Following the critically acclaimed success of their fourteenth studio album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, four members of the much celebrated Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds thought it was time to try something a new. So they locked themselves in a studio full of instruments for five days to see what came out the other side.
The result is Grinderman, a malevolent monster of snarling musical chaos and blunt sonic force, with Nick Cave strapping on a guitar for the first time alongside fellow Bad Seed band mates Warren Ellis on Mandocaster, Martyn Casey on bass and Jim Sclavunos on drums. Far from a casual side project, this four-piece meant serious business, setting out to shock and entertain in equal measure.
“It could have been a complete waste of time and it could have been a disaster, we just didn’t know,” explains statuesque vocalist Cave. “In fact, I don’t think we really even thought about the consequences of Grinderman.” Ever defiant, he adds with a laugh: “Obviously there are people who don’t like it and there are always going to be people who don’t like it, but that just makes us want to make another [album]!”
Early doubters, including the band’s record label Mute, expressed concerns about the proposed project, with some questioning whether it would be a “valuable addition to the Bad Seeds’ legacy” according to Cave. But Grinderman went ahead regardless, releasing their debut self-titled album in March 2007. “We were prepared psychologically that it all might be a terrible mistake,” says drummer Sclavunos in his American monotone. “We didn’t do it to win over the same crowd of people that have been ardent fans of the Bad Seeds forever, we did it to express something different, to show a different facet of what we can do as musicians. And, well, we’re kind of old you know, so why should we give a fuck what anybody thinks.”
With this newfound freedom, Grinderman opted for a fresh approach to making music, one radically different from the restrained and considered methods used within the Bad Seeds. Dubbed a “reverboratory furnace of endeavour” by Sclavunos, their chaotic recording process involved over 20 hours of intense improvised jamming, bizarrely explicit adlibbed lyrics and a host of heavy guitars and buzzing feedback.
“We go into the studio and we give ourselves five days to fill the void and its pretty much anything goes,” explains Sclavunos. “After five days of none stop playing we have this incredible archive of what is mostly nonsense that we have to sift through.” As well as improvising on their various instruments, Cave remarkably adlibs lyrics. “A riff will appear and Nick will riff on it, lyrically,” says the band’s bearded Mandocaster player Ellis. “It’s like a tag team match between the music and the lyrics.”
From these hours of recordings the band filter out the basis of what will become each song, “sort of like natural selection” jokes Sclavunos. The final result becomes a “structured improvisation” according Cave, who believes this new approach to writing songs is a much more collaborative, group effort. “We just wanted to do something that was more inclusive and to find another way of writing songs that ran in tandem with the way I write songs for the Bad Seeds,” explains Cave, “which is to lock myself in an office and not speak to anyone and just kind of write.”
Usually dominating a piano centre stage, Cave took on guitar duty for Grinderman, altering the dynamic of the group: “It took the weight of being a front man off my shoulders a bit. I am still the singer in Grinderman but I feel part of a band. I don’t feel so much as the focal point,” he admits. “If I could retreat from all that sort of stuff I would. There are other aspects of what I do that I find really enjoyable for the simple fact that within the greater machine of the project, you’re an absolute nobody. Like script writing for example. I love doing script writing,” he says enthusiastically. “And even though the scriptwriter invents what you see in a movie, he is pretty much bottom of the pecking order. There is something I really like about that.”
Following the success of their debut album, the band returned with Grinderman 2 in September 2010 to yet more rave reviews. This second album saw a progression for the band, now establishing their distinct Grinderman identity. “The sound of this particular record felt dark,” says Cave, almost proudly. “And well, we all really liked that!” But where did this dark and foreboding atmosphere come from, both musically and lyrically? “When you’re improvising lyrics and stuff, you just tend to go where you go. I’m just singing the stuff that’s coming out of my head,” he says. “I think I’m just dark and sordid!”
Cave admits that it takes a certain amount of trust to be able to lose yourself within these improvised sessions and this is a testament to the bond built between the band over many years performing together, as part of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and as a four-piece for Cave’s solo tours. “It’s taken me a long time to get a group of people around me that I trust,” says Cave. “I don’t trust other musicians. There’s a certain amount of things I want from a musician and it’s stuff that people have to learn.” Mandocaster player Ellis agrees, believing that this “innate confidence” amongst the band helps them to take more risks: “I don’t find it easy to do what I do with other people,” he says. “It’s been a long time now and it feels like there is a real sense of trust. We all go in there to work and we like to work fast.”
Sometimes, there is almost a feeling that Grinderman is the band’s naughty bit on the side, a release where they can let rip with everything that would not fit into what Ellis calls the Bad Seed’s “very long and well protected history”. “We do seem to take a lot of pleasure, an inordinate amount of pleasure out of making a lot of noise,” laughs drummer Sclavunos. “Maybe it’s because the Bad Seeds traditionally has been a large band and has always called for some restraint.” He pauses, then adds: “I guess Grinderman are not very good at showing restraint!”
This release of pent up energy can certainly be seen during Grinderman’s raucous live shows and with a summer packed full of tour dates including Primavera Sound Festival in Spain, Serbia’s Exit Festival and the ATP I’ll be Your Mirror event in London, it promises to be a lively few months. “We go on stage, play like mad men, then leave in a puff of smoke,” enthuses Ellis. “It’s really cathartic and unpredictable. Things are flying everywhere and things are blowing up all the time and everyone is yelling at each other.” At one point during their recent tour of Australia, drummer Sclavunos broke his bass drum pedal and, according to Ellis, “ended the song standing up kicking the drum with his foot. He looked insane!”
Now entering their fifties and after almost three decades in the industry, it would seem there is plenty of life left in this four. Will there be another album from Grinderman? “I hope so,” announces Cave. “I’m going to make a Bad Seeds one next though, I’ve just got to write it!” And what can we expect from Grinderman 3? “I’d like to think Grinderman can do whatever it wants,” says Ellis. “And if that’s poetry read over an orchestra of pan pipes then so be it.” He pauses, laughs and adds: “We’d probably never do that but it’s nice to believe the possibility is there. It’s nice to feel Grinderman exists without rules.”
Palaces of Montezuma, the third single from Grinderman 2, will be released on March 14.
Grinderman album and grinderman 2 review review by Graeme Moran