At the end of “Balcony Man,” Nick Cave’s ponderous and playful song about hope, romance, and grief, he sings, “What doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.” The words are a wry twist on Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous aphorism — but Cave says they’re also an improvement upon it.
“I don’t think Nietzsche’s quote of ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is remotely true,” he says. “It is bad, unhelpful information that suggests we are somehow weak if we succumb to our griefs. It lacks compassion. I have seen people driven mad by the relentless and overwhelming nature of their losses. It’s a terrible thing to witness yet completely understandable.”
Eight years ago, Cave’s teenaged son Arthur died tragically. Since then, the singer-songwriter, 66, has been open about his grief. To make sense of it, he started dialogues about grieving directly with his fans, answering their questions via The Red Hand Files and going on unique solo tours where he performed songs on a piano and fielded questions from the audience. He has also addressed his frame of mind on his Ghosteen and Carnage albums.
Last year, Cave published Faith, Hope and Carnage — a book-length, conversational Q&A with journalist Seán O’Hagan. The two men spoke in depth about Cave’s grief for his son, as well as for his mother and former lover and bandmate Anita Lane, who both died during the course of their conversations. Another son, Jethro Lazenby, also died as the book was going to the printer. These topics prompted conversations in the book about Cave’s Christian faith, his creative process, some of his former bandmates, and the literature and poetry he’d been reading.
A paperback edition of Faith, Hope and Carnage came out last week. To keep the dialogue with his fans going, Cave is making appearances in bookstores around the U.S. in various cities through Halloween, and on Oct. 5, he’ll be speaking with O’Hagan onstage in at the 92nd St. Y in New York. The appearances coincide with a rare solo tour on which Cave will be accompanied only by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood. (Greenwood also previously accompanied Cave and Warren Ellis on the tour captured on their recent Australian Carnage live album.)
Speaking with Rolling Stone early in the tour, he sounds pleased. “I think last night we worked out how to do the show, as well as what the show was,” he says. The day of the interview was also Cave’s birthday. When asked how he’d be celebrating, he sounded upbeat saying he was heading to Washington, D.C. to play another show. In some ways, he seems like a different person from the Cave in the book.
This interview has been edited and compiled from a phone interview and exchanges over email.
A year has passed since you published Faith, Hope and Carnage. Now that the paperback is out, do you feel differently about anything you said in your interviews with Seán?
Faith, Hope and Carnage is a conversation between two people at a particular point in time. It is by no means a definitive statement, although it does present a particular way of seeing the world. It is a conversation in flux.
So time has passed since then and, yes, many things have changed. My working methods are changing. The way I operate in the studio is different. My religious preoccupations are developing. My feelings around the death of my son, around which the book relentlessly circles, have become more reflective, less visceral, less painful. My relationship to my audience has developed. My thoughts around the culture wars feel less fraught, more thoughtful, more forgiving. Life goes on and so does the conversation, I would hope.
You’re, of course, still living with grief. Do you believe there is such a thing as “acceptance” — the supposed final stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross model?
In my experience, the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief is full of shit. Grief portioned into orderly stages does not make sense, on any level.
Grief, like love, is a mess. Grief manifests as awesome and Godlike. It was not about “acceptance,” which suggests a kind of ultimate returning to business as usual, rather it is an obliterating force that requires a kind of transmutation of being, where we turn from one thing into another thing. The experience of losing my two sons was a reordering of one’s essential being. Ultimately, if we are lucky, we stop focusing on our own wounds and look to the wounds of the world.
When have you noticed your own happiness lately?
I’m often happy. More often than not, I would say. I play music! This is a joyful thing to do! I love my family, my friends, my wife. I talk to people, have conversations, disagreements. I work on my ceramics, which is a kind of joy. Right now I’m about to jump into a freezing mountain river in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Happiness!
What have you been doing with your ceramics?
I did a series of 17 devils. An amazing art dealer saw them, and he now represents me. So in January or February, I’ll be glazing the next two sets of the same devils.
Have you always had an interest in these types of ceramics?
I have always collected Staffordshire-style figurines. They’re like little bucolic scenes that grandma might have on her mantlepiece at home in Britain, made through the Victorian period and onward, and I love them. … When I was a little kid, I used to make these figurines and my mother loved them. Weirdly, the whole thing is somehow attached to my mother. It feels like they’re for her, in a way. She died a couple of years ago.
She was a very, very old lady. So they’re still sort of connected to her, in some way.
You said you’ve started operating differently in the studio in the past year. What do you mean by that?
I have certain yearnings to return to a more formal way of writing songs — as much as I hate the word “formal.” For the last four records or so, Warren [Ellis] and I have based our songwriting around improvisation, which has created some very beautiful music, but there is something to be said about sitting down and writing a more formal, verse-chorus song. So maybe things are moving a little bit more in that direction. … I love the old songs, and that’s what I listen to.
You said in another interview that you don’t see the Bad Seeds returning to “that basic rock & roll style.” You said, “I don’t know how to do that anymore.” What do you mean?
I think the energy that we’re trying to find in our music needs to come from somewhere else other than basic rock & roll. There’s a lot of energy in the new record, but it’s not done as a rock & roll group, by which I mean guitar-orientated music. Warren and I have been looking for ways to create music that has that kind of visceral energy about it. It’s not that we don’t know how to do energetic rock & roll — everybody knows how to do that stuff — I think we’re just looking at different ways to get to the emotional core of what I’m trying to write about.
Rainer Maria Rilke believed solitude was important to a poet’s soul. What role does solitude play in your creativity now? Is it hard to create alone?
I have to be alone to write lyrics. Sadly, there is no one that can help me with this task. It is excruciatingly solitary work and takes a great many hours to write my songs. So, I spend a lot of time on my own. A lot. But it is not a preferred state. I like people. I like to talk to them. They are kind of awesome.
You recently described social media as encouraging pessimism. Other than at your concerts, where have you seen hope in the world?
Well, it’s not just social media that is the problem, as far as I can see. It is the media in general — a tirelessly demoralizing force in the world. It is difficult to find hope when we are forever being told how wicked we are and how foul and degraded and imperiled the world is.
But you know, I don’t spend much time on traditional media these days and I stay off social media altogether. Twitter or “X” or whatever it is called is an apparatus expressly designed to churn out assholes. We must remember that the world is, in spite of its many difficulties, relentlessly and systemically beautiful and of immense value, as are the people and other living beings that exist in it. I am hopeful because what I see in the world is very different than the media would have you think. People are, in the main, good, as is the world.
Earlier, you told me, “My thoughts around the culture wars feel less fraught, more thoughtful, more forgiving.” How do you see cancel culture now?
I understand the impulse better. I don’t like it, but I kind of understand where it’s coming from a little bit more. But in the end, I don’t think we should fight intolerance with intolerance. It just doesn’t make any sense to me to fight a lack of mercy with a lack of mercy. I just don’t think it does anybody any good, and it certainly doesn’t do the causes — the very righteous causes, in many ways — any good either. It creates a weariness with a lot of people around the actual injustices that are being fought against. Obviously, all of this is taken up and used by the right, and I think it creates a weariness around some very real issues. You can lose sympathy for the cause by the methods that are employed, which can be quite callous, brutal, and merciless.
Do you think a better method is just people talking about these things?
I think there needs to be conversation. I can’t find the moral imperative to be able to be self-righteous enough to think that I know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. I don’t look at the world in that way anyway.
It’s not that I have issues with social justice. I don’t. I think we need to be moving towards a more just society and a less oppressed society. But I think some of the methods, including cancel culture, are unhelpful in achieving the aims that people wish to achieve.
You’ve created a wonderful dialogue with your fans between the Red Hand Files, the “in conversation” concerts, and with your live performances. What have you learned from sharing your grief with strangers?
In a nutshell, this is what I have learned from the Red Hand Files: that we humans are essentially creatures of loss, all of us, that loss is our common binding condition. It is this brokenness that makes us so shockingly human, and even though we suffer still we still have the capacity to do and create wondrous things.
You open the book with a verse from Isaiah 11, regarding the coming of the Messiah who would bring peace between wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, calves and lions. What moved you to cite this scripture?
The quote was, “A little child shall lead them.” It’s a very beautiful quote that seemed just right. I felt that the spirit of Arthur, my son, inhabited the conversations that Seán and I were having in Faith, Hope and Carnage. He was an ever-present, animating force. I felt that he was quite literally leading us.
Earlier, you said your religious preoccupations are developing. What do you mean by that?
I’ve found that I can take all my scattered ideas about religion, faith, and belief and all my uncertainty and doubt into a place that somehow holds all that together, in a deeply traditional way that is unique unto itself and isn’t really concerned with what’s going on in the outside world. I’m finding some kind of solace about things in much more traditional kinds of religious settings.
Before I wrote the book … I’ve always been interested in the figure of Christ. But these thoughts were always fractured and scattered and not really embedded in the way that I led my life. They were just things that I kept coming back to in my songwriting or what I read. I made no commitment to the idea whatsoever, and I think doing the book [Faith, Hope and Carnage], it helped consolidate my ideas and made me realize that I have been, all my life, on a religious journey of some sort, whether I’ve realized it or not.
With all you’ve been through in the past few years, have you thought much about the Biblical stories of David and Job, and the concept of “how much one can bear”?
I don’t think it really comes down to how much you can bear, I think there is a learned resilience that comes along with grief. You can learn to live with it. You don’t have to fold. You don’t have to spend your time looking inward at the absence of someone. It is possible to turn around and look at the world for what it is and understand that it is unfair but be able to see, within that, the great beauty of the world.
I know grieving people who haven’t been able to do that, and they have kind of hardened around the absence of the ones they’ve lost. And I’ve known other people that have turned around and been able to look at the world and understand the common nature of loss and that we’re all in it together, and the vulnerability or precarious nature of all of our existences. This is a common binding agent. If you can understand that, it goes a long way in reducing the absolute feelings of despair that you have when you’ve lost someone.
You’re on a solo tour with Colin Greenwood from Radiohead. How have your songs changed in rehearsal when played by the two of you?
The songs are stripped back to the bone and Colin, who is an extraordinarily emotional and melodic bass player, weaves himself around the songs, turning them instantly musical. My piano playing has improved vastly as a result and the dynamic range of the songs has become fucking monumental. We are playing all sorts of stuff. Very old songs, new songs, some songs never before heard, all sorts of stuff. It’s incredibly exciting.
How has playing with Colin “improved” your playing?
He’s very different style of bass player than I normally work with. Certainly, Marty [the Bad Seeds’ Martyn P. Casey] is an amazing bass player. He’s just always there holding everything together. Colin, on the other hand, is much more melodic and moves around a lot more. So it requires a little more from me with my piano side. I’m having to work on my bass hand more. But anyway, we’ve done a lot of rehearsing and we did a great show last night. The songs sound really beautiful.
I was listening to your discography recently, and The Good Son bears some incredibly sad lyrics. “Sorrow’s child grieves not what has passed,” you sing on “Sorrow’s Child,” “but all the past still yet to come.” And “The Weeping Song,” a set-list staple for you, is devastating. How do you now view lyrics like the ones in these songs differently?
I think there is something unearned and generic and disengaged about some of those lines. They are speaking about matters of suffering in the abstract, the poetic. I think the lyrics I write now, the sad ones at least, feel more authentic. They are the fallout of a life lived. I think the lyrics I have written in the last few years are some of the best I have done or will be able to do. I very much doubt if I can do better.
You’ve sung “The Weeping Song” on the early dates of this tour. Is it harder to perform these “unearned and generic” songs now?
No. “The Weeping Song” is about existential despair, right? But I don’t think I had any real understanding of that thing ’til my later life. And as a consequence, those lyrics now have much more weight. It’s a very beautiful song, actually. But that’s what I meant by “unearned”; I didn’t mean they weren’t good, I just meant that they were talking about things that I had yet to find out the full impact of.
The word you used that struck me, though, is “generic.”
Yeah, maybe that’s not the right word to have used. What does generic mean?
To me, at least having grown up in the U.S., it means average or middle rate.
You quoted another song, though, “Sorrow’s Child.” In talking about this, I just don’t think it’s a very good song.
OK. Fair enough.
It’s fucking generic. Now that I know what generic means.
It’s a little on the nose, it’s little over-egged. Even for me.
What have you been reading lately?
I am happily reading the new James Lee Burke novel [Flags on the Bayou] I found in a bookshop in Asheville. What a joy! I have read more pages of James Lee Burke than any other writer by far, over 30 novels. My favorite crime writer, he is the purest pleasure. Beyond that, I am reading the controversial, but immensely sensible essays of Thomas Sowell.
You recently described your early career not as “goth” but a comedy act. What do you mean?
I think that much of the work is comic in nature. That is not to say it isn’t serious, quite the contrary, comic writing is a way of saying serious and difficult things, with a certain impunity. But I try, although not always successfully, to approach my work — and life, for that matter — playfully and with a certain lightness of spirit. Like I said, sometimes I fail, but, well, I try!
You recently said that your message has been the same since you were in the Birthday Party: a search for transcendence. Did you ever achieve anything like transcendence then? Do you feel like you have in recent years?
Yes, I think the concerts I do are transcendent in nature, as is all music that involves an authentic exchange with the audience. Sometimes, I think that music is the only place left, outside of religion, where we can have a legitimate transcendent experience.
Can you describe this transcendence?
I personally believe that music is morally good within itself. It is a force of goodness by its very nature, and I think that it has the potential to make people better, just by its presence, so there is that. I think that when you sit and listen properly to a piece of music, it can have a sort of rehabilitating effect on you. It can make you better, and that’s a fundamental belief that I’ve always actually had about music. It doesn’t matter what the music actually is, it is fundamentally good in its nature, and I think that it requires something of us.
When you go to a show, whether you’re playing a show or listening to the show, if you’re not listening to the music with a full heart or the performers on stage are bored or you’re distracted, it doesn’t necessarily have the same impact. But I think, if you can go to a concert and be genuinely swept up by it, it makes you a better person, and it reaches up beyond… Music has the capacity to reach up beyond what we would normally expect from ourselves. It takes us to a place that’s different from what we can normally expect. And I don’t think there’s that much left that can do that.
That’s why I’m so concerned about AI and things like that… especially the concept of ChatGPT or the idea of being able to create a kind of commodification of music without artistic struggle, that the artistic struggle itself is just seen as an inconvenience.
One of your Red Hand Files readers sent you a “Nick Cave Song” written by ChatGPT that was atrocious.
Yeah, it was atrocious. I think that the reason we have the transcendent feeling towards music is that we realize that these people onstage, who are like us — who are faulty, broken people — are creating something of genuine beauty that sometimes is beyond belief. And if this is replaced by something that’s generated by a computer, even if the songs are just as good, it takes away the very essence of our humanness, and that’s what we’re watching when we listen to music. … ChatGPT, to me, feels like a sort of perverse aberration of the potential of AI, and that’s why I don’t like it.
Speaking of humanness, as a fan of yours myself, I’ve always been curious how you define the word “malanderer,” which you use in “Lay Me Low.” It’s not in any dictionary. What do you mean?
Yes, I guess it is a word I made up. Malanderer — probably a mash-up of marauder, malingerer, and meander, i.e. someone who travels around, here and there, this way and that, doing bad shit. When God asks Satan in the Book of Job what he has been doing, Satan answers God, “Going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it,” in other words, being a badass malanderer!
I’m also curious about “Lay Me Low,” in general, since it’s your tongue-in-cheek narration of what will happen after your death. You seem like a completely different person from when you wrote that. How do you see your legacy now?
My legacy is not for me to decide. I am doing my best in my own way to improve the condition of the world. This seems like a lofty ambition, but it is not, it is the task that is given to us all.
From Rolling Stone US