Nick Cave is a busy man. Over the past year, the underground rock hero has released a novel, scored a Viggo Mortensen movie, re-released some of his Bad Seeds records, rewritten the screenplay for a remake of The Crow, and he just put out the second album with his noisy art-rock side band, Grinderman. With what little free time he must have, it’s easy to imagine a completely different set of lyrics for Grinderman’s tongue-in-cheek 2007 anti-hit “No Pussy Blues” (actually about a man with no game). What’s difficult, though, is imagining him finding the time or a place relaxing enough to take a vacation. Apparently, this isn’t the case.
“For my last vacation, I took the wife and kids to New York,” Cave says. “We had the greatest time. We took the kids to the freak show in Coney Island.”
He’ll be back in town with his own rollicking sideshow on Sunday, performing with his hirsute Grinderman bandmates at the Best Buy Theater. Their latest release, Grinderman 2 (Anti-), is a slightly more serious take on the feedback freakouts of its predecessor. In Cave’s world, that means more songs about religion and brotherhood, and there’s even a quasi-anti-war song on record. His new outlook might, in part, have something to do with a few behind-the-scenes goings on between his many releases in recent months. In January 2009, his musical companion of 25 years, Mick Harvey, left the Bad Seeds, and in December, Cave’s bandmate in the Birthday Party, guitarist Rowland S. Howard, died at age 50. But even in light of these sobering events, Cave wasn’t totally without levity on Grinderman 2–“Worm Tamer” (“You know, they call my girl the Worm Tamer”), for instance, is a fitting sequel to “No Pussy Blues.” During some precious downtime before performing that very song on the BBC’s Later With Jools Holland, Cave was friendly enough to discuss with us some of the many things that kept him busy while working on the album.
You’ve said that “Heathen Child,” the lead single from Grinderman 2, was about “a girl on the verge of adulthood.” How does a subject like that come up?
These lyrics come out of adlibbing. On some level, I don’t take any responsibility for where these lyrics go. When you’re singing improv lyrics, ideas such as taste and common decency tend to go out the window.
In an equally risky move, you got King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp to play a solo on a bonus-track version of “Heathen Child.” What was he like?
He was very humble and very eccentric. Talked about himself in the third person. Like, “The guitarist thinks that he prefers the last take.” [Laughs]
Did you refer to yourself that way, too?
No, I didn’t. It was confusing enough as it was.
Getting back to your lyrics, you usually craft your Bad Seeds lyrics by yourself in an office. How are your improv lyrics different in your opinion?
My Grinderman lyrics are more about the music. I wanted to write them in a way that listeners’ ears didn’t feel obligated to listen to a story.
You had a similar approach with the Birthday Party, didn’t you?
I don’t think I knew what I was writing about back then. It took me a long time to realize that it was important to write down a line that was authentic and meant something to you. A lot of rock and roll is, in many ways, often meaningless when it comes to lyrics. People write lyrics because they kind of sound right. I always like to get away from that.
What was the first time you felt you nailed a song’s lyrics?
Back in the Birthday Party, there was a song called “King Ink.” I felt there was something about the lyrics that pushed the song forward. I remember listening to it with Rowland Howard and going, “Look. Something’s going on here that’s really important.” I think we’d finally arrived at something that was unique. Before that, I think our songs were a mishmash of other people’s songs.
Speaking of the Birthday Party, there are a lot of stories about how the band had a bitter breakup. What terms were you on with Rowland when he passed away last year?
I was on very good terms with him. I always have been. People have always made assumptions about our relationship, that there was some sort of animosity between us and that the band broke up on bad terms. It was never that way. I was very sad that he died.
What’s your fondest memory of him?
I don’t know if it’s politically correct to say. [Laughs]
Well, we had an absolute ball destroying ourselves [with drugs and alcohol]. I pulled through, but he died of liver cancer.
After the Birthday Party disbanded, you formed the Bad Seeds. Beginning last year, you’ve been reissuing the latter’s catalog. What’s your favorite Bad Seeds release?
Probably [1986’s] Your Funeral, My Trial. I think we hit on something unique and haunting and fully realized. My favorite Bad Seeds song is on there, “Stranger Than Kindness.” It was written by Blixa [Bargeld, former Bad Seeds guitarist and Einstürzende Neubauten frontman] and [Cave’s sometime girlfriend] Anita Lane. They wrote some beautiful lyrics to that. I’ve always loved to sing that song. Since I didn’t write it, I can see it for what it is. It’s really, really beautiful and haunting. That’s one of the reasons why I love that record.
Getting back to Grinderman, I was wondering what your wife thought of the lyrics to “Worm Tamer”?
We were talking about this the other night, actually. [Pauses] I think she just understands that it’s important that I can’t be thinking about who is going to be offended or upset or troubled by what I write I think we both just understood that “Worm Tamer” is a really good lyric. I mean, she was much more uncomfortable about “No Pussy Blues,” I’ve got to say. [Laughs] That one took a hell of a lot of explaining.
Have there been many other songs that have gotten you in hot water with the Mrs.?
All my life my songs have gotten in trouble with the people that I’m involved with at the time. [Laughs] But I see all my songs as love letters. These days, I don’t write songs to hurt people. And “Worm Tamer” is a comic song. So was “No Pussy Blues,” but my wife didn’t find that one quite so funny.