Nick Cave is hard to pin down. He’s a musician, a poet, an author, a composer of soundtracks, a family man — and perhaps above all, an incendiary songwriter and performer who’s now starring in the not-a-biopic “20,000 Days on Earth.” Directed by his friends and frequent collaborators Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, the film posits itself as what Cave’s 20,000th day on earth might be like (and won the Sundance 2014 directing and editing awards in the World Cinema – Documentary section), but more than anything it’s a fascinating and cubistic look at what it’s like to experience and find meaning in the artistic process.
Cave spoke to Indiewire the morning after a screening of the film at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, which concluded with a live solo performance. In a wide-ranging interview, Cave talks about the fireflies of songwriting, why no one’s asked him to write music for a horror movie, writing vs. heroin as organizing principles, and why he’s really a very ordinary dad.
Last night, you mentioned a disdain for screenwriting.
I didn’t mean that to come out as firmly as it did last night. You know, I think the point I was making was that I never wanted to be a screenwriter. It wasn’t some ambition that I had. But as with anything, when you go into something not really understanding the form, it can be quite exciting and you feel like you can just do anything.
I remember with “The Proposition” having no idea what was going on with that story or where it was going or what the end would be, but just lying back in bed at night and thinking, “What kind of cool things can happen next?” without any kind of understanding the three acts, and what’s possible to film, what’s not possible to film, what’s too expensive, all that sort of stuff. And so it was a great pleasure to do that. And there’s something very raw about that film and about that script.
And then there were a couple after that. And “Lawless” was an adaptation of a great book. And I always felt, the book was really good and really, really beautifully written, and everything that was taken away from the script — we stuck quite closely to that book — I felt was kind of almost an attack on the book itself.
So basically these days I get asked to do adaptations, and I just don’t really see the point in doing them. Maybe something will come along.
Tell me a little bit about your collaboration with Iain and Jane.
“Do You Love Me” was the first thing. I really liked those “Do You Love Me” things. I had no idea, to be honest, that people thought that way about the songs. It really affected my idea about my own songwriting. Songs are really meaningful, and there are songs in the world that mean so much to me that it doesn’t matter what happens to the people who made these songs. Lou Reed died, which is a very sad thing, but there’s this extremely important legacy that he has left behind and it lives on for everybody, and it’s in the air and inside us. I was unaware that my songs had that same impact on people because people don’t come to you and sit down and say those sorts of things to you. Your band members don’t either, we don’t really talk to one another in that language amongst ourselves. These things were kind of love letters in some ways and were very affecting. It made me understand that what we do as songwriters is important to people.
I thought they did that really beautifully and everyone looked really good and really interesting. That was one thing that made me want to do something with them. They did a couple of videos, which were OK, I guess. I don’t like doing videos because I never do them very well, but they do it well.
How long did the movie take to shoot?
The kind of “day in the life” bit was done in two-day sessions where they got me in one day, Ray in another, etc. It didn’t all happen on one day. Then they had two days in the archive, which wasn’t a real archive but something they just constructed. They had two days in the psychiatrist’s office, and he’s a brilliant guy. The stuff in the car was like half a day each. And then there was a day of doing dumb stuff like walking up stairs. It didn’t take that long, they did it in a great way where I didn’t feel like I was doing much at all.
The feature image from “20,000 Days” is you at a typewriter. You actually do write at a typewriter, is that correct?
It’s a three-stage process. It’s by hand first, then it goes into the computer and when I type it out and it looks good there and I feel it’s finished, then I write it up on the typewriter. It’s so fucking time-consuming and difficult to write on a typewriter, it has to be kind of there. Then I cut that out and paste it into my notebook. There’s the song, it’s finished. So there’s this little hard pasted page, and that’s got the actual song.
So why the typewriter?
I wrote for some years on the computer, but I could go in having a bad day and just look at stuff and I would delete all the time, and I can’t delete on the typewriter. I can ‘X’-out, white-out, but I can’t really delete on a typewriter. And it was that delete button that was causing all sorts of problems. It allowed my moods to start to get in the way of the work. It’s an awful thing.
READ MORE: Nick Cave Makes Us Question Reality in Inside Look at ‘20,000 Days on Earth’
You’re pretty renowned for your work ethic. Has that always been the case?
“Work ethic” has got a Protestant sort of ring to it. It’s just something that I really enjoy and that makes me feel alive. Especially if it’s going well. There’s nothing really like it. It kind of reverberates out to everybody else, in the family and friends and all that sorts of stuff. Things just go better. And when I’m not working, things kind of start to shrink and the opposite effect happens. It’s very good for me to work. It’s not this thing I doggedly do. I love to do it. “Work ethic” feels a little harsh.
So even bad days in a way are kind of good?
Yeah, I know that the bad days are an essential part of the writing of a song. I don’t always know that on a bad day.
What’s the difference between the screenwriting process and the songwriting process?
Songwriting is much more difficult. It’s much more obscure. It’s like catching fireflies or something. Screenwriting to me is much more about sitting down and telling a story, in a sense that once you’re off and running it just writes itself. I find you can do them really quickly. It’s an extended idea. Songwriting, you catch that little firefly and you have a song and you’ve got to try and catch another one and you’re always brought back to the original creation and “What do I write about?”
That’s the problem: the “what,” not the “how.” And the “what” comes about from the tiniest of ideas. It comes about by just a couple of words sitting next to each other and it’s the sort of a tiny frenzy that goes on between these words that’s exciting. Then you add something else and something kind of grows in that way.
Some songwriters, I’ve been told, sit down and, “I feel something about this. This is happening with my wife or this is happening in the world.” And they sit down and write a song about it. But I’ve never come to a song, I don’t think ever, from that. I don’t have that need.
Have you always had the sense of trust that the small, possibly meaningless thing could be something great?
Well, it’s not a matter of trust because you just a write a line. And the line may be OK, but it’s a dead line and you attach another line to it and suddenly it’s got some kind of life. And you can see that. You get physically excited by that. And you add another line to it, and that’s kind of vibrating even more. And you can get a song that way.
But it’s quite difficult to find those little sparks. But that’s what I’m trying to say in the film, that these great big songs that are about everything can really start off about something that you have no… I think with “Higgs Boson Blues,” I liked the the words “Higgs boson” because it was like the “Basin Street Blues.” It referred back to that in some kind of way. It time-stretched from something that’s completely contemporary to something that’s sort of an old blues thing. So there was something about that that excited me. It wasn’t that I wanted to write a song about the Higgs boson, or that I had any sort of particular knowledge about that. It’s small ideas that collect other ideas and become greater things.
I’m surprised no one’s asked you to do music for a horror movie.
Somehow we’ve been pushed into doing the haunting, elegiac score. And what we would really like to do is something that’s really in your face. We could do “in your face” better than anybody. And we have a basic idea for a horror score that we’re dying to do, a musical idea, but we just tend to do a lot of films about men that are wandering through the wilderness trying to find themselves.
You’ve said any true love song is a song for God.
It must have been a while ago that I said that. I must have been on a lot of drugs. Certainly the idea of “God,” I don’t speak about God with such… what’s the word?
Not reverence, but the idea is “firm.” I think kind of vague spiritual leanings is one of the… they have the list of the 10 things to look out for chronic alcoholism and one of them is vague spiritual leanings. And once I kind of cleaned up, a lot of that stuff, the language that I used changed in regard to God.
Yeah, I’m much more organized, obviously. I personally think I write better, more consistently, have a better handle on what I’m doing. The thing about drug-taking, the thing we love about drug-taking — especially heroin addiction, which has this sort of built-in clock inside that we have to use and then get sick and then score — is that it’s habit-forming. It is a habit. And you know, life is quite comfortable out there, you know what’s going to happen in the morning and happen in the evening. There’s this sense of order and when that’s taken away, life is suddenly not like that. And I think that my need to keep things ordered in some kind of way, which I use through writing, is a very positive way of doing much of the same thing I do with drug-taking. It puts a kind of clock inside my life that stops it from sort of spiraling down into something I can’t handle.
One of the things you talk a lot about in the film is your interest in the unknown and how it’s a driving force. At the same time, you’re describing heroin and your writing habit as what is known.
That’s true. It’s not that you don’t find new things within those sort of systems of living. The imagination is both a kind of a
safe and dangerous place. I suspect that if I stopped writing now, I’d be quite happy. I feel that there was definitely a need, it was something that was beyond a creative act, there was a need to do this thing and go to work. But I suspect that I could drop the whole thing and be quite happy to muddle around for the next 15 years.
What would you do?
Spend time with my wife, and sort of walk around and watch TV. I enjoy the world a lot more than I used to, just enjoy being in it a lot more. I don’t know why.
Your kids, do they remind you of yourself at that age or are they very different?
Yeah, they do. They go through these terrible things, and it’s very difficult to take them seriously because you know that they’re actually sort of meaningless on some level when you take the long view. But they’re not for them, and you remember that they’re not for you when you were a kid.
But they’re the same things. They’re the same fears and agonies that they go through about particular sorts of things that all kids go through to a greater or lesser extent. So they’re kind of little memories or something.
What are your kids listening to?
They asked me, “Please don’t talk about us.”
I said some quote or something about (their music making me) want to slit my wrists. They said particularly about music, please don’t even attempt to say what we’re into.
So basically you’re embarrassing your kids, which means that you’re being a normal dad.
Well, I wouldn’t have liked my father to kind have summed up what I was into back then. So I’m not doing that to them.