Grinderman: Dark humour beneath the daily grind

Nick Cave and Jim Sclavunos tell Andy Welch how their side project Grinderman differs from their other band, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, and how people miss the humour in their writing.

BEING summoned into a room to be greeted by Grinderman's Nick Cave and Jim Sclavunos is a nerve-racking experience.

Both well over six feet tall, clad in dark clothing and somehow even leaner and more wiry than you'd expect, the scene feels like the final showdown in a Western, where the two outlaws finally come face to face with their sniffling wretch of an enemy.

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Appearances, of course, can be deceptive. Both men are softly spoken, amiable and open – completely at odds with how they come across in their music and are often portrayed by the press.

In reality, for every song about murder and twisted emotion in their canon, there is a contrary image of Cave, the 52-year-old family man.

His playful streak is certainly on display today as he turns the tables during the interview, posing almost as many questions as he answers.

"Why do you think the album's so unsettling?" he asks initially, as though malevolent relationships and insults directed at ex-lovers are everyday subject matters. Only later does he reveal that he is simply being provocative.

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"You want to hear the verses we edited out," he says, darkly, raising an eyebrow, going on to comment on my week's worth of stubble.

"I shaved my moustache off just for you," he says. "I would never go to an interview anything less than clean shaven."

The comment is, of course, a joke, but the accompanying deadpan stare from the pair of them casts a huge doubt.

"I like to have a little fun with people," Cave admits, finally breaking into laughter.

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The band is a complicated idea to explain. Grinderman comprises Cave, Sclavunos, Warren Ellis and Martyn Casey. All four are also full-time members of Cave's main concern, Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, but they decided to form a small spin-off group allowing them to strip back their sound and get back to making a fine, garage-rock racket.

"The whole Grinderman thing is difficult; it's difficult to explain, to market..." says Cave. "The whole thing is problematic.

"All I can say is that it's about the process. It's very different to us. There are only four members of Grinderman, whereas there are eight or nine in the Bad Seeds these days.

"It'd be really difficult to do this kind of music with that sort of band. I used to be able to go in, point at people and say 'You guys play, you guys don't', but something happened where now I'll

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play a gentle tune on the piano and suddenly everyone's in there with a pair of maracas, a guitar and a didgeridoo.

"Those songs become monsters, and that's the Bad Seeds' sound, which is brilliant. I suppose the Grinderman thing is us stripping it right back without having a major walk-out on my hands. It's a jazz set-up as opposed to a giant rock 'n' roll band.

"I also feel the pressure is taken off me to some extent with Grinderman. If it's a disaster, I can blame someone else. With the Bad Seeds, if what we do is rubbish, the buck ends with me. With Grinderman, it's a collaboration and we're all equal."

"The writing is different too, because we'll start with improvisation," adds Sclavunos. "With the Bad Seeds it's largely Nick bringing songs in he's written."

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For Grinderman 2, the band eschewed the normal process of actually writing any songs before the studio sessions. Instead, they improvised more than 60 hours of material together and then set about the lengthy, laborious task of picking out nuggets they liked and could then mould into nine loose, raw tracks that make up the album.

"The hardest thing of all is to keep a record loose," begins Cave. "You have to keep that freedom and not rein it in too much, so we spent a long time on that.

"We have to take out the production touches that make things sound too pat," says Sclavunos, the man who adds the detail to Nick's broader, more dynamic statements.

"We have to get rid of things when it all starts sounding too smooth. Knowing where that line is can be the hardest part."

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Cave's phone then rings – his ringtone is the opening of Bo Diddley's I'm A Man, in case you were wondering – and he's off talking for a few minutes while Sclavunos explains how their producer was more like a documentary film-maker, capturing what was happening by pressing record and stop when needed.

He also explains how the recording largely took place during the summer of 2009, but unlike in other instances where the band have, on reflection, disliked what they've made, there was something special about these sessions.

"In the cold light of day when you hear what you've done, you can think, 'Oh, that's not so good' and then you'll lose some of the momentum, but that didn't happen."

"Right, let's get back to the interesting stuff," Cave says, flouncing back into the room.

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That sense of humour again. It's present in almost all of Cave's writing, but is often overlooked in favour of portraying him as some kind of Gothic, Bible-obsessed undertaker. "Often they're one in the same, the humour and the darkness," he says.

"This record has funny moments, like Kitchenette, and I think a lot of Bad Seeds records do too. The Lyre Of Orpheus is funny, We Call Upon The Author is very funny, but Into My Arms isn't, and Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere is flat-out depressing," he adds, laughing. "I run the whole gamut: hilarious to sorrowful.

"The humour is underappreciated in the Bad Seeds, but it's still there. There's this blanket idea that we're serious and not funny.

"That's totally not the case. We're not what people think."

Grinderman are at Leeds University on September 27.

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