On Nick Cave, the Bad Seeds and things unsaid.
JOY, PAIN, LOSS AND THE BONDS OF FRIENDSHIP
“I have to say it’s so beautiful to see Nick performing again, during these rehearsals. The last week has just been such an absolute joy to see him find his voice. It’s been absolutely beautiful.”
Warren Ellis, violinist for, co-writer of soundtracks with, collaborator, facilitator, bandmate and friend of Nick Cave, isn’t pretending there’s nothing unusual about Cave’s return to live performance.
Having lost a son - one of his then 15-year-old twins, Arthur who died after falling from a cliff near their home in Brighton, UK - he recorded an album, Skeleton Tree, which spoke deeply about grief and loss without ever saying so directly.
Rather than speak about this, Cave then released a film, One More Time With Feeling, which showed the effect of that grief and loss while making the album.
After that, Cave could easily, understandably, have stayed right away from public gaze. Instead, he and his full band, The Bad Seeds, are playing a series of shows across Australia this month.
“I can’t speak for what happened in his life. All I can say is that we are here, he is touring and he wants to do this. And it feels like a great thing to be doing,” says Ellis from Melbourne where the Bad Seeds have been rehearsing.
“They [Cave and his family, including wife Susie Bick and Arthur’s twin, Earl] have been through a horrific experience and there is no way around that, but life is going on.
Hopefully the shows are about something beautiful, beautiful and special.”
Skeleton Tree, released in 2016, was at times spectral and dark but also coiled and tense, occasionally bristling with sound that seemed poised to break out, but never did. It never fit easily into any clichéd sense of grief.
The Bad Seeds, a six-piece band as capable of barely-there minimalism as a riotous racket, began the recording knowing what had happened to Cave, of course, but asking him about the songs’ connections to his life was never on the agenda in the studio.
“There’s never any discussion like that about the songs. It’s never happened. There is no point in that,” says Ellis. “Asking what the song is about? What’s the purpose in that? Songs and books are there for you to interpret in the way you see fit and you interpret them in the context of your own life and what you take from it.”
Understanding without words, responding without explanation, remains at the core of Ellis and Cave, and the Bad Seeds and Cave.
“I think that is the key to playing music with anybody, I think that’s what defines a group in a way,” says Ellis. “Nick and I have been working together a lot and in the last year we’ve made a lot of soundtracks because he didn’t want to tour but wanted to create things.
"We were working a lot in the studio and we have a kind of ability to draw out the potential in the other. There’s not much discussion that goes on; it’s more about feeling.”
And really, what is it that can be said or asked in such circumstances? As Ellis says, he has no more idea about dealing with this kind of grief and this kind of devastation than anybody else.
“All we have is kind of textbook knowledge,” he says. “Unless you’ve been through something like that there is a point where you cannot understand, where you can’t imagine it.
“So there was a certain point when Nick called me and said I want to make this record and I want to finish this off and I said, look man, whatever it takes.”
What Ellis does say is that in the early stages of recording Skeleton Tree "it was something that was incredibly fragile” and the songs evolved unusually.
The fragility was not due to the subject matter but to “the way they were formed from sessions over a period of time with only a few people”: Cave, Ellis and drummer Thomas Wydler,
When the recording began therefore, the potential was there to fill all the space. Maybe even to “say” everything that was left unsaid in the lyrics.
“At one point, we went back into the studio and realised that doing more was actually counter-productive for the end result, which was different from previous records,” Ellis explains. “We kept going back to the original demos because they had no respect for time or anything at all: they were amorphous and wandering around and couldn’t be replicated in any way. There was something about that which seemed particularly poignant.”
This “thinning down” of the sound will be one aspect of the live performances because “the band has evolved with that in mind …a band with a lot of dynamics and a band prepared to take a lot of risks and prepared for the possibilities.”
But in the end they will serve the song as the best way they can do justice to the man at the front of the stage.
“It’s not about us but everybody wanted to do whatever we could to try and do what we felt was needed. And in these circumstances, it is a human instinct to try and do the best for the people you know and love,” says Ellis.
“For me, that’s really all I could do.“