Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis has emerged as one of the most vital musicians of the last decade, operating as a lynchpin at the intersection of bracing, instrumental rock music with his long-running trio Dirty Three, film music in collaboration with Nick Cave and serving as essential personnel in the Cave-led Bad Seeds and the now defunct Grinderman. Myself and Prefix photographer Tim Bugbee caught up with the strikingly coiffed (and famously bearded) Ellis just after Dirty Three’s triumphant performance at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York City. Easily transitioning between his roles as a serious progenitor of art music and hardened veteran of the independent rock scene in his native Australia and abroad, Ellis demonstrated he is just as comfortable digging deep into his creative process and background as he was obliging the adoring fans who strolled by for a quick handshake or photo opportunity (“Warren, my girlfriend would love a hug from you!” “Alright, come over ‘ere darlin’.”) Ellis embodies the disappearing tradition of being both a deadly serious musician and a bona fide rock star.
What’s next with for your collaboration on soundtrack work with Nick Cave?
It’s not like a day job, it’s not the only thing that we do. There’s other things to go back to and keep nourishing them. Hopefully we can continue to keep dipping into soundtracks if the right thing comes along. There are a couple this year, Lawless is out now, there’s a new one West of Memphis, coming out that’s a documentary on the West Memphis Three. There’s a French one, Quelques heures de printemps, that came out just a few days ago, that’s using older music of ours. We’re in a position where we don’t have to do everything. I like the fact that when we do a soundtrack, we can hopefully bring something special to it – not just “Oh, here comes the scary music.” I couldn’t do it all the time, I don’t have the skill or the patience. When you come from a background of rock ‘n’ roll and playing in bands, making your own thing and not listening to everybody or giving a fuck what anybody else says, the film world’s a real slap in the face in a way. Suddenly you’ve got producers, money people, distributors and people going “Hey, I don’t really like that.” That’s just the nature of the industry. It’s like building a building, the architect might make the plans but he doesn’t lay the tiles. Then you’ve got people going “We don’t want to spend this much money on the tiles,” so you end up with a cheaper version.
It’s a strange beast. The thing about it that really surprised me is that it created a real sense of freedom that I hadn’t anticipated. The first one I did, The Proposition, I was nervous I would be told what to do and actually it wasn’t like that. It was really spontaneous, it came together in three days that soundtrack. For The Assassination of Jesse James, Andrew [Dominik, the film’s director] was really specific about what he wanted. He said, “I don’t like that, I want something different,” and we went back in the studio three times and it became something much better because somebody with a vision had pushed us. We wanted to get it right, because the film felt really great. Sometimes it works like that and sometimes it doesn’t. What I found amazing about that was bringing that sense of risk taking into the groups I was in – I’ve always wanted to take risks in the music I do, but you inevitably make certain rules and it gets tightened up – and the film stuff, suddenly you get a bit of music you never though in your wildest dreams you’d do.
When you’re doing soundtrack work have you seen the movie or is it just the script?
It’s always a script and it’s a director that we know and we trust and you have a confidence that it’s gonna be really good. We’re out playing, doing gigs, and making records, so there’s things we can’t do. Unfortunately there are great films we’ve turned down because we just couldn’t do them. There are also shitty films we’ve turned down because we didn’t want to do them. The main thing is playing live and doing albums, and the soundtracks are something we’ve fallen in to and we can jump in and out of.
The Dirty Three is the only instrumental band I’m aware of that has a frontman presence. When did that role in the band manifest itself for you?
It was pretty much from the start. In Australia, you see a show, you wanna be entertained, you wanna engage. The whole thing of being cool and sitting back and not engaging never resonated with me. It wasn’t that I was nominated the front guy, and I don’t feel like that. From day one I was more extroverted and related to the music in a different way, I let it all hang out. Now, after twenty years, it’s a very different show that we play than we did in the beginning. I think the big breakthrough was playing a festival with a bunch of people and getting them to engage. A lot of instrumental acts are inward-facing, and I always wanted an interaction with the audience. People can engage with you and you with them because that makes it really great to be up there. We didn’t always have that. We were so single-minded, aggressive to people in the early days. We would charge through: fuck you, we’re doing this thing. As people started coming around to it, I realized it was great to feed off that. I don’t actually feel a lot of kinship with instrumental bands, I feel more of a kinship with a band with a singer. I feel like there’s a narrative with our stuff that’s very straightforward and it moves along – it goes off and we have a language, we play and there’s improvisation – but very early on I knew the music came from a simple place.
I remember talking at a show…I’d had a fucked up day, my girlfriend had to try to cut her wrists, I was really whacked out, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was a show. I started to tell people what had happened and everyone was pissing themselves laughing and I thought, “Yeah, I guess it is funny.” Then I just started telling the audience what was going on and that’s how it started and then it abstracted into a different thing. I always felt we had more in common with country and western or rock ‘n’ roll than jazz. There were aspects of electric jazz, but Mick [Turner, Dirty Three guitarist] is so anchored, he’s got this specific sound. As soon has you say “Hey, what’s up?” to the audience, you break down something and that’s really beneficial to me as a performer.
All three members of Dirty Three are living on different continents but you introduced the band tonight as being from Australia. Is there a specific Australian identity that you feel Dirty Three represent?
I think it’s inevitable we’re Australian even though we live all over the place. When I go back to Australia I can connect with it on a very spiritual and fundamental level. I grew up there, I spent my formative years there. Wherever you come from, when you go back you’re like “I can relate to the smell, the feel, I know the seasons, I get the people.” You look around and you say to yourself: “I get that.” The thing with Australia is that it’s far from everywhere else, it enables you to create your own identity. There’s a lot of bands that are unique and independent because it’s isolated. You take the references and do something else with them.
What’s the thing you miss most about Australia?
Gum trees, vegemite, koala bears (laughter). The sky…I do miss the people, they’re very open. I’ve lived in France for fourteen years, I still feel like a foreigner. I’ve got two kids, I’m married, I’m really entrenched but I feel like an outsider and I like that. Its enabled me to create stuff, get isolated. I work, I do stuff at home, I’ve got a studio. It enables me to take time out from the rest of the world.
Between The Bad Seeds, Dirty Three and your soundtrack work, what’s your daily routine like?
It depends on what i’m working on. I’ll just go out in the back if I’ve got a soundtrack to work on, I’ll start banging out ideas. I’ll send ideas off to Nick in an email, and he’ll call me up and go “That’s hilarious.” I had this riff for [Grinderman debut single] “Get It On” and he called me and said “That’s hilarious, that sounds mad, what is it?” I said, “I think it’s a mandolin, I don’t remember.” Dirty Three, we can’t work like that, because we need to be together and playing and firing off each other. The soundtrack stuff, I can send stuff to John [Hillcoat, director of The Proposition and Lawless]. Some of the theater work I’ve done with a guy in Iceland, I’ll send it on Skype, say “What do you think of this?”
How does Dirty Three decide to come together again and re-activate?
Usually it revolves around a date. It’s costly to get together we get a couple of dates, we get together and make the time. It makes it kind of concentrated, and hopefully something will happen.
Your latest album, Toward The Low Sun, was your first in seven years and was recorded in just five days. When you do decide to get back together does it come easily after so much time has passed?
Hopefully. It has continued to serve us until this moment, all the work that we did in the early days, playing six or seven nights a week, developing this language, it still comes back. We can fly in from all points around the world, get in, and I can have the greatest two hours of my life. Or the worst. It can be like – Smack! – it just comes, it’s why we continue to do it.
How do you approach playing a festival versus a headline gig?
You try and read the place. A festival gig is different, you’ve got a mixed audience. We dropped a lot of stuff from tonight’s set, we didn’t do the piano stuff from the new album, we just made a few calls. The main thing is the time. Festivals can be great when they go bang, bang. The energy tonight I really loved, I felt like it developed organically.
If ATP organizer Barry Hogan wanted you to curate another ATP who would you try and get?
It’s so tricky, the last one we did (2007) still resonates as one of the greatest weekends I’ve ever been a part of. I still look at the bill sometimes and go, “Wow, I can’t believe we got all that together.” That one was so far reaching. If you ask me. I’d love to come up with a list of stuff. A lot of the older people that are passing on now, ATP is one of the only outlets for acts like that, it’s great they can play in front of people. It’s so important. That is one of the great things that Barry does, it’s very open, its’ not just some festival about being a festival, it’s about music. Barry’s one of the greatest in the world, the only one that has stayed true to the music. Barry comes from the same place – what he does is what I do. I understand that, I don’t even have to speak with him about it. I know he’s taken risks and he does it for the music.
Does Bono know you’re talking about his hemorrhoid? [In reference to a bit of stage banter from that night’s show]
You’d think he would, but probably not, he doesn’t’ care. I don’t even know if he’s got a hemorrhoid but if he does I hope it’s got my beard on the end of it!