The menacingly randy and obscenely poetic version of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds that made 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and two albums under the name Grinderman has turned Warren Ellis into the group’s sonic center of gravity. Ellis first came to prominence for his violin and viola work in Melbourne, Australia’s sublime instrumental group Dirty Three, but his role in Grinderman has branched out to include all manner of stringed instruments—from traditional ones to hybrids like four-string tenor guitar and mandocaster—and heaps of pedals and amps that he uses to warp his instruments into song-dominating surges of noise, especially on the new Grinderman 2.
Finding that “doing different things just seems to help everything,” Ellis has also collaborated with Nick Cave on several film soundtracks (The Proposition, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and last year’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), recorded new songs for a still-in-the-works new Dirty Three album, and talked with inimitable singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman about collaborating one day. In the middle of Grinderman’s recent European tour, Ellis spoke with The A.V. Club about a few different moments from across his career. He defended his work on The Road, recalled comparing equipment with gearheaded My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields, and talked about the unreliable bank of gear he’ll be commanding when Grinderman plays tonight at First Avenue.
Grinderman, “Bellringer Blues” (2010)
The A.V. Club: Is playing live with Grinderman a little easier to deal with than Bad Seeds tours, when there are more people onstage?
Warren Ellis: No, it’s actually harder because it’s much leaner, and from my side of things, I have a lot more to do than I do in any other outfit. I’m generally always playing in most of the things I do, but Grinderman, particularly this album, was very dense, and it took me quite a while to work out how to approach it live. Even the first album is quite basic and simple to work out how to—not reproduce it, because you’ve got to find a different way to do things live anyway—but how you can make it worth it live. Particularly the Grinderman albums, I’ve gone in there with all my equipment just spread out over the floor. Over the course of five days when we’re recording it, it just gets in the most incredible jumble, and plugging things in and out. I never write anything down, so I really have no idea how I make a lot of the sounds that I’ve done. On this album, I did quite a lot of overdubs and things that were impossible to do live. Live, it’s really sort of gone to a different level. We decided to play it all live as opposed to play to a backing track. I still find it quite shocking that people do that.
AVC: The whole Grinderman 2 album has a lot of noisy loops on it, but they’re not just feedback, and they vary from track to track. Did you spend a lot of time working out all these specific noises?
WE: There were things that I was sort of making as I was going along. It’s very much done fast and in the spirit of things. Nothing is particularly labored over in there. Anything that starts taking time usually signifies that it’s not a great idea anyway. The most important thing seems to be that it keeps moving along. If it starts getting tedious, we generally stop trying to pursue that sort of thing. There’s a couple of songs that I had sent ideas to Nick [Cave] beforehand, ideas that could’ve been basic beds for the music, but there wasn’t a lot of time spent on that either. There was certainly a lot of attention paid to trying to make it sonically challenging. We wanted it to be really different from the first album, and to push it as far as we could. Take some risks, you know, with it.
AVC: The loop on “Bellringer Blues” sounds kind of like a record speeding up and then slowing down. How’d you make that?
WE: That’s all done in real time. That’s not done with Pro Tools or anything. It’s something like a Memory Man, and it can alter pitch-shiftings in real time, so it’s kind of just played manually. I found it was a way of taking the more loop aspect of things to a different place. I’ll have three or four different loop pedals and just switch back and forth between them. Most of the loops on this album are done with violin or mandolin. That one on “Bellringer Blues” that you’re talking about is a mandolin that I’ve treated. I use a bunch of effects pedals that my younger brother’s created for me out of transistor radios and PAs that he pulls to pieces and sticks together.
Nick Cave And Warren Ellis, The Road score (2009)
WE: The loop stuff is always made primarily using real instruments, with the exception of when I did stuff for The Road soundtrack. I tried to construct them out of elements that I thought might have survived some kind of apocalyptic event. A lot of the loops that I made were made using water boiling, and bottles, and wind, and weird strings, and things like that. A lot of the loops for that were made organically, but not with traditional instruments.
AVC: It seems the hard part about scoring The Road wouldn’t be capturing the bleakness, but the hopeful aspects.
WE: Well, we made a decision with it to follow that route, actually. We wanted the music to operate on two levels. It could either support the bleakness of everything, and also show that idea that the world was in turmoil and breaking apart, but we also wanted to really highlight the relationship between the father and son, which is obviously one of the real central things in the book. We wanted that to be done in a very simple and beautiful way that was at odds with what was going on onscreen. I’ve caught a lot of abuse, particularly from “indie rockers” from America, for some reason: “Ah, you fucked that film up,” and blah blah blah. “Why did they let you do the music?” I think people wanted something like Tchaikovsky. The book doesn’t seem to be like that at all. The book has a soul and has a heart. Certainly, the director was very keen for that to come across, so anyone that had a problem, fuck ’em.
AVC: It’s hard to argue that The Road needed more bleakness.
WE: Yeah, it is. And it would’ve turned it into a really different thing, some sci-fi thing. Mad Max or something, and that just seemed so far off the track with it. Yeah, I mean, I guess there was an argument for no sound in there at all. The book seems very silent; that’s the thing that’s really striking about it. But I think there was also—the film industry is a business, it’s about trying to make some of that money back. You’re not just talking about giving some money to some kind of arts-film fund. Not even about making concessions, but you have to come at it differently. Someone could’ve made a much bleaker film. It would’ve lived up to some people’s expectations, but it should’ve been made as some kind of independent that didn’t have to take any risks, you know? But I actually thought the film worked really well. It’s one of those books in the category of “Is it possible to make a film out of this?” and I thought it was a real admirable attempt on [director John Hillcoat’s] part to do that. It’s a book that a lot of people have a real personal take on ... so I think it was a film that was going fall short for a lot of people anyway.
AVC: Do you think playing in an instrumental band for all those years prepared you to make soundtracks, or was there a lot more learning to do?
WE: No, I don’t think it did at all, because a lot of what I see as music, soundtrack music in films, has nothing with what I’ve been trying to do. A lot of it seems rather superfluous, all sounding the same to me. Certainly Dirty Three, we were never about that. We always had a kind of narrative, it felt, to our music. We were always trying to tell some kind of story. None of us were particularly adept with words. Our music is very rarely used in films, actually, because I think the narrative in it is probably too strong, or it has its own sort of identity. I don’t think anything prepared me for doing soundtrack work. I’ve always liked music without words, primarily because you can go somewhere else with it. You’re not doing a straight narrative with it, and you can really engage in it in a different way. I’ve always loved Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Stravinsky, from when I was a teenager, and at the same time I’ve always liked listening to The Stooges and AC/DC and what have you. As long as there was some sort of attitude there, I was really open to listening to it. I always found instrumental music to be much more than background music. I bought the reissue of Bitches Brew the other day, and I hadn’t listened to it for quite a while, and I put it on, and I know every note on that record. There’s a way I had of listening to stuff—I was always looking for [the narrative] and not just some atmospheric thing. The few films I have done, with Nick, we’ve never tried to make little snippets of music to fit under a 10- or 15-second moment. They were always realized pieces. That’s why we actually released them as soundtracks. They go to some conclusion. Then we just slop them in with the film. We do it in a very improvised way. We never look at the film and make the music for the spot. We actually make the music and then see where it fits. Especially with the case of Jesse James, because we didn’t even see the film for the first session—it was a minute of Brad Pitt trying to fire a pistol, and I think probably half the main themes were made up without even seeing the film.
Dirty Three, “Authentic Celestial Music” (1998)
AVC: Was this the first time you experimented with looping yourself?
WE: Yeah. When we did Ocean Songs with Steve Albini in Chicago, I got a viola in there. Before that it wasn’t even thinkable, because we were always just trying to put down what we did live. We started wanting to develop the sound. I got a viola in there to try and change the sound a bit. That was when I first started trying to do arrangements. On Horse Stories, I’d done a couple of overdubs on that song “Hope” to try and fatten it up a bit. With “Authentic Celestial Music,” that was an attempt to try and do something like The Rite Of Spring, the “Sacrifice” section of that. I’d always loved the ambience of that. That was one of those instances where you put a few phrases together and they work. That doesn’t happen very often at all with me, unfortunately.
AVC: Earlier this year you did some performances of the whole Ocean Songs album. What was it like going back to it?
WE: I was so wary of doing something like that the first time we did it. I did it because the other two guys wanted to do it. It was against my better judgment. Then we sat down and started learning how to play it. When we performed it live, Nick came in and played piano on it, and it actually became something different. It was a bunch of songs written within five days, and it was like one complete piece. Half the album we’d never played live anyway, and we had to sort of learn how to play it. It was really moving, to play it. The people who came, the album had meant something to them. I had a similar experience, from the other side of the fence, when I saw Lou Reed do Berlin and Spiritualized do Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. I saw Lou Reed do Metal Machine Music and The Stooges do Raw Power. That thing, where you’re suddenly reliving this album that meant something to you at a certain point in time—if people got from our performance what I got from those performances, I’d be really happy. The people that organized it, I think they got married to one of the songs on that album.
Low And Dirty Three, In The Fishtank Vol. 7 (2001)
WE: It’s wonderful that Robert Plant has covered two of Low’s songs [“Silver Rider” and “Monkey,” on Plant’s Band Of Joy album]. When you hear it, you realize it makes perfect sense, because they write classic songs in that style. It’s just great that somehow he’s heard them and decided to do them. It’s really interesting to hear them. There’s something very classic about a lot of Low’s songs. Anyway, yeah, the collaboration.
AVC: Both your bands seem to have these really esoteric, internal ways of playing together, but somehow you make them work together. Was that difficult?
WE: I think what we have in common is, they had this idea that they were gonna play quietly, and the drums were like this, and they stuck to it. We were like that too—we set up some restrictions for yourself: We’re a three-piece band, and we’re not gonna have bass, and we’re not gonna have vocals. Up until recently, Low never did a rock beat or anything. They really had parameters that you never go outside of, and it really makes you work hard.
I think Alan mentioned he’d like to try doing a cover of “Down By The River.” Beyond that, it was all sort of written in two days. It was funny because we recorded one day, and in the evening we had to go and play a festival, and they did some overdubs. The next day, they went and played, and we recorded. Half the time, we weren’t even there.
AVC: The liner notes talk about how you were all working at different times.
WE: It was kind of insane. We both played shows at different times in Amsterdam, so we had to leave the studio and go and play the show and then come back. It had a really great spirit about it. It was done in some old barn in a farm with an eight-track recorder.
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” (2008)
AVC: You’ve talked about how jumping around between acts keeps music fresh for you. Does the same logic apply to switching among different instruments?
WE: I constantly try and buy things that I have no idea how to play. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve been playing instruments in the guitar shape. I’ve actually started playing the guitar a little with Grinderman, but I mostly play four-stringed things. I designed a tenor guitar that’s coming out in two weeks. It’s tuned like a violin. I play these mandocasters. I just like to pick up things and see if I can get something out of them. With the violin, I electrified it and put it through pedals. [Drummer] Jim White’s the same—you just go for these certain safety areas and you want to try and keep away from them. It’s a bit like when you find yourself in an unknown situation with conversation, and you just start saying these things that you think will help you out of an awkward moment. Music seems to be like that, too—sometimes you start saying something that you think will get you out of it. For me, that’s about getting something I don’t know how to play, and then trying to find a way to do something with it.
AVC: On Dig, it seems like you’re using a different combination of instruments on each track. On the title track, you’re playing a viola, but it’d be hard to tell from the sound of it.
WE: Hopefully, a lot of the sounds, you wouldn’t know what they are. I think it’s certainly something I’ve tried to do for a while now, was to not have a standard sound with it. I don’t use regular tuning a lot, even on the viola and stuff. I’ll sort of tune it down to different things. That song “Night Of The Lotus Eaters,” the sort of mechanical groove on that is a viola that’s been detuned. The song “Grinderman” is another one. The viola’s a great instrument for that, because it’s really very crunchy and deep and has a real resonance about it. I remember doing that song, “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” and I had a bunch of pedals set up, and I just clicked a few on, and if it sounds interesting, then I just go with it. The thing with The Bad Seeds and Grinderman is it moves so quickly. Quite often, we’re using the first or second take. If you haven’t got something within that first or second take, you’re kind of in trouble. It’s about that moment. Our albums never take longer than six or seven days to record, then with a day or two of overdubs. I’m trying to come up with things in the actual moment. I think, also, the thing is if the sound of the instrument is different, you play differently. Because I had this classical background, I came out with a method and a structure to things. I think, for me, when I’ve electrified things and started using pedals, it was a way of removing some of that knowledge that I had. That’s a big problem when you learn classically. It gives you a base, certainly, but it takes away some of that instinctive reaction that you might have to things. For me, throwing these things into my setup was really a way of getting me out of safe territory.
My favorite situation is having a thing that’s totally uncontrollable, like the violin amplified so loud. There’s no quality control. I’ve never used a solid-body violin because they look terrible and the sound’s too controlled with them. Acoustic violins just have an unknown property when they’re electrified, particularly when you ram them through a bunch of effects pedals. I like the problems that creates.
AVC: And you try to embrace that when you’re playing live?
WE: Oh, man, my setup is just like a nightmare. Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, he came to the show the other night. He was quizzing me about my stuff, and he’s the guy that’s got more equipment than a bloody guitar-effects shop, and he was after me about it. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I’ve got a bunch of stuff there, and I’m playing through two bass rigs and stuff. It’s a complicated setup and fraught with problems. I’ve blown three amplifiers and four cabinets in two and a half weeks.
AVC: You mean already on this tour?
WE: Yeah. [Laughs.] Seriously. I’m also swapping constantly from violin to mandocaster to tenor, and then regular guitar. And then I also have loops that I’m triggering, and I’m singing as well. Have a look on YouTube. There’s a clip for “Worm Tamer” that we did on Later With Jools Holland; that’s an indication of where it’s gone. It’s just a disaster. I go through guitar techs. Every tour I have a different one. My problem is, my setup is loaded with problems because there’s lots of cables and things, and a lot of my equipment is not particularly reliable. It’s a lot of stuff that my brother soldered together. It’s pretty, kind of—what’s the word?—“low-rent,” I’d say. I have very cheap instruments as well. I just keep blowing things up all the time. I’m having the time of my life at the moment. It’s great for me, actually, to get on to some of these other instruments and bring a different thing to the music that we’re making. I know if I just stuck with the violin all the time, there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t be doing now.