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Cover Story [Issue # 11 ]
Nick Cave: Finding The Four-Year-Old

By Ken Micallef

The Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues ( CD Anti- )
Listen to Nick Cave on the ONE WAY CD 11


Meeting Nick Cave is not what you would expect. No long-winded tales of death and danger, no pretentious airs or circuitous mind games. No, Nick Cave is a straight shooter. Let’s get down to business. Time is short. Your time is short. And the clock is ticking.

This is my seventh interview of the day and I am rather hysterical at this point,” he confides, sitting in an overstuffed armchair in New York’s Millennium Hotel, which sits directly across from the World Trade Center/former Twin Towers site. Ground Zero, with its end of days trajectory, its history dividing locus, is somehow a fitting location for this fabled singer-songwriter, confessed drug addict, screenwriter, actor, novelist, and indie icon.

In describing his latest album with the Bad Seeds, a double effort with two separate titles - The Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues (both Mute), the 46-year-old Cave says sequencing was a matter of rhythm and business, not divine (or demonic) inspiration.

“To be perfectly honest, we split them up depending on who drummed on what. We have two different drummers and each one has a different feel. One is a very heavy drummer; one is a light, jazzy drummer. That is no accident that the light jazzier songs have a certain personality to them lyrically and musically. And the heavy ones have a certain lyrical content so they did sit kind of nicely. We tried grouping them in different ways and it was a nightmare so in the end we just split them along drummers.”
Lanky and lean, Cave’s sinewy body is attached to a head that looks like a genetic mistake involving a rooster and a pug. Cave talks slowly as his big dark eyes roam the room. He doesn’t laugh much, but considers every response, answering as carefully as he writes.

Cave maintains a rare persona. As the singer with the Birthday Party, the band that took him from Australia to Europe in the early ‘80s, he was regarded as a wild, rebellious figure, the very essence of which rock claims to base itself on, but these days never lives up to. With the Bad Seeds, Cave became one of the most erudite songwriters working in rock, recording two of the finest albums of recent years: Murder Ballads, a mysterious collection of songs covered in turmoil and shadows; and an assortment of sorrowful love songs, The Boatman’s Call. Though once a cult figure, Cave is now an internationally known rock and roll star, with MTV nominations, two books and the fans to prove it. Married with twins, Cave is a man who takes his work seriously.

“I just go in and work,” he says, “but when I say ‘work’ it can involve everything from reading and playing the piano to poetry, staring into the middle distance, wringing your hands, crawling the walls. I always know what the songs are about, but there are a few that I have let through the loop where I have a written a line that rhymes and sounds all right. I always regret that and I was determined not to let any of that into this record.”

He may take great care with his craft, but Cave admits that most contemporary rock music is devoid of anything bordering on real lyrical content.

“You hear other writers and you know that what they are writing doesn’t mean anything. But the thing about rock music is that lyrics are not the be all and end all. There is nothing worse than bad lyrics aspiring to be good ones.”

Born and reared in Warracknabeal, northwest of Melbourne, Australia, Nick Cave’s mother was a librarian, his father an English professor who taught his son of the power and magic of literature. As Cave grew older he would try to stump his dad with esoteric knowledge of the classics, a game at which he would always lose. Cave’s songwriting became his outlet for all those years spent imbibing literature and pondering the page. But even with that, Cave doesn’t regard rock as a place for literary aspirations.
“I don’t think that rock and roll needs to have great lyric writing. Rock and roll music should be casual and explosive and a kind of scream from the soul, it is the great art form where you can just scream ‘oh baby’ and it sounds good.

“My father instilled a love of literature into me. From that I have a storyteller’s approach to writing lyrics. I don’t know how to write them any other way but to have a beginning and an end and a logical sequence of events. And I take an enormous amount of care in each line. When I see a line that is sloppy, that you know in your heart that you can sing in and get away with, the temptation in rock and roll is that it doesn’t really matter ‘cause no one really listens and you can just sing it a certain way and get away with it. But I feel it has to read okay on the page, that most songs are poetry. But within rock and roll I don’t see it as such a problem that lyric writing is a dying thing. Rock and roll doesn’t need to be that literary.”

But Cave’s lyrics certainly are. The Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues are two halves of the same whole, one mystical and atmospheric; the other more rocking and raging (back to that two drummers theme). Different listeners will take different things from each. But while Cave and the Bad Seeds can rock like a hurricane, somehow it is the albums’ more ethereal songs - “Easy Money,” “Messiah Ward,” “Oh Children,” and “Let The Bells Ring” - which move the soul. Simply put, Cave likes those songs sung blue.

“I do a sad song pretty well,” he confesses, “I have a knack for the sad song. But I do like now and then making a noise, kind of old school rock and roll. Those are two things that the Bad Seeds do well, extremely violent and slow and sad and pathetic. It may be that we have the emotional range of a four-year-old. Although there is a kind of agreeable tendency to be moving toward mid-tempo stuff. It is something that we have often shied away from because it doesn’t really suggest one thing or the other. We did make an effort on the ballads not to allow them to get that slow, lugubrious kind of plod. But there is a lot of movement that is going on underneath these songs and a lot of musical detail.”

At first listen, the jewel-like and eerily pensive “Easy Money” sounds like a lament for a cash and carry culture. “All the things for which my heart yearns; its joy and its diminishing returns” seems a commentary on the falseness of riches, but it is much worse than that.

“That is from reading tabloid magazines about rich people and beautiful people who feel that it ain’t so easy having a lot of money or perhaps ‘I feel my nose is too big.’ Both of which are things that really infuriate me. These people have so much and it is so demeaning to anyone who reads that kind of thing. The central character in ‘Easy Money’ is complaining about his wealth to a poor person who quietly sodomizes him as he is talking about it.

“Greed is a world phenomenon you will be pleased to know,” Cave continues. “High streets across England are all the same. That is distressing. Going to cities in the US - 20 years ago they all had clearly defined personalities. They don’t have that anymore, there is a corporate homogenizing happening. It is not that different but not as advanced in Europe, in England at least. But in saying that, I went on my honeymoon in the States and it was wonderful; we just drove a car across the US. There was this extraordinary countryside but as you moved into every town it became so repetitious after a while. I found that sad.”

Explaining that “Let The Bells Ring” is about Johnny Cash, Cave elaborates further.

“I marvel at the disappearance of these voices. It is not the lyric writers who are going, it is these great voices. In the one year Johnny Cash has gone, Nina Simone, June Carter, Barry White, these amazing voices just disappearing. It is a kind of a lament to that disappearance of these great voices that I don’t hear anymore.”

“Oh Children” is about Cave’s kids and the world’s children. “It is concerning the world we are handing over to our children and every parent’s anxiety about not being able to protect them from it. That song is coming from a place as a parent that I genuinely care about my children.”

Cave’s bearing as a family man concerned about his place in the world is a far cry from the self-serving joker who once proclaimed, “An audience is the perfect thing to unleash [one’s] hate and venom on. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate everyone in the audience but when you’ve got a so-called adoring mass in front of you, it’s a perfect target for that kind of disgust.” 1

How did Nick Cave convert from a ruinous rock and roller to a family man?

“I stopped taking drugs. That is the primary reason. I took drugs ‘cause they felt really good and when they stopped working I stopped taking them. That took 20 years. But I always worked. You can, despite popular opinion, take drugs and work. But I guess I work better now than I did before. I function better but I don’t see some kind of dividing line like that was then and this is now.”

Currently writing the soundtrack for the upcoming film, The Proposition, for which he also wrote the screenplay, Cave shifts the focus back to The Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues.

“I think this is a really important record. It seems to be turning a corner, suggesting different places to go. It is a lot to digest for some people, that is why we made two distinct records. You can listen to one and not the other. But it is still a complete thing.”


The Lyre of Orpheus and Abattoir Blues
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