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NICK CAVE AND THE RED HAND FILES “Wo! Babe, you’re sounding good”

“Wo! Babe, you’re sounding good.” These five little words might have changed the lives of a Serbia-based Nick Cave tribute band, the Cave Dogs. ALAN SCARLETT takes a look at Cave’s email Q&A site, the Red Hand Files, an extension of his 2019 Q&A tour that took in Perth Concert Hall. He discovers the wide-ranging influence of Cave has helped another act go viral too.

Following the death of his son Arthur in 2015, Nick Cave sought to explore its effects upon himself both by recording new music (Skeleton Tree, 2016 and the recent Ghosteen album, 2019) and in live performances. The live gigs took the form of large venues with the Bad Seeds, such as the Perth Arena gig in February 2017, and the much smaller solo performances that revolved around an intimate Q&A session with the audience, such as at the Perth Concert Hall in January last year.

Taking this connecting with his audience as self-therapy even further, has been the Red Hand Files. Available to read online or delivered by email, this Q&A session is at times like reading Aunty Nick’s agony column. Whether the ‘advice’ is of any use or perhaps even harmful, who knows? However, one thing’s for sure, Cave’s answers are always empathic and well thought through. Often the answers are woven together from multiple questions and can be very long, with one notable and hilarious exception (Red Hand File #67).

So, when Nikola Krstić, aka Nik from the Cave Dogs, posed a question about whether or not Nick Cave regarded him as a vampire, he probably didn’t expect to have his performance praised and his shirt criticised (Red Hand File #80). “Wo! Babe, you’re sounding good.” remarked Nick’s wife Susie on hearing the Cave Dogs as she walked into the room. To which Nick responded “Thanks. It’s not me. It’s a Serbian imposter.” The real Nick offered imposter Nik one of his used shirts and a suit to go with it so that he could continue his nine years of emulating the rock and roll persona and  shamanistic recreation of Nick’s live performances. Immediately, the Cave Dogs’ YouTube page starting getting a lot more attention that it had previously.

In fact, Nik hadn’t realised his question had been answered until the YouTube views rocketed (from 750 to over 20,000) and comments about the Red Hand File started appearing. Nik attempting to calmly work through his day job during this whilst holding back a panic attack. On reading Nick Cave’s answer, Nik was relieved that he didn’t view him as a vampire and had understood that “I’m not ready to do my own stuff”. This decision of when to try out original material is one that many bands struggle with.

The Cave Dogs had evolved out of the Rain Dogs, a Tom Waits tribute band that Nik had joined as the pianist. They wanted to try something new and the band reckoned Nik sounded pretty good singing Cave songs.

Nik explained how they relished the incredible energy Cave’s songs produce while being played. “We got swept up by that energy and, in that way, I feel like a Serbian vampire”.

Over the years, Nick Cave’s music has changed significantly, partly due to the influence of Warren Ellis of Dirty Three fame and, more recently, coming to terms with grief following the death of Arthur. Like most of us, Nik identified with Cave’s grief (we’ve all lost someone we love) and found the songs from Skeleton Tree to be a great help with his mourning process. Performing the latest Cave songs has, however, proved difficult. They contain some sounds that the band cannot recreate live but “we play them the old fashioned way,” says Nik. Then there is the need to please the audience: “it’s difficult to prepare the mood for a song like Jesus Alone,” explains Nik. Cave would probably agree.

Still trying to come to terms with events since “20,000 of Cave’s fandom came over to dinner to our channel unannounced” Nik reckons he has become a nervous wreck and hasn’t slept for days. However, Nick Cave’s fans “were so kind and loving – everybody full of understanding of the whole situation”.

When asked if the Cave Dogs would now embark on a world tour, Nik was pragmatic and non-committal. Serbia not being in the EU is apparently a huge obstacle and of course the band members have careers and studies to complete. Making the jump from “just being a hobby” would require a major reorganisation of priorities. This is something many Perth bands can identify with. As the world’s most isolated city, just playing to a new crowd is a major commitment in time and money. However, in Belgrade, imposter Nik is starting to believe that anything is possible.

At the time of writing, the suit and shirt had yet to be delivered. “It will arrive when it arrives,” was Nik’s philosophical response. “It surely won’t fit – but I will put it on and share the news with all the people asking me to see what he sent me.”

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