Indie Music

‘Cynicism doesn’t get you anywhere’: Warren Ellis on Dirty Three’s return, Nick Cave – and opening a primate sanctuary

You might think that the primary factor needed to make a band work is, you know, actually being able to get together to make music. Not for Dirty Three. It is 12 years since the Australian instrumental trio last released an album, 2012’s Toward the Low Sun, but it isn’t for lack of trying that their reunion has taken so long. Drummer Jim White lives in New York, guitarist Mick Turner in Melbourne and violinist Warren Ellis in Paris. And they’ve all been busy: White as a solo artist, in duo Xylouris White and collaborating with the likes of Bill Callahan; Turner as a painter and solo artist; Ellis, most famously, as right-hand man to Nick Cave in the Bad Seeds and in their film scoring partnership. “When someone was available, the other two weren’t,” says Ellis, looking wild of hair and resplendent in a ruby Fila zip top and blue Peter Jackson suit in a London pub. “For some reason, I think that really worked in our favour.”

Having limited opportunities to get together meant limited opportunities to repeat themselves – and from day one, Dirty Three sought to push the limits of the three-piece. The Melbourne scene stalwarts formed in Ellis’s kitchen at the turn of 1992 – Ellis says none of them can remember when exactly – and improvised for five hours ahead of playing three sets of background music at a friend’s bar that night. “I remember asking Mick, ‘God, how long do you think we’ll be together?’” says Ellis, drinking tea containing precisely a dot of milk. “And he said, ‘Well, as long as what we think we’re doing is good. When we start making shit, it’s time to stop.’” They quickly made their name with their lyrical, furious interplay, shades of Celtic and Greek folk music, a shared love of Impulse! records and jazz drummer Elvin Jones, as well as for their knife-edge danger and flayed emotion, with Ellis in particular playing as if it were always the last night of his life. They inspired love and hate – “We’d play shows where not even half the audience liked us, and the other half wanted to kill us,” says Ellis – and found themselves in what he calls a post-Nirvana boom for various shades of alternative music made by kindred spirits, supporting the likes of Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys when they came to Australia. The early albums, 1993’s self-titled, 1995’s Sad and Dangerous and 1996’s Horse Stories, managed the rare feat of capturing their live energy.

Once Dirty Three made it to the US in the mid-90s, they toured incessantly, “sharing beds and Motel 6 floors” with no permanent place to call home, while Ellis was also using drugs and alcohol. “It wasn’t violent, but from my side of things it was destructive,” says Ellis. “But it was just awesome. When you come from Australia, you know it’s a lot to get out of there, and it’s a lot to get back out of there if you have to go back, so if you can get out of there you try and stay out of there.” They became part of the loose US post-rock scene that ties Steve Albini to Cat Power to PJ Harvey and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Toward the end of the decade, however, “we felt like we’d reached a peak”, says Ellis, and they dialled things down for the quieter Ocean Songs in 1998.

These days, I think, let’s throw it up in the air a bit and see what happens

While they continued to release consistently for the next few years (including 2001’s beautiful In the Fishtank EP with Low), the nature of the band changed as they settled and had families: Ellis got clean and moved to Paris with his now wife, Delphine Ciampi, where they live with their two sons, and became a permanent Bad Seed. They imposed more limitations on their work – 2005’s Cinder featured intentionally compact songs – which, Ellis says now, “worked at the time but was really unsatisfying. We sort of threw the baby out with the water.” They took a break until Toward the Low Sun, an album which was plagued with false starts as they feared they had run out of road.

But working on other projects “loosened us up”, says Ellis, and gave them fresh energy for some Australian shows in 2019. The pandemic interrupted a brief stint in the studio. Other bands might have given up, especially given that Dirty Three now looked more like moonlighting than their now-dominant side projects, but, says Ellis, “when we come together, there’s nothing like it. It’s so concentrated. It’s a very different thing to the Bad Seeds. It’s what defines a band – it’s like when Crazy Horse gets together and there’s something different about when Neil Young gets some band together and plays the songs. We’ve never wanted to stop it. I still get a lot of energy from it.”

Eventually, they knuckled down to recording in 2022. “We sat down and played, which is what we used to do in the early days,” says Ellis, “informed by the sort of Impulse! records where they just got in and blew, you know?” The result is possibly their best record: a seven-part suite called Love Changes Everything, tracks simply titled I-VII, that travels in one unbroken path from furious distortion – “like on Sister Ray, everything’s red-lining” – through swooping sadness and a kind of densely feverish anticipation that recalls the recent Julius Eastman recordings on Frozen Reeds. It’s uncontainable and euphoric, and ends as if reaching toward the sky. The idea of making one continuous piece of music, says Ellis, came from John Coltrane’s 1966 album Ascension; despite Dirty Three’s incredible knack for naming songs – Everything’s Fucked, I Remember a Time When You Used to Love Me, Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone – this time, “just one title was enough”, says Ellis.

Wary of aphorisms, Ellis says he’s not sure the title offers any wisdom. “But these days, it seems like cynicism doesn’t really get you anywhere,” he says. “Action is way more important.” In 2021, he co-founded an animal sanctuary in Sumatra, Ellis Park, to home abused primates who can’t be released back into the wild. As a result, he says, “I know the difference that happens when somebody engages with you and does something, and just goodwill.” At 59, Ellis says he’s sometimes still shaking off his old wariness. “I found that being cynical sometimes just reflected my lack of self-confidence about things, like in my creative life. When I was more open to the process, it allowed more freedom and I was more liberated.”

Even during a couple of hours in a pub on a wet spring day, his steady awe at life is in effect: at the “miracle” that he’s been able to spend more than 30 years “doing the thing that I love”; how his collaboration with Cave “pushes friendship somewhere that other friendships don’t go, that you can take risks and that’s OK”; how Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who runs a community school, encouraged him to start Ellis Park. “‘Man, you’ve gotta do it!’” Ellis recalls the bassist saying in a California drawl. “‘It will open your fucking eyes to something you could not believe was possible!’ Like that. It was exactly what I needed to hear.” (Ellis named a pair of meerkats in tribute to Flea and his wife Melody, and is working on a documentary about the park.) “You can read about love,” he says. “You can watch it on a film. You can listen to a song. But when love’s on your side, it’s like a battering ram.”

It’s there, too, when Ellis talks about the death of his father in December, at the age of 90. He had facial cancer. “The greatest gift my father gave me was he fired our imaginations as kids,” says Ellis, who grew up with two brothers in Ballarat, near Melbourne. “He had a love of literature and the arts and music, and he never taught us how to kick a football, but the stuff that was important to him he wanted to transmit back to us.” When Ellis heard that his father was nearing the end of his life, White – who had also lost his father – told him, “‘If you can get there, get there.’ I’m so, so glad that I got there,” says Ellis. “I think it changed my perspective on what came after. I only felt gratitude that he was my dad. The grief hasn’t been profound because he was 90. Maybe that’ll come, but I choose to look on it as his last act, his last gift to me that I could be there and send him off to the next port of call. I watched my dad leave the world with two things: love and his faith. It was an extraordinary privilege to see that.” Ellis and White’s fathers used to come to the shows. “It means I’ve got an extra couple of spots on the guest list now,” he says, with a surprisingly huge chuckle.

We’ve played shows where half the audience wants to kill us

It’s easy to perceive Ellis as having a shamanic quality. Even the people in the pub who don’t recognise him are quite aware that he’s someone, glittering with adornment by the log fire. He magnetises the camera in the three documentaries about Nick Cave, and particularly since he published Nina Simone’s Gum in 2021 – about his quest to turn a piece of Simone’s stolen chewing gum into a quasi-religious artefact – a kind of iconography has blossomed around him. (He’s even breached pop, working with the 1975 and FKA twigs.) Social media means he can’t help but be aware of it, he says – and he has cast his own hands in silver – but he doesn’t give it much thought. “The thing that more bothers me is just the next thing. Can I do it? That’s the thing that defines you, the latest thing you’ve done.” Walking for Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto recently helped him “buy land for the parks and feed the monkeys”. Plus, he says, “I just thought, wow, fuck, why not? Coming through the 90s, we had a certain attitude to things like: you don’t do this, don’t put your music here. These days, I think, let’s throw it up in the air a bit and see what happens.”

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Never mind iconography: Ellis worries that even talking about Dirty Three’s albums might do them a disservice. “I don’t want to invent something to make it sound interesting,” he says. “The interesting part for me is what people make of it. From my side of things, it’s the act of getting in the studio and pushing yourself.” But the intuitive relationship between the trio, and their refusal to be reined in, four decades into their career, seems the operative part: the embodiment of the idea of love as a catalyst opened up by their new album; the beauty that can arise from listening deeply to one another.

These days, Dirty Three are relatively elder statesmen more likely to play Sydney Opera House than to rile German Pogues fans to the point of violence, as they did in the late 90s. “It’s quite galvanising when you realise you ruffle people’s feathers,” says Ellis. But the way they play together still requires risk-taking. “That doesn’t always work,” he says. “But there’s something precarious about it that’s really thrilling. That was always the thing with Dirty Three – we’d do a show that could be really good or fall flat on its head, but I really like that about it, that it stood or died in the moment.”

The pub’s dinner rush starts, and a young bartender thanks Ellis profusely for his work as he clears our cups. “It’s so nice to be thanked,” says Ellis, taken aback. It reminds me of something he said earlier. “It seems like more than ever, if you go forward with the right intent, with your actions, in your heart, there’s a better chance of passing on something to somebody who could do the same,” he said. “You tell somebody that they look awesome and you can see how it changes them. When somebody says that to you, it changes the way you look out into the world. So yeah – I still get cynical, but it feels like time starts getting precious. And hopefully, I – you – can make that time count.”

Love Changes Everything is released by Bella Union on 28 June. Dirty Three will perform in Melbourne on 14 and 15 June as part of Rising festival

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