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Dirty Three

Dirty Three

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Friday 24th February, 2012 10:12AM

Dirty Three are returning to New Zealand to play at the Powerstation, Auckland on March 14th, in support of their new album, Toward the Low Sun. UTR caught up with sonic stalwart Warren Ellis, who along with Dirty Three is also a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grinderman, and one hilarious dude. Here Ellis discusses the Dirty Three's writing recording process, the early days of playing in funeral parlours and why the live experience is a truly special thing.

Hey Warren, how are you?

Ah, Victim Number Two - I just chewed up this radio guy and spat him out a little bit.

Ah no! Please don’t do that to me!

Ah nah, I wouldn’t do that to you, this was just some bloke.

Ah, good, it’s good to have gender on my side.

Exactly! I’m an old fashioned guy with old fashioned values, I still open the door for women and while some women might even find that offensive, some things I just can’t change you know.

So you have just released a new Dirty Three album –

- I think we’re about to. I believe it’s coming. I can almost smell it in there air. I think in this modern day they’re streaming it online so it’s probably hit the earth, in digital form. It's streamed and I got the vinyl the other day and I shed a tear. I went wet around the eyes – it looked so beautiful. You don’t even need to play it actually.

Tell me a little bit about why the artwork is so special.

Well Mick Turner did the artwork – he’s done all of our artwork. The American release of Sad and Dangerous was done by someone who was our friend in the days when indie labels would say that they were your mates and then turn around and treat you like dirt. Anyway - not that we bear any ill will towards this person – that was the only cover someone else did. Mick’s done the cover for everything except for that one.

The artwork brought you to tears, what's so significant about it?

It’s just more that it was a big piece of vinyl and not some terrible plastic thing or some horrible MP3 that you don’t even care if whether you drop it in the toilet or not. I’m of a certain age where I have a lot of love for that format and it makes me very happy to hear it’s coming back - people are re-discovering it and realising it’s really lovely. I derive much pleasure from putting on a record, and so I guess it was the big format more generally that made me well up. The other time I cried this year was when my youngest son started crying watching Planet of the Apes on a plane and I had to wipe a tear away watching him. That was another time just to gauge what brings me to tears because right now you’re thinking ‘ah a piece of plastic makes this guy teary’ but you now know that I find vinyl moving, particularly when it’s something I’ve been involved in. It actually feels valid and it feels real and I’ve never had that feeling from a CD or an MP3.

You’re streaming the album on NPR at the moment. How does it feel to be a vinyl lover but have to stream the album?

Things change and things move on and I embrace whatever’s around. People are trying to work out what to do and I’ve got no idea – trying to keep up with it all is impossible. Things are changing and have changed and that’s just the way it is. I’m not making any statement other than it was very moving to get it in a vinyl format because it felt real.

Tell me how the new album came together - is it a logistical nightmare writing and recording a Dirty Three album considering you all live in different countries?

I guess so but it’s not as logistical-a-nightmare as trying to make a film or something. People just make things work and thanks to lots of ‘innovations’ it’s a lot easier. You can work a bit with the internet or send stuff – not that we do – the option is there. I do work for other stuff - theatre groups and whatever - and I send music to them. I did a cue for a film the other day and I did it on Saturday night in my garden shed out the back and sent it off Saturday evening and they mixed it in LA and put it in the film Monday and this is stuff you could never do; it’s great there’s that capacity.

You came together in a physical location to write the album though, right?

Being in three different countries is not that difficult to arrange, the main problem is to coordinate it, particularly because we all do different things. Jim plays in a bunch of bands, Mick does paintings and he’s got kids and does his own solo stuff, and I play in a bunch of projects. It’s more about finding the time and the place where we can guarantee we'll all be there and concerts generally provide that. We did a tour in Japan and a couple of dates in Australia and we took that moment and said ‘look we’ve been playing for two weeks, let’s hit the ground running’ and booked the studio and went with it.

I actually like not living in the same cities. The last time we tried that - in the early ninties - we nearly killed each other. It was pretty soon after that we all moved to different cities. In a three piece band it was always two against one and I think at that point I was the one, but I mean I was a pretty undesirable character at that point in time – I wasn’t exactly in showroom condition.

Most of the band’s life we’ve been living apart so it’s not a new thing for us to get our head around.

How do you approach a new album? Do you go in with particular goals or is it more organic than that?

Every album we’ve done has always been a document of what’s going on in the particular period of time that we go into the studio. There’s never any stragglers or things from other sessions or from ten years ago that we go "oh now we’ve found the place for that". We’re very much interested in the way we play together musically; the language that we have and how it is at that particular point in time. Albums for us are kind of like a diary. We arrive with ideas, bang them out and then go into a studio. What I like about that - and it goes back to living in different cities as well - is that it instantly makes constrictions and it instantly means you’ve got a bookend on the album; you have a start and a end.

I like limitations and I don’t like things being open-ended – it drives me crazy. I’d rather realise later on that we should have changed something,  but at least it’s out and living. I think by sitting on stuff and working and working on it you end up taking a lot of the goodness out of it. It's more important for us that it’s a musical response as opposed to a part and it’s something we realised very quickly. You might play something and somebody might say "hey that was really good, but something not quite right" and you go back and do it again and while it might be more correct you've lost something, and by the third time it’s a 'part'.  I could safely say in most things I’ve ever been in by the time it gets to the third take I don’t think we ever use it.

If you were to describe the bookends of this album what would you say? What was the starting point for Toward the Low Sun?

Well we tried to write it twice and it hadn’t worked out and it took five or six years or something for us to do this and there were reasons for it. It was partly being so busy and doing lots of stuff but the other one was that we couldn’t get it together. The three of us have to know it’s going somewhere and that we’re proud of it and beyond that whatever happens with it happens. We tried a few times and it didn’t work and I certainly got a bit spooked by that - wondering why I could do all this other stuff with Grinderman and with the film work, but I was unable to move anywhere with the Dirty Three. The great thing about doing different projects is that you come back into the next thing that you do with a different story because you've been informed by what you’ve just done. If I’m going into the Bad Seeds or Grinderman or a soundtrack or Dirty Three – whatever it is – it has an affect on the next thing I do. But I couldn’t work out why Dirty Three wasn't working.

We were playing shows in Japan and we set this date and we started talking – which is something we very rarely do about it – and Jim and I started to try and nail it because we were getting concerned – he was concerned too. We realised that live we still had this thing going on - we could bring an excitement to the older songs and there was an energy there. What we’d been trying to do in the studio was to harness that and get more structure into it than we’d ever had and we realised we needed to let it run again, and in order to let it run it needed to have basic ideas and rely on our instincts again. Jim and I had lost a way of playing together for probably a decade that probably came back about twelve months ago. It was just so great, it was like "hello old friend".

Ten years we had this way of playing that was so instinctive; it was like tight-roping on stiletto shoes the entire time. You didn’t know if you were going to fall or if you were going to stay on there,  it was such a delicate balancing act, and one of the great things was that we could take each other to the edge of it and sometimes fall and it was really thrilling. But at some point we lost that. The realisation threw it up in the air again and we tried to let it run wild.

You mention the intrinsic relationship that you have with the other members of the Dirty Three. Was it always this way - can you paint a picture for us of what it was like in Melbourne when you met and formed?

It was all purely accident. I returned to Melbourne in the eighties and I’d always go to see music and I loved listening to music but never even vaguely entertained the notion of playing music in that capacity. I mean I played the violin and that but I never figured I’d do that and I didn’t really like violins in rock – with the exception of The Velvet Underground because they defied logic with A) how extraordinary the songs were and B) how John Cale had managed to put viola in there was the wildest thing I had ever heard in my life. It wasn’t like I was trying to copy that – you can’t find a lyricist like Lou Reed, that’s why he’s called Lou Reed; he can break bread anytime.

I moved back to Melbourne and someone knew I played the violin and they had a friend who had a bunch of songs and I just turned up and my brother gave me a couple pedals and we discovered this loud feed-backing sound and it was really exciting. Jim was playing with Mick and I got a phone call from this guy Noel who’d opened a bar and said "hey Warren, I met you like 15 years ago and I’ve bought a bar and I don’t want to play CDs, do you want to come and play music instead of CDs? Have you got a couple of mates, I’ll give you fifty bucks" and I was like "Oh cool!" So we rehearsed in my kitchen in St Kilda and we worked out about five or six songs and went down and played them that night. We had to play them long because we had to play for three hours and just went from there really.

I think the first time we ever played on a stage was in a funeral parlous in Sydney. We drove up there and it was a non-paying show and we played with this casket in the middle of this chapel and at that point in time I used to use a mop bucket because there was no PA or nothing. We were just so up for it because it was hilarious. We’d driven up to Sydney and the gear stick had fallen out of the car you know, it was one of those memorable first trips – 1000 KM on nothing – and we played this show. I was kind of up on this thing with a mop bucket playing some instrument like a vacumn cleaner hose with the end cut off, whizzing around with this bucket. We used to lead off with this feedback frenzy and people were just walking out of the place or standing there screaming along with the feedback and it was very kind of paganistic; so crude and we were just bashing everything. I threw everything I was doing up in the air and ran upstairs onto a balcony and the owner of the place ran up and grabbed me and held me by the lapels and screamed at me really loudly: “you will never work in this town again, get the fuck out of here”. To add insult to injury, they tried to bill us fort he mop bucket that went missing. That was one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever played at.

I never intended this to happen, it just found its way on stage somehow. Tthe biggest surprise to me is that I’m talking to you and it’s twenty years later. I talked to Jim the other day and said "do you know we’ve been playing twenty years" and he goes "no way!". I wouldn’t twig to that. When we made our first record I wouldn’t even listen to it because I couldn’t believe we’d actually made it, let alone a second or third one. It still strikes me as extraordinary that this has happened – I just put my head down and get on with it. Maybe one day I’ll get it right.

You have an intrinsic relationship with the members of the Dirty Three, but you are obviously in the Bad Seeds and in Grinderman. Tell me about moving across the projects - how do you approach them and what do you get from each one?

I approach it like a builder building a house of bricks or a house of wood or a house of straw, you know. You lay foundations and you carry on with a dialogue that you’ve got and you’re hoping to add to it. You might have picked something up along the way and I’m learning a craft that I never stop learning. All the things I do really help lead a way for me to find my place in amongst it all. Obviously I know when I go into do something it’s a different style of thing – a soundtrack is different to Grinderman or Dirty Three – but there are aspects of me in everything. No matter what you do you can definitely go ‘that’s them’. I think if I did [approach everything differently] it would be too schizophrenic; I’m just trying to stay in it and that’s how I see it. I have this ritual where I call my brother at the end and say "hey we just finished, it’s become this thing" and it was my way of saying, "OK we’ve made it through again". I’m kind of superstitious about that stuff.

Tell me a little bit about why the Bad Seeds decided to start Grinderman as a side project?

Well isn’t it kind of obvious from the records? I mean they’re kind of different records right? It’s a smaller group, it was a way of exploring stuff that we probably wouldn’t have. When we did the first stuff for the first album it was a way of taking anything that was kind of risky and having an outlet for it. It was a way of throwing things up in the air and taking some risks. We try to do that every time we go in there.

What are you looking forward to in 2012?

I’m looking forward to touring with Dirty Three at the moment, that’s as far as I’m thinking ahead. I’m looking forward to that and what comes will come.

Do you still love touring and playing live? What keeps you going after so long?

I still love playing live, I could sometimes do without all the traveling to be honest. Sometimes it’s alright and sometimes it seems insane that you do all this stuff for an hour and a half at the end of the night. I think people who play live get addicted and when it grabs you you’re just constantly chasing it. There’s this feeling that you don’t get elsewhere. I’ve always enjoyed playing live – it wasn’t until recently that I enjoyed the studio even vaguely. I liked the live thing because it’s a moment and it doesn’t come under scrutiny; it just lives or dies in that moment and the worst thing is hearing it back. The shows that I go and see I still carry with me.

I remember seeing Nina Simone just before she died and the whole place was like an inferno, everyone was just craning on their seats, it was like they were going to fall onto the stage. She appeared and came onstage with this swathe of gold make-up across her face and looked like she’d just picked a duvet up off the bed and put a string around the top of it with a bunch of flowers. She had a bit of chewing gum and she looked so amazing and sat down and tried to sing and hardly anything came out, and then she just went bang and I’ll never forget it. I don’t want to hear what it was like now, I’d never want to hear something back.

I’m not some sort of techno party pooper but one of the disappointing aspects is playing and seeing all these iPhones up there and you wonder how people are engaging. It certainly puts me off when I see some knob with an iCamera or iPhone or whatever filming because it just doesn’t enter my mind to do that. It seems like you’re taking your mind off what’s going on – if you’re doing that you can’t be really enjoying it because you’re thinking about something else. I love that about the live thing; it’s a moment and lives or dies in that moment.

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