“You’re the first person that’s joined up those dots in twenty years of doing interviews, actually.” The cadence of Warren Ellis’ otherwise remarkably consistent speakerphone mumble – laconic Aussie laconic then suddenly swooping upwards to help realise certain vowel-sounds, before reverting back to laconic again – cracks slightly. He sounds unnerved, bit like when Demba Ba seemingly realised, mid-interview, that he depends on “strawberry syrup” so much, he drinks it “every day”. Warren had stopped talking for maybe three seconds and I’d scurried in with, I thought, a pretty obvious question to ask a member of Dirty Three in the wake of a ten-minute monologue: Warren, you like to talk, you have a not-at-all-overstated reputation for great eloquence and loquaciousness, onstage and in interviews, and yet you don’t write lyrics. Why is that?
“You’re the first person that’s ever made that – I’ve never even thought of it myself either.” You’re joking, right? “I’ve always liked the spoken word, I’ve always liked conversation. It’s kind of a bit odd actually, I’ve always referred to when I’m playing music as a conversation, particularly with Dirty Three: as this continued conversation that goes on, y’know? And I often make this sort of analogy between that and speaking and things like that, so maybe there is something in that?”
Certainly there’s something, it’s a lovely answer. But the parallel doesn’t quite stand up, because Warren’s love of “the spoken word” – as in, his own speech – seems to trump his predilection for conversation in nine out of every ten cases. He has this frustrating little trick, potentially involuntary but I doubt it, where he pauses at the end of a pronouncement just long enough for you to form your first consonant by way of response, and then he’s off again. Winding himself up about “some dick who just ploughs through something, y’know? Any music that’s played without any soul, it’s not worth shit.” Or any one of the pretty much interchangeable assertions I get over the course of an hour, about the difference between “real” music and them there goddam phonies.
Chris Hitchens, I gather, spoke in perfect sentences. Well then, Warren Ellis talks in paragraphs. With three-second indents.
Which is fine, because the man generates better interview copy than anybody else writing music at the moment – and writes better music as well, so it’s pretty much win-win, y’know? But the monologuing is more noticeable this time round (I last interviewed Warren for DiS back in 2010) because a lot of it is surprisingly earnest. Perhaps it’s just that we’re talking first thing in the morning (“I have children. I used to like sleeping”) but I’m more inclined to think it’s because we’re discussing Dirty Three, rather than Grinderman. It quickly becomes apparent that Dirty Three’s music – and above all, its other two members – mean more to Warren than most things do.
It’s somewhat disconcerting, but I guess no more so than a new record which meanders its way through one outrageously destabilised jazz-spazz into careful ghost-melodies, brushed atmospherics and something not unlike a power ballad, before finding itself back in the midst of a Jim White whirligig, and then rattling to a close. Toward the Low Sun, their first album for seven years, balances itself between the old tropes and something that feels rather radical, and this interview does something similar I think. The impact that the place Warren’s currently in (other recent interviews suggest this isn’t a one-off) will have upon this year’s Bad Seeds record remains, of course, to be seen, but be assured, there will be an impact. As he puts it, “whatever I’m going into is informed by what I did before.” So don’t be surprised if the post-Grinderman fizz of Dig!!! is replaced with something more pensive and intense this time round.
All this being said, he remains a man it’s a hell of a lot of fun to ask provokingly dumb questions, and see what happens. So Warren, what do you make of the ol’ “instrumental” tag the newspapers continue to tie you to?
It’s like any tag, y’know, probably does more harm than good. “Instrumental” seems to say something’s missing. I’ve spent half my fucking life trying to justify it, reflect on what it’s worth, and I feel like a moron for that actually. Because I guess if you just don’t get it, you don’t get it. And if you feel, y’know, like it’s lacking something, then you’re not going to get it.
Oddly enough I was thinking about this this morning, how kind of tedious it is to continually keep justifying it as something. Made me realise, this morning, that there’s a considerable amount of singers and songwriters who end up just doing their stuff off pat, putting themselves on the line: they’re the ones whose whole thing is up for public grabs, if you like. And I guess nobody in our band wanted that, actually. We learned to be kind of more… You don’t feel like you’re in a confused message. I don’t know, listening to music without lyrics, you don’t feel like it can be misunderstood. People either get it or they don’t.
I mean, when we started, we’d say to people that we’ve got this new band – “what is it?” – and we’d say, “instrumental”. And they’d say, “oh, that’s jazz, I don’t like jazz.”
I suspect that’s no longer the assumption people would make about an “instrumental” band…
I think things have changed, y’know, a real shift. Which is unfortunate, because jazz can be really great, clearly: jazz is such a bad kind of everything really. It’s like blues; when you hear the blues, the right stuff, it’s unbelievable. It changes the world, it’s just so kind of life-changing.
Life-changing because it’s so eloquent? I’ve always thought that for a band without lyrics, Dirty Three are pretty eloquent – emotionally, melodically…
I’m glad that you think there’s an eloquence to Dirty Three because it certainly feels like that. I mean, making the music has never been a kind of academic thing; it’s never been intellectualised, it’s not like we try to deconstruct things. It’s more about the lyrical aspect of the music than the construction of it, y’know?
A lot of classical music can have a narrative. And Link Wray hit the nail on the head with ‘Rumble’, I think, when he put out this track that was so kind of evocative and so powerful and threatening, y’know, fact it was banned before it even hit the airwaves was incredible for a wordless tune. And I think lots of music from different places – Greece, Eastern Europe, Irish music is really like this too – very emotional and lyrical. It seems to have its own internal dialogue going on. I don’t think we’re the only ones.
I mean it certainly felt, when we started out in Australia, we were kind of skirting very … unpopulated … waters. There weren’t too many acts like us. I can’t even think of another band with no voice at the time, in the early nineties. Then I realised after we’d left Australia that there were bands playing in America and things like that, but we never felt any particular kind of kinship with them. When I heard the stuff, it didn’t really feel like they were trying to do the same thing. I don’t think we ever toured with another instrumental band actually.
Does the absence of a singer make Dirty Three an inherently democratic group to work with, in?
Yeah, I think for better or for worse, there’s always been a democracy at play in Dirty Three, certainly in the early days it’s what solidified us. There was an ethic that Mick and Jim brought with them, coming through bands in the eighties, this kind of punk-rock attitude – a real feeling that everybody was equal in the group, and there was no kind of hierarchy. The only thing about it is that sometimes it slows things down…
For seven years…
Well, with Dirty Three, there’s never been a time when we sit down and record, and somebody has come in with like twelve ideas. I’ll have a couple of ideas, Mick will have a couple, and I think as the years have gone on you can see that there’s a couple of different chains of thought coming in there. That’s probably as close to a kind of separation that happens, y’know, within the group. But all the albums have been about when we get into the rehearsal room somewhere, with a handful of really skeletal ideas, and then bang them out and see where they go.
It’s always been obvious to us that there’s a democratic thing for a reason, and it’s purely that if any of us left, the band would cease to exist. It’s kind of very much about this mapping of our relationship, Dirty Three, there’s not really much else at stake. It’s very much the sum of its parts.
When we started, we just wanted to try and keep making music that we thought was exciting and vital, and if that ceased to be the case, then we should stop. I’m the person who’s more out front than anybody else, I like to talk more, but that doesn’t mean anything. I have to say with Jim and Mick, early on, playing together – it was very early on in my playing career and I couldn’t have fallen in with two better people. It was just amazing. They had their own ideas and were very headstrong. And I was very fortunate that our paths crossed, I think, in retrospect.
But this time, looking at ways to get it happening again – we tried to make this album a couple of times and it just didn’t work out. When we got the stuff back, it just didn’t feel particularly inspired. So we just kind of canned it. I think we had two, maybe even three shots at it. And with us, because we’re all in different places, if it goes pear-shaped it might be six months before something else can happen.
Did that become worrying? Did you begin to worry that this might be it for the three of you?
Oh, I mean, not as worrying as if somebody’s developed cancer or something, we have perspective. But I was spooked by it. We’d shared such a really vital relationship, y’know? I know I started wondering, maybe we’ve said as much as we can. When you’re a small group you’re very aware of your limitations very quickly. So I started wondering, maybe, maybe we’d run our course.
Thing that led us back in, actually, was that every time we played live, we’d just come off and look at each other without even saying anything, and it was just fantastic. Then we started talking about it, which is something we rarely do, about the nuts and bolts of the whole thing. Jim and I particularly started saying, “what’s going on here?” And it was actually standing there in front of us, it was the energy we were able to bring to the live thing: how could we re-engage that in songs, y’know, no matter where they came from?
This spirit of democracy, trial and error, waiting for something to happen – seems at pretty distinct odds with what most people understand to be the Bad Seeds’ approach and dynamic…
Well, it’s a group, and within that, there’s still that thing going on when it comes down to making the music y’know? An organic approach is still required. But Nick has – I mean, if he doesn’t have the stuff, nothing can be made. Things change in that respect too, but yeah, you generally see that’s what moves things along.
And I’ve never kind of thought, oh now I’ll go and work with the Bad Seeds. Oh now I’m going back to Dirty Three, now I’ll do a soundtrack. I go into it all in the same way. And I see it as a continued thing – like I was saying before, it’s really a sort of dialogue, there’s an over-arching kind of story to the whole thing.
But now there are things I’ve noticed that I bring to the studio that I probably wouldn’t have: the ability to make decisions, I think now, is really important. And particularly since I’ve been doing soundtrack stuff – you have to make decisions based on different things, y’know, and not just be self-centred. Like, a film requires you to sort of let go of all that ego. No matter how good you might think something is, if you have the producer or director saying to you, “I just don’t get it, I don’t like it,” then you have to either step down, or step up.
But in answer to your question, I don’t feel that, when I come back to play with Dirty Three, I get let off the leash again. If that’s what you meant.
There are echoes of that soundtrack work on one track in particular on the new record, ‘Rain Song’ – are you conscious of stuff crossing over, projects feeding into one another directly?
No, I don’t think you ever are, unless they immediately stand out and you realise you’ve rewritten ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. Which happens, with every musician I know. Going, “ah, damn, that’s why it sounds like…” And it’s ‘Wild Thing’ or something. So no – and I don’t see the connection that you’re talking about, actually. Those soundtracks though, they seem left a real imprint on people, they’re so atmospheric and … particular …
In what sense, particular?
Well, they don’t sound like a generic kind of score. These days, my kids can sit there and watch a film, and they’ll turn to me and say, isn’t that the Batman music? And it almost is. You don’t even give most stuff a second look, because it’s just had the balls cut off it, this insipid… That’s what it is when it’s a job, supply and demand: “hey, we need some spooky music now Frank, away you go.”
The way that Nick and I made the soundtracks has never been like that, we don’t have those skills actually. It’s been more about constructing pieces and then seeing how they fit with it. I think they certainly stand out, anyway. Not saying they stand above or below but they don’t just sound generic. It’s like, when you hear a score that Jonny Greenwood has done, you know it’s something different…
Then again, I think if we did ten soundtracks a year they probably would sound generic.
I’m interested in that word, particular, though – mostly because of your work on The Road. Because a lot of people read that book with such an overbearing sense of desolation and silence that they thought the assertion of a soundtrack over it – any soundtrack, not just yours – could only be a betrayal of the particularities of the writing…
I think it was just the experience of that book being made into a film that was difficult for a lot of people, y’know, that’s just the way it goes with a book that is so internalised, it’s always like that. I always just try to see a book for a book and a film for a film, they’re two different types of art-form.
I mean, I had a lot of people, particularly “indie-rock” types of an annoying nature, come up to me and tell me I destroyed that book and that film dahdah dahdah etcetera and I’m like, go fuck yourselves. We chose a certain thing with that, and the director was after a certain thing, but I stand by everything we did, y’know. There were a couple of decisions about cues that were out of our hands, but that’s a different story.
Our train of thought was that the music should try to capture that kind of really simple and pure love, and soul, in the book. Anybody that read it as this kind of bleak Tarkovskian Stalker thing, I just think they were looking for something that wasn’t there. When I read that book, it doesn’t happen often but I was blubbering, and when it finished I was left with this extraordinary feeling, and warmth. And bleak as it was and all that, it just made you want to go and hug your kid. It’s getting a certain response from you, and I think we tried to capture that.
Would you cite 'The Road' as being a specific occasion of fatherhood intersecting with your creative practice, then?
Um, I don’t know. I’ve never been able to really trace a line with any of that stuff. I mean, I know there are certain things in my life that have impacted upon what I do, but even then I can’t see it. It’s not like when I had kids I started writing happier music – actually, that probably was the case. But it wasn’t like when I went to Egypt, I started making Egyptian music – I’ve never had that.
When we left Australia and went to America, people were like, wow, this band really captures the sound of the Australian desert. And Mick and I had never even been to the desert, y’know, the closest I’d ever got to the desert was the fucking sauna. It’s just these assumptions that people make.
To what extent are Dirty Three songs ever about anything specific?
Well, we’ve never gone, “let’s do a song about the sea,” anything like that. We did an album called Ocean Songs because when we sat down and listened to it, we were in this building that felt like a big boat, just had this sound of creaking and groaning. And then Mick painted a mermaid. We weren’t even near the sea, we were stranded on some freezing cold lake, y’know?
The thing is, any emotional content that comes out of a song, I would say it’s like probably 90, 95% pure, y’know? I mean, after a while playing, you realise there’s a couple of notes you can put together and you’re going to get the sad button straight away, but then you start steering clear of that. But any time we sat down and tried to play anything vaguely upbeat, it just didn’t feel right to us, the ideas didn’t have legs. Anything upbeat with us has this kind of heroic feeling instead, like ‘Everything’s Fucked’, y’know? There’s a sense of purpose about it, of moving on and stuff like that.
I remember, around the time we did Horse Stories – because ‘Everything’s Fucked was just this little kind of song that happened, and we couldn’t believe it – but we spent the next ten years trying to steer clear of writing stuff like that, because you don’t want to undermine it. I really love that line Miles Davis said, when they asked him, “why stop playing ballads?” And he just said, “because I love playing ballads.” It’s just the greatest answer.
Who comes up with the titles?
Usually it’s either Mick or myself. This one, the three of us got involved in it a bit. I think, for some reason, there was a kind of real feeling of everybody wanting to cuddle round this one. Not that anybody had spoken about it, but I think there was a feeling that we wanted to kind of see this one over the finish line. And I know Jim was more engaged in that aspect of it than he usually is.
That makes sense – his drumming is the first and last thing you notice on the new record…
Yeah, I had a few ideas for the recording session: I wanted Jim to be able to really take off again, like he used to; that explosion again, that I always loved. There’s always a moment in shows when I’m playing, I look around and I see Jim just, y’know, it seems like he has some attention deficiency syndrome. And it’s just so great, y’know, I can just sit back and watch him play. So I think I just said to him, “Jim, I’m going to click a button on, and just go for it…”
The amazing thing is, it’s actually in time with everything, that’s what’s so brilliant about it. Jim knows exactly what he’s doing – it’s terrifying. Sometimes, I don’t even know what he’s talking about. But his drumming’s fantastic on this record – a watershed for him, I think. He’s one of the most melodic drummers I know. Just thinks about things in a musical way, and a lyrical way, y’know, he gets a certain thing that he wants to try and do that’ll push everything away again, which is great.
To steer you away from repeating yourselves, hitting the same sad buttons?
Yeah. A lot of bands to try to redefine their sound, go all electronic, or stick vocoders on their voices, but you still know it’s the same thing. In essence it’s still the same song. I remember reading that the Young brothers, when they were doing the early AC/DC albums, they’d sit at a piano and play all their songs in different styles, as a ballad, a rock song. And if it worked in every different style they’d say, “this is a good song.”
I think once you start playing in a band, you realise you can do so many different versions of the one kind of song. And with us, the challenge has always been to not really change the instruments, but try and set different things to change the outcome of the recording process: it might be that we don’t use any effects pedals, or for one album, nothing can be louder than an acoustic snare sound. Rather than reaching out, we’ve always tried to live within our limitations, and work out how to get ourselves out of trouble using our basic elements. And I think we see that as a constant challenge, within all of us.
Toward the Low Sun is out now.