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.”
CAVE HAS ALWAYS acknowledged the influence of his father. Brought up in Wangaratta, Victoria, the young Cave, a troublesome kid, eventually got sent to boarding school. He continued to get into bother, and on the day his dad was killed in a car crash, his mother was bailing him out of prison following his arrest for a minor burglary charge.
In 1989, Cave delivered his first novel, a meandering, hopped-up slice of southern gothic entitled And the Ass Saw the Angel. He followed it, a full 20 years later, with The Death of Bunny Munro, a class of black comedy. His father, a great reader, would surely have been happy to see his son’s words between hard covers.
“He would have liked the idea that I wrote a novel,” Cave says. “I doubt that he would have liked the novels themselves. I wouldn’t say he was a conservative, but he had that intellectual conservatism. There was a distrust of the new. He didn’t mind the fact I was in a band. But when he saw the titles of the stuff he was a little disturbed.”
Does he still think of the old fellow? “I think he’s always there. You never know how much influence those ghosts have. But he’s always there, as a force to ensure that what I am doing I should be doing well. Or else.”
There was a lot of noise about the place in the years after punk. But nobody sounded quite as cacophonous as The Birthday Party. Some critics wrongly associated them with horror rock such as Alice Cooper, but an examination of the unhinged lyrics confirms that something much less frivolous was afoot.
During the course of the conversation, John Hillcoat, the director of Lawless, has joined us in the crypt. Born in Queensland, he agrees that Australia was a culturally conservative place in those days.
Cave continues: “We had a small group of people who went to see us, but the industry at that point in Australia didn’t know whether a band was any good until they went to England. We had to do what everybody did: leave, prove yourself and then come back. Except we never came back.”
Indeed not. Over the succeeding decades, Cave became something of a nomad. He lived for a spell in South America. He recorded in Berlin. He now dwells in genteel Brighton with Susie Bick, his wife of 13 years, and their twin sons. What inspired all that roaming? “Women. Heh, heh,” he says. “Yeah, there was that. There was the idea that I didn’t belong in any of those places. So I went on to the next place. I never had a feeling of belonging. I still feel that way in the UK. I don’t belong here. It feels alien. I still talk about the English as if they’re foreign. Australians never feel more foreign than when they are English.”
Cave fanatics will be happy to hear that the current incarnation of The Bad Seeds still comes to visit. It’s been four years since the release of their last album, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, but the group has definitely not disbanded. “It may appear that the Bad Seeds have taken a back seat, but I am concentrating much more on that now,” he says. “I finished Lawless. And that took a lot of time in its way. So I am just working on Bad Seeds stuff. They haven’t gone away. Anything but.”
We must, I suppose, address the “drink’n’drugs hell” and Cave’s recent accommodation with the straight life. Anybody lucky enough to have seen him perform in the early 1980s, hanging from the lighting bar like an angry monkey, will find it somewhat astonishing that he has made it this far. There was a lot of booze. There was a fair degree of heroin. Yet here he is: a pillar of Sussex life, a harassed dad, the holder of honorary degrees from at least three universities.
Mind you, he does seem just a little restless. I get the sense he slightly misses his sweat-drenched formative years. “You know, I actually wish I was able to extend that life longer,” he says. “Unfortunately, with some embarrassment, I had to acknowledge I couldn’t. In the end, it turned around and bit me on the arse, really, and I had to leave it alone.”
Was the stress psychological or physical? “Both. Very much so. It fast became clear that I couldn’t carry on doing that. It’s only when you are alerted to the problems it’s causing that the sheen rubs off it. But I was always very comfortable in that world. I was enjoying it for a long time. But then it started to manifest in another way. Look, I didn’t want to die of a drug overdose. There are better ways to go.”
NICK CAVE HASbeen lucky. Middle age often sits uneasily on the bright, peppy pop star. But he always came across as old before his time. The narratives of his songs seemed to have been dragged from the remotest corners of an ancient, angry brain. Like Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, all of whom he worships, Cave appealed to the young but never seemed entirely integrated into youth culture. Still, he does admit to a certain unease about advancing maturity.
Cave first worked with Hillcoat as an actor on the director’s Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead in 1989. More recently, he wrote his friend’s brilliant Australian western, The Proposition. What an agreeable life. He records music on a Wednesday. He writes films on a Thursday.
“Creatively, you don’t grow up. You kind of wise up,” he says slightly mournfully. “That’s often unfortunate. There’s something about not knowing your craft that’s exciting. At first, working with John on The Proposition, I loved the notion that I could write anything and it would happen. Now I know how films are made, it’s taken some of the fun out of it.”
Cave turns to acknowledge Hillcoat, who has been listening quietly throughout. “There are way too many people liking your films these days. It was better when nobody liked your films,” he jokes.
Hang on. What about Cave? Wasn’t it more fun when The Birthday Party were producing roughly recorded records that nobody bought? Now his songs feature on every second HBO box set. He’s passed just as far from his outsider roots as Hillcoat has.
“Yeah! Yeah! What about that? What about that?” Hillcoat echoes with a teasing smile.
“F**k you! F**k you both,” Cave bellows.
I think he’s joking.
Lawless is on general release