Nick Cave and Mick Harvey discuss their career from the Birthday Party “crossover” of From Her To Eternity onwards...
On the telephone the day before his December 2008 tour begins, Nick Cave seems drily amused by the prospect of a discussion of some of his many works with his longstanding group, The Bad Seeds. As it turns out, however, both he and founder Seed Mick Harvey are expansive with their recollections of the band’s gothic Americana – even if Cave, particularly, is surprised to remember much at all. “When you wake up with a hangover and wonder what you did last night,” he says, “there’s always that sort of feeling around my records…”
FROM HER TO ETERNITY
Their previous band dead, if not yet cold, former Birthday Party members Nick Cave and Mick Harvey return with guitarist Blixa Bargeld and kindred spirit Barry Adamson. Their first album establishes a palette of theatrical arrangements and dark Americana, enduring mainstays of the band’s sound.
Nick Cave: “The Birthday Party very much had its end – I went back to Australia and I think we did a few shows without Mick Harvey, who basically broke up The Birthday Party, in the sense that he made the phone call to say, ‘I don’t think The Birthday Party should go on any longer.’”
Mick Harvey: “It’s attributed to me. It was me who said ‘we should can it, really’ – and initially Nick and Roland [S Howard, Birthday Party guitarist] agreed with me unreservedly. But afterwards, they started to get cold feet and carry it on a bit longer. I kind of blithely charged off into the unknown, I didn’t really care.”
Cave: “I think for maybe a year I just kind of wandered around Melbourne, and then Mick found me and suggested starting another band, and that ended up being the Bad Seeds. The consequence of that was that it became much more of a lyrically driven affair, because I felt that at the beginning of the Bad Seeds that was where my strength was, and it’s taken me longer to get a handle on music.”
Harvey: “There was no template at all, there was no preconception of what kind of album was going to come out at the other end. I think the last [Birthday Party] shows were in April. We mixed [last Birthday Party release] the ‘Mutiny’ EP in August, and we were in there recording by September – there was kind of a crossover.”
Cave: “What happened was we went in to the studio without any kind of idea of what band we were or might be, we just wanted to get together and make a record – we didn’t know how we were going to sound, and that was really exciting. It’s one of my favourite records because of that – you can hear a band attempting to discover something about themselves. When you make a record the wisdom is that you get the bugs out, and then you make the record – well, all the bugs are well and truly in there, and I love it because of that.”
THE FIRST BORN IS DEAD
The band’s obsession with American music leads to a plan to make a blues record. With interesting consequences.
Cave: “The idea of that record was that we were going to make a blues record. We were all – and I know Blixa was – listening to a lot of blues music at that time, but I don’t think any of us knew how to play blues music. I certainly didn’t know. I only played the piano, and I didn’t have a clue how to play blues music on the piano. I wouldn’t have a clue now.”
Harvey: “Some of the songs were half written, on the first couple of albums – we’d go in and work them out in the studio. Some of them were very sketchy: we’d put down a weird bit of something and start working on it. Nick would have lyrics, so often it would push the music in a particular direction, and we’d just start doing it, you know?”
Cave: “What songs are on that record? ‘Tupelo’? I have an idea we recorded some of this in a studio in Soho somewhere, but I could be completely wrong about that. It’s a good idea to talk to Mick Harvey, who was relatively sober. We started off making a blues album which ended up being nothing like a blues album at all.”
Harvey: “It became an exercise in trying to find something elemental in that kind of music and the atmospheres of that kind of music, going really deeply into that side of it, rather than going into the styles of that type of music as a genre.”
Cave: “Lyrically there’s an obvious influence, but you can’t call them blues lyrics either – they’re way too florid and congested, as all my records are.”
KICKING AGAINST THE PRICKS
The Bad Seeds’ urge to keep making records, and Nick Cave’s literary preoccupations force a happy compromise – a covers record. Cash, Dylan – and, yes, the blues – get the Bad Seeds treatment.
Harvey: “Those first couple of albums, Nick is trying to work out what sort of music he wants to make – throwing a few darts at the dartboard and see what sticks. He was listening to a lot of John Lee Hooker – it was about Nick trying to work out what sort of music he wanted to write. Kicking Against The Pricks was probably a continuation of that.”
Cave: “I started to write a novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, and I really threw myself into that, and that took me away – I sort of disappeared into this netherworld of sitting in this room on my own.”
Harvey: “The excuse was that he was writing his book, so he couldn’t write any songs, but in some kind of unconscious way he wanted to study the kinds of things he was interested in musically, picking out songs of different styles, to kind of help him form himself, about what he wanted.”
Cave: “We decided we’d do an LP of cover versions. For me it was a revelation, that record, because it forced me to sing in a different way, which was closer in to the mic, and I sang soft, and I discovered I had something in my voice, a rather sensuous, pleasing sound, which I had no idea existed. I’d always loathed what came out of my mouth, and I found it sexy, in a… fucked up sort of way.”
YOUR FUNERAL… MY TRIAL
A moody and surprisingly melodic effort, this album sets the tone for the occasionally shambolic, but continually widescreen music the Bad Seeds will become renowned for…
Harvey: “It was recorded at [Berlin recording studio] Hansa, which is such a great sounding room. It’s very much a Hansa/Berlin record. I was homeless at the time, I had no fixed abode. I was in Berlin for a month in the summer – maybe that’s when we did it.”
Cave: “This has always been the band’s favourite record – or for a long time it was. We really hit on something there. We found it really beautiful – to me there’s some really delicate, strange abstracted kinds of songs, that I really loved. One of my favourite Bad Seeds songs is ‘Stranger Than Kindness’, which has a kind of unearthly beauty about it, and I think that’s largely because I had nothing to do with writing it. I mean that in the way that it remains mysterious to me, and very beautiful – Anita Lane wrote it, and Blixa wrote the music.”
Harvey: “That was a real way forward for the band – the use of a lot of different elements comes to the fore in that album. Somehow they seem to indicate a way forwards for the group, and I think we continued working off that template for quite some time. It was a touchstone in a way, for what we should do and could do: probably all the way up to Let Love In, and even the Murder Ballads album.”
Cave: “I discovered I was a natural crooner. Shane MacGowan once said to me, around the time we made that record, ‘You’re a crooner,’ and I went, ‘Get fucked – you can fucking talk.’ But in a way, he’s right.”
The Bad Seeds, en masse, pitch up in Berlin. The album spawns the classic Cave compositions “The Mercy Seat” and “Deanna” – both still in the band’s live set. The recording is marked by a certain degree of chaos.
Cave: “By that stage we were hitting on something, but hitting on it a little too hard. That record was so fucked up, the making of it was seriously difficult for everybody. I think you can kind of hear that a lot.”
Harvey: “Hearing it back again, I’d completely agree with that. It’s a complete basket case of a record. We did tracks in Berlin, then it moved through three different studios in London, and on to Australia, different studios in Melbourne. It was a real ramshackle… mess.”
Cave: “‘The Mercy Seat’…I think that was the one song I wrote when I was writing the novel [And The Ass Saw The Angel]– I was writing the novel on this desk, but had a notebook on the side and lyrics kept dropping into that. Every mix we did, we went back and remixed it, to try to get this song we thought was monumental, to work in some kind of way, and that was really difficult.”
Harvey: “At the time Nick had a room in Berlin above someone’s apartment. It was a real stateless city, a haven for disaffected artists from all over. It was a bizarre setting, with the Wall. At pavement level, it was madness.”
Cave: “Why was the recording difficult? Everyone was very fucked up, in a standard kind of way, and a little bit more so. The producer, Tony Cohen, he was in pretty bad condition as well. I remember we lost him for a couple of days.”
Harvey: “We were starting to get worried about him, and thought something terrible must have happened to him as he still hadn’t shown by six the next evening. And eventually he just reappeared: bleary-eyed, hair matted, and said, ‘Ah, I feel fantastic!’ He’d crawled up into the ventilator shaft and gone to sleep for 24 hours. So that was the condition he was working in.”
Cave: “There was a lot of time wasted. It took a week to sing ‘Slowly Goes The Night’, never one of my favourite songs, first of all trying to stand, then trying to sing. And still, it’s woefully out of tune. It could have gone on for ever.”
São Paolo resident Cave is inspired to make a harsh, “violent” acoustic record – but the band is encouraged to use a producer. Famed Neil Young man David Briggs is chosen, but it’s not a happy outcome.
Cave: “The idea for Henry’s Dream for me came from being in Brazil and seeing these guys in the streets playing acoustic guitars that were really fucked up and hammering out these songs on them; a style of street singing that was in your face, but acoustic.”
Harvey: “Nick wanted there to be a lot of harsh acoustic guitar, and a lot of that is still there. But we recorded it in the wrong studio. We recorded it in a rock studio, Sound City in Van Nuys, California – perfectly decent, but not right for the Bad Seeds.”
Cave: “Those great Neil Young records sound like it’s some guys standing there, playing their music, and that’s the fucking end of it – so David Briggs seemed like the right kind of guy. But as it turned out… he was hugely… He… I mean, he was a fucking nightmare, that guy. I mean, [chuckles] he really was. I know he’s dead now and all, but, fuck, man. Each day he took it from being a violent fucked-up acoustic record to being a fucked-up electric record. But fucked-up in the wrong way. I put a lot of energy into the writing of that record, and then for each day to see it drift away… it was a horrible, horrible experience.”
LET LOVE IN
A highly produced, accessible work. Cave ponders life, love and reputation with his tongue sometimes in cheek.
Harvey: “There’s a bit of a feeling that we’d got back on course. We took the things we’d learned from Briggs. He pushed us to do really good takes: we’d normally just back off and go, ‘Oh, it’s good enough…’ That was a learning experience; to push ourselves to get the right takes.”
Cave: “It’s a weird one. There were influences which prevented certain people from standing back and letting the song be – you know, amphetamines. I prefer something a little more natural-sounding, I’ve got to say. It was Tony Cohen at his most obsessive, or monomaniacal, or something.”
Harvey: “We went back to a studio with the right ambience: Townhouse III, which used to be owned by The Who… a converted church.”
Cave: “It’s an album of really powerful songs – we knew we had a good record before we actually recorded them. A comic element comes out in that record – there was a time when people couldn’t work out whether I was being serious or not. That’s very much an Australian thing. That’s what our sense of humour is: no-one really knows whether you’re being funny or not. That record I spent most of my time doing the artwork for the inner sleeve, and a long time doing the oscillator solo – terrible oscillator solo, I might say – on ‘Red Right Hand’.”
THE BOATMAN’S CALL
A very different sort of Bad Seeds album, this pares the band arrangements down to nearly nothing, for a collection of austere, romantic, and occasionally religious songs.
Cave: “That sound was kind of an accident. We were mixing Murder Ballads, which at that time, I didn’t really have the patience to do. So I just went out to an adjacent studio, and started to play these songs, and was just taping to DAT – just as examples of stuff that I’d begun to work on. I took the stuff away, and it was really beautiful.”
Harvey: “It could almost not have been a band album. Because of the Murder Ballads album, there had been a lot of festival dates organised in Europe in the summer of ’96, so everyone was around anyway – everyone was hanging round with not much to do. It probably would have been better if he’d just called in a couple of people and not done it with the Bad Seeds. But the Bad Seeds, to their credit, understood what was happening and abstained from playing much.”
Cave: “I think if I didn’t have those original recordings, people wouldn’t have been able to say, ‘Fuck, it does sound really good,’ and I might have had more trouble trying to convince the band not to play their instruments. There were moments of dissent every now and then: Blixa stomping round going, “WHY AM I HERE?” That kind of thing. But he does beautiful stuff on the record, too.”
Harvey: “Nick was very much on top of it all: maybe it’s because it was such a personal work, he wanted to control what was happening with the music, to keep a control of the path he wanted it to be taking.”
Cave: “It was an important record for us. I guess I had those songs, and they inspired me to write songs along a similar line. That’s always the concern: what is the next record going to sound like? Lyrically, what’s it going to be about, and how is it going to be? So in a way I was given, by accident, the sound of The Boatman’s Call in those little recordings.”
Harvey: “In some ways it’s my least favourite Bad Seeds album. But in others it’s completely a Bad Seeds album, because it demonstrates the band’s awareness of what’s required of them – they don’t want to go stomping through the whole thing with army boots. It’s a totally different mindset.”
ABATTOIR BLUES/LYRE OF ORPHEUS
A double-CD set, rich in both classical allusion and contemporary detail. Contains the word “frappuccino”.
Cave: “When Blixa left… it was shocking to me. I got an email saying, ‘Look, I think it’s over, and I’m leaving.’ A brief email. I rang him back and said, ‘Are you sure about that?’ and he said, ‘I’m sure.’ He was a huge force in the Bad Seeds, no matter what he was doing. With Nocturama, he came in with a pedal-steel guitar, which of all the instruments in all the world is my least favourite. And he said, ‘THIS IS WHAT I WILL PLAY ON THIS RECORD.’ And I said, ‘You must be fucking joking.’ But he wasn’t. And not only was that what he was going to play, he didn’t know how to play it. But that was what Blixa was like, he was always into trying something else. It was a huge loss for him to go, but a new stage is healthy. There was an outpouring of material, and Warren [Ellis, violin] shifted into the fore, in terms of sonic disturbance and general chaos. It was the first really joyful record, a pleasure to make. When I write a record, I think of 13 songs – an album and a B-side – there’s something difficult and painful about it. But with this one, I pushed through that, so when I arrived I had 25 songs, and they were good. We went in knowing that all we had to do was record these songs and we had a really good record.”
Picture: Sam Jones