Warren Ellis On The Past, Present, & Future Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Charlie Gray

Warren Ellis On The Past, Present, & Future Of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Charlie Gray

In the nearly 40 years since From Her To Eternity, there have been many chapters for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. The band has mutated time and time again, with different aesthetics and voices coming to the fore. In the last 15 years or so, the direction has been partially shaped by Warren Ellis. Though Ellis was a full-time Bad Seed by the end of the ’90s, it was in the ’00s that he and Cave began working together more closely, and the result has been a striking late-career string of albums that at the very least rival the peaks of Bad Seeds history, and often times feel like the best work any of these people have done.

A line was conveniently drawn in 2005, when Cave released the first B-Sides And Rarities compilation, collecting loose ends from the first 20-odd years of the Bad Seeds’ existence. Around that same time, he and Ellis began scoring movies together, which started a process in which Ellis’ influence became more and more profound on Bad Seeds albums and Cave’s output overall. From the outside, it’s often seemed like a dream partnership. Cave’s apocalyptic shaman aged into a wiser, more empathetic character. Ellis was the bearded wild man guiding the band into unforeseen waters but also the musical wizard inching them towards a sound that was quieter, more challenging, and more adventurous all at once.

The two of them have been very prolific: If you look at the last 15 or so years, Cave and Ellis have churned out movie scores, Bad Seeds albums, Grinderman albums, almost all of it of impeccable quality. Earlier this year, the two put out their first non-score album as a duo, Carnage. That album was the product of lockdown — Cave and Ellis finding some time to get together and jam and catch up, then ending up with an album. But it wasn’t the only thing they were working on during the pandemic. Early on, Cave suggested they start compiling a new B-Sides And Rarities comp, and Ellis set forth digging through his hard drive; at the same time, they were working on a score for Andrew Dominik’s forthcoming Blonde. On the occasion of the new compilation, we caught up with Ellis, calling on Zoom from his home in Paris. The conversation began with the B-sides, but soon dove deep into Ellis’ life as a musician, different eras of the Bad Seeds, and the profound mark Ghosteen left on him. Read our conversation below.

The new compilation comes from a period of time during which you became a bigger driving force within the Bad Seeds, a closer collaborator with Nick. These are key years, in my mind, for the Bad Seeds in general — as they came into this later era sound. For you, having been along for the ride, were there any big surprises or revelations as you were going through this material?

WARREN ELLIS: I guess the surprises are mostly on the last disc, the outtakes and unreleased tracks. B-sides, you know of their existence. The surprise comes when you put them all together in a package. They can come from a certain period of time and they don’t find a home on the record, and when they’re all put together on a compilation it jumps all over the place. There’s something really wild and playful and beautiful about that. You know what’s basically there in the B-sides. You go through the vaults, you find these things. If you look at the first disc, from that Dig Lazarus Dig!!! era, I remember them. The surprises, for me, came in putting together the second album, the Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen stuff.

There weren’t any official B-sides released, as such. Anything that was done in those sessions is an outtake. That was interesting, going back through. I just have hours and hours and hours of stuff. The digital age has allowed that to happen. You used to have tapes, and that was it. With hard drives, you can do so much more. There was a lot of stuff I’d forgotten about from the Skeleton Tree sessions. It was such a particular experience, being in the studio with Nick. His son Arthur had just died. Going back through that, it was interesting to see how much stuff we actually did do. I remember working a lot. We worked a lot to try and elevate the demo versions of things we took in there. Ghosteen, there was only ever one track, “Earthlings.” It was a potential track for the record but I got cold feet mid-recording and said it’s not right for the record. Eventually we pulled “Ghosteen Speaks” out and started working on that one [instead]. “Earthlings” was the only [extra track from Ghosteen] that was even finished.

Part of the process of working on, particularly, the last three Bad Seeds records, it’s just me and Nick going into the studio and improvising and trying to find initial ideas for demos. We don’t even go in there with songs. It was a development of an approach we were doing on scores for years, basically since 2005. I think around the time of West Of Memphis, when we did that score, that bled into Push The Sky Away. I had a synthesizer that had been waiting around. I bought that in Japan in the early ‘00s. I remember trying to get it on Grinderman and every time I tried to start up there was just this deafening silence or confusion. I didn’t know what I was doing with it either. When we did West Of Memphis, I just took that synthesizer to Nick’s house and he was like, “Where’s the violin?” I was like, “I’m not playing the violin, I’m playing this.” I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I just wanted to do something different. That bled into Push The Sky Away and for me signaled more of a move into electronic stuff more than ever.

The score work, we sit down and jam away and have hours and hours of stuff. Grinderman, around this time, we’d sit down and start playing the four of us. Long story short, it ends up there’s hours and hours of jamming, from absolute rubbish to moments that feel genuinely inspired. You keep playing through hours of nonsense and eventually something comes together. It’s a really general summation of the process, but it’s a bit how it’s been the last couple of records. You’ll hopefully find some incredible moments within this process. It becomes very meditative.

For Ghosteen, we did two four- or five-day sessions like that. It was literally hours and hours and hours. We run the recorder from 10 in the morning until we close the door basically. Sometimes it might be chopping out 30 seconds that’s interesting, or doesn’t feel familiar — it feels kind of terrifying and unknown. There’s lot of this stuff lying around, and from that stuff we pick out what might potentially become songs. I love these jams. They just get so ridiculous. There are some Nick and I can laugh about for a long time afterwards. During the lockdown, when there was this idea to put the B-sides together, I said I’d go through the hard drive and see what I could find. I knew there were songs that didn’t quite get finished. There were a lot of ideas with Ghosteen that had to be really whittled down to a two-album record. There were a lot for Skeleton Tree as well.

I think I put together about three hours worth of stuff, I made three playlists of things and sent them, Nick had a listen, and we whittled it down to one and I worked on them in the context of the lockdown. That’s all I could do. Sit at home and try to do some overdubs to try and get them into some shape. It felt like it was interesting, if we could, to represent the process, and these songs that almost got there but didn’t. Songs you wish had gotten there, but didn’t. It felt like a good addition to this. That was surprising to me.

Surprising, also, looking at those two records in particular… the Bad Seeds sound has always changed over the years. It’s what was always remarkable about the band. For someone like me, who arrived at the band as a fan, every record that came out, they just seemed to go somewhere you didn’t expect. You kind of recognized what it was, but it also felt like something new was going on. From Her To Eternity? I couldn’t believe that record when I first heard it. It was familiar but so not familiar. It felt like a rock ‘n’ roll album, an old-style ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, but then totally not like that. I think the Bad Seeds have always been looking to reinvent the sound, and at the same time find a sound that’s a vehicle for these songs. It’s always about the songs, you know.

I think the wonderful thing about the B-sides is, the whole thing together is its willingness to jump all over the place. It’s almost schizophrenic kind of. It’s interesting to also see a band that’s just fearless in terms of what it’s willing to stylistically embark upon. At times, it sounds like a strange guitar band and other times it’s god knows what. It’s poetry over sort of electronic concrete music or something. I find the B-sides a much more enjoyable listen than other records. A record, you’ve listened to so much in the mixing and mastering and producing of it. By the end of it, you have to have fallen out of love with it and let it go. The B-sides, it’s a whole bunch of mates you can actually hang out with. Sit and listen to them. They haven’t worn you down, in a way, by the process. They haven’t out-stayed their welcome.

One of the things that’s interesting to you hear you talk about is this focus on jamming. That was one thing I was hearing, in revisiting these eras by way of the compilation. The final days of a more rock-oriented Bad Seeds, with the Lazarus B-sides, and these later songs on the second disc — it’s really coaxing stuff out of the ether.

ELLIS: I think there’s a thing too that changed in Nick’s writing style. I never really discuss it with him or with anybody. Nick kind of just does his thing, that’s what he’s always done. But there definitely seems like a moment where he’s wanted to get away from writing… he’s great with structure, but there’s definitely a moment where he wanted to move away from that. The thing that holds you down with that is when you have a set of chords and a melody and it’s all locked in to that. When you’re coming with a song that’s written, the band has to work it out. If it’s a melody and chords, you have to work out what you think is the best thing for that song. But if you go in there and you’re improvising on the instruments, and then Nick just starts ad-libbing.

In these sessions, there’s sometimes 10 different versions of a lyric, where he’s trying to find a home for it in an improvisational jam. That can lead to something really extraordinary. It keeps you guessing. You’re looking for it in a way. There’s something about the repetition of something you’ve already thought on that gets tired really quickly in the studio. But when you’re unaware? Say a moment like the song “Magneto” on Skeleton Tree. I’d recorded the track, Nick walked in, heard 10 or 15 seconds of it, and said, “I think I got something for that.” What you’re hearing is Nick actually singing along to a piece where he doesn’t even know how it’s gonna go. There is something extraordinary about being in that moment. It requires a lot of trust with the people you’re working with. And to really not know what’s coming — but to try and land something. It requires, I think, a lot of years of working to get to a thing like that. I make it sounds kind of easy. But to have that trust and to be able to jump off like that, it requires you to have had a lot of structure and support in the past.

There was something else you said about arriving at the band as a fan. Let Love In was the first time you played with the Bad Seeds at all. Do you remember what it felt like to first be in that world?

ELLIS: I was called in to play a string part that Mick Harvey had written. I was probably one of the only violin players working in that world in Melbourne. Literally I’d been playing for a year or two or something. Particularly with Dirty Three, we’d established this name in a really marginal world. We had a following and people knew about us, but I don’t even know who thought of me [for Let Love In]. I went in there to try and play a string part that I didn’t know how to play, because I hadn’t read notes for ages. That’s when I met Mick, who was really great with me. He sat with me — this is the days before Auto-Tune and stuff like that, so it was just take after take after take. Mick was incredibly kind. He could’ve just said, “Let’s get someone who can do it efficiently.” I was really high during this as well. [Laughs]

I met Nick so briefly [then]. It was a couple years later I met Nick over dinner and he asked me if I wanted to come in the studio next week. I said yeah, and I went in, and after that first evening, he said, “You want to come in for the rest of the week?” I guess that was how it happened. But how I felt about it? I was totally sort of blown out by the whole experience. These were people I really expected and looked up to. I would always go and see them live and listen to their records. They were giants. It was really overwhelming. I remember arriving and thinking, “Well, there’s two ways this can play out. I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t do anything and I’ll be asked to leave after five minutes, or I can go in and try to do what I do.” There were probably amphetamines involved and stuff too, some speedball to cool me down a bit. [Laughs] But yeah, I just thought they were one of the best bands in the world. I’d only been playing for really a couple years in bands. I’d done stuff with orchestras. But the thing I was doing, the electric violin, that was all relatively new.

Before that, you had a phase in the late ’80s where you were busking around Europe?

ELLIS: I lived in a bunch of places, and I was busking and stuff. It was like a nine-month trip, and then I came back and I took a job teaching at a school in the country. I’d had enough of working in kitchens. I used to wash dishes in a strip joint. I used to sell drugs. I’d do whatever I could to pay the rent. I took a job as a teacher and went down to a country town, because I’d had enough of cleaning toilets and cleaning night clubs. I had no designs on being a musician. I never thought I would be. I was purely a music listener. I loved music. I happened to play a couple of instruments, but they weren’t the instruments I listened to. I never thought it’d be a career move for me. I went down and taught for a while in a country town but realized it wasn’t a job I should be doing given the lifestyle choices I was making at the time. [Laughs]

So I moved back to the city in the early ’90s and started playing by accident, because a friend of mine remembered I played the violin and his friend had written some songs. My younger brother said, “You’ll need a pickup.” So he stuck a guitar pickup on [my violin] with a rubber band. I plugged it in that night and he was like, “Here’s a distortion pedal.” I found the sound by accident. I got an amplifier and very quickly met Jim [White] and Mick [Turner] and we formed Dirty Three. In a relatively short space of a couple months, I went from playing in one band to playing in about four or five bands. I was just in the right place at the right time with this weird approach to an instrument. I didn’t even know what it was. I just plugged it into a pedal, turned it up to 10. The louder and more out of control that it was, the better it felt for me.

Dirty Three was the thing where it all landed. I thank god every day that I met those two guys. It taught me so much about creating music, the creative process. Those two guys, the way they approach things — and the freedom that is still in that band. The fact that we had no vocals. I couldn’t have asked for a better environment. I wasn’t well-suited to being someone who sat there and played a little violin solo between two verses. That didn’t fall very well for me. All through the ’90s and even now, I’ve always been looking for my voice in music. I moved away from violin. It’s always there, but I moved into other things.

Last year, you were credited on the IDLES song “Grounds.” You were hanging out with them in the studio that day. What was it about that band that wanted to meet them?

ELLIS: Nick Launay was working with them, and I’d met them at a festival a few years before. I was eating a piece of blueberry pie and these two guys were sitting in the shadows. They kept looking at me and I thought, “Are they going to steal my pie?” One of them walked over and said, “Can we sit down with you?” And I was like, “Yeah,” and “Here it comes,” you know? I was hanging on to my pie for dear life. They introduced themselves and said they worked with Launay. I think they’d just put a record out at that time. They were really nice guys, it was really lovely to meet them.

When they went back in to do that record, Launay called me — it was where we did Skeleton Tree. He said, “You wanna come out? They’d love to play you some stuff.” I went out there, and they played me some stuff, and Joe [Talbot] said, “Would you like to be on a track?” I said, “Sure, what?” He was like, “You Australians are the only people who know how to say oi.” So me and Joe went out and did the oi that’s the centerpiece of that song. I got bloody stickered on the album for it. My son, he’s sort of always known what I do. But his mates were like, “That your dad on the IDLES album?” I think he suddenly thought I was cool for about two seconds. [Laughs]

Are there other younger artists you feel a kindred spirit with?

ELLIS: I don’t know if it’s about kindred spirit. I’m the wrong person to ask about music, what’s going on. So much of my time is spent making music. The discovery of music, for me, people have to show me it these days. I love the Divide And Dissolve record that came out, Gas Lit. I thought it was so fucking good. I really liked Lana Del Rey’s album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club. Talking recent records, I think that one is fantastic. I love about like, half of Kanye’s new record. I think it’s unbelievable. I always listen to Bill Callahan. He’s, I think, one of the best lyric writers around. I’ll always listen to Bill.

I have to be honest… I don’t know if I was ever really into young music, even when I was young. The young music, maybe, that was around me when I was young. In my late teens, I discovered Miles Davis and John Coltrane and stuff like that. I liked the Birthday Party and I liked the Saints and I liked AC/DC and I liked the Stooges. But I had a really big story with John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane. It was this stuff that, to me, seemed so far-reaching.

There’s a lot of music I think happened at pivotal moments in my life that I go back to a lot, because I love living the sensation I had with it. I think people making music is fantastic, but these days there’s just so much stuff coming out. I don’t seem to be able to absorb records into my life like I used to. I think you saturate yourself. For me, it was Low and Ziggy Stardust, that period of my life where I could listen to it over and over and over again. I mean, I love that Gil Scott-Heron album that came out about 10 years ago, I’m New Here. I think that’s an amazing album. I listen to a lot of score stuff. I like stuff without lyrics. I get distracted by the lyrics, and I like to multi-task. I also like I can go into instrumental music in a really different way. It’s an emotional thing.

In terms of the era the B-sides compilation covers: I was digging up videos of live performances of “Jubilee Street” recently. I was thinking about how, to me, that song and how it has evolved live has started to feel like a definitive statement — sonically, but also spiritually — for a certain chapter of the Bad Seeds. I was wondering how you felt about that song and how it developed, or if there are others that loom larger for you.

ELLIS: It’s funny with songs, because some only ever live on a record. Most of the time, we sit down and try every song on the album in the rehearsals and there’s some that will make it and some just won’t. Their life is to be on a record. They work in that moment but they somehow don’t translate to what you’re trying to do live, or they don’t find their way into the show. I think there’s always songs like that on a record. The Carnage tour, there were a couple we just couldn’t work out how to make them feel right live. Some songs, you think they’re going to work really well and they don’t. Some surprise you. It develops a new life through playing it live.

“Jubilee Street,” I certainly didn’t think it would be one of those big songs in the repertoire. I had the chords for that and I was saying to Nick, “Look at these chords.” We were doing West Of Memphis and he went, “Hey we should put it in this soundtrack,” and I went, “Mate, I think there’s something better for this, it’s a really cool set of chords.” Nick called me after that session, “I’m really glad you said we shouldn’t use it in there, I’ve just been sitting here playing it all day.” The song just grew from there. On the last couple tours, it became quite a centerpiece of the live show, with “The Mercy Seat” and “Stagger Lee” and things like that.

I remember when “Red Right Hand” came out. I was going to see the Bad Seeds when that came out. If you told me that Peaky Blinders was going to use that and — you know, it’s now probably the most well-known Bad Seeds song. Everybody goes, “Oh, the Peaky Blinders song.” If you had said that was going to happen — not that you wouldn’t have believed it, but you wouldn’t have thought of that. I wouldn’t have thought that song would particularly be the song everyone knows the band for. “Into My Arms” I can sort of understand. I remember hearing that in its really early genesis. I remember hearing it as an instrumental and Nick had different lyrics to it, a little motif over and over. You sensed there was something really great about that song. Also, too, it could’ve been the least-known song. You just never really know what’s going to happen, in a way. What’s going to take flight and what isn’t. There’s some songs you think might and they just don’t. I never really think about songs in terms of that, though. I gave up on that years ago. It’s just about doing the best you can for them.

When Ghosteen came out, Nick talked about it concluding a trilogy, and there was this sonic arc that happened across Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree, and Ghosteen. The thing that was interesting about Carnage to me was, I felt you could hear a continuation of that sound in its latter songs, but then something like “Hand Of God” felt like Skeleton Tree, and then something like “Old Time” and “White Elephant” felt like they were fusing old and new — where there’s an aggression that wasn’t as present on the last few Bad Seeds records. After having concluded that trilogy with Ghosteen, do you feel you and Nick are now writing in some other direction, or you’re figuring out what that next horizon might be?

ELLIS: I remember when we did Push The Sky Away, the song “Push The Sky Away” felt like it was throwing down a challenge. There was something about it that seemed to be very bold. The sound, what was going on with it, the whole thing. It felt like where to launch off from, and it always felt like there were three records in this. I think Skeleton Tree was really embracing that challenge. When we did the playback for Ghosteen after we’d mixed it, we put it all up in order and Nick just turned around and looked at me with this expression on his face and he said, “Fuck, we did it.”

Ghosteen felt like such a bold exercise, this commitment to something. I got spooked by it and I thought it was the end of our collaboration. I’d always thought in my head, “One day we’ll do something really great.” I can get very superstitious about stuff and I run on it. When we made that record, I just deep down thought to myself, “I don’t think I could ever be involved in anything this great again.” I always thought one day my aim is to make something great, and it felt like that happened. It was actually some relief to go in the studio and make Blonde, the soundtrack for Andrew Dominik’s film. And then to make Carnage was some relief. I realized it is about turning up and working and seeing what happens.

I mean, I can’t imagine making another record like Ghosteen. It’s very easy to get nervous in the studio and you go towards the things that scare you, the things you don’t recognize. That’s one thing. But the other thing is following them through to the end and making some bold decisions. Like, “OK, we’re not going to have drums on this.” Try them, but we’re not. You can often see it in criticisms, too, when people can’t get their heads around something you’ve made. I find that all encouraging. I honestly don’t care what people think. Bad criticism never lands nicely. But if it’s constructive criticism… I think sometimes criticism too can show the strengths of what you’ve done. I like the fact that Ghosteen totally eschewed anything people might’ve thought the band might’ve been about.

For me, it’s the only time I’ve felt that if there was every anything else in the room, it was on that record. There was something going on making that record, the two weeks making it in Malibu. They were the two best weeks of my life. I’ve got Ghosteen shuffled off in this area of, this extraordinary experience and now I just keep working. In all honesty, I did think maybe this is the end, maybe Nick and I won’t do anything after that. We don’t just get in there. We have to feel like it’s going somewhere. I always know the day it’s not working is the day we’ll stop. It was the same with Jim and Mick: We’ll do this while we think it’s vital. For me, it’s a real privilege to make music and play live. If it’s not engaging me and I’m not honoring it, then I shouldn’t be there. Let someone else do it. I want to feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile.

With Carnage, did you feel like you got that feeling again after the questions Ghosteen left you with?

ELLIS: The thing with Carnage, after the lockdown Nick and I had been chatting on the phone a bunch and I was writing a book and doing different things. I did a record with Marianne Faithfull and Nick played on that. We were all trying to work out what to do in the lockdown experience, the COVID experience. We were finishing off the strings for Blonde and we decided to book a couple days in the studio, two or three, just to get together and have lunch and have a play kind of thing. The record, all the basic ideas, came together in those first couple days. Basically every song appeared in some configuration.

We had another phone call after that like, “Well, while it’s open, why don’t we go in and try to push them a bit further along.” Everything had to be done within the restrictions. We went in for a few more days, then we said, “OK, let’s see if we can make a record.” We went in for another few days, then mixed and mastered it. The COVID thing sped everything up a bit. We had been expecting to go on tour or whatever, and suddenly that wasn’t happening. I think there was just a real desire to get back in the studio. It was complicated to get together with anyone else, so just me and Nick went in together. We’ve done a whole bunch of stuff since then. We did music for a snow leopard documentary. A bunch of stuff for Cave Things. There’s a lot of stuff that’s coming out.

Yeah you guys have not stopped moving, I mean, at least for the last 10 years but then even in the late ‘00s you had Bad Seeds and Grinderman records back to back too.

ELLIS: Nick and I did our first score together in 2004. For me, that sort of signaled we could do something together, sitting down and improvising together. Where we could sit down and just start making stuff. I had known him since 1994 or 1995. I had played in the Bad Seeds with him. I lived near him for a couple years in London and we used to hang out. But it was the soundtrack stuff where we sat down and created this whole thing from scratch that showed this new way of working together.

It’s 15 or 16 years now that we’ve been working together making a lot of stuff. But it’s actually amplified. There’s more of it now than ever. It’s almost like looking back on things makes more sense to me, rather than at the time. When I used to do interviews for records, it made no fucking sense. You diminish the product. You don’t know, in a way, and what you have to say often doesn’t help the listener. I could talk much better now about a record we put out 25 years ago, seeing where it fits into things. You can see, once you’ve gotten away from it, the impact. It’s nice, at this point in my life, to see things in some perspective — why this happened or what pushed on to there, which you can’t at the time. All that’s important is what’s up ahead for me.

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