Name: Dirty Three
Progress Report: Warren Ellis — one third of iconic trio Dirty Three — discusses the making of the bands most recent record, Toward the Low Sun.
Dirty Three have been making records for nearly 20 years, which is certainly no small feat for any band. That they have managed to make records while following such an unconventional path makes their longevity all the more interesting. Over the years Dirty Three’s instrumental music has continuously evolved, becoming increasingly more refined over the course of nine albums. A sanguine mix of guitar, violin, and drums that draws on elements of classical, folk, and the blues, they have an aesthetic that is instantly recognizable as explicitly their own. Earlier this year the band released Toward the Low Sun, a beautiful addition to what is already an iconic body of work. I recently had the chance to speak with violinist Warren Ellis, who explained the complications involved with being in a band made up of busy musicians who all happen to live in different time zones.
STEREOGUM: What is the creative process like for Dirty Three? How do you write songs?
ELLIS: Well we have an obvious geographical problem in that we all live in a different city on different continents. That’s kind of been the case since the late-nineties, so we’ve just found a way to adapt and work with that. I don’t live in the same city with anyone I play with, actually. The closest person I have is probably Nick Cave who’s a couple of hours over the pond from me. Yeah, I don’t live near anybody. I don’t know what that says about me. But every band — Dirty Three, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman — we all live in different places. A lot of bands work like that too, you just find a way to work around that. Dirty Three were never a kind of band that — even when we lived in the same city we didn’t get together and rehearse. Jim and I, we used to meet up and play pinball machines a lot, religiously, you know nightly we’d play till all hours of the morning, but we never rehearsed ever. We were never a band that rehearsed once a week and then decided to go out and play a trade because we were ready. We had one get-together in my kitchen, got together five songs, and we played them that night and made them really long because we had to play for three hours. The next rehearsal we had we recorded it and it became Sad and Dangerous. We were never the greatest at sitting down and practicing. We discovered our sound playing live and then we developed that playing live. From the start we were always playing at least once a week and that quickly became twice a week and then we were suddenly touring eleven months a year seven nights a week. That’s where we were doing all the rehearsing and getting paid for it. It was the time, you know, and the position that we were in. So I guess even if we all lived together in the same city, we wouldn’t even know what to do. The only frustrating thing about this is that when — for instance making this album — we tried twice to make it since we put out the other album. It just didn’t work and we kind of got spooked. We went and did a few days and the ideas didn’t really seem to go anywhere. They didn’t feel like they’d moved on from anywhere else, and re-organizing that can be kind of problematic and it can take a couple of years to eventually get back — not just to the same place but to be in the position to do it. Jim’s been busy playing with a bunch of people, with Cat Power and he was playing with Bill Callahan a while and Will, he’s been doing different stuff and I’ve been doing different things since the last album came out, whether it was Bad Seeds or Soundtracks or Grinderman. And we all have lives, so. I guess we just take the moment when we get it. We’ve always been like that. Just seize the moment and see what happens. We’ve always written stuff as a group. Some people will come in with ideas and then we kind of sit down and work out what to do with them and the Dirty Three has always been about the way that we play together. It sort of determines how the music ends up.
STEREOGUM: I’ve always wondered how much of it comes out of pure improvisation.
ELLIS: Well there’s an aspect of that — certainly there’s improvisation going on and when we play live and everything — if you know our songs you should be able to whistle along or at least tap your toe. It’s not like we do such abstract versions that they’re unrecognizable. We don’t really have anything in common with the free-form improvising outfit that just close their eyes and play whatever they want. We come from a kind of punk rock or rock and roll background and there’s always a basic structure. We also like the kind of freedom that improvising lends itself to, and when we started out being an instrumental band by default because nobody could sing, and having those instruments because that’s what we had, the one thing we all realized from the first practice was that we really liked the space we all had to play with him. We had this very different place to work in, and it was fantastic because everyone could just play as much as they wanted. In a lot of bands, the music doesn’t really get a moment to develop because nobody was like “Hey, the lyrics come in now.” In a lot of bands, the music doesn’t really get a moment to develop because there’s a lyric going on and that’s what lyric-based music is about. It’s quite often an accompaniment. And we love that idea of not being an accompaniment to anything. It was so attractive to take that out into the general public back in the day, in the nineties when we started out it was just so great, liberating and very unifying for the three of us. It was like we had gone to war or something, it was great. You’d kind of go out there and you’d kind of just get people head on, and it kind of worked out really quickly where they either embraced you or they through things at you.
STEREOGUM: The last time I saw you was at ATP — the New York one — and I was with a bunch of people who had never seen you before. What was interesting to me was that I think people expected it to be this very somber thing, not quite so rocking.
ELLIS: You just never know what’s going to come out. I always loved going to see a show and not knowing what I’m gonna get and being surprised. It’s always great to have your preconceptions shattered. That’s what’s great about playing in front of a new audience. That’s why we left Australia in the first place, because we knew that we’d just keep playing to the same couple hundred of people and that’d be it, and we’d have to find that audience outside of Australia. And because of its size and the much smaller population it becomes much more apparent. It’s not like America where you can go to a different state and find a couple of different cities to play and you can tour around America for six months and never play the same place twice. It’s amazing like that. Australia’s nothing like that, you kind of wear your welcome out quickly. There’s nothing like that, playing in front of a new audience — it’s so invigorating for everybody and you feed off of that. Even still, we’re certainly not the only instrumental band around these days. I’m not sure if we’re not still ahead of some people because music’s not immediately apparent sometimes. I never felt any connection with the post-rock movement and all that stuff. I’d much rather be considered anything but that. We never evolved that as some knee-jerk reaction to something. We’re kind of trying to deconstruct music and find a new way into rock in some sensibility. We were never about that. I think it’s what people responded to, kind of the emotional content of the music and the kind of energy that was going on there, that it could be so extreme and jump up and down dynamically.There was a genuine kind of, like a thrilling adventure if you let yourself jump in on it. I still feel I’m not really sure what to make of what we’re doing, even in the current climate of instrumental bands.
The band was formed as a way of making some money. Someone offered us a show and we just happened to play those instruments and worked out a bunch of songs and played them that night. There was nothing else driving us, but once we did that and realized how much we enjoyed playing together, it sort of just clicked that first time. There was never any other motivation for doing it and there never has been any other motivation for doing it either. Probably the worrying thing about us taking so long to make, the only thing we ever spoke about in the band was that hopefully we’d know when to stop when it felt we weren’t playing something that felt relevant to us and didn’t feel like it was challenging and taking risks. It had to have that. And I think the fact that we all still keep making music outside of it in different things. That’s great, you know we have a life that keeps moving outside of that musically. But I think that what was kind of worrying at least in my mind about the amount of time was that maybe I’d sort of spooked and maybe we’d said as much as we could say. Even though we’d get together and play live shows and that would feel really great and kind of vital and we’d get really excited again, but actually coming up with new material kept presenting a problem. I think we all wondered if that was it. It’s certainly something that confronts every group at a certain point, particularly when you have a small number of people involved. You make one record and the next one you go and you don’t want to make a record that’s the same as the one before, and then the group sees it develop, and then the lineup expands and then the band just keeps expanding to keep up with the sound that’s developing. We certainly did that at certain points along the way for years with records. I would do more string overdubs, trying to create a more orchestral sound with just one violin and a viola. We’d bring in a bit of bass here and there but I’m thinking for this here we’re trying to keep it to that pure thing with the three of us.
When we did Ocean Songs we had Nick come and play piano with us, because that album had quite a bit of piano on it and we wanted to present it in a special way as well, and not just get out there and play the stuff and get off. We wanted to take it somewhere else, and it felt like a really good thing to do. We kept on our toes and it felt vital. But you know I think in general we’ve tried to keep it as pure as we can and I think any small group that’s the kind of thing that confronts you all the time. We kept writing stuff but it all just sounded like stuff that we knew. And the more records you make the more chance there is that it just sounds like what you did last time. I know there was a point we realized that we could write a certain kind of song quite easily, kind of on the maudlin side, with chords and a pretty melody, and we just didn’t want to keep putting that sort of stuff out. We just kept making it but not putting it out. I don’t know, I think it’s the thing that most people work through, particularly a group that’s small and just been going for any period of time. That becomes a challenge I think. It continues to be the challenge in everything I do. I just finished a soundtrack two weeks ago for a documentary. I’ve done a couple now and even with that to find a new way in — you know I’m aware that there’s a certain thing I can do in the context of doing soundtracks — but I don’t want to keep doing that. This last one was myself and Nick and we found this new way in which was great. It’s always so encouraging I think. You never really know when you’re going in there if that’s gonna happen. I’m always prepared for that to not happen. As long as we can hear that it’s gone somewhere else then I’m happy for it to come out. I remember doing a show and asking people to send ideas into our website because we were really stalling. You know I’ll give you a writing credit if someone will send some bloody ideas in. I just think that it’s the sort of thing that happens when you create stuff, you inevitably come into these patches and you regroup and if you can get through then they ultimately make you more powerful. The best thing that ever happened to me was people telling me “that’s shit.”
STEREOGUM: Where was the album ultimately recorded?
ELLIS: It was done in Australia with Casey Rice, the engineer who recorded it mixed it.
STEREOGUM: I’ve talked to a lot of bands where the members don’t live in the same city. It’s interesting how the logistics of that play into how you end up working.
ELLIS: This way of working is what I love about going into a studio — a recording studio where it’s a designated window of time. I like that style. You know you’ve got six days, let’s see what happens. I mean I have a little studio in the back of my shed and I do soundtrack stuff in there and I can work on things, but the thought of actually working on an album for like six months or even more is just beyond me because you start to take away what’s instinctive about it. Music is about instinct. That seems to me an important part of it, and once you get that luxury that we have these days of being able to sit there and do a hundred takes of something and getting to decide that hey the vocal isn’t that good and you just keep redoing it and all that. You just get stuck in a very different world, and I like the limit of committing yourself to a certain time to do things in. I like those limitations and I like how that works when you don’t live in the same place. It makes you make decisions. I always use whatever it takes to get a recording done — ProTools, tape, whatever — I still love to put a vinyl disc on if I get a choice of what it is. I still love the sound of vinyl. I’ve never had tears brought to my eyes putting a CD on or an MP3, but I put a vinyl on and I just start bawling my eyes out sometimes. There’s something there, you know? And whatever, that’s just how it is and I use tape and I use digital and I certainly don’t mind the whole thing, but there’s something to be said for that way of doing things where you are forced to make a commitment about things, and tape did make me do that. You had to decide which take are going to use, and which one are we going to work on, not like “Oh well, look, we’ve got forty takes of this and we’ll work that out later and you can always put that in tune.” I do think there’s something to be said about having an opinion about stuff. And living in different places, even though it has its shortcomings, it’s also great because it certainly tightens things up. I think also too, it’s probably something that’s easier to do at the age I’m at now. I think when we were younger, twenty years ago when we started out it was great being all together when we weren’t playing, when we didn’t have anywhere to live. It was kind of practical and it was a lifestyle. But it’s good to have parameters and you go “OK, I’m closing the door now and I’m leaving that behind.”
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like? Will you be doing a proper tour?
ELLIS: Yeah, we’ll be doing a tour. First off an Australian tour and then a European tour and then an American tour is being discussed at the moment. Actually in Australia we’re doing our first show at the Sydney Opera House which is exciting. And then I think we’ll go to Japan and I have some other stuff as well that I have to do, some other projects. And I have a bunch of films coming up this year, not that I have to do anything for that, but there are a couple of other things coming up on the horizon.
STEREOGUM: That’s exciting.
ELLIS: Yeah, hopefully. I mean last year was really interesting and I have a bunch of things coming up that I’ve been involved with soundtrack stuff and all. That’s all really encouraging.
STEREOGUM: Well I hope to see you guy play in New York. The last time I saw you was at an ATP and it was really beautiful.
ELLIS: That was with the Jesus Lizard wasn’t it? And Suicide? My God, Suicide was phenomenal that night. I saw them at Primavera though last year, and I think it’s the greatest Suicide show I’ve ever seen. Talking about moments when you just well up and burst into tears, it was like the encore they came out and they did the whole self-titled album. It was just so great. And then they came out and did “Dream, Baby, Dream.” I’ve got chicken-skin, as they say in French, thinking about those moments.
Toward the Low Sun is out now on Drag City.