In Conversation: Nick Cave

On grief, recovery, and the centrality of art to our human experience...

There was a time – not too long ago, in fact – when journalists would greet the prospect of a Nick Cave interview with a nervous shudder. The Australian musician was famed for his truculent approach to the press, embracing a kind of gladiatorial battle with unwitting hacks, who would emerge battered and bruised, their copy in shreds.

But not now. Grief, and the process of recovery, has altered his world view, empowering his music with different flavours and possibilities. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ extraordinary 2019 album ‘Ghosteen’ was enveloped in this – a fresh kind of beauty, a fragile sort of purity, one that yearned for connection in place of frenzied transgression.

Last year saw Nick Cave open up as never before. Sitting down with journalist (and friend) Sean O’Hagan for a series of lengthy conversations, gathered and edited in the hugely successful book Faith, Hope & Carnage. The two took off around the country for a series of Q&As, with the songwriter letting his guard down in a way that was riveting, and sometimes shocking.

Faith, Hope & Carnage is now available as a paperback, and to celebrate Nick Cave invited a small number of journalists to a special roundtable session in Central London. Gone was the venom of old – in its place a bonhomie, and a desire to embrace what he termed good faith conversation.

Here’s what Clash asked as part of that revealing afternoon.

Many Nick Cave fans were brought up on those truculent, gladiatorial interviews – indeed, there’s a constituency of people who yearn to see that in the music press. Do you feel there’s a friction to this book? And is it a good friction?

The only different between this book and other interviews I’ve done in the past – like the ones you’re talking about – is that I’m not trying to beat Sean up! He’s not trying to bring me down. And what we’re having, essentially, is a good faith conversation. I’m not ashamed of those interviews that I did in the past. I mean, fuck – that’s how it was back then. There was a certain ideological clash between the performer and the press. It’s just the way we behaved. And they made for quite great interviews, actually.

The thing of value to me about this book is that it shows the power of conversation, and what conversations can actually achieve. You can see that happening as you read the book – I start off in one position, and end up somewhere completely different… and that is through the power of conversation. Sean and I completely disagree on pretty much most things. Except there are things where we come together on which are on the other side of discipline. Pub brawls about political things… which we didn’t include. And eventually, we just got exhausted talking to each other in this way. Sean found those things really valuable, and wanted to make that the centre of the book. There’s something to be said for a good faith conversation.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, a lot of long form conversations where people talk openly, and that seems – to me – to be a healthy thing, regardless of what that conversation might be about. It’s in its essence the way forward.

You speak in the book about the disgust many young people have towards the world, and established affairs, and you view that process as being vital. How do you now view your own younger work? 

I just think some of them are good, and some of the songs are not so good. And that’s all throughout my career. Some songs I’m really attached to, and we continue to play. I think they are these weird and wonderful vehicles for extreme performance – something like ‘From Her To Eternity’. They’re great songs. And some songs are just not good. That’s why some get played – not because of what I’m saying.

Does that instinctual disgust lead to one-dimensional art, then? Do you need a broader emotional worldview or experience to develop as a person, and as a songwriter?

Well, I guess my favourite band – the most influential band on me, ever – were The Saints. And they were the embodiment of contempt. They’d get up there and snarl away and be like ‘fuck you!’ and it was so exciting to watch because… here was something speaking my fucking language! As a young person. It’s not a position you can sustain. That band couldn’t sustain it, either – they went on to produce extremely nuanced things, very beautiful things, both separately and together. It’s a little sad to see someone in their 40s or 50s still living their life in that way. I think – personally – I mean… Jesus Christ, is that the sum of your existence? Snarling at the world? I just don’t think so.

In the book you talk about your intention to use your actions to make the world a better place. There’s also a beautiful passage in which you reflect on writing ‘In Your Arms’ during a spell in rehab. Don’t you feel that writing a song as powerful as that is an example of you adding to the world in a positive way, even at one of your darker moments?

It’s not really that I’m talking about art, it’s just a way of seeing the world. I just want people to know. It comes from grief, to some extent. Things get better. Things can be OK. And I guess that’s what I’m talking about, in some way. But I also disagree with the fact that you need to lead a life on the edge, or a fucked up existence, or a chaotic existence to make great art. I don’t think that’s true. And I think I wrote a Red Hand File on it. Someone wrote in, an artist who is a drug addict, and they were afraid of stopping drugs because they were afraid of losing their edge. It’s just not true as far as I’m concerned.

There’s a real spiritual aspect to the book but you remain very distrustful of religious organisations. Is that a hangover of that earlier ‘fuck the world’ self, or is it more symptomatic of the way you view spirituality? That belief and distrust need to co-exist?

I think the balance is similar but it’s tilting to being more accepting of religion in and of itself. I just have a dislike for dogma. I don’t like to be told anything by anybody. That certitude about things… I just don’t think it’s a very creative space to be in. And I say that both about the religious and the non-religious. The militant atheists, the religious right… whatever! I think both of these places are deeply uncreative places to exist in. The people involved on those extremes may not be interested in creating things, as such. They might be interested in pulling down corrupt institutions, as the militant atheists might be. However I’m not one of those people, I’m an artist, and I need to stay in that beautifully right, imaginative ground that exists between doubting something and certitude. There is this sort of area there that – I find – is just good for songwriting.

There is a very striking section in the book, where you say you “think the condition of the soul can be treated independently of the situation one finds oneself in”. Is that really the case? Can we say that the King of England and a refugee on a lift raft, for instance, fit into that worldview on an equal basis?

You know what, Sean told me: you don’t wanna say that! And I just said: fuck you, I’m saying it! I think that I was talking about grief. I remember being at an In Conversation event, and talking to a woman who spent time in Africa. We were backstage, and there had been a lot of talk about grief at this thing. And a lot of people standing up and talking about grieving. And the loss of their partners, or children. I talked about the loss of mine. And she said: listen, I’ve been to Africa, I met a woman who lost her three children… and that’s grief. Right? It was such a shocking thing to hear. There’s gonna be a hierarchy put on suffering in this manner, to suggest that a rich person suffers the loss of someone less than someone in an unfortunate position. And I don’t think that’s true. There can be factors in there that can help that person – maybe they can afford better therapy. But I think fundamentally we suffer in a similar way in our souls. Our circumstances may be completely different, and that’s another thing altogether, but there is – I believe – fundamental innate suffering. 

Do you think being a musician, working in such a universal art form, has impacted on that viewpoint? You can see from the stage that we feel things in a similar manner.

I think it obviously has a kind of binding effect. Everyone can feel the same. But I think it’s a mistake, to some degree, to declare where you stand on certain things as a musician. I don’t like it, myself. I don’t like the feeling that I’m listening to music that is wagging my finger at me or telling me what position I should be taking up. I just don’t like it. I understand that there are people who do that really well, and that there are people out there who write songs that need to be written to educate us. I just don’t find that – personally – to be the type of music that I want to listen to. I don’t want to get my politics from rock musicians, anyway. They’re unreliable social critics. 

Some of the most beautiful passages in the book – and on the Red Hand Files – are about songwriting, in particular when you pin-point some of your favourite artists, such as John Lee Hooker…

I mean, he would go into a studio with nothing, and the producer would say something like: sing a song about Abraham Lincoln. He was just improvise these songs, and they’re so fucking strange. Where he begins, and where he ends up. You can hear his mind unravelling as the song goes.

Would you ever expand on that, and those insights? Would you ever become a critic yourself?


Side question: will there be another book?

Yes. This feels like a snippet. It’s not a definitive book on things. I don’t know if Sean would do it. He’s sick of me! He’s sick of my bullshit. I think I’ve worn him down, actually. We’re doing a two week tour, me and Sean. An interview tour. But he’s a funny guy, Sean. And I think the book exists because we don’t really agree on much and it’s that tension that exists in the book. If he was someone who was on my side about everything we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere… except, cancelled.

Faith, Hope and Carnage is out on paperback through Canongate from June 1st.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Megan Cullen

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