Nick Cave’s Grinderman side project is starting to look like a full-scale rock ’n’ roll band
Few bands are so perfectly named, but perhaps it’s to be expected when the frontman is Nick Cave. The Aussie musician has long since proven himself the don of vivid imagery, complex dramatic narrative and bang-on-the-button modernism, and Grinderman do pretty much exactly what it says on their tin: ‘they’ being Cave and Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis (violinist, loops manipulator), Jim Sclavunos (drummer/percussionist) and bass player Martyn Casey.
Grinderman 2 is (naturally) their second outing and sees the four stretching out from the thrillingly brief, dark and filthy stew of punky blues, improv space jazz and electronic squalling that was their debut into more epic, psychedelic territory. It has the same impact as a blow to the head with an iron bar – but infinitely more fun. Here are deep-cut grooves you can jive to, slow-building jams to nod along with and acid wig-outs to induce whiplash, with lyrics peopled by mythical archetypes, super- and antiheroes and cultural icons both baleful and benign. Put simply, it’s a blast. With the album’s first single, the full-tilt and menacing ‘Heathen Child’, now released, we talked ragas and risk, gags and good taste with Messrs Cave and Sclavunos.
What kind of relationship exists between Grinderman and The Bad Seeds? Is it symbiotic? Competitive? Parasitic? NC: All of those. It certainly created a tension within The Bad Seeds at first. I don’t think it does any more.
Did the ‘other’ Bad Seeds need initial reassurance? NC: There’s not a lot of communication that goes on within our bands. Essentially, people get a phone call. We get on really well, but neither The Bad Seeds nor Grinderman know what’s going to happen next and we don’t have a manager; we don’t work in that way.
Did you know instantly after recording the debut that you would make a second album? JS: We were ready to jump in straight away, because the first record was really exciting. We were totally fired up to do another. NC: And also because we could see where else it could go. The first record was us finding our legs as a band and it was kind of a wide-eyed attempt at making a record. We saw some aspects of the first album that were worth pursuing and some that weren’t, which happens with all records.
Which aspects weren’t? NC: I think maybe there was too much in the way of a slightly defensive nudge-nudge, wink-wink humour. We wanted to get rid of that, so it wasn’t just this gag. So even though the second album was an absolute joy to record, it’s more serious.
But it’s hardly without humour. In fact, at times it’s hilarious. JS: There’s some absolute zingers in there: ‘My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster – two great big humps and I’m gone.’ [‘Worm Tamer’]
The comic side of existential doubt gets a decent airing again… NC: I do find humour in that, although those things remain serious concerns. But I often find it more effective if things are initially funny and it’s about stretching the limits of what people can find funny. I enjoyed doing that with the novel I wrote [The Death of Bunny Munro]; it’s being able to cosy up to the listeners or readers, who find themselves in an uncomfortable dilemma. Should they laugh? Should they root for the character? Grinderman feels to me like being on the periphery. Or walking on the knife edge of good taste – we can fall either way. And sometimes we do fall the wrong way.
Did you impose constraints to ensure Grinderman works as distinct from The Bad Seeds? NC: The creative process for me in Grinderman is hugely enjoyable. I can roll up to the studio with nothing. I don’t have to sit in my office for three months working away at lyrics. I just go in there and if it’s a disaster, then it’s as much his fault [gestures at Sclavunos] as mine. Sometimes it’s frightening. Not the freedom, but where things can go in the context of Grinderman. I can wake up in the night and go, ‘Did I really write that?’
You mean you’re appalled? NC: Not appalled, but lyrically I can go into places that… I’ve also thought that about the Bunny Munro book. But then I’d start writing again and fall back into it, and then it would make perfect sense. It is a terrifying feeling, but it’s a good feeling too. Within The Bad Seeds, there were constraints that had come out of punk rock about what was acceptable. I think within the context of Grinderman, we’ve become more open to broadening our influences. The unspoken thing within Grinderman is that you can embarrass yourself. If Warren wants to do a flute solo for a really long time, he can. JS: And he definitely will. Grinderman’s new single, ‘Heathen Child’, and new album, Grinderman 2, are available in stores now.