Had the privilege of catching up with Dirty Three leader, Bad Seeds member, composer and now author Warren Ellis on Zoom today. Warren’s excellent new book Nina Simone’s Gum will be published by Faber & Faber next month. Our feature will run in the Irish Times, more details soon.
Meanwhile here’s one from the archives. Our uncut interview from 2000, originally published to mark the release of the Dirty Three album Whatever You Love, You Are. Enjoy.
WARREN ELLIS – how are you?
“Ah, not bad for an old bloke – 35 y’know?!”
You’re looking good on it.
“I’m lookin’ dangerous, man!”
Dirty Three main-man Warren Ellis has a newfound lust for life. It suits him. Actually, I shouldn’t say “newfound” – there’s always been a Van Gogh-meets-Iggy Pop element to his music. Indeed, The Dirty Three are one of those life or death musical experiences: the first time this writer heard the trio, I figured them the ideal band for a wake, with tunes like ‘Authentic Celestial Music’ and ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ giving off just the right degree of sadness, anger, and exasperated what-the-fuck. Only problem was, at that point, the chances of Warren Ellis outliving anyone else on the planet looked increasingly slim.
All that’s changed now, for a variety of reasons, many of which the fiddler is happy to discuss in confidentiality, but requests stricken from the public record – Ellis does not want his lost years distracting from his band’s fifth opus Whatever You Love, You Are.
This new music expands somewhat on the pastoral/maritime themes honed to perfection on albums like Horse Stories and Ocean Songs. Ellis’s violin now speaks in a variety of tongues, the most intriguing being the minimalist crystal arpeggios of the 12-minute/three-part symphony ‘I Offered It Up To The Stars & The Night Sky’. True, between ‘Some Summers They Drop Like Flys’ and the closing ‘Lullabye For Christie’, there’s still that ever-present sense of absence, loss and confusion, but this time out it all sounds just a little more beatific, a little clearer of vision.
But then, nothing focuses the mind like a birth in the family. Ellis and his wife are due a child this May, shortly to be followed in the baby race by Bad Seed buddies Nick Cave (twins in June) and Mick Harvey (one in July). Has Warren thought about how these changes will affect his hitherto itinerant lifestyle?
“Well, I obviously have given it a bit of thought, but probably not as much as I would have if I was 25,” he reckons. “I’ve blown a lot of wind through my sails, to put it metaphorically, and y’know, I’m just really looking forward to it. Any changes I’m really happy about, and it kinda seems just like it’s all a bit prophetic really, y’know? I live in France now, I got married last year, and my French is pretty ordinary, so when I moved to Paris I kind of found myself reverting to a child in a lot of situations. I actually don’t have a creative life there in what you might expect in terms of going out and playing in bars. Out of all the countries in the world, the French are probably the slowest to get behind what we do with The Dirty Three, they’re probably the least receptive. I must say, the Irish are up there with the quickest – I find it very moving playing in Ireland, and I’m not just pissing in your pocket. People do seem to really connect with what’s going on there. They get it, y’know?”
Maybe so, but The Dirty Three aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. For all the breath-taking swells and surges of the live shows, there are also gruelling passages where you feel like Warren’s sawing on your very nerve-endings; slow, dissonant ordeals of sound suddenly and shockingly alleviated by violent light. Ellis plays like he talks like he writes – unbridled stream of consciousness. Even the press release prose reads like a cross between Kerouac’s Dr Sax and mid ’60s Dylan: “Some smells never leave you, like ephedrine mixed with cheap perfume . . .”
“Whether its music or painting or film or writing or whatever, I’ve liked things where people are taking a chance,” he explains. “And whether it actually aesthetically appeals to me or not, I do respect that. I think, y’know, you can make your life really safe, and quite often it’s good to have something solid to sit on, but I’ve always felt that artistic expression should push things. When you start feeling comfortable, it doesn’t seem right to me. We’re not a freeform band, there is a lot of freedom in there, but there’s also a loose structure at the very least, there is some kind of basis there to each piece. But then what can happen within there is very open.”
One Irish Dirty Three fan who has gotten to observe and work with Ellis at close quarters is Glen Hansard of Frames DC.
“Warren’s obsessed,” Glen told me this time last year. “Even when you hang out with him, he’s the real thing, and it’s very rare you see it, someone who’s completely a slave to the music. He’s the master of self-sacrifice, of walking on stage and throwing himself into these situations where he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and just dealing with it. People are stunned by him, and all he’s doing is being honest, saying, ‘This is how I am right now’, and it’s so rare, everybody’s shocked, because people are so used to seeing performances, rehearsed music, and when they’re met with real music, it cracks them open.
“The great thing is that the drummer (Jim White) is his kind of caretaker,” he continues. “Whenever something goes wrong, he rescues him. Warren’s an artist, he talks loud and demands champagne and pizza in the middle of Leap at all hours of the morning, but you can’t scorn him ‘cos he’s living in the moment. And you’ve got two musicians who are standing on stage watching him, and it’s like, ‘He’s the doctor, he’s the shaman, let him go and do his thing, we’ll support him. If he falls over, we’ll pick him up.’ To me, that’s a real band, you’ve got somebody who’s allowed (to say), ‘Alright, I’m the frontliner, whatever I do, back me up.'”
Back in Paris, Warren is pondering the mysteries of live performance. Your reporter has just asked the violinist if he’s conscious of what’s going on externally while playing, or if it’s a totally isolated state.
“I don’t know,” he finally admits. “I’ve been playing since I was 11, and it was only at the end of last year that I’ve ever watched a video of a concert the first time. Take this as pretentiously as it might sound or whatever, but in all honesty, I really don’t have any idea what goes on, I just pray that I have access to it. It’s almost like one of the greatest things and one of the most destructive things, because I’ve never known what to do after, and I found ways of dealing with it that became far more problematic . . . I don’t need to go into that.”
Music found Warren Ellis when, as an 11-year-old boy fond of prowling the local rubbish dump, he found an accordion amongst the trash. Sometime later, when a violin teacher went around his school offering lessons, the young Ellis noted that a lot of girls had put their hands up and did likewise. However, when he attended his first the lesson the talent was nowhere to be seen, “so now I was stuck with this fuckin’ thing.”
Through the encouragement of his father, a country and western singer, Ellis became interested in bluegrass, then spent the best part of a decade playing in orchestras. Following that, he busked his way around in Scotland, Ireland, and Hungary before returning home to Melbourne.
“I’ve always loved folk music,” he told me two years ago. “It’s always seemed very honest, made by people for people. That trip was like the first real living experience I’d had with music, playing tunes in the street, trying to get my board together in the middle of winter and stuff like that. Seeing how people reacted to music there was something I’d never really experienced before, and so, when I came back, I had a reaction against . . . It just seemed so very different, so I went and lived in the country for a while, became a schoolteacher for about 18 months, then went mad doing that so I gave that up.”
When Warren formed the Dirty Three in a Melbourne bar with drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner in the early ’90s, they had no ambitions other than to feed and water themselves. After all, they’d all been around the block a few times, having played with the late David McComb and his sometime touring comrades The Back Eyed Susans, plus acts like The Cruel Sea, Hunters & Collectors, The Walkabouts, Anita Lane, and Mick Harvey.
However, the trio soon began garnering a reputation as a truly outstanding live band, attracting a cult following England, Ireland, Europe and pockets of America. Sounding not unlike a cross between some Hungarian gypsy combo and Sonic Youth performing Arvo Part compositions, they recorded a succession of albums, including Sad And Dangerous, The Dirty Three and Horse Stories. Warren became an honorary Bad Seed around about the time of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album, despite The Dirty Three virtually living on the road.
“It’d been non-stop for nearly four years,” he explained in 1998, between the release of their Ocean Songs album and the UFKUKO EP. “It’d been like two and a half years since we left Australia, we were staying in hotels every night, on couches and floors, y’know, and it definitely took its toll. We were just playing to basically live from day to day, if we were playing, at least it meant we had a room for the night, and when we weren’t, we didn’t have any money. It was sort of like this really wild adventure, you know? But like all things, you can only take so much. We decided we had to take a break. There was a point where I had to play on The Boatman’s Call tour with the Bad Seeds, so it seemed like a logical time to break away and do different things and it was really rejuvenating for the group.”
Less rejuvenating were the circumstances that kept Ellis from accompanying Cave to the first Liss Ard festival in Cork in 1997.
” I had a car smash in Chicago,” he told me on site in Skibbereen in September ’98. “By rights we should have been dead because we hit the back of a car, a friend was drunk driving, and we both went into the window, smashed it with our heads, and I was concussed and didn’t know it. I had a fractured finger as well. They wouldn’t let me on the plane because they thought I was gonna drop dead – I still had blood all over my head – and I didn’t want to go to hospital ‘cos I couldn’t afford it. So, in the end, another airline took responsibility for me, they let me on the plane, I turned up, arrived in Nick’s house, went into shock and was just shaking, and my girlfriend came and took me home to Paris, where I went to hospital. So, I didn’t make it.”
Reflecting on Ocean Songs at the time, Ellis also admitted that, “(it’s) sort of a schizophrenic record. I think it was a reaction against the show, which had become really violent and hysterical towards the end of the tour in America. We had toured ourselves into the ground and were ready to have a group nervous breakdown. The idea was to try to avoid making a really bombastic record, an obvious kind of follow-up to Horse Stories. I think it’s a lot more open, there’s a lot more going on in the silence. It’s what you leave out that’s really important.”
A philosophy shared by everyone from Ellis’ beloved holy minimalist composers to Jimi Hendrix to the man who helmed the Ocean Songs sessions, that king of mic placement, Nirvana/PJ Harvey/Pixies producer Steve Albini.
“He’d seen us play live,” Warren recalled. “His girlfriend really liked our stuff, they had our records. He’s also good friends with the guy who runs Touch And Go, the label we’re on in America. We really liked his production ‘cos it always seemed very honest to our ears, he seemed to capture what was going on in the room, and that was something we’d always tried to do with our records. We’d sort of worked with him years ago on an ill-fated recording with Will Oldham (some of these recordings resurfaced on Oldham’s recent Guarepero/Lost Blues 2 album). Basically, if you want his opinion, he’ll offer it, and how much of it you want, he’s quite happy to go along with it.”
A lot has happened between Ocean Songs and Whatever You Love, You Are. For a start, there was the soundtrack to the John Curran film Praise. Then Warren’s exploits as a Bad Seed led to himself and Nick Cave forming a sidebar band with Jim White and Susan Stenger, breathing new life into Cave’s back catalogue.
“I’ve learned a lot from them,” Cave told me in August ’99. “A lot. Warren’s attitude is, if it’s difficult and it’s not sounding right, do it and see what happens. I mean, he’s always been like this, ever since he’s worked with the Bad Seeds actually. He doesn’t play safe in any way and that’s been really good.”
Since wrapping the Cave side project, Warren has experienced a series of personal and artistic epiphanies, all sound-tracked by Beethoven, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus (“I really like the vision he had of black music as a classical form”) and, of course, vintage AC/DC (“I spent many months of walking around Paris flat out with Powerage and Highway To Hell in my headphones doing all the moves whenever I was feeling particularly poorly”).
For Ellis, painting, writing, talking and playing are merely different expressions of the same creative impulse. He sees no line of demarcation between the disciplines.
“I went really nuts on Eastern European directors last year actually,” he testifies. “I’ve been reading biographies of film directors and found it a particularly opening experience when I didn’t know how to get out of the borders I’d put up in my head about creativity. And I’ve been listening to a lot of paintings of late, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful things, seeing the noise that I’d never looked at before in that respect.”
Which would confirm what I’ve has suspected for a while – that somewhere in The Dirty Three camp lurks a huge fan of Marc Chagall.
“That’s interesting actually,” Warren responds. “Mick does all the artwork, and sometimes his paintings remind me quite a bit of him, in particular the horse one. He’d actually never heard of Chagall.”
Did all these disparate film makers and artists influence the writing and recording of Whatever You Love, You Are?
“Definitely yeah, without question. Everything influences you in some way. Y’know, you have days when you feel like you could point at the sky and a chorus of angels would sing out and trumpets would come blazing and the skies would blaze open in fire, and other days you can’t even drag your sorry arse out of bed. And you can’t equate the two different sensations, and it’s part of the inevitable dilemma of being human.
“Last year I’d hit a particularly barren period and was feeling very empty and I had a lot of dear friends die, a lot of stuff that left me questioning things and thinking, ‘Man, 34 going on fuckin’ zero,’ y’know? And I really turned to music to try and pull some fuckin’ sense out of it. I can’t divorce myself from the feelings I have and this record is intrinsically linked with all that stuff.
“The last song on the record, ‘Lullabye For Christie’ (sic), was from Liss Ard when I was out there playing and this guy started singing and it was Christy Moore. And he apparently hadn’t been playing for quite a while, and I found that really to be one of those profoundly moving moments when you least expect them, in a wet damp cold tent somewhere. And I really cherish those moments of clarity and lucidity and reminders of the fragility of us all.”