Don't Ask Nick Cave About His Reputation as a "Dirty Old Man"
Nick Cave is sitting in front of a camera somewhere in Germany, looking in character, which is to say, terrifying. He's got on a black suit and a thinly-pinstriped blue shirt; his fingers are loaded down with heavy gold rings, and a pair of aviator shades hang jauntily from his collar. His video press conference with a passel of American alt-weekly journalists hasn't yet begun, but he already seems exhausted and pissed-off. He takes a swig of something, probably coffee, from a handleless white mug.
Photo by Bleddyn Butcher; Image via Nasty Little Man
"Are we live?" he asks, and belches impressively. "Excuse me."
In a few minutes, the interview begins, and Cave does his level best to answer questions about his new album, Live From KCRW, which will be released on November 29. He's also trying, not very hard and not very successfully, to disguise his boredom and seething disgust with the whole process. If you told him he could continue sitting here, being interviewed, or get up and have bamboo shoved into his nail beds instead, nobody's smart money would be on the reporters.
Torture's not an option, so Cave stays where he is and takes a question about what he'll do for his next American tour, which is set for this summer.
"Um," he says, sweeping a gold-ringed hand across his still-jet-black widow's peak. "I dunno what we're gonna do. It's a long time away. It's 8 months till we go back to the States." On the current European tour, he adds, "the sets seem to change day by day... I have absolutely no idea what the concerts will be like in 8 months time."
He's a bit more voluble on whether he still enjoys playing his older songs: " It depends--there are some songs that just seem to be infinitely playable. They always kind of reveal something new. And some songs just don't have that capacity. They sound fine on record and you take them out, you play them live and you feel them dying after a few plays."
At that, he stops dead and glares at someone just off-camera.
"Shall we sort out what you're doing before we carry on, sir?" he says icily. "Because it's all a bit distracting." He twirls a pen between his finger and glowers until he's satisfied that the distraction, whatever it is, has ceased. (Nick Cave would be a devastatingly effective high school teacher.)
He does have convincingly enthusiastic things to say about his own live album, while simultaneously shredding live albums in general.
"It wasn't a performance, as such," he explains. "There was a live audience there, but it felt very much that we could kind of lose ourselves in the songs in a way. And what came out of it was something that was very beautiful. It was a very special time. I don't like a lot of live records. I don't think you ever--they're kind of boring, because you're not really experiencing what you do when you go and see a live thing...But this particular record really captured the quiet energy of this performance. To me it was so beautiful, really, that we felt that we should put it out."
And truly, Live From KCRW is lovely, but not in any of the usual ways we talk about live albums (which, Cave is right, can be pretty boring). This one doesn't sound "stripped down," or "unadorned," or any of the usual qualifiers, and it doesn't feel especially "intimate," another favorite phrase; this is not music you cozy up to. But it does feel warm and close; "The Mercy Seat," which often sounds like a towering wall of righteous noise onstage and in studio performances, is slightly more langorous and golden here, stretched out just enough that each phrase and each instrument are distinct, pinpricks of light rather than a blinding glare. "Mermaids," which features both the phrase "I was the match that would fire up her snatch" and a lovely, spooky choral backing, sounds especially unearthly, shimmering and sinuous.
Cave also talks about the change in his voice, which, he says, has become deeper and "more versatile."
"You know," he confides, with something approaching a smile, "sometimes I actually hear myself onstage and it sounds almost enjoyable to listen to, rather than filling me with absolute horror, as it has for most of my career."
As we wade deeper into the questions, lurching from subject to subject, Cave becomes visibly depressed. Each new query seems to fill him with fresh disdain: a comment that Push the Sky Away was "more beautiful and atmospheric" than previous Bad Seeds records elicits this: "I don't know what you expect from a Bad Seeds album. They all sound quite different." And he's incredulous at a question about an apparent old rock-n-roll truism I've never heard, one that says if you take 20 minutes to write a song, you've taken too long.
"Leonard Cohen never said that," he replies, dryly. He's asked if a song ever "pours" out of him; the answer is a firm no.
"They never pour out of me," he says. "Each song is a difficult and painful birthing experience. Not that I really know what the birthing experience is like. I assume it's painful. And you know, I dunno. I hear there are these people that are just given songs. But I'm not sure that's true. Most songs that are worthwhile, there's a lot of work behind those songs."
A moment later, he stops again. "Can you hear that, sound man? That's my stomach rumbling. It's gone now." He smiles wanly. "You can edit that bit."