The Dirty Three: ‘We Just Wanted To Come In Hard’
With a new album on the horizon, The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis talks to DOUG WALLEN about growing up in Ballarat, the limitations of being a three-piece band and the importance of starting their first album in seven years with a bang. Photos by ANNABEL MEHRAN.
By now we know what to expect from Dirty Three. Or do we? The band’s first album since 2005’s Cinder jars us out of any perceived comfort zone right from the opening discord of ‘Furnace Skies’. This is Dirty Three on the prowl, hungry and ferocious. If that was all Toward the Low Sun did, that would be enough. But it matches that volatility with an itch for experimentation, dismantling and often transcending the violin/drums/guitar model. This is an album of profound moments, and those moments sneak up on us even after a wealth of listens.
Ahead of a national tour, Warren Ellis holds forth below on the new album, reuniting with Cinder producer Casey Rice, the growing role of keyboards in the band and growing up in regional Victoria with a country-singing father.
You’re from Ballarat and Grinderman played nearby for Meredith recently. Did you swing back through Ballarat at all?
I did go through, yes. For the first time in a while, actually.
Do you still have family here?
Yeah, my parents are still there. And my brother.
What do you think of growing up in Ballarat?
I guess it was a good place to grow up. Where I grew up, I was on the edge of town so there was a river and a rubbish tip. You could go fishing and yabbying, and there was a lake you could go swimming in. There were trees to climb and a train line – you could stand in front the train and squash coins on the track. You could go riding your bike all day. It was great, growing up without the confines of the city. I guess it was a very different time. You had a lot of things to sort of dream about, because there was no internet and no easy access to things. Everything seemed so magical and far away, and there was so little information about stuff. So it made you want to go there and work out what was going on. So as a place to grow up, I think it was probably really great. There was a lot of time to think about things. [Laughs] I don’t know what it’s like these days, but it was probably good to get out of there when I did. Move to the city and explore different things and see that the world was bigger than that.
Were you musical from a young age?
Well, my dad [John Ellis] was always playing around the house. He wrote country & western songs. I found an accordion atthe local rubbish dump and started playing that when I was about eight. So yeah, early on I was playing. Then I started playing the violin around nine years old. That’s a long time now.
Did your dad record or release his songs?
He made a bunch of 78s and a 45. He tried to kind of cut his teeth as a country & western singer. He wrote a couple of hundred songs.
Yeah. I didn’t realise at the time, but he was always playing the guitar at home. When he’d come home from work, he’d just sit down and start playing. From a very early age, those basic chord changes – G, C and D or C, F and G – became really lodged in my head. We used to sit round with him and watch The Johnny Cash Show on a Sunday night. He’d record it on a reel-to-reel recorder. He had a lot of different music in the house. There always different things going on, different styles of music being played. He liked music from the Greek islands, and my mum liked classical music. They weren’t really up on popular music. They weren’t listening to Bob Dylan and stuff like that.
“You get to a point [where] the limitations that you have – like being three people – start to be challenging after a couple of records.”
When we started getting into Black Sabbath and AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and then The Sex Pistols and The Saints and all that stuff, you start looking for your own sort of thing. It was actually a kind of interesting formative years for me, because I got the basic chords stuck in my system without realising it. Just because my dad kept playing ‘Misery is My Middle Name’, this song he’d written. That wormed in there, so I had some association with chords from an early age.
Let’s talk about the new Dirty Three album. It starts on a noisy, erratic note with the beginning of ‘Furnace Skies’. Was that intentional in the sequencing?
It certainly was. We just thought it was good to come in on a strong note. It had been a while since we’d put anything out. It felt like there’d been a shift in the way we’d approached making this record and the material, and we just wanted to come in hard, and from there develop. So that people knew A) that we were back, and B) that this was a really cool record.
The instrumentation is really varied. There’s organ in that song, piano on ‘Ashen Snow’ and acoustic guitar on ‘Moon on the Land’.
We all do different things and play different stuff. You just go in there and see what happens, really. With this one, we really wanted to try and make it about the three of us and not do a lot of overdubs like we’d done on past albums. That kind of happened and it kind of didn’t. Because I’d sit down and start playing piano on some of the numbers, and then think, “Oh, it might be good to put a violin on it.” It kind of moved away from that, but I guess it’s basically the three of us playing, mainly live. Yeah, we’ve never tried to restrain it, temper it.
Do you ever use piano or keyboards live?
No. Well, Nick Cave came and played with us when we did Ocean Songs [in its entirety on tour]. He played piano. But that’s the only time we’ve had a keyboard player, from memory. But this time, I think, I’ll have some set up. We’re working out how to play it now. Live we want to keep it as the three of us, so we’re trying to work that out. We have toured with a bass player before, a couple of times, when we put a lot of bass on an album and we wanted to present something different.
The thing is with bands, you get to a point [where] the limitations that you have – like being three people – start to be challenging after a couple of records. And you either expand the sound [or] expand the group, and the group just keeps getting bigger and you end up with seven or eight people on stage because you want to do something different each time. I think what we tried to do is, even if we do expand the sound in the recordings, we try to keep it just the three of us on stage. Because the more people that come into the picture, it starts to change the way that we play. And the way that we play has always been, to our minds, something unique. Once that starts changing, it becomes a really different thing. As soon as you start adding other people in, it becomes a different idea.
I want to talk about ‘That Was Was’, where you’re doing this distorted soloing on the fiddle. It sounds like one of those big Neil Young guitar solos.
Oh, does it? Cool.
How did that part come about?
Well, that’s how I used to play, in the early ’90s. I found myself playing violin in bands, but I never particularly liked violin. So early on I electrified it. My brother gave me a guitar pickup and we just stuck a rubber band on it and held it on there and did a couple shows like that. Then I got an amp and used some pedals. I just used to literally turn ’em all up and see what happened. I had this heavily overdriven sound for a few years. Then I started moving away from that. I wanted to try and develop what I was doing. [But] that’s actually how I used to always play.
So this was a return to that for you?
Well, I’ve always been playing like that. I guess you just keep trying to change what you do, to try and stay in there. Stay in the game.
What was it like working again with Casey Rice? I’ve interviewed him before and gotten to know him.
It’s good. Really good. We’ve done a record before [2005’s Cinder] and we have a history with him. That always helps, I think, when you go in the studio. You don’t want to have to work out people’s egos. You don’t have enough time in the studio to worry about it. So if you’ve found somebody that works and you like the results, that saves a lot of time. Casey’s on the same page. He wants to help us make the record we want to make, and we get on with it.
“I can play in the crummiest pub, the most rotten bar or the most beautiful concert hall, and there’s no difference in terms of what I’m doing.”
You made the record in Melbourne. Mick lives here, but you live in Paris and Jim lives in Brooklyn. Do you ever get together and detect the influence of all the places you live now?
No, I’ve never been able to do that. If it does sneak in, then it’s in a subtle way. It’s an internal language that you have going on. I don’t ever find any influence of anywhere. It’s not like you go to Egypt and start playing Egyptian. It’s more playing with other people that does it, I think. For me, it’s been more about the influence of other people I work with coming through. Y’know, I can play in the crummiest pub, the most rotten bar or the most beautiful concert hall, and there’s no difference in terms of what I’m doing. It’s always about what you’re doing with the people. And I’ve been afforded a great privilege, playing with quite a few different people and people who really influence the way that I play.
To me, music is more what you learn from other people, as opposed to your own adventure. It’s very much about that. I feel like I’m going in to learn, as opposed to show people. I think if we’d all stayed in Melbourne and kept playing … well, I don’t know if we would have kept playing. I think the distance has certainly helped keep us together. Every group I play in, we all live in a different country. I think that actually adds to the dynamic that’s necessary to make really vital music. Because it feels vital to you. When you get together, you’ve got this window and you’ve got to do something. I like the pressure that that makes. I like that structure. And I like to be able to go away from it all and sit on my own and work ideas out and then get together. I mean, I’m over in England a lot with Nick working. We go in and do four days, five days for a soundtrack. Then disappear and come back and do it again. I think it’s good to have boundaries with it. You know you have a certain moment to work, and then you step back from it.
I know Dirty Three is about to tour, but with Grinderman finished now, will the focus for you and Nick again be on The Bad Seeds?
I guess things will happen as they happen. Things have a way of unfolding. Of revealing themselves. And they will. Things are afoot. And that’s all that counts.
Do you ever think of doing a record on your own?
Yeah. [But] like I said before, the big attractive part for me is making music with other people. I like the ideas that other people bring to the table, and I like working off them. I like how people can push me in a different way. I released an EP [2002’s 3 Pieces for Violin] of stuff that Mick put out. Then I had a thing ready to go and just never put it out. Doing a solo album just doesn’t have the attraction. The thing I love about music is playing live on stage with a group. When it happens and it works, it’s just the greatest moment.
‘Toward the Low Sun’ is out on February 24 on Anchor & Hope/Remote Control. Dirty Three are touring nationally in March. Dates here.