On the eve of the new film about his life, Nick Cave tells Tom Ellen about the Queen’s glow, hip-hop and Tom Hardy’s SAS moves
“I am not sure what your job is exactly,” Nick Cave says to me, managing to sound a bit like my grandmother, “but I guess on some level it’s to find the truth. Well, maybe it shouldn’t be that. Maybe your job should be to reinforce the lie. Because what I read in the press about myself… I don’t recognise it. There’s this same tiresome narrative rolled out every time someone does a piece about me, y’know?”
Perhaps the reason this “tiresome narrative” is so frequently rolled out (I’ll be taking it for a spin in the next paragraph, don’t worry) is that Cave’s music tends to reveal very little about him as a man. In his songs, he’s a condemned criminal on death row, a nomadic Biblical outcast, a mad amnesiac hallucinating en route to CERN. Any trace of the ‘real’ Nick Cave is usually concealed behind a blood-soaked curtain of gothic fantasy. He’s spent his career not so much reinforcing lies as constantly reinventing them.
Hence the need for that tiresome narrative, which, if you’re wondering, goes something like this: Cave emerged on to the musical landscape in the Seventies with art-punk lunatics The Birthday Party, before ditching the punk bit and upping the doomy, blood-‘n’-thunder bit to form The Bad Seeds. He first penetrated mainstream consciousness in 1996 via a duet with fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue (which still regularly trumps Method Man/Texas in lists of least likely musical collaborations), before shrugging off a lengthy heroin habit to recast himself as a novelist, screenwriter (he penned 2012 Tom Hardy crime flick Lawless), husband, father, Brighton resident, and all-round glowering godfather of alternative rock.
It’s a story that’s presented far more engagingly in the film I’m here to speak to Cave about – 20,000 Days On Earth. The docu-drama purports to follow the 56-year-old for an eventful 24 hours, as he flits between writing desk and therapist’s couch via some brilliantly weird in-car interviews with famous friends including Ray Winstone and Miss Minogue. It’s all very entertaining, but in typically Cavian fashion, the ‘real’ Nick Cave still seems hidden beneath thick layers of artful artifice. But then, as I discover, getting ‘behind the mask’ was never really part of the plan…
You’ve said that you initially had to be persuaded to do this film. Why?
The idea of doing a documentary about me, my story… I had no interest in that. There are so many bad rock‘n’roll documentaries out there, and all they achieve is to demystify and denigrate the person they’re about. There’s this effort to ‘get behind the mask’, and make the celebrity appear to be just like everyone else. And this is just not true. If you’re a celebrity, if you’re in the public eye, you are not like everybody else. On some level, you’re a doomed creature. So I said to [the directors]: “Let’s find a more interesting way to do it.”
Do you really find fame a burden? Surely you’re the kind of celebrity that people only recognise because they really like your work? It’s not as if you’re on reality TV, or something…
Yeah, well, the bigger you are, the more of your life you forfeit, for sure. But there are certain things I can’t do because I just can’t be f*cked being Nick Cave in that situation. I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t trade my job for the world, but one thing you give up is being ‘just like everybody else’. So, I’m always suspicious of rock stars that try to present themselves as ‘average guys’ and the ‘voice of the people’ when they have untold fame and wealth and any woman they want. There’s nothing more sickening.
Do you think 20,000 Days On Earth could be appreciated by people who aren’t into your music?
I’m not sure who would go and see it if they weren’t into my music [laughs].
Maybe someone who’s mistaken it for a Nic Cage film?
There’s always that. I’ve had many experiences with that mistake. I was in this zoo in Australia once, at the kiosk with my kids, and there’s someone on the phone whispering, “It’s f*cking Nicolas Cage! He’s here!” I’m going, “Oh, Jesus”, because this mistake gets made all the time. Anyway, I leave the zoo and stop at this little pub in the middle of nowhere – and there’s Nicolas Cage sitting there. So, it was actually him at the zoo.
Did you speak to him?
Yeah, he said, “One letter separates us”. We just mumbled at each other. But he had major bodyguards. SAS stuff.
There’s some amazing footage in the film of your early gigs with The Birthday Party. Were they as savage as they look?
Yeah, we were very aggressive towards the audience, so you would get skinheads and bikers coming along. We had a guy called Bingo – an ex-marine and huge fan of the band – who stood at the side of the stage and grabbed lead pipes off people, as well as socks with ball bearings in. He’d show us stuff he confiscated after the gigs.
Much of the film’s narrative is in the form of your discussions with a therapist. Have you had therapy in real life?
Years ago. If you’re a drug addict, then seeing these people [therapists] gets everyone off your back. “I’m seeing a therapist, so that must mean I’m making an effort”. But in the end, [therapy] had no effect whatsoever on me stopping taking drugs.
What did stop you? The fear of dying?
Not really. Dying wasn’t my concern, it was how I lived. Youth gives you a sense of ‘[death] won’t happen to me’. Or maybe, ‘Who gives a f*ck if it does?’ I’ll look back now at the amount of people I know who’ve died from heroin overdoses, and it’s just not f*cking funny. But at the time, it felt like there were such huge benefits in taking a lot of drugs that it was worth the risk.
Just general benefits. But it’s strange, that used to be the way it was with everybody, y’know? The music industry was the one place you could turn up to work f*cked up on drugs and p*ssed out of your mind and everybody would applaud. It’s not tolerated in the same way any more. We played this festival in Australia recently and some journalists brought an undercover drug snoop backstage to prove there was evidence of cocaine use. Bands taking drugs! I mean, this was big news!
Your in-car interview with Kylie Minogue in the film is great. Are you still big pals?
We are big pals. We don’t see each other much, but we have a relationship that’s close and warm.
Did you feel your life changed after the release of that single?
Yeah. It wasn’t about “Did I feel it change?” It did change. I was even in the tabloids. Bit of tabloid action. “It’s Kylie’s wacko Australian friend!” That died away once they realised I had nothing to hide. They’re only interested if you have something to hide. But it was strange. I remember a little kid in a Spider-Man outfit coming up to me, like, “Are you that old guy that sings with Kylie?” I’m like, “F*ck off, you little…” [laughs]. I wasn’t even that f*cking old.
Another former collaborator, Ray Winstone, also interviews you in the car. What was it like being grilled by Ray?
He was very funny. [The directors] gave him some questions and said, “Maybe you can tease this stuff out of Nick”. But after a while, he was like, “Jesus, these questions are f*cking stupid”, and the premise broke down. It’s not in the film, but at one point, he was like, [adopts convincing Cockney accent] “I could f*ckin’ murder some fish and chips”, and I said, “Your British fish and chips are f*cking terrible”. Because they are. And he’s like, “What?! Then f*ck off back to Australia, you c*nt! You f*ckin’ Australians come over here and complain!”
There’s also a scene in the film that shows you walking down Brighton beach by yourself at night. Do you really do that?
No. I think that bit looks like I’m out cottaging, or something [laughs].
You worked with Tom Hardy on Lawless. Is he as intense as he seems?
Extremely intense. You’d have a conversation with him and he’d be doing SAS moves all around the room. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, but there was something… around him. A charisma I hadn’t seen before. He was such a powerful presence.
As an honorary Brit – well, a Brighton resident, at least – what’s your opinion of the Royal Family?
I met the Queen once. She was a bit like Tom Hardy, actually. Not that she did the SAS moves, but she had this incredible charisma. I was invited to the palace for something, I can’t remember what, and I saw her through the crowd. She was in this apricot dress, but there was just this… glow around her. I was blown away. Honestly, I’d tell you if it was any different, but I was just like… ‘Wow’.
There’s got to be a song in that – meeting the Queen and having a near-religious experience.
Nah, I’ll leave that to Morrissey.
Have you read his book?
The autobiography? No. He’s a great lyricist, but there’s a tone in his voice I find unlistenable. That kind of lugubrious tone. There’s the same tone in my voice, actually, and I find it equally unlistenable.
Do you listen to new music?
Nothing white. I hear a lot of hip-hop. But I have kids. They’re into Method Man, that kind of stuff. Some of it’s genuinely amazing. Hip-hop actually had much more influence over what we did on [The Bad Seeds’ last album] Push The Sky Away than rock did. That idea of: what can happen if you only have two instruments and a voice?
Do you ever Google yourself?
No. Well, I looked at my Wikipedia page once and the photographs were so awful that I’ve never looked at it again.
Finally, is it true you’re planning to erect a statue of yourself in Australia?
Yes. It’s just extremely expensive.
Why? Will it be made from gold?
Not gold. Brass. Something durable. Something so big you can’t get rid of it. It’s just… there [laughs]. I like statues for that reason; they wear out their welcome. Nobody even knows who the person is 100 years later. But it’s cheaper to leave it there than dismantle it.
You say that, but Fulham FC got rid of their Michael Jackson statue…
Did they? Oh. And the Saddam one got pulled down too, of course. That was sad. For the statue, I mean. Anyway, we might try to fund mine through Kickstarter, or something.
Nick Cave: Funny Man
Presenting the lighter side to rock's prince of darkness
"I'm forever near a stereo saying, 'What the f*ck is this garbage?' And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers."
His first band...
"We were interested in art and we weren't particularly interested in sport, so we were considered homosexuals. There's no two ways about it - we were the school poofters."
Dealing with interviews...
"Morose? I'm just getting started."
To a fan who asked what he should have for dinner...
Shaving his moustache off...
"My wife thought it was like kissing a doormat."
"Who wants to know the f*cking truth about Jimi Hendrix? We want to know the myth. We want to know he got on that plane to England with that electric guitar, acne cream and pink hair culers."
His thoughts on Twitter Q&A sessions...
20,000 Days On Earth is at cinemas from 18 September; the Nick Cave exhibition ‘Chasing The Myth’ is at Proud Camden until 2 November
(Images: Rex/Getty/Picturehouse Entertainment/Amelia Troubridge)