The Grinderman leader, author, and all-time badass is funny. And scary. Scary funny.
“I can tell that you’re trying to ask me a question,” sighs Nick Cave, not impolitely, “but I’m not entirely certain what it is.” Safe to say, Cave is not to blame for this confusion. He, along with his longtime drummer Jim Sclavunos, has been holding court in a posh downtown Manhattan suite all day, fielding queries of varying degrees of inanity about his 33-year, genre- and medium-spanning career. And this latest one is a stammered, half-cocked doozy, something about whether fronting Grinderman — the rougher-hewn Bad Seeds spin-off that just released a second album, aptly and awesomely titled Grinderman 2 — offers a chance for the irascible Aussie goth-punk legend to play with his own identity, or other people’s ideas about his identity, in a way that his eponymous work doesn’t.
Cave tugs at his suit jacket and runs a hand through his long, thinning black hair as the 6’7″ Sclavunos, equally natty, sinks into the other side of the L-shaped sofa. “I don’t feel we’re playing roles, because that would suggest that what we’re doing isn’t authentic in some way,” Cave says. “But, for sure, I feel freer within Grinderman in that I don’t feel wholly responsible. If it’s a bad record, we all take the…what’s the word?” Cave looks over at Sclavunos.
“We all take the hit. It is a liberating thing.”
In the three years since Grinderman’s self-titled debut — a glorious racket of raw, ragged, bluesy id-driven improvisation and happy accidents that startled and confused his longtime fans, including, Cave says, his own mum — the 53-year-old has merely put out his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro; his 14th Bad Seeds record, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!; composed (with Seedmate Warren Ellis) music for The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the documentary The English Surgeon; and worked on the screenplay for a reboot of The Crow. So if Cave isn’t experimenting with an alternate, autonomous persona in Grinderman, how exactly does he keep straight what the hell he’s working on when?
“I can totally compartmentalize,” Cave says. “But I have to apply myself; ideas don’t just drop into my head. I have to sit down and think about that thing and start working on it. Even when I was really fucked up, I’d still be sitting there, scratching away. So when I sit down to write the next Bad Seeds record, all I really have to do — and this isn’t easy — is still the voices of resistance within me and allow stuff to come up. That’s quite difficult in my office. Whereas those voices have been still instantly with Grinderman, because you’re just sitting down with a fucking microphone and the band starts hammering something, we’re all banging, and you just go, ‘Fuuuuuck, I woke up this morning….’ You bypass the effort that it takes to find that imaginative space that you can go to.”
The resulting hammering and banging on Grinderman 2 (“We were afraid that if we went with the Roman numerals, the kids would be wondering where the other nine records were”) is as riotous as its predecessor’s, and boasts instant-classic Cave-ian bon mots like “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster / Two great big humps and then I’m gone.” Meanwhile, “Palaces of Montezuma” slows the pace and quiets the racket a bit, further blurring the lines between the Bad Seeds and the band that contains four-sevenths of the Bad Seeds. “I think a lot of these songs are about the origins of violence and terrorism,” says Cave. “People often can’t separate, or can’t understand, that to be funny is to be serious; it’s a way of pulling people in and not scaring them off. I think a lot of the funny stuff, underneath it, there’s a deep anxiety going on. This is a very dark record, in my opinion, but the music is played with real joy and energy. There’s something really life-affirming about it.”
To that end, Cave and Sclavunos bristle at the idea that Grinderman is merely racket. “There are methods to creating a mayhem that sounds different from your usual mayhem,” Cave says. “Because mayhem and a heavy drum backbeat end up sounding like Green Day or something. But if you put a different beat within it to create some air and lightness, the chaos comes through better. So, kids: Get rid of your fucking drummer.”
Sclavunos perks up. “Or at least get rid of his sticks.”
Ultimately, the notion that Grinderman might stand out from his storied discography is precisely its appeal to Cave — he’s doing some of his most challenging and ecstatic work at a point in his career where so many of his peers have chosen to ease up and coast on their legacies. (Nor has it occurred to him to field lucrative Birthday Party reunion offers, much to Sclavunos’ relief.) The fact that he believes the project has been too readily dismissed as a midlife crisis only adds fuel to his considerable fire.
“I can’t tell you how important it is for me, just as an artist, to carry on,” he says. “To be able to carry on. And to be able to live with myself at the same time, so that you’re not just sitting down and writing another record that you know is shit, it’s not as good as the ones you used to do. That scares me so much that I’d do anything, anything, to keep the whole thing alive.”