Nick Cave has torn up the Nick Cave rule book and started afresh with the Bad Seeds’ new album Push the Sky Away. “We wanted to do something radical, and it’s about us shaking stuff up,” he tells SINEAD GLEESON
In a Paris hotel, Nick Cave is trying to order a sandwich. From an interconnecting room, he asks for ham and mustard. “Is that jambon – is that what you call it? What’s French for mustard?”
It’s already been a long day of interviews and matters are not helped by the fact that 16 hours earlier, Cave was jumping around a stage like a man 20 years younger. When he’s done with today’s press stint, he flies to Berlin for another launch tour show to promote the Bad Seeds 15th studio album.
Push The Sky Away is also the band’s first record without Mute, their label of three decades.
Cave, angular and wearing an immaculate pinstripe suit, stretches his legs. “Weirdly enough, people haven’t been asking about that. Mute were, and are, an amazing record company, but we wanted to do something radical, and it’s about us shaking stuff up. I feel a duty towards the Bad Seeds that goes beyond personnel or record companies. There is this collective thing that is important. It matters.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds might sound like a singer and his backing band, but there is palpable intuition about the way the group plays together. The line-up has changed little in recent years, but in Paris, former member Barry Adamson stood in for drummer Thomas Wydler, who is ill. Blixa Bargeld exited the group 10 years ago, followed by Mick Harvey in 2009. Neither were fractious departures (“People in the band know I don’t kick members out”), and Cave admits that longrunning associations come with their own sense of finiteness.
“It was very different, with Mick not being on this album. We had a long and fruitful collaboration, but it stopped working in the same way, as all collaborations do. With any member leaving the band, it provides an opportunity to do something different, and it’s doing something different that keeps the band alive.”
In terms of collaborators, Cave also namechecks Anita Lane, crediting her with “opening my eyes to the potential in me for a certain type of lyric writing”. His work with violinist Warren Ellis has extended to scores on Cave’s films Lawless and The Proposition, as well as The Road and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
“With Warren, it’s particularly different because I actually sit down, in the same room with him, and write songs – which I’d never done with Mick or Blixa. Musically, this record feels co-written – we don’t even know who wrote what bits. It’s the same with the film work. Whenever we say yes to anything, the first thing we ask ourselves is whether it’s good for us, in terms of keeping our relationship alive – because it’s so valuable to us.”
The two speak every day, as Ellis lives in Paris, but has a flat in Brighton, where Cave lives with his wife and twin sons. It’s interesting to hear him say that he thinks of himself as someone who works with others. Some have said that Push the Sky Away feels closer to a Nick Cave solo record than to some of the band’s more recent work. One reason is the offshoot group, Grinderman, a contingent plethora of noise and blues-rock. It’s a separate entity, albeit one with some crossover Bad Seeds members, but its sound certainly seeped on to Dig Lazarus, Dig!!!, which Cave believes to be a good thing.
“It got to a point with The Lyre of Orpheus [in 2004], where there were agendas and the need for everyone to play all the time. We couldn’t start a song without someone picking up a fucking maraca, or start playing piano. Grinderman definitely caused chaos, and a certain amount of confusion, within the band. The Bad Seeds were in pretty good shape, but that’s often a dangerous place to be.”
Push the Sky Away is no follow-up. If anything, it’s the antithesis: brooding, full of space and reflective. On several tracks, and for the launch gigs, a children’s choir were drafted in. During the Paris gig, Cave admits to being really moved by their voices. “They’re just a little community choir, but they’re such great kids, really sweet. They’d come up to me and go ‘I really love that Eternity song!’ At a warm-up show we did in Brighton, their eyes were bulging out of their heads about what was going on with the volume.”
The songs’ stripped-down nature allows Cave’s voice – deeper with age – and his magpie thoughts to stand out. Much has been made of the lyrics and his brushes with Wikipedia, which Cave dismisses as “press-release speak”. Love, lust and the world of underbelly are still here, but so are references to online life, mermaids and, unpredictably, Miley Cyrus, even though he didn’t set out to write about specific themes.
“I don’t write songs like that. For me, songs largely discover themselves . . . often I’m a verse in before I know what’s happening in a song. But I like Wikipedia because there’s something melancholic about it. It’s about memory, and memory is melancholic, which is good for people like me, who don’t really have a memory (laughs). I like it because, like our memories, it’s unreliable and manufactured. My own Wikipedia page doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I’m someone who’s still around. What about someone from 500 years ago? It’s a massive, outrageous, edgy kind of unreliable memory, but I like finding random things. I’m a Wikipediphile”.
I refer to a song on the album and Cave wonders if I like the record. Later he’s curious as to whether I enjoyed last night’s gig. The lack of swagger is intriguing, although it’s clear he’s not angling for affirmation. Does he care about reviews?
“I read a couple, and sicken myself. With the internet, it’s a deep well you can go down. I look at the number of stars though.”
The anti-Antipodean (although he looks tanned and healthy today) has lived a peripatetic life, dominated by geographical Bs: Berlin, Brazil and now Brighton. There is a sense of place on the album, but Cave dismisses the notion of Brighton as a seaside town beset by “that rotten grandeur thing”.
“Way more than any other record, this album feels very connected to the town, but it’s a Brighton of the imagination. In the real world, I live in Kemptown, which is the gay part of Brighton. Across the road from my house on one side is Duke’s Mound, and on the other is the naturist beach, which is fine, but of course it’s a mainly guy kinda thing. You don’t want to go there (laughs).”
February and March are taken up with gigs in Australia, Canada and North and South America, most of which are sold out. There are sporadic tour dates in place for the rest of the year, but Cave hopes to find time to make a film version of his novel The Death of Bunny Munro, with director John Hillcoat. There is also another novel planned. “I pitched it to my publisher in Australia, who said I should shut up and just writing the fucking thing.”
Touring, albums, novels . . . could he imagine himself retiring? “I know if I did I wouldn’t curl up and die – but I wouldn’t know why I’d stop. There’s still so much to do.”
Push the Sky Away is out now