THE TAPDANCER & THE COOK Grinderman

Nick Cave‘s other band hits it a second time.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

It’s a deathly humid afternoon in Manhattan
with raindrops as thick as boxing gloves and skies as gray as Vladivostok covering the city; a rotten day
to be outside. George Steinbrenner died that day too. For Nick Cave,
it’s not much better inside. Though newly shorn of his maw-hugging mustache,
he’s unwell and looks it. An earache may have manifested itself into an
infection and a doctor’s house call is required. All Jim Sclavunos can do is
hanging by his laptop and bid for vintage microphones on eBay.

 

The pair – the singer/lyricist/guitarist and drummer for the
Bad Seeds and Grinderman – are here, despite all ails and sales, to celebrate Grinderman 2, the second volume of
scorched earth psych-blues from the tight-knit quartet under the Bad Seeds
umbrella. While it shares a name with the band’s eponymous 2007 debut, G2‘s progressive sound is still
raw-knuckled avant-garage rock yet more spaciously expansive, while its
improv-based lyrics have evolved from sex, death and more sex to pernicious
high anxiety, sex, history, sex, violence and sex. Talking about it doesn’t
help Cave, whose speaking voice gets higher when the nagging pain. But by
chat’s end, he and Sclavunos – friends since the days of Cave’s Birthday Party –
hug it out playfully.

 

***

 

BLURT: When did you
guys know there’d be a second Grinderman album? Where did it fall amongst
projects like Bunny Munroe-the book
and music-Bad Seeds’ Dig!!! Lazarus
Dig!!!
and The Road soundtrack?

NICK
CAVE: Pretty much as soon
as we’d done the first one, we really wanted to get on with another record. We
just had that other stuff to do

JIM SCLAVUNOS: The spirit for it was fast and great. But we
didn’t; then we couldn’t; then we did.

.

I heard you on
satellite radio when you mentioned wanting to make G2 more serious than the
last one. The last one was pretty fucking serious, gents. What was that initial
goal?

NC: I think because there was a comic element to that record
a lot of people saw the whole idea as something of a joke. This record then
became about more serious things. Ah, I don’t know if serious is the right
word. This record was meant to be less broadly comic.

 

Blackly humored.
Nothing slapstick. This record also seems more existential than the last one-paranoid
too. “Heathen Child” is downright abusive.

JS: The themes are darker but are more subtly rendered, with
more complex interaction. The musical aims were bumped up a notch.

 

The first record
seemed to have its lessons in my mind; that sex permeates the aging process;
that we are meant to feel as if we’re disappearing as we grow old. Are there
lessons to be learned on this one?

NC: I’d hate to think we were teaching lessons. We’re not
school teachers or pedagogs.

 

Maybe you were taking
the piss during our previous interviews-talking about mid-life crises and how
age makes one often less relevant.

NC: Society’s particularly cruel to the elderly but I don’t
think I’m that old yet, mate. 

JS: That may be true but I’m not sure that message is part
of G1. That might be something deeply inherent in a personae that Nick’s
created and maybe some of that personae overlap into Nick’s idea personally.
But these aren’t philosophical treatises. No matter how sophisticated the ideas
may be there’re elements of ambiguity as well.

 

Why do you think the
2000s have been so much more adventurous and energetically prolific than the
1990s were for you guys?

NC: In the last ten years I’ve felt very freed up about
things; even more so in the last five years. I’m less prone to hesitation about
things than I used to be twenty years ago. I’m not sure why that is. It might
be because I don’t take drugs anymore, although I’m not sure if that‘s the
case. I mean, I used to do just fine on drugs. But I do find that I‘m more
effective at what I do now. I think I got organized. I’m able to produce more
work. I still have doubts – just not the same doubts that I used to have.

 

How important is the
concept of morality within Grinderman? Or is it the lack of morality that makes
Grinderman what it is?

NC: Morality, hmm. The narratives are not so closed off;
it’s not the same as the Bad Seeds. Some of the Bad Seeds is structured on that
classic English ballad where there’s a moral at that end. Grinderman is more
about creating dark atmospheres – dark neurotic anxious atmospheres so it’s
more joyful full-hearted music Grinderman is. There’s a lot of anxiety and
violence. I don’t think there’s room for morality. There used to be a time when
I’d talk like this to journalists and they’d say, “What do I have to be nervous
or angry about?” What kind of beautiful days are we in that there’s no need for
that question now?

 

We all live with
levels of anxiety.

NC: Chewing your fucking arm off levels of anxiety we do.
Now, Jim here has no moral center.

JS: I do. I’m just not judgmental.

NC: You’re just mental

 

You guys are like a
vaudeville act.

JS: No wonder vaudeville died.

NC: He’s the tap dancer. I’m just the fucking cook.

 

I’m not talking about
trend or anything topical but when was the last time something recent crept
into the work. Not to mean to make you seem arcane, but like Bad Seeds,
Grinderman seems untouched by newer influences musical, lyrical and technical,
It’s not as if I expect a Ke$ha record to turn you on or your paean to the oil
spill to follow – but…

JS:  Well, we do
mention Oprah and plasma TV screens. We’re not in an ivory tower or in medieval
times.

NC: I think we are what we love – the music – and we bring
those things into the writing and into the studio.

 

Do you feel as if
this record has more of its male or female characters on top? Certainly you’ve
got “Worm Tamer,” Heathen Child”. I’ll say G2 is more feminine.

NC: I’m really interested in looking at the female role in
songs always. There are songs on the first one that have fixed female
protagonists-“Electric Alice” for example.

JS: There’re songs here about the absence of women.

 

Then you have a song
on the last one, “Love Bomb” where the woman seemingly makes the male
invisible. That was my point about age in your songs.

NC: That was more meant to be about isolation, an inability
to connect with anything, but I see what you’re seeing.

 

Then there’s “When My
Baby Comes” – your Inception if you
will, with stolen dreams and character narratives crashing into the next one.

NC: There’re probably several different narratives at work.
It also plays with shifting times and sexes of the protagonists.

 

I found a surprising
big difference between Grinderman and Bad Seeds on this new album – there are
no ghosts to be found in G2. Bad
Seeds is littered with them.

JS: Do you mean baggage?

No, I’m talking about
spirits. The characters in Grinderman songs are all very vividly alive.

NC: That’s a nice question though. With the Bad Seeds I have
a sense, even when I try not to, of cumulative history. Different people
through different bands; different places that the music has gone. It has and
can be quite daunting – still is – to write for them. The new Grinderman isn’t
that. We come to Grinderman more naked, without ghosts, very much from the
ground up.

 

Is Grinderman an
easier release then?

NC: It’s all taxing. I have to pay the piper one day for all
this

JS: When Nick is doing Grinderman as a lyricist, it starts off
in a more spontaneous place. He’s ad-libbing in the studio. He’s tapping into a
different source for ideas and images rather than being alone and working in
isolation as he does in Bad Seeds. Working in a more fastidious way, he’s got
to deliver words and ideas on the spot during Grinderman sessions. It’s a
different platform for him different wellspring than if he were working alone.
Sorry to speak of you in the third person, Nick.

NC: I feel like I’m in the third person.

JS: Are you falling asleep?

NC: I was with you al the way.

 

You guys seem pretty
inscrutable. What intimidates you?

NC: Illness

Q: OK Maybe it was a bad time to ask. G2s slower in spots and more spacious – I know both bands share
membership. Do you feel that G1 inspired
Dig and in turn opened up G2?

NC: Everything affects everything with these people.

JS: You pick up the threads where you left off. Influence
reverberates in the background.

 

What made you write a
song called “Kitchenette”?

NC: You know that’s not the first time it’s been mentioned
in a song. Brian Eno talks about it in “Cindy Tells Me”. That song came to us
very quickly.

JS: Right out of the raw initial sessions. Pure
unadulterated Grinderman.

 

Is there any Birthday
Party left in you, Nick? I ask only because this record shares some of that
absurdity – the occasional slapdash lyric, the frenzied rhythms.

NC: I did that a long time ago. I’m the same person, yes. Yes.
Does Grinderman sound like that – no.

 

What do you guys
remember most about playing Porter Waggoner’s last show when you both opened
for White Stripes at Madison
Square Garden?

JS: I liked him. The show was sad to watch because he was on
his last legs but he was great. And the Garden was an interesting experience.
It wasn’t our most finessed performance but it had that feel of the old days
where there was a palatable sense of antagonism and resentment, mannered as it
was that night.

NC: Because no one wanted us there.

JS: It was real get-the-fuck-off-the-stage stuff in the
past. People didn’t want to hear our art noise. Audiences are too tolerant now.
I miss the days of having to have netting in front of the stage so you didn’t
get pelted with bottles..

 

That’s the Birthday
Party shit I was thinking about – the wild child stuff. Tell me about
“Bellringer Blues.” It’s my fave from G2.

NC: That’s one of our songs that came from a jam – then we
cut out things. I had a huge amount of lyrics for this song that I edited edited
edited. That’s the mathematic of turning chaos in to a song.

JS: When Nick’s improvising that’s built in. There’s more
ellipsis…

NC: It’s a little on the nose. You know when you spoke
before about how we don’t write or think about anything current. Well, there
was a sense that this song that it was about something more. A statement –
something pedagogic, something didactic – and I don’t feel comfortable with
that. So I edited. And now it’s some more hallucinatory.

JS: That fits the music better – it’s swirly and dazzling.
The lyrics are confused – starts off with questions…where have all my compatriots
gone. The resolution is quite apocalyptic.

NC: Jim is known to be expansive (laughs)

 

How about “What I
Know?”

NC: I think that’s our most texturally beautiful song – a
nice bit of space within the record.

 

Going in to G2 was that the deliberate idea –
improvise then let it breathe with texture and space?

JS: Yes, actually. The live shows required for the first
Grinderman record made it so. We only had only album so when we did festival
dates we extended a lot of the songs.

NC: On stage, it became even more improv. We became
expansive – we had a jamming feeling.

 

That just sounds
weird coming from you guys.

NC: Yes but rather than be indulgent, it removed the need
for us to compact what we were doing. It gave the songs room to breathe. We
could start a song in an abstracted way and move into clearer focus. What
became a way to lengthen the set, taught us to be more free with the structures
of songs for the nest record.

 

It’s psychedelic in
the best way.

JS: Is there a bad way?

 

Yes. Oh yes.

NC: A lot of those bands sucked. Even the psychedelic bands
that weren’t supposed to suck – did suck when you listen to them now.

      Then again
everything sucks on some level.

 

 

Grinderman’s North
American tour resumes tonight in Vancouver and
wraps Nov. 30 in Los Angeles.
Tour dates at the official website. You can read our review of the band’s New York City concert on
Nov. 14, along with exclusive photos, elsewhere on the BLURT site.

 

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