Thirty-three years, more than 200 songs, nearly 20 albums, and countless concerts into a career that's still full of new revelations, it seems impossible that Nick Cave has never played Memphis, let alone even visited the city.
"I don't think the Bad Seeds ever played there," he says, and he's certain that his new group, Grinderman, have never plugged in a guitar within the city limits. It's especially surprising given the role that local music history — and that of the South in general — plays in Cave's music, informing not only the hellion rockabilly punk of his early band, the Birthday Party, but also the crossroads-gothic flavor of Bad Seeds albums like Tupelo and The Firstborn Is Dead. Cave has always been intrigued by the mythology and folklore of American rock-and-roll, drawing from the stark moralism of Johnny Cash, the ostentatious hedonism of Jerry Lee Lewis, the dignified stoicism of Roy Orbison.
Of course, Elvis Presley has always held Cave in particular thrall. "There was his early work obviously, but especially the later stuff — even the real late Vegas stuff — I've always loved," he says. "There's a film called This Is Elvis that has some really agonizing late-period Elvis, and sometimes it's almost unbearable to watch. But there's something truly majestic about it. There's something so naked about those performances — someone just standing there in all their agony — that I found very moving."
And very inspiring: Cave covered "In the Ghetto" with the Bad Seeds, forgoing easy irony for a directness that made the song all the more unsettling. Even today, now that he's more than a decade older than Elvis was when he died, the Australian musician still performs with that dangerous hip swagger and that outsize persona, channeling his own brand of ennobling agony.
So Grinderman's show at Minglewood Hall on Saturday is a spiritual homecoming of sorts, a pilgrimage to the city that has produced so many of his lyrical and musical forebears.
The band itself is a Bad Seeds offshoot, formed a few years ago with Cave and three of his longtime cohorts: bass player Martyn Casey, violinist Warren Ellis, and drummer Jim Sclavunos. The quartet has released two highly regarded albums, an eponymous long-player in 2007 and an even better follow-up earlier this year, simply titled Grinderman 2. By contrast to the erudite Bad Seeds, Grinderman is more abrasive, more by-the-seat-of-their-pants: rock-and-roll at its most primal. Ellis' violin sounds like the voices in a fevered brain, while the rhythm section underscores every song with a sleazy groove. Guitars screech, feedback squeals, and Cave testifies luridly and hilariously. At times, the album sounds so visceral it nearly smells.
For Cave, the quartet allows a much-needed break from his usual method of songwriting, which is solitary and, he says, often frustrating. As he does when writing fiction or screenplays, Cave retreats to his office "with a blank piece of paper. When I sit down and write a lyric, I have to get it right. If I can see a line that is not up to scratch, I have to take great pains to get it right."
That process has produced a deep catalog that hovers between literary and lascivious, but for Cave, it was growing more tedious than inspiring: "You get bored with the whole process and start repeating yourself. I don't mind repeating the same themes, but you need to approach them from different angles."
Grinderman is more creatively collaborative — a jolt to the songwriter's system. The four musicians enter the studio with no music or lyrics and with as few preconceptions as possible, then proceed to make noise for several days. Rather than write down careful lyrics, Cave makes them up on the spot. "We go to places we normally wouldn't go, that are ill-advised to go to, either musically or lyrically," he explains. "It can be nerve-racking, because you don't know if you're playing something that's good or something that's absolutely woeful." Afterwards, they sift through hours of tape, winnow out the interesting phrases and riffs, then construct proper songs from those parts. "Everyone says Grinderman is back-to-basics, but I don't agree with that," Cave says. "It's quite sophisticated musically and very much concerned with making music as opposed to simply supporting the lyrics."
If the band's debut was a bit rocky — the sound of a group of colleagues just figuring out how to break their own rules — the new album is gutsier, not only in the racket they make but in the words Cave sings, which range from the abrupt violence of "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" to the lewd humor of "Worm Tamer": "Well, my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster, two great big humps and then I'm gone."
While the songs are less specific in their details than Cave's written material, they are more mysterious: wilder and less controlled, as if even Cave himself doesn't know where they came from or what they're about.
"We've been playing together for years," he says. "We understand each other and trust each other, so you can do this sort of thing without feeling embarrassed by it."
Minglewood Hall, Saturday, November 20th
8 p.m.; $27