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Grinderman (Warren Ellis)

Grinderman (Warren Ellis)

Wednesday 19th January, 2011 10:02AM

Warren Ellis is a very chipper man – laconic Aussie accent twanging down the phone line – all of this despite the fact he was trying to catch up on his sleep. And for a man with so many projects on the go: the Dirty 3, the Bad Seeds, the soon to be Big Day Out-ing Grinderman, and his music score work with Nick Cave (e.g. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Proposition, the Road), it's hardly surprising that he would be rather tired.

How are you?

Very well for a man of my age.

For a man of your age, you're involved in a lot of projects?

Well I just arrived and I finished the Grinderman tour in America, in Los Angeles on Friday, I flew back home to Paris in time to buy a Christmas tree for the kids and decorate it with them, and go to the movies, and hopped on the plane and flew to Australia and landed here last night (Tuesday), so I have no idea where I am. You're like a beacon of…something I can grab onto at the moment.

How do you find the time, you're involved in three pretty distinct stand-alone bands with its own fanbase, and all your composition work etc?

You just do it. Ever since I started playing music in the early '90s, it always felt like a good thing to try and do as much as I can. It all seemed appropriate, it all seemed to inform each other and I found early on that doing the different things just nourished everything. I've always operated like that in a way. Sometimes there are things you can't do because you're doing something else. Fortunately, everybody I've worked with are understanding, and everybody I've worked with does lots of different things too. I think everybody understands when things can't happen. It's not without its problems for sure, but the benefits outweigh the problems. It just means sometimes you have to go the extra yard. I've just found it honesty so enriching with different things I can't say no. I also realised that every-time I say someone else will say 'yes' and I learn by saying 'yes'.

Given the amount of projects you have, how do you view Grinderman?

Grinderman has provided a very different platform for all of us to jump off from. Grinderman started as a way to throw things up in the air again. We've all been involved in making music for a long time. Certainly the four of us had been playing in the Bad Seeds for a good part of fifteen years or so. There was a history there, and I think within a history, you get certain rules which get unwittingly written, get put into practice. I think doing soundtrack work showed us that you could take certain liberties in directions you might not necessarily go in your own projects. Being involved in a band is very much doing things for yourself. Certainly, in every band I've ever been in, you're not really answerable to anybody but yourself and the group. Nobody is telling you what to do. In film, the direction is coming from somebody else, from you and part of it's from a director, and from whatever external forces that put their pressure on there. I think particularly doing the Jesse James film, that certainly showed being pushed behind an external force could produce something. It was much more substantial if left to our own devices. Applying that kind of thought to a group, seemed like an interesting thing to do.

On a side note, I've got to say Jesse James is a very underrated film….

I guess it is in certain circles. But it's also incredibly highly rated in other circles. I saw [director] Andrew Dominik in LA last week when we wound up the tour, and he's about to start a new thing which is a wonderful thing. It depends on who you talk to – maybe it wasn't a financial success, but the amount of people give feedback about it, who are genuine heavy-hitters in the industry. I had a chat to Guillermo del Toro the other day and it's one of his favourite films. A lot of people love the film. Certainly on one level it may not have been a success, but on another level it did, and it's an extraordinary film.

With Grinderman, was it difficult escaping the shadow of the Bad Seeds, the expectations?

It wasn't like there was a dissatisfaction with the Bad Seeds or anything like that. Nick and my relationship over the last few years, I think around the time of doing The Proposition, we realised that we could work in a different way together. We were discovering new ways of working together beyond what we were doing in the Bad Seeds, and it just stepped up the pace a little bit. It was really fast. I love to work and have something to do. Nick does too. I think together it really developed in a different way.

I think the idea to see what we could do with a smaller group just presented itself in a discussion. We were talking 'wouldn't it be cool to present the logic we do in our soundtracks, to a group and let different kinds of music in?' Bad Seeds very much existed in its own world, and wonderfully so – it's got its own thing about it. It's great that it resisted a lot of urges to do things, buck a lot of trends. To me, before I joined the Bad Seeds, it seemed like a band which stood apart from everything else, it ran always at odds with whatever was going on. Whenever a record came out you knew it was not running the norm. I always found that as a music listener. I always found that really exciting. I think the Bad Seeds have created this wonderful world.

There was just desire to see what we could do with a smaller line-up. Nick had started playing the guitar a bit, and I decided not to play the violin and play some of these instruments that I had picked up – the Mandocastor. It really was a way of keeping things moving along. It was incredibly exciting. There was nothing to lose. We'd go into the studio and sit down and see what happened. We did this five day session first off, and it was a very cathartic experience. We came out with this new approach to finding material. Traditionally Nick would go and write songs and when he felt like he had enough then the band would get together and record. Certainly for the latter part of the Bad Seeds' career, before that we used to work things out together. It sort of changed record by record. With Grinderman, we were all in there from the start. I guess a different relationship was created within the group, and a lot of it was ad libbed which created a different environment. It was heavily improvised and very much looking for moments. Amongst this, there were some wonderful moments and some absolutely diabolical stuff. It was really informative.

Was it hard to judge when something was ready, or if it went places that could be controversial – the lyrics for example, have come under a bit of criticism?

What sort of criticism?

The typical stuff that Nick Cave has had throughout his career like misogyny…

I don't know. I guess people are always going to have an opinion about something. I don't know. Where are you going with this?

Given how improvised the album and how quickly it was recorded, were you comfortable knowing when a song was ready?

I think when we went in and did the first session, we just sat through and listened for hours. We'd put record on and we'd play from ten in the morning through to midnight and record everything. And then we just filtered through and found stuff to us which sounded genuinely different. You might be wading through three or four hours of absolute nonsense. Then suddenly there's a little moment, and we'd pull it out and stick them on a CD. We ended up with four or five CDs and then we looked at that and saw what we might want to work on. Some of the lyrical ideas – he was just singing whatever over the top of stuff, hanging on by the seat of his pants. He would start up something and away he would go. It was just the spirit of the whole thing. We kept it kind of open. I think with the second album, we went in and tried to nail something a bit more concrete or substantial.

I was going to say was there a bit more of a plan?

We probably tried to develop it more. I think lyrically, Nick has always done what he wants. I always feel comfortable sitting behind, playing behind with everything he's going to do. I respect his pursuit of things and trust the steps that he wants to take. I think some of the claims are founded and some of the claims are unfounded, people can take things the way they want to. As he said the other night, 'No Pussy Blues was about not having a pussy', which I thought was quite good [laughs].

Was it invigorating as musician going back to 'youth' a little bit? .

It's just been fucking fantastic. I never technically - I was a violin player, and playing electric violin, I could make a racket, particularly with the Dirty 3. I had a lot of room to swing, to carve a couple of moves. I always felt I had the room to carve some shapes. But this has been another thing for me. I think for me, playing a different instrument. I never played in a band playing this kind of music before. I don't think any of us had. .

We just did three months of touring. I can honestly say in Europe and America, the shows got better and better as we went along. From my experience in the past, touring doesn't go like that. It starts off finding its feet, and then in the second week or so, it gets a bit 'ok we know what's coming on', but this, the shows keep developing. It was really interesting. When we were ready to make both the records, particularly with the first one, we didn't have any idea how to play them live. That wasn't in the back of our minds when we were doing the first one. They're deceptively complex. They seem simple the records, but they're not. .

I imagine the second one might be harder to play live? .

Yeah the second one is denser, it's got a lot more stuff going on. It's a pretty unusual set-up what I'm working with. What I did on the record was quite dense. I've had to really think quite a lot about it. It's been interesting to see it develop and playing. Now we only play Grinderman songs, the two albums, and we play most of the albums. There's an energy about the show, and the audience reaction has been fantastic. .

Is there a different dynamic live? You guys have played in theatres, festivals, concert halls etc. .

It is, but we're mainly playing where the audience is close. It's just been great. The feedback from people has been really encouraging. All things are steaming along great on the good ship Grinderman. .

I guess you're back after playing in Auckland with the Dirty 3...

I had a lovely time there, I enjoyed that festival [Laneways] a lot. I met Shayne Carter there, what a great guy, and saw Chris Knox perform – that was so fantastic seeing Chris perform, it was an absolute privilege. It was just extraordinary.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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