Thursday, January 21, 2010

Howl: An interview with Warren Ellis



When the American author Mark Twain visited a Victorian gold mining town back in 1885, he was inspired to write: “It was as if the name BALLARAT had suddenly been written in the sky, where all the world could read it at once.”

Born almost century later in Ballarat in 1965, the young Warren Ellis must have looked up from Lydiard Street and wondered what this same sky held for him?

In a town where people spent their dreams so recklessly, the ghosts of history had left behind peculiar, melancholy energies. Maybe some of this rubbed off on his father, John Ellis, a fine blue-grass musician given to writing laments like ‘Mis’ry is my Middle Name’, a song his son would later record with him on an album of lost Australian country classics entitled Where Joy Kills Sorrow.

Now a 44 year old violinist and film composer of world standing, Warren Ellis is capable of drawing on haunted and savage intensities of his own to fuel rock ‘n’ roll groups as varied the Dirty Three, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman - as well as the soundtracks and theatre scores he develops with his main creative partner, Nick Cave.

Together the pair excelled themselves recently with music for a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Road, the story of an un-named father and son journeying towards the coast after what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust. So much so there is speculation that a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Music is on the way, though a laconic Ellis has joked about using any such prize for an unlikely game of horse-shoes.

Today Ellis’ broad Australian accent floats down the phone line from Paris in a distinctly unhurried way, day-dreaming what should have been a 20-minute interview into well over an hour’s worth reached-for, but often elusive feelings. Married to Delphine Ciampi he has been based in France for the last twelve years. The couple has two children, Roscoe (8) and Jackson (6). Perhaps not coincidentally Ellis has also been “straight” for those twelve years, turning his life around with initial help from NA, AA and primal scream therapy.

Like Ellis, Nick Cave has also overcome addiction problems and now has two young sons. It’s therefore easy to imagine the parental empathies that stirred between these musicians as they were developing the soundtrack for an apocalyptic father-and-son story like The Road.

“When you read The Road you can’t not be engaged in it in some personal way, it just doesn’t seem possible, whether you have kids or not,” Ellis says. “Obviously having kids, there’s no way you could do anything without reflecting upon that. It was actually something we had to avoid: falling into that trap of letting those emotions run wild when we were making the music, and over egging the scenes – ‘cos it’s such a fine line between greatness and sappiness. We had to actually be very…very restrained in many respects.”



It was as the unrestrained, violin-playing dervish for the Dirty Three that Ellis first took to the road, establishing them as one of our most surprising success stories of the past decade: a purely instrumental rock ‘n’ roll band from Downunder. Fans like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Will Oldham and Nick Cave all attest to their quality. Cave has spoken admiringly of “their capacity for staying in the moment, getting completely lost in what they are doing and taking audiences along for the ride” (The Age, 31.03.02). But when he invited Ellis to become a full-time member of his backing group The Bad Seeds in 1998 the violinist was forced to re-assess everything – as well as begin managing a dual career that soon got even more complicated.

“With the Dirty Three we just went out and played like our lives depended on it and you all went for it otherwise it just fell to pieces,” Ellis explains, almost laughing. “When I started playing with the Bad Seeds I had to learn a very different approach – which was when to find the moment, I guess. And the lyrics will generally dictate that to you: when you can pull out and go for it, when to hold back, when to go under.”

Ironically this tactical sense would reinvigorate Ellis’ playing in the Dirty Three, slowing and broadening the tempo of their appropriately epic 1998 release Ocean Songs. This month they will perform that album in full as part of the Don’t Look Back series of classic rock ‘n’ roll albums revisited by a band in a live context.

The Dirty Three’s gypsy abandonment would meanwhile feedback the other way as Ellis refreshed and loosened the Bad Seeds taut approach, to the point where he has become Cave’s principal songwriting foil today. The two have since formed a dirty (some would say lyrically filthy) rock ‘n’ roll blues side-project called Grinderman, all the while they continue to work on their more restrained and meditative scores for film and theatre.

Ellis and Cave recently previewed music from The Road as part of a broader 2-CD selection of their soundtrack work entitled White Lunar. It also includes their award-winning work on The Proposition (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), both off-kilter Westerns with otherworldly intensities. That all three films are also ‘road’ stories set in isolated frontier spaces might also explain the surprising unity of mood across collection.



With his long hair and longer beard, Ellis certainly makes the White Lunar title seem highly appropriate. It’s a howl at the moon look that suggests both the ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin and an Australian bushranger on the run. His French wife apparently hates it. The couple’s sons are die-hard Nirvana fans similarly under-whelmed by their father’s inability to play The Simpson’s theme on guitar after six months of trying to master it. They apparently think dad is “a bit thick” when it comes to music.

Ellis can laugh at that. It’s not as if his musical education was ever that orthodox. After finding an accordion at the local Ballarat dump when he was only 11, he switched his focus onto the violin, mainly in pursuit of the girls who were also taking lessons. Life changing exposure to records like AC/DC’s Back in Black and John Coltrane’s Kulu Se Mama in his late teens, along with the musical influence of his father, set him off on a musical journey deep into the Melbourne punk scene of the early 1980s where The Birthday Party were gods and Greek music filtered out of every cafĂ© he frequented.

Soon enough Ellis was playing with everybody from Kim Salmon to The Triffids’ David McComb, who’d acclaim the violinist as “Jimi Hendrix reincarnated”. But it was in his own group the Dirty Three with drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner that he would find his feet spectacularly. Though as Ellis once observed, “Who’d have bet on a fiddle player in an instrumental rock ‘n’ roll group ever being a success story?”

Over time he has expanded his instrumental repertoire, picking up the mandolin, piano, flute and bouzouki, as well as a recent fascination for hand-playing various effects and distortion pedals. To see him sprawled across the floor with his gadgets during a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show is to witness something less like music being played than a wizard at the electric cauldron.

Ellis explains how he and Cave record in an “organic” way for their soundtrack work, jamming and then developing entire pieces for film rather than attempting to “spot” the music into particular scenes. “We see a piece all the way through,” he emphasizes, “we don’t just make a 20 second atmospheric thing. We’ll make a three or four minute piece. It’s the only way we know how to work. We tried to spot cues at first, but it didn’t seem to work out for us. It just wasn’t in our nature to do it.”

“I’ve only ever seen two other film composers at work anyway,” he admits. “The guy who’s done the last few James Bond films – and Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons!”

A part of his attraction to sculpting what he calls “the most beautiful chance encounters” out of this jamming process with Cave is also a matter of practicality. The projects they have worked on are often unfinished at the time the pair been scheduled into the studio to provide a soundtrack. In the wake of that Ellis talks about the necessity of constructing “music that is moveable. Malleable is the word really. It has to be able to move.”

He worries he is underselling the preparatory work he and Cave do: reading each script, watching scenes and unedited footage, deciding on instrumentation and potential arrangements, then letting rip once they get together. “I think we’ve got more in common with the way they did Pat Garrett and Bill the Kid than how Star Wars was done. I guess that’s all I’m saying.”

“Have you seen David [McComb’s] book of poetry?” he asks of the singer-songwriter who passed away just before his 37th birthday in 1999, and has lately been memorialized with a posthumous suite of poems called Beautiful Waste as well as a wide-ranging collection of essays and memoir reflections on his life and work entitled Vagabond Holes. “It still kinda cracks me up about Dave," Ellis says. "I’m not sure I ever really knew where to put that, with him disappearing, him… going like that. It was all so abrupt. But the end is always abrupt. It just felt…” Ellis loses the words then starts to speak again. “It’s just a reminder of how young he was. I kinda thought he was old at the time, but now I see he wasn’t even vaguely old. Now that I’m older than he was. He had such a big vision back then.”

The conversation dissolves completely for a moment, before Ellis begins discussing his passion for watching old Australian movies like Walkabout and Last Wave repeatedly the past year. There’s a quality" to them he feels profoundly “familiar” with, “even though I know that’s not how Australia is now. But there seems to be something resonant about them when I try to find a place I know in my mind.” At home in his Paris garden he has planted a bottle brush and a wattle tree. Playing music offers the same sense of ‘place’ for him somehow. Not so surprising when you realize both he and Nick Cave are from regional Victoria. “Yeah, [we’re] boys from the west,” Ellis says proudly. “Nick grew up only a few hundred kilometers down the road from me.”

Currently his word of choice appears to be “psychedelic” when trying to express what he seeks from creating instrumental music, as well the new direction of the next Grinderman album and just about anything else he does. The premium is on freedom, and some kind of internal dreaming. “I’ve always enjoyed playing with Nick,” he says of that freedom. “And I’ve always liked what he has brought out in me. He has an unbridled enthusiasm, and he pushes me to go as far as I can – and then to go further. It’s always felt like a healthy relationship to me. I’ve never been the kinda guy who could play with just anyone.”

- Mark Mordue


* An edited version of this story first appeared in the Sun Herald Sunday Extra section, January 10, 2010.

= Photo of Dirty Three in action by Amadeep via Photobucket website

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