We wanted to let it breath

Raw, bluesy and guttural, Grinderman are The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse jamming with Pan The Randy Goat Boy. Clash talks to four Bad Seeds who just got badder…

“I’ve gotta get up to get down / and start all over again / head on down to the basement / and shout / “Kick those white mice and black dogs out” / “Kick those white mice and baboons out” / “Kick those baboons and other MOTHERFUCKERS out” / and… “GET IT OOON! GET IT OOON!”

If these inaugural lines seem a little, hmm, intense on paper, wait til they (and others like them) leap live from your speakers, delivered with the kind of excoriating ecstasy normally reserved for tub-thumping politicos and proselytizing preachers. Gasp at the introduction of a skin-stripping guitar riff; gulp at the enormous dimensions of those cavernous piano stabs; ponder the mysterious connections between lyrical statements like “drinking panther piss”, “pink hair curlers” and “pornographic crowns”.

We didn’t do any overdubs or fix anything up in the studio afterwards because we wanted the raw feel of a live album. We wanted to let it breath, to be unprocessed, untamed.

While some albums pin you against the wall with supernatural force, others arouse with trippy studio legedermain or slip your pants off via slinky ambient overdubs and smooth-talking susurrations. Grinderman woos you with poetry, slams you in the balls, steals your daughter, manhandles your psyche, mullahs your bassbin and panders to your dark side. All at the same time.

Yet what else would you expect from a project borne from none other than Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds – one of rock’s most enduring and fulminating bands – and featuring Mr. Nicholas Edward Cave himself? Would such fun-loving, blues-riding, guitar-wielding horsemen, such rampaging men of experience, capable of catapulting small children into space with a mere strum of their six-string, really have written an album of sappy, supple, sucky love songs? The answer, ladles and jellyspoons, is a plangent: “no”.

“We started playing as a four-piece around the time of the ‘Nocturama’ release,” reveals drummer/percussionist Jim Sclavunos, who along with violinist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey and vocalist Cave make up the Grinderman project. “Somebody thought it would be good to do a live presentation of some of the songs from that album and we began performing Nick’s “solo” shows as a quartet. From that we learned a lot about each other as musicians. Nick had never heard me play drums much before, as I was always the percussionist in the Bad Seeds. As we went along we started tapping into more and more things as a collective. That led to a songwriting session for ‘Abattoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus’, which was very fruitful, and then we got an opportunity to do some soundtracks and theatre scores together, which opened up the possibilities even more. Somewhat belatedly it occurred to us that we could record as a group. From the outside, Grinderman seems like quite an abrupt project, because the public haven’t had access to all these background developments, but for us it goes back some years and is all very natural.”

Bad Seed side projects are, of course, nothing new. The group is well known for its ever-changing permutations – Cave and Mick Harvey are pretty much the only two constants since the band originally formed (from the ashes of The Birthday Party) in 1984. Yet the four members of Grinderman have all played a significant role in The Seeds for many years, as well as boasting some serious Pre-Seeds pedigree: Casey was once one of The Triffids; Ellis was, and is, a member of The Dirty Three; New Yorker Sclavunos has played with everyone from Sonic Youth, The Cramps and 8 Eyed Spy, and these days fronts his own project, The Vanity Set. Cave? Well, he’s just eternal.

The name of the group, Grinderman, comes from an old Memphis Slim song called “Grinderman Blues”, which Cave pilfered from a John Lee Hooker cover. “We were looking around for a name and we had this song,” he says, “and it just seemed to be the right name. [It] suggested a lot of things; in fact, each time I think of that name it seems to suggest something else, but mostly we felt our music kind of grinded and there was a kind of sexual edge to it, to the rhythm section, certainly and that it…ground.”

The lasciviousness aspect of the band’s debut (eponymous) project is not in question. After the spellbinding sally of ‘Get It On’, comes the even more direct assault of ‘No Pussy Blues’, a song described thusly by Cave: “While our dreams and desires are hung on the butcher’s hook of rampant consumerism, and the mirage and the illusion and the Nike trainers are served up on the trembling quim of an impossibly nubile girl-thing, ‘No Pussy Blues’ tells it like it is. It is the child standing goggle-eyed at the cake shop window, as the shop-owner, in his plastic sleeves, barricades the door and turns the sign to ‘CLOSED’. It is the howl in the dark of the Everyman.”

In other words, it’s a song about not getting any. With typical lyrical irony, Cave buoys the deeper reverberations of his message with a slew of amusing lines: “I sent her every type of flower / I played the guitar by the hour / I petted her revolting Chihuahua / but she still didn’t want to”.

“I’m not affronted at all should people take this as a sexual album,” says Sclavunos, a man once described as an “infamous elegant degenerate”. “But it has a cerebral aspect too, and it would be doing it a disservice to see it as only this hideous, drooling thing. We are capable of more and there is diversity, a range of moods. It covers the whole spectrum.”

I’m not affronted at all should people take this as a sexual album, but it has a cerebral aspect too, and it would be doing it a disservice to see it as only this hideous, drooling thing.

Indeed, the dry humping seems to stop dead with the third and fourth songs. ‘Electric Alice’ – slow, moody, more psychedelic than Jimi Hendrix’s headband – sees Cave twist timeless imagery (stars, moons, rain) around a haunting, gothic soundtrack; the title track – raw as a peeled onion, naked as an ancient athlete – sees him dive as deep as only Cave can, down into the ageless guts of the Blues to greet – and tweak – the terrifying face of the Infinite.

The rock ‘n’ roll shenanigans begin anew with ‘Depth Charge Ethel’, a passionate, fun rhythm‘n’ blues record based on a happy-go-lucky drug-addled prostitute that used to knock around with The Birthday Party back in the day; but the album then delivers the musically insouciant (and typically cryptic) ‘Go Tell The Women’, and the strangely euphoric ‘Set Me Free’, before ending with a quartet of songs that reach out for entirely different places: the bristling space-rock of ‘Honey Bee’, the Ziggy Stardust-esque ‘Man In The Moon’, the engaging ‘When My Love Comes Down’, and the aptly titled incendiary finale, ‘Love Bomb’.

As the final twangs fade into blackness, you can’t help but wonder how a band that have played and recorded for so many years together could create something so different. “The instrumentation on it is quite different,” explains Ellis. “Nick plays guitar and not piano, or very little piano at all. I play very little violin. I mean, there was a real actual conscious effort to try and throw [ourselves] into the wilds a bit. I’d been actually sending Nick stuff on the internet over the last few years, ever since we started doing some of the theatre things. I would record stuff and send it to Nick and he would listen to it and maybe put some words to it. I will throw something in and something might happen and something mightn’t. I guess I came in with some things like that just to break the silence, more than anything.”

“When we started the initial session, we had five days to see what it could be,” says Sclavunos. “Even though there were some prepared loops from Warren and some other things, there were no songs written. We specifically went in there to try to pull up the songs, and because we did it all together for once, rather than Nick coming in with songs already written as we would do with a Bad Seeds session, that meant playing around a bit. So it was kind of improv to an extent, but not that kind of spaced-out freaky dope-smoking kind of ‘jam’ thing. More an ensemble vibe: listening to each other and answering and communicating in the language of music. Some of those sessions were quite long, but a lot of stuff came out of it and we just trimmed some of it down. ‘Electric Alice’ is built directly on a segment from one of those sessions. It just came full blown out of our heads the way you hear it; and that’s exciting because you don’t know it’s happening while you’re doing it. We didn’t do any overdubs or fix anything up in the studio afterwards because we wanted the raw feel of a live album. We wanted to let it breath, to be unprocessed, untamed.”

Did they drop any songs because they were too reminiscent of Bad Seeds records? “We dropped a few songs for various reasons, but yes, if they sounded like Bad Seeds they didn’t go on,” continues Jim. “We went into it quite open, then listened to things side by side and got more focused and selective as we went along. The songs are all short, more to the point than usual, and each one is intense in its own right. There’s this real concentrated effort for each song. But we tried to sequence it in a way in which they make sense, with recurring motifs and ideas and with the same kind of internal tension between tracks.”

“We didn’t identify a theme initially,” adds Cave. “It was a collection of songs and once ordered there seemed to be a kind of narrative running through it. It feels like there’s a narrative, at least, and I think the themes are actually quite similar to the themes that I’ve been talking about for the last 25 years.”

If the next question is: when do we get to see Grinderman grind live, the answer is: at All Tomorrow’s Parties in April – but only briefly. “We don’t even know how we’re gonna present it yet,” sighs Sclavunos. “We don’t know what pedals to use or how it’ll look, but there won’t be any flashy lighting rigs or chicken costumes, and Nick won’t be upfront pointing and smoking cigarettes. We are serious about building it up. We’re very into it. Had we not been doing press we would have been in the studio this week, although we have to do a Bad Seeds album before another Grinderman.”

Cave is equally enthusiastic: “I’d like to make more records like that, because it just keeps the whole thing interesting. It’s funny, after doing Grinderman, I have a real – and this is always the way – I have a real urge to get stuck into a Bad Seeds record and start writing in that way. This sort of stuff, it’s very kind of healthy thing to be doing. It’d be good if people bought it…right?”

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