The Magical Number: Warren Ellis on The Dirty Three




Violinist, flautist, guitarist, bassist, player of what-have-you in general and sometime Grinderman, Warren Ellis is probably best known for his long collaboration with Nick Cave, and particularly his epoch-shifting role in Cave’s ever-evolving band, The Bad Seeds, with whom he signed up in the mid-1990s.

In this interview dating from 1998, however, I talk to him about his other great group, and the band where it all started for him: The Dirty Three, the wild Australian instrumentalists who make music the way the atmosphere generates weather systems, formed by Ellis, drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner in Melbourne in 1992. Here, Ellis talks about why they got together, how they make their music, busking in Edinburgh, and how the true stories are always the most absurd

How – actually, let me change that: why did The Dirty Three first get together?
WARREN ELLIS: We got together because it helped us pay the rent. A friend of mine bought a bar in Melbourne, and rather than playing records, he wanted to have live music. I hadn’t seen him for about eight years or something, and when I bumped into him, he said he’d bought this bar and he knew I played music, so he said “Why don’t you get a group together and come down and play?” So, I’d just met Jim and Mick about two or three months before this took place, and we met up in my kitchen, worked out half a dozen songs, and went down and played there that night. That was kind of why we started really. We weren’t actually that focused: we just went down and played, we didn’t have a concept for the group or anything. These were just the instruments we played, there was no PA – and none of us could sing, so that wiped out vocals from the start.

What had you been doing before that, in terms of music?
WE: Oh, I was sort of playing in a couple of groups – the night I met the guy who offered us the gig in his bar, I was playing in another little bar in Richmond. I’d sort of started playing music seriously about a month before that. Well, I mean, I’d been playing music sort of most of my life, but I hadn’t been in a band before that. I’d been living down in the country for a while, and before that, I’d actually been over in Edinburgh. I’d been over in Edinburgh, I spent some time in Scotland on a whisky distillery. And I was learning tunes – Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes – and just sort of busking my way around in that really fucking cold train station just off the Golden Mile there [Waverley]. I was at the station, playing there every day – that’s what I’d been doing really!

There’s a sort of subconscious image that’s developed about The Dirty Three’s beginnings, because people have heard that you started out playing out in these waterfront bars – and maybe it’s because of the sound of your music, and maybe because Australia is “the other side of the world” from the people writing about it here in the UK – but there’s this picture of you kind of playing these real old dives full of sailors from about 200 years ago, a kind of Jacques Brel/ Port Of Amsterdam scene. So what were the places you started out in like?
WE: Oh, no: they were just regular bars! And mainly filled with our friends who would come down. We played in that one bar for a couple of months, and then we started playing in venues, on stages, We sort of got into playing the club circuit pretty quickly. There weren’t any old salty sea-dogs or anything like that hanging around. We were playing a bar in a Vietnamese part of Melbourne called Richmond, and none of the Vietnamese community came into drink, because the Vietnamese didn’t hang out in bars. So, yeah, it was mainly just our sort of drunken friends. And the occasional football team.

How do the songs come about for The Dirty Three? Is it through group improvisation?
WE: We don’t sit down and write them on bits of paper. But I guess our approach has changed as we’ve got to know each other more and more – we’ve been together five years now. Originally, we had a very loose approach where we’d have a really simple idea and knock it around a bit. We never practiced: it was always live, we found ourselves playing live a lot for some reason, so we just played songs, tunes, over and over. And I think, over the five years, we gradually started to approach it in a different way – so there’s more structure to it now than there was in the beginning. We leaned a lot more on improvisation in the beginning, where songs just sort of tended to… work themselves out. We never sat down and talked about it or anything. Someone will have an idea, and we’ll work with it. And as we started playing together more, I guess it became an outlet for a lot of emotional things: the tunes became releases from things that were going on – it actually became quite personal.

With the two most recent albums – Horse Stories and Ocean Songs – when you do records like that, do you consider them a collection of individual songs, or more like a ‘piece’?
WE: Yeah, actually, I do think Ocean Songs is probably a bit more like a piece in different sections. We sat down in Chicago in an old warehouse for eight or nine days and wrote that record – we hadn’t played any of it live beforehand, which was very new for us, because normally, like we just discussed, we had been playing songs live quite a bit and then ending up recording them. Horse Stories was the first time where we went in and tried to record a record. All the rest – Sad And Dangerous and the self-titled one – were really just us documenting where we were at that time, what we had been doing live. None of them ever had releases at first, y’know: they weren’t recorded with release in mind.

Have you ever played the same song the same way?
WE: Well, I’m sure we have, but it’s probably been more often different than anything else, in terms of varying the dynamics, the speed, the intensity, or the tune. The new album [Ocean Songs] was probably more structured than the other ones. But we’ve just finished touring for four months, and it’s developed again quite differently over that period of time, it’s gone off another way, and actually became a lot looser than when the songs were recorded. We wanted to record the songs in a stark, fragile state, when we didn’t know what was going on with them.

Rock criticism – as opposed to jazz writing, or classical – has traditionally had the lyrics to lean on for the journalist. Reading over some of the reviews that have been written about The Dirty Three, I was struck that, when writers are trying to capture the emotion of the music, without any words to lead the way in, it can result in some pretty purple prose being spilled out. I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way. But I was wondering what you made of some of the wilder reviews, as people try to capture in words what you do.
WE: Yeah, I know what you mean…it seems like people think it’s time to really…express themselves! And that’s fine. It’s good, actually. As long as people express themselves honestly and have some sort of emotional relationship with it, whether it’s good or bad, then that’s good. I think that’s one of the whole points of music, to garner some sort of response. Music has always been a very personal thing for me. If it affects people, then that’s fine. I’d rather read that than someone who’s opinionated without actually feeling it…

Talking of interpretations of the music, some of your own introductions to the songs have been pretty strange and shaggy stories.
WE: Sometimes it’s just so ridiculous, it’s nothing to do with the music – it’s just kind of winding people up. I found that, musically, it was getting so intense at shows, to the point that I was trying to make some light relief, to get a breather in, because it was really hard to maintain it playing wise, and the audience were a bit thrown at first… So, yeah, I would find myself rambling on a bit. When I used to do it, I would just actually talk about things that were happening to me – quite a few years back, really miserable things, and people were laughing at me, and I thought that it was kind of like my own little talk show. And I realised that it was actually funny, what was going on, even though it was really like breaking me in two at the time. So it all sort of stemmed from there, it wasn’t a conscious thing, not a lead-in…But, yes, some of them are quite ludicrous. Although, the ones that are true are actually more absurd.

The Dirty Three occasionally collaborate with others – Nick Cave, most obviously. How does bringing other people into the mix affect The Dirty Three?
WE: Well, we’ve always had people play – a friend from Crete who lives in Australia plays the lute with us, and we had a harmonica player. When we did this thing with Nick, he played piano and sang on one song, and he’s got up and sang with us live from time to time – we recorded a couple of songs together for an X-Files album a couple of years ago. So, we’ve always kept ourselves open to having other people in. In America we had Dave Grubbs from Gastr Del Sol – he played on our last record, and he got up in a few places and played with us. And all three of us have always played in other groups as well – so it’s all part of the whole thing really. The more people you play with, the more it benefits the whole thing, the more you bring back. Yeah, you just get different things added.

This interview is to tie in with The Dirty Three coming to Edinburgh to open for Nick Cave’s solo show. So, you’re coming back to Edinburgh – any danger we might spot you busking in the train station again?
WE: Well…I’ll see if I’ve got my rent together by the time we get there.