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warren ellis

Warren Ellis Interview

By Mandy Newland
We catch up with classically trained violinist Warren Ellis as he brings the unique sound of Dirty Three to Liverpool.


Is this your first time in Liverpool?

I played here about five years ago, I think.  We arrived here today – we’ve been on tour for a month all up.  We were in America for two weeks and have already been a week in Europe -
Germany, Belgium, Prague, Holland - we’re in the UK for four days.  We play Sydney on December 3rd – a big tour for us!

Sounds like you’ve been busy…

I have!  This year music has been very kind to me – it’s been really good.  As well as the new Dirty Three album, I’ve been doing a lot of work outside of the band.  It’s been a very intense two years, but I’ve got two little children now so I would like to try and step back a bit if I can.

You recently played a show in London for Don’t Look Back…

Yeah, we were invited to perform one of our albums from start to finish.  They wanted us to do Ocean Songs.  We had never done anything like that before - it was quiet interesting how well it worked.  It was very different to just playing a show - you know, bits from all over the place – ’cos we have a very substantial catalogue of seven records to pick from these days.  And, yeah, it was really enjoyable to do.

Ocean Songs was an interesting choice.  I mean, each record that you make opens some options for the next one – although I don’t find them getting easier, in fact you have to work harder and harder.  The first albums just seemed to write themselves so quickly - you have all these ideas, suddenly you have a band, you know? 

Before we came to do Ocean Songs we never sat down to write stuff, it was all written on tour or something - we would start playing at sound check.  I think we could count the times we had rehearsed on one hand.  When we started in the early nineties, it was all about getting an idea and taking it as far as we could.  When we did Ocean Songs we actually sat down to write something.  It was a really new experience for us.

Tell us about your new album, Cinders…

Well, the three of us now live in different continents so getting together to work on stuff is a nightmare, but we found a way to work to keep going.  It was recorded in Melbourne.  This one we decided to open up the sound, I got some new instruments - a mandolin, a bouzouki, a piano…  I have been writing more things on the piano recently.  Mick was playing the bass - instruments we would not normally have played.  We recorded about twenty four songs very quickly and put them all up and said “well, what do they need?”.  One song was like “we need some bagpipes” and someone said “oh I know a piper”, so they came in and played.  Then we thought it would be nice to have a woman’s voice on a song, so Sally Timms came in and sang on one song.  We kept thinking Chan Marshall would be good on a number.  Luckily, she was in Australia with the Bad Seeds at the time.  She was keen, we met up and gave her the tape, she wrote the lyrics that night and we went and recorded her the next day. 

Having vocals on your new album, how much of a departure was that for you?

It didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary; considering we never had any vocals on a record before.  I mean we were an instrument band by default really, we played in a corner of a pub in Richmond (Melbourne) and no one could sing in the band and there was no PA…  We had the instruments that we had, and that was as complicated as it got.  There was never anything ironic about the band or even calculated, there was no strategy behind it.  We played for an hour in my kitchen, worked out a couple of songs, went down and played that night. 

We had a lot of problems getting a record out because we didn’t have a singer.  They would say “your band sounds good, why don’t you get a singer?”.  It made us even more “f**k that”, you know.  We don’t need to do that.  People will listen to us on our own terms not because there’s someone singing.

We had all played in bands with singers and we all really enjoyed not having a narrative in a vocal way.  It opened up the narrative with the music, we had total freedom with what we did, you didn’t have to sit behind something - automatically when you add vocals to a song  it takes up all the  space - with our recordings the instruments are in the foreground which gives us a different focus.  I guess we have always liked that, and musically its always great to do.

Were not trying to make music for everybody.  We try to make a style of music and if someone else likes it, then great – there’s no dishonesty about it. 

What were you listening to when you started playing in that kitchen?

I’ve always listened to a wide variety of things, and probably these days I’ve gone back to what I was listening to back then - a lot of classical music, a lot of jazz, John Coltrain, the classic quartet stuff, Miles Davies, Bob Dylan… although I always find myself coming back to classical - Beethoven, Stravinsky, that kind of thing.  I mean, I have a wall of records and CDs, but not a lot of really current stuff.  Its probably to my failure – there’s so much that’s gone on you know.  I really like that White Stripes record at the moment.

So when was it that you decided to become a musician?

I learnt classical violin and flute at school in Ballarat, I went to uni in Melbourne.  I’m a qualified teacher - I taught in Bainsdale in the country.  Then I got involved in theatre groups in Melbourne in the mid eighties, started playing in bands in the early nineties – I found myself playing with all these people that already had bands that I used to go and see.  There were a lot of venues to play in that you could get paid for, not a lot of course, but you could get regular gigs.  It was a very supportive environment with all the people playing music in Melbourne at that time.  I just enjoyed it and I still do.

Do you see your music as being sad or depressing?

I don’t think our music is that sad actually, its not music that’s made when I’m in that state.  If I’m in that state I’m certainly not in a position to function.  It’s more heroic music to me - music about coming out of those certain things.  I don’t actually find it sad or dark really, although I guess there’s an element of sadness, but I don’t feel depressed after playing a show.

How was the experience of becoming a Bad Seed?

Well I guess it was odd, because it was a band that I’ve always admired – I’d followed them since the Birthday Party and to be invited in to play was extraordinary.  And I know if I had thought about it too much at the time, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it.  I remember coming into the studio (for Let Love In) and being incredibly nervous - there were all these people there that I had seen on the back of album covers.  There was such as incredible focus going on.

A few months later I went out for dinner with Nick and he asked if I wanted to play on the new recording, and I said “sure”.

Was that for Murder Ballads?

Yeah, he asked if I’d come in for the rest of the thing and there was a point there where I thought “well I’ve been asked in, I’m just going to say what’s on my mind”.  I made a real effort not to be overwhelmed by it all.  Nobody wants you to be overwhelmed – they just want you to be there.  And then I was asked to play with them live and so far they haven’t kicked me out the door (laughs).

Was there any kind of initiation ceremony?

Not that I know of.  Tell the truth, I wasn’t even aware that I was a member – I was just asked to come on tour with them.  Six years later someone says “you do realise you’re part of the band?”

You tend to play with your back to the audience – why is that?

It’s about playing with the band – I find that if I turn around (to the audience) I don’t have the same perspective on things.  I like to be able to hear what is going on.  Visual contact is important to me – I need to be looking to see if something is ready or whatever.  I need that, and I can’t get it looking the other way.  It just seemed like a logical thing.  I’m playing with them – the band, I’m not playing with the audience.  I never even try it the other way around – I need to be able to interact with the band and I can’t do that with my back to them.

last updated: 25/11/05
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