Nick Cave: “There’s no metric that says virtuousness makes good art”
Written by ABR on 26/05/2023
NME is ushered into a gothic basement dining area beneath a swanky London cafe to be met by Nick Cave waiting for us in a dimly-lit wood-panelled room. It’s the ideal setting to meet a coven of vampires, or the supposed prince of darkness that is the Bad Seeds icon, but in truth he’s anything but. He greets us with a smile, laughs – regularly – and most importantly doesn’t chase any of the journalists present down the street as he was once famed for.
He has a lot to say, and nothing to hide behind. “I feel like I’m preaching today!” he chuckles at one point, before his eyes point down to the long table he sits at the head of. “It is a kind of weird coffin shape!”
“There’s something to be said for a good faith conversation,” he tells the assembled audience of his current mindset. Following the tragic death of his young son Arthur in 2015, Cave retired from interviews – choosing instead to speak to fans directly at public events and via the now beloved Q&A service, The Red Hand Files. His work and music became more open and vulnerable too, a run of films portrayed the artist in the most personal light as possible, and a new book Hope, Faith & Carnage – containing hours of musings on love, life, religion, grief and more with journalist Seán O’Hagan – is just as raw and unfiltered.
In that spirit, we gather as he tells about his shifting attitudes from being “a young trouble-maker, drug addict, chaos-maker” with early band The Birthday Party to his current state where it’s “too difficult to hold the world in contempt when there’s so much evidence of the beauty of the world”. Below are the questions NME asked Cave and his unflinchingly frank answers on connecting to fans, cancel culture, attending the King’s coronation, new music from The Bad Seeds, and, er, Ray Winstone’s ability to get an erection.
NME: At events and via The Red Hand Files, the fans often match your openness and generosity. Has all of this changed your relationship to and perception of your audience?
Cave: “It really has. It’s been a slow, developing thing. The things that I’m concerned about are the same – even in The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds when they were much more aggressive concerts, they were still concerned with ideas of transcendence and of basically trying to get the audience to a heightened state. In The Birthday Party it was the same thing, even though it was violent.
“My methods are just different these days – there’s much more of a feeling of community, inclusiveness and hopefully transcendence; that we get together and hopefully arrive at a different place through the participation in the music. It’s definitely a two-way thing. It’s an outpouring and in-taking of love.”
NME: Are you pouring more love into the music now?
Cave: “I don’t know about the music, but these days I feel a more urgent need to connect with people. That there’s a kind of duty in that, that maybe I didn’t feel before. That I have at my disposal something that’s very valuable – to make music and I don’t want to squander that opportunity in phoning in gigs or doing half-hearted attempts. Everyone is as important as each other.”
NME: There’s a quote where you’re talking about Hope, Faith & Carnage where you welcomed the privilege of being wrong, which was refreshing as it’s not a privilege that a lot of people allow themselves…
Cave: “No, it isn’t. I like being wrong. I’m always wrong. The thing about a wrong idea is that you know. The thing with Seán is that I would start talking about what I call in the book ‘my cherished ideas’ – these are the ideas that you think are really good, they rattle round in your head, you talk to yourself, and you have the conversation as they come out of your mouth. You’re saying them to someone that’s not afraid to push back into them a bit and you can hear that they’re not good ideas. That is the corrective value of a conversation. You find out your good ideas, they get firmer and better, and your bad ideas drop away. Seán will tell you, but I’m full of dreadful ideas!”
NME: Do you spend much time on the internet?
Cave: “No, I don’t do any social media at all. I used to be a kind of passive participant in Twitter and watch what was going on, but my problem with Twitter was that I followed people that I really respected. One by one they just became so diminished as people. ‘Is he really saying that?’ That whole idea of it being like punk rock and the Wild West, it just seemed like a bunch of arseholes hashing it out in increasingly stupid ways.”
NME: Do you feel like the internet could evolve to provide space for these ‘good faith conversations’ you crave?
Cave: “I think social media is a huge problem and is having a huge demoralising effect on society. Young people are losing faith in the world in general and what the world has to offer them. That’s a major problem. In fact, I was actually looking at something in a newspaper – not on the internet – and it was the five ways the world may end. There was a nuclear episode, a fucking asteroid, and so on. One of them was the collective will to live; that we’d just die because we’re so demoralised by things and that no one really cares enough anymore to continue. I generally find that I see that a lot. I just see young people in such dire situations that there just doesn’t seem to be anything to live for.
“There’s also a corrosive, pathological, relentless pessimism coming from the media and social media. It’s just eating away at ourselves and what we are as human beings. Personally, I don’t see the world like that. I think terrible things can happen but what we are missing is the beauty of the world – the systemic loveliness of things.”
NME: You recently responded to a fan about why you don’t make ‘angry’ music any more. Does this mean you might not ever return to a space where you could, for instance, make another [garage rock side project] Grinderman record?
Cave: “We could do a Grinderman record, because Grinderman is essentially improv. It’s musically challenging and you don’t really know what you’re going to get, but I don’t think we could make a four-on-the-floor rock’n’roll record any more. I don’t think we could make an old-school Bad Seeds record anymore where it’s basically a rock band playing. I don’t see that happening. Not that this next [Bad Seeds] record is ambient – it’s not at all – but I just don’t see us going back to that basic rock’n’roll style. I just don’t know how to do it anymore.”
NME: Do you ever sense your influence on other artists?
Cave: “I don’t know. Are there some? Maybe. I always hear these bands, I’m not gonna mention any names, but the singer sings slow and flat and someone says, ‘God, it sounds like Nick Cave!’ Gloomy, inebrious singer moaning away…”
NME: The word ‘goth’ gets thrown around a lot…
Cave: “I like the goths, though. Do you like goths?”
NME: Oh yes, very much
Cave: “I think the goths have endured in a way. That was the bane of our existence when we were young: that we were called a ‘goth band’. It was the last thing you wanted to be called, because we just weren’t. We were a comedy act! But I do have a weird romance for that and their capacity to endure.”
NME: Do you feel that culture and music would benefit more from the spiritual state of mind you describe, or can good art come from nihilism?
Cave: “I don’t know what comes from nihilism. I don’t think art can come from nihilism at all. As soon as you start making art, you stop being a nihilist, I guess. You’re doing something, and art is in its essence good – it’s morally good. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, if you’re putting this particular force out into the world then it is for its betterment. That’s why I don’t particularly care where my art comes from. It doesn’t bother me if someone wears a For Britain badge [Morrissey] or is an anti-semite or whatever and they’re making extraordinary music.
“One some level I don’t care. It’s not that I agree with their politics, which I don’t, I just think that what they’re putting into the world [with music] is essentially good so it should be encouraged. I just think the world is in a fucked up place and we need to rehabilitate the world in some way. Music is at least one good thing we can do. It worries me when music is shut down. ‘Shut that down! Take that one away’! Just because the people who are making it are fucked up individuals. It’s a really interesting thing, this. At the same time I don’t separate the artist from the art. I don’t think you can do that, but I think that the art is all that stuff moulded together.
“I don’t think that it’s an accident, or it seems to me that there is some correlation between transgressive and bad behaviour and good art. It’s no accident that the really great stuff is often made by the most problematic people. I don’t quite understand it, but there’s certainly no metric that says that virtuousness makes good art. If you start looking around for the good people who make good art, the conversation shuts down very quickly. All the great stuff seems to be made by people who are in some way, out of order in some way or another.
“I just value art and see that the need for it is too urgent to be fucking around and taking this stuff down. That’s where my problem with the cancel culture business begins and ends. It’s not some great fight I’m having with these people. I just worry about the world and we need as much good stuff as possible.”
NME: You once said that music was the best of us…
Cave: “I think so. That’s true. It’s some distance travelled to get from these extremely flawed people to this extraordinarily beautiful stuff. We need to bear that in mind. It’s a personal thing too. There are certain artists that I’m not going to listen to because I just don’t want to on a personal level. I know I’m contradicting myself. There’s some stuff where things may have happened or that person may have been involved in, that I find particularly contemptible and it just spoils my enjoyment of that music.
“The thing about the need to look around and find who’s doing bad things, the benchmark just drops. People are doing less evil things. I don’t want to get into this at all, but I just had a guy write into the Red Hand Files. He said, ‘I’m a longtime fan, I love your work, and it gives me great sadness to pack it all up in a box and take it down to the secondhand shop because I can no longer listen to you because you went to the coronation.
“It just feels to me that the wrongs get less and less and less. It’s not like I’m a fucking fascist, child-molesting whatever. I just think the wrongs get less and whatever.”
NME: Did you have a good weekend at the coronation?
Cave: “I’m not talking about that! [Laughs] It was acutely interesting… and extremely British.”
NME: How often do you take other people’s advice?
Cave: “I take it a lot. That’s essentially what The Red Hand Files is – it’s people writing in and me going, ‘Woah’. They write in and say, ‘You think you can call yourself an anti-monarchist and still go to the coronation?’ Then occasionally, you get a really reasoned response that makes you think it’s teaching you something.
“I’m amongst that, however, you get all the shrill self-piteous superior screeds that are written around this sort of stuff that are very difficult to read and are written like someone in a pub shouting at you. They seem to me to have jumped straight off social media onto my Red Hand Files – that are usually free of that sort of thing. Usually what people write in with is very beautiful, then occasionally things turn very nasty for a week or two, then it calms back down.
“The last time was around COVID, where I said that I was happily vaccinated and then there was just this, ‘Pow’, this ‘Fuck you, where’s your punk rock spirit?’ Occasionally these things happen, but mostly it’s reflective and corrective. I don’t have an editor or anyone saying, ‘Maybe you want to re-think that…”
NME: Finally, your mad novel The Death Of Bunny Munro was once mooted to be turned into a TV show over a decade ago. Where is it?
Cave: “It’s coming along. There’s [1989 novel] And The Ass Saw The Angel as well as a TV series or movie, but they’re quite advanced. The Bunny Munro one is chugging along.”
NME: Is Ray Winstone still set to play the sex-addict lead in that?
Cave: “I think Ray is too old to even get it up! That was a joke, Ray. There are actors attached, but I don’t know what I can say about it but I’m happy about it. And The Ass Saw The Angel is insane. If it gets made, the ideas we have for it are off the planet. It’s very different from the book.
NME: You were once asked to write the screenplay for Gladiator 2. Are you bitter that it’s happening without you?
Cave: “It’s an outrage! How dare they? Is Russell Crowe anything to do with it? He’s a great actor. He can be amazing. He’s one of those actors that can be a wildcard. Like Mel Gibson too, there’s something just a little off going on that’s pretty exciting.”
Faith, Hope & Carnage, by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan, is released on paperback on June 1
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