Life has a way of presenting events so incomprehensible that they cannot be anticipated. In 2015, Nick Cave was confronted by a nightmare made real when the news came that his 15-year-old son Arthur had died.
The bereavement pushed the musician into a liminal space of the darkest kind. A man of words, he discovered that they were weightless when it came to dealing with the direst of circumstances, incredibly ill-equipped to articulate the pain let alone quantify the loss. Logic too, dissolved before him. Everything had turned upside down. Grief changed everything.
“We live our lives, and we think they’re making sense. Then something comes along and the whole thing is shattered. You’re trying to pick up the pieces and make some sense out of life,” he shares from across the table in the basement of a Fitzrovia restaurant.
Wearing a trademark dark suit, open-collared white shirt, and his jet-black mane scraped back, this is Cave as you imagine: equal parts Bad Seeds pulpit preacher, baritone balladeer, deep thinker, mischief-maker, and all-round renaissance man. There was a time not so long ago when the concept of Cave sitting with journalists to discuss his innermost feelings was a non-starter. But lately, his position has softened.
The catalyst might have been 40 hours of candid conversation he had with journalist Seán O’Hagan during lockdown. He calls them “good faith” conversations that see-sawed between genial consensus and healthy debate, and they make up the book Faith, Hope and Carnage – a moving meditation on loss, art, music and faith, which is now available in paperback.
“Seán and I completely disagree on pretty much most things,” says Cave, adding that the book shows the “corrective” power of conversation; of how dialogue can be constructive, and how it can extinguish those “cherished ideas” that might not be good to begin with. “As soon as I feel that almost erotic kind of excitement about my own idea, I know something’s wrong,” he half-jokes. “I know that that idea is not a good idea.”
Cave has been a presence in the public’s consciousness for over 40 years. First and foremost, there’s the music: early days marauding as musical conductor for The Birthday Party, then bandleader of the ever-evolving The Bad Seeds, and, at various points, the driving force behind Grinderman’s thrilling rock racket. Then there’s the other stuff: multifarious screenplays, books, and film scores. It’s a career that’s never stood still.
Back in 2019, Cave delivered the Bad Seeds’ 17th album, Ghosteen: a majestic, ambient work directed by, and communicated through, grief. In Faith, Hope and Carnage, Cave describes it as coming “from a place beyond” him and “expressing something ineffable”.
If Ghosteen was a prayer into the void, then what’s followed has been a gradual mending of his heart – and his wife Susie’s too (“We survived because we remained together… when one crashed, the other stepped up,” he says in the book).
A turning point in Cave’s life came when he set up The Red Hand Files in 2018. Intended as a correspondence series between fan and artist, it’s seen the musician answer questions on all manner of topics. There’s been controversy for attending The King’s Coronation (“I don’t want to talk about that… it was acutely interesting and extremely British” is all he’ll say) or discussing his COVID-19 vaccination status (“I said I was happily vaccinated and there was just this kind of [deluge of correspondence saying] ‘fuck you!’”).
Mainly, however, The Red Hand Files has been a place of well-intentioned enquiry; something of which Cave is “really proud”. He even finds its gifts are two-way: “I find they develop me as a human being. They require a little bit of yourself…[but if] someone cares enough to ask, you should care enough to try and answer.”
This Nick Cave is very different from the angry young man who kicked and screamed against the world decades ago. “I was a young troublemaker, drug addict, chaos maker. And my default setting, I would say, was just a general contempt for everything,” he recalls. “I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. I just think it’s a youthful thing. It’s not bad for young people to kick back against this world, but I’ve found as I’ve grown older that this is not a position I can sustain in any way. It’s too difficult to hold the world in contempt when there’s so much evidence of [its] beauty.”
That said, in years gone by, an interview with Nick Cave wasn’t without its risks. On occasion, he could be known to chase journalists out of buildings and into the street, hurling objects and calling out names. “I’m not ashamed of [that],” he says now. “That’s the way it was back then – a sort of ideological clash between performer and the press. It was just the way we behaved, and they made for quite great interviews.”
“It’s not bad for young people to kick back against this world, but I’ve found as I’ve grown older that this is not a position I can sustain in any way. It’s too difficult to hold the world in contempt when there’s so much evidence of [its] beauty” – Nick Cave
A lot of things have changed since then though, including a more moralising, censorious approach to art, which is something he touches upon in Faith, Hope and Carnage, and The Red Hand Files. “It worries me when music is shut down,” he shares, and adds that while it’s unfortunate, there’s never been a “metric” that equates “virtuousness” with “good art”. “If you start looking around for the good people who've made [good] art, the conversation shuts down very quickly,” he observes. “All the great stuff seems to be made by people who are, in some way or another, out of order.”
Cave is worried about the price we might end up paying for shutting down music of people whose views we find distasteful. He illustrates this by reference to the world’s oldest record store, Spillers, in Cardiff, where they’ve banned Morrissey’s music. “Finally, a line was drawn somewhere, and Morrissey had to go,” says Cave. “Yet, if you start taking away [the music made by] transgressive people over the 150 years that [Spillers’] been open there’s nothing left except boring shit.”
It’s not that he vehemently separates art from the artist – there are some musicians he cannot listen to because he finds them “contemptible” – but he is concerned. “I value art and I see the need for it. That’s where it begins and ends as far as I’m concerned with cancel culture. It’s not some great fight I’m having. I just worry about the world. We need as much good stuff as possible.”
When you consider the existentialist themes explored in Faith, Hope and Carnage, along with the general tenor of his writing in The Red Hand Files, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen Cave journey down more ecumenical avenues of late. This is perhaps best exemplified by his recent interview with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Then again, God has always been as much of a feature in Cave’s songs as the devil.
Cave says he is “tilting” towards a greater acceptance of religion these days, but a “dislike for dogma” remains. He explains that he doesn’t “like” to be told “anything by anybody”, and that “certitude” always spells bad news for the creative. “I’m an artist, and I need to stay in that beautifully rich and imaginative ground between doubt and certitude. I find that area good for songwriting.”
Elsewhere, Cave admits he is troubled by how many young people write to him despairing over the state of the world. “They see the world as shit and human beings as corrupt, evil forces,” he laments. “The Red Hand Files is, in part, [my] attempt to redress that and say, ‘Hang on a second, terrible things happen, but life is essentially good.’ It’s a difficult position to sustain sometimes, [but] extreme pessimism and hopelessness is not good. “Obviously, young people are losing faith in the world and what it has to offer them in general.” He thinks much of this stems from social media, which he calls a “huge problem”. “There’s a corrosive, pathological, [and] relentless pessimism coming from social media – and [other] media as well – that’s eating away at us and who we are as human beings,” he says. “It’s having a huge demoralising effect on society.”
Cave says this as someone who was once a “passive participant” on Twitter, until its shine waned, and people he respected became “diminished” by their online chattering. “I was thinking, ‘Is he really saying that?’,” he exclaims. “That whole idea of it being punk rock, like the Wild West… it just became a bunch of assholes hashing it out in increasingly stupid ways.”
“There’s a corrosive, pathological, [and] relentless pessimism coming from social media that’s eating away at us and who we are as human beings... It’s having a huge demoralising effect on society”
When it comes to where Cave now finds himself musically (on his playlist presently, The Lemon Twigs, Drugdealer, to name just a couple), he cannot foresee a time when The Bad Seeds make a four on the floor rock and roll record again: “I just don’t know how to do it anymore,” he admits. A new Bad Seeds album is underway, however, and his excitement is palpable: “What’s coming out is just so instantly interesting,” he says. As has been the case since 2013’s Push the Sky Away, Cave is “co-creating” with Warren Ellis (“he slowly infects everything with his genius,” compliments the singer). “It’s really quite thrilling. Warren’s shifting all the time, and I am too... It’s not like a couple of old, exhausted musicians trying to cobble together a new record. There are so many ideas.” As for how it’ll sound, all he’s prepared to say is that it’s “not ambient at all” but it is also not an “old school Bad Seeds record” either.
There are occasions when Cave has contemplated his purpose and whether he should keep going. “Sometimes you think about giving this stuff up. I’ve been doing it a really long time,” he summarises. “The world doesn’t need another Nick Cave record. It doesn’t need another Nick Cave film. And it probably doesn’t need another Nick Cave Red Hand file. But what I fall back on is that I think doing something of value has some knock-on effect. It has some meaning. [And that’s why] I keep doing it.”
Loss is one of life’s few levellers. It’s an axe that swings with the same untempered motion no matter who you are or where you’re from – it’s a sobering equaliser, and a reminder of our mortality. “Our circumstances may be completely different but, fundamentally, our souls suffer in a similar way,” Cave says.
From his reckless younger years to age-acquired maturity, through devastation and beyond, a renewed sense of purpose has emerged. While there may be no cure for Cave’s grief, out of the dark, light has crept back in. “For me, hope and positivity is a stance I need to take…[and] I try to write in a way that reflects where I am in the world.”
And with that, our mind drifts back to the opening line of Ghosteen’s title track, sung softly by Cave and written by his hand. It simply says: “This world is beautiful”.