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At Leisure: Jim Sclavunos of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

At Leisure is a series of films produced by Luke Turner, writer and co-founder of The Quietus music website and filmmaker Ethan Reid, in which they explore the hobbies and interests of cult artists, and examine the connections between those activities and their work. In this second film - which you can watch on the Lush player tomorrow (Friday) -  we visit a London cocktail bar with Jim Sclavunos to learn of his love of Tiki cocktails

 

IN A NUTSHELL

Jim Sclavunos is a product of the time when New York's Lower East Side saw a glorious collision of art and rock & roll. Born in Brooklyn to Italian and Greek parents, Sclavunos cut his teeth as a musician alongside Lydia Lunch in Teenage Jesus & The Jerks before going on to stints in The Cramps and an early incarnation of Sonic Youth. Since 1994, his skills as a percussionist have made him a core member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and their parallel project, the feral garage rock group Grinderman. Aside from his work as a musician, Sclavunos is increasingly making his name as a producer, remixer and radio presenter.

 

In this Quietus’ At Leisure film - a series looking at cult musicians and their hobbies - Sclavunos guides us through the Tiki cocktail culture that swept America in the 1950s, and discusses his love of mixing drinks - relating it to his own work in recording studios: "as a producer I'm really interested in mixes," he says; "it's always important to get the right balance, and to make sure that one thing or another doesn't predominate too much".

 

OUR TAKE

The musical climate today is very different to the one that Jim Sclavunos entered in mid-70s New York. Too often now everything is slick and polished, ruled by the algorithms of Spotify and Facebook. Artists who seek commercial success will often allow themselves to be poured into moulds and have their edges chipped away. It's tough for the weird and abrasive, shocking and intense, to get a look in. Over his near five decades of working as a percussionist for a bewildering array of underground artists and cult favourites, Jim Sclavunos has always seemed to hold on to that bravura idea that rock & roll doesn't have to be a conservative or nostalgic form, and that the amateur but dedicated pursuit of an instrument - and indeed a lifestyle - can yield great rewards. It's a punk rock attitude but, as anyone who's seen Sclavunos playing with the Bad Seeds or Grinderman will attest, far better dressed than you might expect to encounter from such radicalism. With a good eye for tailoring and often sporting an excellent suit, he's a Renaissance man of the old school; urbane, witty, and twinkly-eyed.

 

It's hardly surprising then that for for nearly a quarter a century, Sclavunos has been a perfect fit at the core of the strange beast that is Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. He's said that he was at a low ebb when he got the call asking if he could come to England within days to help fill in the band's sound as they toured the album Let Love In: "I had quit all my other bands and was down on my luck and back in New York with my tail between my legs thinking this music malarkey is not working out for me.” he told Huck magazine in 2017; "They needed someone to ring the bells, they needed a hunchback". Since that fortuitous transatlantic telephone call, Sclavunos has been at the heart of the band's continuing sonic evolution.  

 

One of the most dynamic and multi-faceted groups of recent decades, the Bad Seeds thrive precisely because the various members are so adept at collaborating in the different moods set by their frontman. As Sclavunos recently told the NME, "We’re all very different musicians and that’s part of the chemistry of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and the unlikely combinations, rhythms and resonances that it creates. That’s the thing that enriches and fleshes out whatever we get launched on."

 

Cave himself is always generous in his praise for the dexterity of his bandmates, and over the years has relied on them to keep his songwriting dynamic and fresh. You can hear the versatility of which Sclavunos is such an important part on the current tour supporting career-topping album Skeleton Tree, where tender moments such as the ballad Into My Arms sit side-by-side with the raging From Her To Eternity. It's there too on the most recent Bad Seeds albums, where Sclavunos contributes to its heady, experimental mood with multi-instrumental skills that include the vibraphone and tubular bells. Anyone who's seen the documentary One More Time With Feeling, which details the recording of Skeleton Tree in the wake of the tragic death of Nick Cave's son Arthur, will know how the band were able to rally round and support the singer during a horrendous time.

 

In Skeleton Tree, the Bad Seeds, with Sclavunos at the band’s core, are the most energised they've ever sounded, increasingly embracing more experimental songwriting and sonic textures. It's remarkable that this has coincided with them finding not only a huge commercial audience, but a younger one too - at gigs, Sclavunos vanishes behind a wall of young people invited onto the stage by Nick Cave for set climax Stagger Lee.

 

Away from the Bad Seeds, Sclavunos' energy is backed by his enthusiasm and knowledge on subjects from the rebetiko music of his Greek heritage to his regular show on Soho radio and of course the Tiki cocktails he discusses in this At Leisure... film. Most of all we see it in his enthusiasm for new music: "I refuse to accept that there can't be good stuff going on" he told the website Noisey in 2017. Sclavunos connects with the next generation himself; a mentor for young artists, a producer for the likes of Du Blonde, Fat White Family and The Horrors. With Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds enjoying a period of outstanding artistic, commercial and critical success, Jim Sclavunos still finds the time to keep the spirit of the noisy underground music he knew as a young artist in New York alive.

We can all raise a drink to that.

Jim Sclavunos

Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Jim Sclavunos

 

Teenage Jesus & The Jerks - Baby Doll

A glorious 92 seconds of fiery dissonance and an early appearance by Sclavunos on a record, though here playing the bass rather than percussion. Teenage Jesus & The Jerks was fronted by Lydia Lunch; the band captures the intense fury that characterised the New York No Wave scene of the late 1970s. Interestingly, this track almost sets the blueprint for debut Sonic Youth album Confusion Is Sex, released five years later and which features Sclavunos on drums.

 

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Stagger Lee

Bad Seeds album Murder Ballads, inspired by gangster rap and old folk legends of dastardly killing, was the first that featured Sclavunos' studio contributions - but it wasn't just in the beats. He suggested that the band record a version of old American Western tale Stagger Lee, about a gambler's gun-toting rampage through a bar. Vicious and hilarious, it has become a Bad Seeds live favourite; Sclavunous cracking out the gunshots on the rim of his snare.  

 

Grinderman - No Pussy Blues

To regard Grinderman as a Bad Seeds side project would be to do the band a disservice. Although all four members - Sclavunos, Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn P Casey and Nick Cave himself - are core to the Bad Seeds line-up; the now-dormant Grinderman was a towering achievement by all concerned. Cave and Sclavunos have also credited the energies that Grinderman unleashed as giving The Bad Seeds a new lease of life.

 

The Vanity Set - Tomorrow's Another Day

Jim Sclavunos is the frontman of this troupe of like-minded musicians and ne'er-do-wells, assembled for a spot of relaxed fun after the financial success of the Bad Seeds' collaboration with Kylie Minogue, Where The Wild Roses Grow. With infrequent gigs and studio experimentation their modus operandi - indeed, who knows if they even still exist - The Vanity Set has a louche, light-hearted sense of fun.

 

Fat White Family - I Am Mark E Smith

From The Horrors onwards, Jim Sclavunos' work as a producer always seems to sprinkle decadent, slightly gothic magic on the younger artists he works with. Not that you need to bring much decadence to the magnificent twisted garage noise of Fat White Family, whose tribute to Mark E Smith, singer of The Fall, Sclavunos produced in 2014.

 

In Quotes:

"I try. I try. I never had any proper training and I'm sure there are guys that can run vast circles around me technically. I have no doubt of that. But, you know, I also know that nobody sounds like me" 

 

"I didn’t get into rock ‘n’ roll to play rock ‘n’ roll. My earliest bands were kind of noise bands. You know, I’m ancient. And at that time in New York, there was a thriving art scene and we had all sorts of stuff like the early minimalist, structuralist avant-garde, we had Meredith Monk, we had the loft-jazz scene. We had just come off the back end of the whole free jazz explosion. I found that all very exciting." 

 

"It's not that a band shouldn't be a democracy, it's that it can't be. I don't think it shouldn't be, but you can't afford to be or else you'll often end up with a set of contradictory agendas in the end. Bands need focus and leadership - unless you're some sort of improv group, and the band's sound depends on everyone making their own unilateral musical choices"

 

"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 frontman or as a songwriter in a band situation. He is quite restless creatively and you will never find him resting on his laurels. 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." 

 

"Like the music, I think we’re all always evolving. ‘Evolve’ is more the word than transform. It’s only right that artists should grow. If you don’t, what’s the alternative? You stagnate and wither. That’s your mission. It’s imperative that we grow.” 

The Bad Seeds thrive precisely because the various members are so adept at collaborating around different moods set by their frontman, Nick Cave

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