To mark the re-release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ entire back catalogue, the band commissioned artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to make short films to accompany the albums. Each film consists of interviews with people who worked on the recordings, music journalists, fellow musicians and fans, edited into a structured monologue. From Her to Eternity, The Firstborn Is Dead, Kicking against the Pricks and Your Funeral, My Trial were released in March 2009. Next up is Tender Prey, which was screened at a special event at the BFI on June 17, followed by a Q&A with Forsyth, Pollard and Nick Cave. Virginie Sélavy talked to the filmmakers about the ideas behind the films and their connection to their art work and their installation Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work, currently showing in the BFI Southbank Gallery. For more information on Nick Cave’s re-released albums, please visit the Mute website.
Virginie Sélavy: How did the project come about?
Iain Forsyth: We met Nick (Cave) through doing a little bit of work for Dig, Lazarus, Dig!. Nick asked us if we would do the videos for that album, and whether we could do something in a slightly different way to the way music videos normally get done because he got a bit bored with spending an awful lot of money on those big-budget promo videos, which then never get really shown anymore. So we did four videos for the album with the budget that was set aside for one video.
Jane Pollard: The whole thing came about from that first meeting and from Nick and Warren (Ellis)’s idea that we might be able to approach video making in a different way as the landscape for music videos and what they mean for a band’s album campaign is changing very quickly. We started with this little set of one-minute clips for YouTube, which were really good fun to do and were real ice-breakers in the project. But we also started talking about the reissue collection. Mute wanted to have some sort of video content for each of the albums and Nick said, ‘What would you do? The last thing I want is a standard music documentary’. We told him about this way of working that we’ve been using in our art work, this kind of head-and-shoulders, straight-to-camera, very engaged, very conversational, kind of stitched monologue way of working. So we did a test shoot with about five of our friends who were Bad Seeds fans. We didn’t know if it would work. Most of the work that we make is about a much more abstract sense of what music means to people, so it’s more unusual and surprising and vague, and we weren’t sure whether we could tie it down this particularly, but it worked really well. We showed this five-minute example film to Nick and Warren and they said go for it. I think their fears were that it would seem too self-congratulatory, they didn’t want anything that seemed like they were giving themselves a big pat on the back. People are incredibly passionate about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds so we have hours and hours of footage of people simply saying, ‘they’re the best band in the world!’
VS: How did you select the people that you interviewed?
IF: It rippled out in a way. We started with what was closest to us, people that we knew were big fans. We spoke to the band and they pointed us towards people who worked on the records, they gave us a starting point, and we asked those people who we should be talking to, so that rolled out and out and became this absurdly long list of probably about 500 people in the end.
JP: It’s like a chain letter. We wrote an invitation letter and it was really anybody who had any connection, it could be one song or it could be with a whole album, it didn’t matter to us as long as there was this passionate connection. And for some people, it was because they’d worked with the band so it’d become part of their story as well. Then we put out a call to fans as well, we did that through the forums, using a web page. We got thousands of responses and we were looking for the way in which someone presented themselves in writing to get a sense of whether they would be able to tell their story in an interesting way.
IF: I think also that one of the unique things about the band is that they’ve been to so many corners of the world over the years that almost everywhere you go there’s a pocket of people connected to them in some way – people who knew Nick when he was living in Brazil, people who hung out with the Birthday Party in Australia, people who were in Berlin when Nick was there and were in bands that played with the Bad Seeds. It’s like a weird sort of social network. There’s a lot of really weird connections.
JP: We’re always looking for those kinds of connections. When we’re telling a story in this way, in this abstract, disjointed kind of monologue, it feels to us like a single head, rather than the 40 heads that it actually is, a single voice that is actually a bit schizophrenic.
VS: That really comes across in the Tender Prey film. The way you edited the interviews together makes it feel like all the people talking are having a dialogue with one other, and that there’s one thread of thought that runs through the interview. Was that one of your rules in constructing the films?
JP: Yes, absolutely. It’s a kind of device and structure that we’ve used in our art work before so we’re quite well practised at working with a lot of material. We had at least 40 minutes per person, so we had to go through it all to pick the bits that we liked. It’s quite an intense experience because you have to immerse yourself in all of the footage so that you begin to hear those conversations coming out. When we started making work like this in 2001, we thought it was about finding people saying the same thing. But when you edit it together, people saying the same thing is really dull. What’s much more powerful is when it is about people almost finishing each other’s sentences and taking a point or a word and spinning it off in another direction. So sometimes all we’re doing is listening for the repetition of a particular word or a phrase, like a lot of people would use the word ‘cave’ but as a verb. They would say, ‘it feels like the music is caving in on you’, and suddenly you can go from that to ‘Cave does this and this in his music’, and you’re able to tie stuff together through onomatopoeic and poetic structures.
VS: You’ve had an interest in contemporary music throughout your work. You have recreated musical performances with A Rock’n’Roll Suicide (David Bowie) and File Under Sacred Music (The Cramps). What is it that interests you in creating artworks around music?
JP: I think that our work has always used music as a kind of catalyst, as a device to lead to other things. The reason why we use music is that we think the relationship between the artist and the audience in music is a far more appealing one than the one between the artist or artwork and the viewer in art. That seems quite an odd relationship, it’s often quite distant. But in music, and certainly in the music that we love, that relationship is central to everything. And when we were art students we had this really naive passion about wanting to try and make art that operated in that way. So without becoming musicians or being in a band, without having to deal with what we see as the limitations of that discipline, we decided that we wanted to bring with us in some way the spirit or the attitude or the potential that music has in relation to its audience and the way that the audience takes and owns music and uses it in its life.
IF: We met doing our BA at Goldsmiths in the early 90s and at that time a lot of the work that students were making was quite heavily conceptual. It was just after the Damien Hirst/Frieze generation and a lot of those artists were successful at that time and the students that we were studying with were making work that on the surface we found really uninspiring. But they could talk a good talk. They could talk all day about how the work related to Derrida or another French philosopher. But we were just left very cold. So we’d be going to see our fellow students’ work and being really bored and then going to a gig and being blown away by this most visceral live experience, and there was something about that connection that we wanted to try and emulate in some way.
JP: It was also about understanding that it’s too easy to believe that that connection is about the authentic moment, that somehow that’s more original and more real than the kind of constructed or inauthentic object. It’s not, we all know that bands go out and do the same performance night in, night out, that it is constructed, that it is rehearsed. But there is still something in the way it presents itself that creates an emotional connection with you. Our artwork, at that time, from the mid- to late 90s, looked at that sort of contradiction, and played with it. So we looked at staging gigs in galleries. The thing that interested us the most was the idea of reconstituting something, and the most extreme example of this was the piece we did where we incredibly accurately re-enacted the last ever Ziggy Stardust show from 1973. We did a stitch for stitch, word for word representation, we put together a band, we rehearsed them endlessly. It was about this enormous human endeavour with the absolute understanding that it was going to fail, that we couldn’t transport you back to 1973, that it couldn’t be perfect, that it was going to fall down in so many ways. But there’s something about this kind of endeavour, its earnestness, its craftsmanship in some ways that we hoped would have an immediate and powerful emotional effect on the audience, that it would be like oscillating between this understanding of it being fake, but real, because it’s here, it’s happening, and it’s connecting to you in the moment, and understanding that there’s something nostalgic in it. It was an embarrassing work to make, because it’s also tied up with things like tribute bands.
IP: It was pretty uncool… (laughs)
VS: You’re now exploring similar ideas in your new piece, Radio Mania: An Abandoned Work, which is currently showing in the BFI Gallery. Do you feel your interest has shifted from music to film or is it just a way to explore similar ideas in a different medium?
JP: I think part of it is about wanting to reach more people. By using moving image, it can exist in real time for a long time, rather than in the moment for one night.
VS: What was the idea behind Radio Mania?
JP: It comes in a direct line from the very first bit of work we did with moving image, which was the Cramps piece, where instead of recreating a gig, we attempted to remake a bootleg video, like a video document of that gig. With this piece, we wanted to place the audience right inside a moving image environment. Iain had read about Laurens Hammond, the guy who invented the Hammond organ, who had invented this amazing Teleview 3D system in 1922, which lasted for 24 days in a New York cinema and then was completely ripped out and never seen again. We get really interested in this sort of edge science, weird things that people are doing, whether it’s trying to contact the dead or trying to make a transmitter or a receiver that is able to hear sounds from 100 years ago, whatever it is, we love that sense of pointless endeavour. And it was through looking at this Teleview system that we stumbled onto The Man from Mars in the BFI archive, which was the film that was commissioned to show off the system to everybody, and was the second 3D feature that was made…
IF: …which I think was also appealing, the idea of it being the second ever feature in 3D. It’s such a beautifully tragic thing: that would really annoy you, because I think the first was only literally a couple of months earlier, so it wasn’t like there was a huge gap, so there must have been a point where they thought they were on the verge of delivering the first ever 3D feature, and to be the second must be a little bit frustrating.
JP: And the film has within it stories of pointless endeavours, like the guy who’s trying to contact Mars through the radio, and the notion of the dream used to allow a whole set of events to happen and then you find out that it was just a dream. It had so much of this in it that we got excited about this theme of the film, and it gave us the device we needed to be able to stage this immersive moving image environment.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy