Nick Cave sits in a Sydney hotel room, his chair facing the floor-to-ceiling windows, the city bathed in summer sun beyond and below. “Look,” he continues, patiently choosing his words, “not to just keep going on about this, but the whole grief thing, there’s nothing good about it whatsoever. People will tell you other things, but it’s like a fucking disease. A contagion that not only affects you but everybody around you. And it’s cunning. And you can feel good and you can be getting on with things, and then it just comes up and sort of punches you in the back of the head and you’re down and you’re out for the count for a while. I don’t just mean psychologically, I mean physically too. Grief and illness and tiredness feed off each other in a kind of feeding frenzy.”
It is January 2017. Eighteen months ago, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur fell from a cliff near Brighton, the town on the south coast of England where Cave has lived since 2002 with his wife Susie, Arthur, and Earl, Arthur’s twin brother. (Cave also has two sons, Jethro and Luke, both in their mid-20s, from earlier relationships.) After it happened, Cave obeyed some kind of instinct that told him he had to keep working. He relates a conversation with Warren Ellis, who for several years has been his closest musical collaborator. “I said to Warren a week after Arthur died: It just goes on, you know. I didn’t even know what I was talking about. I was just, like: We continue doing whatever we were doing. We continue to do it.” Partly, he suggests, out of “some sort of bizarre responsibility” to those around him. But also because he could see no other option. “It was not like an act of courage or anything, it was just that I didn’t know what the fuck else to be doing. All I knew is that what I do is work, and that kind of continues. I think I knew, fundamentally, that if I lay down, I would never get up again.”
So in the months that followed, Cave and his group the Bad Seeds completed a new album, Skeleton Tree—a somber masterpiece that seemed to ooze the circumstance of its creation—and then he and Ellis returned to the studio to compose six scores, including those for Hell or High Water and the National Geographic television series Mars. “Working very much as a kind of therapeutic activity, to be honest,” he says. But until this month Cave hasn’t performed in front of an audience. Nor has he sat down like this to talk.
He didn’t know what to expect from this tour, back to Australia, the country of his birth. He wondered whether things would be different, and how these new songs would sit next to older ones, many of those more directly forceful and visceral. And it has been different, in a way that seems to have slightly taken him aback. “You know, the audience has been hugely helpful,” he says. “And I find it difficult to articulate this to them, onstage, but, and maybe don’t put this in, I would just want to thank them for this. Because for me it’s, like, this is not the way it should be. I’ve always felt as a performer a sort of combativeness. You know, the finger would come out and I would be here I am and this is fucking it and stand there and take it. And it was a very one-way kind of experience for me.… I come from a different school of frontmen. Full-on attack.
It’s an attack on your audience of some sort. It’s just the way it’s always been.” That has changed. “Even though the finger comes out, it doesn’t feel like that in the same ways it used to feel. It feels much more that there’s something coming back.… Something different has been happening with the audience—a kind of dynamic, emotional exchange—that is quite beautiful. There’s just some kind of communal feeling. Maybe this is what it’s like to be in Coldplay or something.”
He had worried that he would come away to Australia, and get sick. “The opposite has happened, really,” he says. “It’s like the best thing you can do.” What he says next is clearly doused in a certain wryness, but I think he means it, too: “That’s my advice if anything terrible ever happens to you: Form a band and go on tour.”
Somebody say Love and Terror?