Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Biography
As the millennium creaked round, there was a brief creative pause. The softly enunciated, devotional love songs of 1997's "The Boatman's Call" had been widely recognized as a consummate achievement for Cave. 2001's "No More Shall We Part" found Cave's piano compositions placed within highly arranged settings, his songs of spiritual and emotional survival beautifully embellished with string sections guided by long term collaborator Mick Harvey and Warren Ellis.
Within "No More Shall We Part" there were, however, tell tale signs that the prowling, cathartic, extrovert side to The Bad Seeds, which had run through albums since their violent 1983 debut "From Her To Eternity" had not been laid to rest. In 'Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow' and 'Oh My Lord' the band was beginning to groove. Any notion that it was no longer of interest to exploit the combustible potential of musicians as vehement and skilful as Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Martyn Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis is due to be knocked aside by the next stage in the group's long march.
The twelfth Bad Seeds album "Nocturama" displays a renewed strength of purpose within the band, and is marked by an immediacy of recording technique and thematic diversity. The sessions took place in early 2002 when the band decided to use free time on an Australian tour to try out new compositions. They ended up learning and recording the album in a week.
"The idea was to take some of the preciousness about the making of the record away, and possibly create records more like they did in the old days which was a faster turn around," says Cave. "The way I wrote this record was to get the musical idea down, and a set of lyrics, and then put it to one side and start a new one. I didn't reflect on the songs again, or play them again. Once they were written, that was it. Whereas with the record before - "No More Shall We Part" - I'd arranged the whole thing before I went in, which perhaps inhibits the band a little. If something's already complete and all they have to do is play the parts, it doesn't give them much breathing space, and with this record they had a lot more room to play".
An objective point of view was brought to bear on proceedings in the form of Nick Launay. The LA-based British producer had worked with Cave many years before when he produced The Birthday Party's 1981 single 'Release The Bats', and at the behest of Mick Harvey Launay agreed to record the sessions. The band's sheer pleasure in playing together built on the intention to loosen up the process saw "Nocturama" emerge with a rawness in both the driven and the gentle songs.
As ever with Cave there are too many tributaries flowing into his work from the history of song to allow for easy analysis. While admitting to the influence of a handful of poets - Auden, Thomas Hardy amongst them - and song writers - Dylan and Van Morrison - Cave is still clearly inventing his own traditions on "Nocturama". The mood swings are impressive, spanning emotional surrender to venomous black humor. He engages with a wide range of themes. There is a tender sunset song of hope; an elegant piano song of longing; a yawing, dark violin waltz; a swaggering pledge of love; a raucous abominable tale; a sorrowful evocation of loss; a nostalgic meditation; a fragrant love epiphany; and one final, lustful demonic epic.
"Nocturama" might well be the complete Cave and The Bad Seeds panorama.
"By writing I try to understand myself in some way," says Cave. "It's the only way that I have really of understanding what I feel about things and what I think about things"
Wishing to maintain the ambiguity and mystery in the songs Cave is reluctant to extemporize on their content. At any rate some of the loveliest, most compelling songs are the gentle ones like the opening 'Wonderful Life', or the simple rendering of nostalgia 'There Is A Town', which require no footnotes.
'Bring it On' sees the band hitting a bold, superfly noir groove. The song benefits from an outstanding duetted vocal from Chris Bailey, singer with Brisbane's glorious pre-punk nihilists The Saints. "He was in Melbourne at the time and I called him up and he came and sang on 'Bring it On' - and he sang it beautifully. He lifted that song," says Cave. "He's a wonderful singer". "The Saints were Godlike to me and my colleagues. It was extraordinary to go and see a band that were so anarchic and violent, with a singer that could actually sing"
'Dead Man in My Bed' follows immediately from 'Bring it On' and further raises noise levels as Cave takes the perspective of a woman afflicted with a useless partner. "It's a song about marriage," says Cave. "But it's a comic song, funny and dark".
The album's most spectacular song is saved until the end when The Bad Seeds unleash the flaming jam 'Babe, I'm On Fire' demonstrating their mastery of demonic relentlessness. At fifteen minutes it's an epic with 43 verses (or more, as many didn't make the recorded version) in which a bizarre cast of high and low characters testify to the burning lust of the singer. The song was played just once prior to recording. "It was just an idea that steamrolled," says Cave. "It's the kind of song you write when you're not writing a song".
Film director John Hillcoat, who worked with Cave on the prison movie 'Ghosts of the Civil Dead', came in to make videos for two songs from the album. The single 'Bring it On' is accompanied by a performance video from the band, assisted by semi-clad extras, shaking anatomy at the camera in homage to American pop videos. "Johnny Hillcoat asked me what I wanted to make a video about" says Cave; "I asked him 'What do videos look like on MTV these days?' and he said 'basically there's a lot of black girls wiggling their asses at the camera'. So, I said yeah, well alright let's do that then".
Miscegenated emotions have been a part of the Cave cannon from the beginning. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he brought a rare intelligence to the post-punk scene of the early '80s. Formed in Australia but relocated to England, his pre-Bad Seeds band The Birthday Party were an apocalyptic expressionist challenge to the senses. When they split up in '83 Cave re-grouped with a set of fierce musicians willing and able to join him in the perversion and celebration of blues, folk and popular forms. The first line up of The Bad Seeds included two members still in the band - Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten and ex-Birthday Party guitarist Mick Harvey.
Over the next two decades the band of gentlemen gangstas would go through many line-ups, with personnel living in diverse corners of the world, but the standard of excellence would never dip. "From Her To Eternity", their introductory album of menacing swamp songs, was released in 1984. Shortly afterwards Cave moved to Berlin and began writing a first novel. In 1985 the release of "The First Born Is Dead" saw Cave's then literary concerns - the Old Testament, Elvis, Delta blues - leaking into the album's themes.
"Your Funeral My Trial" kept up momentum, surfacing in 1986 and giving voice to some of the haunted outsiders in Cave's head. Having met Wim Wenders in Berlin, Cave and the band appeared in the director's 'Wings Of Desire' and the 1987 prison movie 'Ghosts Of The Civil Dead' featured an acting performance by Cave and a score by Cave, Bargeld and Harvey.
With the publication of his first book, the lyrics compendium King Ink, and the 1988 release of the yearning tour de force Seeds album "Tender Prey", Cave's Berlin sojourn came to an end. In 1989 he moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil where the album "The Good Son" was recorded in 1990. Cave's novel 'And the Ass Saw the Angel' was finally published in the same year to critical acclaim, including selection as Time Out Book of the Year. It has been translated to fourteen languages.
The new decade saw The Bad Seeds augment their line up, bringing in bassist Martyn Casey and keyboardist Conway Savage. 1992's vaulting "Henry's Dream" benefited from the additions, and the '93 live album "Live Seeds" captured the band as they mutated into one of the most powerful and authentic live ensembles of all time. Visceral renderings of dark passions continued with the lauded "Let Love In" in 1994.
Ironically, the band's most commercially successful album of the '90s, "Murder Ballads", began life as a means of accommodating songs that were "too long and too strange to put on a legitimate record'. An exercise in mingling the comic and the horrific, the album's bloody narratives included a graphic rendition of the blues standard 'Stagger Lee' and a number of collaborations. Australian chanteuse Kylie Minogue joined Cave on 'Where The Wild Roses Grow' and PJ Harvey sung with him on 'Henry Lee'. The spirited end piece version of Dylan's 'Death Is Not The End' features verses by Anita Lane and The Pogues' Shane McGowan.
As the '90s drew to a close, the line up of the band had swollen to include New York percussion player Jim Sclavunos and Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis. The live incarnation of The Bad Seeds had reached frightening levels of intensity. With the stripped down, personal songs of "The Boatman's Call" in '97, they proved themselves adept at the most relenting instrumentation, as well as the most relentless.
As "Nocturama" is released Cave is already half way though writing the next album. The process of writing is continual for him, partly, he admits, to avoid the frightening prospect of having to begin again after a pause. He works to a regime, visiting an office and burdening his baby Steinway grand with full ashtrays, as he draws down ideas and tussles with his muse.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds plan to speed up the pace at which they issue albums. Remarkably for a band who have set such high standards, the best may be yet to come. - Anti Records