Interview from Belgian Magazine "Telemoustique" [1998] Telemoustique
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Q: Everyone is surprised by this compilation, since you've always said you couldn't stand listening to your albums again after their recording.

A: Indeed, because most of my albums were a reaction towards the previous record. I wanted to get right what I had done wrong before. Today, not only do I like this old material, I feel like playing it on stage. The Bad Seeds are an extraordinary band, who explored a lot with a sharp understanding of the essence of music. They know when to play and when to stay silent, which is very important, but very rare. Because they understand the inherent fragility and mystery of a song, they spontaneously have a sense of economy it would be very difficult to get from an outsider.

Q: Do you notice a consistency in these 10 studio albums?

A: I think it is this spontaneous understanding of what music is all about. The very beauty of our collaboration stands in the fact that it seldom needs explanations. Everyone works for the songs. No question is ever asked about about the lyrics or the general concept. Throughout the albums, we have aimed at an increased simplicity, which we finally attained with "The Boatman's Call".

Q: It seems that the songs gain in simplicity what they lose in violence.

A: Of course. "The Boatman's Call" is a lot less violent, even "Murder Ballads", despite its subject matter. But it's not exactly a matter of violence. I'd rather say we're trying to reach a state of grace.

Q: At the end of this evolution, we find "The Boatman's Call", which you even presented as a possibly definitive conclusion.

A: I don't feel the way I did at the end of the recording anymore. I still have many things to do with the Bad Seeds. This compilation boosted my love for the band. There is something touching in our career. I sometimes acted as a bad companion to them, because I was so engrossed with the lyrics and so convinced that the music should serve them that I've often taken their work for granted. I was not obliged to compromize and I had ended up forgetting how good and available they are.

Q: Is this tour a present to the band or yourself?

A: Both. We are going to play at some festivals, not more because I'm too busy. I'm going to work on two film soundtracks, which is another form of writing I can't handle on tour. I won't record another Bad Seeds album this year. The solo records of Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld allowed me to follow my rhythm without feeling put under pressure by their wait. I wrote a few songs and could write a few more in the studio. I'm experienced enough to finish an album at any moment, but I need time to avoid any influence of "The Boatman's Call" on the next record. I don't want to release the same album. It has to be a new, meaningful step.

Q: You presented "Murder Ballads" as a joke. Does it represent in any way a break from the gothic and morbid universe you had been associated with for ten years?

A: It was not a joke, but an album that handled a very dark subject matter with humour. It was easy to write songs about these murder stories, and also very pleasant, because I love storytelling. I love being a storyteller, create larger than life characters and watch them live… It was not an album written to make a point. I don't have such a control over my work.

I can try to explain what it takes to write an album, but it's still a mystery to me. To me, creation is life's biggest mystery. I still don't know why a song by Avrö Part or Serge Gainsbourg has a certain effect on me, even changes my mood, when a book or painting doesn't have the same influence. Music has a very special power. I can work on a song on the piano which seems insignificant and changing a few notes will be enough to make it beautiful. It always seems so uncomprehensible and moving that a few chords, put together nicely, can change my attitude towards life.

Q: Gainsbourg had a picture of Chopin on his piano in order to be compelled to a certain quality of work. In your London flat, books lie on the piano. They are also spiritual companions.

A: [laughs] Not at all. My flat is rather small and my piano is used as a bookshelf.

Q: You recently visited Francis Bacon's exhibition. You seem very interested in other forms of expression than music.

A: I followed painting and art classes and painting is still very much a source of inspiration to me, even though I found the exhibition disappointing. I used to think that being a painter was an ideal way of living. Literature was also very important to me and that must influence my work as well, but I'm not looking for ideas I could use. I don't thing you could "force" ideas out of yourself. It's no use. An artist's duty is rather to stay open-minded and in a state where he can receive information and inspiration. You always have to be ready for that little artistic Epiphany (Editor's note: revelation of Christ to the Pagans).

Q: Your songs are used by young artists who want to be in a mood favourable to creation and strive for the emotional charge of your work.

A: I'm very happy to hear that my work inspires writers and painters. It's the most beautiful compliment, the greatest reward. Art should always be an exchange. I know that my songs are based on ideas from other artists. Everybody does that, we must to it for art to stay alive and progress. Influence from and on others is the very essence of art. When I realize a musician has gotten something from me, I don't feel robbed, but deeply touched.

Q: What influences could you mention?

A: They are less obvious than they used to be. I sometimes hear things I find exciting and that can directly inspire me, but nothing can compare to the times when I was deeply influenced by John Lee Hooker, who left a trace on most of my work. My latest albums rather rely on my early work. When I didn't have this basis, I was very influenced by gospel, blues or Johnny Cash.

Q: Your work often deals with chaos, which is also associated with your past. Do you have a discipline to create this image of chaos?

A: I have the discipline to make an attempt, but I don't always get results. My responsibility is to sit on the piano, take a pen and paper, that's it. The rest is up to God or inspiration. I don't have any control on what can happen. Someone else does the work, I call Him God. If I didn't sit on the piano, it would be like denying His voice.

Q: You've lived in Melbourne, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Sao Paulo. How do you explain this need to move?

A: I'm always travelling because I don't call any of these places home. Right now, I've come back here and my house is in London, like Brazil was my country when I used to live there. I don't know… I've been living like that since I've been 20 years old. I never really feel homesick about Australia. I don't feel like I use these cities to bring about a change in my work either. I move when I feel it necessary.

Q: Are your songs so sharply separated from your life?

A: No, you're right, they're the same thing. When I move, it's probably for personal reasons, but also because, if I get bored with a city, my work could be affected. But I don't go somewhere to feed my music on the local culture. This is totally foreign to me.

Q: You had the reputation of being secretive. However, over the last few years, you've been talking a lot about your ex-wife, your son, your will to both impress and be different from your father. Did you change?

A: I don't think so. I've always been open-hearted. "The Boatman's Call" was a very personal album, where I tried to understand what was going on in my life through songwriting. In the past, my songs were already written as presents for women in my life. I've already exposed myself a lot in this last album, maybe it goes too far. It's not something I want to go on doing, especially not now. There is nothing worse than these writers who always end up telling about their own lives as if they were more important than other people's. Being very personal can allow you to be universal, but it's not the only way, it doesn't mean it's good or bad.

Q: In a recent interview, Henry Rollins said you had become a great artist, a good man and a wonderful father. Do you have the same references?

A: It's nice of him. I try to do my best, like everyone. I try to work with honesty and integrity. I feel it's the only thing that matters in the end. You have to appear intact before God. If you can't be proud of what you have done and felt, if you don't go honest and sincere, you're a complete failure. As a father, I obviously try to look upon my son, to give him a happy childhood. I'd like him to have fun and feel loved and protected. I do it with all my heart as much as I can. I love my son, being with him, I love our relationship, which gets better and better every day. We have fun together and we feel well. It's very easy to be a father.

Q: You used to say that an author must be alone to have the time and space to think and write.

A: But I'm single. I don't live with a woman. It seems that my love affairs cannot last. I'm forced to think there are things in my life more important and more durable than these love stories. And it's my work as a creator. It's not a curse, it's just the way it is. As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be an artist, at first a painter as I said. And I wanted to be a painter long before dreaming of being a lover or a husband. Life chose for me.

Q: In your songs and in conversations, you often use the word "God". Is it a simple formula or do you really have the faith?

A: I'm a believer. I don't go to church. I don't belong to any particular religion, but I do believe in God. I couldn't write what I write about and be creative without a certain form of belief. Most of my lyrics have a spiritual character and deal with this search for God. I've always had this faith, even if, at a certain time, I could not say it with the same conviction. Nothing happened in my life. I had no revelation. For me, believing in God doesn't change life. It is neither an obstacle nor a relief. It has no influence on my behaviour. Believing has nothing to do with morality, but with freedom and inspiration. For many people, faith should automatically dictate a behaviour, show the way to saintliness. Far from these certainties, my faith is made of doubts.

sent by Marie Lecocq