Nick Cave: 'The Creative Process Is An Altered State In Itself' Cave is the subject of a different kind of rock documentary called 20,000 Days on Earth, which attempts to debunk the creative process for what Cave says it actually is: "just hard labor."

Nick Cave: 'The Creative Process Is An Altered State In Itself'

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When you've been in the music business as long as Nick Cave, inevitably someone will want to make a documentary about you. He's a tempting subject. There's plenty of grainy footage from his early '80s band The Birthday Party.


NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) It's a very happy day. We all had lots of fun, fun, fun.

CORNISH: A pop duet with Kylie Minogue in the mid '90s and his band The Bad Seeds made him an unlikely MTV star.


KYLIE MINOGUE: (Singing) They call me the wild rose.

CORNISH: Now at 56, Nick Cave still cuts a mean figure in his slim dark suits and crisp white shirts. But he's also crafted film scores and penned novels. The writer in him couldn't resist the idea behind the film "20,000 Days On Earth."

NICK CAVE: The idea was that we create a day that appears to be a real day, but that's obviously fictional. But within that, some kind of greater truth could be told.


CAVE: (As Himself) I wake, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV. This is my 20,000 day on earth.

CORNISH: The film imagines a day in the life of Cave in a series of dreamy vignettes - composed but unscripted. From the studio to the therapist couch to fantasy car rides with friends like Minogue, it's not your typical Rock doc.

CAVE: We definitely didn't want to do that kind of thing. We'd seen a lot of Rock documentaries. And we kind of looked at them as a way of not to do something rather than what we should do. But I think that initial thing about I wake, I eat and I write is an attempt to explain the working process. The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor.


CORNISH: And we see you sitting in an office down to a typewriter. And you build your worlds of narrative songwriting. And how does this kind of very structured workplace allow you to be creative?

CAVE: As anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared the ideas come. There's a lot of different ways people explain that. But, you know, I find that if I sit down and prepare myself, generally things get done.

CORNISH: I only ask because this is kind of Rock star mystique idea that artists need to be in an altered state somehow, right, to be creative?

CAVE: I think the creative process is an altered state in itself. But I've tried it both ways to be honest. And these days, when I sit down without being full of drugs, it's a lot easier.


NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) Can't remember anything at all. Flame trees line the streets. Can't remember anything at all.

CORNISH: One storytelling device involves an analyst who asks you questions like what do you fear the most? And I think for a long time you notably did not like being interviewed and dealing with the press. And was there some irony in sitting down in a film in which it's a therapist? I mean, almost a more intrusive line of questioning.

CAVE: Actually, it's more interesting to sit down with a therapist than a normal interview.

CORNISH: I won't be offended, go ahead. Go ahead.

CAVE: Yourself excluded, yourself excluded. Because you don't know what's going to come at you. And so there's not that feeling of repetition. And I think the first question he asked was about when was the first time I'd seen a naked body?


DARIAN LEADER: (As Himself) What's your earliest memory of a female body?

CAVE: (As Himself) Huh?

LEADER: (As Himself) What's your earliest memory of a female body?

CAVE: (As Himself) The first major sexual experience that I had...

Now, that's the kind of question that suddenly takes you off guard and requires some thought, whereas a lot of questions that the press ask are basically the same questions that you've asked a lot of times, so you're not really on full alert. So, you know, we sat for two days doing this extended, grueling interview. And he was a remarkably intelligent character and was able to pull all sorts of threads together very quickly, you know, and he made for exciting company - like yourself.

CORNISH: (Laughter) One thing you said in one of these car rides, you said you turn it on, you turn it off. But then one day you wake up and you find you've become the thing you've wished into existence. It was an interesting thing to hear from someone who throughout his career has really had transformative moments, right? Like anytime people kind of think they know what a Nick Cave album is going to sound like, you would kind of change.

CAVE: Yeah, I mean, I've had to change. Change is the energy that runs through all of our records. But there is this question that goes on with celebrities - especially people in the music industry, which I think are different in a way than actors and so forth - you know, what is the real person? What is the person behind the mask? And all of that sort of stuff. And I've always had trouble with this question because I don't really think there is anything behind the mask except a kind of withered etiolated memory of something we may have been when we were younger. I think there's a desperation that comes with a lot of people in the entertainment business - especially in the music business - of wanting to become something different than you were when you were a child, to become something that you perceive as a grander thing. And I think you give over your life to that wish, you know, for better or for worse.

CORNISH: You actually say at one point that you can't reinvent yourself, like, you say I am Nick Cave. (Laughter) Like, that's kind of it...

CAVE: Well, you know, I was talking to an actor - I'm talking to Ray Winstone - and their job is to reinvent themselves, to be different characters. And it's a very different thing between my job and his job. There is only one character. There is only one mask, and eventually that mask kind of calcifies itself onto the face and you can't take it off anymore. And you just become that thing. This all sounds a bit bleak, but actually it's quite a wonderful thing as well.

CORNISH: Well, Nick Cave, thank you so much for speaking with us. We appreciate you sharing these stories with us.

CAVE: OK, thank you very much.


NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: (Singing) I'm transforming, I'm vibrating. Look at me now.

CORNISH: That's Nick Cave, talking about the new documentary about him - "20,000 Days On Earth." You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm David Greene.


NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS: I am flying, I am glowing. Look at me now. I'm transforming, I'm vibrating. Look at me now.

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