40 years after arriving in the UK, Nick Cave stands alone. An unimpeachable artist who refuses to repeat himself, presiding over an imperial back catalogue. From The Birthday Party to The Bad Seeds, and numerous collaborators, Daniel Dylan Wray speaks to those who helped the prince of darkness build his kingdom…
When Nick Cave arrived in England from Australia in 1980, he did so with a colossal thump, landing headfirst into a pool of bitterness and squalor. His band, The Birthday Party, a feral and ferocious post-punk outfit, used to read the NME cover-to-cover back home in Melbourne (even if it was six weeks late by the time it arrived via boat). They learned about a groundswell of exciting new bands in the UK and decided it was the place to be, but arrived to find the bands largely mediocre, a hostile reception, and were soon living in squats that would result in their guitarist Rowland S Howard suffering from malnutrition. “We went from being big fish in a small pond to frogspawn in an ocean,” Howard said later.
Problems were further exacerbated for Cave and Howard by a little issue they had carried with them from back home: heroin. “They arrived with drug problems,” says their old band member Mick Harvey. “So they had to service those problems and both of them were completely unemployable. They were out on a limb.”
However, the band managed to take their anger, resentment and disappointment and spew it back at the people of London when on stage. While they arrived to indifference, their live shows soon began to enthral and terrify audiences. “It was on the edge all the time, there was a real nervous energy at the shows,” says Harvey. “There was the potential for anything to happen. Sometimes it felt like it was on the edge of some kind of violent explosion. When it all came together, the stars aligned and all the chemicals were at the right balance, the shows were unbelievable.”
There was always the potential for anything to happen. Sometimes it felt like it was on the edge of some kind of violent explosion
Prior to becoming The Birthday Party, the group – made up of Cave, Howard, Harvey, Tracy Pew and Phill Calvert – had been in the more new wave outfit, The Boys Next Door. As The Birthday Party, they made two albums, Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, and by 1983 they were already close to implosion point as they released their finest material on a couple of EPs as a parting goodbye: The Bad Seed and Mutiny. Drugs, inner-band tensions, a breakdown in the songwriting relationship between Cave and Howard, and their audiences all were contributing factors.
The band seemed to contain so much manic, wired, fraught and frantic energy within them that collapse was always a case of when not if. Also, those shows that had bordered on a violent energy had changed as audiences soon began to come to gigs to cause trouble and antagonise. “The whole situation needed an original response from the audience,” Harvey says. “Crowds and groups of people by their very nature tend to start behaving like a mob, especially once there was an expectation of how wild or exciting the show was going to be. An element of surprise worked best, when people would just come along and then be presented with this pretty wild show, not expecting it to be that confrontational. By ’83, we were playing slower and slower songs to offset that expectation. We didn’t want people going nuts the second we started playing.”
One night, an audience member even took it upon himself to clamber on stage and begin urinating on Tracy Pew as he was playing. Pew returned the favour by smashing his bass into his head. Cave was becoming exasperated. “I don’t know of another group who are playing music that is attempting in some way to be innovative that draws a more moronic audience than The Birthday Party,” he said in 1983. “This is not everybody of course, just people I see from stage, there’s always 10 rows of the most cretinous sector of the community.”
Dynamics had also started to change. Cave didn’t want to sing songs written by Howard anymore, or even work with him on them. “Nick not wanting to write with Rowland anymore was a bit of a death knell for the band,” Harvey says. Harvey had also started working with Cave more as a songwriter and Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld was also brought in to play some guitar on the final Birthday Party recordings. “There was a lot of ill feeling about Blixa being brought in,” recalls Harvey of Howard’s response. “It was a jealousy thing I guess. I think he felt rejected by it.”
It was Harvey that then called time on the band, by which point they had also inspired a sea of imitators who blindly missed the point and instead copied their haircuts and vaguely goth sound in mimicry the band disdained.
A brief tour as Nick Cave & The Cavemen followed, but as Cave began to write more songs and assemble an album, he needed a new band, and so Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were born, comprising initially of Cave, Harvey, Bargeld and JG Thirlwell, although Thirlwell soon departed and Magazine’s Barry Adamson and Hugo Race entered.
Howard and Pew were out and a new era was born, as the ferocious snarl and clattering fury of The Birthday Party gave way to a more song-focused outfit. It was also clear Cave had fallen for Bargeld and his unusual approach to playing. He recalled seeing Bargeld on TV for the first time: “He was the most beautiful man in the world. He stood there in a black leotard and black rubber pants. Around his neck hung a thoroughly fucked guitar. His skin cleared to his bones, his skull was an utter disaster, scabbed and hacked.”
Harvey recalls the transition as being “fairly loose”, but the sessions for the album were often intense, long and mania inducing. “Nick was just experimenting and trying to get different sorts of ideas together and approach making the music in a different way,” he says.
“After losing interest in The Birthday Party, I think he was trying to find out what music he really was interested in making. I think the first album was just purely experimental, taking that linear music and using narratives and dynamics to tell stories.” Hugo Race remembers: “There was this idea in the air that nothing could be valid if it sounded like anything that had previously been done.”
For Barry Adamson, the shift in approach from his old group was distinctly noticeable. “Magazine was very controlled and felt like it had an order to it,” he says. “Whereas this wasn’t at all. It felt like being let off the leash.” Producer Flood recalls the song Cabin Fever being an apt description for the whole process. “It was like nothing I’d ever dealt with before,” he says. “The whole thing was eye-opening in so many different aspects.”
The band would be in various up and down stages of drug highs and lows, coming in and out at different times, which left Flood there pretty much constantly to record whatever might be going on. “Flood was stuck in there for huge chunks of time not getting much sleep,” Harvey says. “He was on the edge of paranoia, they were full-on, those sessions. At the end, we walked out of there completely insane, out of our heads, and that was it.”
The band toured the album – one that was often slower, more brooding, atmospheric and less brutal than The Birthday Party – and every night they opened with A Box For Black Paul. The nine-minute piano-led number that slowly creeps along like a night crawler was a direct message to the audience: this is no Birthday Party. “The tour drew crowds expecting the confrontation of The Birthday Party,” recalls Hugo Race. “Starting with Black Paul was a kind of provocation. This very long, quiet song resulted in people yelling and throwing stuff.”
It’s this transitional moment that in many ways became the lifelong mantra for The Bad Seeds; to do things on their own terms, even indulge in wilful obstination along the way, and to carve out a career that was unwaveringly theirs. Their 1984 debut From Her To Eternity set a template for how the band would approach both the creative process and their audience in future, but sonically it laid out foundations that would be built upon, expanded and mutated hugely.
The following year came The Firstborn Is Dead, a record that plunged deeper into Cave’s blues sensibilities and growing Elvis obsession via biblical imagery. Shortly after, eager to shake off the dark gothic overlords image people seemed keen to give them, they released Kicking Against The Pricks, an album of covers that touched more upon country, blues and pop rather than The Birthday Party derivative goth scene that was blowing up at the time.
A few members came and went as the 1980s progressed; Adamson left along with Hugo Race, but by the 1990s the band had landed on a line-up that would fundamentally be the key Bad Seeds core for years to come: Cave, Harvey, Bargeld, Conway Savage, Thomas Wydler, Jim Sclavunos, and a few years later Warren Ellis would solidify that group.
Things were a lot less chaotic. There was a feeling of a new awakening. Something was starting to happen
VIOLENT & OBSCENE
Drugs had played an up and down role during these years too, with Cave’s heroin addiction occasionally taking hold and resulting in some of the band’s darker and more desperate songs, found on albums such as the brilliant Your Funeral…My Trial. Cave entered rehab and moved to Brazil before releasing 1990’s The Good Son, an album more full of light, love and piano. Once again, it depicted something of a new awakening for the band as they embarked on what would be one of their most successful decades.
Drummer Sclavunos had been a key figure in the no wave scene, playing with Teenage Jesus & The Jerks before going on to appear briefly with The Cramps and Sonic Youth. When his time to join The Bad Seeds came, it was a welcome move. “I had quit all my other bands and was down on my luck,” he recalls. “I was back in New York with my tail between my legs thinking this music malarkey was not working out for me. It wasn’t the first time I had considered giving up. I was trying to conceal my absolute glee, as well as my nervousness, and then I spoke with Nick.” He was brought in as a touring member for the band’s 1994 album Let Love In before joining as a full-time member for 1996’s Murder Ballads. Like Adamson, who entered the band all those years earlier, Sclavunos, too, found it to be like nothing he’d ever experienced. “I’d never been to a session that casual or spontaneous before,” he says. “It was a bit of sea change in terms of studio practice and the creative process.”
In fact, it was Sclavunos who provided the impetus for one of the band’s most beloved and eternal songs: the blistering Stagger Lee. “Stagger Lee was very much an afterthought,” he says. “The album was done and we were in the overdub stage back in London, and Kylie Minogue had come in to do vocals on Where The Wild Roses Grow – everything was being wrapped up. I had found this book that contained the body of lyrics that Nick utilised for Stagger Lee. It was a book of prison poetry. There were a couple of versions of it in the book and there was one that was particularly violent and obscene that appealed to me, and I brought it to the session and said to Nick, ‘you might enjoy this, even though it’s a bit late’. He really liked it. Then within minutes we went into the room where the equipment was still set up and just bashed it out in two takes.”
LOVE ME TENDER
Tales of anger, blood, violence, murder and the general seedy underbelly of life have peppered, if not entirely seasoned, much of the Bad Seeds’ career, but as the 1990s moved into the 2000s, yet another rebirth seemed to occur in the band and a different direction took hold. Cave’s 1997 piano ballad album, The Boatman’s Call, written in the wake of his break-up from PJ Harvey, led to a resting period of several years, in which he finally kicked heroin once and for all, and they returned to a run of albums that would embrace more earnest, love-filled, tender and often pop-leaning songs.
Their weakest effort was 2003’s Nocturama, which led to lifelong member Bargeld leaving, but the man who replaced him, James Johnston, says that the band he entered was one brimming with possibility. “Things were a lot less chaotic,” he says, referring to his brief stint as a touring member in 1994. “There was a feeling of a new awakening. Something new was starting to happen.” The result was the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus, with the record ostensibly split down the middle between thundering gospel-infused rock and a more stripped-back and tender affair. “Nick was really leading the whole thing and there felt like such a sense of purpose to it,” he recalls. “There was a buoyancy, a freedom. It felt like the band had something to prove.”
However, another and even more surprising sidestep was about to come next for the band, as Cave took aside Ellis, Sclavunos and Casey to form Grinderman, a sardonic, scornful and explosive garage-rock band. “I think Grinderman was to shake it all up a bit and get away from stylistic ideas that Nick might be bored of,” recalls Johnston, who was in The Bad Seeds at the time. “So they indulged in something a bit fresher and madder. You could even feel that need to do something different in rehearsals, too. With Nick, there’s almost an impatience with him to shake it up and freshen everything.”
This caused even more of a change, however. Mick Harvey, who had been Cave’s right-hand man since the late 1970s in The Boys Next Door, decided to leave. Ed Kuepper, who replaced him on tour, says it was no real surprise. “Grinderman, I think, was the indication of a split in the band,” he says. “Otherwise, why do it? Because it very specifically didn’t involve Mick.”
However, while such a move – alongside years of built-up tension and fatigue – may have resulted in the loss of a crucial member, Grinderman changed the dynamic. Not only had Cave and Ellis’ creative partnership begun to take more of an accelerated form, it opened something up in the band. “Grinderman was a crucible for which we could pound a lot of random things together into a heated vessel and see what happens,” says Sclavunos.
“It was something that was safely removed from The Bad Seeds’ legacy.” The side-project lasted two albums and was retired in 2010, but it’s not been entirely ruled out that it may return. “You never know when it’s going to rear its ugly head,” says Sclavunos. “It’s never been officially buried, so a hairy claw might reach from beyond the grave yet. There’s a lot to be done with The Bad Seeds and it has to feel right, especially for Nick, as he is always the guy for which everything flows out from. He’s the connection, the embodiment, so he has to be convinced in his soul that it’s the right thing to do.”
Around this time, Cave and Ellis also began to work regularly on film soundtracks and, once again, this extra curricular activity fed back into the lifespan, creativity and vivacity of The Bad Seeds – like an IV drip pumping a constant fresh ideas supply to the band.
“There was a freeing up of things,” says Ellis. “And this fed back into the band. Each project keeps informing each other. It’s helped set up a foundation for how Nick and I work that carries on to this day. The way we go in to make music for a film is the way we go in to make music as a band. There’s openness and an embracing of ideas that goes across everything we do, album or score. This has enabled us to have a relationship for the period of time that we have.”
Perhaps what came next in The Bad Seeds’ ongoing trajectory – one that has outlasted and outshone just about every trend, style, musical movement and fashion – is the most unpredictable chapter: they blew up. The adored cult band had been steadily playing theatres and big rooms for years, but after the release of their 2013 album Push The Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, they found themselves playing arenas to tens of thousands. “I always felt like the band could have a broader appeal than it was allowing itself to,” says Sclavunos. “Nobody inhibited our career or anything, but it baffled me why more people didn’t like that band. Granted, it’s not a commercial band, and the last album is as difficult as any we’ve made, but I think it’s a statement about how open audiences can be. I think people underestimate the public appetite for music that might not be so obvious.”
And so, in 2020, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have gone from a group struggling to shrug off the reputation of their previous band to one about to embark on their biggest tour to date, and with a huge career-spanning Nick Cave exhibition about to open in Copenhagen. Which, of course, leaves the question of what’s next? For Sclavunos, the answer is the same as it’s always been. “I have no idea what is going to happen,” he says. “I have no idea where we’ll go next and that conjures up a degree of excitement, a degree of anxiety, a great deal of curiosity.”
Daniel Dylan Wray