Warren Ellis: “I Admit That I Felt Uncomfortable When I Saw That Something Was Keeping Me From Making Music”

Dirty Three are back; make way for the instrumental rock legend

After a seven-year hiatus, the Australian trio Dirty Three is back with “Toward The Low Sun”. Warren Ellis confesses to having undergone a creative crisis; he talks about his composing methods and goes quiet when we ask him about Grinderman.

It must be frustrating to try to get together with your old group and find that the creative spark that used to be there fails to appear at all. To try over and over again without anything coming through. To think that everything that you are recording is mediocre. Something like this happened to Warren Ellis, leader and violinist of the Australian instrumental rock band Dirty Three, who also collaborates with Nick Cave in The Bad Seeds and (the extinct) Grinderman (he’s the one with the beard who looks like a vagabond). After seven years without releasing any new material with his band - since “Cinder” (2005) - last year he began playing with his two mates again, Mick Turner (electric guitar) and Jim White (drums), with the aim of releasing a new album. After a couple of failed attempts, something clicked; one fine day, the muses returned. The result is Toward The Low Sun, a gigantic album, soothing and painful at the same time, crisscrossed by passages of folk, Celtic music, guitar distortion and free jazz. We called Melbourne (Australia) to talk with Ellis about this work, his way of understanding music, and his special affection for Barcelona, where he will perform these new songs in the upcoming San Miguel Primavera Sound festival. The conversation is interrupted several times by dreadful noises (as if “we were in a jungle surrounded by savages”, says Ellis), keeping the conversation from flowing like it should.

"I feel the same pressure in each one of the things that I participate in. It isn’t a question of pressure. Every project that I get involved in is a challenge and I have to give it all that I’ve got."

Hello, Warren. How are you? So we’re finally getting together. I’ve tried to call you a couple of times, but you didn’t answer.

Yeah, sorry. I also called your mobile phone.

I prefer to talk from the landline so that I can record what you say.

OK, but we’ve already wasted about 10 minutes of the time that you have for the interview.

So let’s get started, then, right?

Of course.

Firstly, I’d like to know why you think it’s been so long since the last time that you did something together.

We’ve tried to get together several times to make music, but we couldn’t manage to find the right direction. So we started all over again. Besides that, we all live in different places: Mick in Melbourne, Jim in Brooklyn, and me in Paris. And we all play on other teams: I have been working with Nick Cave in his groups and on some film soundtracks, “The Road” (2009) and “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” (2007), among others. Jim has collaborated with artists like Cat Power, and Mick has been busy with his solo work. [ Coughs and clears his voice]. Besides, we’re old now and we smoke.

Do you think that you feel more pressure with Dirty Three because it’s your own project, while with Nick Cave the spotlight isn’t as focussed on you?

No, no. I feel the same pressure in each one of the things that I participate in. It isn’t a question of pressure. Every project that I get involved in is a challenge and I have to give it all that I’ve got. But the thing is that it was hard to find our sound again. Since it is an instrumental proposal, you have to be more intuitive. If it doesn’t work the first time, it might be because it just doesn’t work.

You produced the album yourselves, with the aid of Casey Rice. Did you think about hiring someone else to make some decisions and get out of the creative slump that way?

I admit that I felt very uncomfortable when I saw that I could make music in other projects with no problem, but with Dirty Three something was holding me back. But that frustration has helped us to evolve and use ideas that we never had before and which have given us another way of seeing things. And we’ve done it the three of us together, without help from anyone else.

What was the initial recording like?

We got it all done in barely six days in Australia. It was a very instinctive process, without predetermined ideas, fleeing from fixed structures and betting on improvisation. We’ve tried something new, like including the piano in “Ashen Snow”.

When I was listening to the album, I wondered what type of images passed through your mind when you were recording the songs for the first time.

Nothing, really. I never think of images when I am playing or composing music.

That’s curious. Even when they commission you to do the soundtrack for a film?

No. It’s a process that has to do with emotions. For example, in the case of a film, I let myself get carried away by the feelings that the images in movement awaken in me, but not by the images themselves. You know what I mean?

"You know what I most feel like right now? Performing at Primavera Sound. The last time we went there, everything turned out incredible"

I think so, but your voice is getting further away. I can’t hear you very well.

Yours too. It’s as if we were in a jungle surrounded by savages . . . Let’s try to go on. I was saying that I never think in terms of images. Not even as a listener. What interests me is the emotional and sonic side of music.

Well, I was going to ask you now whether the landscape of Australia has influenced the music that you make in Dirty Three in any way: hypnotic, unreal, atmospheric . . .

The truth is that we have never sat down to decide what kind of sound we want to make specifically. I can just say that we always play the music that we feel. The truth is that I have never thought about that about the landscape of Australia. I don’t know.

Did you always know that you wanted to make instrumental music?

Yes, in fact - except for little experiments, like some voices that we included in the previous album - we have never thought about including a singer in the group.

Since you started with the group in the early 90s, things must have changed a lot between you. What would you say still keeps you together?

If there is something that the three of us have always had in common, it’s our desire to make music. That is still the same. I think that in the beginning, when we started, we were attracted by the freedom that we felt playing together, a freedom that came precisely from not being subjected to voices, and that way we could each experiment with our own instrument. Apart from that, the three of us liked to take drugs. And to be drugged [ laughs briefly].

Last 11th December, Nick Cave announced in a concert that Grinderman “ was over”. What led him to make that decision?

I’m not going to talk about that.

OK. And what plans do you have for the near future?

I’ll surely play with Nick Cave; apart from that, this year a couple of films that I’ve recorded the music for will come out . . . There are a lot of new things. You know what I most feel like right now? Performing at Primavera Sound. The last time we went there, everything turned out incredible, I remember that it was during the tour where we performed all of “Ocean Songs” [in 2010]. Barcelona is a wonderful city.

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