Interview: Nick Cave

'I MEAN," sighs Nick Cave, "what annoys me about this interview and the last one as well is the constant attempt to equate me with the central character in my book; whether it's to do with the loss of my father, or my interest in sex, or whatever. I'm a writer.

There's a huge chasm between my life and my imaginative life, and it's a mistake, a fundamental mistake, for you to be mixing the two. You're on the wrong track."

This rebuke comes in response to a question – "Have there been times in your life when you have been absolutely driven by lust?" – asked midway through an awkward telephone conversation which itself comes a month after an equally stilted encounter in a Brighton hotel room. Interviews are, at best, mutually consensual seductions; the journalist departing the luxury suite with a voice recorder full of murmured intimacies. But Nick Cave is just not that into me. He feels I have been working from a false premise, confusing him with the titular anti-hero of his new novel, The Death Of Bunny Munro – a travelling salesman and sex addict whose philandering drives his wife to hang herself. "I am not that character at all," he insists, lest there be any doubt.

On the one hand, he's right to be miffed. Equating an author and his character is either gauche or disingenuous. But then Cave's work – as prose writer and songwriter for his band The Bad Seeds – has always invited autobiographical interpretation. Partly that's because his high-profile heroin addiction and Christian beliefs have made him a compellingly complex figure, catnip for hacks. But it's mainly because a significant percentage of sorrowful songs in a 30-year career have chronicled his love affairs, the high point of this tendency being 1997's The Boatman's Call which detailed the end of relationships with the musician Polly Harvey and Viviane Carneiro, the mother of Luke, one of his four sons.

"What has become increasingly perplexing to me," he says, "is that people couldn't look at my songs without looking at me first, and that they couldn't listen to one of them without feeling that they had to understand the back story. I've found that an unfortunate place to be. So a part of me went about creating a non-story of my life – that there was actually nothing to write about – in the hope that people would concentrate on the songs more."

To put it another way, Cave – a great admirer of JD Salinger's reclusiveness – would like to present himself as an absence. But the trouble with that is he has too much presence. He sits on a couch in Brighton's Grand Hotel, the sun and sea at his back, like a stern cormorant in a bespoke suit. At 51, his hair is long and black, thinning on top, and his eyebrows dive towards his nose when he's asked a question. With the light in my eyes I can't quite make out the small scar I know is on his left cheek, a knife-wound inflicted by an ex-girlfriend, though I do notice the distinctive way he has of moving – languid but all angles like a rumba worked out with a protractor. He wears chunky rings and a gold medallion.

Cave has been resident in the Brighton area since 2002, having moved from London with his wife Susie and their twin boys, Arthur and Earl. Bunny Munro is set in and around Brighton in 2003, opening with the burning of the iconic West Pier which took place in that year. The huge charred frame sits, like a blackened birdcage, in the sun-dappled water directly across from the hotel we are in now. It's a very Nick Cave sort of image – an idyllic scene with a hint of destruction.

I suppose locals have got used to him, this lanky larrikin in dark glasses loping into the back seat of a big black Bentley. In Australia, however, he is revered to the point where his notebooks, diaries, handwritten lyrics and other items of personal memorabilia are part of the archives of the prestigious Arts Centre, Victoria.

"My noodlings share a vault with Kylie's hotpants," he deadpans. "In fact, the people who run the gallery showed the hotpants to us. I was with my children, who are nine, and they had to wear white gloves. One of the kids stuck his finger on to the hotpants and now has that little white glove hanging up above his bed."

Cave duetted with Kylie Minogue on the 1995 hit Where The Wild Roses Grow, a song in which a man leads his lover down to the river and beats her to death with a rock. Kylie's music also features in Cave's new novel; she is one of Bunny Munro's fantasy women and he regards her song Spinning Around as an erotic hymn to anal sex. What does she think of her prominence in the book, I ask. "She hasn't read it," Cave replies. "But I'm not worried about Kylie. She's got a great spirit and sense of humour, and anyway the stuff about her is quite tender in its way."

He is more concerned about the reaction of Avril Lavigne, who also features in the novel as a fantasy object. Bunny Munro, as his mental state deteriorates, becomes obsessively fixated on the Canadian singer-songwriter's most intimate parts.

"I wanted to talk to her about it," Cave says. "Actually, at the Mojo Awards we got album of the year and they wanted to know who we wanted to present the award. I said Avril Lavigne and they said that she wasn't a 'Mojo type of act', so we got Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull instead. But I would have raised the subject then. I hope she takes it with a sense of humour, but I do appreciate that it is kind of dark. I actually do like Avril Lavigne very much and I don't want to disrespect her."

Sex seems to have become a major subject for Cave of late. It looms large as a subject in Bunny Munro, in his most recent album, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, and in his rockier side project Grinderman, who signalled their thematic preoccupations with an album cover featuring a masturbating baboon.

"There's a kind of fetishistic interest in the details of violence and sex that I try to incorporate into my writing," says Cave. These are not new subjects for him, he insists. Sex and violence are "part of our nature, a part of our reptilian brain. Absolutely fundamental to the way we live. And even though I might write a song that's about, say, a couple lying together in a field of bluebells, it's still, to me, seen through the prism of violence. Because that's what we are as human beings. It's innate."

When did he arrive at that conclusion? "I think I've always felt that. And all of these things are dealt with at the same time in my work – religion and love and violence and sex. They are not separated from each other in any way. They are all just part of the big stew." Cave remembers that when he was a boy his father ushered him into the study and recited the first chapter of Lolita, "great bloody slabs" from Titus Andronicus and the scene from Crime And Punishment in which Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker with an axe. "This, my boy," he would proclaim, "is literature!"

Colin Cave, then, a failed writer himself, had an interest in exactly the same Grand Guignol aesthetic on which his son would later build a successful career. "When I think about it now, yeah," says Cave. "In some ways what he was doing was hugely inappropriate. Y'know, I'm 12 or something, and he's encouraging me to read Lolita or Shakespeare's bloodiest play. But to me it had all the meaning in the world and these times I'll remember forever." And I'm not dissimilar to him in the way that I raise my kids." He laughs. "Hugely inappropriately. I know there's nothing they like better, and I enjoy doing, as sitting down and watching a DVD that they shouldn't be seeing."

The Death Of Bunny Munro is very much about fathers and sons. Following the suicide of his wife, Bunny goes on a crazed road trip round the Brighton area with his nine-year-old son Bunny Jr, a boy who idolises him, regardless of how badly he behaves. I had a theory going into the interview that the novel, with its sudden deaths and difficult parental relationships, was a working through of Cave's own grief at losing his father. But he swats this idea away.

"Well, y'know, you draw on everything, don't you?" he says, dismissively. "There's certainly echoes of things that have happened in my own life that happen in the book. But Bunny Jr's response to his mother's death, because he's very young, is an inability to understand what's gone on. It was very different for me. I was 19. It was a different story."

So this novel is not an attempt to assuage grief? Not a continuation of the process of consolation through writing that he detailed in his lecture The Secret Life Of The Love Song? Cave shakes his head. "A lot of that stuff I don't feel really applies any more. I think when I wrote the novel And The Ass Saw The Angel, I wrote that for my father who had died not long before. When I read that, I can really see a young man trying to do something for his father but it's too late. My father was very much interested in heavily stylised literature in particular, and there's something of that in the book."

What is clear is that And The Ass Saw The Angel and Bunny Munro were written in very different personal circumstances. "Well, I mean, one took three years to write and one took eight weeks. That's definitely got something to do with the drugs I was taking."

Songwriting, he has said, is the only activity in his life at which he does not feel mediocre. Live performance, too, is important to him. "Well, playing live certainly keeps the songs alive," he says. "If I didn't play them live, I'd never hear them again. I'm actually quite sad about this, but I have an adverse almost physical reaction when I hear my songs. If I go into a restaurant and they put my f***ing record on, they soon know about it."

Cave's critical and commercial stock has never been higher. He writes novels, award-winning screenplays (2005's The Proposition), film scores (The Assassination Of Jesse James and the forthcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road) and songs which achieve a perfect balance of visceral and cerebral, that get you in the brains and in the veins. His albums sell in large quantities right across Europe and elsewhere, and he seems to be connecting with a younger generation of fans; Peaches Geldof appeared in one recent video, and the Arctic Monkeys have covered the Bad Seeds classic Red Right Hand.

Now Cave is in his sixth decade, however, one burning question remains to be answered: will he finally stop colouring his hair? "Oh Lord, no," he says, "otherwise I might end up looking like Tom Jones. It's in my will that before they put me in the ground they give it a fresh dye. Whatever may be left of it." v

The Death Of Bunny Munro is published by Canongate on 10 September