Nick Cave: Suited, booted ... and very, very dark

The gothic rocker hired to present this year's Turner Prize reveals why art makes him hurt. And the book that makes him cry. And even bigger surprises still, hidden in the gloom... Cole Moreton meets Nick Cave

If you're running the Turner Prize, look away now. The big rock star you hired to bring glamour and edge to this year's ceremony is refusing, magnificently, to play the game. "Nothing to say about that," Nick Cave drawls, despite his presentation of the art award in eight days' time being the main reason we are together. "You know, they just asked me to do it. I guess they wanted to give it a bit of class."

He laughs, darkly. Cave is the prince of darkness, by reputation the darkest creature in the dark recesses of rock (and boy are they dark, and crowded). This gothic Australian will not pretend to be infatuated with British art, like his predecessor Madonna. "I said I was fine, as long as all I had to say was, 'The winner is...'"

Has he even been to see the exhibition? "No," he says. "No, there's too much else to do than wandering around looking at other people's work." He will try, he says. But there is music to make and novels to write and movies to complete, all in his office in the basement of a Victorian mansion block in Hove, West Sussex.

Meeting him there is intimidating. The sea is just across the road, but blinds and bars obscure the windows. "I have no interest in a view," he says, offering a creaky wooden school chair, then sitting himself on the other side of a massive desk. His face is lit, in the gloom, by the glow of a computer screen. Cave could be the Devil in thin disguise, offering mean terms for my soul – the sort of scenario you find in his songs, which at first hearing are full of fury, violence and heartbreak, the Old Testament as performed by an unusually groovy garage band.

Cave looks as he does in all the pictures: a twisted preacher man with swept back, crow-black hair, a thick bandito moustache and a dark suit. He sits at an odd angle, head inclined, as if trying to decide whether to click his fingers and have demons carry me away. I am nervous.

But more than one listen to his music reveals the lyrical subtlety, humour and self-deprecation that raise him above his rivals. The latest recording by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the widely acclaimed Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, has the Biblical resurrectee adrift in the Seventies New York disco scene. The album closes with a song called "More News From Nowhere" in which Cave tries (and fails, miserably) to get into bed with former lovers. Rare is the modern lyric that combines "psychotropic" and "chromosome" with references to Homer and the attempted seduction of someone called Janet: "You are the one, you are the sun, and I'm your dutiful planet... but she ain't down with any of that, she's heard that shit before."

But look, he must have an opinion about modern art: he dropped out of art college in Australia, didn't he? "No," he says, "I failed." Ah. Now, this is new. None of the biographies says that. It suits the myth more to say that Cave walked out of the Caulfield Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 1977 (he is 51, but looks like he bought an elixir of youth from Lucifer) to concentrate on the music he was making with his band the Birthday Party, who in turn gave way to the Bad Seeds. "They did me a favour because I didn't turn out to be a painter," he says, "but at the time I was mortified. I thought I was the genuine hope for that school, and what I was doing would get that school on the map. Which of course it did in the end."

Now a university campus, it gave him an honorary doctorate earlier this year. But the past still gets to him. "I did two years, then failed the assessment. They thought I was interested in music and therefore not in painting, but that time was incredible for me." He had been raised in rural Australia, by church-going parents. "I went from a pretty conservative boys' school into this environment where there were all these budding artists. I had the best time of my life. Everyone talking about their ideas, it was exciting. You get licence to do that, which I don't really get these days." He has worked with Johnny Cash and Russell Crowe, his songs have been used by Wim Wenders and in the blockbuster Shrek 2, but he still sounds lonely, artistically. There is none of the sparring of art school, or a later time in Berlin when there was, he says wrily, "artistic cross fertilisation... of every kind". Does he miss it, down here in Hove? "Yeah, I do."

But this is a place he comes back to for peace and anonymity, after show-off things such as the week-long national tour that starts in Brighton tonight, or the televised Turner ceremony on 1 December. The £25,000 prize could go to a woman who pushes teacups off the edge of a table. Or the artist who made a steel sculpture that looks like a bike rack. Or the one who put a mannequin on the toilet. Or the one whose work is based around Felix the Cat. The BBC has already sent a reporter to sneer and ask – again – if this is art. "That's what should be happening, surely?" says Cave, who may care more than he is letting on. Between us on the desk is a booked called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. "If someone is pushing teacups off a table at least that seems to be still an art form in which artists are leading the way the public thinks, rather than the other way round. Not like the movies."

Cave made a sensational debut as a screenwriter with The Proposition, an Outback western with all the grit and originality missing from Baz Luhrmann's new Australia. He has now written the score – with his band member Warren Ellis – for a new film of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. "I don't know if I'm allowed to say this, but... it was pretty much locked off, everyone was pleased they'd done something radical and exciting, then they showed it to one of these test screenings – 100 random punters – and it scored a low mark. Some people thought it was a little depressing or something." Isn't it set after the apocalypse? "Exactly. So there was a complete panic, an attempt to recut it and all sorts of stuff." Including the music? "No. Our music was lauded and applauded all the way through."

He's so dry. In print that looks cocky; in person, he emphasises the words so carefully it's funny. He's serious, though, about the effect the book had on him. "For me, it turned into a real weepy. The last 15 pages of that book, you're bawling your eyes out."

Stories about fathers and sons touch a nerve for Cave. He was 19 years old and being held in a Melbourne police station for burglary when he was told that his father, an English teacher called Colin, had died in a car crash. He has four sons. Two of them were born in 1991, to women on different continents (other singers have to make this stuff up). Now he lives with his wife Susie Bick, a former model, and their seven-year-old twins Arthur and Earl. "I've just written a novel," he says. "That's a father and son thing."

The book is called The Death of Bunny Munro, the name of the protagonist, his son and his father. "He's a door-to-door hand cream salesman and general predator. Sex maniac." The book is set along the south coast of England. "Terrible things happen in Rottingdean. Den of iniquity."

Cave lives in the top floor of this block in Hove, overlooking the sea. "I officially leave the house. I put on a suit and come to work." He means this literally: today, he's in blue pinstripe. Doesn't he ever stroll down in his trackie bottoms? Cave stares. The temperature drops. Bats fly, cobwebs quiver, an old door creaks. "I don't," he says slowly, "have any trackie bottoms."

Really? Why not? "Well, they do something weird to your crotch, don't they? You can't walk around in them." I can. If I was going to roll out of bed and slide down here to browse among the many books, sit at the beautiful black piano and play with the chords to "Changes" by David Bowie and "A Hard Day's Night" by the Beatles (both on his music stand) I might do it in my trackies. On the shelf are what look suspiciously like running shorts and shoes. (Trot out in those and he'll look like a 118 ad.) So is he really saying that if he's going to be on his own in here all day, he still wears a suit?

"Yeah. I do actually." Why? "I just always have. I don't know how to answer that." Pause. "There is a period of preparation that happens upstairs. You know, I won't go into the details but I ready myself for the day. I am a high-maintenance type of guy."

The hair is dyed, we know that. Always has been. The 'tache and sideburns too, with a little brush. "It seems to work in some way, formally preparing for whatever happens down here." This is not about the way he is seen by others, apparently. "I find myself mildly embarrassing. I think, 'Oh, I must look ridiculous.' I am often in scenarios where I shouldn't be dressed as I am." A trip to Asda, maybe?

More chills. More bats. "I don't," he says slowly, "really do Asda."

No. Fair enough, rock star. But isn't turning up to the office every day in a suit contrary to everything we imagine about artistic creativity? "Is it? Most people wait for the muse to turn up. That's terribly unreliable. I have to sit down and pursue the muse by attempting to work. If I don't, I'm not much use." How so? "If I'm hanging around too much, my wife and kids say, 'Hey, why don't you go downstairs and start a new novel?'"

It keeps the black dog at bay. "If I'm not working, all the attendant doubts come roaring in." This discipline has emerged in the last 10 years or so, out of the chaos of his past, "I can do this because I'm not a junkie." He was a heroin addict. "You can have a music career and be a junkie, because you're only required to write 13 or 14 songs every two years or so. That ain't hard. But if you want to do other things, like novels or films, you can't. Sadly."

The smile again. He does that a lot, I realise. The gothic look, the heavy imagery, frame a sense of humour as dry as the Outback. He deadpans everything. "People are always surprised to see clues to my being a normal kind of guy. As if I'm somehow letting the team down." It does feel odd when he brings in a drink in a floral cup. But he does it with swagger. "There. You can say Nick Cave made you a cup of tea." Other people have done the same, I say. "Who? Who's the most famous person who has ever made you cup of tea?" I rack my brain for one who will impress him. And fail. "Any good cup of tea anecdotes?" No. "Oh." His eyes move from the cup to me. "Well," he says, as I take a sip. "Anyway... I spat in yours."

Life & work

1957 Born in Warracknabeal, Victoria, in rural Australia. Son of an English teacher and a librarian. Sings in a cathedral choir.

1977 Fails art school assessment, leaves to concentrate on music.

1980 Moves to London with his band the Birthday Party, then on to Berlin.

1984 Forms the Bad Seeds. They are still together after 14 albums. Songs have been used in films including 'Batman Forever' and 'Shrek 2'.

1988 Publishes first book, 'And the Ass Saw the Angel'.

1999 Now living in UK, marries the model Susie Blick. He has four sons.

2005 Writes 'The Proposition', highly praised film starring Ray Winstone.

2008 Releases album 'Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!', starts week-long British tour in Brighton tonight.

For details see www.nickcaveandthebadseeds.com

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