“Nick Cave Came In To See Johnny Cash Soaking Wet, Drenched In Sweat…” Rick Rubin Interviewed!

Rick Rubin tells MOJO about working with Johnny Cash, an unexplained spat with Muse and his shelved album with Crosby, Stills And Nash.

Rick Rubin

by Andrew Perry |
Posted on

White-bread b-boy turned mentor of legends, Rick Rubin’s road to all-round guru status is littered with platinum albums and – mostly – satisfied customers. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview with Rubin, he tells Andrew Perry about working with Johnny Cash right up until Cash’s death in 2003, an unexplained spat with Muse and his shelved album with Crosby, Stills And Nash…

Read Rick Rubin: The MOJO Interview In Full

How did your first meeting with Johnny Cash go?

I went to see him in a dinner theatre in Orange County. There were maybe 150 people sitting at tables eating while he played, like the retirement circuit. I met with him backstage after the show, and we sat next to each other for a long time without speaking, like we were in each other’s presence and a lot of communication was happening, though I can’t really explain or understand it. Then he said, “Why do you want to make records with me?” I said, “I think we can make something really good, though I’m not totally sure what it is.” By this time he had been dropped by two record labels, and he felt disposed of, so he was surprised that anybody cared. I think he felt he had nothing to lose.

Much of the first American Recordings album is Cash performing acoustically before live audiences. Was the idea to show his immediacy as a storyteller on-stage?

That was unintentional. Also, the idea of it being essentially solo acoustic was not decided in advance. Those were really demos for what the record was going to be, then we recorded them with bands, and it wasn’t as interesting. So those takes were chosen purely because they were the best versions of each song. There was no further thought.

On the later Cash albums you were introducing songs from your post-punk generation of musicians, such as Glenn Danzig, Nick Cave, Beck, Trent Reznor. Did Cash enjoy the cross-generational respect?

Each time, I would invite the writer down. While we were doing The Mercy Seat, Nick Cave was going to be in Los Angeles, too, so he came, but he walked. He was staying really far away, and he was not so familiar with LA, with the hills, and he’d decided to come on foot. There’s a reason you don’t do that in LA, and he found out the hard way. He was wearing some sort of a suit, or maybe a blazer – professional, like always – but he came in soaking wet, drenched in sweat. He recommended that I listen to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He actually suggested a different song, but I See A Darkness was the one that spoke to me. The reason any song got selected for Johnny was always the lyrics. We never took into account the music or the melody, only the words. It was the only consideration.

Read: Nick Cave's Top Ten Albums

Did Cash ‘get’ all the songs you played him?

Hurt wasn’t one that he understood at first, or [Soundgarden’s] Rusty Cage. Rowboat [by Beck] he understood from the first time he heard it. With Hurt, it was more that the nature of the original recording was so foreign to him, that he didn’t hear the song in there. I ended up doing a demo of it, just with acoustic guitar and vocal, closer to how he would do it, and then he went, “OK, I see what it is – it’s like folk song lyrics.”

MOJO TIME MACHINE: Johnny Cash Robbed At Gunpoint!

Once his health started failing, was it his decision to keep working?

When we finished the fourth record at my house in California, he shook my hand on the last day and he was like, “Thank you so much, it’s been a great ride.” I said, “Yeah, I guess we’ll start the next album tomorrow!” And he just looked at me because I think he thought it was done. His health was really failing, and it wasn’t that he wanted it to be done, just that the reality of the situation looked like it was. But I knew, from a purpose standpoint, how important it was for him to continue working for his own benefit, so I set it up where he could record at home every day. At times he would be embarrassed, like, “My God, my voice was the one thing I could always count on.” Some days he could do it and some days he couldn’t, but especially after June passed, I think he felt no reason to carry on other than wanting to share the music.

Muse’s Matt Bellamy dissed you in a 2010 award acceptance speech, saying, “We’d like to thank Rick Rubin for teaching us how not to produce.” How come?

I’ve heard that too. I’ve never been in the studio with Muse in my life. I’ve met them, and they were nice. I consider Matt a friend, although I’ve only met him a couple of times. I can tell you one which is true: Crosby, Stills & Nash. We did start recording together [in 2012] and they essentially got cold feet.

“Look man, I did everything wrong…” David Crosby remembered.

Like Johnny Cash, there was a wariness of the way their voices sounded. They felt a little naked, mainly Crosby I think. The only sadness I have is that people don’t get to hear it. It wasn’t done but what was there was really cool.

“Paul McCartney sat at the piano and started showing me how to write a song…” Read MOJO’s interview with Rubin in full in which he talks about working with everyone from the Beastie Boys and Slayer to Tom Petty and Paul McCartney and why the record he made with U2 should probably never see the light of day.

The Creative Act: A Way Of Being by Rick Rubin is out now via Canongate


Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us