I catch Warren Ellis in the middle of something.
“I was just reading an article on The Cramps, actually. And what a great article! From the days when rock journalism was carving out a niche of its own! It’s amazing really, when you see the state of things these days, how vital things used to seem. People writing about stuff they cared about. It’s great. Anyway, no pressure!”
Luckily for me, despite our talk taking place at 9.30am, Warren Ellis makes being a rock journalist far easier than many musicians I’ve talked to. His excellence as an interviewee is largely down to the fact that he really loves talking. I barely ask any questions; this is more about listening to what Warren wants to say than it is trying to lead it.
Understandably, Warren wants to talk about Dirty Three’s new album Toward The Low Sun, released in the UK next week on Bella Union records. Their first after a seven year gap that saw an increased focus on the trio’s other projects (particularly Ellis, whose involvement in The Bad Seeds and Grinderman became even more central), it’s an astonishing achievement from a group not unfamiliar with achieving astonishing things. But its gestation was not without some soul searching.
“This was about the second or third attempt at recording it. In all the groups I play in, nobody lives in the same city as anybody else, which means when you get together the pressure’s on. If it doesn’t work it could be a year or two before we get another chance. I think particularly the second time we tried it, it spooked us, got us wondering if maybe we hadn’t run our course. I certainly thought that. We only had one rule when we started which was that we’d stop when we felt like what we had to say wasn’t vital anymore.”
Emotionally wrought though it might be, Toward The Low Sun certainly doesn’t sound like a band on the brink of breaking up. But a lot of things needed to be unlearnt in order to achieve the palpable feeling of band unison the finished work displays.
“I think playing in more traditional line ups (Bad Seeds, Grinderman) changed our style. We realised we needed to have very skeletal ideas again to allow us freedom to move. We knew we could make a certain kind of song with a bunch of chords and a melody, but we wanted to steer clear of that. We’ve been trying to steer clear of that for years. I really wanted Jim (White, drummer) to be able to go off on one. He and I had this way of playing in the Nineties that we lost in the Noughties, we didn’t find it until about two years ago, just playing the way that jazz players do, really listening to each other.”
Fear not, though Jim White indeed plays a blinder from cover to cover, Toward The Low Sun is not a jazz record. It’s not a pop or a rock record either; it’s an extremely far reaching, wide eyed and simultaneously accessible Dirty Three album – perhaps, thinks Warren, the definitive one.
“It feels like it hits more often than it misses. It goes to places we’ve tried to go to in the past and only nearly got there. This feels like it gets there. It’s the most far reaching thing that we’ve done so far, the most representative of the language that we’ve got, the most varied and ambitious. With us, everybody has to feel that the record is a strong statement, that things have moved somewhere, otherwise it doesn’t come out. Even if everyone else thinks you’ve just made the same record your whole life. But I don’t believe that. If I did, I wouldn’t put them out.”
Despite the fact that world tours with the Bad Seeds and Grinderman as well as seemingly endless collaborations and film soundtrack work have kept Warren Ellis very much in the public eye since the Dirty Three disappeared after 2005’s Cinder, the return of the band that made folks take notice of his unique musicianship in the first place is highly anticipated, and certainly won’t be met with the mixture of indifference and bafflement that we’re told first greeted their arrival on the scene.
“It was particularly challenging for us to even get a release when we started out because we didn’t have a singer or bass player. That seems like a standard thing these days, but when we started it was still unknown territory. But me having an electric violin stood out, which always served us well. People always worked out pretty quickly whether they liked us or hated us with a vengeance. The classic situation would be playing to six people in a bar where four of them want to beat your head in, one doesn’t care, and then maybe one other person kinda likes you. We thought it signalled that we were doing something right, that we could get that strong a response.”
Despite agreeing that the public profile of three piece bands, instrumental acts and groups without bass players is certainly greater than during their early Nineties emergence, this isn’t something that Ellis is keen to take any credit for.
“I hear people say we’re influential, but just because there’s a violin in something doesn’t imply anything. I’m certainly not looking out for it, because who’s to know, you know? You can hear some group and think they’re really great, but then it turns out their inspiration is U2. And that just makes me think, Jesus, I can’t relate to anything these days! U2! I’ve got no fucking idea about anything that’s going on. And then there are some people who claim to be inspired by us and you think, jeez, I hope they don’t tell anyone else!”
Though not having any vocals once “really threw people”, these days Ellis sounds like a man who might have had just about enough – for the time being at least – of playing in bands with a singer. Even if that singer is Nick Cave.
“With all of us having played all of us in groups with singers, we realised that they took up a lot of room. But what we were doing was something really wild and free. Each of us could now do what we wanted and nobody was saying, ‘OK it’s the chorus, could you shut up now?’ It instantly gave us this great freedom. When you get lyrics thrown in to a song, it takes the pressure off the music and becomes a very different thing.”
Whilst 99% of Dirty Three songs are devoid of things so vulgar as voices (let alone words, or singing), as anyone who has ever bent double laughing at one of Ellis’ hilarious introductory rambles to songs at Dirty Three gigs will attest, narrative is an idea that retains utmost importance.
“There’s just as strong a narrative to instrumental music as there is to music with lyrics, it’s just the narrative is more personal to each person who listens to it. People invest less of their own experiences in listening to lyrical music, which is fine. But I’ve often found that I can engage in instrumental music in a much more personal, even psychedelic way. It’s like listening to songs where you don’t understand the language they’re in; you can still follow something in it. The emotional sincerity of the piece can cut through all that stuff.”
And those intros? You’re a funny fucker, Warren…
“They were just something I did in a moment of desperation one night. I started talking about my day and everyone was laughing their heads off, despite the fact that it was actually one of the more miserable days of my existence. It dawned on me that it actually was incredibly funny, being that pathetic. I’m not saying the intros describe what the song’s about, but it’s nice to address an audience so that they’re actually engaged; they’re not just thinking they’re watching someone who doesn’t care if they’re there or not. I think in the beginning people didn’t really understand what we were doing, they thought we were some sort of freeform jazz band whilst I thought we had more in common with much more straight up stuff like country and western, or the sentiment of rock and roll. We just weren’t pulling it by the nose, you know? The intros were there as a way to slip that to people, to make them aware that it wasn’t rocket science. It either works or falls flat on its face, but that’s an exciting place to be. We like to leave a lot open to risk.”
Despite rumours that Grinderman have recently called it a day and The Bad Seeds might be prepping another record, this wasn’t the time to discuss many Nick Cave-related projects. It was tried, but lead to the only moment at which Ellis didn’t seem like he wanted to give (after a rare pause came “I’m just concentrating on Dirty Three at the moment”.) We did however manage to get a few words on his and Cave’s collaboration on the West Of Memphis soundtrack, a documentary detailing the controversial imprisonment of three teenagers for a series of murders in Arkansas in the early Nineties. The trio known as The West Memphis Three always maintained their innocence, and with a host of indie celebrities on side, have long fought for their release.
“The three of them actually got out in September, but it was a case I’d been aware of for quite a while. I remembered seeing the Paradise Lost documentaries when they came out because they caused such a commotion. The director Amy Bird approached us about doing the soundtrack to this new film about it. And it’s extraordinary, this documentary. The soundtrack is a very different thing to work on, because you don’t want the music to be too ear grabbing, you don’t want to be pulled out of the narrative of the dialogue. It’s challenging to make music for other people, for a thing that’s bigger than you. In a band you’re just making music for yourself and the challenge for a band, particularly a band like The Dirty Three, is how to keep it moving along.”
It’s clear that keeping things moving along is something central to all aspects of Warren Ellis’ art. Now aged 47, I learn that he’s been playing the violin for the best part of four decades. Can he remember what made him want to pick it up in the first place?
“I sure do. It was when I was at primary school. I was already playing an accordion I found in a rubbish dump, learning all these songs from the war. Then someone came round asking if anybody wanted to play the violin. I looked around the class and noticed that most of the girls put their hands up. I think I was about 10 at the time and I figured, ‘alright, I’ll have one of those’ and put my hand up. But when I got to the class, there were no girls. There was just one guy there, who thought he was a Martian. He had a pointed ear, and we used to build spaceships out of wheelbarrows and tie them behind his mum’s car and get pulled down the driveway. It was one of my more brutal lessons in life. You think you’re getting the girl and you end up with Martian. Hmm. I’ve realised a lot of things this morning.”
Dirty Three will release Towards The Low Sun through Bella Union on the 27 February. Order the album from the official Bella Union store by clicking here.