It doesn't matter how tanned I look. People still say, 'He turned the room sepulchral'
From postpunk cacophony and misbehaviour in Australia to top-notch films and middle-aged fatherhood in Brighton, Nick Cave might appear to have swapped the outside for the establishment. He is still shirty enough not to agree
THE UNTOUCHABLE Nick Cave emerges from a corridor and blinks angrily at the impertinent sun. Now a stringy 54, he comes across like a combination of suave hit man and offbeat merchant banker: the cuffs are crisp and the trousers are immaculately pressed.
But a touch of Antipodean swamp monster still hangs around the musician and writer. Unhappy with the glare, he grabs a curtain, drags it halfway across the picture window and sits himself in the resulting dark corner. The rest of the room is bathed in light while Cave lurks in sepulchral gloom.
“Oh ‘sepulchral’?” he growls. “I like that. Good word.” He looks well, though. It’s hard to tell in this lighting, but the features seem pretty sharp. He remains enviably thin. Not bad for a man who spent decades dabbling in heroin. “Thank you. Thank you,” he says. “But apparently I look sepulchral. It doesn’t matter how fit and tanned I look. People still say, ‘He walked into the room and turned it sepulchral. He drew the curtain.’ ”
Raised in small-town Australia, Cave has been performing since the late 1970s. He first attracted attention as frontman of an extraordinary, near-Dadaist postpunk group named The Birthday Party. Making a noise that, in the best possible way, suggested a mass electrocution at a lunatic asylum, the band inspired a cult when the word cult meant something. Subsequent albums with his band The Bad Seeds, such as The Firstborn Is Dead, Let Love In and The Boatman’s Call, broke new ground in melodic gloom and won him something a little like mainstream acceptance.
Now he has become a grown-up screenwriter. His latest collaboration with the director John Hillcoat, a Prohibition-era drama entitled Lawless, played at this year’s Cannes film festival and opens here this weekend. Is he in danger of becoming respectable? They must regard him as a national treasure in Australia. He is, perhaps, the malign Rolf Harris.
“No, I don’t think they do. I think there is still a certain distrust of me. But I might be just paranoid. Stuff I do sometimes attracts too much attention and the Aussies don’t like their expats to do that. They don’t like them to show off. ‘Pull your f**king heads in and shut up! Stop embarrassing us!’ That’s the message.”
Lawless stars Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as two members of a real-life bootlegging dynasty from small-town Virginia. Invigoratingly violent and strongly acted, the film treads in territory familiar to Cave aficionados. Ever since breaking away from The Birthday Party, in 1983, he has exercised a weird, inexhaustible enthusiasm for the macabre phantasmagoria of rural American life. Though raised as the middle-class son of an English teacher, he wrote of delta hookers, rundown shacks and murderous frontier-dwellers.
“It’s something I got from growing up in Australia. I was growing up in a country that had no real culture of its own,” he says. “I grew up in the backwoods, but I just watched American stuff on TV: Johnny Cash, afternoon shows. That just led on to blues music and reading people such as Flannery O’Connor. When I go to the US they say: ‘Why do you keep coming back to our culture?’ I keep thinking, Oh yes it’s yours, of course. I forgot.”