James Sclavunos, musician, record producer, writer and drummer with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Nick Cave, his thoughts on Billy Joel and Taylor Swift, being an infamous elegant degenerate and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds forthcoming tour of the UK.

James Sclavunos is an American drummer, multi-instrumentalist, musician, record producer and writer. In the past he has been a member of two seminal no wave groups in the late 1970s, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks and 8 Eyed Spy, both alongside Lydia Lunch. He is also noted for his stints in Sonic Youth and The Cramps, and has been a member of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds since 1994. He has also led his own group, The Vanity Set, since 2000.

He has also recorded albums with Tav Falco’s, Panther Burns and Congo Norvell as well as recording sessions with many artists including Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop, Beth Orton and Seasick Steve. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds have released 16 studio albums, the last one being Skeleton Tree In 2016. Sclavunos is also a founding member of the Bad Seeds offshoot, the garage rock group, Grinderman which has released two albums.

Whilst busy rehearsing for his forthcoming tour with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Jim how are you?

I’m good thank you Kevin how are you?

I have to say that I am very well thank you and let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s no problem, it’s my pleasure.

I have to ask you how are rehearsals going?

I have to say that rehearsals are going really well and I can’t complain (laughter).

And on a personal note just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Not bad. However, if we want to get into broader philosophical and geopolitical considerations then maybe things could be better but on a minute by minute basis, life at this moment is not too bad.

You have been one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds now since 1994, are you enjoying the ride?

Yes I am and I have to tell you that it still feels like a very fresh experience because I think that we are all personalities that keep things interesting, keep things challenging creatively, and it always feels like something new is going on. It’s not like a band that has ever felt stagnant or settled and comfortable. There is always something happening, whether it is nuance to radical there is always a change afoot.

When the call came for you to join the band, did you have to think about the offer?

(Laughter) yes I did, in fact I had to think about the offer for a whole five seconds (laughter). It was funny because I had just reached rock bottom in my pursuit of the muse of rock and roll. I had finally run out of options after living from gig to gig for several years and then suddenly I got the call. The management asked me if I could be in England within a week and could I do this, that and the other for the next three months and I pretended to think about it for a few seconds and I said “yes of course” (laughter).

And have you ever looked back on taking that decision?

Yes I have, in fact I am one of those people who looks back all of the time. However, I also look forward (laughter).

So tell me, what is Nick (Cave) like to work with?

Working with Nick is really interesting. I have worked with a lot of unusual people over the years and Nick is probably one of the most thoughtful, exploratory and far reaching individuals that I have ever been involved with especially as a front man or as a songwriter in a band situation. He is quite restless creatively and you will never find him resting on his laurels. As I mentioned earlier we challenge each other and I think that Nick is very much a driving force in that search for always doing something new. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable for all concerned and sometimes it can just be downright exciting.

On a personal note it frustrates the hell out of me whenever I read some music journalist claiming that Nick is the new Leonard Cohen. Why can’t we simply accept Nick Cave for being Nick Cave?

Yes I totally agree with you on that point and I certainly know where you are coming from. I feel the same as you do on this and yes, Nick should simply be accepted as the current Nick Cave. To my mind I think that the days of comparing him to people who he might respect or idolise in his own background together with the people who may well have inspired him is long over. He is very much his own man and he has been for quite some time now. Fortunately people are now starting to realise that. However, I feel that now that there are fewer of these iconic figures around, people like Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, people that are no longer with us, the more that you can appreciate the ones that are still around like (Bob) Dylan. I don’t know how Nick would ever feel about those comparisons, perhaps flattered, perhaps embarrassed, who knows. But for me, he is right up there.

I feel that Nick’s writing is getting stronger with each album, would you agree with that?

It is an ever evolving beast isn’t it. If you look over the length and breadth of the song writing that has gone into the Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds albums from the first one to the present day, it is vastly different. There was a period when he was very much about piano based ballads and then there are things that are more products of the recording process but it is always a song writing process that comes alive from his interaction with the band so it’s an integral thing, it’s not just like he writes songs; it’s also that he writes songs and then presents them to Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds and then they become enriched. Sometimes they then become transformed from something that he might have initially started with, so it can then go in a number of different directions.

Also the line-up of the band has changed and so the sound keeps changing as well. Nick is the thread that runs through it all lyrically, somatically, and as a personality but then there is a whole context that is the band so that it forms in other dimensions.

You mention Nick’s albums and unless my maths is wrong you have played on the last nine. Do you have a favourite?

Yes I do, Grinderman 1 and Grinderman 2 (laughter).

(Laughter) now then, that’s cheating as they are not Nick Cave albums as well you know.

(Laughter) I know I was just trying to catch you out but you got me. The honest answer is that I like them all (laughter). Like any artist the last thing that we did is always our favourite thing. It is the thing that is the nearest to us and is the thing that feels the most vibrant, personally relevant and the most immediate. And I think that is true with any artist and no less with us. However, if you had asked me what was the most exciting thing to play live in front of an audience then of course I can’t speak for everyone and never would I dream of it, but I personally think that it is often the most recent thing that you have done. That is where your head is at, otherwise why would you have even bothered. You have to get something out of yourself, you do it and it is probably the thing that you want to express as a performer.

You now live here in the UK, so I am assuming that you must enjoy being here?

That’s right, I have lived here for a few years now but I always consider myself to be a citizen of the world. I would have to say that living here in the UK is alright (laughter). Let me ask you, do you like living here?

I would have to be honest and say that I like the country I just don’t like the weather (laughter).

I would say that the UK has got its good points and its bad points like anywhere else. I lived in New York for a while and had you asked me if I liked living in New York whilst I was there then I would have most probably come up with the same answer. I can always see the good side and the bad side of things (laughter).

So you must be used to our warm beer then?

(Laughter) it is now actually a lot colder than it used to be. And beside that I only drink cocktails.

Well that must solve the problem then?

Not always because sometimes there is a dearth of ice (laughter). As you have no doubt gathered I am a bit of a cocktail snob so sometimes it is a bridge too far for some English pub bartenders (laughter). There has recently been a small craft cocktail revolution that has taken over the world and I think that the UK has some incredible practitioners of the art of mixology (laughter). I think that you just have to go to the right places. I had a cocktail a couple of years ago now in a bar in East London that had a tiny piece of whale flesh in it (laughter). I don’t know if that imparted anything particularly flavourful to the drink but it certainly spoke of the rarefied level on which the bartenders in that particular venue were operating.

I am man of simple tastes when it comes to cocktails, just give me a Rusty Nail and I am a happy bunny (laugher).

Don’t be ashamed of that, the good old Rusty Nail is quite a classic cocktail, so I have got nothing against that. That is a good scotch and Drambuie isn’t it, well let me tell you that works for me too (laughter). There is also a great cocktail called the Whisky Mac which you can never find over in the USA and seems to be a UK and Scottish speciality. Let me tell you it works wonders if you are feeling a little under the weather (laughter).

However my favourite cocktail has to be a Tiatip. Have you tried one?

Yes I have, it is Tia Maria and Bailey’s in equal parts and man let me tell you it is disgusting. However, I have to be honest with you and say that I have had a Slippery Nipple or two between my lips over the years (laughter). It is a dated cocktail now and hails from the same era as the infamous Sex On The Beach.

(Laughter) swiftly moving on, since 2012 you have been active with The Bad Seeds, Silver Alert and The Vanity Set. Does that bring any added pressure for you being actively involved with the three bands at the same time?

Well The Vanity Set has been on the shelf for a while now. They are a New York based band and since living here in the UK I haven’t really pursued that. I tend to do more production stuff here nowadays. I have produced people like The Horrors, Beth Orton, The Wytches and the Dolls. I like working with new young bands and I like being in the studio. I used to have my own studio in New York and I find being in the studio a very comfortable environment for me (laughter).

Putting you on the spot, performing or producing, do you enjoy one more than the other?

They are both such very different things. You are not putting me on the spot asking me that, I simply cannot express a preference. They both bring their own rewards together with their own punishments (laughter).

You will be playing here in Nottingham at the Motorpoint Arena on Thursday 28th September are you looking forward to that?

Yes I am, I really am looking forward to the show as I really do like Nottingham. I have been there a few times and I have always felt that we have never quite played enough over here in the UK. It is always a little bit sad to not do more dates here in the UK. But I am glad that this time we will be hitting Nottingham.

So have you ever had a warm beer in Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem here in Nottingham?

Yes I have, I have been there but that was not during a Bad Seeds tour. I was playing with a friend of mine, Nicole Atkins who is a singer songwriter from New Jersey who is now living in Nashville. We occasionally write songs together and her drummer was an absentee on that tour so I was just filling in. And yes we dropped by that pub and found it to be very charming.

The only problem that we have is that when American artists come to Nottingham they are usually disappointed as our castle is not as big as Mr Costner’s (laughter).

(Laughter) well what can I say; we are all subject to the illusion conjured up between Hollywood and the mass media. That is one of the consequences of living in this society of the spectacle.

The Wire magazine memorably described you as being an ‘infamous elegant degenerate’. Was that rather harsh or was it true?

I don’t think that it is harsh at all (laughter). I would like to think that it is true, especially the degenerate part (laughter). The elegant part might be a little highfaluting but I do my part, I try to live up to it. However, the degenerate part comes quite naturally apparently, so I have been told (laughter).

You have played and recorded with some big artists, who would you say has given you the most pleasure?

Did you just say that I have played the recorder with some big names (laughter).

(Laughter) no I said that you have played and recorded with….

I was about to take umbrage at that, the mere fact that you would even suggest that I would play the recorder (laughter). Although I have to say that I have played the recorder but not with any big names though.

I am so pleased that you have cleared that up for me (laughter). So back to the original question, who has given you the most pleasure?

(Laughter) now you are asking me who has given me the most pleasure? I have to say that I find that line of questioning a bit personal (laughter). Well if you must know I lost my virginity to Lydia Lunch but I don’t really know if that would count as pleasure (laughter). I suppose that experience was one of a mixture of pleasure and pain I suppose possibly more for her than for me (laughter). I guess that would be telling. My discretion as a gentleman prevents me from telling you who has given me the most pleasure (laughter).

Moving on before we both get arrested (laughter). Was it always going to be a career in music?

No, absolutely not no. I never fancied myself as being a musician and some people will maintain that opinion of me to this day. Having said that I think that I have established myself as a musician and that is now a part of my profile for better or for worse and I intend to stick with it, regardless of popular or unpopular decisions (laughter).

Standing at 6’ 7” tall were you never attracted to sports of some kind?

No nothing more interesting than the chess club (laughter). Yes I am tall and I tried out for the basketball team or should I say I was press ganged into it. I just found all that whistle blowing and balls flying around, I mean basketballs not genitals, was all a bit confusing. I didn’t like wearing the shorts, but apart from that it was great (laughter).

Getting back to the musical side of things, who has musically inspired you?

The simple answer to that is, who hasn’t. I will tell you who hasn’t, Billy Joel (laughter). That is rather unfair of me to have maligned Billy Joel because actually he had a very cool band at one point called Attila. What was cool about them was the fact that they dressed like Mongolian barbarians and let me tell you that was quite a good look for Billy Joel and one that he should have returned to a lot sooner (laughter). I don’t even resent the fact that he was Debbie Gibson’s piano teacher because he helped launch the whole unfortunate trend of female pop singers in the mid-eighties. He played his part in that and maybe that made people think twice about pop music and revolt against it (laughter). After that they came up with better stuff but I still think that we are long overdue for another revolution in pop. Maybe Billy Joel needs to find a way in again and that will be enough to turn the tide (laughter).

Perhaps Billy Joel meets Marilyn Manson? (laughter).

(Laughter) that just might work but what about Billy Joel meets Taylor swift (laughter).

Well I have to put my cards on the table and say that I actually do enjoy the odd bit of Taylor Swift (laughter).

That’s because you are a man. However, I’m not a man so (laughter). I am secretly transcending my gender here and I am going to maintain that I simply don’t think that she is a very good musician, artist or is in any way good for the music industry. I think that the justifications that people come up with for her music are a little bit desperate. I’m sure that she is a charming lady, a hard worker and a commendable human being in some respects (laughter). But that is about as diplomatic as I can get (laughter). I simply don’t count myself as being one of her fans of her music. However, of any other of her endeavours I couldn’t speak with authority. It’s the way in again and maybe that will be enough to turn the tide.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

That’s easy; I would have to say this interview (laughter). I feel that I am really reaching my peak and I hope that the readers of this would agree that perhaps with this interview Sclavunas has reached his pinnacle (laughter). However, rest assured that I won’t be resting on my laurels; I will be striving to achieve ever more exulted heights of interview prowess (laughter).

Well just how do I follow that? (laughter).

What can I say, one man’s prowess is another man’s impendence but let’s just say that I do my best (laughter). I try Kevin, I do try.

(Laughter) and that is all that any of us can do, try.

Yes indeed, that is all that anyone can do (laughter).

On the subject of trying, I have to tell you that I recently tried to interview a certain Huey Morgan from the Fun Lovin’ Criminals and it lasted five minutes before he called me a prick and ended the interview (laughter).

(Laughter) oh well and what did you say back?

I thanked him for his time, wished him a good day, and the interview was published which went down a storm (laughter).

(Laughter) to me that does sound like an unfair indictment but as long as everything turned out well in the end (laughter). I have never really seen myself in an adversarial position with the press. Journalists are entitled to their opinions and it’s their job to express their opinions so if they don’t like something then it is their right to say it. I don’t think that anyone likes to be treated unfairly whether it is a musician or a journalist. I personally feel that a bit of politeness and understanding is called for but at the end of the day the musician has to do what they think is best whilst the journalist has to do what they think is best. Then I guess that it is for the ages to judge generations hence (laughter).

I always feel that music journalism is the gatekeeper of taste so I think that a music journalist without some kind of taste is probably not really the complete picture of music journalism. So I endorse journalism as a practice, a method of reportage, a pursuit of craft, and I think that sometimes opinion has to be part of that (laughter). Let the chips fall where they may and believe me I haven’t always been treated kindly (laughter).

What was the first record that you bought?

That was Green Tambourine by The Lemon Pipers. It is a psychedelic number which I had heard on the Top Forty AM Radio Station in New York City and it had been a minor hit. To me there was just something very dazzling about it. At that time I didn’t even know that it was a psychedelic pop record, I was too young to grasp what that might have meant. I just remember that record blew my mind in a kind of non-psychedelic way in terms of just the way that it sounded. There seemed to be so many textures and such richness to the production that I just thought ‘I have never heard anything like this before’.

Of course at the time I was very young but I still enjoy listening to that record, and I still do not know to this day who The Lemon Pipers were. I don’t know if they were a manufactured band or earnest young musicians from somewhere in the USA that were practising their craft and that was their ultimate moment in the studio, but it made a big impression on me.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

(Laughter) to be honest with you my first every live gig was a bit unfortunate and was to me a bit of a disappointment. My father took me to see Pacific Gas & Electric who were a west coast hippie R&B kind of thing. They were performing at the Museum of Modern Art so it wasn’t even a real club. They were playing in the Sculpture Garden and I have to say that I was far more interested in the sculptures than I was in the band (laughter). I like to think that my father was coerced into taking me by my mother. However, my next gig was much better, that was The Mothers Of Invention at the Fillmore East. That made up for it and this time I went on my own (laughter).

Going back to Pacific Gas & Electric they recorded a version of Wade In The Water, the old Ramsey Lewis track didn’t they?

They probably did but I wouldn’t have known it (laughter). And I have got to say that compared to a lot of other stuff from that era they sounded pretty run of the mill to me, to my adolescent ears. I have to confess that I have never gone back and really explored what their catalogue has to offer (laughter). Even the name of it just sounded unappealing although I don’t know, I might be being a little unfair. You are making me feel guilty now and I probably should go back and give them a fresh listen and who knows, maybe I will find a whole new world of musical richness in them but at the time I was kind of a bit ‘grrrrrr, this isn’t quite right’ (laughter). I had to pretend to my dad that I liked it.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

I have to be honest with you and say I don’t know, that’s a tough one. However, it would probably have been something that I wrote (laughter).

Jim on that note let me once again thank you for taking then time to speak to me today, it’s been interesting let’s just say (laughter).

It’s been very nice speaking with you Kevin and I hope to see you at the gig up there in Nottingham. You take care dude.