Illustration by Adam Mignanelli

Nick Cave Will Never Be Forgotten

After the devastating loss of his son, Nick Cave confronted grief with his music and art. The legendary artist invited us into his home in Brighton, England, to talk about a world after despair.

|
May 26 2017, 4:00am

Illustration by Adam Mignanelli

The city of Brighton, where Nick Cave lives on the southern coast of England, is like a place out of time. King's Road, along the shore, is littered with old hotels painted white and peeling, tourists and locals scattered around the beach eating ice cream and fish and chips with mushy peas, as long as the weather is good. It can turn on you swiftly—sun-kissed days are softly obliterated by dense, consuming fog that rolls in off the water, warping the city into a slow and misty ghost town, its waterfront and famous piers enveloped in grey and barely visible. Cave himself spoke about Brighton's tempestuous nature in the 2014 film 20,000 Days on Earth, saying he could control the weather: Bone-freezing winds, ominous thunderheads, impossibly blue skies. Then, he added, "I just can't control my moods, is all." The town, with all its volatility, feels like the perfect place for the the Australian rock star's stormy, supernatural writing to continue thriving.

And so, Brighton had a hold on Nick Cave. But in the last couple years, that's changed.

"It's become both a more beautiful place to live, and a place where we can't really continue to live," the 59-year-old Cave says. "It's just too difficult. It just resonates with meaning. But too much meaning."

In the summer of 2015, Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from the white cliffs at the Ovingdean Gap during an acid trip turned dark. On a clear day, you can see the edge of the cliffs, looking out into what seems like an infinite mingling of water and sky, from the front steps of Cave's house. At the time, what would become Cave and the Bad Seeds' crushing 2016 record Skeleton Tree was already largely created, and when the band returned to the studio a few months after Arthur's death to finish it, their regular equilibrium had been unmistakably altered.

"It's become both a more beautiful place to live, and a place where we can't really continue to live."

The cliffs of Brighton. Photo by the author.

Read More: The Guide to Getting Into Nick Cave

"No one was really able to function in a viable way in the studio," Cave says. "Which I think was a good thing, because it allowed those songs to resist any kind of tampering with. We just had these extremely raw songs that reverberated with the feelings of everything that happened, or became a mirror for this terrible incident. And the more we played around with the songs, the less effective that became. So we were able just to put out this record that really is very pure, and has very little artifice on it whatsoever. I've gotta say, when we were in the studio trying to work on Skeleton Tree, I had no idea what was going on."

Skeleton Tree pulses with grief, its synths glowing with stunning softness, conjuring different planes of existence as Cave delivers lines like, "I knew the world it would stop spinning now, since you've been gone." The album's accompanying film, One More Time With Feeling, somehow delivers an even more devastating blow, capturing the final recording sessions as Cave struggles to find the words to articulate what he feels is happening to him and his family. It was released as a way to explain the album and the circumstances around it without having to engage with journalists.

"I've gotta say, when we were in the studio trying to work on Skeleton Tree, I had no idea what was going on."

The film is a portrait of a man deeply lost, but also a family—which extends from Cave's wife Susie and Arthur's twin brother Earl to everyone involved with the album and film—that is coming to grips with how to do their work in a climate of massive, unimaginable trauma. There's talk of the mysterious, potentially foretelling power of Cave's writing which, considered in the context of many of Skeleton Tree's lyrics, is spine-tingling. In one scene Susie, barely able to hold back tears, reveals a painting Arthur made of the windmill that stands just a short walk from where he died. When Earl drops by the studio—previously seen eating pizza with Arthur and his dad while watching Scarface in 20,000 Days on Earth—his presence makes the absence of his brother palpable. In his interviews, the normally well-spoken Cave seems sometimes jarringly frustrated or at a loss for words. In his voiceovers, the words he does find, while often grateful or reflective, feel deeply haunted.

But despite everything, One More Time with Feeling ends on an optimistic note, as Cave explains in voiceover that he and Susie had made the decision to be happy as, "an act of revenge, an act of defiance." It's still a decision they make every day.

"The further we get away from that time, it's easier to—it's not always possible—but it's easier to divide your time," Cave says. "So there's what we call a remembering time and then there's time where we work, and we're able fairly successfully—not all the time—to be able to somehow divide that up. And in the remembering time, things can be... we're in no condition to work and stuff like that. But we're able to step out of that quite effectively and do our work and do our jobs and be with each other and all that sort of stuff. So we're getting better and better at that. It's... you know... Not always successful. Before it was just chaos. It was just absolute emotional chaos 24/7, all the time. We couldn't... we had no control over anything, and it's just taken us a while to—it sounds weird to say—organize our emotions. Otherwise you just can't live, really."

On the Ides of March, at a large wooden table in the middle of his kitchen and clad in his signature thin cut black suit and white shirt, Cave speaks slowly, gently, and thoughtfully, taking as much time as is necessary to make sure he's saying what he wants exactly as he wants to say it. But he's also warm and conversational, even funny—a far cry from the fear-inducing junkie "nightmare" he once was. In the days leading up to our interview, this journalist-devouring Nick Cave occupied a worried space in the back of my mind. After all, even the most masochistic among us doesn't want to navigate their way through conversation with a brilliant but cagey artist.

But whatever kind of terror Cave may have once been appears to be mostly a memory at this point. His presence alone radiates with a quiet, heavy intensity. But he also kindly offers to make me a cup of tea before we're barely past hellos. He still seems no less mythical than any previous iteration of himself. It's just that the myth has grown and changed into something else.

Archival photo by Peter Milne

An old Kit-Cat clock ticks away on the wall near the kitchen window, a few feet from where we're sitting. His home is filled with the kind of things you'd expect—racks of dresses from Susie's clothing label The Vampire's Wife, shelves packed with well-loved books—and some things you might not necessarily expect, like a pillow hand-stitched with the lyrics to Push the Sky Away cut "Wide Lovely Eyes" or a pile of children's instruments, including a SpongeBob SquarePants ukulele. It feels like a beloved home, but also possesses a coldness, and Cave's comments about his family's inability to continue living there take on more weight in its halls.

The home itself is a presence in One More Time With Feeling, rendered even cooler and more lonesome in stark black and white. Cave's dear friend Andrew Dominik, who was around at the time Arthur died, directed the film. When Dominik told Cave he would be addressing the loss of Arthur during filming, Cave—who, "was also not in any condition to make any judgments about it, or even if I wanted the film to be made or not"—said, "Look, you just do what you fucking like."

When he finally saw the finished product he, "fuckin' hated the end" and didn't like his interviews. Luckily, there were people around to tell him not to touch, and to stand back.

"So me and Susie just let it go," Cave says. "It was only really until after it was shown, there was this incredible... on social media all these people saying what they felt about this film. It was really astonishing. People showed me this stuff and how it affected people, and how people had similar stories. All sorts of things were coming out. And I realized there was something quite special about this film, so I went and rented a cinema and watched the film again, and realized, really, how Andrew had created this gift, in a way. It had a huge impact on me, and really shifted things for me, in terms of my feelings and my place in the world."

Cave says this with a confidence that feels absent in One More Time With Feeling, and as he goes on to speak about the unexpected help he felt from his own art while watching the film, his gratitude for Dominik is clear. It's a profoundly beautiful thing to offer someone—a document that captures the ways a life, or the sudden loss of that life, alters the people in its orbit. You get the feeling that the film not only helped Cave understand his grief, but also deepened his understanding of his relationship with Arthur.

"What Andrew did was to create this extraordinary movie, which I think he made as some kind of gift, to give something back to me," Cave says. "And to Arthur. I think that was his agenda, and something I had absolutely no idea of at the time."

The kind of power the film wields, Cave says, has transferred to the live shows the band has been playing this year. Skeleton Tree's live incarnation finally makes its way across the pond tonight as their North American tour kicks off in New York, followed by a smattering of dates through to the end of June. The album is so markedly different than the Bad Seeds previous records that the challenge wasn't to fit the it into a familiar sound—that is their sound, now. Instead, It was transporting their older songs into new and unfamiliar territory. The result, as Cave describes it, sounds breathtaking: All-consuming sonic atmospheres that spread out to fill venues in a "cathedral-like way," slowly building through the show, "into something that's pretty mind boggling," Cave says.

"There's been a kind of—I don't wanna get overboard about this—but there has been a gradual sort of shift away from concerts that are purely confrontative concerts into something that's much more about a gathering up as people, and a communal thing. And this new show—and this was happening with Push The Sky Away—is just really amazing in that way. It's really extraordinary."

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in concert. Photo by Chris Cuffaro

Before Skeleton Tree, Cave and the Bad Seeds were gearing up to put out the just released Lovely Creatures career retrospective: A sprawling, three decade-spanning box set that traces the Bad Seeds through the early ferocity of their hedonistic post-punk beginnings to the sweeping weightlessness of songs like Push the Sky Away's "Jubilee Street." Compiled by Cave and founding Bad Seed Mick Harvey, the most deluxe version comes with a 256-page hardcover book that includes fawning essays about everything from Cave's Australian humor to the band's ability to reinvent itself. It's packed with gorgeous archival photos and inserts like film negatives and naked drawings of Cave himself. But when Arthur died, Skeleton Tree became the band's most urgent concern, and Lovely Creatures, "lost, for a time, its place in the narrative," Cave says in the book's afterword. "Now, it seems the time is right to recognise and celebrate the Bad Seeds and their many achievements."

Cave isn't sentimental or precious about his past work, and the band as a unit is constantly pushing and pulling their old classics into new forms depending on what their sound is at the moment. He's almost reluctant to talk about much of the Bad Seeds' output before Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, as he never returns to the original source to hear how a song sounded 20 years ago, but instead moulds the song to adhere to the structures and sound of what the band is doing in the present.

"It's a terrifying artist who's just proud of all their work."

"The back catalogue was always something of a mystery, and I always felt quite squeamish about it to be honest, as I think most artists do about their work," Cave says. "It's a terrifying artist who's just proud of all their work."

There's a clear disdain in his voice for the type. Cave never plays his own records, and at one point, he even refers to his back catalogue as, "this sort of monster that lives back there" that he never pays any attention to. I get the feeling he also doesn't feel particularly interested in talking too much about it, but when he does, his thoughts are mostly tempered with curiosity. He was struck by the audacity of his previous work, of how sensitive some of it was. But that's about it.

Cave and the Bad Seeds have never been satisfied to stagnate. Their longevity is due in part to that restlessness, but also a communal ability to "serve the song" rather than light out to impress or make a statement as individuals. Watching the band on film—especially the interactions between Cave and violinist Warren Ellis, whose collaborations have become definitive parts of the late-era Bad Seeds sound—reveals a complex but organic creation process, a group of people in powerful harmony. It took a lot of time and trust to get to this point.

Archival photo by Steve Double.

Cave recalls the sessions for The Boatman's Call, where the Bad Seeds assembled as usual, only to find him mostly sitting at the piano, content to keep arrangements sparse, not really calling on anyone for much of anything.

"That was the first time, I think, where everyone was like, 'well, what the fuck? What am I here for?' and all of that sort of stuff. But people quickly understood that the record was good, and what was happening was good, and that it was okay to step back on that particular record. And it's that kind of understanding with things that kept us going for a long time."

The band's ability to mutate at will has not only kept them invigorated, but energized their audience as well. By keeping them on their toes, the Bad Seeds have enthralled their audience these past 30-plus years, save for those who thought, as Cave says, "this has gone too far, this is just fucking terrible." But looking to songwriters like Bob Dylan, with his, "incredible bravery" and "perverseness about where he would go" pushed Cave and the band to radically change the formula as often as they can.

"I thought, if I'm gonna be a songwriter, I'm gonna be around for as long as I can," Cave says. "And it was very clear, just casting an easy eye around at other people, that most bands put out two, maybe three good records, and then they die. It was also clear that the reason why they die was that they try to repeat their past success. It's just a lure of diminishing returns, and eventually you just don't do a record that's as good. So if you keep changing the record, people have to re-interpret or reevaluate the kind of records that you make because it's suddenly a different sort of a record. It becomes quite difficult to compare one record to another record—it's just simply a different sort of a record. And this—moving into different forms of music constantly—releases a new energy into the band at the same time. So there was that, but there was also a kind of delight we would have in baffling our audience. There's something quite exciting when you put out a record, and your audience, your faithful audience, has to decide whether they actually like your band or not."

There is no time for resting on laurels. Far from being the heart-rending coda to Lovely Creatures' and the Bad Seeds' narrative, Skeleton Tree, along with Push the Sky Away, instead represents another reincarnation of the band and a shift in Cave's writing. Looking back on his younger self, he says, "writing about certain things that you shouldn't write about, or that were not politically correct," was something especially thrilling. He was able to not implicate himself in his songs by placing them in a different time, or by playing characters. The songs have now become much more contemporary, moving into fractured and abstract narratives.

"I thought, if I'm gonna be a songwriter, I'm gonna be around for as long as I can."

He mentions Skeleton Tree's "I Need You" as an example. "It certainly carries with it a beautiful sense of sorrow that's more meaningful than narrative, or feels more authentic than worrying about whether the lyrics actually make any sense or not."

It's a step, Cave says, "that's very difficult to take." But it was an exciting place for him to arrive at, a feeling that, "I could actually write about myself and, in doing so, that could actually connect to people even though the life I lead doesn't remotely connect to the people who are actually listening to my music." Especially with the last two records, he's written, "about my life as it is, seen through an imaginative prism that makes everything reverberate in a strange, uncanny way." Cave's existence—"that of a rock singer, rock star, whatever"—is a bizarre and alienated one, but he believes there's something of value that radiates out of that.

"I think there's a strangeness in ordinariness, or an ordinary world," Cave says. "I live an ordinary existence in strange circumstances. So there's something I like in lyric writing that's about mystery and a sense of strangeness or uncanniness. And I think I'm perfectly placed to write about those sorts of things. So I can write personal sorts of songs where the imagination doesn't have to stretch too far for them to be in some magical realm."

Archival photo by Ingvar Kenne

This transformation has paid off in some of the most beautiful songs in a long career full of them, and the energy these new creative experiments have yielded is powering the Bad Seeds in a profound way. It's telling of his nature as an artist that Cave is most animated when describing something present, or something that's formulating. He doesn't want to talk about the past. He wants to throw himself violently and purposefully into what he's doing this moment. And that means hurtling down the path that Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree have forged. His words drop heavy as he dispels the notion that releasing Lovely Creatures at this juncture could signal the band pulling punches anytime soon. Or ever.

"It feels like lately, in the last two records especially, we've been on to something that's really interesting us—a whole way of writing lyrics and making music and performing live, actually, that's very different from what we used to do," Cave says. "So, it feels like we're at the beginning of something. It doesn't feel so awfully conclusive to put out something like this. It's quite interesting to put out a three decades best of at a moment when the band feels really at their most powerful. It's not usually done that way. Something like this is usually some sort of desperate measure at the end of a career to sort of rake in the last possible dimes, last possible dollars. But this doesn't feel like that. It feels like the Bad Seeds is very much still a functioning, and for us, exciting thing."

Still, the act of putting out a retrospective collection as in-depth and carefully curated as Lovely Creatures is a way of controlling the band's narrative, an attempt to stitch the Bad Seeds together in the way they've decided is most accurate, or powerful, or enduring. It's the kind of project that will provide a definitive access point for those new explorers of Cave's body of work, and now that it's finally put together, it begs the same question he asked Kylie Minogue in a dim-lit car on a rainy night in 20,000 Days on Earth: Does he worry about being forgotten? "Only when I'm alive," Cave laughs.

"When I listen to old songs of people who are no longer with us, there's something about it that's meaningful to me because of that. That their voices and their ideas are still somehow in the air and we can listen to them—I love that idea. It's not so much an ego thing about people remembering me, but just that there are voices that are speaking from the dead, or there are voices that are speaking out of history in the form of music. That's actually really powerful—that you can listen to a blues singer moaning something that's literally coming out of the grave."

It's hard to imagine future generations not being haunted and spellbound by Cave's gravelly wails and ghastly whispers on "Loverman," the evil sneers of "Red Right Hand," or the ferocious howls of "From Her to Eternity." His gripping capacity for world-building has helped create the mythical Nick Cave, a shamanic psychopomp with access to preternatural places filled with magic and horror. He does little to dispel this version of himself in person, but that feels deeply uncalculated—the mythical Nick Cave, the one who convenes with the characters in his writing, and the earthly one are symbiotic. He is every bit the otherworldly creature he's helped create. He's also the man sitting at his kitchen table, drinking tea, preparing himself to move his family from their home here on England's southern shores.

Archival photo by David Arnoff

The borders between the two lands those men occupy are blurred. In many of his songs, he's speaking from that other world—the one filled with devils and demons, trees ablaze, obsessive, tear-drinking villains, merciless murderers, mystical women who inspire, "thoughts that were not in my best interest to mention." It's a world Cave navigates constantly, and one that provides safe harbor for his songs to reach our own world.

"It's not a real place, and it's not a true place," Cave says. "But on some level it's more real and more true to me than life outside that. And they're very separate for me. The creative process is something I step into at a particular time. I sit down and say, 'this is what I'm gonna do,' and I step into that imaginative world where there's a completely different logical framework than the one in my other world, and it feels just as real and just as powerful there as it does in the normal world. I spend as much time there."

It's also a world where, as Cave says in 20,000 Days on Earth, "God actually exists." When I ask whether he believes in a divine creator, he smiles and exhales, looks down, and collects himself. "There's not a very easy answer there," he says, looking back up at me. He falls silent then for a moment, assembling exactly what he wants to say, and begins to carefully separate this world from the other.

"Life really isn't about truth for me," Cave says. "That's not the most important thing. Meaning is important."

Cave explains that he has compartments inside himself, and one of them includes the pursuit of truth, where God doesn't exist because science disproves any possible existence. Still, he has no time for people with a dogmatic belief in God, or those others who would sneer and laugh at anybody who believes in anything. Another compartment, though, includes that other world, where, "the idea of there being a divine being is really helpful with songwriting, and with adding a kind of absurdity and strange depth to everything." At this point he stops himself, clarifying that belief is not about truth.

"Life really isn't about truth for me," Cave says. "That's not the most important thing. Meaning is important. And sometimes the desire for an afterlife, or sometimes a desire that life perpetuates in some way beyond the grave is, absurd as it may be, something we need to believe in. And that need, I think, is a very powerful thing. And a thing that people shouldn't feel ashamed of."

The windmill in Brighton that Nick Cave's son Arthur painted. Photo by the author.

Across from the windmill Arthur painted, looking over the Ovingdean Gap into endless, azure sky and dark ocean, Brighton is calm and breezy. But even on a day so clear and peaceful, it's still a place so weighed down with meaning that Cave won't be able to stay much longer. And so, his family has their sights set on another coastal town: Los Angeles. Moving deeper into town, the cliffs disappear along with Cave's house in the distance, and the fog rolls in quickly, smothering the pier and turning the shore eerily still, even as crowds of people wander around like ghosts unknowingly trapped inside their pastoral vacation. The deep strangeness of the scene, lifted skyward by the celestial crescendo of "Jubilee Street," is enough to make someone believe in God. If only for a few moments.

"I should just say yes or no," Cave says with a heavy sigh, considering his answer once more. "But it's quite difficult. It's always difficult."

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. He's on Twitter.

Adam Mignanelli is the design director at VICE. Follow him on Instagram.