The Day I Met Grinderman

Nick Cave has announced the end of Grinderman. After two extraordinary albums, the feral garage-blues rock band are no more. In September 2010, I got the chance to interview Grinderman at RAK studios in St John’s Wood. It was a wonderful experience and here’s what I wrote for AU magazine.

Outside a North London recording studio there is some filming going on. Members of the band One Night Only are practicing opening a door in an adjacent house, walking towards to the steps of the studio’s impressive Victorian frontage, and entering the front door. They are in the process of recording a single with a short film to accompany it. The lads, with carefully messed-up hair and skinny jeans, are trying to look like indie rock stars and walk at the same time. It’s harder than you think and the process is repeated for some minutes.

Suddenly, during one take, a huge black Audi pulls up to the entrance. A chauffeur opens the rear door, and out steps a man dressed in a lime green shirt and tight black trousers. His hair is slicked back and he stalks, insect-like, up the studio steps. It’s Nick Cave and he has obliviously walked straight through the ‘scene’, ruining that particular take. Minutes later, bandmate Warren Ellis does exactly the same thing. Clearly, Grinderman don’t give a fuck about One Night Only’s filming schedule.

Grinderman have arrived to rehearse for an imminent European tour to promote their (quite frankly) brilliant new long-player – the imaginatively titled Grinderman 2. Their debut album appeared to be a celebration of libidinous middle-aged men exercising, and perhaps exorcising, their right to lust. Multiple reviews suggested it was a sonic mid-life crisis, a description which Cave is understandably riled by. “The ‘mid-life crisis’ was an easy journalistic tag. It’s patronizing about something which is quite complex and possibly threatening, on some levels. So it’s an easy way to dismiss it and render it impotent. I did find it very fucking patronizing.” His words hang heavy in the air.

Grinderman 2 is a very different beast; it is more expansive musically and lyrically more diverse – even if the trademark talk of wolfmen and bogeymen still prowls the songs. While testosterone and aggression are still in evidence, the wonderful psycho pop of ‘Palaces Of Montezuma’ and the Lou Reed-inspired ballad ‘When My Baby Comes’ both display a softer, feminine side to the band. Cave pounces on the assertion, “There is a vulnerability in Grinderman that I think women recognize. They understand intuitively that we are fronting up to issues that most men would rather not face up to. Vulnerability is the wrong word. It’s a neurosis. We’re not ashamed to admit that we are neurotic. We are being driven by neuroses.”

“And as we all know, that’s a real thigh opener,” drummer Jim Sclavunos deadpans.

“The sage speaks,” laughs Cave. “We open ourselves up to both ridicule and awe.”

In the flesh, Nick Cave is a wondrous sight. It’s his 53rd birthday today (AU ashamedly arrives empty-handed), and he looks as if he could be in his mid-thirties. Tanned, lean and wrinkle-free, he looks like a bastion of health next to his grizzly bandmates. Guitarist Warren Ellis possesses a beard of natural wonder and a hideous cackle to match, while at 6’ 7” Sclavunos is a tower of sardonic insight. The fourth member, bass-player Marty Casey, sits behind his shades and barely utters a word.

Grinderman has become something of a creative salvation for Cave. The method of writing songs through improvised jam sessions has given him a jolt of freedom. After The Bad Seeds magnificent Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus albums in 2004, Cave felt his energy levels had sapped. “It was getting very difficult for me to sit in my office with a blank piece of paper and come up with songs. I have written over 200 of them and it is difficult to find that original spark of creation to write another song. You just run out of things to write about.”

Was he ever concerned that he would lose the capability to write songs? “Yeah, there is a certain panic about things. I’m always worried about being spooked as a songwriter and not being able to do something and it snowballing into flat-out writer’s block and then you don’t write anything for a couple of years. I’ve made every effort to not let that happen, but sometimes when you have had a day when you’ve played a whole lot of bullshit, you start doubting your abilities or whether you’ve still got it.”

“Suddenly, Grinderman offered a whole new way of making music which was a) collaborative and b) didn’t require any time or effort on some level because it was largely improvised. So, you go into the situation with absolutely nothing, with no ideas and you just play music for five days. In that process, stuff just comes up. Then I go back and try and stay true to those themes that were coming up within the improvised session, work on them and bring them up to scratch. That’s a whole new way of writing that has really enriched the songwriting process for me for The Bad Seeds, where I can now sit down with a blank piece of paper and feel freed up by that.”

It’s a view that’s shared by the others, who between them have played in dozens of bands including The Triffids, The Cramps and Sonic Youth. Warren Ellis seems particularly invigorated; “With Grinderman, I like the fact that we are trying to find something all the time. It feels to me that we are going into it with the same enthusiasm we did when we were 19 to find something different, musically and lyrically. It feels like that energy is still there, which I find really addictive.”

Suddenly, all is not well in Nick Cave’s world. “What, are you saying that we were going back to the studio like kids, or something?” he asks Ellis, accusingly. “All I’m saying, is not that we’re like 19 years old again, but it’s with the same enthusiasm that I’ve always felt with these people still seems to be there, no matter what,” Ellis replies defensively. “That’s all I meant. Fucking hell – it’s lucky there’s two people between us on this couch.” 

An unlikely diplomat, Sclavunos attempts to diffuse the situation by talking over his glowering bandmates. “I think it’s just in our temperament to have this restless creativity, whether you are talking about Grinderman or The Bad Seeds, individually or collectively. We set a high bar for ourselves.”

But Cave is having none of it; he has a point to make and he’s going to make it. “I’m more excited about the process of making music than I was when I was 19. When I was 19, I was really ambivalent about it to begin with. I didn’t know anything about it or if that’s what I wanted to do with my life – to be a musician. It took quite a long time to get to something where I felt that I was actually going into the studio and doing something important. And now it really feels like that.”

“Fuck – I’ll let you off because it’s your birthday,” soothes Ellis to AU’s relief. “Any other day and I’d have jumped on your…”

As both Grinderman albums have been created by an initial intense burst of improvisation and jamming, there is no sense of molding how each record might sound. There will be no premeditated sonic evolution for future Grinderman records. “What we are actually doing is not preparing and going in and improvising and really allowing that hothouse situation to take the music to somewhere completely different. That’s what we are looking for,” Cave explains. “The interesting thing about the last Grinderman improvised sessions is that we left (at least Warren and I did) feeling like we didn’t really get that much.”

Ellis writes songs in a similar way with his other band, The Dirty Three, and concurs with Cave’s view, “You leave and you are depressed and you throw it all in the bin. And then you come back again, and there is something really good about that. It teaches you humility.” But out of dejection, came the light of salvation, “It was only when we listened to it later on that we were like ‘fuck, this is amazing’, because it was very different from what we anticipated the next Grinderman record to be,” Cave admits.

The other defining change for Cave in the last few years was that he began to play the guitar; an act which has completely changed how he perceives music and the songwriting process. “There is something very immediate about the guitar. Before, when I present a song I have written on the piano the kind of chords you play are different, and they don’t actually sound like rock ‘n’ roll. As soon as I started playing the guitar – which I only have a basic ability to play – I was immediately able to understand why rock ‘n’ roll was rock ‘n’ roll. Within a week of learning three chords I could pretty much sit there and play about ten Velvet Underground songs – this is why and how it’s done.”

A week later, and with their UK tour in full swing, AU catches Grinderman’s Manchester show. It’s an exhilarating experience; time may have dimmed the debauched anarchy of Cave’s Birthday Party performances, but there is a still a deliciously controlled fury. Whether it’s ending up in the crowd during a particularly sleazy version of ‘Kitchenette’, or accidentally falling into Sclavunos’ drum kit while vamping up ‘Heathen Child’ (“Sorry Jim”), Cave is still a master of menace and his fellow Grinder-guys are seriously skilled musicians.

The new track that is greeted by the biggest cheer is the next single ‘Worm Tamer’. During our interview, we reflect on the fact that almost every review has made reference to the perceived humour of the lyric, “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster / Two great big humps and then I’m gone.” “There were probably a lot of guys having a serious meltdown at home listening to that one,” chuckles Ellis. Cave, however, is aghast at the idea that the line is comedic. “That wasn’t supposed to be funny. It’s tragic.”

There is, however, a refreshing level of self-deprecation running through Grinderman songs, be it the Loch Ness admission or the defeated air of ‘No Pussy Blues’, a track from their debut album. According to Ellis, it’s a deprecation brought about by self-confidence and experience. “It’s a fucking age thing at this point – it’s not like you’re young and care what anyone thinks. You just don’t give a shit after a certain point.” With band bonhomie restored, Cave nods in agreement, “That’s what happens, you get to a certain age and you don’t give a fuck.”

“I could be completely wrong about this,” he continues, coming full-circle on our discussion. “But I think that women respond to the fact that we are quite open about the male situation and that there is a certain levity about it that they enjoy.”

There is seemingly no end to Grinderman’s ability to open thighs.

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About John Freeman

I'm a music fan and have been writing for publications and websites since 2008. These include Ireland's AU magazine, Clash magazine and The Quietus website. View all posts by John Freeman

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