The Dirty Three: Some of the Greatest Stories Are Told Without Words

In their 20 years as a band, the Dirty Three have grown from a Melbourne trio to three separate respected entities spread across the globe, pursuing various other projects. Guitarist Mick Turner still lives in Melbourne, painting, performing solo and running the record label, Anchor and Hope. Jim White is in New York and is one of indie-rock’s go-to drummers for hire, touring with Cat Power and Bill Callahan. But it’s Warren Ellis that seems to be the busiest. As Nick Cave’s right hand man, Ellis is the violinist for the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and also collaborates with Cave on soundtracks. On the recent and critically acclaimed, Lawless, the two not only provide the score to the movie, but also record under the moniker, the Bootleggers, backing up guest vocalists Mark Lanegan, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and Willie Nelson.

Scheduling and distance can take a toll, but when the stars align and time allots, they form one of the most important, intense, instrumental acts of all time. Combining cinematic rock music with the sensibilities and spontaneity of jazz, the Dirty Three are known for their tumultuous ebbs and sprawling flows. With Mick Turner’s signature pluck-and-drone guitar stylings, Jim White’s tender percussive brush strokes and Ellis’ possessed and passionate attempts to tame his wild violin, the Dirty Three venture through stormy crescendos and devastating comedowns as if they were weathering a storm in some seafaring tempest. While their records and live shows have become less frequent, any opportunity to witness the Dirty Three’s live experience should not be missed. Check out the following exclusive video to find out why. Notice the leg kicks, the laying down, the sway, the plucks and his comical interludes which grace the introduction to each song.

The following interview with Warren Ellis was done over the phone from his home in Paris and the exclusive photos and videos were taken a week later at the Ukrainian Federation in Montreal, Canada in a rare and recent eastern North American Tour last month.

So, you haven’t toured with the Dirty Three for about three years or so at this point?

I think the last time we played was in New York. I think it was 2009 or something like that.

Since you have all of these other projects like the Bad Seeds, Grinderman and soundtrack work, have your priorities with the Dirty Three changed over the years?

Well, I never really had a plan at the start. My plan was just that I liked making music, and when we formed Dirty Three, I realized I met three people that would be good to create a language with. Then other things came along. For me it’s always been about creating a language and continuing my involvement in music. I didn’t really have a plan as such. I don’t approach things in a different way. I don’t have priorities and nothing ranks above anything else. Historically, the Dirty Three will always be the most significant thing because I’ve been at it the longest. I started it and didn’t come in half way through the story, so to speak. There’s something quite different about that, but that aside, I see everything I do in music as something of an ongoing involvement in the story. If I think otherwise, you start not working to your full potential and you start undermining the work that you do. If I’m doing something, I go into it with the same energy. I know in order to stay in it, I need to continue to be challenged, and I know things need to change for me. Certainly making a new Dirty Three record is as big of a challenge as to make soundtrack for a film in it’s own way. Each thing presents a new home for me. But it’s hard to juggle everything at the same time.

The Dirty Three are based out of three continents at this point as well, right?

Yep. I mean every band I work with is in three different continents. I don’t actually live near anybody I play with. The closest person I live near is Nick [Cave], and he lives a couple of hundred of miles away. He’s a train ride or a boat away. I don’t know if that’s indicative of my character or what it is. I don’t actually live in the same city as anyone I play with. It just means that when I get together with them, we have to go for it. There’s a foot in every country. The internet has changed things like that completely. I can work for a theater company in Iceland and send them material. With the Lawless movie, I overdubbed a Willie Nelson track in my back shed and sent it off. You couldn’t have done that that easily ten years ago.

So the Dirty Three have always remained a band and it’s just assumed it would get back together every few years to record and tour?

It’s always been ongoing. At any given time, one of us is doing something else. Jim is doing other things and Mick does other things and paints and things like that. I think we realized in the 1990’s that if we spent any extended periods of time, like most groups, you’d just land up killing each other. We realized after the first five years of touring non-stop that we had to have a break from it. Any longevity is directly attributed to the fact that we have so many other things going on. Like anything we do, we take this time and when it happens it generally seems to be a good thing that we had space in between. The good thing about the Dirty Three is that we all go away and do other things and we all come back and bring new things from those experiences and that informs what you’re going to do next. It feels like a very great place to be in.

The newest record starts out much more abrasively than other Dirty Three records. Is there a reason behind that?

Well, to be honest, we had problems trying to make this record. Every time we tried, it was so familiar to our previous work that it was depressing. I think early on we realized the reality of our limitations of being a three-piece group and instrumental. You learn very quickly about what you can and what you can’t do. You realize that when you know you’re doing something familiar that’s what you shouldn’t be doing. Rather than augment the group over the years, we’ve added overdubs and keep the basic spirit of it as a three-piece and see how far we can go with it– instead of becoming a 7-piece band– because that’s the only way you can change the sound and ideas. And that’s always been a challenge. And it was especially a challenge with this last one because I was so busy with Grinderman and the Bad Seeds and the film stuff. That was taking up more of my time, and Jim was out with Cat Power a lot. It just meant that everytime we did find a space to get together we weren’t necessarily working out and we were playing stuff that was familiar. When we would play live, though, it still felt like we had something to say and there was something urgent. When we looked and listened to the live show, we realized we should approach recording that way and get to the studio and get into the writing process. We tried to structure it more and more with the most recent records. The first couple of tracks with the new record for this session felt like we had gotten back into it. They are there as a statement of intent and they got us excited again. It’s been a struggle to make this record. Not like a struggle to cure cancer, but you know what I mean. I wondered if we had said as much as we had to say, but we made something that we feel real good about.

Does everyone bring something to the table in the Dirty Three, or are you the main ideas man?

People will bring in different ideas, but the Dirty Three has always been about the sum of the kind of characters. It’s really driven by the three of us and that’s what determines what happens. Even if someone comes in with a specific idea, it changes pretty quickly when the three of us start playing together. It’s taken over by the group if you will. Nothing is done individually. We are very much a group in the purest sense. It’s like the way Neil Young sounds with Crazy Horse, and the way Crazy Horse brings something else to the music. I’m not saying we’re anything like Crazy Horse. I mean that we are really a group and they are a group and they do what they do. Like some of the great jazz combinations, the Dirty Three is a sum of its parts and if you take away anyone from it, the group is going to change dramatically. We’ve always known with the Dirty Three that if someone wants to pull the plug on it, then it’s the end of the group. I wouldn’t see the point in continuing on if any of us left.

Does improvisation figure into recording and/or live shows?

Yeah, it does. Recording and live. If you know our songs, you’ll be able to recognize it. There’s always room for us to take certain liberties– whether it’s with dynamics or with speed or melodically. That was always the idea with Dirty 3—that we didn’t get stuck in that routine of playing. The thrilling thing about Dirty 3 in the beginning was that there was always supposed to be a certain liberty taken on everyone’s part. It’s very much about listening to what everyone else is doing. We don’t have the chops of a jazz band for instance, but we also aren’t stuck in the same ways that the traditional rock band might be. It’s certainly not fusion, but we wanted to have the sensibilities of the way jazz people play so it’s engaging to us. Otherwise we’d get bored.

You’re very vocal onstage in between songs, but your songs are instrumental. Have you ever had to restrain yourself from trying to sing or write lyrics?

No, I don’t really have anything to say. I don’t feel an urge to express myself lyrically, nor do I know how to write lyrics. This way I’m not misunderstood. The group is not misunderstood. You take it how you want to. I’ve always liked poetry when I was a younger guy and I used to like writing it back then. I’ve always been a person who follows lyrics occasionally. But it didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the words were to a song like “Brown Sugar”. When I did figure out what was going on it seemed even more incredible than what I though it was. But it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know what was going on. It made it a little more fantastic and even more magical. I’ve always found that when I engage in something in a more linear way that I’m less interested in it. I’ve never felt a desire to do that.

Do you feel there’s anything thematically linked or visually generated in the new record?

With us it’s different. I work in bands that have lyrics. With Grinderman I can see that there’s a narrative in there and I see that it happens to us as an instrumental band. We put down a bunch of songs and as they begin to consolidate and begin to form a bunch of songs, you begin to get an album where a narrative seems to run through them. It seems to be really important, but when you start grouping things, things just start to take on a world of their own. I’ve seen this with lyrics and without. I guess that’s just the way it works. A lot of times I’ll go in to the studio… some of the time… most of the time… all of the time actually,,, you don’t know if you’re going to get anything or not. You don’t know if you’re going to get an album or a couple of songs or whatever. So it’s all very much about discovery. It happens with the soundtrack work as well. The thing I like about that is that is means you’re open to change.

How does the soundtrack stuff happen? Do they show you parts and you work from that or do you just see the script and work on it without any visuals?

Generally what has happened is we read the script and we have discussions about what we want it to sound like. Each time I work on the soundtracks with Nick [Cave]. It has to be determined what we can play between us and certain sounds might be suggested. Then we watch parts of the film, some sort of first edit. It’s kind of different for each thing. For Jesse James we were meant to get a cut and we didn’t, so we had 15 seconds of Brad Pitt trying to fire a gun and we kept going “does this work?… does this work?” We’d already booked the studio and we didn’t have the liberty of a lot of time so if we’ve penciled in a date and we don’t have anything, we still have to do something. I think many of the major things were made without us seeing much at all. We recorded them and Andrew landed up using the rough mixes we made in the film. That’s the great thing about soundtracks actually– if it works, it works. Sometimes it seems like it’s taylor-made, but it’s not.

Nick did the screenplay for Lawless, right? That must have helped in doing the sound for that film.

Well it does and it doesn’t. He did the Proposition too, and I think he had certain ideas. But with the songs in Lawless, there are songs and a score. When he was writing the script we had discussions about dropping Ralph Stanley’s voice on top of these ramshackle versions of songs. Things always change and things don’t always work out. There’s a continuing discussion all the time and the great thing is if you leave it open anything can happen and always does. The greatest things are the surprises. The great thing about Lawless are the tracks that Ralph Stanley is on that he would have never done before. It’s kind of an accident actually the way that happened. We couldn’t get him to even sing in the key we played in, let alone the 4/4. He just wouldn’t do it. He did the song in a certain way. We had a Skype conference with him in Nashville and it was one of the most surreal and memorable moments I’ll ever have in my life. It was just unbelievable. The result of Hal Willner being involved enabled us to get some of the most incredible covers ever, certainly one of the greatest Velvet Underground covers I’ve ever heard—and one of the hardest songs to cover. I think historically what came out in respect with the Link Wray song and taking songs back to where there came from is one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if you’ve heard them, but I think they’re extraordinary. I was sort of relieved to hear that Neil Young Americana record and it seemed like one of the first times someone has done one of those records looking back… and not just banged it out the same old way where you play with an acoustic guitar and that’s good enough. It was so fantastic to hear that and you could feel that. And you could hear Crazy Horse in there and the great thing about Crazy Horse with Neil young and the influence of them and those songs in there, I just thought it was fantastic and such a relief after all of these banged out things that people think you should do at a certain point in your career. And I think for me, those Ralph Stanley songs that he did [for Lawless] were just mind-boggling. To see him at work and for me to be told by a bloke that he likes his version better…to be told by Ralph Stanley [imitating Ralph Stanley] “Oh I like my version better.” It’s like, “you totally have a point” [Laughs]. It’s brilliant. It’s nice to get smacked around the ears.

Is there a new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record on the way?

Well, I can’t talk about that.

It’s been a pleasure to talk to you…

You too. I’m looking forward to the shows. Have you seen the film? You have the soundtrack? What did you think about it?

I think it’s great.

I think there are aspects that have just never been done before. It was interesting because Lou Reed came in and had a listen to the Ralph Stanley version [of White Light/White Heat] and there’s no band that has had a bigger effect on me than the Velvet Underground—and to see his reaction, the guy who wrote the song– was unforgettable. You realize then that you have really seen something and something really happened in a great kind of way. I think that Ralph Stanley stuff is just incredible.

You said you did a Willie Nelson song from your shed. Was most of the other stuff also from afar or did you all meet in the studio?

The soundtrack was done in LA. All of the scoring stuff was done in LA. There was about 40 minutes of score. But we only put the songs on the soundtrack. The Willie Nelson song is something Harvey Weinstein should take credit for. He really made it happen. I can’t really take credit for it. I just had to throw some things onto it that kept it more in line with the rest of the music because it basically sounded like boot-scooter music when I got a hold of it. It’s just one of those things where when you have a bunch of people involved in something… and you’re like fucking hell, you know. The other tracks were done in Brighton, like the stuff Mark Lanegan did. Then the Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley songs were done in Nashville and Hal Willner went there and he’s amazing at working with people. And he’s basically the only reason the Ralph Stanely stuff was possible… because people trust him, you know. He’s fantastic the way he can coax things out of people. He went out there and sort of took the ball in his own court, so to say. The Mark stuff was done in LA. The originals were originally for Ralph Stanley, but that wasn’t possible, so we needed a plan B. So we had versions that he sent to us to show how he sang them. He didn’t even listen to what we sent him. The great thing about that is that its so daunting to do something outside of your comfort zone and I can’t imagine how threatening it must feel for an 85 year old guy to get “White Light/White Heat” thrown at him. And to his credit, he took it to where he understood it and he took it back to a place where it could have come from… Fire and Brimstone… you know, he made it into a waltz.

Again, it was a great pleasure. Thank you for your generous time. Safe travels to you, and I look forward to your shows.

My pleasure Nolan.

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