Never a man for a pipe and slippers approach, Nick Cave’s early musical expression came in the form of the bugged-out punk screech of Aussie bad boys The Birthday Party. But in 1983 he hit on some languorous piano magic and launched a 25-year-long career with new band the Bad Seeds, who soon became the elder statesmen for a black-hearted take on religion, politics and the classic sex and death combo, the murder ballad.
Following collaborations with Cave’s then girlfriends PJ Harvey and Kylie, and composing the odd film soundtrack along the way, in 2006 an opportunity to return to the wild side of gothic exploration presented itself. Cave, guitarist Warren Ellis, bass player Martyn P Casey and percussionist Jim Sclavunos started a risqué blues-rock alter ego that would infect the Bad Seeds’ blood too. Here Jim takes us down the dark alley leading to the Grinderman lair.
How did Grinderman originate?
We had this other venture that never had a name and we were playing a lot of concerts around Europe. Nick and Warren [Ellis, guitar] had been doing that for a while with Jim White [drummer from the Dirty Three] but when Marty [P Casey, bass] and I joined it rapidly turned into a rather tumultuous, raunchy and raucous affair! Prior to that it had just been an intimate evening with Nick Cave at the piano with light accompaniment.
The set must have sounded pretty different.
It didn’t sound like the Bad Seeds any more. We didn’t know if it would be a good or bad idea, but we ventured into the studio for five days improvising in Metropolis studios [in 2006]. We made it up on the spot, but we were emboldened to go on and make a proper record.
Did you have record company pressure straight away?
No, we didn’t feel answerable to anyone, so we could do what we pleased – we didn’t even have a name. It was a nice little musical adventure and influential in a quite unexpected way.
How do you mean?
Having Grinderman in the configuration really upped the ante. It destroyed any preconceptions of what we could do as musicians. Not to say the Bad Seeds were some tired old warhorse barely hobbling along. We’d just done Abbatoir Blues, our most successful record . But this viral thing of anarchy and chaos had infiltrated the ranks. It made things even more unpredictable. [Bad Seeds’ 2008 album] Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! was the result of that.
So the first Grinderman record emerged in 2007 and went down pretty well…
People who weren’t former Bad Seeds fans came on board. This was an opportunity to reassess their presumptions of what we were about, what kind of music we were capable of making.
And you all felt you could do a second album. How did that come about?
Grinderman 2 wasn’t quite as quick as the first album as we were having to fit it around Bad Seeds activity. It’s in the spirit of Grinderman to keep people guessing. It started with the same method though; in Assault & Battery 2 [studios] in Willesden for five days to improvise and record.
What influenced you on Grinderman 2?
We’re reluctant to say because people make too much of it. We’re older guys, we’ve listened to a lot of music and it’s all in there in some subconscious way. I might be thinking krautrock, Nick will be thinking Miles Davis’ On The Corner, Marty will be thinking [concert tour] Rolling Thunder Revue as we’re all playing one song.
Do you all chip in with lyrics?
No, Nick solely does the lyrics, but he does like to get some feedback and I certainly never shy away from chiming in, ha ha. What happens with Grinderman that doesn’t happen with the Bad Seeds so much is that because Nick’s ad-libbing in the throes of a musical moment surrounded by male camaraderie, he’s not as conscientiously editing himself. He said he would hardly have written No Pussy Blues [from the first Grinderman record] for a Bad Seeds album, where he traditionally sits at home at the piano. It’s not the sort of thing that in the wee small hours, quill in hand, he’d say: “that’s a brilliant line”.
What else was different about Grinderman 2?
It maintains continuity with the first record with the same foundation in blues chord progressions, but it’s denser. A lot of it, like Bellringer Blues, is taken from the original sessions, recorded live, with the beginning and end snipped off and a couple of overdubs.
It sounds pretty simple and old school.
I’m pretty fussy about my mics and I do have the occasional arm wrestling match with producer Nick Launay as to whether we’ll use a D12 or a biodynamic ribbon mic. But you couldn’t easily make a record like this without Pro Tools.
You still champion the album and single formats too.
They’re both important. We think an album tells a story and one song informs another; listening to things in a certain sequence has an effect on your experience of the music. What’s more interesting is that technology has allowed people to listen to music in combinations that are unpredictable and the fact that music is free or cheap means it’s much more likely that people will get exposed to music that they wouldn’t normally listen to.
New single, Palaces Of Montezuma, is out now via Mute. Visit www.grinderman.com for more information on the band.