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Nick Cave

Mia de Graaf talks to the multi-talented frontman of The Bad Seeds (Thumbnail credit Polly Borland)

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Nick Cave is an unexpected rockstar with a dedicated global following. An intense and - artistically at least - morbid figure with a penchant for grandiose facial hair, Cave sings about such disparate topics as murder, Greek mythology and the Christian doctrine of divine intervention.

As the phone rings I'm wondering about the ways he might answer it when, suddenly, the ringing stops with a bang; it seems someone has dropped the phone. There's a succession of loud noises that sound like running and things moving around until Cave eventually speaks: "Ca-can I call you - [aside]: How long will I be? - Can I call you in 15 minutes? Is that alright?" Something about taking or collecting the kids from somewhere. It wasn't quite the steely greeting I expected. There's an attractive clumsiness to this notoriously shadowy figure.

Forty-five minutes later and still a little flustered, Cave is ready to talk. After such an introduction, I'm curious as to how he manages to juggle the quite extraordinary range of professions he has accumulated. He is a musician and songwriter with two acclaimed bands, a screenwriter, author and, on occasion, an actor; in his spare time he is a father of four.

Cave is puzzled as to why this might seem odd: "Well I just ring up [his side project] Grinderman and say we're going to do a Grinderman record... Then I ring up the Bad Seeds." He chuckles at the simplicity of it all. What we might perceive as balancing many overflowing worlds of creativity is simply what he does. Every day he concentrates all his attention on whatever project he is working on at the time until it is finished, whether in his office in Hove, with his wife and twin sons, recording in London, or on tour promoting an album or his latest novel.

Despite the chaotic beginning to the interview, any stereotypical perceptions of lazy musicians playing whatever pops into their mind are soon dashed upon learning of Cave's dedicated approach. "I will work on something exclusively and then finish that and start on the next thing." Just as with the matter of balancing all these projects, he finds it entirely logical that he has chosen to undertake them. For him, songwriting is the main thing, "but if I only did songwriting, I couldn't continue to do it. I would just burn out". He's kept the flame going for over 30 years now, since his first release in 1978.

So what goes into the making of such a character? Born in Warracknabeal, Australia, he initially wanted to become a painter. "I went to art school for two years and failed." At school, Cave was good at English Literature and Art, "but at everything else I was [meditative pause] average... to say the least." Music was hardly a front-runner in his mind. The only musical training he had was a couple of years of piano lessons as a child. The band he formed with friends, The Boys Next Door, was just "great fun and convenient" with an added attraction in the free drinks and club entry that came along with performing. After Plan A - art school - proved unsuccessful, the band relocated to Europe, releasing three albums as The Birthday Party; their live shows became famous for their intensity and often ended in violent confrontation between frontman and audience.

He appears pensive as he reflects on the turning point in his career. "I'm quite happy I failed art," he muses, almost as though there could be doubts as to whether he ended up doing the right thing. However, when asked if this is another of the talents he will go on to explore, the answer is clear-cut: "No, I'm still very interested in it, but it can be a very lonely job and I like being able to work with other musicians and collaborate on things".

Cave continues: "In a way I don't think you always have control over your destiny." Is that an indication of his belief in a higher power? Religion, often in dark and menacing forms, is an ever-present force throughout much of his work. But when I probe further, he is surprisingly blunt. "I'm not a religious person". Really? "I'm not a Christian or involved in any religion. I have a lot of problems with religion in general". Was his family religious? "No, no they weren't". Once he's made that clear, though, he adds a little nuance, describing a "vague belief in something greater than ourselves". It's another instance when Cave takes time and care to address an ambiguous subject with precision; I can almost get a slight glimpse of the disciplined atmosphere in which he weaves images and music together. He doesn't want to give the wrong answer. Now he's back to earth, and ends abruptly: "I go back and forward all the time, but there's a lot of doubt there, a lot of doubt".

To a degree, he says, his work also reflects what is going on in his life. Such an intense approach can hardly be constrained to only one area of his life: overspill is inevitable. "When I go down into the office I go into an imaginative world that's very different from the one that I actually live in, but the same interests and neuroses and concerns operate within both worlds".

Is it possible, I wonder, within this world of imagination, for him to get writers block? "Well... no." Modest of him to consider it, but it's clearly not a concern that has ever bothered him. He admits to feeling "washed out" at times, but "you just need to write that period out and eventually the stuff will come." Isn't that what writer's block is? "I don't consider that to be writers block. It's a necessary process to have periods that are fruitful and periods that aren't. That's what it's all about."

It seems this was the case when writing his first novel 'And The Ass Saw The Angel', the story of Euchrid Euchrow, the mute child of an abusive father and a drunken mother, who will wreak vengeance on all who have made his life painful. "It took me three years to write, I found that very, very difficult to do". In making this period "fruitful", he brought the themes of the novel into lyrics of the Bad Seeds' album of the time, but once finished, "I didn't really want to write another one after that". Apparently it was easier second time around, since his new book, 'The Death of Bunny Munro' - the story of a salesman's journey around Brighton with the looming threat of an approaching serial killer - has been published to high critical acclaim. Cave laughs at the rumour that he'd written the entire thing in two weeks. "No, it was about six weeks for the first draft and six weeks for the second, I wrote it all over the place on tour, in the band room, on the bus, in the taxi to the airport ..."

Most people need some downtime after completing a project; when Cave has finished a novel, however, he does a bit of heavy-duty performing. On finishing 'The Death of Bunny Munro', Cave took to Europe with the bearded band Grinderman - although he is now cleanly shaven since his wife wasn't having anymore of the facial hair ("she wore me down!") He hung onto it long enough, however, for his recent trip to Hollywood for the premiere of John Hillcoat's new film, 'The Road'. An adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel, Cave wrote the score along with fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis - his grizzly image no doubt helped to set an appropriate tone for such a bleak post-apocalyptic work.

Now he's back home I ask who he likes to see live, given that, for many, he is one of the greatest live performers. He groans, "there are too many!" He cannot decide on an answer, but he is going to see Spiritualized play at the Royal Festival Hall in London this week. On the theme of current music, what does he thinks of Arctic Monkeys' cover of The Bad Seeds' 'Red Right Hand'? "I think it's great!" he replies enthusiastically, "you have bad surprises and you have good ones. There was a lot of energy in it." The young Sheffield-born band had a high bar to aim for: competition includes the cover of 'Mercy Seat' in 2000 by Johnny Cash, one of Cave's greatest influences as an artist. They did well, however, as Cave even sees their version in some ways as an improvement. "They got rid of certain aspects of the Bad Seeds - but they were aspects that I really never liked anyway! So they did a good job."

For the duration of our conversation, Cave has proved an accommodating and thoughtful interviewee, musing about his career and beliefs as if it's the first time he's been asked about them. But the time comes for another aspect of his multifaceted life to take centre stage - he has to go collect the kids. Crashing at the beginning, dashing at the end. Whoever said you need a quiet life to create great things?

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