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Nick Cave finds outside pursuits help Bad Seeds' music grow

The singer and band have an acclaimed new album, 'Push the Sky Away,' informed by experiences including his Grinderman. Both groups play Coachella.

April 09, 2013|By Gina McIntyre, Los Angeles Times
  • Nick Cave performs at the Beacon Theater in New York in March.
Nick Cave performs at the Beacon Theater in New York in March. (Jennifer S. Altman, For…)

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.

FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2013

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."

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