Over his 30-year career, first as a member of the Birthday Party and then as a solo artist abetted by the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has donned many musical styles. He's been a snarling gothic-punker, a noirish murder-balladeer, a cultivated crooner, and a biblical mood merchant. He's tried these various guises more than once, but rarely does one hang on his slight frame for long.
“There's always something in my head where I see problems with what I did on the last record, or just really want to escape from that, and that becomes the driving force of the next record,” Cave says over the phone from his home in Brighton, England.
So it makes sense that, following the pastoral moments of 2004's Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Cave delivers his most scorching work to date, under the Grinderman moniker. The garage-rock outfit pairs the Australian-born singer with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis (violin, bouzouki, guitar), Martyn P. Casey (bass), and Jim Sclavunos (drums).
The noisy climaxes on the quartet's self-titled debut have garnered it the most attention, and those moments are indeed exhilarating. “No Pussy Blues” — in which Cave sings of his futile attempt to bed a love interest — provides the kind of guitar-skronk explosions once heard on, ironically enough, Pussy Galore albums. Menacing rhythms push “Depth Charge Ethel,” and in “Honey Bee (Let's Fly to Mars),” guitar and organ twist into a frenzy suggesting Spiritualized tackling “Magic Carpet Ride.” The comparably subdued occasions are still equally compelling. The hypnotic title track turns guitars into flagpole-clang, then bisects them with rattlesnake tail shakes. The harrowing “Man in the Moon” places keyboard drone beneath Cave's mournful baritone.
For Cave, Grinderman represents a new way of crafting music. Always a disciplined songwriter, particularly since kicking his nasty drug habit a decade ago, he usually arrives at his office alone at 9 a.m. and works diligently on songs all day. This time, Cave convened with the band in a London studio and hashed out the entire album in five days. “I'm the kind of person that needs a system to keep things on an even keel,” Cave admits. “That's why I was a junkie. That's what a habit is — you do the same thing every day, and it's a consistent ritual that holds your life together. But doing this record this way allowed the music to be a different sort of thing.”
Another big change: In Grinderman, Cave plays guitar for the first time in his career. Actually, he doesn't so much play his instrument as torture it, assisted by overcranked amps for a gloriously formidable racket.
“Nick didn't intend to be the guitarist in the band — we kind of forced him into it,” Sclavunos says in a separate phone conversation. “It was good because when we were writing we were flying off on tangents, and it was all very experimental, but there was something about Nick's playing — because it was rooted in very basic stuff, it kept Grinderman from becoming entirely some sort of artsy thing. It still felt really primal, a nice combination of art and grit.”
That synthesis is hardly a foreign concept for Cave, but it's one that fits well at this stage of his career.
“Grinderman doesn't haunt me in the same way as my other recordings, I guess,” says Cave. “I can actually listen to it, and it wouldn't even occur to me to put on a Bad Seeds record. That's not because I think that one is better than the other, there's just too much of me in the Bad Seeds that I hafta deal with. This feels different — it feels more like a band.”