Nick Cave used to say he was born with a dead twin, or that he was born with a tail. People, of course believed him. Elvis, who really was born with a dead twin, was supposedly haunted his whole life by his missing half. Cave embraced this fragment of his idol's psychology as his own dark side, as inspiration for an album, The Firstborn is Dead, and his William Faulkneresque novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, and as a tidbit to throw to interviewers.
Well, if Cave is haunted by anything today, it's having to face the past 14 years of his band, the Bad Seeds for their first "Best of" album, aptly titled The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. That, and the distracting echo only he can hear plaguing my phone call to him in London. Of course Cave is Australian, but after years of living abroad, his accent is only strong on weighted words like "fear," which he dropped in regards to both his past and to upcoming ventures.
"I suffer from ... 'EROTOGRAPHMANIA,' which is an obsessive disposition toward writing love letters." Nick Cave
Nick Cave afraid of anything? Ha! This ferocious, gifted singer, equal parts Elvis, Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, quaking in his cowboy boots? Well, a gentler side of Cave has been emerging for sometime, for those willing to let go of their vision of Cave as the ultimate Batcave badboy.
True, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, like Cave's previous band, The Birthday Party, have long explored a certain swampy, hellish territory of murderers, saints, carnies, drunkards, and thieves. Their songs, with the church organs, gospel choirs, and relentless rhythms drawn from trains and chain-gangs (and miscellaneous noise from former Einsturzende Neubauten member Blixa Bargeld) made it seem like a revival meeting with Nick a haggard circuit rider preaching of hellfire and miracles, and occasionally, love. For my money, Nick's the only living white Gospel or blues singer, with power, occasional fury, and, surprisingly, sweetness. Last year's The Boatman's Call caught a lot of longtime fans by surprise. Gone were the trademark organ and thunderous arrangements, gone was the howling, snarling ferocity. Instead the aching tenderness of "Into My Arms" stripped of any accompaniment but a piano and Nick invoking angels from the heavens, without a hint of snideness.
There was no tour to support the quiet, melancholy Boatman's Call, which was rumored to have been inspired by Nick's breakup with PJ Harvey, particularly evident on the song "West Country Girl." I couldn't bring myself to ask Nick about it, however, even when the subject of love songs and love letters came up. At any rate, Cave and his Bad Seeds will be touring the U.S. for the time in four years.
The Rocket: So, it was Mick Harvey (the only other original band member besides Cave and Bargeld) who made up the list of songs for The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Cave: It was his list, but I felt very strongly about the list that he chose anyway. I thought that they were pretty much the right songs. He's just more reliable and practical about things. I just felt that he chose the songs that I would have chosen anyway. There were a couple of songs that I put on, like "Straight to You." In the end, we had to remove ourselves personally from it, just look at what songs were significant to our career, kind of the strongest milestones.
Rocket: Did you actually listen to your old albums again or do you know them all so well that you didn't need to?
Cave: No, no, I didn't know them at all. That was part of the (big sigh) ... why the whole thing became quite a fearful thing and one that I approached with a certain amount of trepidation. I never ever listen to my own material. As soon as I make a record I put it aside and move on to the next one. I've always been quite fearful of my artistic past. I think the record's really very good. I'm really kind of happy with what's on the record and the way my past, or my career, is represented.
Rocket: Tell me about your writing an intro to the Book of Mark.
Cave: There's a publishing company who's publishing twelve books of the Bible. Separately, so you can buy the Book of Job, or Ecclesiastes, or whatever. And it's a separate book unto itself, which is the way they were originally written. And I don't think it's ever been done before. I requested the Book of Mark, which is the favorite of my gospels.
Rocket: When is it going to become available? Is it a British press?
Cave: Scottish actually, Canongate. It will be out in October. Because of the nature of the thing, it's a reasonably high-profile kind of literary event over here. I don't know if the Bible's been treated in such a way before. It's a very obvious thing to do. I've never been able to find the books separately before. I was very pleased to write this introduction. It gave me an opportunity to write about something that really interests me and have the license to do that. It was quite a difficult thing to write because I had to sort of know what I was talking about. I'm very, very familiar with the Bible and very committed to as well, so it was a real pleasure doing that. I could write the other ones as well.
Such as the book of Job?
Cave: I would have loved to write the intro to Job.
Rocket: Did you go to church as a child?
Cave: I did, yeah. I went about twice a week for four years when I was in the cathedral choir in Australia. I would attend church twice a week to sing, sometimes three times. I became quite acquainted with the Bible there. I did that up to about 12 years old, then I stopped going to church altogether. And in my 20s I reacquainted myself with the whole thing. With the Bible, not the church.
Rocket: Two very different things.
Cave: Extremely different.
Rocket: You have a son named Luke. Was he named for the other Gospel or did you just like the name?
Cave: Well, he wasn't named after Luke Skywalker. I just liked the name Luke, it's a good name.
Rocket: Is it true that you're going to be teaching songwriting in Vienna?
Cave: Yeah, that's true as well. After I finish the American stint, I go straight to Vienna where I'll lecture and teach ... somewhere. I'm doing a course on the love song.
Rocket: What would someone have to do to take this class?
Cave: You have to write a letter of application which gets weeded out by the poetry academy itself down to about thirty applicants, which I then look at and choose, I think, fifteen. Put a little class together.
Rocket: Is this the first time you're going to be teaching?
Rocket: Are you looking forward to it?
Cave: I'm looking forward to a lot of ... fear. I find it a lot easier to perform in front of large crowds. The smaller, the more intimate they get, the more risky they become in a lot of ways. To actually go into the class and teach [is] quite a harrowing thing, but I think a rewarding thing as well.
How has your songwriting has changed over the years?
Cave: I think it's become simpler; it's become more direct. It's very much still banging on about the same things. I think what's become clear to me, and particularly though the "Best of" record what I have actually been doing all these years, my artistic quest, has been the pursuit of the love song, an attempt to write the best love song I can. That's what I've been on about all the time.
Rocket: Do some of these songs start out as love letters?
Cave: I suffer from, I found a great word the other day, "erotographmania," which is an obsessive disposition towards writing love letters. As soon as I fall in love, I get cracking. I just write a lot. I find the love letter itself to be a kind of particularly intimate and beautiful form of writing, which I enjoy doing.
Rocket: Do you have plans for another album after this?
Cave: I am writing songs. I guess I'll probably do another album next year sometime.
Rocket: Will it be as spare as The Boatman's Call?
Cave: Probably not, but I'm not really sure what it's going to be like. I'll probably do something that's more musical, particularly after putting the best of record together. The last one was very, very lyrically oriented. I think the Bad Seeds are a great band and can be used in all sorts of ways.
Rocket: I tend to think as "From Her to Eternity" as your signature song. Would you agree?
Cave: Not particularly. It's a song I like a lot.
Rocket: Do you like doing the older songs?
Cave: I love doing that song. It's one of my favorites. It has its own life. It's always different, whenever we play it we're free to do whatever we like. For that reason it stays alive.
Rocket: What are your other favorite songs to perform?
Cave: Well, I'm generally not performing anything I don't like.