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Improvisations with Nick Cave

The multihyphenate performer talks prose, faith and his latest group, Grinderman.

November 29, 2010|John Payne

Quite unlike the surly badboy who glares out from his album covers, singer-songwriter-actor-screenwriter-novelist Nick Cave seems a cheery sort and full of enough creative drive to power a hydroelectric plant.

Cave first came under the spotlight as a hell-bent, demonic cyclone lead singer with the post-punk group the Birthday Party, whose loose-limbed, blues-branded evil rock took Cave from Australia to England in the early '80s; upon the band's demise, Cave, further impelled by cryptic obsessions with Jesus and Elvis Presley, formed his ongoing Bad Seeds, with whom he's collaborated on 14 studio albums over the last quarter-century, including "Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!," named best album of 2008 by Mojo magazine.

Along the way, the tall, skinny Cave has acted (Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" and "Until the End of the World," among others), composed film scores ("To Have and to Hold"), and published his poetry ("King Ink," volumes 1 and 2) and two novels (his 1989 Southern gothic epic "And the Ass Saw the Angel" and last year's "The Death of Bunny Munro"); he wrote the screenplay for the Australian western "The Proposition" (2006) and is a writer on the upcoming remake of "The Crow."

With bandmate Warren Ellis, Cave composed the soundtrack for the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." That's Cave singing his "O Children" in a scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 1." Over the years, Cave's compositions have been covered by, among others, Johnny Cash, Marianne Faithfull, Metallica, My Morning Jacket and, most recently, Josh Groban.

The band Grinderman sits atop Cave's heaping workload. Also in the band are core Bad Seeds violinist Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos; the fierce, feral musical collective recently released "Grinderman 2" (Anti-), which follows the band's eponymous 2007 album with a wild mess of raucous garage rock whose artfully explosive air is, according to Cave, the product of an exacting methodology. The band plays a sold-out show at the Music Box in Hollywood on Tuesday night.

"Basically, the Grinderman stuff is improvised," he says. "We go into the studio with nothing, just the four of us, and we play about five days, and we record everything. But later on, we go through it and take out little bits within this morass of stuff we've been playing, things that are interesting on some level or that sound decent. And we cut those bits out and put 'em on CD, and then Warren and I take them away and work on them."

The stomping blues of "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" and "Worm Tamer" or the elegiac yet hellacious "When My Baby Comes" combine a lyrical beauty and a coiled-snake tension; you get Motown-beat chamber rock with your choirboy harmonies on "Palaces of Montezuma."

The sexy gutter blues of "Kitchenette" find Cave sleazily crooning, "I want you to be my friend." Like Lou Reed, Cave is among the few singers who can improvise lyrics that hold up under scrutiny; his Grinderman words are ad-libbed in the studio, an element in the composition process that's key to the band's sound.

'Primal level'

"It feels like something comes together on a far more primal level than if we'd sat down and wrote songs on our own," says Cave. "Improvised lyrics take you places that you can't normally go to, sitting cold with it, with a pad in your hand. You go to places which you normally wouldn't go -- and maybe aren't advisable to go."

The album derives enormous range from the multi-instrumental skills of ex-Dirty Three man Ellis, whose mandolins, violins, tenor guitar and several other un-rocklike stringed instruments are put through numerous electronic effects and often looped, which gives the record a pervasive organic texture. To augment Cave and Ellis' caterwauling lead guitars and Casio synths on swamp-screecher "Heathen Child" (or the downloadable alternate version called "Super Heathen Child"), Cave drafted King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp for an amazingly evil extended solo.

"I was in the studio with Fripp laying down an overdub, and he says, 'What is that sound that's being played?' I said, 'Well, I don't know. I'll ring up Warren in Paris and find out.' I said, 'I've got Robert Fripp here, he wants to know what you're playing on that.' Warren said, 'I don't know.'" He laughs.

Sonic surprises

"Grinderman 2's" landmine-loaded sonic surprises include the intuitively scattershot drumming of Sclavunos, who plays both outside and on top of the beat to further crack the "rock" form open wide.

"To play that old four-four stuff would just turn us into a 'rock band,'" Cave stresses with a ferocious implied yawn. "One of the reasons we're approaching the music the way we do is to stop that from happening, to get out of the tyranny of the backbeat and screamed vocals and all of that sort of stuff, and create something that's genuinely threatening and powerful but at the same time atmospheric.

"That," he says with a cackle, "is the master plan."

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