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Feature: There always seems to be more to do. We speak to Nick Cave, the Bad Seeds and screen legend John Hurt about music, film and '20,000 Days on Earth'

"There always seems to be more to do." We speak to Nick Cave about creativity and his new film

By Greg Wetherall

A star studded line-up of guests emerged from the various corners of the artistic community this week for the special gala screening of the Nick Cave film '20,000 Days on Earth' at the Barbican in London.

To follow the special screening, Cave took to the stage to perform at the piano, along with minimal accompaniment from Bad Seed Warren Ellis. He even sat down to an interview too, for an event which was broadcast in cinemas up and down the country. 

Before all of that, however, we caught up with Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, (returning founding Bad Seed) Barry Adamson and screen legend John Hurt for a chat about the film, the creative process, the next moves for all involved and more. 

Firstly, what was it that persuaded Cave to be the subject of this film?

“Well, it was (the directors) Ian (Forsyth) and Jane (Pollard)", said Cave. "There was a pitch. It was a clever pitch too, because they showed me a mood reel; a visual film thing, where they took out bits of film and chopped this thing together." 

"They said, 'this is the sort of thing it's going to be', so I felt that they would make that kind of film. It was also an interesting idea".

What about the return (after 30 years) of founding fellow bandmate and multi-instrumentalist, Barry Adamson? Had he noticed any changes in Nick after all these years? 

“I think the changes in Nick are enormous, really, from those early days", he said. "I'm always enthralled by watching a man who is willing to push through what can be seen as the mundane, every day, obvious and the default setting of things. It's great for me to be around that and to see him working that way. There's been enormous changes; there's been a settling down, but, at the same time, for me, he's a more ferocious artist in this capacity”.

Had the creative process changed in any way? "A lot of the members who were there then (from before) had moved on. So, the creative process was very different. I came into the studio towards the end of the Push The Sky Away sessions and started playing. I was very struck by the fact that in the early days we were pounding anything we could just to get the stuff out, whereas this time there was this allowance of something beautiful to evolve.” 

Adamson's re-emergence and engagement with the band was subsequent to some unforeseen coincidences. “Well, it was a series of strange things. I got a phone call asking if I would come and play on the record", he told us. "I said, 'yeah', and he said 'where are you, by the way?' and I told him that I had just moved to Brighton. It turned out that we were just a couple of streets away! It was all very strange, because I didn't know that”.

Speaking to Cave's right hand man since the mid-nineties, the talented, musically esoteric and idiosyncratic Warren Ellis, he provided an insight into his own relationship with the creative process. 

“I never expect to get anything. I always go in there, even twenty years on from when I first started doing things, I never just assume I'm going to get something. Whatever project I'm doing, I always go in there with a certain amount of fear", he offered. "I've never gone into anything confidently. I'm more often reduced to tears. I'm usually in that state through trying to knock things out or it's out of frustration. I've never gone into any project knowing that I was going to realise something at the end. I've never had that ability."

"When I do have that realisation, I don't really know if I'm sure if I should be doing it anymore. I love the edge that gives you. When you're making something that's familiar, you haven't moved forward.”  

Is this the voyage into the unknown? “Yeah. For me, fear and being nervous about things is much more healthier than being satisfied and smug about stuff. I think it's like the day that I feel I've done the greatest concert in the world is the day it's time to retire, you know? You're always looking to keep going.”

Would Ellis class this as him being a perfectionist? 

“No, I'm still learning. I mean, I feel that at the time that I've just done something, I've got to feel that I'm good to move on from it and that I'm ready to go and it can come out. After that, I try to get on to the next. 'Perfectionist' is not the word I'd use, I mean, I want to be moved by something that I've done and then move on.”

“Well, they look like each other!", said John Hurt after we asked him about any similarities between Cave and Hurt's revent collaborator, the film and music man, Jim Jarmusch. He continued, "I've worked with Jim about four times. I guess there is, in a sense. They're both mavericks. They're both innovative and they're both musicians too, of course. So I think there is a similar, and strong, link and strand between them, yes.”

Are you a big Nick Cave fan? “I'm not a fanatic, but I am an admirer. I admire him because he is unique and because he's his own person and I enjoy the things he writes and the sounds that he creates”, he stated. 

Venturing away from the topic of music and of 20,000 Days on Earth, we asked what Hurt had lined up next. It led to some outspoken criticism of the current state of film. “I am doing the Don Quixote film with Terry Gilliam next year and I'm also a television 6-part serial piece. That's about it, really.”

Did he share the view that a lot of people have about this being the 3rd Golden Age of television? Is that where the stronger writing can be found now? “Well, everybody's running to television because film's so poor”, he replied. Why is that? “It's just one of those times, you know? It takes a while sometimes, and certain things too, to wake people up, but they will wake up and things will turn back around again.”

With that in mind, and in the meantime, would he think about a return to the staget? “Oh, good heavens, yes! I do go to the stage a lot... but perhaps not for the last 10 years, but I would love go back again!” 

Seeing as our digressions had led us this far, a young Hurt had performed opposite the recently deceased Richard Attenborough in 1971's 10 Rillington Place. Had his passing led him to revisit their time on this film together? Had it stirred up any memories? Suddenly slightly forlorn, he replied, “No, I didn't go back. It didn't stir up any old feelings, no. I mean, I was very sorry he died, but I think he'd reached the end of the run. He was 90, which is not bad, you know?”

Back to the topic in hand, we asked Bad Seed/Grinderman Ellis, from the artists that he's worked with, (which obviously include Nick, the Dirty Three, but even people like Cat Power), are there certain personalities that he feels that he can identify with that offer a good basis for collaboration?

“With some people I feel like it's not going to be very good and I also avoid things. I don't get asked by a lot of people, because what I do I don't think can be applied to everything. And I think that what people think that I do do, when they actually get me in there, they realise that they don't want it. It's not 'that', you know?" he reasoned.

"So I tend to be someone that appreciates the great working relationships that I have and I don't move far outside of those circles, because if I can do something good, I want to put it into those things that I really care about. I've never relished being a gun for hire or just doing any old stuff. That's why I'm really glad that we do a few soundtracks every once in a while and each one feels like something, not just, like, 'here we go again'.

So, is there going to be a new Bad Seeds or even a Grinderman record next with Nick? “I don't know, but there'll be something." He pauses momentarily. "There'll definitely be something”.

We return to the man in question. Nick Cave interrupts us with noticable happiness when we bestow upon him the title of the antipodean Neil Young. Eyes lighting up, he cuts in with a "“Ahhh, jeez, that's nice!” Undeterred from our line of questioning, we proceed to ask him if the number of different doors and opportunities that have been open to him is something that excites him still and whether or not there's anything else he'd like to do but hadn't done as of yet. 

“There always seems to be more to do", he said thoughtfully. "I don't have a long term picture of anything. There just seems to be another thing to do and that can be in all sorts of different mediums. I'm just open to anything, really.” Scratching for something that he hasn't yet tried, we put forward, 'even television?' "Maybe!", he replied. 

At that moment, we were interrupted by a crazed fan who leant across SupaJam and outstretched his hand, openly admitting to Nick that he had 'snuck' past security so that he could say how much he means to him. Momentarily fazed, Cave says his thank you before moving on. To utilise the word of John Hurt, this 'maverick' inspires a lot of devotion. It is for good reason. Long may he continue finding things to do. 

20,000 Days on Earth is in cinemas now.

Here's the trailer:


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