The band began as a get-together for old friends, but with their second album gathering some serious praise, they're now a force to be reckoned with.
Nick Cave's Grinderman now a force to be reckoned with
Nick Cave is not a man you tend to associate with failure. For the best part of three decades, this Australian has played the imperious preacher at the helm of the celebrated post-punk band The Bad Seeds, and his mordant reflections on life, faith and mortality have made him one of the most iconic figures in modern rock. Today, though, this reformed hell-raiser - dosed up on nothing more dangerous than a spot of prescription medication following the recent extraction of a wisdom tooth - shelters behind shades in a quiet suite on London's Greek Street and ponders the merits of embarrassing one's self in the name of art.
"You come back into the studio after playing a part and no one else in the band will quite be able to meet your gaze," he says, "they're looking out the window or rolling a cigarette. That's quite difficult to do. It takes a while to be able to go into the studio, play something and come back in and have everyone go, 'That sucks…'
"But for that to be all right," chips in his towering bandmate, the drummer Jim Sclavunos, from the depths of his impressively bushy beard.
"Making music that is challenging and interesting and new, you need to be able to embarrass yourself," continues Cave. "You need to be able to humiliate yourself, and you need to understand that can sometimes be part of the process. And the only way you can do that is with musicians that you trust implicitly."
The musicians Cave refers to are Sclavunos, the wild-eyed multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, and the bassist Martyn Casey; all long-term members of The Bad Seeds, but here employed in an altogether different project: Grinderman. The seeds of the band were sown back in 2005 when the four were jamming between shows on a European tour and, as Sclavunos puts it, something "more raucous… something nasty" began to emerge.
Fresh off tour, they booked five days in a studio and improvised the basics of what would become Grinderman's first, self-titled record. "Going into it we didn't know what we had on our hands - we didn't have songs rehearsed, we didn't even have a name for it," explains Sclavunos. "There was not a lot of trepidation - in fact, there was a lot of excitement - but we weren't necessarily convinced. But by the time we finished the album we were ready to go in and do another one."
The recording of another Bad Seeds record, 2008's Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, plus various other artistic commitments - Cave and Ellis were signed up to record the film soundtracks for The Death Of Bunny Munro and The Road, while Casey set off on tour with his other band, The Triffids, put paid to that idea. But come 2009, though, the time was right, and the four re-entered the studio for another five-day stint of recording. Sclavunos describes the sessions as "chaotic… we were just making things up on the spot. We'd trawl through it and go: 'That sounds good, that sounds good.' Even if it's just a weird sound that Warren made, then we'll pull it out and see if we can use it."
The first Grinderman record was released to a decent critical reception, although at the time, it's probably fair to say the band were perceived as something of a side-project; a chance for some old friends to clatter through some bluesy garage-rock songs and blow off a bit of steam before returning to the real business. Its follow-up, however - called simply Grinderman 2 - is a rather more complex, heavyweight affair. This record might have grown out of the blues, but the presence of bubbling synthesisers, effects-soaked guitar and songs that hint at rather more experimental, ambitious constructions drag things into more unclassifiable areas. "We're no more a blues band than Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were a blues band," says Sclavunos. "It's just a fraction of the story."
Grinderman's improvisatory, off-the-cuff approach is an unusual way of working for Cave, who typically spends three months working and writing before heading into the studio to make a new Bad Seeds record. "The great thing for me about Grinderman is that I don't have to do anything," he says. "It's kind of a weird mixture of improvisation and mathematics - it's about taking something that is by nature chaotic and spontaneous but then sitting down and having to work out a chord structure, or a chorus, or a lyric that suddenly makes it into a song."
"We were inspired by the way Miles Davis used to record his sessions in the 1970s," says Sclavunos. "But unlike the days of analogue tape, these days you can edit infinitely and you can record infinitely. You can play for hours and hours."
Actually piecing the music together to play live, however, raises its own problems. "Now we're rehearsing, and Warren's going to have to figure out what he's played, because he doesn't take notes when recording, it's all in the moment… he's sprawled out on the floor surrounded by gadgets, like a mad professor."
Grinderman 2 is bluesy, demented and sonically dissonant, but its real appeal is that it is also surrealistic, playful, and hugely fun. It features songs with outlandish titles such as 'Worm Tamer', 'Palaces Of Montezuma' and 'Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man', that boast a strange cast of gods, animals and creatures plucked from the annals of mythology - wandering wolfmen and slithering serpents; Krishna, Buddha and the Loch Ness Monster; and the Abominable Snowman, who shows up on not just one but two tracks.
"Does he represent anything in particular?" ponders Cave. "Only that I find him pretty scary, I always did as a kid. The fact that he's all white, he doesn't really have a face. It was in one song, and I was writing another, and it felt nice to put him in that song as well. I enjoy the idea that characters can spill over, walk out of one song and into another one. It links the songs - deepens them, in a way."
Nowhere is this strange cast summed up better than on the video to the record's lead-off single 'Heathen Child'. Made in collaboration with John Hillcoat, the Australian film director who commissioned Cave and Ellis to compose a score for his recent 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it is unexpectedly mischievous and utterly hilarious.
Filmed from the perspective of a young girl: "Sitting in the bathtub/Hair full of her fingers", the band play dress-up as the bizarre contents of her subconscious, jigging around dressed up as Roman centurions - "We were supposed to be Olympian deities, but there was a bit of a miscommunication," quips Sclavunos - and tossing fireballs in all directions.
Cave admits there's a seam of humour that runs through Grinderman, but as he's keen to point out, the project goes to some pretty dark places. "I think humour is used to relax the listener, so they can be groomed for more serious matters. It felt like very dark music we were doing after a while. I remember saying to Warren, this sounds really evil, and he was like, I know. Musically and lyrically, it ended up somewhere that was darker and more subversive."
Certainly, it's hard to imagine any other band writing a lyric like "The spinal cord of JFK/Wrapped in Marilyn Monroe's negligee", as Cave does on the record's penultimate track, the Dylan-esque Palaces Of Montezuma. But then, Grinderman seem to thrive on their paradox. On one hand, it is difficult to imagine a record this invigorating and packed with ideas being made by musicians who have been playing in bands together for the best part of 20 years. On the other, it is impossible to imagine Grinderman 2 being the work of a young band.
"Damn straight," harrumphs Sclavunos. "I couldn't have made it when we were younger."
"I wouldn't be able to do that with a bunch of other musicians," says Cave. "I have no desire to do a parallel project, or find new musicians to work with - that's not why we're doing this, and it's not what interests me. I find myself in a position where I'm in a relationship with these musicians where we can trust one another, and it means we can really open up.
"I'd never give up the kind of songwriting that I do within the Bad Seeds, because it feels so important to sit down with something and consider it and write something as beautiful as I can. But it's also great to do it this way."