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Interview: Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three

Interview: Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three

It was early and Warren Ellis met me in his hotel lobby, clutching a large bottle of San Pellegrino water. The night before, during an intimate set at Portland’s Mission Theater, Ellis drank from a similar bottle, a light refreshment now that he has quit drinking alcohol. Warren and I walked to his hotel room, talking about pinball, Skyping with his kids in France and the idea of riding on a fan’s shoulders while he bowed his violin (it almost happened the night before, but not quite). Ellis was friendly, generous with time and a great host. I’m pleased to present the first part of our interview.

Welcome to Portland, Warren. You have a two night stand while you’re here, which means you have some extra time on your hands. What have you done or are you planning on doing in town while you’re here?

We arrived yesterday, so that’s one day down. Today, I’m doing an interview and then I might have a look around. We play tonight. I need to buy some Levi’s for my boys, so I might do that today. I want to go to Powell’s bookstore and have a browse through there. Spend a couple of hours in there. There are some good record shops here too, aren’t there? There’s also an instrument shop I want to take a look at. I remember having a look at that last time. Yeah, I can fill up the day here.

Powell’s seems to be a magnet for out-of-towners.

There’s just nothing like it anywhere. The only thing like it is Amazon or something.

The Strand in New York, maybe?

Well…is it that big?

It’s big, but it’s in a disarray, while Powell’s is well-organized.

It’s kind of amazing, Powell’s. I’ve never been to Strand. Like you say, it is organized, which is kind of great. It’s so great in this day and age to see something like that still exists.

An independent bookseller.

Yeah, an independent bookshop and to see books out and on sale. That’s fabulous.

Strand was just in the news. That’s where Morrissey helped that old woman who fainted.

He just did the right thing.

I guess that’s newsworthy in some circles.

Yeah, we get funny like that, don’t we? What people think makes news. There’s probably 10,000 people doing that all the time but they don’t get a high-five for it.

As we talked about before, you live in France. I went to Paris last summer.

Did you? I didn’t see you there.

Maybe since you live there you can speak to this, but this is the first time that I noticed that the Parisians are trying to keep the center of Paris as this shiny jewel while on the outskirts there are many North Africans and other immigrants who are ignored. This disparity seemed more obvious to me this time more than the other times I visited.

I don’t know about that. The central part of Paris, in the Périphérique, hasn’t gone the way of other cities where it becomes gentrified and spreads out, like say London where greater London is London now. Central London has expanded. But Paris is bordered by the Périphérique and that keeps it contained in there and, I know this isn’t in relation to what you were saying, there is a ceiling cap on how high they can build buildings. Everything stays low and it always seems to feel like it’s not really changing.

But in respect to the people and the way there are divided, I don’t know. You got to Barbès and it’s mainly all African. You go down to where I am in Belleville and it’s all Asian and stuff like that. It’s inevitable that cheaper rentals get taking up by people who haven’t got money. I don’t know if that’s any different than any other city. What I’ve noticed is that fewer of those places have become gentrified. Where I live in the first suburb outside of Paris, there are a lot of turds like me moving in there, looking for a place that has more room and not just a small apartment because in Paris the places are tiny and very expensive. But also, the school where my kids go is 50 to 60% African. Also, this area is always where the Gypsies lived. It’s certainly changing but the people are still there. They’re not getting pushed out. I’m certainly not saying it’s not happening, what you’re saying. I don’t know if it’s any different than how it ever was, though.

Maybe my mistake is that I went in August.

Well, August is holiday. I actually find Paris to be one of those cities that has pockets of racial groups that have stayed there and built strongholds there. They historically have and still seem to be there. I look at Melbourne or London with places that used to be all Greek or all Italian or whatever, they all seem to have been pushed out. As real estate becomes more expensive they’ve sold up and moved out. But in Paris, the different areas still seem to be demarcated quite strong by the nationality that lives there.

I think New York City is kind of similar.

But it’s changed a lot though, didn’t it? In the ‘90s, New York City was amazing down there. Now, New York City, the whole guts seem to have been sucked out of it. The whole downtown and all of that. I don’t know where the fun stuff is now in New York. It used to be just littered with drug addicts and stuff like that. I don’t know where they’ve gone. It has become so gentrified and pedestrian now. I feel quite sad about it, actually. I mean, I love New York. You have to even get out of Brooklyn. All in and around Williamsburg it just feels like so conservative and sect-ish almost. I really like Detroit. Have you been there?

Just the airport.

What a wild city. It’s totally in chaos but man, what a great city! Fantastic place.

What do you like about it?

It feels wild.

There’s a lot of taming in the American cities.

Gentrification has happened everywhere. In the ‘90s, real estate started taking off in most places and it just spread. It just really, unfortunately, sucks the life out of a place and you get middle class people taking over areas and real estate becomes a commodity and an investment. People are just looking for that.

Are you seeing this worldwide or just here in the United States?

Well, I just noticed it. I’ve been moving around since the ‘90s. I’ve been traveling all the time. I haven’t had one year where I haven’t. I’m moving all the time and I get an overview. I get only one or two days in a place and then go back a year later. In a way, it’s like children, if you see someone’s kids two times a year, you really realize that they’re growing. Touring gives you a strange overview of cities and how they’re changing and you get the impact of things. Areas that you used to go to that were out of control are just so tightly tamed now.

Do you lament that?

It’s just the way things go, you know. Things move. But sure, there’s areas in Melbourne I used to know like St. Kilda, that once was wonderful, is just foul now.

I lived in Brisbane in 1998. I wonder what the Fortitude Valley is like now.

I had a pho soup there not long ago. Fortitude Valley has changed. But there’s still an aspect to it. Kings Cross in Sydney is kinda the bit the same.

What about Redfern in Sydney? Is that still the way it was?

No, it’s not. Not at all. Redfern is middle class now. Yeah, that was the Aboriginal stronghold. It’s tightly middle class.

I haven’t even thought about it for 14 years.

Yeah, that’s just what happens. The only place that really seems to not have changed is Vancouver. There’s this big section there that has still stayed the same. I mean, it’s a horrible area. Another in is the Tenderloin in San Francisco. I’m not saying I want to live there and I’m not trying to be a dick but people need a place to live. People who don’t have commodities and stuff like that. They’re just getting pushed out. There’s something great about those cities that have still maintained a place for people less fortunate. I find that really kind of interesting. It feels important that a city does have an area like that. You just wonder why there go. In respect to Paris, I know there’s pockets there.

Like out by the airport?

No, that far. Yeah, sure, in the suburbs. But within Paris itself. Pigalle is really interesting because it became kind of gentrified but you still got some of the most old school hookers working there.

It’s interesting that the Moulin Rouge is now a tourist attraction.

Yeah, but it still has this look. They are quite resistant to change there, I think, and everybody digs their heels in.

We rented an apartment just near there in Montmartre.

Well, you know then walking around there at night that it’s real old school.

Right, I also know that the Bois de Boulogne at night becomes dodgy as well. Excuse my pronunciation. Je ne parle pas français.

Not bad!

Doesn’t that park change at night?

Yeah…(laughs). It becomes a place of entertainment. There’s a great film…

By Bresson?

Yeah.

Let’s skip ahead. I was going to ask you, because you do scores, which films are some of your favorite ones?

Well, I love Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It’s also my favorite Bob Dylan record. The soundtrack to that. It’s in my top favorites of his. It’s the one I play the most. That record and Veedon Fleece are the two albums that I’ve probably bought more than any other albums in my life. Like when I’m away on the road and I just need to that record, I’ll just go and buy it.

I love Veedon Fleece. I feel like Van Morrison wasn’t able to do anything that great after that. Like that was the demarcation point.

Yeah, but that album just put the bar so high. It’s so amazing and lyrically it’s so fantastic. But I’ve bought those albums so many times and given them to people. But yeah, I love watching Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I actually just bought a projector at home for a couple of hundred dollars that you use for displays. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.

You hook it up to the DVD player?

I hook it up to the DVD player or the computer. I have a screen. It’s just so great. I sit and watch all my films again. I really found the flatscreen really unsatisfactory. It’s so bad. This brings the dimension back again and the color. I sit and watch stuff with the kids now. That and the pinball machine are the two great things I’ve purchased. The pinball machine is the equivalent of me pitching ball with the kids. Instead of saying, “Want to go out and pitch the ball,” I can say, “Want to go and have a game of pinball?” and then all start talking to me. It’s really great.

But yeah, I love Pat Garrett & the Billy the Kid. I love Touch of Evil. That’s a great film. I really like Melville a lot. I can constantly watch his stuff like Army of Shadows. Un Flic is really great. Le samouraï is just something I can just watch. Another one is Apocalypse Now.

Which version do you like?

I like the old one. I don’t like the lengthy one with the stupid part with the French. The Redux, I didn’t really get that. But, I love that film. There are so many films! Badlands, I really like that film. I love Sergio Leone films. I really like Kurosawa. Gaspar Noë, the French director.

Did you see Enter the Void?

I think it’s unbelievable, that film. It’s one of the strongest films I’ve ever seen. I saw it in the cinema when it came out. I always see films when they come out. There were about 40 people there and at about halfway through there were 10 people left. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s extraordinary.

I don’t think I will revisit Irreversible because that opening part is too much for me.

It certainly has an energy, hasn’t it? The fire extinguisher scene. The way that guy works, nobody is working like him in cinema. It’s pure film what he’s doing. Everyone talks about the start of that film, the crushing head scene.

That’s even worse than the rape scene.

Nobody can crush a head like Gaspar Noë. It’s unbelievable. You believe it’s happening.

Like the car crash in Enter the Void.

The car crash! That’s incredible, isn’t it? It’s just such a jolt. He really does have this ability to really put you in there. You can tell that he’s really thinking about it and that he really cares about it. I like the attention to detail that he’s got. The start of Enter the Void is just so fantastic.

The drug trip?

No, all the credits and that. All the flashing. It’s one of the greatest starts of a film ever, I think. I really like Seul contre tous, as well. It’s the story of a horse butcher. It’s real wild. They are very heavy, his films. He’s fantastic.

Most of the films you listed as favorites are pretty heavy.

I guess I like some lighter ones too.

One of my favorites is a lighter one. M. Hulot’s Holiday, a French one.

Oh yeah, I watched that one with my kids. Yeah, it’s good. That’s fun. I have a hard time with the French sense of humor. And they have a hard time with mine. So we’re even on that score.

It’s like the east coast vs. west coast thing here. Sarcasm doesn’t go over well here. I feel like Aussies are even more hardcore. In the United States, when you give people a hard time and you start to see them get sort of pissed off, you back off. When I lived in Australia…

Australians love it!

Yeah, they just kept pushing.

Australians have a real healthy sense of humor, I find. I grow up there and understand it. I can see when there’s a group of us, like in the band on tour or even with the Bad Seeds, that when you get a bunch of Australians together, you interact in a certain way. You can see that it pushes people away because they think, “Who the fuck are these people?”

Do the non-Aussie members of the band relate now?

Yeah, I mean they understand. They kind of get it and they jump in on it. I think you also have to have a certain amount of tolerance when you play in a band (laughs).

Especially one that has been around for awhile.

We are also an old school kind of band too. I’ve been doing this 20 years. The tour manager and sound person we have are in their mid-twenties. We’re talking about, back in the ‘90s, going on tour without a mobile phone. When you had to fax details to hotels. People talk about doing these back to basics type of tours, which is what we used to do all the time. It’s a really different time, all that. Things change. There were no mobiles, nothing. It was wild.

I try to tell my students that when I was in high school, I didn’t have the internet.

In a way, it doesn’t matter, because who cares? They can’t even imagine a world without it.

Do you mourn the loss of the mimeograph and the fax machine?

I never particularly liked the fax. I always found it tedious. I liked getting them, but they always seemed to clutter up things everywhere and you had them lying around and that. The ‘90s was a blur for me. I wasn’t really entrusted with too much responsibility, fortunately. I didn’t really engage on many things on an organizational level. I more lived for the moment (laughs).

Do you miss that?

No, I still do it. I do it more so than ever now. My life is as full and challenging as it has ever been. I enjoy getting older. I wouldn’t mind having another run at it sometimes, but I don’t feel…Well, there’s probably aspects of it that I miss if I think about it. It does seem that when anybody makes a comment about the way things are that you just look so out of date and out of touch. It’s like I remember when my dad was talking about, “Oh, I remember what it was like, blah, blah, blah.” It was like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t really want to become one of these people that goes, “Aw, MP3s don’t sound as good!” And they don’t! But you kind of keep seeing yourself as you saw older people when you were younger. Kind of like, “Just get with it!”

Last night you were taking the piss out of 5.1 but then at the same time, the entire Bad Seeds catalog just came out in 5.1.

Well, I haven’t listened to it.

You were involved in the documentaries.

Ah, I talked on some of the stuff and all that, yeah. I was probably more telling the story than making a comment. It’s more this continued attempt to repackage. Whatever it takes to try and get people to buy it. In that instance, there seemed to be a genuine need to remaster things.

Yeah, the old ones.

They were done at a time when the technology wasn’t good. It was good that was done.

I was caught with the conundrum of whether I sell my nice, cloth-bound version of Abattoir Blues in favor of the one with the bonus stuff on it.

By the time that one came out, things had improved in mastering. People were mastering for CD. I haven’t ever heard the 5.1 versions of that. I think the stereo ones of that sound great. I like 5.1 in the cinema. It’s a great effect; I just find it unnecessary at home.

Yeah, my old version of Kicking Against the Pricks sounded like shit.

Well, they do sound bad. Your Funeral…My Trial always sounded amazing on vinyl but on CD it never got the right transfer.

The new versions of the old records also return the original track order.

I don’t really know the order to be honest. What I was talking about was the general desperation of trying to sell the same old thing.

Let’s see how many times we can repackage this.

Yeah, and I was just having some fun.

To be continued tomorrow in part 2.

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