Twenty years ago GARY STEEL interviewed Warren Ellis of so-called post-rock trio Dirty Three.
The violinist opened his mouth. His band mates watched, horrified as a torrent of blood spewed down on the foaming surf. The previous night, Dirty Three had performed the opening concert of their tour in Hamilton to bemused university orientation students. Warren Ellis had arrived just hours before from his Paris base; the other two (Jim White and Mick Turner) from their adopted home in Chicago.
Now, Ellis faced an emergency ambulance ride from a Coromandel beach to Auckland Hospital, where he would spend the night under observation.
Ever the trooper, Ellis checked himself out of hospital the next morning, missing our appointed interview time by a mere 10 minutes. He sported a black eye, a huge fleshy gash deep on the inside of his bottom lip, and the right side of his body (including his bowing arm) was partially numb.
All because of an unsuccessful encounter with New Zealand surf.
Dirty Three – originally hailing from Melbourne – are one of the most critically lauded bands in the world right now, writers falling over themselves in futile attempts to evoke the flavour of their unique music with descriptions such as “elemental power”.
Although he’s not smiling today (it hurts too much), Ellis finds it amusing that this time, elemental power in its rawest, most natural form has brandished its fury on him, perhaps in anger for calling his new album Ocean Songs.
But being in the wars is nothing new to the Dirty Three. On their last tour of New Zealand, Ellis managed to sustain a freakish blood-spurting injury to his hand during an Auckland gig; and late last year, having just finished recording Ocean Songs, Ellis and White had a serious car accident that put them both in hospital.
“Unbelievable,” says Ellis. “The show in Hamilton was officially the very start of our tour for the new record.
“I could do without the body I’ve got today, the day after I’ve been dumped by a wave and had half my face torn off! It feels like I’ve been beaten up or something.”
The new record the accident-prone three-piece are promoting is their fourth; while the first three introduced us to the intoxicating delights of a group seemingly intent on rewriting the book on what singerless, violin-driven groups can do, Ocean Songs stands without peer in the contemporary musical universe.
Like similarly feted Chicago group Tortoise, Dirty Three have made a courageously quiet album of indescribable beauty, soiled laments that ache with fragile beauty while retaining the rusting power of an old locomotive.
But things get stranger yet: Steve Albini (Big Black, Nirvana) sat on the producer’s chair, and totally resisted any temptation to get what Ellis describes as that grating sound.
After a substantial break to offset four years of constant touring, “we met up in August to record an album. We got a warehouse in a really extraordinary, heavy, funky part of Chicago, where we rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and then went in with Steve Albini in his little studio, and recorded the album in nine days”, says Ellis.
“He was really great to work with. During rehearsals it became evident that the songs that were coming up needed a much lighter touch, and we had all gone off that big dynamic ‘hit the pedal and go for it’ sound.
“I like making a racket, but when I listen back to the old records, I find it’s the quieter moments I like more. They have much more dynamics, because when you see a rock band, from the first song it’s at the same level, and you reach your limit very quickly. You can be very quiet and still very dynamic. Steve was expecting us to play like he’d seen us live, but he changed his approach very quickly.
“It’s pretty much the first concept we’ve had for an album. The first one we recorded in Mick’s bedroom, the second one in a theatre. There’s a definite mood to it.
“I’ve heard people say it’s pretty sad and beautiful and fragile, which is interesting because it was a period where all of us were the happiest we’d been. Everyone was tentative in the playing, which gave it a really nice feel.
“That’s basically what Ocean Songs has going for it, a real uncertainty in some things. We’ve noticed in playing it live that the songs are developing some of the older sound about them. We want to try and hold it back, but if it’s going to go, it’s going to go, you know?”
It was the Dirty Three live show that first caught the imagination: When they left the relative security of Melbourne in 1995 and headed out on a shambolic year-long American sojourn, they quickly built up a fervent following for their unprecedented form of articulated primalism, not to mention Ellis’s famous onstage between-song monologues.
“We left Australia after two years of playing there, and went to America with no contract, no label,” says Ellis. “We were really broke in America for a long time, and literally had to play to live.
“We found it initially very hard to get any support from record people, who all wanted us to get a singer, so because of the nature of what we do, we were forced into becoming fiercely independent.
“It’s worked out well, because nobody’s involved because they thought they were going to make a fortune off us. It’s in line with how we were conceived, playing the music we liked in the corner of a bar.”
And when it’s meant to end, it will, naturally and without grief, says Ellis. It’s not as if the members lack for other creative projects: Ellis himself has been a touring member of Nick Cave’s group The Bad Seeds, and played on Cave’s last album. The other two have numerous collaborations to their credit.
As it happens, by nightfall Ellis is feeling like a box of birds, and Dirty Three give one of their patented, powerfully understated performances, before heading off on a successful jaunt down country. Expect a return visit later this year.