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Dirty Three

Dirty Three

Monday 9th August, 2010 12:21PM

Having formed in 1992 in Aussie The Dirty Three have been kicking it internationally in their (almost entirely instrumental) three piece for nearly twenty years as well as being contributing members of some of our generations most prolific artists including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. They witnessed the re-emergence of live music and rock ‘n roll in Melbourne, the birth of the internet while touring the States before they even knew what the internet was and are now part of the monumental change the industry is currently experiencing. Under The Radar caught up with Warren Ellis to get deep and meaningful over almost two decades of band moments and music history.

OK, let’s start at the beginning. What brought you guys together in the early ‘90’s?

At the start of the 90’s there was a period when there were a lot of people coming back from Europe - people like Kim who was in The Scientists, and me and Mick were in a band. In Melbourne particularly, there were really great bars and really great hard rock bands – The Powder Monkeys for example. But it also seemed like a period for the resurgence of live music too - before that it had fallen off a bit. Because of this new venues started come up too, and that was the climate we started in. We met by accident, and that was 18 years ago.

How do you think you’ve managed to stay together for such a long time? What keeps the Dirty Three going?

I think one of the big reasons is that probably that we don’t live in the same country. Ultimately it’s the thing that we enjoy making the music we do, and that’s honestly the reason we’ve kept doing it. I don’t think any of us would continue if we didn’t like it. We had a big chat a while back and we thought we’d stop if we weren’t happy or if it wasn’t worthwhile so that’s obviously the simple thing keeping us together.

How much of the year do you spend together? How do you logistically sort The Dirty Three out?

It’s quite problematic actually. We do different things. Jim (White) and Mick (Turner) paint and things and I play in a bunch of different groups and different kinds of things. It’s a logistical nightmare and sometimes things can happen and sometimes they can’t. People are understanding though - if we can’t do things we can’t. It’s not like the thing we’re doing all the time. You start making decisions as you get older and you want to have other things going on in your life – a family or whatever. I think the fact that we’ve got a balance and when we get together we just work it out and enjoy it and it’s precious works really well.

You guys have been together for such a long time. How do you think the Dirty Three’s sound has evolved over the time?

Um, I don’t know. I don’t really look back on things like that. I can see some of the things that have changed. Trying to write material or how we work together as a group. The fact that the ideas were simple from the beginning there wasn’t a huge amount of room to develop things.

Groups try to incorporate different sounds but I think we tried to contain it within the three people and that proves more and more trying as time goes on but it also means you have to try and think of different ways to move forward. It’s a real challenge because I know from working in bands that have more people in and also bands that have singers it’s much more song driven and we do what we do and I think you just try out a different instrument or a different sound and go from there.

Dirty Three has always been primarily instrumental? Was this a conscious decision?

It was the fact that we wanted to be in a band and none of us could sing.

But it’s become a definitive part of the Dirty Three’s sound, yes?

When we started playing we felt we didn’t need one and there was something beautiful going on in the music and we all really appreciated what it allowed us to do.

I’ve seen both the other two play and they’ve seen me play and I respect what they do and they respect what I do but I know what we do when we get together is special, and it allows us to do things that we can’t do in other groups. I know that there’s something when we get together that is unique and I think it was always there from the start – that total engagement.

There’s so much more space for an instrumental player than when you’re playing with vocals because it’s vocal driven and you’re at the whim of the lyric.

Having been involved in the music industry since the ‘90’s you must have experienced monumental change in the industry?

I think it’s an incredible change in everything. Films, newspapers everything. Newspapers are nearly dead – closing down at a phenomenal rate. Everything has changed.

We started at an interesting time because we went to America in the mid nineties and I couldn’t understand why we’d play a show on the West Coast and by the time we got to the East Coast there’d be a couple of hundred people at a show. And I had no idea why these people were showing up and they were like “we heard about you on the internet” and I had no idea what that was at the time. I think the mid nineties that stuff was starting to come into play and I have seen a lot of things come and go.

Has it affected the way you guys approach what you do?

I don’t think so, because we play music that is appreciated by a marginal percentage of the population. When you’re talking about the difference between selling a couple of hundred million and a couple of million, or a ten thousand or a couple of thousand, it’s a completely different thing. It affected things positively in a live sense though. Record sales fall off but there are way more people at shows because people can find out about it however - there’s a lot more inclination to go out and see bands, and a reason for bands to tour. I mean you’re in an environment that thing are changing at such a phenomenal rate that it’s anybody’s guess what’s happening next.

People said you used to need distribution from the label to make it, but now anybody in the world can hear your music – distribution is everywhere, so in that sense it’s great. Minor labels could only get albums in a few shops but now there’s worldwide distribution for everyone. And publicity and things is so much more profound I think. So many things are possible now that weren’t possible at the time.

The Dirty Three curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival...

Yep we did two and then My Bloody valentine did one and we played at that. It was one of the best weekends of my entire life.

We chose bands that we admired, or artists that we thought it would be really great to expose people to. Anybody that would come along to it would see things they probably would never see. So we had this 70 year old flute player and we had rock bands. We basically just wanted to do unique stuff.

I think ATP is really important conceptually: providing an environment without commercial aspirations to showcase and develop interesting music and creative community.

Catch Dirty Three in NZ at the Laneway Festival in Auckland on February 1st - more info at

Courtney Sanders

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