Nick Cave


“Ahhhh, I dunno…”

There’s a kind of magnificent doom about the way Cave says it, and just succumbs to the sheer hopelessness of… everything. His hand makes a long sweep through his ink coloured mane before he puts a grim, sneering, grin on his face and says: “I say ‘I don’t know’ a lot, don’t I?! It’s because I don’t.”

The complications of Cave are many – as his new novel ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’ confirms.

Nick Cave is a spectacle. Puzzled and obsessive, his desperation is fascinating. He knows what he wantscertainly.

“Look…” he says, again with a kind of desperation. “I think this interview should keep to the novel. I don’t want to do an interview about my life. Basically, what I’d like you to do in this interview is this…”

But he can’t do it and, besides, he probably knows, I won’t.

He confesses that these days his most intimate one-to-one conversations come in false situations like interviews (a medium he implicitly despises and considers (or knows to be) worthless. 

Ask him a question, and through boredom or disappointment he almost groans – invariably before answering – as if at his life’s futility. 

His answer pattern goes from gradual/grudging co-operation to twitching awkwardness, on to intense almost tender frankness, uncomfortable resentment, and finally surly belligerence or open hostility:

“Look, I didn’t write the book to describe my character or my childhood,” he spells out. “It’s a novel. About a character.”

He seems perplexed by himself for all this. I never know if he’s going to lighten up, lash out, or simply walk off. 

And yet the well-spoken and articulate insights continue. 

Cave chooses his words with great care, fumbling his way through hesitant, involved, sentences and playing with his rings, his cigs, or ragged, magnificent, mane. 

He doesn’t take kindly to my lazy phrases, which, no doubt rightly, he regards as facile.

Cave, it’s safe to assume, is someone who sees through people. And he sees through me a lot.

In his face, you can see both scowling wildcat and plaintive, sober, introspective. Cave is someone whose face changes totally when he smiles. When his face cracks open, almost oafishly. 

He’s hugely likeable, which is surprising as this is not his reputation but particularly for me considering I don’t particularly like his music.

But I can’t help liking his snarling humour. The way it comes almost grudgingly, in the form of mocking malevolence – telling me “actually Euchrid (the hero of his novel) looks more like you” for example.

His last answer to every section is almost unswervingly: “Oh, I don’t know… I don’t remember !”

And there is something admirable (if not necessarily enjoyable) about his utter disinterest in even trying to remember – or conceal this disinterest.

The themes of ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’ – a book that indubitably only he could have written – are themes he’s made his own in his music: alienation, obsession, religious hysteria, persecution, murder, cruelty, glory and revenge, blasphemy and betrayal, with the added familiar elements of Cave’s disgust, loathing, and barely almost savagely repressed emotion. 

The language and location of the novel (both where the Australian Outback meets the American South) also serve up a typical Cave cast of characters: hobos and hillbillies, preachers and angels, swamp folk and what he calls “junk heap hill trash.”

Cave’s style is so fast and furious it almost spews across the page: a barrage of tortured verbs and bloody, tender, adjectives predictably heavily dependent on rhythm and often reminiscent of his lyrics.

Death wore black and came by horse and many thronged behind him.”

The book readings will be like acoustic gigs. Nick Cave: Unplugged (and unhinged).

What impresses most are the orthodox, if extraordinary, plotting; the savage characterization; and the tone of romantic sadness, profound poignancy, and raving prophecy. He excels at grim humour and vivid imagery: “the full face of the moon laughed at me from the bottom of the drum, mirrored in the dirty ashen soup.

Euchrid – the mute, mocked, and abused outcast – is born with his dead brother in a burnt-out Chevy to a mother (Crow Jane) crazed on White Jesus and a father who spends his days silently greasing “unnecessarily cruel” steel animal traps and keeping the wounded/mutilated rats, lizards, crows, toads, snakes, wolves, hogs, cats, and dogs he catches in a disused water tank where he watches the ensuing massacres.

Cave describes Euchrid as “the loneliest baby boy in the history of the whole world. And that’s no idle speculation. God told me so. Listen, ah don’t wanna speak ill of the dead but have ah told you that mah mother was a great whopping whale of a hog’s cunt with a dry black maggot for a brain ? A piss-eyed hell-bag who would sing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ until the end, when she would simply run amok, launch into unbridled violence.”

Through mute visitations, crazed revelation, and malediction Euchrid becomes “a voyeur to the lord” – by divine appointment God’s snitch and saboteur. “No one can keep a secret better than a mute.”


Euchrid draws “hate-inspiration from God” and sets about the lives of Kike the hobo, the sordid preacher Albie Poe, and the mad, barren, Rebecca Swift.

The grinning jaws of ignorance and prejudice were parted an ah was their unhappy prey.”

Obsessed by Cosey Mo (the harlot of Hooper’s Hill, whose drug habit Cave merely touches on) and later the angelic Beth, Euchrid’s mania, delusion, and dementia gradually career towards carnage.

Cave repeatedly becomes heated and defensive about the novel – misinterpreting questions about his motives either as criticism or demands to justify himself. 

But when I tell him the novel rose above my expectations of the type of book I thought he’d produce and that it was certainly much better written, he simply nods quietly, agreeing: “Yeah, I can understand that – why you’d say that.”

What’s impressive, I say, is the way you resisted the lure of experimental, self-conscious, style in preference for strong plot and complex narrative.

“Yeah, it’s not an easy book to read,” he admits, seemingly not remotely displeased by this suggestion, let alone offended. “I find it quite hard to read books like this. I also find it quite hard to listen to the sort of music I make. The book became a dumping ground for all sorts of things: sub-plots et cetera – things I wanted to write about that had upset me. I’d try and mold them into the book. A lot of this stuff had to go.

“I’m never happy to be judged actually, but I do feel I’ve laid myself open in this book, yeah. It’s actually one of the only things I’ve done where I’ve felt that way after I’ve finished it. It’s the thing I can look at the least objectively out of anything I’ve done. I can’t kind of fob off any responsibility onto anybody else. It’s entirely my own. As far as I go as a person, it’s as good as I can do and I’m really satisfied.”

What’s the hardest part about writing do you find ?

“I guess one of the most difficult things, but at the same time something I became more and more addicted to, was the actual solitude of writing it. I felt a need to kind of drag people into it, to help me. Ultimately when you’re writing a book, you have to be totally on your own. Having someone supposedly telling the truth brings out delusion more and more. The last section is all him. By the end, you understand that he’s just a criminally insane bastard. The success of the novel for me, and the biggest challenge, was how long the sympathy for Euchrid is maintained. If it’s maintained to the end, as it was for you, then for me it’s very successful. Or it shows a moral problem with the reader. As in your case…”

Having the opportunity to say this clearly makes Nick Cave quite happy – as happy as he probably gets.

Do you think you’re a good writer ?

“Yeah,” he states admirably simply. “I have a nice sense of image. Well, I don’t know, I have various talents. Weaknesses? Oh, let’s talk about my strengths I guess then. A nice sense of phrasing, the way the words work with each other, reasonable vocabulary… I always thought my writing had humour, though I guess most of the humour in the book is ultimately pretty sad.”

You’re very greedy word-wise.

“You should have read it before it was edited ! We threw out whole chapters. I became kind of sickened by the amount that was superfluous – how many obscure words there were. In the end, for my own sanity and creative growth I had to hand it over. I do like extravagance in writing – adjectives particularly, yeah. Quite a few rock writers have that problem with adjectives,” he points out challengingly, adding dismissively “flowery writing.”

Well you can talk, I counter.

“Yeah, I know. Sure.”

Why did you write it ? Was it to tell a story? To prove a point to yourself ? Or to put over any didactic ideas ? 

“Um, I wrote it because I was, um, there. As far as I’m concerned the book justifies itself and I don’t feel any need to justify why I wrote it. I had no idea that I had that sort of application.”

How did you write it ?

“Initially, it was a contractual thing, I was egotistical enough to sign a book contract and say I could write a book. When I found out I actually had to write the book, I began a sort of a nightmare. Perhaps that’s something reflected in the book itself, I don’t know. Erm… Initially I found it really difficult to write. The more I wrote, the more the character took over and the more it became an obsession. I don’t really know how it started… Um, I had a fairly kind of intense few months in LA composing the film script for some people’s first movie, which proved impractical. It turned into a book at some point. I have a pretty bad memory for anything like that. I had two years of editing and re-writing. I had absolutely no idea that the editing process took so long, so I was talking about the book some years ago when it was nothing like finished.”

Would you have written it without putting the pistol of a contract at your head ?

“Ah, I’m not sure. I’m not really sure whether intuitively I knew I needed something to push me to write or whether I just had too many drinks. I can’t really remember. With the group, I need a lot of responsibility – towards the other members of the group. I build up this external pressure, that I’ll let people down if I don’t make another record. Ultimately it’s all kind of bullshit. The real difference between Euchrid and myself – what makes Euchrid insane and me sane – is he had no escape from those sorts of thoughts, nothing to escape to. I have responsibility; he doesn’t. That’s why I can write the book and he can be the character and it could never be the other way around.”

When he breaks off to get a drink, two teenagers come over and sit down at our table. When he returns, with evident malevolence, Cave doesn’t even hesitate but just snarls “we’re doing an interview here !”

But then when – amazingly – they ignore this, he acquiesces and meekly moves to another table.

Now 32, Nick Cave was born in Warwick Nabeal in Victoria, one of four children, and raised in Wangaratta, regularly singing in the Cathedral choir.

It’s an obvious trap but the book, like Twain’s, has the vivid ring of experience. What sort of upbringing did you have ?

“Ahh.. Wangaratta’s a place that has two schools – a Catholic school and a high school. Several pubs. We children would spend time at the river, go into the mountains shooting. It’s just a place to get out of. Certainly I remember things through a child’s eyes. A lot of the book came from places I remember from my childhood – the sugar-cane growing communities, yeah. The swamplands aren’t Wangaratta, no.”

Is it a form of revenge ?

“Well yeah, there are a lot of characters in the book from that period.”

When I push the autobiographical links, and ask where his fascination for hobos and hillbillies (or “junk-heap hill trash”) comes from, again the conversation collapses like a punctured balloon. 

I suggest a lot of his fans could be seen as the modern day equivalent of these characters: renegades living in squats, taking drugs, kicking against convention and authority.

“It’s the kind of human soul driven right to the bottom,” he considers at first. “An environment where there is no law, no constraints. Where a person can act in any way they want and they do. That really kind of excites me.”

Saying this though, seemingly only makes him disgruntled until he snaps: “You mean whether the fans rape their sisters ? I don’t see that many hill trash coming along to our gigs.”

Then, not unreasonably, he growls: “Actually, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Everybody is oppressed by the law. Everybody. And the more lawless they are, possibly the more oppressed they are.”

What did your parents do ?

“They were teachers at the school I went to. My mother was a librarian and my father was an English Lit teacher. They both taught at that school… That was a problem for me because any vague misdemeanor I would commit at school, they would find out about. I remember my father showing me the opening chapter of ‘Lolita.’ That book had a continual effect on me. I liked any attention I could get from my father, even if it came in the form of that teacher/pupil relationship.”

He gives a grim grin of sarcasm.

When did you begin to stray ? Did you work at school or were you a hooligan ?

“I used to work, yeah. I used to get into too much trouble as well. Around the age of 12 it all got too much, I had to leave. The local High School wouldn’t have me any more and I couldn’t go to the Catholic School (smirks) so I had to go to a boarding school in Melbourne – to have some kind of sense beaten into me in some way.”

I ask him what he’d been doing but his patience has gone.

“There’s all sorts of grisly tales to impart about going to boarding school and the sort of things that one is subjected to, um… But I’m not sure if they’re that relevant.”

Did you want to be famous ? Or a writer ?

“No, not really. Um. My initial passion was to be a painter. That idea seduced me for many years. I always could write at school and enjoyed it. But I’d never contemplated being a writer, no. Er… I have a bad memory for all this. It’s something I’ve always regretted.”

How did you become a singer ?

“It was at school. It was a social activity that just carried on. No one was particularly interested in doing it. It’s snowballed ever since. I was involved in a group with Tracey Pugh and Mick Harvey. A lot of Alex Harvey Band covers. I certainly had no idea that I would be involved in music nor did I have any great love for it, either. Actually the group was all an accident. It’s quite a recent thing that I’ve really enjoyed being involved in music. Um, in a way most of it’s been a kind of nightmare and it’s been something that’s kind of restricted me from doing a lot of things that I wanted to do – like writing for example.

“At school I was just going to be a painter and that was end of story. A couple of years at art school really took all the interest out of it for me. Though, it did give me an incredibly healthy disrespect for all kind of institutions and academies. All art authority in a way.”

Cave remains reluctant to talk about anything like “influences” but acknowledges most of the names I put to him (guesses from reading ‘And The Ass Kissed The Angel’). 

These include Twain, Dickens (‘Hard Times’), Steinbeck (‘East of Eden’), Beckett, Conrad, Flannery O’Connor.

“Burroughs is probably great,” he mentions. “But unfortunately he seems to have inspired a generation of idiots and bad writers, I don’t know why.”

Not Melvyn Peake ?

“I’m not very good at those challenging books, like ‘Ulysses.’ Melville was a primary influence. Frightening in how great he is. The first book to make a dramatic change in my life was ‘Crime And Punishment’, when I was about 15. These days it’s much harder for somebody to have an effect on me in the same way.” 

He adds with masterly nonchalance “the biggest influence in writing this book was The Bible obviously.”

This makes it seem somewhat unreasonable – the way he clearly feels unjustly put upon when I ask him about his interest in The Bible. As if the title was not that relevant to the book or the interview.

“‘Balaam and the Angel’ seemed to me a very appropriate story. Just a cruel trick played on everyone really. During the book Euchrid is both the ass and the angel, yeah, that’s right.”

Do you know what you believe in ?

“I believe all sorts of things. I don’t know if I really want to talk about that. I’m pretty confused about all of that sort of thing these days. I felt quite comfortable talking about that years ago.”

Do you believe in sin ?

“Um, well… I believe in evil.”

Can you have a strong interest but not be seduced into following on to the next step of belief ?

“Ah, I had this problem. I think I will always see The Bible as one of the most beautiful books that has ever existed. So much of it one is forced to believe in. I’m not sure that I can accept so much. I became seduced by it. But (wearily) yeah, a lot of those concepts that I used to believe in, I don’t find so fascinating now. One of them is religion and the concept of God. I feel quite uncomfortable talking about this.”

The line in ‘Mercy Seat’, about the irony of Christ being crucified and a carpenter, was very funny.

“I didn’t mean to be sacrilegious when I wrote that.”

Why ? Do you believe in sacrilege as a concept ?

“Well, yeah, I do. I have a great respect for that sort of thing. I feel uncomfortable when I hear sacrilegious things. I dunno… I don’t really want to talk about that.”

How has the novel affected your lyric writing ?

“Well, this is quite interesting. I always procrastinate – until I’m in the studio. I’ve composed the next album, to record in Brazil but I haven’t been able to write any of it down on paper at all. I have a phobia. The lyrics in my head are short, simple. A reaction against the book I’d say. I find it much easier to write prose. I’m going to Brazil by myself for a month at first. I really love both Rio and San Paolo. Very chaotic… I find that most of my time, I have nothing in my head at all. It’s so chronic in London. I come back to London and vegetate. It’s always had this effect on me. It’s not really fair to blame London. I change when I’m here. I pacify. It has a bad effect on me.”

Do you see them as totally separate ?

“I felt much more comfortable writing the book than about making any of the records, you know? I don’t like writing lyrics. It’s so hard for me… They’re a nightmare really. I felt much more in my element in the studio. I always feel completely confused in a way, and usually utterly surprised when I have a musical idea, which I have quite often. And when I think of a melody or a musical passage, it’s always a surprise to me that it works out or it’s beautiful in some way. I’m not very musical. As a writer, I felt I was kind of… working with something that I understood, that I could do well. I always feel kind of removed from the records… That always feels incredibly important somehow.”

Does a book have more substance ?

“No. I kind of used to feel that way. I used to feel that being in a rock band was some sort of albatross round my neck – that it prevented me from being taken more seriously about writing, or doing anything else. But I don’t feel that way at all now. I find that music – to be a singer and be involved with music – is an incredible thing. I understand things about music now that I didn’t used to and I really appreciate these days.”

Considering he’s said (several times) that he’s not comfortable talking about such things, now he doesn’t seem able to stop.

“Records are incredibly profound in some sort of way, so beautiful. I can play records that really seduced me in my childhood and they still have the same effect on me. I don’t think any kind of artform can serve as good a purpose as that. Books have a different effect on me. Books have changed the whole way I see things. Almost given me excuses to be or do all sorts of things.”

You must find singing cathartic. If you couldn’t sing would you be a different person ?

“I don’t know what would happen. It’s cathartic, yeah. These outlets pacify me and dope me in a way and I’m happy for that. I feel like I spend so much of my life in a state of absolute constipation. I feel like I have to do one thing after another that I don’t really want to. To sing on stage is something where I can really throw away the bridle. I wonder in what way I would erupt if I didn’t have that.”

I prefer the fury to your cabaret side – the Elvis/Vegas side. Do you feel less intense nowadays ?

“No, no, not at all,” he says, looking slightly surprised and, again, not at all offended, even telling me almost sympathetically: “you won’t like the next record then.”

“Um, I think for me it still feels very much there. There are certain emotions that I feel, that I feel about strongly, that I need to release in some way and whatever those feelings are, they’re on those records.”

So do you enjoy your musical career ?

“I think the business I’ve been in has a great effect on my life and I think it’s prohibited my growth as a person in a lot of ways and I don’t think I’m as whole a person in many areas as I could have been if I had been involved in some other occupation. I think that has a lot to do with being able to communicate with people, in a natural one-to-one basis and erm, I find… that, erm, increasingly difficult. 

He says the next few sentences staring downwards, seemingly concentrating carefully on his choice of words.

“In that way, I feel I am an authority on the notion of alienation. I’m someone stricken with an occupational hazard, so I can understand Euchrid and in a lot of ways that’s why the character developed in that way.”

You mention “bad moments demanding to be lived.”

“Yeah, a quite beautiful line, isn’t it? I was going to put that in a song.”

I recognized you in that line.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I kind of look around and I see a lot of those moments. A lot of guilt to be lived and a lot of shame to be lived. I can’t stop them happening. It’s a kind of disease. I think I know what you’re talking about. In a way it’s a battle to break that cycle, that kind of view of the world.”

You have a negative view of the world. Do you feel as wretched as Euchrid ?

“I don’t know if I feel wretched exactly,” he carps but then admitting: “but I don’t have a very healthy view of the world. It is negative. I think I have a kind of disgust for quite a lot of things. I see a lot of people talking about a kind of new hope these days and I find that really hard to understand and… erm, I think that’s a kind of blindness. There’s less I can tolerate than ever.”

Did you always feel you were living a miserable existence ?

“No, I never felt that. I have to say I was an imaginative child and that helped me a lot. It’s really hard… I can get a kind of overall feeling about the way I felt as a child but no more. I’ve always been that way though, yeah.”

Do you think you can alter the circumstances of your life ? It seems to mr people rarely really change.

“Yeah, I agree. People are born into a certain mental regime and they’re unable to live outside that and they live like that for the rest of their lives. I think you can draw in more happiness, manipulate things in a certain way, but the basic idea, and the basic way you approach life, stays very much the same. I think you can help yourself be more comfortable with your own happiness or unhappiness. The way I’ve changed? Well it’s there, in the records.”

How close is your image to the person ?

“I’m not really sure what my image is. Violent ? I don’t know that my life’s been violent particularly. I always find I’m drawn to certain ways of dealing with certain situations. I don’t really think I have much control over that really. I think all the bad things that have happened to me and the people around me have been induced by those people or by myself. I think it’s something that’s intrinsic in my character that I invite that sort of thing.”

Are you interested in being a writer for a calmer life ?

“The idea of a calmer life frightens me more than anything else. It’s inherent in my character to destroy that. I would like to continue writing and I think I can do it better now.”

Has being Nick Cave taken over your life ?

“It has in a way. It is my real name, yeah. My other life is something that I don’t get much practice at. In a way I find it easier to write a song than I do to have a conversation with somebody. In a real situation, I can converse with someone through a false situation like an interview or on stage, but…”

Do you think much about your future ?

“In terms of feeling good about myself, my own sense of worth, I would like the onus to be taken off what my product is, and onto something that I feel about myself more. I need to work on my own private life better, in the relationship I have with other people in my private life. At the moment, and for so long, it seems like everything has centered round my work. Everything I feel good about is to do with my work and everything I feel bad about is to do with my private life – by that I mean my normal life. At the moment, I use – and have used for some time – my work as a kind of convenient and happy retreat from my private life, which is something that I’m not really very good at at the moment and something I haven’t been very good at. And that’s not a good way to live.”

If you hadn’t become a singer or been in the music industry do you think you would still have taken heroin ?

“Ah, I was, um, taking heroin a lot longer, before I had any pressures of that kind.”

Do you like being known ?

“I don’t really have any choice in the matter. With any new person I meet, it begins under a false pretext, that’s all.”

What sort of girls do you like – wild or sweet ?

“Um… I’m a fan of all women, really. I think women are the rock-stars of the world and I’m the lowliest of fans.”

He says this without laughing, or even smiling. As if it’s clearly not an exaggeration, let alone a joke.

“As far as women go, I feel like I’m on my knees, on my belly, groveling. Kissing the hems of their skirts.”

There’s a last question, but no last answer. Cave’s patience has run out with me, and possibly with himself, as he snaps, again without caring: “I don’t know. I can’t remember… I don’t know what you mean. I don’t know what you want.”