpted...

[the sound of a piano playing ragtime blares through the room for a few second. The interviewer rattles a cup against saucer nervously]

What the fuck?

JS: Ha ha ha!

I don't want to be too pretentious but do you feel that this process stripped away of all the artificiality of sitting in your office and writing brings you closer to your id?

NC: Yeah, I don't like being pretentious about it either but yes, I think that's true. There is stuff that comes out that I can't do in the office because there are all these restrictions that you have... that anyone has when they set pen to paper. There are self-imposed rules about what you can do and what you can't do. You try and nudge these boundaries that you put around yourself back a bit. Ad libbing they disappear altogether and you can find yourself going to places that are really woeful and embarrassing when you play the tape back and everyone's listening to it. The thing about Grinderman is that everyone understands... that even though it's shit that you're singing, it's a necessary part of finding something that's good. That's about trust between the members of the band that you can actually do stuff like that because you're making an attempt to make something that's interesting.

When you're listening back to the tapes, essentially this is a painful experience?

NC: Um. Sometimes we're all just sitting there [slumps with head in hands] muttering, "Oh, Jesus... Oh my God..." And then suddenly you see everyone go [sits up straight smiling], "Woah! Check that out!" And there's 30 seconds of something that's just really good and you go, "Grab that and put it on a CD." And then there's another five days of [his head falls back into his hands]... stuff. And at the end of it there are maybe four or five CDs with twenty bits of music on each one. And out of those snippets of music you can make maybe ten or eleven songs.

On the penultimate track, The Palaces Of Montezuma you invoke the relationship of Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen. Did you know that McGraw described his penis as being like two Budweiser cans soldered together...

[both start laughing]

NC: Ah... that is such a good quote...

JS: ...that it's hard to know what to say in response...

NC: Well, actually I'll tell you something else about that song. There's a line about the spinal cord of JFK, wrapped in Marilyn Monroe's negligee and someone told me that JFK had a bad back. And the thing that he used to like to do was to take his women from behind... in the bath... and hold their head under the water... he liked the kind of struggle that went on! Damn!

JS: Isn't that what gave him the bad back?

Well, even if one's being comically sexy, one's still being very sexy. If you'll forgive the repetition of the terrible word, sexy. Grinderman allows you to make more of a sexy record than you could do otherwise.

NC: Yeah, I guess.

JS: I don't know. We could make a Bad Sex record. A Bad Seeds sexy record, I mean. Sure we could.

NC: I think it's a bit unfair to say the Bad Seeds aren't sexy.

I didn't say they're not sexy. Just not priapic. Just not demented with sex.

NC: Women think Grinderman are very sexy, as far as I've been able to tell. My wife, who I would never, ever, say was a typical woman, says that Grinderman is the best thing that I've ever done, essentially. She loves it. She loves it on a real basic level. She just feels it speaks to her.

When Grinderman came out you couldn't help but take it as this very fresh thing. There was the idea that you hadn't really played guitar before, it was a new band - would it end up being a bit like Tin Machine or would it be really awesome, no one knew. There were lots of unknown quantities. What about this time? Presumably you're a more adept guitar player now. Was there a way to revive this freshness?

NC: No. We just relaxed some of the things. On the first record Warren didn't bring his violin in at first and I was just forced by everyone else to just play guitar to stay away from the piano to develop a different sound but I think we've kind of relaxed those things. This time we just did whatever we wanted and if a song sounds a bit like the Bad Seeds and we liked it, then so what? Fuck it. There's hundreds of bands out there that sound like the Bad Seeds, why can't Grinderman?

None of them do it particularly well though.

JS: I remember back in the Birthday Party days there were loads of Birthday Party bands who didn't get it right. They took all the circus elements but had none of the musicianship.

The Butthole Surfers were good.

JS: Is it fair to call them just a Birthday Party copycat band? They sound deeply Texan to me and that's their perspective, which was a drug-crazed, psychedelic, post punk Roky Erickson thing.

I wouldn't call them just a Birthday Party copycat band but they were clearly influenced by them. People talk about the Texan thing but they never talk about the post punk influence. The influence of bands like The Fall, The Birthday Party and, strangely, Bauhaus, was evident in them.

NC: We toured with Bauhaus. We did an entire tour of England with them. We got on alright but it was an nightmare, it really fucking was. It wasn't them so much as their audience who just didn't know what to make of us. I mean we were used to it on some level but to do a whole tour playing to a whole load of people who don't want you to be there... it wears you down.

I heard a rumour - which just sounds mind-boggling - that the Butthole Surfers once asked to be taken off a bill that contained the Birthday Party and the Swans, due to bad behaviour on your part.

NC: Do you mean that show in Hamburg? The Kings Of independence. Well... that was ill-fated that show.

JS: Maybe Gibby [Haynes, lead singer, Butthole Surfers] was being a little over-sensitive?

NC: Why did they ask to be taken off the bill?

Well, I heard it was because you and the Swans were doing too much heroin. The idea that the Butthole Surfers thinking that other bands were doing too much heroin was just a concept that made me laugh.

NC: Well... [drifts off]

JS: It's the same old story. There's either too much or not enough.

NC: We were only experimenting with drugs.

JS: It was a very big, far reaching experiment that took place over a long period of time.