WHEN NICK Cave asked Conway Savage to join The Bad Seeds, he said he would have to “think about it”. However the two men had already played together, performing a couple of impromptu Elvis numbers at a friend’s wedding.
Conway Savage, the piano player and backing vocalist in Nick Cave’s The Bad Seeds, plays upstairs in the Róisín Dubh on Thursday October 9 at 8pm as part of a short Irish tour.
“I’m coming straight from the Bad Seeds tour of the US,” Conway tells me in his slow, laid back, south Australian drawl. “So as long as I have a chance to have a breather between songs it should be good.”
Conway is speaking to me from his home in Melbourne, where he has lived for the best part of 30 years. His origins though lie in the rural part of the southern Australian province of Victoria.
“I’m a country boy,” he says. “I’m from the bush. I grew up in a little town called Fish Creek and my parents ran country hotels around Victoria so I was a ‘pub kid’.”
While music was enjoyed by the family, it was seen as a hobby, not a way to make a living.
“There was a lot of noise at home,” he says. “My brothers all played guitar and we’d have a good yarns and stories. We had Johnny Cash records in the house. Everyone was from the bush so we couldn’t see how you could make a living out of music, but I just took it all in and here I am, touring the world.”
Growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s the electric guitar was the symbol of youthful rebellion and the future. Most could not wait to get their hands on it but the guitar was not for Conway.
“When I played guitar first it was pretty daggy. It wasn’t for me,” he says. “Why would anyone want to play piano, especially as they are quite heavy to carry around? I did though. I felt uncomfortable with the guitar. I don’t have a head for it. Nick Cave used to also think the same way about the instrument but he’s up on stage strutting around with his guitar strapped on so maybe I should have a re-think.”
Conway eventually moved to the capital of Victoria - Melbourne - an obvious choice since it is home to many of the country’s musicians. Melbourne however is not all about music. It is also the home of Australian cricket and Aussie Rules Football.
“As I grew up I played both religiously,” says Conway. “Cricket was a great game for me. I love that game but it’s quite different in Australia. You have to sweep the sheep s**t off the pitch before you can have a game. It’s our national game and we’re good at it. I still play once a year but I’m getting towards the stage where I think it will have to be once every two years. It takes me a while to recover.”
Conway also talks fondly of his football team the Sydney Swans. “They used to be located in Melbourne but about 20 years ago they moved to Sydney,” he says. “They play terrific football. They’re a wonderful team. We won our first premiership title for 75 years in 2005. I thought I’d never see it happen.”
Since his teens, Conway had played in bands like Dust On The Bible and The Feral Dinosaurs, but his ‘big break’ came in 1990, when one of Australia’s greatest songwriters came looking for his services. Nick Cave wanted Conway to become a Bad Seed.
“I didn’t know the band very well,” says Conway, “but we had mutual friends. I got a phone call one day asking ‘Would you consider joining the Bad Seeds?’ and I said ‘Well I’ll have to think about it’, but it turned out I had played with Nick Cave once before at a wedding - that’s Australia, mutual friends everywhere - I had a country band at the time and Nick and ourselves played Elvis numbers - ‘Kentucky Rain’ and ‘Hard Headed Woman Is A Thorn In The Side Of A Man’.”
Conway has been a Bad Seed since and has performed on celebrated Cave albums like Murder Ballads, No More Shall We Part, and the recent Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
“I remember Nick describing the Bad Seeds as a mongrel dog of a band,” says Conway. “It’s a good description. We all have something to contribute.”
Cave, in both his music and his extraordinary novel And The Ass Saw The Angel, comes across as a deep, sombre, and highly serious man - what is he really like?
“He can be quite hilarious but he can scare the bejesus out of anyone when he turns the old headlamps on you,” says Conway. “I have much respect for him as a songwriter and a wonderful performer. He has a lot of the teacher about him and he has marvellous uplifting qualities.”
It is only in the last decade or so, that Conway has truly pursued a solo career alongside his Bad Seed duties. In 1993 he released a self titled mini-album and in 2000 he released the full-length Nothing Broken. Since then there has been Wrong Man’s Hands (2003 ), Rare Songs & Performances (2005 ), and Quicky For Ducky (2007 ).
Why has his solo career only developed in the last 15 years? “Getting it right for you folks out there,” he says. “You have to work your way into it, slowly grow more confident in my abilities to write and perform, especially to write in the way that I want.”
Conway’s solo work reveals a powerful songwriter and a first rate interpreter of song. His voice and piano playing imbue everything he does with a haunting majesty and moving power.
“When you want to say something you have to balance that with how to sing it and perform it and make it good,” he says of his songwriting method. “The melody will inform the lyrics. It’s about making it work and hitting that delicate balance.”
A song in Conway’s repertoire is ‘Streets Of Laredo’, also covered by Johnny Cash and The Furey Brothers.
“When I first learned guitar I first learned that song,” he says. “In Edinburgh, Nick lost his voice and he said [imitating Cave with a sore throat] ‘Conway play that f*****g song.’ So I did it and it’s just a talisman kind of song that keeps coming back up. It makes me laugh as it was something I learned when I was strumming away on a nun’s guitar!”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.