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Archive interview: “Crisis, what midlife crisis?” – a lost evening with Nick Cave and Grinderman

The Bad Seeds spinoff have been tagged misogynistic, miserable, boozey and on the verge of a very noisy mid-life-crisis. In truth, the Bad Seeds side project couldn’t be happier or with more depth

Originally published in Loud And Quiet issue 22 (vol. 3), writer Edgar Smith spent an evening with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds spinoff Grinderman before and after their final show of a run at London’s Coronet Theatre, on 2 October 2010. The band would split up the following year, having released two album, and return to Bad Seeds business, and we’d spend from then until now trying to interview Cave again. If it never happens, at least with have this unique encounter. Access like this doesn’t happen often, especially with Cave.

Ostentatious flatscreen, monstrous sofa, blonde wood everything, condiment-filled fridge, acoustic guitar on a stand in the corner and, placed beside it, a small oriental bowl filled with plectrums: cartoon fire on one side, Eric Clapton written on the other. It’s the West London flat of a fifty-something Australian guy, dropped into every few evenings by him and someone who never gets called back. It belongs to my friend’s recently separated dad, of course, but you’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing a Grinderman-owned timeshare if you’d read their press. They were cast almost without exception as a supergroup of fuck-hungry lotharios the first time round, ‘Band of alt. stars hit midlife crisis’ making for a good tag that wasn’t altogether implausible (anyone who saw ‘Peter Hook plays the songs of Joy Division’ this summer will have a sense of how long, drunk and painful the hour between 2 and 3am must be for certain musicians). For Grinderman, it doesn’t wash. With the arrival of their second LP, writers have tweaked this and now Grinderman ‘are’ four happily married men, worth talking to thanks to four florid back-stories and two awesome records rather than any imminent meltdown. The current round of interviews tend towards a more rounded impression of the project but it’s rare to find one that elicits more than comfortable thoughts from its members, window-dressed with snappy repartees. Not that we’re making any promises.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave stand outside the stage door of the Coronet Theatre in Elephant and Castle, where tonight they finish a three night run. So, what of being symbols for over-the-hill sexual frustration and psychological collapse?

Cave repeats the gist of a previous conversation to Ellis: “Well, he was talking to me about the fact that we have this reputation for being bourbon-guzzling maniacs sitting in the studio…”

Ellis: “Oh really? I don’t know where that would come from…”

Cave: “…and this doesn’t correlate with the fact that there’s a lot of subtlety in the music, is that alright?”

Ellis: “I think that’s just sloppy journalism, people who’ve created that idea like we’re having a midlife crisis or something, people are lazy when they say that.”

“Crisis, what crisis?” laughs Cave. “That image is imposed upon us, that’s not anything to do with us. We’re trying to make original and interesting music, anything else is beyond our control.”

Earlier, in their dressing room on the top floor of the Coronet’s backstage labyrinth, and with half the band yet to arrive, I skipped through another imposed image with Cave while bassist Martyn Casey read a paper. One of Wire magazine’s verbose ambassadors for good taste gave ‘Grinderman 2’ a hammering in its September issue. The record was rubbish, she said, while flagging-up Cave for misogyny.

“Yeah, I guess Wire don’t really like their musicians to have any fun,” he says. “If you look like you’re having a good time you’re bound to get a bad review. It was exactly the same process [as the first album]: five days in the studio, improvising, ad-libbing lyrics and finding what came out. If what comes out is misogynistic, then I’m sorry about that but personally I don’t see that. I think I confront these aspects of ‘Male-ness’ – I don’t see anybody else out there really doing that – and of course, if you even step a toe into that arena, there’s gonna be women who leap on you for disturbing the waters.”

Jim Scalvunos (drums) and Warren Ellis (a whole load of shit) have appeared. Has anyone in the band read the review?

Cave: “No I haven’t”

Ellis: “I have. Oh it was great.”

Scalvunos: “Heuhuhuh, we need more reviews like that.”

Ellis: “I thought it was great and what was even better was the responses. There was one guy that was like, ‘I’m gonna buy it now, I really like bad Doors covers bands’. Another guy said, ‘Oh, I wasn’t really convinced by this project but now I’m gonna buy it’, so we made an extra two sales out of it.”

The charge of being musically vapid and gratuitously sexist is a strange one and not only because it’s 2010 and everyone knows the difference between author and persona. The thrust of the criticism was to say that while the first LP might’ve been enjoyably flippant, this one is a step too far. If anything, the second is less provocative than the first. There are fewer of what Cave calls “in your face and borderline psychotic” lyrics and its dick-swinging rawk sound is counterbalanced throughout with quiet, reflective passages and patient build-ups that have lead to Bad Seeds comparisons. It manages to be less of a ‘statement’ than the debut and more a piece of music that can be appreciated for itself rather than its context. That’s not to say that it’s radically different from ‘No Pussy Blues’ and friends. “Aspects of male-ness” are still fundamental and they’re still delivered with thumping garage rock that at least appears to revel in abandonment. Going by the cover art, the castration-fearing monkey has grown into a more sexually-assured prowling wolf, but the landscape we’re in is just as freaked-out and alienated by sex, desire, and death.

The sense of strung-out paranoia is most piercing in ‘Kitchenette’. Its lyrics are the most clearly written-on-the-fly and later, with a packed-out venue hanging on every word, it works particularly well. Like a vaudevillian post-punk Huie Rogers, Cave quasi-sermonises about hearing footsteps on the stairs while trying to get it on. ‘Evil’ too is a different song live, inhabiting fully the ear-bleaching space it aims at on record. This heaviness in Grinderman’s repertoire is responsible for both the polarised reviews and the number of younger people showing up at their gigs. Big guitar sounds in pop music also inevitably function as flailing sonic penis symbols and people are always describing Grinderman with lame phrases like ‘balls-out’ and ‘dick-swinging rawk’.

The Wednesday after the Coronet show I saw brilliant, dumb-ass grungers Mudhoney in Camden. Similarly the recipients of endless phallic descriptors, they provided a handy comparison to Grinderman’s noisy elements. Highlighted by their absence in Mudhoney’s set were the dimensions of sadness and humour that are present even as Grinderman pummel you with feedback; sitting iceberg-like beneath what’s immediately apparent. There’s also sense in that the album feels simultaneously new and old. Their sound might be grounded in the proto-punk of New York Dolls and earlier classic rock, blues and garage but ‘Palaces of Montezuma’ is a confluence of Bob Dylan and Primal Scream that works upon the same lyrical premise as The Magnetic Fields’ ‘Crazy for You, But Not that Crazy’.

The flourishes that start lead single ‘Heathen Child’ wouldn’t have been out-of-place on The Horrors’ ‘Primary Colours’. Where’s all this complexity come from?

“One trait shared by all the individuals in Grinderman is restless creativity,” explains Scalvunos. “We are constantly looking to do things differently, move on from what we’ve accomplished, question what’s assumed, try something new even if it invites failure. We wear the shame of our more regrettable musical experiments like badges of honour – ’10 minute flute solo? 70s electronic synth drums? Thought you’d never ask!’. Not that we feel any need to try things simply for the sake of novelty. It’s at the precipitous edge of the farthest boundaries of taste that one sometimes finds the most adventurous ideas. There’s a collective imperative to evolve at any cost, but by the same token we certainly know who we are. I think the combination of restlessness, intelligent curiosity, ornery stubbornness and damn-the-torpedoes recklessness is how we manage to create new sounds that have a tangible and credible link to the past. It somehow all balances out.”

Scalvunos has a particularly interesting and amorphous frame of reference. He edited ‘No’ magazine, played in Gynaecologists, Teenage Jesus (‘I’ll tell you something, he [James Chance] was an awful roommate, one of the worst roommates I’ve ever had’) and Sonic Youth before Bad Seeds and Grinderman. He continues to produce new bands; recently working with The Horrors and doing a pre-production session with Londoners S.C.U.M.

“My ears are always open for something new,” he says, “and I’m far from oblivious to this ever-changing landscape filled with fresh faced bands; but my personal interest in all that is wholly from a production viewpoint. Basically, there’s not enough time in the day to go endlessly rummaging through the proliferation of new bands on the Internet, especially if you’re an artist and you’re excited and determined to go about making your own music. Although we are a relatively new band, Grinderman are far more likely to draw on the past rather than delve into any up-and-comings. We’re already familiar with a vast breadth of music that inspires us and we’re constantly discovering fascinating new facets of artists we already know and love, so when we put on an album like ‘Bitches Brew’, it’s not a music history lesson – it’s music we grew up with. It’s like an old friend: alive, vivid and vital.”

“Jim is deeply mired in modern music,” confirms Cave. “Me and Warren probably listen to a little less. Oh at home? I might listen to Spiritualized maybe? Or Neil Young, or Miles Davies. Let’s finish it in a bit, you’re not going to hear anything.”

He smacks the strings of his guitar. I should’ve mentioned that we’re now on the stage of an empty Coronet and the band are due to soundcheck. In recent press shots, they all look like puppeteers, suited Lynchian spectres for whom music and audience are twin marionettes. In the flesh they’re a lot more personable; Cave surprises by wearing a light puffer jacket-type-thing and Ellis looks like he’s hiding in a Berlin attic circa. 1943.

Later, the frontman reverts to the expected suit and his guitarist changes into a shirt that’s more seventies coke-fiend. The overwhelming vibe I get from all of them is that of a funny uncle you remember throwing you around the room when you were small; affectionately mocking, quick, unwilling to put up with any bullshit and quite weird.

After a perfunctory run-through of ‘Worm Tamer’ and ‘Heathen Child’, Ellis and Scalvunos wrangle with the soundman about whether or not the drums sound ‘flat’. There’s a faintly tetchy edge to a couple of the comments. Do they manage to keep friendly with each other?

“Yes,” Casey explains back in the dressing room. “It would be impossible [if we weren’t friends], I don’t think any of us would do it, it’s part of playing the music.”

Do you go out together?

Casey and Cave both laugh. The latter has taken his shirt off to be examined by a doctor.

Casey: “We go out and have a meal together and stuff like that. It’s all part of the story.”

“Yeah, we read the newspaper together, we share each other’s cigarettes,” Cave deadpans.

Casey: “Perhaps one aspect of this group of musicians is that we all live in different cities and we’ve all got different side-projects and we get together and we find it stimulating.”

Doctor: “It doesn’t sound too bad.”

Cave: “No, it’s not that bad.”

Doctor: “It could just be an infection.”

“When we played in France they gave me an injection and it’s amazing,” says Cave. “The effect on my voice. I had a really fun night.”

The doctor laughs.

Later we’re by the stage door again, while the band wait for their cars.

“Steroids have arrived!” cries Cave. “What am I going to do, take all these at once?”

He reads the side effects as detailed on the box.

Ellis: “JFK was hooked on those man.”

Cave: “Was he? He had a lot of hair.”

Ellis: “Fuck man! He had too much.”

Casey: “I was going to go in that car.”

Ellis: “Well, I can drop him off in mine can’t I?’

Cave, indicating Casey as he walks away: “He’s got a medical condition, it’s terrible.”

Ellis: “He’s got too much hair.”

Me: What’s the technical name?

Ellis: “Hirsute.”

Cave: “Being Hirsute.”

Cave: “Hirsute-itis.”

Woops, looks like snappy repartee window-dressing.