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Nick Cave: Dark Star [1995] The Big Issue Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006
Nick Cave is disembowelling his lunch. With relish, he delves into themangled crust of his steak-and-kidney pie and scoops up lumps of meat whichhe dabbles in a pool of blood-red tomato sauce. In the prissily-decratedrestaurant of a select West-London hotel, it's unnerving to watch. Cavelooks like a nightmareish hallucination: tight blue suit, dyed ebony locksand night-black shades. He's so thin he doesn't look as if he eats at all."Have they got lenses in them?" I enquire of his glasses. "No," he saysblankly.

In the flesh Nick Cave, 38, looks more serial killer than serious artist,which is appropriate. He carved a successful career from singing about thehorrors that lurk in the dark side of the human psyche. His subject matterhas always been sex,death and violence - saturated in biblical imagery. "Iwas more of an authority in the destructive forces," he admits. Theforthcoming album by Cave and his band The Bad Seeds is called, simply,Murder Ballads. "I enjoy writing about violence," he says sardonically. "Ilove the words you can use. It seems to me that most art I find interestingor important stands on ethically very shaky ground."

Cave remains a controversial artist with surprisingly wide appeal as shownin his recent duet with more mainstream fellow Australian Kylie Minogue.Over a 15 year career, he's kept hold of a cliquey group of people whonever come out in daylight, but he also manages to grace the arts pages ofthe broadsheets. Music is his main medium but he's also written anacclaimed Southern Gothic novel (And the Ass Saw the Angel), performed infilms including Wim Wender's Wings of Desire and written theatre scripts.

Brought up comfortably in Melbourne, Cave was never socially deprived - hewas a rebel because he wanted to be one. The singer, a mainline junkie bythe age of 21, was a yowling, howling grotesque. "I was far more acquaintedwith destructive forces than constructive ones," he admits of the time.

The post-punk underground climate was black-clad decadent and nihilistic.Cave and The Birthday Party, his smacked-out band of Aussie art-schoolhooligans, made the other contenders look like mummy's boys. He stillthrows himself with white-heat conviction into his performances butnowadays he comes across more like a hellish Las Vegas cabaret entertainerthan the depraved show-off of yore.

"I see myself as a writer who loves making music," he says. "I used to seemyself as a painter - which is a truly noble occupation - but I failed artschool."

Following Silence of the Lambs, Natural Born Killers, and now DavidFincher's ultra-macabre film Seven, the multiple murderer has become aghastly contemporary icon. Cave, whose early career contributed to theconcept of stylish violence, refers to murder as "a handy little device"for telling stories, but in the wake of the real-life horrors of theRosemary West trial, his morbid artistic pre-occupation with murder istastelessly timed.

Horrified at the idea of being a social critic, he is intrigued by the way"serial killers have reached new heights of creativity". He makes the pointwith the characteristic mixture of fascination and repulsion in his voice,tempered with an element of "how sick can I get?" leg-pulling. He claims hegets "extremely upset" when his work is criticised for being politicallyincorrect. More seriously, he expresses "rage against a society whichcreates an individual who feels so anonymous that he has to do somethinglike that to get a bit of meaning in his life." It's as if Cave in personis disgusted by the subject matter his creativity feeds upon.

The young man who perfected the art of lying prone and gobbing backwardsover his quiff has grown into a man who uses disturbing intellectualperspectives and amoral artistry to provoke a reaction. Murder Ballads is"a confused account of my feelings towards this type of human being [serialkiller]. But I've written murder songs throughout my career," he continuesafter lunch, having changed into a pair of severe horn-rims which partlyhide his freezingly intense blue eyes.

He's so lugubrious, its easy to misinterpret his gallows humour. But MurderBallads could be seen as the comedy record of '96 for anyone with a sicksense of humour. O'Malley's Bar - the "very funny, very long and veryboring tale of a bar-room serial killer" - begins with Cave's self-parodicbaritone lasciviously rasping: "I'm tall and I'm thin, of an enviableheight, and I've been known to be quite handsome in a certain angle and acertain light." It's an accurate self-description: "Most people should knowI've got a sense of humour," he says without smiling.

If Cave wasn't bleakly humourous and a rock star, which is rather a sillything to be, he'd seem sinister. The fastidiousness of his manner, hisconversational economy and a peculiarly old-fashioned courtesy are at oddswith his reputation as the epitome of unfettered self-exorcism.

He acknowledges he's self absorbed. "I've never felt comfortable writingabout the world outside of criticising it for the way it is, because my ownpersonal states were more engrossing." Nevertheless, he says he needs to"approach everything with love and passion". His two greatest interests arehis four-year-old son and studying theology. "As you get older," he says,"you get hooked into your own idiosyncratic habits and eccentricities. Ilike that."

Nowadays, the former hell-raiser leads a solitary, almost monkishlifestyle, studying and writing in a notebook decorated with a devotionalVictorian etching, stuffed with notes, lyrics and observations. His mainobsession is his art and everything he's done has been with that in mind.

"If the artistic thing were taken away, I would be less of a human being,"he insists. "When I write, I feel spiritually elated. I become closer toGod, and raise myself above a mediocre, flat, Earthly existence." He nowreads The Bible every day for personal as well as creative reasons: "Ratherthan a great book to get lines from, it's increasingly a source ofinspiration."

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