Talking with Cave man

EVEN READING A NEWSPAPER in a London hotel bar, Nick Cave looks menacing. All long limbs, goatee beard and receding hairline, he exudes a wiry intelligence.

So imagine walking into a room and actually being Nick Cave. What would that feel like? "I kind of know that, as soon as I enter a room, things are going to change for everybody," he says. He's aware of how immodest this sounds, but he just trying to be honest. "For some it's more intense than others."

As the dark lord of the post-punk era, Cave has been changing people's lives for almost three decades. From his formative years with Melbourne's The Boys Next Door, playing covers of songs by Lou Reed, David Bowie and Alex Harvey, through the deranged experiments of The Birthday Party and onto the electric blues of The Bad Seeds, Cave has, along with Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, been keeping alive its Dionysian spirit. Like Gillespie, he's both a student of the all-time greats, and their heir. Did he have posters of Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop on the wall as a kid? "Well, there is a picture of The Boys Next Door posing in my bedroom, and there are images of saints on the wall." So he wanted to be a saint? "Yes, my ambition was to be a martyr."

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With Cave, what always comes through is the intense vision, a storm of noise allied to biblical imagery that depicts a world full of sin and retribution. What you see more rarely is his self-deprecating wit and comic timing. He compares himself to Iggy and Morrison in the way that he is, in the best sense, two-dimensional. "You can draw those guys with a pencil with a couple of strokes, and me too. We're all kind of cartoon characters. That's how it should be. In rock'n'roll to be seen from a distance you have to be cartoon-like. They (musicians] are not real people. Nor should they be."

Is there a conflict in trying to serve up an idea of himself as a 2D rock icon while living a normal life down in Hove with his wife, British model Susie Bick, and two young children? "Not for me," he replies. "It would be very unrealistic to say I lead a normal life. I just don't. There is a tendency in the press to paint a picture of 'Nick Cave: contented of Hove'. But it's not like that."

For Cave, it's better to perpetuate the idea of the rocker as abnormal: "The more alienated an artist becomes, the more interesting they become. There's nothing worse than musicians who try and maintain some man-of-the-people, guy-next-door thing. In Hove most people around me don't know what I do. They know who I am but they don't know the gory details."

His children, however, do: apart from the two he has with Bick, twin boys born in 2001, he's got a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old from previous relationships. Knowing the "gory details" has had mixed results: the former, Absolutely Fabulous-style, "has expressed an interest in becoming a doctor, which is great" while the latter is in a band. "He does 'gore rap'," explains Cave, "which is a genre of music you can Google. He's an extraordinary character."

Cave developed his own extraordinary character from being ostracised as a child. "When I was growing up people just didn't like me," he says. "Through school and after I was unlikeable; unattractive to women; the guy at school that people think is kinda weird. Then I joined a band and it all flipped around. As a kid I'd run up to my bedroom, lock the door, put on certain records, especially live ones by people like Bowie or Alex Harvey, and do the whole gig. I would become for the length of that record this other person. It was my way of totally losing myself."

I ask if bullying made him determined to succeed. "I don't feel I have been determined. I just have a chemical imbalance in my body that makes me work a lot. And it's becoming more powerful. It's not like I'm trying to get to some finishing line before I kick the bucket. There is no grand scheme. I don't have a manager – I'm resistant to anyone's ideas but my own – so there's no-one pointing the enterprise in any direction. But I'm not interested in getting any bigger."

Not bigger, but better: Cave is particularly pleased with Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the 14th album with the Bad Seeds. Re-energised by last year's Grinderman project, he describes the aggressive acoustic sound, enhanced by atmospheric effects, as "sonically disturbing but light. It's not a heavy rock record; it's sort of acoustic industrial." The music, he says, acts as a counterpoint to the lyrics, which are "heavy – not sad, but there's a weight to them". There are also a lot of them, words pouring out of Cave like a rapper with a lot to get off his chest. Odd words, too – such as "prolix", "cabal", "myxomatoid".

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"I'm now told that Radiohead have a song called Myxomatosis," he says, disappointed. Cave is a huge fan of Radiohead's Kid A, but draws a distinction between Thom Yorke's apocalyptic worldview and his own. "Well, it's better articulated than Thom's," he says playfully. "But I don't think I'm the bearer of any wisdom. It's my point of view, which I'll willingly concede is peripheral. I wouldn't encourage everyone to have that worldview. I'm not pretending to speak for a larger section of society. That's Thom's job: he's speaking for 'us'. I'm not. I never had that talent. There are people, great artists, who are equipped to do that, who have the capacity to be the voice of the people. Not me."

And yet the title track of the album, its first single, has the nagging hooks of a populist anthem. "My songs have hooks all right," he says. "But generally I can't stomach that s***. I mean, I love John Lennon but Power To The People? I just don't like being told what to think.

"When I'm on stage, I don't have that feeling of wanting to unite everyone," he adds. "I feel more like a spectacle. You become that person that you always wanted to be. Even though, ten minutes before I go on, I stand at the side of the stage and feel acutely all the s*** that you can feel; all the nerves and feelings of inadequacy and physical ailments and aches and creaks. But then something magical happens and you feel godlike. I love it. Really, though, I'm like the friend it's fun to go out with but don't tell your problems to. You tell them to Thom Yorke."

• Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is released by Mute on 3 March.

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