At age 61, underground rock icon Nick Cave and his band The Bad Seeds are about to embark upon the biggest tour of their career. Here's how they got there.
“I’m transforming. I’m vibrating. I’m glowing. I’m flying. Look at me now!” sings legendary Australian alt-rocker Nick Cave at the tail end of “Jubilee Street,” the highlight from 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Screamed in his trademark deep croon as strings and guitars reach a fever pitch before exploding behind him, the song has become a live favorite in a setlist full of cult favorites, which routinely sees the mysterious and debonair singer-songwriter prance around the audience, yelping right in fans’ faces.
That album, released to widespread acclaim, was also a commercial breakthrough for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, registering their first top 30 entry on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, while hitting No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 1 in seven different countries. The release campaign saw the band billed ahead of Vampire Weekend and Wu-Tang Clan at Coachella, play a widely praised appearance at SXSW, and sell out a three night run at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, an almost 2,900 capacity room.
Fast-forwarding to October 2018, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are in the midst of their first ever North American arena run, a tour that sees them playing the biggest venues in the U.S. and Canada of their careers by an impressive margin -- including dates at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, The Forum in Los Angeles, and the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. It’s a victory lap, a “look at me now!” moment of sorts, for the band after 2016’s Skeleton Tree, the highest-rated album of that year on review aggregator site Metacritic, even ahead of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
But it’s a bit jarring to see Cave, at age 61, only now residing alongside the likes of festival headliners Gorillaz and Florence & The Machine, rock legends like Phil Collins, and pop chart toppers Bruno Mars and J Balvin, all of which played the Brooklyn arena this month. Cave boasts just a tiny percentage of the monthly Spotify listeners of each of the aforementioned artists (1.6 million vs. at least 8 million for Gorillaz and Florence, ranging to J Balvin’s 42 million), with infinitesimally less name recognition and not a single Hot 100 hit to his name.
Yet, somehow against all convention, Nick Cave is suddenly an arena act in 2018.
To begin to explain how this happened, we have to go back to 2009, when Leonard Cohen -- another aging (though much older at the time), legendary singer/songwriter whose celebrated catalog was far removed from typical stadium-rock bombast -- was selling out his first ever North American arena tour at age 75. The since-deceased Cohen hadn’t toured America in fifteen years prior to the first date at New York’s Beacon Theater, which was quickly followed up by a sunset performance at Coachella, and a show months later at Madison Square Garden. From there, Cohen toured bigger rooms than ever, both internationally and in the U.S., culminating in multiple nights at arenas across North America in 2012.
“When Leonard Cohen played those arenas, it really sounded amazing,” says Elliott Lefko, the Vice President of Goldenvoice Concerts in L.A., and the man who booked the Leonard Cohen comeback tour. “He took the feeling of a theater and translated that to an arena. He had the great sound and the great look, but also kind of stepped up the excitement.”
Around the time the American leg of Cohen’s 2012 tour was being announced, Lefko ran into former AEG CEO Randy Phillips at Coachella -- which is put on by Goldenvoice, a subsidiary of AEG. Phillips introduced Lefko to Brian Message and Craig Newman, the two managers of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. “I told them about what I was doing with Leonard Cohen at all of these theaters,” Lefko remembers. “At that point, we started working together and I knew all of these great places to play. I started putting Nick into these places and then, he started to do really, really well.”
At the same time, Cave left Mute Records, a part of EMI at the time, following two releases with his noisy garage rock side project Grinderman. He in turn founded Bad Seed LTD, a label identity and vessel for him to release music under his own terms. They set up a licensing deal with AWAL, Kobalt's recordings company, to change how they released music entirely.
“I think what happened is that Nick really had been somewhat lost within the EMI system worldwide,” Paul Hitchman, President of AWAL, explains. “When he came to us – two things happened. First of all, we worked with his management team to really forensically identify objectives for Nick and the band and their records. What are we specifically aiming to achieve in terms of sales, positioning, touring? In terms of moving into the digital era, what are our objectives in all of those areas? Secondly, rather than being lost within the major label system, we were able to make sure that we were driving a bespoke campaign for the record in each territory. We were ensuring that there was a real plan in Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, the US, and Canada. There was a real plan in place to be executed in every territory, and we paid very close attention to that detail and we delivered those plans.”
Those objectives in America, which included an emphasis on Cave’s engagement with fans via social media and a particular emphasis on Spotify, led to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ highest-charting album of their career in America, hitting No. 29 on the Billboard 200 upon the release of Push the Sky Away. The release was accompanied by an ambitious American tour booked by Lefko, which included the aforementioned stops at SXSW, Coachella and the Beacon Theatre, as well as dates at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco (8,500 capacity), and famed smaller venues like the Chicago Theatre and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Though he had sold out shows across the world at this point, an arena show likely still would have been a stretch. “I don’t know if he necessarily wanted to at that point,” says Jules Manning, who formerly worked as Director, Concert Bookings & Artist Relations at MSG Entertainment and booked the Beacon dates. “I think sometimes bands just automatically go for the big play -- I don’t necessarily think it’s the right thing to do.”
And it’s not like Cave was playing small venues on the Push the Sky Away tours. Returning to America in 2014 following the release of his well-received pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth -- which showcased Cave’s daily life songwriting partnership with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis -- the band played thousands-cap venues like the Mann Center in Philadelphia (14,000 capacity) Hammerstein Ballroom in New York (2200), Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn (5000) and The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles (6300). But it was clear Cave wanted to continue this rise and move onto bigger and bigger rooms. “When Nick started to play arenas in Europe and started to sell those out, then the plan was to try to get Nick into arenas in North America,” explains Lefko.
Then tragedy struck the next year – Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, a twin, fell to his death off a cliff near Cave’s adopted hometown of Brighton, England. Struck by unimaginable grief, Cave channeled his sorrow and heartache into his 16th studio record, Skeleton Tree, which was released just over a year later in September 2016 -- accompanied by One More Time with Feeling, a black-and-white documentary about the recording sessions in the aftermath of his son’s passing.
Self-funded and directed by Andrew Dominik, the universally acclaimed film acted as a way for Cave to directly reach out to his fans and tell the story on his own terms without any sort of filter, forgoing all traditional interviews. In doing so, Cave, who also went on a short and intimate Q&A tour in early 2018 where he answered questions directly from the crowd, was interacting with his fans on a deeper level than ever, readying him for arena-level engagement.
“I think those films were about connecting Nick with an audience and about finding a way to enable Nick to express himself as an artist that went beyond music,” Hitchman says. “It went to a different place – him as a poet, a writer, as an icon. It gave Nick the ability to express himself beyond just the format of a three-minute song.”
Skeleton Tree charted even higher than Push the Sky Away, hitting No. 27 on the Billboard 200, No. 2 in the UK, and No. 1 in eight territories, en route to landing a spot on nearly every publication’s best albums list of 2016. He returned to America to bigger venues with more dates attached, including four New York shows (two at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and two at the Beacon Theatre) and dates at the Greek Theatres in Los Angeles (5870 capacity) and Berkeley, CA (8500). He also performed at arenas across Europe this time around.
But those rooms in North America were quite a lot smaller than Barclays, The Forum, or Scotiabank. How has he managed to book venues and sell tickets much bigger just a year removed from those shows -- at age 61, no less?
“I’ll tell you exactly what it is,” Hitchman bluntly responds. “Most artists -- even, frankly, David Bowie -- they hit a peak, and they’re increasingly living off nostalgia, and it’s difficult to argue anything other than that. For Nick, creatively, he’s just gone from strength to strength. If you look at Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree as two records that kind of go together, they’re works of art. I think Nick’s fans have gone on that journey with him, and they’ve told everyone else about it.”
Hitchman and Lefko, around this time, began presenting Nick Cave in a different way – as one of the few remaining legendary artists of his time. “If you talk about our real objective, it’s establishing Nick in his rightful place as the world’s premier alternative icon,” Hitchman adds. “With Lou Reed no longer with us, David Bowie no longer with us, Leonard Cohen no longer with us -- who is the world’s premier alternative icon? If you ask me, it’s Nick Cave. And everything we’ve been doing over the last six years -- it’s all been driving toward Nick attaining that position, which is due to him, on merit, as the world’s most important alternative icon.”
Accompanied by dates at slightly smaller venues in Washington, DC and Dallas, these October 2018 arena shows should go a long way towards cementing that status, ushering in a new era where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are a bona fide arena act. When they inevitably return on the next album cycle – whenever that may be – it will likely be to similar sized rooms in more cities across North America. And that sentiment is echoed by Manning, who mentions, “If I were still [at MSG Entertainment], I would have been begging, pleading, for Nick to play Madison Square Garden.”
Though Cave is relatively inexperienced at playing these massive arenas, he comes with about 40 years of being one of the premier live acts around, dating back to his early days with The Bad Seeds and before as a member of The Birthday Party. With one of the most storied and consistently critically acclaimed back catalogs in modern music history, he’s accumulated a massive, multi-generational fanbase ready to see Cave, at age 61, embark on this next phase of his illustrious career, begging more people than ever to simply look at him fly on the biggest stages in America.
“I think with Nick Cave it’s that kind of feeling – you have all of the nuances of a theater experience with the excitement of being in a big room,” Lefko says. “The performers feel like they’re larger than life on stage in the arena because they’re trying to play to that last seat in the house. Performers like Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, they’re able to do that and able to touch everybody, no matter where they are in the building. It turns into a really thrilling event.”