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Warren Ellis, known for his wild violin and on-stage antics with the Dirty Three and his collaboration with Nick Cave, is perhaps one of the most exciting musicians working today. Between his soundtrack work and being a driving force in the Bad Seeds, the Dirty Three has had little time to put out an album. Luckily, I had a chance to interview Ellis during a run of Dirty Three shows that were amazing, dynamic and exhausting. I am very proud to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Warren Ellis.

Have you been to Portland before?

Many times. I was here about six months ago with the Bad Seeds and we played the Crystal Ballroom. Actually, the Satyricon is immortalized in a photo the middle of our record Horse Stories. Many times and Steve Malkmus is a dear old friend of ours.

I don’t know why the hell I asked you that when I was at that Nick Cave show.

Were ya?

I was right up front.

Ah, it was so good you forgot!

So you played Ocean Songs in its entirety at All Tomorrow’s Parties?

They picked it. A couple of years ago we did it in London. It’s only the third time that we’ve ever performed it in its entirety. Barry (Hogan), the organizer, asked us about two years ago if we would perform. He said, “Would you do Ocean Songs? Of course, do whatever you want but we’d love you to play Ocean Songs.” We went back and listened to it and liked it better than we remembered it. It was a good choice to do it.

Do you consider that the definitive Dirty Three album?

No, no I don’t actually. I think each one’s got something that’s special. They are all a quite bit different. It’s an album where we attempted to do something a little bit different than the album before and the album after that we tended to do something different as well. I’m not so sure there is a definitive one. It was our attempt to break away from the style we did before, which was incredibly loud and violent and aggressive. Certainly on stage it was like that. It was the first time that we found ourselves in a position where we didn’t have any new material and we had to sit down and write an album in five days and record it. So that was what Ocean Songs was about and deciding to approach in a very quiet way as a reaction against the whole noise thing. We were all burned out from touring so much, as well. I guess it’s a very symbolic album in many ways.

That was the album that was big when I was living in Brisbane in 1998.

Is that right?

Yeah. I also saw you in Grinderman when you opened for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden.

Oh yeah? I was just talking about that today. That was a hoot, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was a huge place to see you guys in.

Yeah, that was our third show ever.

That’s the one where Nick Cave fell?

(laughs) That’s right. I loved doing that show. It was great fun.

Was that the biggest place you ever played?

No, we did Roskilde which was 140,000. We’ve played bigger festivals. It was the biggest show Grinderman had ever done. We had a ball! The whole Grinderman thing has been great fun.

I was surprised to see the Dirty Three coming to town because the three of you have such disparate projects.

Yeah, we have a lot of different stuff going on and it’s been a bit chaotic and hectic trying to organize things. I mean, we love coming and playing. There was a point in the ’90s where we were here all the time. I guess we all got busy doing other things. In a way, in retrospect, it’s what kept the band going in some ways. We spent an intense period of time together and doing other things gave us a break from that. That’s probably why we’re still around playing and enjoying it today. I think doing lots of different things is really great. It’s really important for all the other things you do. You bring something new with you. You take something from what you’ve just done and everything you’ve done informs what you’re about to do. I just see it as all positive. I think Jim (White) going out and playing with lots of different singers is great for him because I can see a real difference in how he is playing in the Dirty Three now. He’s just got a different approach to things. He has a different awareness of things now. I don’t necessarily think that would have happened if we weren’t doing all these other things. I know my work with soundtracks and with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman and the theater stuff that I have done had an effect on how I’m playing as well. It all feels like it’s good stuff to be doing.

What kind of effect has it had on your music personally?

It’s playing all sorts of music and all kinds of different instruments. Having a break from the violin was great but coming back to it and only playing the violin has just been so wonderful for me to do that and a reminder of just how much I enjoy playing it. For me, working for singers has been different too and coming back to not having a singer allows me to cut loose again. It’s a bit like having conversations with different people. If you talk to the same three people all your life it’s going to be very different than if you talk to 20 or 100 people.

You’re very fortunate you’ve found that many collaborators to work with.

I can’t just play with anybody and I don’t just play with anybody. I don’t just do anything and everything that comes along. I’ve been blessed and fortunate that I’ve found really great people to work with. I don’t take that for granted ever.

You and the other Dirty Three members live on different continents.

We live on three different continents. We couldn’t be more further apart if we tried.

That must be difficult to organize.

It’s a pain in the arse, basically. Sometimes we can’t just get together when we want to. It’s a real problem sometimes. I guess it means that when we do get together we have to do things. We have to get on with it.

Luckily with technology now…

Yeah, we do a lot of stuff with the internet and all that but you can’t beat sitting around and playing.

How long have you been in Paris?

Twelve years.

Why there?

I met my wife and she was from there. We got married and had kids and that’s it.

You live in the city itself?

Well, I was living right in the center of the city but I moved just a little bit when I started having a family so we could have a garden and place for them to ride their bikes around.

You’re not in one of the arrondissements now?

At the end of my street is an arrondissement. I used live in the 4th and now my street turns into the 13th arrondissement. It’s great because I can be in town straight away but still have some space.

How’s your French?

It’s all right. I can get in and out of trouble. I can cuss with conviction. I can give thanks with conviction. It’s okay. I can get by.

I asked Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai this same question: with a song with lyrics it’s easy to get a title because you can just grab the name out of the chorus. How do you name songs that don’t have words to them?

Sometimes you’ve had a name for it anyway. Like an idea and a name has come with it. What happens mostly with us is we make an album and then sit down and we’ll listen to it after we’ve mixed it. It seems to become more connected. With us, a theme seems to develop or a theme is put forward. Mick (Turner) does all the artwork and he may come up with a painting for the cover. It all begins to fall into place like that. The song “Everything’s Fucked” was always called “Everything’s Fucked” from the moment it was written. Some songs just have a name. I guess with lyrics you’ve got an easier handle to hang it off. With us, a large percentage of the titles come after the fact of it being made. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

I find that you can be quite wide and broad with your themes. If you put a name on it, you can start playing around with the titles. You can create a whole world. We’re pretty much a band who still believes in the album as an art form. So you can start playing around with it and contextualize it. We quite often have working titles and then it just goes away. That happens in most bands. You have ridiculous working titles and then you come up with something after it.

Once you title an album, does the whole image of it change for you sometimes?

Yeah. It’s funny with Ocean Songs because that’s one I clearly remember listening too and saying I felt like I was on a big, old boat. It was just creaking away. So that just set the wheels in motion with that one. Sonically, that one always seemed like it had come from the sea.

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It can’t believe it’s been 12 years since it’s come out.

Man, tell me about it.

It seems you’ve been delving into soundtrack work more lately. I watched the English Surgeon a couple of months ago.

Oh yeah? What did you make of that?

I thought it was a good movie.

It’s pretty wild, eh? Extraordinary character. It’s really done in a really dignified way. It’s not really mawkish at all or sentimental. It’s really great. When that chap had the operation it was so moving, wasn’t it?

There were a couple of scenes that…I have a strong stomach and I had to look away.

Yeah, during the operation I had to fast forward that. I nearly fainted watching that the first time. I was on the train and getting the music ready for it and I just about fainted. That operation was insane.

For me, the most shattering was that young girl who had inoperable brain cancer and they had to decide whether or not to tell her that she was going to be dead in five years. That was definitely more haunting than any image that I saw.

You’re talking about the girl where he always goes and sees the family?

No, I’m talking about a 25-year-old girl who comes in and thinks she has an infection.

Oh yeah! It’s interesting because it all points to that scene. He’s telling people either, “I can do something or I can’t.”

Yeah, the haunting score fits. I found that compared to your Jesse James score and your Proposition score that it’s more stately.

It’s a different thing. All the documentaries that we’ve done are driven by a narrative by a dialogue. You don’t want something jumping all over the place. They really need to be much more gentle.

I really want to see The Road but they keep pushing that fucking thing back.

I know! I know!

It was supposed to come out last year?

Yeah, that’s just the story of cinema, man. It’s the story of films. If the music industry was like that I would look for another fucking job. It’s amazing what people go through to try and get this stuff out. They hang onto any shred of sanity after awhile. It’s such a very different world.

Are you presented with a rough cut of the film?

Generally, yes. But in the case of Jesse James, no. We were meant to have one, but there wasn’t one. So we just basically made a bunch of music. The next time we got together the film was partly. I would say about 40 percent of music we made up without seeing the film.

It’s a long film too.

It’s a long one, but it’s a beautiful film. I loved it.

The interesting thing about film music is when you’re watching a horror movie or something and shut the music off, half of the emotion is gone.

I guess there’s different sorts of films and different sorts of music. It’s interesting to turn off the sound and pick something out of your record collection to see what it does. How it changes what the image could look like. We’ve never really been involved in a film like that, where the music is such a big, driving thing. Usually it’s something that fits in there and maybe gives some support to what’s going on on-screen. We’ve never made anything where the music is a real driving thing, like you say, in a horror film. It’s much more been a part of the fabric. It’s part of the tapestry. In The Proposition and The Road there are elements where it is really contributing to the atmosphere of what’s going on but I don’t think it’s ever really driving it like you’re talking about.

The interesting thing about The Proposition and Jesse James is the cinematography captures these wide open spaces and the music doesn’t feel intrusive.

It is certainly something we’re really aware of, not jumping all over it. I refuse to play a weepy violin line to add weight to some dramatic moment because it feels insulting to the performers and insulting to the audience. We’re always very careful and respectful to what’s going on. It’s not really a platform for the music to be jumping up and down with its hands in the air. You go for all the visual stuff and the performance. Unless you’re talking about something like Driller Killer where the music is just insane and wonderful.

I just watched a documentary about Ozploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s. The Australian film industry was quite interesting.

Yeah, it’s like saying the music’s not important because it’s all part of the scene. We’ve never made music for a film like that.

That would go against your aesthetic, right?

Well, I may like to have a shot of doing something like that. I guess the musicals that we’ve done, the theatre stuff is much more like that. Like Woyzeck and we’re working on Faust at the moment. That’s more driven by the musical theme.

But that’s all constant with the gothic type music you do with the Bad Seeds.

I don’t know, I don’t really see the music being gothic in the Bad Seeds. Maybe like in the ’80s or something but even then I’m not so sure about that. It seems there is this common misunderstanding like the Dirty Three, we only play sad music, which is just bullshit. Also, like the Bad Seeds only play ballads. That’s just crap.

I was talking about the early 2000s stuff like No More Shall We Part.

I don’t know, maybe we have different takes on gothic but I don’t see that as a gothic album at all. It doesn’t strike me as gothic at all. It’s sounds like a collection of songs.

Would Baroque be a better title?

Renaissance? I don’t know. You’re the journalist, man. I will leave you to work it out. I just never see it as gothic.

I think we simplify gothic to mean dark and brooding and it’s definitely something different than that. I think that word has been appropriated by music writers where if something is dark and broody, it’s automatically gothic.

Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? Like when we started doing Dirty Three, people would be like, “What do you do?” I’d say, “We’re an instrumental band” and they say, “That’s jazz and I don’t like that.” It’s a bit unfortunate because when you stick a tag on something , you get people who have this definition and they got it wrong and then that’s it. You’re misunderstood.

That’s part of human nature to have to define things.

Well, it is but it’s also great to be thrown out in the wild and see what happens. To work it out a bit for yourself.

Well, I’m not advocating it.

No, I know you’re not. I know you’re not. And I’m just defending what I do. That’s all.

Just a few questions about the Bad Seeds. Looking at Nick Cave’s history, it seems he works closely with one main collaborator. First it was Mick Harvey and then Blixa Bargeld. It seems now you’re the main collaborator. Is that something he and you have discussed?

No. We’ve never really talked about that. If he did, he probably wouldn’t do it. It’s just something that seemed to happen. I guess when it doesn’t happen anymore, I’ll know that it’s finished.

You have guys have done a lot of great music together. What is it, when you work with someone like Nick Cave, what do you inherently feel when you know things are clicking?

The thing that I like about it is that he lets me go as far as I want to go and I push him as far as I can too. We just constantly push each other and that feels very healthy. We constantly try to question things. There’s no holding back with it and that feels really good. That’s about the best thing I can say about it. Neither of us like to give in, so we belligerently pummel along until we feel like either we can’t do it or we solved whatever it is we tried to do. Both of us really like trying to get through songs that might not necessarily get through. Both of us like trying to hang in there until they either get through or they don’t. Certainly we both like working hard and both like a challenge. What’s great is there is a constant pushing each other and driving each other and challenging each other.

That’s usually the makings of the best kind of creative relationships, isn’t it?

I don’t know. I never really spoken to anyone about it. I know for the present moment that seems to work with us.

You’ve been a full member of the Bad Seeds since 1997?

Yeah, something like that.

What songs or pieces, now that dust has settled, still haunt you or do you feel have been the best?

Well, I don’t actually have that thing with the music I make. It’s probably to ask me about the music of the Bad Seeds before I joined because once you’re involved in something, it becomes a very different thing. I don’t make music for my own pleasure in many ways. I get pleasure about making it, but I don’t listen to it in that way. That’s why other people make music, so I can enjoy it. So I don’t have that kind of things. Sure, I have things where we’ve been working on where I have recollections about them but it’s kind of different.

Right, but you do revisit the stuff live.

Sure, but that’s a different kind of thing. It’s always quite surprising to go back and hear it when by chance or something you hear how different it is when you’ve been playing it live.

“West Country Girl” is a good example of a song that has evolved in the live form.

For instance, the whole Grinderman album. That’s become a whole different thing live. Pretty much most things that you do become totally different live. That’s just the nature of it. Live is a very different thing and quite often when you’re recording you’ve only played through it a couple of times and away you go. I don’t know; I don’t really get that nostalgic about stuff. When it’s done, I move on. It’s the dissatisfaction that pushes you to do something. I don’t stack things up and in terms of, “Wow, look what I’ve done so far!” Each time I go back, it feels like I’m pretty much back to the start again. Well, maybe not quite back to the start. But almost. Sometimes, you go in even before the start of it. It’s a very strange thing. For me, there’s something exhilarating and something totally terrifying about it because half the time you don’t know if you’re going to be blessed with something. (laughs). Honestly.

(Photos: Darren Higgins)

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