Perfect Sound Forever

The Dirty Three

Interview by David Armes and Billy Hell
(October 2006)

Australian instrumental trio The Dirty Three recorded two of the best albums of 2005. Whilst the scintillating seventh studio album Cinder saw them break new ground with shorter songs and more varied instrumentation, the tour CD Live At Meredith captured all their mournful yet beautiful wild passion in the arena they really excel, in front of an enthusiastic crowd. They're also one of the best bands to watch, with violinist Warren Ellis throwing himself into the music, looking victorious and heroic and innovative drummer Jim White flailing loose limbed at his kit. Anyone who's seen a gig by these rugged yet flamboyant performers will know that the last thing they need is an attention grabbing singer, so it might have come as a surprise that a couple of Cinder songs featured guest vocalists, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) and Sally Timms (Mekons). When I told Jim White that Live At Meredith might just be my favourite Dirty Three album, he replied that he'd have to listen to it. Now living in New York, he also plays with Smog and Nina Nastasia, whilst Warren Ellis is now one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds and lives in Paris. Guitarist Mick Turner, the only member of the band still living in Melbourne, Australia, has recorded some beguiling solo albums during the time the band are apart. With the three of them living on different continents there has to be something pretty damn special keeping them playing together. They toured Europe in November 2005 and I was lucky enough to witness four great gigs in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The packed gig at Leeds Brudenell was particularly joyful, transcendent and atmospheric. One nice thing about the Live At Meredith CD is that you get to hear some of Warren's frequently hilarious song introductions. Here's the James Brown one.

WE: This is a song about finding yourself in an airport with James Brown one day, and Mick Turner! Sitting in an airport at Charles de fuckin' Gaulle in Paris, France, and Mick Turner says to you, "There's James Brown." And you go, "No way Mick!" And as sure as I stand here, there's James Brown, in a little brown suit, really tight and short at the ankles, with a very cute lady on his arm. And you realise in all of your thirty-nine years of experience, you are not fucking funky. This is a song about taking your hat off to the great man, Mr James Brown, and realising when you're fucked you're fucked! This song is called "She Has No Strings Apollo."

PSF: Today is the thirteenth, so you're not superstitious about bad luck associated with the number thirteen?

WE: I guess I just don't look at the dates. I never know! It's my dad's birthday today so I figure I should do a concert.

PSF: This past October Killing Joke skipped the thirteenth and in October last year, P.J. Harvey took a day off from her tour on the thirteenth of September.

WE: Always on the thirteenth? Well, I guess some people have got certain superstitions, haven't they? Having said that I do have superstitions - I wouldn't walk under ladders.

PSF: That's kind of sensible though, because something might fall on you.

WE: I don't not do shows on dates, but I've never thought about it actually. I don't fly on Friday the thirteenth, but other than that I didn't think the thirteenth was such a bad luck day.

PSF: The first time I saw the Dirty Three was supporting P.J. Harvey on the Is This Desire? tour. Have you ever played violin with one of Polly Harvey's bands?

WE: I did play a couple of songs with her once in Paris. I just got on stage for a couple of songs.

PSF: You invited vocalists to sing on a couple of songs on Cinder. Do you think Polly Harvey could be someone you might like to do some vocals for the Dirty Three in future?

WE: I don't know. She's retired, hasn't she?

PSF: I think that was a rumour that was started by the NME misinterpreting something she said at a gig. Am I right in thinking you once did a tour with Pavement and Come in the USA?

WE: I know we did a tour with Pavement and maybe Come were on there too.

PSF: I think it was Chris Brokaw of Come who told me that.

WE: I saw him about three weeks ago. We played a show with him in Boston. I guess Come must've played on some of that tour, that's where I saw them. Maybe we played a few dates.

PSF: Another person I thought might make a good vocalist for the Dirty Three is Thalia Zedek (former singer of Come).

WE: Thalia? She's got a good voice, hasn't she?

PSF: Brilliant! She's so underrated.

WE: Yeah she is. I guess it's a question of practicality and who'd be around. It's not just like you can record anywhere and get anyone in. Part of the thing with us doing this is what's practical and possible.

PSF: Thalia's got a viola player in her band now.

WE: Yeah, I saw that line up a few years ago.

PSF: Cinder sounds like you had a bit of a rethink about what a Dirty Three album could be. It sounds as if you had a think about the process, and stripped it back to approach it in a different way. Is that fair?

WE: Yeah, that's fair to say. This is our seventh record so we're not going into album number two or something. We've sat down to write records on a few occasions now and each time they appear it means that at some point after the recording process we felt like it moved somewhere.

With this one we had a lot of ideas. We haven't been together for a few years now, to actually write material. We played together, but we hadn't sat down to write new material for, I guess, eighteen months to two years. We had a lot of material and somewhere early on in the picture we decided to try to make the songs shorter and see how that would affect the way that we play.

Over the course of fourteen years we've developed this way of playing together which seems to be the essence of the band. I guess when the day arrives that we don't seem to find that language anymore then it'll be time to stop. Mick and I sat down for about two weeks, just the two of us, and really worked together in a different way. We tried to direct the songs in a way that we couldn't have tried to direct them before. Then when we recorded them we tried to make the musical palette of the recording very open. Suggestions would come up and some of them would work and hence we had bagpipes and vocals on it. Some didn't so they weren't put on.

This recording was a very liberating experience for us at this point. At the moment, it feels like we've got some kind of balance of everything that's gone on. We're playing very differently now, I think, to how we've ever played. This album certainly isn't something we could've made five or ten years ago.

When we formed we played the instruments that we play and no one sang and that's pretty much why we are like we are. There was no conceptualisation of it. We found very quickly that we really liked the space that was created with it. There was such a very different environment there for playing, and a real freedom.

I don't think any of us had experience in other bands. It's not music for everybody and it's not made for anyone either. I guess we make music for the purest reasons - the only criteria that it needs to fall in line with is really our own criteria about making music and playing together.

PSF: Does it feel like you're getting somewhere different that you haven't been before? Exploring things?

WE: Yeah, we did. If you make something you never know if it's going to work or not. I don't find it easier the more I make. There are certain things you might have more courage to look at or attempt, or maybe see ways out of problems, or you might work out ways of saving something that's on the cutting room floor because you don't want to let it go and that push is just something that can come with just working really. The more you work, the more experience you have, but I still don't feel any more confident that there's going to be something at the end of it. On one hand there's a great satisfaction from the feeling that we've been playing together as a group for 14 years and made seven records. I don't take that for granted.

PSF: In 2003, didn't you end up completely scrapping the album that eventually became She Has No Strings Apollo?

WE: Yeah, we worked for a couple of weeks and then scrapped the whole thing. It was just rubbish. There was nothing at all that was salvageable. I think there was one song in there that sounded OK, and then after listening to it we realised it was "Happy Birthday" played really slowly. That was really depressing and funny. It just seems to be part of the terrain. When you create things, I don't think I've ever met anyone who doesn't find it problematic or who doesn't have moments of doubt about it.

PSF: What do you do to find ways out of those kinds of problems? Do you simply take a break and then come back to it?

WE: I remember there was a point when we'd just been playing so much live, around the time we recorded Horse Stories, we toured non-stop. After that we took three months off and that saved us from falling to pieces.

PSF: When you hit brick walls with things and try to find new ways of thinking about them do you go back to things that are inspirations to you in other art forms?

WE: I listen to a lot of stuff. It can be going to galleries or reading books or watching films, I love watching films.

PSF: Aren't you a fan of Tarkovsky?

WE: I love his stuff and I love that book he wrote, Sculpting In Time, that was fantastic.

PSF: What is it you like about his films?

WE: I love the way it moves. I just love the way they're shot. This book I read on him, that he wrote, was a real insight into an extraordinary guy. I love the atmosphere of those films and the epic nature of them. Something like Andrei Rublev is just such a monumental story. I like the fact that it's so big - no big effects, just great stories that tell themselves. I must say a lot of things that inspired me when I was younger, like 19 or 20, I've started listening to again. Things like John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Stravinsky. I still have the same feelings for these things, and it's good to find that out.

PSF: When did you first get into double tracking or multi-tracking violin?

WE: That was actually on Horse Stories. We sort of had an unwritten rule that nothing was going to be multi-tracked ever. But when we were recording the song "Horse," I double tracked the violin and what you hear on the record just happened by accident. I did three tracks and then we played it back and it was just like the heavens had opened up! It was a really defining moment for me. It was like, "Wow, how did I do that?" It really seemed like a gift from God or something. I hadn't even thought about what was going on in there when I was playing. It was a lesson in having faith, I guess. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's fantastic. When we did Ocean Songs, I rented a viola for that. So I played viola and double tracked violin as well and really worked at trying to do more with the overdubbing. On Whatever You Love, You Are, I was concentrating a lot on that. On Cinder though, I guess I've pulled back more and tried to make it more textural with different instruments. I tried to use it in a different way. I guess it's what each of us does each record. Jim approaches his drums in such an individual way. He's always trying to do something different on each record. On Ocean Songs he was really trying to get a very different thing going on there. We try to do that on every record that we make together. It's just seeing how far we can take what we're doing with the instruments.

PSF: You play a few unusual instruments as well as violin. What's a bazouki?

WE: It's like this mandolin but about twice as long and an octave lower. It has a round shape.

PSF: What's a 'space belt'?

WE: It's just a piece of tube that I swing around. I played that on the first album. I've got one on this tour, I've been using it a bit.

PSF: Wasn't Sad and Dangerous recorded before the first album but released after?

WE: Yeah. I think it's on that too, or maybe not, I don't know.

PSF: The song "Kim's Dirt" from Sad and Dangerous was written by Kim Salmon of the Scientists. Where was the original version of that song from?

WE: I was doing a solo night with him in the early nineties, and it was one of the first times I'd met him. He said to me, "I have this song without any words." And he played it to me in the kitchen. We played it one night together. When the Dirty Three started, we were trying to get songs together and I remembered how it went. We played it and Kim heard it and liked it and said it was OK for us to play that song. He didn't play it after that.

PSF: So he's never recorded it?

WE: No he hasn't. I just remembered it from a practice when we were trying to get songs together for a tour.

PSF: I haven't heard a hell of a lot of his songs since the Scientists.

WE: He just did a fantastic album called Down in Darlington with Roland Peno of Died Pretty. He's been doing stuff al the time with different bands. I haven't heard a lot of it.

(NOTE: According to a Kim Salmon discography The Darling Downs is Kim Salmon's country duo with Ron Peno of Died Pretty. Ron sings and Kim plays acoustic guitar. Their CD How Can I Forget This Heart Of Mine? is out now).

PSF: Considering that there are nineteen songs on Cinder it seemed like there weren't that many from the new album in the set in Liverpool.

WE: There were about half a dozen or so. There are six, seven, maybe eight Cinder songs in the set. The first two songs we started off with, then there's "The Zither Player," "Amy," "Sad Jexy" and "This Night." But some of them are played a bit differently than on the record which is maybe why they're not totally recognisable at this stage.

PSF: Do you usually make a record before playing the songs at gigs?

WE: Ocean Songs and Whatever You Love, You Are were recorded before we'd played any of it live. For She Has No Strings Apollo and Horse Stories and the first self-titled one we played a good part of the stuff beforehand.

PSF: There must be some songs that you just can't play live?

WE: Some songs we just can't do because there are so many things on it. In America, we had an extra person, from Califone, play bass, violin and mandolin and we were able to do quite a few songs in a different way with him. On this tour, Josh Pearson is playing some mandolin with us on a couple of tracks, and some bass. Some songs just need other voices going on. Songs will find a way of doing themselves if they're going to find it. Some songs just never do. They seem to go just fine for the recording then that's it. We'll generally try to play every song off the record unless it's just not possible. After we've played them a few times we'll try playing them live but some just don't find their feet. Some we just get sick of playing really quickly, unless we find a new aim to them. It doesn't seem like every song is made to be played live.

PSF: You also had Martyn P. Casey of the Bad Seeds playing bass with you last time you toured the UK. What about older songs that you don't play anymore? You've said there are some you don't play because of the circumstances in which they were written.

WE: Some really only work that time you record them. (For) some, there's not a way to do them or you can't find a way to do them or they just don't seem to last very long, doing them in that way. Sometimes songs seem to have a different purpose. They just work really well on the record. Some songs we've recorded and never played live. It just doesn't have the same appropriate atmosphere. I think most bands are like that actually, just some songs they'll never play. It just works when you record it. I don't think all songs are made to be played live. All songs don't have a live lifespan.

PSF: There are bagpipes on "Doris" - have you ever had a bagpipe player with you on stage?

WE: I wish we had, but no.

PSF: Can you play "Doris" live without the bagpipes?

WE: We tried it but it just didn't seem to have the pay off. It missed something.

PSF: I could imagine the bagpipe part working played on violin.

WE: I'm playing all that riff on the mandolin.

PSF: Who is "Doris?" Is the song named after a real person?

WE: No. It's just a name, the first thing that came into my head!

PSF: Have you ever heard "Booids" by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, because "Doris" reminds me of that?

WE: No, I haven't but I like them.

PSF: The last time you toured over here you had an EP called Strange Holiday. What's the strangest holiday you've had?

WE: Well, the last holiday I went on was strange because I actually enjoyed it and I don't generally enjoy holidays because after a while I've no idea what I'm meant to be doing on them. I'm not a person who responds very well to doing nothing. I worked so much this year and I have two kids so I don't have many minutes in a day spare, or much time private. I went on a holiday with my family and what was really strange was I actually felt like I had a holiday. I understood what holidays were for. I guess it's probably because I never worked hard enough in the past!

PSF: Sometimes holidays can seem just as much hard work as working.

WE: They can be and after a while I just wonder what they're all about? I've always liked being involved in places and I remember setting off years ago to travel around Europe, and fortunately I took my violin with me, which gave me something to do. I learnt how to play Scottish and Irish tunes. After a couple of days I worked out what to do - playing violin! I wasn't sure what you did on holidays, having no involvement with a place beyond walking around and looking at galleries and drinking in pubs.

PSF: Which is OK for a day or two.

WE: Well yeah it is. Some people seem to love doing that for months on end, but I've never been one for that. I find most holidays strange but the last one I found strange because I really enjoyed it and I felt really relaxed afterwards. It felt like the first holiday I'd ever had.

PSF: Are both your children daughters?

WE: Not the last time I looked, no. They're both little boys. I have been away for a while, so...

PSF: I asked because someone told me that "Lullaby for Christy" from Whatever You Love, You Are was dedicated to your daughter.

WE: No, it's for Christy Moore, the Irish folk singer. I was playing that song backstage in Ireland at a festival. This bloke came over and sat and started singing along with me for about twenty minutes. He walked off and the promoter walked up and told me it was Christy Moore and he hadn't sang for eighteen months. He'd been in a clinic. So that's why I called that song "Lullaby for Christie."

PSF: You've travelled around quite a bit, haven't you? You've lived in Scotland and you live in Paris now. Didn't you travel around Europe before forming the Dirty Three?

WE: I spent about nine months travelling around, from Scotland to Ireland to Hungary. I ended up in Budapest for a while. I lived in Scotland for a few months. I lived in a whiskey distillery for quite a while.

PSF: Are there any Dirty Three songs that's been influenced by Scottish or Irish folk music?

WE: Not that I could pick out off the top of my head, but I'm sure there's something in there. It's the sort of style I like, certainly the double stopping and playing two strings together.

PSF: Are you going to do anymore solo records?

WE: Yeah, I've written a symphony.

PSF: Are you performing that with an orchestra?

WE: Well no, it's for laptop, drum machine and violin. I'll perform it in Montreal, Italy and London. I just need to finish off one part of it then it's done.

PSF: Are you going to release that as a record?

WE: If I can, yeah. I'd like to. It's six movements and also an introduction and development which totals about forty minutes.

PSF: How are you using the laptop?

WE: I just put other instruments on it, a string section.

PSF: Did you sample that?

WE: No, I played it and recorded it. I got a drum machine and used it with the computer.

PSF: You recently did a gig at the Barbican in London where you played the whole of Ocean Songs with Nick Cave on piano. Would you be into playing any of your other albums all the way through?

WE: I don't know. We were asked to do it as part of this 'Don't Look Back' thing. It's not something you'd do intentionally I think. It was in the spirit of this festival. I don't think it's the sort of thing we'd want to do all the time! That'd sort of defeat the purpose of it in a way. To do it like that as part of a one off thing was quite fantastic. The organisers of the festival (All Tomorrow's Parties) chose that album. It was interesting how it seemed to sit together as a complete piece. I wasn't really sure if it was a good thing to do or not. I like the idea of playing a whole record, but I didn't really know until we started rehearsing it a few days before. And then I asked Nick if he'd like to play with us because there was piano on a couple of tracks on the recording. He was really up for doing it and sat down and learnt the whole thing. When we got together with him the day before it just felt great.

PSF: He ended up playing on everything, didn't he?

WE: Yeah. It really felt like we did some justice to it. It felt really relevant.

PSF: Was it strange revisiting that particular time (1997)? Because you won't have played some of those songs in a long time...

WE: There were about three songs there that we'd never played live. A lot of those songs we hadn't played since we toured for that record. A lot of it was very fresh and really great to play. It was nice to revisit those songs. Ocean Songs was really like a total change for us. We sat down in a room for ten days and wrote a record. We'd never done that before. We met up in Chicago, and we had two very loose ideas before that, something Mick and I had been working on in Australia and another thing Mick had been messing around with when we were in Israel the year before. Other than that it was pretty much written in Chicago. We'd never done that before. I'd just recorded The Boatman's Call (with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), flew out to Chicago, and we set up in this warehouse with all these heavy metal bands bashing away. We just sat in there and played really quiet. I guess it was probably because everything was so loud in there! Also we'd become so loud and violent at that point. Touring the Horse Stories stuff just got so violent and hysterical it became quite wearing and exhausting.

PSF: The press release for Cinder says it was conceived on Phillip Island, in South Australia, in the summer of 2004. The island is home to the very wonderful Mutton Bird and the Fairy Penguin Colony and the site of one of the largest Great White Sharks ever fished from its waters in 1978. What is the very wonderful Mutton Bird?

WE: It's a bird that the English discovered when they cooked it, (it) tasted like lamb, hence the name Mutton Bird. It lives on this island where we did the Cinder demos. It flies to Alaska and back once a year. It's just a wild looking bird.

Part of this interview was broadcast by The Northern Wire on ALL FM.

Check out the official Dirty Three site.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER