Jamming with Nick Cave: - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Jamming with Nick Cave:

Jamming with Nick Cave:

Published October 7, 2005

Now, Vesturport is about to premiere the play Woyzeck by Georg Buchner. The musician composing for the group is no other than Nick Cave. Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir is one of the founding members of Vesturport Theatre Group, along with her husband Gísli Örn Garðarsson. Here, she tells us what it’s like to work and play with a living legend.

Grapevine: So how did you guys get Nick Cave to work with you? Nína Dögg Filipusdóttir:
Gísli  was looking into musicians to compose music for Woyzeck, and he started toying with the idea of how well it would fit to the play if wegot Nick Cave to do it. Gísli sent Nick Cave’s agent an email, explaining who we are, the play we’re working on and the fact that we’re going to stage it at the Barbican Theatre in London. We thought sending the mail was worth a shot, but we didn’t get our hopes up. On a Sunday morning shortly thereafter, the phone rang and I got it. A voice on the other end asked if Gísli was there. I said he wasn’t, asking if I could take a message. The voice said: “Yes, this is Nick. Nick Cave. I’m calling because of the Woyzeck play.”

Gísli  was looking into musicians to compose music for Woyzeck, and he started toying with the idea of how well it would fit to the play if wegot Nick Cave to do it. Gísli sent Nick Cave’s agent an email, explaining who we are, the play we’re working on and the fact that we’re going to stage it at the Barbican Theatre in London. We thought sending the mail was worth a shot, but we didn’t get our hopes up. On a Sunday morning shortly thereafter, the phone rang and I got it. A voice on the other end asked if Gísli was there. I said he wasn’t, asking if I could take a message. The voice said: “Yes, this is Nick. Nick Cave. I’m calling because of the Woyzeck play.”

Nick Cave and Gísli talked for over an hour on the phone, and I found inventive ways to stay nearby, by folding the wash for example. Nick Cave had read the play and seen the movie and was very inspired by this piece. He asked if his friend and long time Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis could compose the music with him. Gísli and I had actually been very inspired by his performance on the violin during a concert with Nick Cave two years ago, and had toyed with the idea of having someone like Ellis playing the violin in Woyzeck. Ellis is such a phenomenal violinist. So obviously, we had no objections to Nick’s idea. (She grins.)

Grapevine: Was Nick Cave ’s salary something a small theatre troupe could afford?
Nína: Sure. He gets royalties, of course, but apart from that, he just gets a salary.

Grapevine: So he didn’t ask for a sky-high amount?
Nína: Nope.

Grapevine: Did you guys think of Nick Cave as the composer for this play becausehe’s known for making, pardon the cliché, dark music?

Nína: In a way. We thought his music fitted the storyline and atmosphere of the play. We saw him in concert here in Iceland a few years ago. It was the most incredible concert we’d ever been to. I screamed and cried like a Beatles fan. We attended another concert of his during our collaboration in London. It was a huge show, with the Bad Seeds in a gigan ic venue, with two drum sets and a big chorus.Everybody did a phenomenal job, but it didn’t have the same effect on us as the concert in Iceland, which was just magical. It was so intimate.

Grapevine: Did things run smoothly?
Nína: Well, the hardest thing was finding a time that suited all of us. Nick and Ellis were busy touring and finishing an album. Eventually, we postponed the Icelandic premiere of Woyzeck to be able to include them in the production. We met up with Nick in Brighton, where he lives and has his office, and made a deal with him. I was utterly starstruck at first, I just thought the whole scenario was too weird. But the second time we met, we hugged and kissed and the weirdness was completely gone.

Grapevine: I heard you were meant to sing a duet with Nick Cave. Did that happen?
Cave. Did that happen? Nína: (A bit timid) No. Well, that wasn’t really ever a plan, it was more of a dream, Gísli’s dream in fact. But Nick and Ellis were really pressed for time, so they showed up at the studio and recorded the whole soundtrack in one setting, so to speak. Therefore, I hadn’t heard any of the stuff before, and obviously didn’t have any time to rehearse it either. And I’m not a singer. The only singing I’ve ever done was in acting school and in the shower. I realized in the studio that I couldn’t do it. I have too much respect for Nick Cave to massacre his music.

I did jam with him on the piano, however. There’s another song in the show, in which I deliver a spoken word section over music and sing the refrain. And there we were, Nick Cave playing the piano with me leaning up against it, delivering the text. It was absolutely mind-blowing. (beaming) I have it on video.

Grapevine: Were you self-conscious?
Nína: Actually, I had just seen the show “Guys and Dolls” with Ewan McGregor. And he can’t sing. Sure, he can carry a tune, but he’s no singer. Still, he’s so damn charming. I felt a bit better after the show. I thought to myself that if all else would fail, I’d just do the Ewan McGregor thing.

Grapevine: How was exchanging ideas with the legend himself? Could you have an effect on the music Nick Cave composed for Woyzeck, or did he already have a firm idea of how he wanted it to sound?
Nína: No, no, no. He was totally approachable. He told Gísli that he’d bring along ideas, but apart from that it was Gísli’s show, and he should direct him however he wanted. Nick was passionately involved in the play and could envision each character’s journey very well. He has a great deal of enthusiasm for theatre, although this is his first time working within it. He’s composed music for movies before, and he’s sitting on two film scripts. He and Gísli have been discussing another piece Nick wants to work on. So hopefully, Woyzeck will not be the only time we’ll collaborate.

Grapevine: How many songs did he compose for the play?
Nína: Let me see… (counting on her fingers) …there are seven song numbers. But then there are countless motifs and riffs. (With a smile) The music is so good that we really don’t have to act. We could just stand there with the music playing. Nick recorded all of the songs and lyrics personally, for those of us who perform in the show to learn from.

Grapevine: That’ll be priceless on eBay, I bet.
Nína:(grinning) I know, right.

Grapevine: So when is the big night, both in Iceland and in London ?
Nína: The premiere is on October 12th in the Barbican theatre, London, and it’s already sold out. The Icelandic premiere is on the 28th of October in Borgarleikhúsið theatre. We’re doing a ten-day festival in London before Woyzeck opens here in Reykjavík. We might take the show over to Britain again if people like what they see. We’ve already been invited to attend other festivals over there. We’ve also had people over here from Austria and Germany to watch our rehearsals. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding this show. Quite frankly, we can’t believe our luck.

Grapevine: Speaking of the show being sold out in London, did that exceed yourexpectations or were you prepared for this kind of a response?
Nína: To be honest, we’re surprised. (grinning) I suppose “The Cave” might be partly responsible for our popularity. But then again, we haven’t advertised his participation in the production in London . The festival we’re performing in, Young Genius, is very well respected, so that might have something to do with it, along with the goodwill we earned from performing Romeo and Juliet on West End earlier this year.

Grapevine: What is the attitude like towards foreign theatre groups in London? Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be an Icelandic theatre group over there?
theatre group over there? Nína: I don’t know, really. When we were at the Young Vic, which is a theatre known for showcasing international productions, we were well received. Usually a play is only shown for two weeks, but they invited us to do a full run, which is six weeks, and then it was extended for an extra two weeks. It was highly unusual, and we were very pleased. The word got out that there was an Icelandic group at the Young Vic, doing Shakespearethat actually worked. When we went from there to West End, the Broadway of Britain, thingswere different. West End is more for tourists who want to see commercial musicals based on the music of Queen and Abba.
Not really our scene.

Grapevine: What does the future look like for Vesturport, apart from Woyzeck? Any projects on the horizon?
Nína: We’re finishing our movie Kvikyndi, and we also want to film the play Brim. Various things, really.

Grapevine: What did you gain from the Woyzeck adventure? Any new wisdom or experience you care to share?
Nína: It’s hard to say at this point, since the work is still in progress. But I’d say that the highlight of this journey was seeing the masters at work, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The respect they had for one another, as well as for the play, was very inspiring. They had so much passion. One Saturday morning shortly after we Nick agreed to join the project, Gísli and I were still lying in bed when the phone rang. It was Nick, he had composed a melody and wanted feedback. He played it on the piano over the phone. There we were, lying in bed, barely woken up, with Nick Cave singing to us a morning song. (Adding with a smile) I thought I could die happy at that moment.

Woyzeck opens in Reykjavík on October 28. For information, contact Borgarleikhúsið, Listabraut 3, 103 Reykjavík. Phone: 568-8000. www.borgarleikhus.is.

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