Dirty Three
The Sound of Music
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Over the course of 20 years, the Dirty Three have produced a prolific amount of music encompassing a broad spectrum of emotions and themes. While all three members have lent their talents to plenty of other projects—guitarist Mick Turner and Jim White collaborated with Cat Power; White has also played with White Magic, Will Oldham and Marianne Faithful; and Warren Ellis has played with Nick Cave on various projects and scored films—when the three get together, a completely different musical alchemy happens, far different from music of any realm. The band’s new record, Toward the Low Sun, is Dirty Three’s first in five years. While age and physical distance have brought them far from their humble Australian pub roots, their growth as musicians has allowed them to capture their combined energy inside a smoldering capsule of seriously rewarding songs. Instrumental music can invoke all kinds of different imagery in all kinds of different people, and like all Dirty Three records, this new one will take a while to digest. So in the meantime, I talked with Warren Ellis to learn more about the record’s and the band’s creation.

How did you get started as a violinist?

Warren Ellis: It was actually one of those things that you do when you’re young because you think the girls are going to do it. The guy came round to class and asked if anyone wanted to play the violin. I think I was about 10, and I’d been playing piano and accordion for a year. I noticed lots of the girls had put their hand up, so I thought, “Why not?” I ended up with a violin, but when I got to the class there were no girls. It was my first lesson in life that music and girls don’t mix.

Seems like that was a good enough reason to drop it, so how did you decide it was something you’d stick with?

WE: It was probably in my mid-20s when I stuck a guitar pick-up on it. Suddenly I was able to make a connection between the music that moved me and what I’d be able to do. Up to that point, I’d never really seen a connection between the instruments I was playing and the actual music I was listening to. I’d always played classical music, but I also enjoyed bluegrass, folk music and Irish music. Playing Hank Williams and Irish and Scottish tunes, I didn’t really see a connection between that and the music that I really felt strongly about, which was rock music.

Until you got that gnarled sound out of the fiddle...

WE: I sort of started playing electrically by accident. Someone wanted a fiddle player and they knew someone that had a bunch of songs. I went down to play and my brother stuck that pick-up on with a rubber band and said, “You’re going to need to be heard.” I went and plugged that in to the PA. Then the next week, he lent me an amplifier, then the next week a bunch of guitar pedals to play around with. It was all really sort of on the fly. I very quickly got very loud, and there was no turning back after that. Until I went deaf, then I had to reassess my game plan.

You’re classically trained, so do you sit down and compose with a pen and paper or do you just sort of jam?

WE: You know it took me a long time to get away from that training and move into a freer, more instinctive style of playing. You just can’t get away from that. It took me a lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs, and a deliberate attempt on my part to get away from actually playing notes and from trying to be more instinctive with my response. It was the most productive thing that those vices did for me. They helped me blot out those things that were ingrained in me from years of learning. To this day, it’s always a struggle to kind of overcome that. I don’t write music as such. If push came to shove, I probably could, but I was trying to develop a more instinctive approach. I think electrifying the violin really helped that because it became so unwieldy and unpredictable that you didn’t have time to think about what you’re doing. The main thing you have to worry about is whether or not it’s going to start feeding back and become very uncontrollable very quickly.

How do the songs come together in rehearsal? Is it sort of a psychic communion through the instruments that allows each movement to progress into the next and the song to come together?

WE: When we started, a friend of mine had a bar and he wanted music, but he didn’t want to play CDs. So he asked me if I knew anyone that would like to come down to play for a couple of hours. I knew Jim and he knew me, so we got together in my kitchen for a couple of hours and worked out half a dozen songs. We needed to play for three hours, so we went down that night and just played them really, really long so that we could cover the time. Instantly that night, we found a way of playing together that seemed genuinely thrilling and genuinely exciting to us, and it allowed us to take a lot of liberties with our instruments that traditional pop music with a vocalist just doesn’t give you. We felt spoiled for choice.

We’ve always operated like that: we’ve never practiced. We always would play onstage and learn how to play the songs there. It did feel like it was risk taking, and learning in that situation was much more dramatic and much more pointed than sitting in a rehearsal room. Playing in the moment, in the live situation, made it much more focused and intense. Now we live in different towns, so when we meet up we’ll bring in some small ideas and sit down and just start playing. It’s not like a traditional group where there’s someone that writes the lyrics and someone pounds out some chords for them and the band works out how to fit it together. We’re looking for a narrative within the group, and that might be on the drums or the guitar or the violin. We try to make the piece, and the piece comes about as a result of the way we’re playing together. I’ve worked in bands with singers, and it’s a very, very different approach.

So it is more about the communication between you three...

WE: Right, it’s always been about that with us. That really determines how successful the whole thing is. If it feels like the potential for a real disaster is eminent, then it’s just the most exciting place to be. It gives you a feeling of control and also a fear of a collapse. It’s so electrifying.

You’re making order out of chaos.

WE: I guess so. I mean, we’ve always had structure, but you can’t control stuff when it’s fallen to pieces. It’s that fine line between something being mawkish and being just desperately sad, but noble. That’s what happens when you take risks. You can cross that line between something really powerful and extraordinary to something that's kind of underwhelming and mediocre. To know that those two things are possible is really kind of terrifying as a performer and it keeps you on your toes. We always have a basic structure, but there’s a lot of room for disaster.

There’s no lyrical content, which leaves a lot of room for the listener to interpret how, say, the title of the song ties to the way that it sounds or the mood of the song. It’s pretty fair, though, to say that you guys connect with the punk rock aesthetic.

WE: That’s where we come out from, even after 20 years of playing together. To a lot of people’s ears it probably sounds as out of tune as Billy Holliday’s voice did at first to a lot of people. For us, it’s always been about the music. As daft as that sounds, it’s always been like that. As far as the things that came along with it like touring and playing in front of all kinds of people and having a life playing in a band, they were all such great things to have going on in your life. If we set about being a band and tried to have, a kind of indie hit or Top 10 hit or something, we would’ve failed and given up a long time ago. You’d see bands playing—especially in the late ’80s in Melbourne and Sydney—and it was like their intention was to make stuff that really challenged people. You could have bands like Thug with songs like “Fuck Your Dad” and things that were so confrontational. You’d get this feeling that people wanted to present stuff that would shock people—and not in a Madonna kind of way where it feels so old hat, but in a really healthy way. We came out of that, and it just felt like it was our right as musicians to take it as far as we could, and the audience should tolerate it and put up with it. It’s certainly the reason we started on the stage and got experience playing, but the first few years got such extreme reactions. We felt like we were doing the right thing, and it made us bond together. I mean, people would be throwing stuff. I had to start moving around the stage because I never knew when I was gonna get hit by stuff. We had this amazing stratifying effect, like the venue would start fighting and be split down the middle. On one side would be the people that hated us, and on the other, people that really liked us. We hadn’t even said a word.

As far as the new record, I read on the Anchor & Hope website that you said that you guys had finally “cracked it.” What did you mean by that?

WE: Did I say that? Oh, man.

That’s what it says, right on the internet.

WE: Maybe I was having a weaker moment. I don’t know what I was trying to say. No, I know what I was trying to say, it just sounds so stupid when I hear it like that. It was quite a struggle to make this new album, and it took a few years for various reasons. We tried a few times to get together and couldn’t come up with anything that would move anywhere, and I, for one, started to wonder if maybe it was the end of the story. But every time we got together to play, there was still something very vital, and we felt like every time we played together there was something that we wanted to preserve. I don’t think anybody in the band would want to let it go, even if push would come to shove. But we weren’t just going to put something out for the sake of it. It’s always got to be that there was something exciting about what we recorded. I think in my mind there was a feeling of being relieved that we got to something we were proud of and we’d want to go out. I do feel like this record is very representative of what we’ve been trying to do for these 20 years. This album, for the first time, feels like some of the ideas that we formulated back in the early and mid-90s but then stopped doing because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. I guess that’s what I was trying to say. It feels like maybe some of the ideas that felt half-formed had been pushed through to a different place.

To a place that follows your collective mindset now?

WE: Yeah, we couldn’t have made this record five or 10 years ago. Our music always seemed to come out of either sadness or aggressiveness. Every time we got together, it felt like similar emotional things came out, and sadness is never something that you want to manufacture for the sake of it. It felt like that’s what just kept coming out, and we were all hoping it would move in some way, so that’s why it took so long. I mean, you certainly hope that something about what you’re doing is moving in a different direction over time. Still, if you played our records back to back, you’d probably find the similarities that run through all them and you’d know they sound like us.