Don’t Ask Nick Cave About His Reputation as a “Dirty Old Man”


Nick Cave is sitting in front of a camera somewhere in Germany, looking in character, which is to say, terrifying. He’s got on a black suit and a thinly-pinstriped blue shirt; his fingers are loaded down with heavy gold rings, and a pair of aviator shades hang jauntily from his collar. His video press conference with a passel of American alt-weekly journalists hasn’t yet begun, but he already seems exhausted and pissed-off. He takes a swig of something, probably coffee, from a handleless white mug.

“Are we live?” he asks, and belches impressively. “Excuse me.”

In a few minutes, the interview begins, and Cave does his level best to answer questions about his new album, Live From KCRW, which will be released on November 29. He’s also trying, not very hard and not very successfully, to disguise his boredom and seething disgust with the whole process. If you told him he could continue sitting here, being interviewed, or get up and have bamboo shoved into his nail beds instead, nobody’s smart money would be on the reporters.

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Torture’s not an option, so Cave stays where he is and takes a question about what he’ll do for his next American tour, which is set for this summer.

“Um,” he says, sweeping a gold-ringed hand across his still-jet-black widow’s peak. “I dunno what we’re gonna do. It’s a long time away. It’s 8 months till we go back to the States.” On the current European tour, he adds, “the sets seem to change day by day… I have absolutely no idea what the concerts will be like in 8 months time.”

He’s a bit more voluble on whether he still enjoys playing his older songs: ” It depends–there are some songs that just seem to be infinitely playable. They always kind of reveal something new. And some songs just don’t have that capacity. They sound fine on record and you take them out, you play them live and you feel them dying after a few plays.”

At that, he stops dead and glares at someone just off-camera.

“Shall we sort out what you’re doing before we carry on, sir?” he says icily. “Because it’s all a bit distracting.” He twirls a pen between his finger and glowers until he’s satisfied that the distraction, whatever it is, has ceased. (Nick Cave would be a devastatingly effective high school teacher.)

He does have convincingly enthusiastic things to say about his own live album, while simultaneously shredding live albums in general.

“It wasn’t a performance, as such,” he explains. “There was a live audience there, but it felt very much that we could kind of lose ourselves in the songs in a way. And what came out of it was something that was very beautiful. It was a very special time. I don’t like a lot of live records. I don’t think you ever–they’re kind of boring, because you’re not really experiencing what you do when you go and see a live thing…But this particular record really captured the quiet energy of this performance. To me it was so beautiful, really, that we felt that we should put it out.”

And truly, Live From KCRW is lovely, but not in any of the usual ways we talk about live albums (which, Cave is right, can be pretty boring). This one doesn’t sound “stripped down,” or “unadorned,” or any of the usual qualifiers, and it doesn’t feel especially “intimate,” another favorite phrase; this is not music you cozy up to. But it does feel warm and close; “The Mercy Seat,” which often sounds like a towering wall of righteous noise onstage and in studio performances, is slightly more langorous and golden here, stretched out just enough that each phrase and each instrument are distinct, pinpricks of light rather than a blinding glare. “Mermaids,” which features both the phrase “I was the match that would fire up her snatch” and a lovely, spooky choral backing, sounds especially unearthly, shimmering and sinuous.

Cave also talks about the change in his voice, which, he says, has become deeper and “more versatile.”

“You know,” he confides, with something approaching a smile, “sometimes I actually hear myself onstage and it sounds almost enjoyable to listen to, rather than filling me with absolute horror, as it has for most of my career.”

As we wade deeper into the questions, lurching from subject to subject, Cave becomes visibly depressed. Each new query seems to fill him with fresh disdain: a comment that Push the Sky Away was “more beautiful and atmospheric” than previous Bad Seeds records elicits this: “I don’t know what you expect from a Bad Seeds album. They all sound quite different.” And he’s incredulous at a question about an apparent old rock-n-roll truism I’ve never heard, one that says if you take 20 minutes to write a song, you’ve taken too long.

“Leonard Cohen never said that,” he replies, dryly. He’s asked if a song ever “pours” out of him; the answer is a firm no.

“They never pour out of me,” he says. “Each song is a difficult and painful birthing experience. Not that I really know what the birthing experience is like. I assume it’s painful. And you know, I dunno. I hear there are these people that are just given songs. But I’m not sure that’s true. Most songs that are worthwhile, there’s a lot of work behind those songs.”

A moment later, he stops again. “Can you hear that, sound man? That’s my stomach rumbling. It’s gone now.” He smiles wanly. “You can edit that bit.”

The press conference isn’t quite as disastrous as his February Twitter Q&A (pull quote: “I am hating this… beyond measure, and I haven’t even started yet“), but it’s pretty bad nonetheless. By the time we get to another question about whether Push the Sky Away was meant to be “more muted and atmospheric,” Cave is practically writhing with discomfort and impatience, pooching his lips out, exhaling loudly, stretching skyward.

And really: why do we do this to Nick Cave? The man has built his name on seething and brooding and snarling. He is — musically, anyway — otherworldly and uncivilized. So why do we force him to sit down and talk about the meanings of his songs and whether he likes touring in America, as though he wouldn’t rather rip our spleens from our bodies and have them with his tea?

Cave asks an assistant for a banana. He’s given a croissant and a glass of water (moments later, the internet fills with Instagram photos and gifs of Nick Cave eating a croissant.)

The bread helps, but not a lot. In response to what “inspired” “Higgs Boson Blues”: “I dunno what inspired it. But a lot of work went into it. It was a gathering of ideas. I dunno.” A question about what his obituary might say about him elicits vigorous head-shaking. “I don’t really care about that,” he says.

After a moment of stormy silence, he circles back to an earlier question, one he hadn’t wanted to answer with a mouthful of croissant, about the death of Lou Reed.

“I think we’ve lost a great deal with his passing.” It’s something he and his band have discussed quite a bit in recent days, he says. “Everybody feels a huge loss with his passing. One of the very foundation stones that held up what my generation believes in has been torn away. The thing about Lou for me is it isn’t something that I look back at the early records and think, what an amazing body of work. It was about Lou’s life lived and how extraordinary that was, how challenging, polarizing and how exciting it was.”

It’s a beautiful moment. Then we’re back down in the dumps, with a question about the “role of faith” in the “musical journeys” he sends his characters on.

“I don’t really understand that question,” he says, gazing bleakly at the PR lady reading the questions to him. “I got it. I just don’t understand what you mean. Well, you don’t mean anything, because you’re just reading it from a page.”

He can’t muster much more enthusiasm about 20,000 Days on Earth, the “pseudo-documentary” in which he’s the main character. “It was horrible, as is all of filming that I’m involved in,” he says politely. “I absolutely hate it. I hate the process.”

Another thing he hates: people who watch his concerts through their phones. “I like an attentive audience,” he says, “that isn’t looking through an iPhone.” At the same time, he doesn’t quite know what to say to a question about fans who won’t let go of his hand during performances; he honestly doesn’t seem to have that problem.

“It’s a very unique situation to be intimate with someone that way publicly,” he says, rather gently. “It creates a wonderful kind of tension. So I dunno how to extricate myself. They tend to know when it’s time to let go.”

A few moments later, the questions peter out. Cave picks up a sheet of paper and looks over the remaining questions, looking like the world’s most ominous newscaster. Then it happens. His brow furrows.

The question is mine. It is, verbatim: “A lot of the reviews for Push the Sky Away, as well as your Grinderman albums, say that your music has become progressively more sexual in recent years. A couple people have used the phrase ‘dirty old man’ to describe your newer musical persona. Is there any truth to that?”

Cave looks like he’s digging through a thousand trash cans, using his nose as a shovel.

“That’s Anna Merlan from the Village Voice,” he says, each syllable of my name dropping onto the table in front of him like solid waste. He digs in.

“I don’t really ever trust questions from journalists that say, ‘some people said,'” he begins, with gusto. “I think it shows a lack of courage on the part of the journalist. That they kind of hide their question behind the opinions of other people. But I guess, uh, the phrase dirty old man is being used because I’m old. And they wouldn’t have used dirty old man when I was younger because I was young. But there’s a lot of problems with that question, I think. There’s a lot of problems to suggest that men of a certain age aren’t allowed to have sexual feelings or to write about them. It’s a problematic question.”

He pauses for a moment, contemplating just how problematic.

“But I will continue to write about what–you know, just go where these songs take me,” he says , finally. “A lot of the time I don’t really have much control over that. I certainly don’t write enough songs to be able to pick and choose what songs I use and what I don’t use. And if there’s a sort of sexual element to some of these songs, so be it. So what?”

To clarify: it’s not my personal opinion or the official editorial position of the Voice that Nick Cave is any dirtier than he used to be, although I suppose we can agree that he’s older, because of time. But I did sort of figure he’d have a stance on that phrase, “dirty old man,” after it was used in reviews and essays by Rolling Stone, Flavorwire, Pitchfork , Stereogum, the Telegram , the A.V. Club, Beats Per Minute, as well as several dozen blogs I’ll leave off, for the sake of brevity. It seems hard to believe he hasn’t heard it before, or that in a culture of Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra, that older men are discouraged from having “sexual feelings.” Perhaps Cave was thinking of women?

In either case, despite his obvious rage and disdain, it’s a genuinely interesting moment. (I feel as though I may vomit.) After brief, shocked silence, we’re done.

“We’ve exhausted all our questions,” the PR lady tells Cave, her voice hushed and tinged with terror.

“Really?” Cave says, brightening visibly for the first time. “Good. Does that mean it’s over?”

Someone whispers at him sotte voce to thank the journalists for coming, as though he’s a child taking leave of an elderly great aunt.

“You want me to thank everyone for joining in?” he asks, one of his furious eyebrows arched heavenwards. He smirks. “Thank you everybody for joining in. It’s been an absolute pleasure as always,” he says, almost as though it were true. “I’ll be seeing you down the road.”

Live From KCRW will be released November 29th on CD and vinyl; check Record Store Day for participating stores. His North American tour begins this summer. Presale tickets go on sale tomorrow and can be purchased here. The tour dates are as follows:

06/16/14 – Louisville Palace Theatre – Louisville, KY

06/18/14 – Midland Theatre – Kansas City, MO

06/20/14 – Milwaukee Theatre – Milwaukee, WI

06/21/14 – State Theatre – Minneapolis, MN

06/24/14 – Buell Theatre – Denver, CO

06/27/14 – Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium – Calgary, AB

06/28/14 – Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium – Edmonton, AB

06/30/14 – Orpheum Theatre – Vancouver, BC

07/02/14 – Paramount Theatre – Seattle, WA

07/05/14 – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – Portland, OR

07/07/14 – Warfield Theatre – San Francisco, CA

07/11/14 – Shrine Auditorium – Los Angeles, CA

07/19/14 – ACL Live @ Moody Theater – Austin, TX

07/21/14 – Mahalia Jackson Theater – New Orleans, LA

07/23/14 – DAR Constitution Hall – Washington, DC

07/25/14 – Mann Center – Philadelphia, PA

07/26/14 – Prospect Park – New York, NY

07/29/14 – Masonic Temple Theatre – Detroit, MI

07/31/14 – Sony Centre – Toronto, ON

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