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Monster? Icon? Nick Cave explores live performance

BERLIN: Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave – who has conjured up so much horror, lust and murder as well as haunting love songs in three decades fronting “The Bad Seeds” – worries that technology could destroy the mystique of live rock performance.

The 56-year-old cult musician, scriptwriter and novelist, presenting his latest cinema project – “20,000 Days on Earth” – at the Berlin Film Festival, said in an interview Tuesday that live music should be a “transformative” experience.

“I think that the function of a rock star was at least – perhaps not so much these days – to be both monstrous and to be god-like at the same time,” Cave told Reuters after the film aroused critical and public interest at its Berlin screening.

In the film, Cave and the Bad Seeds’ violinist Warren Ellis recall a concert with the ageing Nina Simone when the jazz diva terrified her co-performers and the audience – before turning in a performance that was unforgettable for everyone present.

“That notion is largely flat-lined these days. With the Internet, you have everybody making music, everybody making art, and I’m not sure that’s such a good thing,” Cave said, adding that such democracy was “boring” in artistic terms.

Cave’s cinema collaborations have ranged from an appearance in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” to a song in a “Harry Potter” film and his script and score for the bloody outback Western “The Proposition,” which got rave reviews in Berlin in 2006.

The new film supposedly shows Cave on his 20,000th day of life composing “Push the Sky Away,” the Bad Seeds’ latest studio album – released in 2013, working up to climactic performances of the singles “The Higgs Boson Blues” and “Jubilee Street.”

In between, the camera zooms in on his trademark dyed-black hair, snub nose and sharp suits as he drives around the English seaside town of Brighton, visiting a psychoanalyst or talking to people who have influenced his life and music.

Appearing fleetingly in his car like ghosts are Australian pop star Kylie Minogue – with whom Cave had his sole pop hit “Where the Wild Roses Grow” – the experimental German musician and ex-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld and British actor Ray Winstone from “The Proposition” and the raunchy “Jubilee Street” video.

But while the conversations are improvised, the settings are staged, meaning the film by first-time British directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard blurs the documentary category for which it won prizes at the Sundance Festival in January.

“I don’t care about telling the truth at all,” Pollard told Reuters. “We try to really capture what it means to be a performer and what it means to Nick – the psychology of it.”

Using devices like flashing screens and a visit to a “Nick Cave Archive,” the film deals deftly with Cave’s Australian childhood, his drug addiction in London and Berlin, early gigs so wild that one fan urinates on stage and relationships with singers Anita Lane and PJ Harvey.

“What we didn’t want was for the film to be retrospective in a traditional way,” Cave said. “The film is about the record that I’ve just made and what happens to me now.”

Studio footage illustrates Cave’s relationship with the song he is writing, which he describes as “this living, breathing thing that is extremely fragile and can die very easily” if it is over-rehearsed.

Such reflections are leavened with wry humor, such as when Cave narrates: “I can control the weather with my moods. I just can’t control my moods.” The wild-bearded Ellis serves the singer tea in a Royal Wedding mug and recalls keeping the chewing gum that Nina Simone stuck underneath her piano.

Cave, whose two novels “And the Ass Saw the Angel” from 1989 and “The Death of Bunny Munro” 20 years later both got positive reviews, appears to take pleasure in serving up music, lyrics and literature that are too strong for mainstream taste.

After his only appearance on British television’s “Top of the Pops” with Minogue, people went to buy the album, ominously titled “The Murder Ballads.”

“Then they wanted nothing to do with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,” Cave said with relish.

Frank about his old drug habit, kicked with the help of his wife Susie, Cave dodges a question about whether life is better or worse without drugs: “It depends on the drugs.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 13, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave – who has conjured up so much horror, lust and murder as well as haunting love songs in three decades fronting "The Bad Seeds" – worries that technology could destroy the mystique of live rock performance.

In the film, Cave and the Bad Seeds' violinist Warren Ellis recall a concert with the ageing Nina Simone when the jazz diva terrified her co-performers and the audience – before turning in a performance that was unforgettable for everyone present.

The new film supposedly shows Cave on his 20,000th day of life composing "Push the Sky Away," the Bad Seeds' latest studio album – released in 2013, working up to climactic performances of the singles "The Higgs Boson Blues" and "Jubilee Street".

Using devices like flashing screens and a visit to a "Nick Cave Archive," the film deals deftly with Cave's Australian childhood, his drug addiction in London and Berlin, early gigs so wild that one fan urinates on stage and relationships with singers Anita Lane and PJ Harvey.


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