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’.