Jim Sclavunos talks to PKM about his career playing with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, the Cramps, Grinderman, Lydia Lunch, his creative growth as an artist, and living in NYC when it was dangerous
I’m waiting in a hotel lobby for the gentle giant who is multi-instrumentalist Jim Sclavunos. He arrives in dark shades, tan Western suit, big belt buckle, and hurting with a bad hangover. His band Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds played a sold out show at the Beacon Theatre in NYC the night before and he was abducted by friends after and taken to an East Village dive bar where he had a few too many.
Jim is best known for his time playing with Grinderman and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, but his career began in NYC’s No Wave scene in the 1970’s, playing bass with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, 8 Eyed Spy, Red Transistor, and The Gynecologists. Soon after, he joined Sonic Youth, followed by The Cramps. Jim has always had a lot going on at once and still works that way. In addition to his work with The Bad Seeds, he also sings in his own band, The Vanity Set, which has been going since 2000. He’s produced just as many bands as he’s been in, including: The Bellmar Dolls, Gogol Bordello, The Fat White Family, The Horrors, The Wytches, Boss Hog, and the Jim Jones Revue. His contribution to Bad Seeds songs like “Stagger Lee,” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” exemplify his many skills.
Jim is astute and knowledgable about many topics, but also loves to have a good time. He threw his head back in laughter many times, exposing his adorable Patricia Arquette teeth. It was a pleasure talking with the Brooklyn-born musician on his D.I.Y. attitude, his creative growth as an artist and living in NYC when it was dangerous. – Amy Haben
Jim: I woke up around 11:20 and was like, “Holy shit, I forgot!
PKM: That’s okay. How was last night? I saw a bunch of people jumped on stage during the show.
Jim: Yeah, Nick called everyone on stage during “Stagger Lee.”
PKM: People in the pit area?
Jim: Just anyone who could clamor up there. Then they all boogalooed around for a bit and then we did “Push The Sky Away,” and he made them all sit down like little school children. It was very cute.
PKM: Haha! I love “Stagger Lee.”
Jim: It’s one of those songs that’s got such a convoluted history. Not our version, but the song itself, it’s roots go so far back in all forms of music. It’s remarkable that people still find it relevant today because it’s an ancient piece of text by lyrical pop standards. It goes back to just the turn of the 20th Century, 19th Century, not sure really. It’s roots are kind of obscure. Hustlers in prison used to deliver these things called toasts. Similar to the Jamaica toasts and they were these kinda long proto-rap type, epic poems about badass characters or whores with a heart of gold or some sort of pimp that made fatal mistakes and ruined his career as a hustler. Stagger Lee was one of those. It was adopted by various folk and blues type musicians and there was a big hit with it in the Sixties. I can’t remember who did it but it was a swinging, kind of rollicking, pop version of “Stagger Lee.” Then I found a transcription of it from a book called The Life, which was about the life and the fake poetry of the black hustler. I presented it to Nick and we had already finished Murder Ballads but he just made this spontaneous version of it on the spot. It was almost going to be this throw away thing.
PKM: And now it’s legendary.
Jim: Well, it’s a good opportunity to interact with the audience. You can go out there and engage people.
PKM: The last time I saw The Bad Seeds was a week ago at Kings Theatre and I was up in the pit. What an amazing experience. I kept trying to get photos of you but you seemed so far away even though I was right there. Are there any stories about Billy The Kid that you know of?
Jim: In that same book, I’m pretty sure there is a bawdy version of the Billy The Kid legend in there. It’s obscure, but it’s been reprinted. “Stagger Lee” is a quasi-Western as well. Only recently have we seen black characters in Westerns but African-Americans have weaved through all of American history including the West and somehow were never really allowed in the Hollywood version. What was that movie, Django?
PKM: The Quentin Tarantino movie?
PKM: I was going to say, I think he would be one of the first to use black cowboys in his movies.
Jim: Yeah. Not the first, but defiantly one of the more modern directors to make it mainstream. The Hateful 8, was another movie to do that.
PKM: So you closed up The Library bar last night?
Jim: Yeah, I saw some people that I haven’t seen in three years or so maybe longer.
PKM: Growing up in Brooklyn and living here in the seventies, did you always love the city or did you want to leave?
Jim: There were a lot of things that I took for granted growing up in Brooklyn about my access to the city. I just thought, “Everyone lives like this.” If I would’ve thought about it for a second, I would’ve realized New York is unique. Especially during the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties. There is nothing like it in the rest of the world. I was drawn to the city. I never thought about living anywhere else until much later in my life. There was plenty to explore in Manhattan and in those days nobody went to Brooklyn. You went to Brooklyn to get mugged, beat up, or killed. Haha! There was no reason to go to Brooklyn. It’s not that it was a cultural wasteland, but it was not the sort of thing that young people who might be into rock n’ roll would think, “Let’s go to Brooklyn. It’s all happening there.” Later on maybe, with clubs in Brooklyn like L’ Amour and Thrash Metal Place, I think it was near Sheepshead Bay, by some sanitation depot.
Jim: Then, Brooklyn became a place where people would go, “Oh they’re making good music in Brooklyn, let’s go there.” Although, I’m sure Brooklyn has always had a musical scene whether it be doo-wop, salsa, what have you. Not the kind of music that I was interested in, which was aggressive rock music, or jazz, or high falutin, noisy art music. Of course, I gravitated to the East Village mainly. Club 82, and later CBGB’s, Max’s… The West Village still had the remnants of the modern jazz scene, but there was always the loft jazz scene and that was quite exciting. It’s not like nowadays, where information was at your fingertips literally. You had to seek stuff out and depending on who you knew, and what your circumstances were, there was a lot of chance involved finding the thing that would have been of pivotal interest to you. Some nights you were lucky, and some nights you got tough darts.
PKM: Haha! Club 82 was on the second floor of a building in the East Village?
Jim: No, I remember it being a basement. It was a cross-dressing, tranny, kind of old style, burlesque… They had a floor show. They had all these dudes dressed up.
PKM: Like Lucky Cheng’s? Did you ever go there?
Jim: Kind of like Lucky Cheng’s, but really proper, old style entertainment. Like singing standards on a little stage. I had a boyfriend who was the DJ there and I would go swan in and it would make me feel very important. Haha!
Jim: Then lurking around that area of course, because I was going to NYU at the same time, I just happened upon CBGB’s. I remember seeing a little ad in the Village Voice for Television playing at CBGB’s and thinking, “Wow, they are pretty bizarre looking.” I think it was Television or it could have been The Neon Boys. I also saw this photo of Suicide because Alan Vega had an exhibit somewhere and they played. I thought, “Wow, these guys look intense.” I missed that show but eventually caught up with them. This was the music that was resonating with me that nothing else that was on the radio in the least bit meant anything to me. It wasn’t just because it was different or noisy, it was also because it was your own thing. Not that you owned it, but that you were there at the beginning of something. It wasn’t like, “This is important and going to be talked about for years to come.” I didn’t have that sense. I was still the jaded New Yorker who took things for granted, but I could see that it was really cool and I wanted to see more of it. It felt like something that I could say this is the scene I’m in. It wasn’t that I identified as a punk, but more that I could see there was a lot of stuff happening and I felt like I needed to be there. I wasn’t even a musician at that point. It was just something was drawing me to it and it felt vital.
PKM: I’ve had that feeling of seeing the band when there were fifteen people there and jumping on the stage with them and then all of a sudden everyone’s wearing the t-shirt and they are more mainstream and it feels like something that felt like yours is not as special anymore.
Jim: I’m well over that because if things don’t grow and change then they just stagnate and who could be interested in that? I remember being really bummed out when Talking Heads got a fourth member in the band. I was like, “Oh no! It’s all over now!’” Haha! Because they were so peculiar as a three piece. They were stripped down and minimalist. It was like stick figure rock or something. It just sounded so odd. Then when Jerry Harrison joined the band suddenly there were full chords and the harmonies made more sense to the ear.
PKM: But they became less interesting.
Jim: Well to me. It’s not that they became a less interesting band by any means. They were doing amazing stuff for years, but I lost a little of that unique connection with the band. Where you feel like I discovered something. Whether I did or not. That strange sense of projected ownership. (Stoner voice) “You just don’t understand. Just because you bought a t-shirt doesn’t mean you get it man. I’m the real deal.” Haha!
PKM: Is that when you started the magazine?
Jim: Yeah, because it was my way of trying to blab my way into CBGB’s. Also I had started a band, Mimi and The Dreamboats. We did a couple of auditions at CBGB’s which were pretty disastrous. We never really caught on. Terry Ork took an interest in us but nothing really happened.
PKM: Were you Mimi?
Jim: Yeah, I was the singer. The band imploded before anything could happen. I had met this whole gang of people from Minneapolis some through NYU. I was still pretending to go to school at that point. We had various bands besides Mimi and The Dreamboats and we thought if we started our own magazine, then we could promote our bands. That was our brilliant idea, but needless to say it didn’t work out that well.
PKM: Were you the writer?
Jim: We all chipped in. It started off as a standard fanzine of the era and then it started looking more deconstructed. We would take acid, and spend all night putting this thing together. It was a big mess in the end, but we were like, “Yeah! This looks great!” Haha!
PKM: Did you xerox the pages?
Jim: Yeah, but we upgraded to a cheap printer in Chinatown. But they printed all the pages backwards which we thought made it all the better. The essence of the magazine was to promote the band and talk our way into clubs. I don’t think anyone took us the least bit seriously, but they said, “Yeah, yeah, go in.” Haha! They probably knew we’d drink our weight in beer anyway.
PKM: How did you get started playing music?
Jim: I didn’t take any drum lessons until I was in my thirties. I knew how to read a bit from a college course which I failed. The professor told me, “Music is not for you. Just forget about it.”
Do you know who VON LMO is? There was this band called Red Transistor back in those days with this character VON LMO. I remember seeing Legs running away from CBGB’s when VON LMO was playing with Red Transistor because he whipped out a chainsaw.
Jim: Everybody was aghast, all five people in the audience. Haha! I started off as a roadie for VON LMO and at one point he said, “I want you to play drums.” There’s no, “Can you play drums,” or “Do you want to play drums.” This guy looked pretty intense. He was bald, wore wrap around shades, and said he was from Planet X. He decided I would play drums even though I didn’t and he got me in this basement rehearsal space one day and said, “You are going to play drums.” (Holds my shoulders and looks intensely in my eyes) He was trying to hypnotize me or maybe he did.
PKM: He gave you the confidence to think that you could with the power of suggestion.
Jim: I think that something like that happened on some level, I just started playing this double bass drum set up on the spot. I don’t know what the fuck I sounded like, probably atrocious. That was part of the whole punk thing anyway. I’m just going to do it. I’m going to go for it and what ever that comes out like I’m going to validate it with my intensity. Only a scene like that could have fostered an attitude like that at the time because everywhere else, it was very exclusionary. If you didn’t play music in a semi-virtuosic way then you weren’t making music. That’s what offended real musicians about punk was the basic lack of ability. Fair enough but in the end a lot of interesting musical results came out of that.
PKM: Did you have to live at home?
Jim: I had places all over from Warren Street to 21st Street and every place in-between. I was a dilettante on drums until my thirties when someone said to me, “You should really get your shit together.” Haha!
Jim: I kinda resent that but yeah, he’s right. I had this teacher named Jim Pain. He taught me how to play without hurting myself basically. I had my own idiosyncratic way of practicing because I knew I didn’t have the chops and a lot of other drummers could run circles around me technically but I also know that somehow I sound different than other people and I don’t want to lose that. So I was trying to get better but trying to stay raw. I read an interview with Iggy around that time where he talks about how it was with The Stooges and how it changed when he started working with Bowie and he said, “I learned to pace myself. I learned to not burst out in one go.” He learned discipline basically and it gave him more stamina.
PKM: Who were the Gynecologists?
Jim: I’m amazed you know about them. The Gynecologists were with Nina Canal. She had a band called Ut. It was an early No Wave type band. Then Rhys Chatham was a composer and a guitarist. He was a contemporary of Glenn Branca. They were producing a similar sonic result although I’m sure they had different methods. Rhys, Nina, and Robert Appleton needed a drummer for their band. I don’t remember how I met them. Probably some loft/ art nonsense. They were perfectly fine with the fact that I didn’t know how to play drums. They probably didn’t know how to play their instruments either, except for Rhys. I wrote about them in No Wave magazine, that’s how I met them, so I talked to them and interviewed them and suckered them into letting me play for them.
PKM: When did you play with the Cramps?
Jim: At the end of the eighties, my roommate and I were really fed up with New York. We thought we had exhausted all inspirational possibilities that we could think of. She proposed that we move to San Francisco and start a magazine there. I had run out of steam with bands in New York. I couldn’t find any bands that I was in to and it just felt like a treadmill. There were crack addicts everywhere. I was living on Ludlow and Stanton. It had gone to a nice neighborhood full of junkies, to this crack addled, meth-head, crazy, dangerous place.
PKM: Were you ever attacked by anyone?
Jim: Yeah, I’ve had guns pointed at me over a dozen times. Almost as many times by cops as by muggers, but I never got shot, Thank God. Never stabbed. Incredibly lucky in that respect. The last straw was one night this crack addict cornered me in the vestibule in the apartment of my building and he not only took my five dollars, he took my sandwich.
PKM: Aww… Haha!
Jim: I was like, “Come on man. You know you’re not even hungry.” Haha! He was trying to get into the apartment but there was no way I was gonna let him in there. So while he was distracted with the sandwich, I ran out of the vestibule. I didn’t want him to be sure that I lived there. So that was the last straw and I was determined to move to the West Coast, but there was this earthquake in San Francisco. So this place we were gonna live, the building collapsed. So I said, “I have these little punk friends in L.A. K.K. from the Screamers will put us up. Should we go to L.A?” She said, ”I think so.” I was trying to get back into film because I went to NYU film school.
PKM: Did you graduate?
Jim: No. Haha! I went on tour to Europe with Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. It was a much more exciting prospect than graduating. So we ended up in L.A. the film thing was happening but all the musicians in my sphere smelled fresh blood. “Oh, Sclavunos is here, let’s get him to play drums with us.” So I ended up in four or five bands and Kristian Hoffman, from the Mumps, he suggested to Lux and Ivy that I join the Cramps. They knew who I was from my association with Lydia Lunch. I ended up being at an audition. We were in a lounge in the Valley watching some remnant of The Tremiers, an old R&B band that are often credited with being the first Rock & Roll band. It was pretty lame but they were sitting at this table in these plush upholstered numbers. Lux was high as a kite, popping pills and Ivy was her usual… Haha! Sitting there like a vulture. That was the audition. Checking me out. I made an album with them but in the end they wanted such a high level of lifestyle commitment from me. It was clear that it wasn’t going to work out. They wanted me to change my name, they wanted me to have a deathly pallor at all times.
Jim: They suggested that I walk around with a parasol so I didn’t get any sun on my face. They didn’t want me to have any friends. There were all these dictums about how I should behave and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” Haha!
PKM: More of a cult than a band.
Jim: Like a family, like a Manson thing or something.
PKM: What album did you work on?
Jim: Look Mom No Head. The first album without Nick Knox. I think they got Harry Drumdini shortly after me. He was with them for awhile. It was clear that as much as I liked and respected them, it was a bad fit. There was no way that I could become the sort of living cartoon character that they needed. They needed someone who would completely be a Cramp and not an individual.
PKM: Gillian’s husband Jim roadied for the Cramps and I believed lived with them when he first moved to New York.
Jim: Jim has been on the periphery of my social thing yet somehow I don’t really know him. I’ve known of him for ages. Does he still have a radio show?
I never knew you played with Iggy when did that happen?
Jim: I didn’t really play with him. He came in on that Cramps album and sang this one song, “Mini Skirt Blues,” and it was fantastic. He nailed it on one take. What he did on that one take beat all of Lux’s takes who had been rehearsing for three months by that point. Iggy just came in and blew everyone away. We could have easily used that one take for that song but it was meant to be a duet. He just breezed in, full of beans, and sang the song. Then I crossed paths with him at a festival with the Bad Seeds. Nick and Iggy knew each other more or less. Then I was doing this album with Wendy James who had this band Transvison Vamp and she had hooked up with James Williamson. She had always been keen on his guitar playing so she asked me to play drums and we had this session at Fantasy Studio in Berkley. He had these demos that he needed to record for the album, Ready To Die. So I played on those. A few years later, I was working on this Jeffrey Lee Pierce tribute album. Everyone and his brother was on it. Nick (Cave), Kid Congo, and all these people were overdubbed on an old recording. So Nick was saying his vocal needed something else. So Cypress Grove decided we should get Iggy. So through a miracle of connection through Sarah (Lowe) and Iggy’s manager Henry, we got Iggy. It became a duet between Iggy and Nick and I mixed it.
PKM: You played with Marianne Faithfull right?
Jim: Yeah. Nick had written some songs for her for an album. It was during the early stages of Grinderman so we offered ourselves as the backing band. We haven’t played with her since but Nick’s written some more songs, Warren’s played with her occasionally, I played on a song for her last album. So we maintain a connection. It was very sad to read about Anita Pallenberg last night. It must be terrible for her family.
PKM: Her last birthday was in April and I saw a photo of her online and I remember thinking she looks a lot older. I was a little worried. To me, she was the coolest muse that came out of that time.
Jim: When you think about it, considering their collective lifestyles, it’s incredible that they are all still around. Brian Jones went quite early on, but the rest are all still there. Anita’s the first in a very long time. It’s not like they slowed down. Jagger is still very fit.
PKM: I heard he runs and sings at the same time.
Jim: I couldn’t imagine running right now, let alone singing too. Haha! I should probably take a page from his book.
PKM: Were you a fan of the Birthday Party? Is that how you hooked up with Nick?
Jim: Yeah, but I don’t like to see myself as a fan of anything. That word is obsequious because I’m too analytical and critical to give myself over wholeheartedly to anything an artist does. In the back of my head I’m thinking, “Yeah but..” Yes, I like their music a lot. Lydia Lunch introduced me to their music early on and was trying to hook me up with them to play drums, but Nick ended up playing drums anyway. I lived in a different country anyway, so I don’t know how it would have happened. Then I was playing with her for the tail end of her in limbo album, just the two of us together and we were supporting the Birthday Party on their U.S. tour. So that’s how I met them all. Didn’t meet them again until a decade later. I heard they were playing in Vienna, where I was living. So I went to the only 24-hour restaurant in town, where I knew they would be. I went there, reintroduced myself, they seemed to remember me.
PKM: You didn’t go to the show?
Jim: I didn’t have any money.
PKM: What brought you to Vienna?
Jim: I didn’t even have a flat. I didn’t have a home. I was living uh… how do I put it?
PKM: Off girlfriends?
Jim: Haha! Yes, yes, to put it bluntly. Classic. Classic drummer mode in fact. My lifestyle in Vienna wasn’t too pretty. When the Bad Seeds were preparing to tour for the album Let Love In, I guess I sprang to mind on their short list. Mick Harvey called me up and said we need someone to play bells, keyboard, percussion, and organ. We’ll be on tour for three and a half months are you up for that? I was flat broke. Just back in New York on my mom’s couch. Completely crushed. Haha! So I was like, “Yeah, I can fit thatintoo my schedule.”
PKM: Did you even know how to play keyboard at the point?
Jim: Not really. I knew how to make a basic major chord and minor chord and I figured I’ll work this out as I go.
PKM: Did it work out?
Jim: Well they haven’t kicked me out yet! I wasn’t anticipating it being a permanent position but then they said we are recording the Murder Ballads in Australia and they flew me over and it carried on from there.
PKM: Did you have crazier moments playing with Lydia or the Bad Seeds back in the day?
Jim: The Bad Seeds in those days were like a gang. All these dudes in suits. It had a very different character than the depravity and chaos that would go along with my association with Lydia. This was very much a male thing.
PKM: Almost like the mafia? Suits, and sort of refined, but you’re also being degenerates sometimes.
Jim: Yes, I think that’s fair. Lollapalooza was especially indulgent and some of us paid a bigger price than others.
PKM: Anyone end up in jail?
Jim: No, but various prices to pay. Rehabs… It was a bit of a bumpy road for several years.
PKM: Now everyone acts like an adult.
Jim: Yeah, one of the big differences was that many of them started having kids. With that came many musical style changes. Nick, in particular, started exploring this piano ballad mode. When he did Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part with us. It was a very different song that he would bring to the band than in the past. It was a period where the music was more subdued compared to the first run with the band. It fed into the way we presented ourselves. I don’t think anyone has to represent themselves as rock & rollers by wild behavior. We had our fair share.
PKM: Will you ever bring back Grinderman?
Jim: We all love Grinderman. It may yet again rear it’s ugly head.
PKM: I love the T-shirts with the old English font and the illustrations of your four faces.
Jim: Nick did a lot of the art work. At that point it felt as if the Bad Seeds needed a re-invigoration. We tried a lot of different things. It wasn’t like we were at a dead end by any means. The challenges we were setting for ourselves within that band were not enough. We had to push a little bid further. It made more sense to do that with a smaller ensemble where the communication was a lot more spontaneous than this big band.
PKM: Do you have any favorite Bad Seeds songs?
Jim: I personally think the ones that I played on were the best (haha) and I hope you do too!