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Dirty Three - Interview with Warren Ellis

  by Olga Sladeckova

published: 15 / 5 / 2003

Dirty Three - Interview with Warren Ellis


Much acclaimed Australian trio the Dirty Three recently completed a tour of Europe. Violinist and frontman chats to Olga Sladeckova about the tour and the difficult recording of the group's sixth and latest album, 'She Has No Strings Apollo'

The constellation of Warren Ellis (violin, piano), Mick Turner (bass) and John White (drums) is today known worldwide under the name of the Dirty Three. It has, however, taken a lot of effort, great talent and love for their music for the Three to get where they are now. The band formed in Melbourne in Australia in 1992. At the very beginning, the band didn’t have any long term ambitions or plans other than to make beautiful music. Things, however, became much more serious after the band released its first album, 'Sad And Dangerous,' on Poon Village, a small Australian independent label, in 1994. This first album attracted the attention of music papers such as NME. The band also then supported acts such as Pavement, Sonic Youth and John Cale, greatly enlarging their fanbase in the process. Shortly after that Touch and Go records signed up the Dirty Three and the first fruit from that connection, a self-titled album, saw daylight in 1995. 'Horse Stories' followed a year later. Still with their foot on accelerator, the band came out with 2 more releases, 'Ocean Songs' (1998) and 'Whatever You Love, You Are' (2000). In early 2001 the trio attempted to record a follow up to 'Whatever You Love, You Are', but, however, unsatisfied with the results, scrapped the whole recording and took a break from each other to concentrate on their other musical projects. While John White went on tour with Smog and Will Oldham, Turner established his own record label, King Crab Records. Warren Ellis found a second home to his music talents with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and set off on a world tour with them. He also released his first solo album, '3 Pieces For Violin', on King Crab Records. After taking this break, the Dirty Three got back together to record their 6th album , 'She Has No Strings Apollo'. The album was released in February on this year and followed by a tour. The tour started on the 27th February in Adelaide in Australia. From there it moved over to the USA and then finally closed on the 16th May in Glasgow in Scotland. 'She Has No Strings Apollo' has been released on Bella Union records, and features 7 tracks. Compared to the previous Dirty three albums, it seems to be much clearer and more focused in its sound. Each song has its own spirit and feel to it. The stunning 'No Stranger Than That', the 4th track of the album, sees the song literally grow tone by tone and culminates with the storming sound of violin, bass that raises your blood pressure and drums which keep the shape and speed of the song. 'Long Way To Go With No Punch', however, doesn't seem to grow at all and remains very low-key, giving the album a particulary rich and diverse character. ‘She Has No Strings Apollo’ is simply splendid. "We tried to make this album about 3 years ago" explains Warren Ellis, while talking to Pennyblackmusic sitting downstairs at Starbucks Coffee on Regent Street, the day after the band played London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. "But we weren't happy with the results of the recording. Then we tried to begin again about a year later and it started to come together." The name of the album, 'She Has No Strings Apollo', has no exact meaning as Ellis admits. "That was just words that I put together and Mick liked it as well. He did a painting under that name for the front cover. The album seems very feminine to me." "To me, the album is about 3 people who have played together for 11 years" he continues, pouring his raspberry juice into a glass. "Actually looking at the fact that we might not even make another album like that and that it could be the end of it, it is an album that was made as an act of desperation." Instrumental music is usually very expressive, and many instrumental artists create several versions of each song, all with different shades of feelings. The Dirty Three , however, see their music as much more spontaneous that that. "We don’t believe in that process at all" explains Ellis. "I hate the studio. I hate recording. I hate music" he says vehemently, before laughing and adding "No... I actually like music but I don’t like recording and we also don’t record lots and lots of versions. It seems to be not very productive and also to knock any life out of it. We try to practice songs until we get them right, and then after about 20 attempts at that, we never play around with them again." While the Dirty Three are a purely instrumental band without vocals, people sometimes see the violin as the vocals of the band. Ellis, however, strongly disagrees with this interpretation though. "Over the years we have probably developed a more classical way of writing the songs" he explains. "Mike might be playing the chords, Jim the drums and me the melody, but I think it changes. We tend to wave in and out of doing things. I don’t feel like only one person is getting the message across. It seems to me that the Dirty Three is definitely a sum of its parts and without some of those parts it wouldn’t exist. “ When I suggest that the Dirty Three might be interpreted as a band with 3 vocals, Ellis responds with great satisfaction. "Yeah, that's a good way of looking at it! 3 vocals. All those years I've been trying to work out what it's about and here it is! Well done!" he adds. The trio currently live in different countries. Ellis lives in France, while Mick Turner and Jim White are based in the United States. Is that a problem for the band when they need to write music or to rehearse for their live shows? "We actually don't really rehearse." Ellis admits. "But when we do it’s obviously quite difficult. We rehearse when we try make a record. It's fine though. It seems to be working fine at the moment. Maybe it does jeopardise things when we go away and do our own stuff. but then we come back to it, and it always puts a new perspective on things." As we talk, we come across the ex-Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie‘s name. Guthrie,who is now in Violet Indiana and the co-owner of Bella Union, has just released his own solo album 'Imperial'. I wondered if the Dirty Three would ever consider appearing on the same line-up as Guthrie, either on his own or with Violet Indiana. "Ah, I haven’t heard his record!" Ellis claims at first, and then looks at me and adds with laughter. "See! They never send me anything. Yeah, I'd love to have him on. That's a good idea." There have been many changes since the band started, but also in the members’ private lives as well. 5 years ago Warren Ellis became a father, which has affected the band but also him personally. "Fatherhood has changed me a lot in the way I live my life. I’m fundamentally still a selfish person, but I know that I can’t be the whole time and that’s a very new thing. I certainly don’t feel the same person that I was 5 years ago. I’m 38 years old. I’m very different to what I was when I left Australia when I was 29, full of whisky and beer and whatever else I could run down my throat. I feel very different in some respects, but my desire to play music and make music has not changed at all." "My confidence has absolutely not changed at all either. I’ve absolutely none" he reveals, much to my surprise. "I have none. I don’t feel like we can make another record. Well, I know we can, but I don’t have any confidence at all in that." He also admitst o finding live performance hard as well. "Yeah, I’m still not used to it. I don’t really look at anybody. Talking to the audience sometimes calms me down. Sometimes being on the stage seems the most natural place to be. At other times though it’s like Hell on Earth." "It’s one of those things where if you start thinking about it then it’s the only thing you think about and then the moment is gone. It’s like if you start thinking about how you actually ride a bike you fall off. You, therefore, just do it." Last year, as well as recording the Dirty Three album, Ellis also released his solo album '3 Pieces For Violin'. "I recorded that for a dance group in Canada" he explains "Mick said he would put it out on King Crab records." Ellis is also considering working on another solo release. "I don’t have anything planned at the moment. but I would like to so something. I don’t know when, but maybe in the second half of the year." The Dirty Three are today one of the few bands that have managed to fight their way through up to the top of the music world, but without losing any respect. They are also one of the even fewer bands that manage to make music that they personally believe n. Music that they believe is good. It, however, hasn’t been easy "You know the unfortunate thing about the set up in the music industry?" Ellis asks, before coming up with the reply straight away. " You spend a lot of time off the tread mill." "Everyone said that no one was going to listen to our music. Like everyone needs vocals and we were just really out in the f****ing jungle just playing. We, however, have developed this way of playing together. After a few years Poon Village put our album out. Then we left Australia and we had our record released in US and in Europe and suddenly we found ourselves locked in to this machinery. And what a pitiful machinery it is. Not anything like you would imagine. Imagine you are on this big label and all those money is going in to you and whatever ! It suddenly became this thing where we would make a record and go out and tour, make a record go out and tour. When I say it’s sad I mean that there is a schedule that if you are not making a record you have to tour." "We have not, as a group, sat down and wrote anything new since..." he pauses for a few seconds, looking up and thinking "I guess like July last year! Even earlier then that probably. And that’s what I find really sad about the whole thing. It doesn’t only destroy creativity. It’s all the shit that goes into it afterwards you know." "I love making records. Our record, however, came out in February this year and we finished it in July last year. It took that long for it to come out, so it’s quite an old record already." When the Dirty Three tour is over, Warren Ellis is going out on the road again, but this time with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Hopefully he will get time as well to release that promised solo album. As for the Dirty Three, he says : "I think we are going to try get out more and to make more music. The geography of where we live is quite difficult, but I think that’s what we should try and do.” After nearly 11 years the Dirty Three have definitely proved that their music has a lot to offer. "I must say that we have stood by our ground." Ellis reflects with pride. "I think it’s been simply because we really enjoy playing our music. We have made really good music and are proud of it. One of the best things about it is that the meaning of those songs is not that important. What you bring into them though, that’s what is important." "It’s like that with everything in life - books, art, people… you’ve got to bring your own meaning into it. And that’s what’s important - your story." I couldn't have wished for a better end to the interview. I thank Warren Ellis for talking to me which he reciporates with the same enthusiasm and we shake hands to say good-bye. He picks up his bag and walks up the stairs and out of the cafe towards Leicester Square, and the XFM radio studio where he is due to do another interview. The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Matthew Williams

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Dirty Three - Interview with Warren Ellis

Dirty Three - Interview with Warren Ellis

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