Nick Cave: Songs are memory machines
Photo by Bleddyn Butcher
Over nearly four decades, Nick Cave has been far from a typical rock star. His ever-changing artistic whims have colored music -- from the Birthday Party, to Grinderman, to his work backed by the Bad Seeds -- that is only tied together by its brooding passion. His last couple years have been focused on the 2013 studio album Push the Sky Away, and a new live album, Live From KCRW.
Before Saturday's show at State Theatre with the Bad Seeds, here are some of the highlights of Nick Cave's recent teleconference interview -- including two of Gimme Noise's questions -- answered thoughtfully and a touch acerbically.
Grinderman at First Avenue, 11/23/10
Here are my two questions, and Nick's responses, to start things off:
Gimme Noise: You've reworked some familiar songs on this new KCRW live album, as you frequently do in a live setting -- Does reimagining these songs help you reconnect with the emotions that initially inspired them, while also imbuing the new versions with your own current thoughts about the characters and the stories they convey?
Nick Cave: Songs, to me, are kind of memory machines. And the purpose of them, to me on some level, is to aid my memory. And they are very effective ways of being thrown back to earlier times. When I sing these songs on stage, I'm very much engaging with memory, and, as the questions says, with all of the emotions involved in those memories. I don't know if I answered that question, but that's an answer for something.
How important a role does faith, or the lack of it, play in these musical journeys that you send your characters on and where you leave them in the end?
I don't really understand that question [laughs]. The idea of faith is certainly important in my songwriting for sure. Because it's an imaginative world. It's an absurd world that I'm writing about -- it's an hysterical world, it's an absurd world, it's a violent world. And in this absurd world, God exists. That's not to say that I believe in that when I come out into the real world. I have a respect for the idea that we can, as human beings, invent things that are greater than ourselves. So within the context of my songwriting and the scenarios that play out within my songs, the idea of God is very important.
And here are a sampling of questions and responses from throughout the rest of the press conference, including Nick's ruminations on Lou Reed, who passed away a short time before the teleconference.
With the evolution of the band's sound over the years, is it still enjoyable to play 'the hits' from the early years? Does playing live give new life to the songs?
It really depends on the night. There are some songs that just seem to be infinitely playable, they always reveal something new. And some songs just don't have that capacity. They sound fine on record, and you go out and play them live and you feel them die after a few plays. There are other songs that seem to have so much meaning that is bubbling underneath the surface of the words and of the song, that they just regenerate themselves. Songs like "The Mercy Seat," which we've played at every concert since I wrote the thing, just has that capacity to do that.
Some of the songs from Live at KCRW are from The Boatman's Call. Have these songs changed in meaning for you over time? And does it surprise you that people are still talking about the meaning of all these songs and that album a decade-and-a-half later?
The meaning of the songs is not so important to me. It's more where the songs actually take me, and to the places that they take me. I can reconvene with ghosts of my past in some kind of way. That can be quite a beautiful thing. What the songs mean to other people is a completely subjective thing, and it's whatever they can get out of it that I guess is important. For me, the meanings of the songs are not so important. The words seem to be a kind of padlock that hopefully opens up different meanings or different feelings that break through the words.
Why did you feel that now was the right time for another live album, and why this performance? You've recorded and released live shows before, but never a radio appearance. Why make a radio session recording now?
We didn't intend on making a live record. We didn't go into doing the KCRW session intending to do anything with that whatsoever. In fact, it was kind of stuck in at the end of a long, grueling American tour, and it was the last thing in the world that we wanted to do is to go in to a radio station and do some songs on our day off. The nice thing about it, was that it was pared down, and we could sit down and play these songs -- so, it wasn't the full lineup of the Bad Seeds. It wasn't a performance, as such -- I mean, there was a live audience there, but it felt very much like, for me and the band, that we could lose ourselves in the songs in a way. And what came out of it was something that was really beautiful, and it was just a really special time.
I don't really like a lot of live records. A lot of live records are kind of boring, because you're not really experiencing what you do when you go out and see a live thing, which is to feel the power and the energy and see what's going on and all of that sort of stuff. But this particular record really captured the quiet energy of this performance, and to me, it was so beautiful, really, that we felt that we should put it out somewhere.
Has your voice changed over the years, and if so, how?
Yeah, it's changed a lot. It's deeper. It's more versatile. My intonation -- my famously individualistic intonation -- is better. Sometimes I actually hear myself on stage and it sounds almost enjoyable to listen to, rather than filling me with absolute horror as it has for most of my career.
There's an old saying in Rock 'n' Roll: 'If you've taken more than 20 minutes to write a song, you've taken too long.' Have you found this to be true, or does it vary on a case by case basis? Can you give me an example of a song or two that just kind of poured out of you?
They never pour out of me. Each song is a difficult, painful birthing experience. Not that I really know what the birthing experience is like, but I assume that it's painful. I hear there are these people that are just given songs, but I'm not so sure that's true. I think most songs that are worthwhile, there's a lot of work behind those songs. If the thing is carefully wrought, there's a lot of work that goes behind those things. Reducing things, making things simple -- there is a lot of work in simplicity itself. So, I don't know if I've ever received a song like that -- like where it's just dropped down on the page -- without a fair amount of agonizing that's gone on.
What did Lou Reed mean to you?
The thing about Lou, for me, was that it isn't something where 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 that was to people, how polarizing that was, and how exciting that was. It's a huge loss. It's very sad. I don't think there's a musician around -- certainly from my generation -- that hasn't been touched by that in a big way.
Describe your perfect audience. Are you able to create the perfect audience through your performance?
I like an attentive audience. I like an attentive audience that isn't looking through an iPhone. I like a playful audience. I get a lot from the front row -- I'm kind of a front row performer. It's about the kind of tension between the people that I can see -- the first few rows -- that kind of empower me on stage. Rather than looking out at the mass audience, I get a lot of power and energy from almost the one-to-one performances with people. And, if they are looking through an iPhone or something like that, it makes that more difficult. Everybody's got a camera these days, including me.
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