Beard vs. Beard. Josh T Pearson and Warren Ellis.
Josh T Pearson is a wonderful solo artist who came to prominence with his legendary, incendiary trio Lift To Experience; highly regarded by all of us who know our shit from our shine-ola. Pearson is a fully bearded gentleman from Texas who now lives in Berlin, and sometimes hangs about in Paris too.
Warren Ellis is a member of Dirty Three, who have been with Bella Union since we began back in 1997. Warren is also an important member of The Bad Seeds, and he’s regarded by many as the main foil for Nick Cave. Nick and Warren Ellis have also been composing scores together for movies like ‘The Proposition’ and ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’. Warren lives in Paris.
Enjoy the highly entertaining exchange between Josh (the interviewer) and Warren (the subject) below.
Some people think you are one of the more important musicians living. Of course, people can be wrong, but does that fact color or inform what you do at all? Does it make a difference to you other than the practicalities of things like paying the bills? Does it help get you out of bed in the morning? Thoughts….
Indeed Josh, people can be wrong, and I would feel uncomfortable commenting either way on my position in the scheme of things. I can say that I have always cared about what I do, without exception, and it’s never been about the money, I mean if you were a betting man, would you back a fiddle player in the rock world? When I started playing in bands, around the age of 24, I suddenly felt I was doing the right thing, on a purely instinctive level. I guess when I don’t feel that, it’s time to change partners.
You’ve been sober 12 years now? How has it helped? How often do you miss just getting totally fucked up? You seem to be a shining example or one who’s sobriety has helped produced your greatest works. (WHICH IS A GREAT INSPIRATION). Perhaps they just weren’t captured before because you were under the influence? Either way, You are prolific now. Do you have to be in order to stay sober? Thoughts on this…Any secret 12 steps?
No I have no secrets, in fact I rarely think about it, I see it less as an achievement than an actual fact of life. Obliterating myself served a purpose, then started working against me, and I knew at a certain point I needed to make a choice between how I was living, then stick to it, whichever decision that was. I have never done things in half measures.
Well maybe once or twice. But it was something I decided to do for myself. These days, I know exactly where I will end up if I go down that road, and the short term satisfaction I might get doesn’t seem worth it. Being removed from everything living in Paris was a great help, and I put myself in Primal Scream therapy and went to AA and NA meetings, for the first 3 years. There is only the solution that you find which works for you, whatever it takes. I have a family I love very much and have no desire for them to see me as I was.
Having said that, I feel no remorse for the past, it served a purpose, and yes I do miss getting tanked sometimes. I think once you accept you can’t go back, the way forward becomes clearer.
Have you read ‘The Rest is Noise’ by Alex Ross? If so, what cultural impact if any do you think it will have on society?
No I haven’t but I will. Have you read the Howlin’ Wolf biography ? Man you should-this one: “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf” James Segrest; Paperback; $16.10 What’s your address? I’ll send it.
Does Nick Cave ever get on your nerves? Are you ever like, ‘Dude, you’re 50. Can you stop singin’ about pussy?’
No he doesn’t, not because of his lyrics at least, I mean, he’s such a driving force and I admire his discipline and trust. He’s always pushed me to go as far as I want, and I need people like that around me, and I respect what he does, in fact he can do what he wants, he always has, and we wouldn’t want him any other way.
Do you ever just think, Fuck, I’m married to a hot French chick, gotta coupla awesome multicultured kids, some hit records, future work, film music, clothes on my back, food, shelter, etc, and still somehow not feel satisfied? And if so, do you ever keep working to just not have to think about not being satisfied?
Sure, I don’t think it’s healthy to feel satisfied too long. I still feel I am yet to do something truly great, and that keeps me searching.
If I was content, then I would have no reason to continue searching. There is always a point when I have made something, that I’m happy with it and then it passes, very quickly. This in turn gives you the notion to release it, and that usually means it’s time to get on with something else.
I am fortunate in that I work with driven people and that keeps me on my toes. I always like to have something to work for.
I’m a lousy person to go on a holiday with, trust me on that.
Do your kids ever ask ‘Why the fiddle? Why not something cool like guitar or bass? Maybe even the drums?’
No, not as yet…but they have guitars and drums they mess around with, so maybe it’s good to have a dad who plays a straight instrument like the violin. They have seen a couple of shows and usually last about 2 songs then look for the band room and the candy. They like Nirvana and The Stooges. Also I have been trying to learn how to play the Simpsons theme for them on guitar for 6 months and it just won’t work…they think I’m a bit thick and probably wonder how I made it this far in the music world.
I’ve seen a few thousand rocks shows. Listened to more records. Ya’ll are simply one of the best Goddamned rock bands that ever existed in my humble ass opinion. Watching Dirty Three is like watching all of creation explode and unfold right before your very eyes. You oughtta be required listening (and equally important, watching) for anyone inclined toward aesthetics. So why don’t you play more museums? Why aren’t you the house band at the Pompidou or something? Are they just not hiring? You should class that joint up a bit is all I’m saying. Give the people something to talk about.
Josh you should’ve been our manager, or at least our P.R…I’d love that, there’s a job for you whenever you want to start. You see, you have a vision, and are not prejudiced by constraints and stereotypes; you speak of possibilities and the future. Live has always been where Dirty Three comes into its own, it either works or not. We learnt our craft on the stages all over Australia, playing some very wild bars, and given what we were doing, had to stand our ground. I’m still not sure the museums are ready for us, or ever will be! I think we’re still a bit too rough and crude for most peoples tastes, and to be honest I like it like that. I want to add though Josh, that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you many times, in Lift To Experience and solo, and you are one of my favourites, you deliver always, and you are real. You should get on with your album. You have no competition out there man.
Do you feel the effects of live shows? Can you take any of it with you home? Do you realize that some of these people remember these shows forever and feel like they have lived more fulfilled lives for having experienced them? That it touches them on a level that very little else can? That it speaks more comfort to their minds than the Bible or film or a therapist or booze? Does it follow you home that the physical shows enrich the lives of others or does it tend to stay in the bars you play? Do you feel it on a daily basis? Thoughts….
I try not to think about the effect on other people, and I’m usually doing my own thing during the shows, so if the concerts have moved some people in the way I have been by concerts, then I am truly humbled. I’ve been on tour with you and seen how your own shows affect you, so I know you know what I’m talking about.
Do sounds haunt you?
Sure, keeps me awake at nights, sometimes wish they’d leave me alone.
Has Paris helped? You see much Opera? Do you ever tell French people you think Serge is overrated just to bother with ‘em? Your French wife is real good lookin’. That’s not really a question.
Glad you think my wife is good-looking. You see. Not only good-looking guys get the girls!
I have a very small circle of friends in Paris, and when I am there, it’s for my family and to work on my own. I have a studio at home where I bang away…
I don’t play in Paris very often, and don’t work with French people. I’ve never been one of these people who can just play with anyone, I need the right people. I was lucky to find the groups I play with last century.
I don’t think I have too many strings to my bow, so I try to tread carefully, but a man’s got to feed his family, and I’m always happier when I have work to get on with. I’m terrible when left to my own devices. Playing in a group still holds much more attraction to me than playing on my own. I’m not sure that will ever change with me.
I’ve seen you play in different incarnations maybe 35-55 times. I’ve never gotten bored of it once. EVER. Do you? Do you ever just think, ‘Fuck, I totally just realized how to get past level 4 on the computer game’ you were playing earlier with one of your kids? Or transversely do you sometimes realize that after 10 years of playing the same tune, you’ve somehow come up with an even better way to play it? Do you do your taxes in your head? What’s goin’ on up there dude? Inquiring minds want to know.
I like the fact that Dirty Three songs keep changing. I think it’s inevitable that at one point you get sick of what you are doing and want to go in another direction, particularly when on a long tour. Then it’s time to record, re-assess, and that’s why we make a new album, right? It’s always better to keep moving forward, even if in retrospect they are mistakes, it’s much better than ruminating over things. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in various projects which ask different things of me, from Dirty Three, the Bad Seeds, Grinderman and the film work I have done, it keeps me keen, and I’m always happy to move on and start something else. I really enjoy going in with very little, and seeing what happens, this is particularly true when I go in with Nick, where there is a sense of adventure which is truly exciting.
I think the film work was the greatest surprise for me, and also prompted the most freedom I had experienced paradoxically. I’m a firm believer in recording fast and getting it out, I prefer recordings like that myself to listen to.
I’ve noticed that you can go into and out of the most intense moments of song with what appears to be relative ease. Is that something that always came natural to you, or was it necessity mothering invention? Most can’t separate those two worlds so quickly. How did you find it? How long can your mind stay there without going too far? Would the devil ever cut the cord or do you just know your body well enough after years of hard work? Does this ‘space’ we can get to and seemingly capture now with recording, benefit or hinder society? Is it really good for others to dwell there? Call it the duende or whatever the fuck you want to call it, why can you conjure it up and still raise a family? Why does it not burn your mind out? What’s your secret for inhabiting both realities? Why can’t we all do it? Why have you not gone insane? Why aren’t you in the gutter!!!? Is it simply the cool comforting winds of a woman’s tender loving touch and scheduled daily habits? Is it by sheer power of the will? I am not alone in this. We who understand, want to know how you can maintain the constant output without giving up your soul to those other darker forces? Is it just by growing stronger step by step? In and out? I want to know! THOUGHTS….Really. Help us..
That’s a great question Josh. When my first son was born I wondered if I could ever find that moment on stage which had come so easily, it’s one which is purely self-centered and liberating, and I was a bit cautious when I went back to performing live. In many ways it was like when I returned to the stage after sobering up, and I was relieved to find it could still happen. You see that stuff is in you, and is your connection to something much greater than ourselves. I used to inhabit that world you talk about all the time and it became counter-productive, and like lost things in life, there comes a time when you have to make some choices or decisions. I was able to find a way to move into that moment, and then out when I needed to, but when I went home in that frame of mind, things deteriorated fast. I also think getting older has something to do with it, something kicks in, and maybe it’s a survival mechanism. I still get it wrong at times, the balance of things I mean, and it’s a work in progress.
I used to find it hard to step off, and couldn’t sleep after the shows, so much stuff going around my head, knocking myself out was part of the process, but as I said I reached a point where I needed to make a decision, so I did, and my continued work is important to me, and you have to watch you don’t sabotage that.
What’s in your iPod? Do you even have an iPod? Or do you just turn on the songs in your head? Do you listen to things more than 2 or 3 times? Even if they are good?
Lots of stuff…
I listen to it less these days than in the past, but I’ve returned to listening to my vinyl at home since I got a new turntable, and I find that very comforting, you know, the whole ritual… it reminds me of my youth. Records were so important to me then, and well, the turntable never lets me down. The iPod is handy I grant you, but having so much at your fingertips can undervalue the whole thing.
Off the top of me head, I have lots of Howlin’ Wolf, lots of old country recordings, hillbilly stuff which I love….an album called ‘Violin Play The Blues For Me’ which is amazing…John Lee Hooker…Nina Simone, the new Grinderman album which we finished last week, lots of home recordings….Josh Pearson live bootlegs,….hmmm actually I have alot of music.
And Josh, you got to get on with that record of yours!
When is the next Dirty Three tour? Is Pearson gonna be on mandolin this time? Does his beard intimidate you? Does it turn you on? Beard Envy? Are you ever gonna shave? Don’t you hate it when people ask you that? When strangers comment on your beard, do you ever say, ‘Yeah, They really grow on ya?’ just to fuck with ‘em? Well, you should. They don’t really get it till later and it makes you look smart and they feel silly for asking cuz they realize you get it all the time after that and how OF COURSE YOU’RE GOING TO KEEP IT DUDE RIGHT!!!!? The beards stay together.
We are touring in the States in September, and you’re always welcome to come along. Do you still have that mandolin I gave you? Now you know you were an inspiration for the beard, on that tour. We were in Belgium I think, and a prostitute stopped you in the streets and said ‘You look great’, and I looked at you and said to myself, ‘she is so fucking right, you do look great!’ So the seed was planted. Beards aren’t for everyone, and like a friend said “Not in my home thanks”, and my long-suffering wife hates it, but it’s here to stay, and yes your beard does intimidate me.
Beards gotta stick together, and I owe you one, the original source Mr. Pearson.
Art always… figures are best on the ladies
Paper when available.
Propecia or ‘fuck it’?
Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky?
Tarkosky and then the other two can fight it out for opening act. Anna Karenina is wonderful, and I love The Devils.
Beatles or Stones?
Well I’d say Stones for sure, although Helter Skelter is great, and I do like the concert on the roof, and the Let it Be film, and John Lennon……………… Hmmm.
Choice or Determinism?
Tie between faith/works.
1965—Dr. Zhivago or Sound of Music?
Dr Zhivago – the fashion beats those Austrian shorts any day, and the Captain is kind of creepy, like the same way the butcher in the Brady Bunch is.
And speaking of Mr. Oscars….. In one film, your music is put into the hands of more people than your entire back catalog of rock and/or roll. The Ass of Jesse James alone sold half a million DVD’s. That’s awesome. 200 years from now, the chances are slim anyone will be listening to Nick Cave or Dirty Three unless it appears in film. (Unfortunately for them all.) Shouldn’t someone of your craft and calibre be writing Opera or Musicals or something? Music that can be specifically reproduced live and in color by different people for centuries to come? Is that what you’re doing through film? Who knows where the cards are going to fall with 20th Century music of course. Perhaps in the future people will be listening to the Chinese version of Dirty Three circa 2065. But you’re not even 50 yet, gotta awesome back catalog. Why not say, ‘Screw this Art-Rock crap, I’m goin’ Classical’ from here on out for the sake of future. ‘I’m only gonna compose and I’m quitting my rock bands’. Is the effect now more important? Pop/Art, Present or future? Thoughts on this….. Is the music of the ‘now’ more important I guess? Sacred/Secular? Two sides of the same coin. Does one side only help to enrich the other?
Did it sell that many? I hope people will still be listening to something I’ve been a part of, but you’re probably right, we forget so quickly, things change. I’d rather go see a concert any day than an opera or musical, actually I find most musicals painful on the nose.
I like how rock concerts unite people of all walks, and speak to them, so I’m happy to be part of that crowd, even if it means being forgotten in the future. What can you do? I mean I love classical music, but I never really had the chops or the feel for it, and I couldn’t find my way in with it.
My Dad played me Hank Williams at a young age and gave me a book on bluegrass music and how to play it, and then I heard AC/DC and Black Sabbath, and there was no going back.
I love the way early recordings speak, they are immediate and a sacred moment caught forever. Listen to ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and tremble, it’s not of this world. So many great recordings are like that, and indeed it’s their very raw human-ness which may hold the key. People will always listen to Rock music, and Folk music, and Country because it’s music made by people for people.
I’d rather regular people listened to what I do than people stuffed away in ivory towers. (Having said that, I might be doing a Ballet next year in Paris!).
Do you think science will invent a 3-D machine to watch ya’ll after you’re dead, before you are dead of course? A “3-D D3 show”? Man, that’d be awesome!
Didn’t they do that with Elvis? Or maybe Michael Jackson was going to do it at the London dates. They should do it with Elvis, the 70′s Elvis, you know that version of him playing Unchained Melody at the piano in ’73? So moving. I’m in tears just thinking about it.
Are you gonna be pissed if you never win an Oscar? You know, if the committee screws ya or something? In the back of your head, are you like, ‘Fuck, I gotta get me one of those little statues’? Be honest. Can the wife and I come to ya’ll’s Oscar party? And a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’ whether now or 20 years from now. Think about it. At least to the Paris party. Hard life kickin’ it with the Oscar wieners and such. A promise is a promise…
If there is a victory lap Josh you’re the first name on the list with your wife. We’ll play a game of ‘horseshoes’ with it.
And Finally… This would contradict the ‘Fuck this rock shit, I’m goin’ Classical’ theory, but you wanna play on some country song of mine? They’re pretty good.
I mean, St. Nick’s not gettin’ any younger you know. You got start thinkin’ about the future here dude. About your kids and wife and all. I know you’re busy with film and jobs that pay and stuff, but dammit this is important son. I promise not to sing about pussy either. Unless of course you wanted me to. Then if Warren ‘Fucking’ Ellis wanted, I’d sing about pussy till all the cows in Texas came fucking home, or at least ’till we invented that D3 3D concert watcher. It would be awesome.
Anytime Josh, I’ll play with you in a heartbeat.