10 Profane Pearls of Wisdom from Nick Cave’s SXSW Panel

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AUSTIN, TX: Just as his Tuesday morning “conversation” panel at SXSW was beginning, singer/songwriter/author/screenwriter Nick Cave looked down at the bank of snapping photographers in front of the stage and asked, not unreasonably, “Are you guys gonna be doing that the whole fucking time?” He then came up with a solution: “Shall we do that now, and then we’ll talk?” So he and his moderator, writer Larry Ratso Sloman, spent a minute or so animatedly posing for photographs (the images here were taken during that portion). And then they got down to business, discussing his influences, biography, and theories on writing.

His first musical influences: “In rural Australia, we had The Johnny Cash Show. That had a big impact on me when I was about nine or so. I didn’t realize it was American, I just thought it was this weird guy, from Australia. Or in fact everything we watched on TV was American, pretty much. So American culture’s always felt, an Australian back then that really had no cultural identity whatsoever, always looked overseas for our influences, at England and America. I felt very much that the American influence was very strong over my childhood, from all the TV, movies, all that stuff that we used to watch. But The Johnny Cash Show was very important to me, at around nine years old, because there was something kind of evil about it. It was the man in black. There was something dangerous about this particular character, and I responded to that.”

The despair of listening to David Bowie and Leonard Cohen: “We felt deprived. We felt culturally deprived. And all we dreamed about was going to the big city, Melbourne or Sidney or somewhere like that, where there was some sort of culture. There actually wasn’t any culture there. Then when we got to Melbourne we dreamed of going to England, where there was culture. There wasn’t culture there, either, when we got there. Culturally life has just been kind of a series of disappointments. And of course America has no culture, either.”

Substances: “Drinking and all of that sort of stuff started very early. This boy Eddie Bumgardner, he was my friend when I was 12, and he actually had his own still in the backyard. And we formed the AAA club, which was Anti-Alcoholics Anonymous. That was at 11 years old. So the wheels were set in motion quite early for a debauched life.”

Going to art school: “I went to an art school and failed in second year, which I couldn’t believe, because I thought I was an amazing painter. It’s what I always wanted to be! I always wanted to be a painter, all my life I wanted to be a painter.” He only produced one work, a painting of a circus muscleman looking up the skirt of a ballerina. “It was quite good, actually… But it really closed down something that I thought was what I was supposed to do, which was to be a painter. I’d been geared up to that from the start, the whole idea of sitting in a room, painting away at a canvas, and all of that sort of stuff. I loved the whole idea of it. But I failed, so it was quite a shock. But I had this band on the side, that just got us into gigs for free, and girls and booze and that sort of thing… it’s amazing that it works in such a way, because at school, I was like an anti-magnet for women, they saw me coming and were just repulsed.”

Self-medicating the voices in his head with heroin: “Well, everyone has those voices. Mine were loud!” But the voices were mostly ones of self-doubt. “I still feel very much an imposter in the whole music scene, which I’m quite happy about, to be honest. Are there any musicians out there? They’re a particular breed.”

Reviews: A mention of his new album brought applause, though Sloman read a portion of a one-star pan in the New York Post by music critic (and esteemed former Flavorwire columnist) Michaelangelo Matos, prompting Cave to shrug: “Listen, I’ve spent my life butting my head against other people’s lack of imagination” But he subjects himself to it. “To my undying shame, I do read reviews. I don’t read ’em all, but I do like to get some idea how things are going. I didn’t read that one though. That’s totally bummed me out! Fuck him! Michaelangelo. What a name!”

Discovering his singing voice while in Germany: “I think I held back, and I think that I discovered a kind of tone that existed in my voice that I was unaware of… and it’s this tone that Michaelangelo doesn’t like, obviously, but it was something that we kind of worked out. If you recorded the microphone very very loudly, like you had it up really loudly so you got all of the resonances of the voice, and the breath, and all of that sort of stuff, and I sang softly, my voice had a moderately pleasing tone. That was a surprise to everybody. And there were these slower songs… that sounded nice, you know.”

Writing a book is easier than writing a song: “I think to write a good lyric is very, very difficult. It’s a kind of magical thing. The problem with writing lyrics, really, is that you can finish one but you’re always brought back to that kind of pain of birth each time. Whereas a book, you kind of get on a roll. It’s starting it up that’s often quite difficult, but once you get going, you get on a roll, things have a forward momentum. Songwriting doesn’t have that. Things happen, and then they stop again and you’re back to that sort of blank page scenario. And then you give birth again, and so there’s all these nasty little births. It’s like pushing out 13 watermelons out of the tiniest orifice. Where as a book is just one long watermelon. Once it’s open, it just starts sliding out.”

Is Cave, as Sloman says, one of “the great workaholics”? “I take objection to that, to be honest. Not the ‘great’ bit, but the ‘workaholic’ bit! The workaholic sounds pathological, like I have some kind of disease.” Sloman clarified that for a drug addict, he was more productive than William S. Burroughs. “I dunno, really. I don’t know his stuff. Is it any good? I’m more for Edgar Rice Burroughs” — who, Cave helpfully explained to the audience, wrote Tarzan.

The redemptive power of rock and roll: At the end of the program, Sloman read this Cave quote: “It can change my entire body chemistry… it can make me go from exhausted, unhappy, depleted, depressed to feeling fucking joyful and buoyant in seconds. I can’t get that from reading a book, or looking at a painting, or even reading Shakespeare. I can’t get from Shakespeare what I can get from the Ramones.” To which Cave responded, as his closing thought for the day, “Did I say that? Cool.”