Nick Cave remembers late Bad Seeds keyboardist Conway Savage
For the most recent addition to his Red Hand Files Q&A series, Nick Cave described the history of the Bad Seeds track "Breathless" (from 2004's Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus), accompanied by a few words, and light-hearted anecdotes, about his former bandmate, Conway Savage, who passed away in 2018.
Nick reminisced on one of the band's first encounters with Conway, writing:
About thirty years ago, when Dirty Three were still playing the little clubs in Melbourne, Conway Savage, who was the newly appointed piano player in the Bad Seeds, was in the audience watching the band. He had not seen Dirty Three before, nor had he met Warren. In the song ‘Indian Love Song’ Warren played the flute.
Now, you must understand that Conway was a guy from an obscure town in rural Victoria called Fish Creek with a population of about ninety people and, at the time, his musical taste didn’t extend too far beyond traditional country and western music.
Conway introduced himself to Warren after the gig saying — "Good show, mate, but if I see you play that flute again I’ll ram it up your arse."
After that, Warren's flute laid dormant for over a decade -- until 2004, when The Bad Seeds were recording "Breathless" during the Abattoir Blues sessions. Nick continues:
Conway had done some lovely rollicking piano on it and gone back to the hotel. I felt that the song needed a solo instrument on the opening bars, so that the song began in a happy, life-affirming way, so I say to Warren — "Have you got a flute?"
Warren says — "Um, yes."
I say — “I think this song needs some flute. Let’s put some on tomorrow.”
Warren says — "Well, we’d better do it in the morning before Conway comes in because he told me years ago that if I ever played the flute again he would ram it up my arse."
So, the next day I set up a space for Warren to play the flute — a meditation cushion and a circle of scented candles and some incense and stuff like that.
Warren arrives with his flute and says — “Is Conway here?”
And I say — “No.”
So, Warren sits down on the cushion and we bring the lights down, put on ‘Breathless’, and Warren plays the flute on the introduction. Now, Warren hasn’t played the flute since Conway said he’d stick it up his arse, so Warren is more than a bit rusty and the flute sounds like shit. So we do it again.
I say to him — "Relax and play like a seven year old child that has just been given his first recorder."
So Warren plays it again and it still sounds terrible. "Give me another go," he says.
So Warren does, like, another ten takes and they each sound progressively worse than the one before. Warren does the Walk of Shame back into the control booth.
"The flute sounds like shit," I say to Warren.
"Right," says Warren.
"How about we listen to them all back at the same time," I say.
Warren says — "And let’s put some of them backwards."
And I say — "And let’s detune some of them and stick them through a phaser, and drench the whole thing in reverb."
So, Nick Launay, the producer, messes around with the flute, and then plays all the takes back at the same time — some backwards, some detuned, some phased — and it sounds like an incredibly fucked-up 14th or 16th Century style ensemble, as you say, Scott. Warren has a big smile on his face.
“Beautiful,” he says.
Then Conway comes in.
Conway sits down, lights a cigarette, opens a beer, listens for a bit and says — "Is that a flute?"
Warren says in a small voice — "No."
Later, Nick describes how, in 2017, when Conway collapsed and underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, the band had to resume tour without him. After the tour, Warren received a letter, reading, "Warren, I was wrong about the flute. Conway."
Sadly, Conway passed away a year later. Nick writes:
Though Conway’s operation was a success, it was a short reprieve — Conway would never tour with the Bad Seeds again and a year later, on this day in 2018, Conway passed away taking the ramshackle soul of the Bad Seeds with him.
People often ask me if I miss past members of the Bad Seeds and the answer is, ‘Well, not really.’ But I miss Conway. We all miss Conway. We miss him a lot. Things are not the same without him.
Concluding his answer, Nick notes that back in 2004, when "Breathless" was released as a single, the BBC refused to play it. "They loved the song but they didn’t like the flute. Our record company at the time recalled the song and removed the flute. The BBC played it. It was a flop."
Read Nick's answer in full on Red Hand Files