INTERVIEW: WARREN ELLIS


written by Chris Familton

Warren Ellis is a busy man. On the line from his home in France he is momentarily catching his breath before diving back into the world of Dirty Three, the band that he first came to fame with in the early 90s. They are due to play shows across Australia and New Zealand early in 2010, including full performances of their classic Ocean Songs album.

Ellis is of course also the foil to Nick Cave in The Bad Seeds and Grinderman as well as his co-composer on a growing number of film projects that have been compiled on the recently released 2CD White Lunar.

Juggling all of these projects must be a tricky thing to manage I ask Ellis. “There are times when you have clashes and things don’t work and you just have to work with it. Fortunately everyone is kind of understanding as it has its inherent and inevitable problems. I just try and do as much as I can while I can, while its there,” he replies.

Looking back on Dirty Three’s discography, Ellis finds it hard to have a perspective on which is his favourite. “They’re not the sort of records that I put on for my own enjoyment like I do other records. They are just things I’ve done and been involved with. I don’t look upon them in the same light as other records. Its very difficult when its something you’ve been involved with,” he admits, before adding “We are yet to write our classic album.”

Compare their recorded work to their infamous and emotionally resonant live performances and Ellis is more forthcoming. “For me Dirty Three’s evolution took place on the stage. Its very much what happened in the live context that I found of interest personally with the group. You really live in the moment. The album is a very different experience, there’s the recording and then thats the end of it. I always thought we were a much more enjoyable live proposition,” he opines.

“If you don’t see it like that you just end up doing covers of your own records. That’s how I see it, you may as well be playing in a covers band at the Chadstone Shopping Centre – at least you could play songs you like; you could play Stairway To Heaven till the cows come home. You’d get to do that great lead break all the time. Or you could do Whole Lotta Rosie down at the Frankston Football Club and have the time of your life every night doing the intro and the sing a long,” laughs Ellis.

With increasingly longer periods apart, I wonder if Dirty Three have to work to recapture the magic or whether its just like riding a bicycle. “We’re all playing outside of the group so we keep our foot in it so to speak – that helps. You come back into it with a bit of what you’ve been doing affecting it and you’ve learnt things you wouldn’t have just playing with Dirty Three. Its a constant trade-off, each thing informs the other,” explains Ellis.

“We just toured so much in the early days and when we weren’t playing we were trying to kill each other. It was both a close and unnatural relationship. The thing is we can have days where we run out there and it all comes together and other days when it goes flat on its face and you’re constantly picking yourself up off the ground and I think that’s a great thing about playing live. You never really know which way its going to fall,” says Ellis.

The good news is that a new Dirty Three album is already underway and the Australian tour gives them a chance to reconvene and finish the record. “We’ve started work on one and the plan is that when we are out in Australia we’ll hopefully get it concluded and look at releasing it next year. Its become increasingly problematic over the years as people have established families and doing other work. There’s just not the time to do things and find a moment when everybody is available but that’s fine too. We’re due a record and it feels like the right time which is good,” says an upbeat Ellis.

Grinderman are still in their relative infancy but they too have almost completed work on their second album, which Ellis expects to be out in the first half of 2010. “We still have to finish off a couple of technical things and the mastering. Its basically finished so we’ll have to decide which songs to keep and which ones we won’t be using,” says Ellis.

“We’ve tried to steer clear of the first one and tried to let it go somewhere else and take it somewhere else and it feels like that happened so we’re really happy with it. The last thing we wanted to do was make a record the same as the first one, as charming as it was. To repeat it would have been pointless. Its going to be a great record that one, a ripper,” enthuses Ellis.

Ellis is also proud of White Lunar, a collection of soundtrack music that works just as effectively outside the movie theatre. “It was nice to collect that stuff all together in one place and put it out. Things get put forward and we look at them, we don’t say yes to everything. Its not like its the only thing we have to do. I really like doing the film scores, I find them really liberating and its great to have something you are working for as opposed to a big blank canvas when you are making an album.”

Cave and Ellis have a specific modus operandi with their film work that suits a specific type of film. “We come from a very different background to traditional score composers and we work in a very organic way. Our approach isn’t for every type of film or director. It wouldn’t work for James Bond or something like that. We don’t have the skill to do that kind of thing.” he admits. I suggest that Grinderman would do a killer Bond theme and Ellis laughs, “Well that would be fun, I’d have a shot at that!”

Among all of these projects Ellis also has a solo album that has been burning a hole in his pocket for a while now. “I have an album worth of stuff that I spoke to Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine about working on but its still just sitting there, I oddly thought it was something I’d get onto this year and finish it off. Its just a matter of finishing some of the material and then mixing it, explains Ellis.

The final word on the world of Warren goes to The Bad Seeds and how Mick Harvey’s departure earlier this year has affected the group. “I guess how that impacts on the band remains to be seen. Another album hasn’t even been discussed yet so the impact will be seen when we get to another album you know. These things always have some kind of impact.It was very sad that Mick left.” says Ellis.

Warren Ellis is a man on a musical mission and though it requires a huge amount of energy and planning it is something that he clearly loves and is driven to do. “Its fortunate I’ve been doing so many other things otherwise I might have gone mad. I’m very happy to be doing lots of different things.”

This interview first appeared on FasterLouder

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