Grant McLennan and Nick Cave

`Nick Cave first met G.W.McLennan when he was known as Grant and was a member of the Go-Betweens. The Go-Betweens had just relocated to Melbourne from Brisbane and Cave ruled Melbourne as lead singer of the Birthday Party. Along with their respective bandmates, Robert Forster, Lindy Morrison & Mick Harvey, the duo recorded the single "After the Fireworks" under the Moniker "The Tuff Monks". Both the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens moved to London in the early 80's, achieving considerable commercial success and widespread critical acclaim. McLennan and Cave shared a house in Fulham during this time. McLennan now has a successful solo career, having released the albums "Watershed" and "Fireboy", while Cave fronts the much-revered Bad Seeds, whose current album is Henry's Dream. Cave also recently appeared in the film "Johnny Suede".

Both are arrogant but talented artists, and setting up this interview was a difficult task, especially given Cave's busy schedule and a certain one-upmanship that developed between the two friends, neither wanting to appear over-eager to pursue or accomodate the other's wishes or demands. Ultimately the interview took place in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Melbourne, before G.W. repaired to his family's home in Cairns (North Queensland Australia) to write the story.

"For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives in the Valley of its saying where executives would never want to tamper; it flows south from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, a way of happening, a mouth." W.H.AUDEN, from "In Memory of W.B.Yeats"

G.W : In 1982 we were in Shepherds Bush and I asked what you were interested in outside music. I said poetry was my first adventure. You said poetry was dead. Do you still believe that?

N.C : Well Grant, when did I say that?

G.W : Shepherds Bush, London, early 1983. At that stage you were writing those one-act plays and that house in Paddington was always full of the sound of your typewriter.

N.C : Well, in those days, and these days to a certain extent, I never had much of a feeling for poetry. I never enjoyed it very much but there were some poets I liked, Blake and so on. But generally I didn't have much of a feel for it.

G.W : Was that because it was taught badly at your school?

N.C : I had a brilliant English Literature teacher, but it was always a bit vague for me.

G.W : What books did you study?

N.C : Guiseppe Lampedusa and -Crime and Punishment-, which knocked me for a six. Tess, the usual stuff. We didn't do, perhaps fortunately, Catcher in the Rye. It was a book I avoided for a long time and read two years ago and it changed my life.

G.W : That's kind of strange because that book has become almost necessary reading for 14-year-olds.

N.C : That's right, but I was always getting in on the arse end of things ... like Bob Dylan (G.W.laughs, remembering trying to get N.C. to listen to Blonde on Blonde).

G.W : That's interesting, because Dostoyevsky's language is hallucinatory and violent and complete in its depiction of a sad world. I see similar concerns in your lyrics, especially for the Birthday Party, and also in your novel.

N.C : Well, my father showed me two pieces of literature and tried to drum them into my head. The first was the opening paragraph of Lolita and the other was the murder scene in Crime and Punishment. He considered them to be exceptional pieces of writing. He actually read them both to me several times at an early age. I loved the senselessness and brutality of the murder, the double murder, in Dostoyevsky.

G.W : I remember seeing an early draft for the first part of your novel and saying it needed pruning. You didn't take it kindly.

N.C : Well, you know, you finish a book and THEN you edit it. It's probably not the most constructive thing to tell someone when they're writing their first book and are just part way into it. With most people's first book they pour out every idea they have. To write a book, certainly from a writer's point of view, is such a monumental thing that you don't want any idea left out. It's possibly a problem with mine. If I write another book it will be much leaner.

G.W : I think the most admirable thing about your book is that you avoided writing a veiled autobiographical novel. You attempted to create a world outside your immediate experience. That's harder, but more ambitious.

N.C : I never thought I had much of a story to tell about myself. I didn't want to write something that had a contemporary feel to it. I wanted to write something that felt like it could have been written 20 or 30 years ago, because I primarily wanted to avoid writing about contemporary, current issues. I wanted the book to be about old themes, you know?

G.W : Englebert Humperdinck once said that "applause was the food of the artist." If that is true, what is your diet?

N.C : Well, I'd hate to agree with anything he said because he's such a phony. At the same time, for me, going on the stage is an amazing thing, even though there is a lot of physical and emotional pain that goes with it. You kinda are somebody for an hour or two hours or whatever. You're up there and you are exactly what you want to be.

G.W : Are you aware of what 'Nick Cave' is to a member of that audience?

N.C : No, I just feel very comfortable up there in a way that I don't feel off stage. I don't feel that I really fulfil people's expectations of me off stage, but when I'm on stage I do. I feel more in control when I'm on stage. There's a certain distance between you and the audience; it's not a one-to-one confrontation.

G.W : So you always felt natural on stage? I started out in fear.

N.C : I never had that kind of fear. I had fear of failing, but I never had stage fright. I had much, much more fear about one-on-one contact with people. I feel more comfortable about performing to a vast amount of people.

G.W : When you're on stage, do you see the audience as a single entity or as a collection of individuals?

N.C : It depends on the situation. If I can get down into the audience and single out people, I prefer that. I'm in charge of that situation completely. I like to physically touch the audience.

G.W : I felt I was impersonating someone. It took me a long time to feel comfortable.

N.C : Well you always kind of exploited the nervous, sensitive artist thing. I'm not being unkind, but uncomfortable and awkward on stage, that's what the Go-Betweens were kinda about.

G.W : Perhaps that's because we couldn't play very well.

N.C : (laughing) We couldn't play very well either.

G.W : Maybe, but you used volume. People would scream at us to turn it up.

N.C : I was always, uh, good at performing in front of people, but not very good at, um, communicating with people on a one-to-one level.

G.W : You went to art school for a while. Why did you shift to music? Was it an accident?

N.C : Yeah, I kind of came in through the back door. I was always something of an imposter, I guess, because i couldn't really play music or sing very well and it was some years before I was able to do anything that was worthwhile musically. I did music because I failed art school. If I hadn't failed art school I probably would have carried on and been a moderatley successful painter.

G.W : It was only about three years ago that I was able to listen to my recorded voice and not feel uncomfortable. For a long time I disliked the sound of it, thought it was unconvincing...

N.C : (sarcastically) I can understand that.

G.W : (laughing)...but now it does what I want it to.

N.C : I was like that too. It was an effort to just do the basic things, like sing in tune and phrase properly. So it was always fairly excruciating (for me) to listen to my stuff as well.

G.W : (sarcastically) I can understand that. In the days of the Boys Next Door the songwriting was, for want of a better word, traditional. When the band deconstructed to the brilliant noise of the Birthday Party, that tradition went out the window. Now we find that you are back with form and melody.

N.C : I'm like you in that I'm very interested in classic songwriting, creating songs that have a classic feel to them. I mean, I don't think either of us are really concerned about doing anything that's new, or breaking new areas of music. We're far more interested in writing purposeful and soulful and well-constructed songs, and, as you go, you get more tools to be able to do that.

G.W : Where I grew up there is an annual picnic race meeting where the people from the surrounding cattle stations come and race their horses and relax. Whenever I'm there I get asked to play some songs but I find it really difficult because I don't know any of the songs they like. If I play my own, especially the early ones, they say "do you know any with a tune?" (much laughter)

N.C : I'd love to be able to play guitar and be able to sing, to stand on the back of a truck or around the campfire and entertain people in that way. I can't do that, unfortunately.

G.W : You could if you wanted to. You used to have an old guitar in London which I wrote "Cattle and Cane" on.

N.C : So that's why I could never write anything on it.

G.W : I ruined it for you. Did I steal its only tune? I'll give you a credit next time I see my publisher.

N.C : I've had to do that with my piano. I've hired pianos in Brazil. I've had to send back two, no three, because I've been convinced there's no songs inside them ... Well, you've got to blame something.

G.W : Because you've been photographed and recorded and filmed, do you have any trouble in working out your public and private selves?

N.C : Well, most of it's public. I know when my private time is and most of it is spent panicking about my public time, so it's all basically the same thing. I need to work on my private life more. I'm kind of a failure when it comes to my private life because I haven't had the time to work on it as other people.

G.W : But this is what happens if you live the life of an entertainer or an artist. It comes with the territory.

N.C : Of course there are certain things that have to suffer. I mean, you're away a lot of the time.

G.W : Do you feel there is a limit to what a songwriter can do with the much-used chords of rock & roll and country?

N.C : I'm only beginning to understand what those chords are all about. I've only just started to realise there are certain chord progressions that seem to work over and over again, which you probably knew about years ago. I don't know if there's a limit to them, but it does get increasingly difficult to write songs.

G.W : I can find it hard to put those chords to effortless use.

N.C : Well, I think I'm able to go into different areas from you. You have a basic style of songwriting that has always been rooted in the classic songwriting mode. When I can't find a neat and nice chord progression, I can always just bang out a song on one chord and scream over the top and have the Bad Seeds play dramatic instrumentation around that and it can still be a successful thing. I couldn't play you any of my songs (laughs). I mean, if you asked me to play one on the piano, I couldn't. I write them, I give them to the band and they learn them and play them. I wouldn't have a clue how they go after that.

G.W : I find it interesting that a song I consider unsuccesssful will be someone else's favourite.

N.C : Sometimes I can't sing a song because the period I wrote it in really irks me or it's connected with things I don't want to remember, or I wrote that song about a particular person who I felt I was in love with and now I hate their fuckin' guts. Other songs seem to keep the memory of certain people alive. I mean, most of my songs are written about other people and I sing them to keep the memory of those people alive.

G.W : I haven't recognized anyone in your songs. People used to tell Robert Forster and myself that we'd written a certain song about them.

N.C : I wrote a song for Robert the other day. It's called "Pack Rape". I sang it to him many times in a hotel room but that's by the by. Robert, I'd like to make a fromal apology for that night.

G.W : Do you meet many 'characters' when you tour?

N.C : Well, not only did I insult Robert all night, which I feel bad about, but I also insulted Kamahl and Doug Parkinson on the same night. So you do get to meet some interesting people.

G.W : Are you rude to entertainers you dislike or do you pucker up with them for the cameras?

N.C : Well, I can't say that Kamahl actually approached me. I don't know, when I really admire somebody I'm a jittery, tongue-tied fan.

G.W : Don't you think that's good, that you still feel that?

N.C : No, I wish I could relax a bit more. I'm very nervous in the company of people I consider to be greater than myself (laughing), which is just about everyone.

G.W : I've known you for a long time and I wouldn't have thought you considered many people more talented than you.

N.C : (pause) Do you remember throwing me out of your apartment when I used to live there, in London?

G.W : Yes, I do.

N.C : Oh well, as long as you do.

G.W : Yes.

N.C : Okay, fine, fair enough.

G.W : The people's ears next door were bleeding from the noise and there was cigar smoke everywhere. So, for both our sakes, we should leave it at that.

N.C : Um, yeah, good idea.

G.W : Some people came up to me (once) and asked me what music I liked. I said Bob Dylan and they laughed. It's weird when people prefer what you do to someone as great as Dylan.

N.C : Well, I don't want to be offensive but those people said that statement out of ignorance.

G.W : I saw some out-takes of 'Johnny Suede' in New York.

N.C : Yeah? The good bits? You mean the tequila scene? I wrote the tequila scene and it was chopped out.

G.W : What happened?

N.C : It was a scene where I asked for tequila and they didn't have any salt, so I lifted this woman's arm and licked her armpit. It was a high comic moment, but it hit the cutting room floor.

G.W : What would you do if you won a million dollars?

N.C : I'd just put it in the bank with all my other millions. I don't know. I'd, I'd ... I'd give it to my friends (smiling).

G.W : All of it?

N.C : I don't know, I might buy a town in Indonesia or a small African village and, every once a year, parade through it.

G.W : Would you give any to charity or to research? People have said that I should write some political songs.

N.C : I think I've been charitable to the world with my music for as long as I've been making music (delivered very dryly). I think some of your songs give people the impression that without actually singing about politics you are 'politically aware'.

G.W : Do you think the artist has the responsibility to address political issues?

N.C : I think it will be a very sad day when the world becomes such a terrifying place that individuality and art and beauty might not have a place; when there just isn't room for creativity. If that happens I will be redundant, because I don't have the ideologocal ammunition to write songs like that. I do feel for the world. It is in a frightening state, and I think it's a good thing that there are poeple out there educating others about these problems. But I wouldn't be true to myself if I started writing like that. I don't think anyone would listen to it anyway.

G.W : But you have an increasingly large audience. Don't you think they would be interested in your views on certain things?

N.C : I think they're interested in my own peculiar viewpoint. They have enough thngs crammed down their throat.

G.W : Are you aware of your own myth?

N.C : No, well I am to a certain extent, but you know...

G.W : There's a bit of orange peel hanging from your...

N.C : My nose?

G.W : It could be pith.

N.C : Pith on myth, that's what I say. I don't know, I actually have to live inside here, so I can't get too entangled with that. I know what I'm like.

G.W : People have preconceptions about you from your work, from your image. People have written to me about their lives as though I'm involved, and want to know if I can help.

N.C : That's because your songs make you sound like you're someone who has been confronted by problems and found a way to solve them. I mean, I get the same thing - lots of Dorothy Dix type letters from people with terrible, frightening lives hoping that I can be of some help, but of course I can't.

G.W : I find that scary.

N.C : Well, it's scary that people can actually think that their heroes can solve their problems.

G.W : You've said that you feel very Australian. What's "Australian" to you?

N.C : Well, I think that there is an Australianness to what I write. There's a certain brooding sensitivity towards things, which is greatly overlooked. It's not the way the rest of the world sees Australia - brooding, with a kind of twisted sense of humour on the top. I do write songs like that and I think that's because I'm an Australian.

G.W : I know you have a short fuse when it comes to critics.

N.C : It was winter, you know?

G.W : What?

N.C : When you threw me out of your house!

G.W : (laughing) Yes, and you had the holes in your shoes taped up but I paid for you to get into the Soutine exhibition, so let's leave it alone.

N.C : Anyone who writes about rock music can't have much to say about things. I despise rock jornalists so much. Why should they have the right to make or break an artist? I don't care who the artist is, might even be Kamahl. Basically, I think they should just sit there and applaud everyone for what they're doing and allow people to get on with their work. What infuriates me, is that you put a lot of blood and guts into something and all they have to do is write a couple of paragraphs about it and it can actually affect sales of your record. I don't care what they say but they can affect your popularity.

G.W : Do you think people really care what a rock critic writes?

N.C : I think it can certainly have an effect. I mean, rock critics were primarily responsible for creating the "Nick Cave' myth, and a lot of people seemed to believe that. I always felt I was larger than the myth anyway, that I had more to me than whatever this myth supposed is, was, um... Can I ask you some questions now?

G.W : Okay, shoot.

N.C : Why did you throw me out of your house?

G.W : Jesus! We've already gone through this! Do you really want to know?

N.C : Yes!

G.W : Because you were behaving like a pig. (Fortunately the hotel physiotherapist arrives and the tape gets caught in the ointment. Thus, reputations are left intact and memory becomes a buried thing; to be exhumed at a later date, when the moon and the stars are in perfect alignemnt, when, perhaps, your grandchildren might need a tall story to help them fall asleep.)'

From Cheryl Nibble by way of Sean Brady; Originally appearing in GQ Magazine, 1993