"I'm in Boston, in bed with a fucked knee, drinking cold coffee," laments Warren Ellis, violinist extraordinaire for Australia's Dirty Three. But in describing how he earned his wound, a hint of pride seeps through the cloud-cover of his exasperation: "Last night we played a show and I did a sort of back flip off the monitor--and the monitor flew off the stage and I kind of went over backwards and landed on my knee." He adds, "To top it all off, when I was lying on the ground, the drum kit fell over and a cymbal just landed straight on it. I did half the show last night lying on my back."
But not to worry. This is neither the first nor likely the last time Ellis's knees have suffered from his art; eight months ago he severed a nerve that still causes an electric shock to travel his leg each time he crouches. But he should be at least semi-vertical by the time of his Denver appearance. And no matter what he's feeling at the time--be it pain or elation--he'll no doubt communicate these sensations by sawing away at his battered, decal-plastered instrument until broken strings drape from its bow.
Guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, both formerly of the Aussie band Venom P. Stinger, have found an exquisitely mad frontman in Ellis, who, in concert and conversation, champions the notion that extreme emotions (particularly those associated with failed love) can lead to transcendence. This point of view--a bold stance in an age of cynicism and ennui--is so convincingly expressed that masters of slight remove such as Beck, Sonic Youth and Pavement have become ardent fans of the Three's stirring instrumental maelstroms. Even the Jesus Lizard's David Yow dampened a handkerchief at one of the group's performances--and he's not the only one. Ellis, too, has shed a few tears in response to his compositions.
"Sometimes a song brings the feeling closer--sometimes it brings back the actual event," he divulges. "I've had moments when things haven't been really good where I've been playing songs and just started crying and had to stop. I find it hard to divorce my real life from music. It's my way of expressing things and getting them off my chest--or at least coming to terms with some things. We've never been a band about trying to write songs that were tricky." Speaking of the latest Dirty Three disc, Horse Stories (released by Touch and Go), he reveals, "On this album, all our songs have come from real-life things and the knowledge that comes from the experience."
Live, the Three lack nothing for want of a vocalist. After all, few singers could produce sounds that alternately evoke the dry sob echoing from a body coiled in the fetal position or the fevered crash of furniture overturning--but Ellis and his mates regularly manage this feat. However, words do have their place during the band's impassioned sets: Between numbers, the violinist is apt to spin lengthy yarns that range from the maudlin to the hilarious.
"I started talking to sort of break up the intensity," Ellis states. "You'll play a song, and you feel emotionally drained, and people will just be sitting there, and I'll crack some joke. Also, I didn't want people to think we were just this uptight instrumental group. When I started talking, I was having a really weird time in my life, and I just used it like a talk show. So I started telling people about my problems--I'd be really personal in front of a few hundred people and they'd be laughing their heads off, and it was kind of a therapeutical thing for me. I don't really think of it as important--people make note of it, and all it does is make me feel embarrassed and draw my attention to it."
At times, Ellis's rambling narratives set the stage for a song by making explicit the heartbreak that led to its conception. On other occasions, he will "speak about something really stupid that happened that day." As an example, Ellis describes an incident from the previous night, when he was ousted from a club at which some friends were playing. According to him, a cranky cocktail waitress took issue with his standing outside a back door to escape the deafening volume, then spat invectives at close range when he tried to resolve their misunderstanding. "You go down to a club to fall in love with the drinks waitress," he waxes dramatically. "You go down there to plant a bomb under the building and blow up a rock establishment. Something like that."
Ellis's love of storytelling is shared by Nick Cave, the man with whom the Three have most frequently collaborated. One such get-together took place at the London Waterloo National Film Theatre, where Cave and the group performed a live soundtrack to the 1929 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. While in Holland some time later, Ellis was given a bootleg cassette of this performance, but he decided not to listen to it in its entirety: "I had such a good memory of it, I didn't want to hear it and go, 'Geez, it was rubbish.' Memory can get clouded by how you feel at the time." More recently, Cave asked Ellis to back him up at another "one-off" gig. "I did a poetry reading with Nick at the Royal Albert Hall and accompanied him on a couple of his songs. We did a version of the Birthday Party song 'Dead Joe,' where I played accordion, and 'The Mercy Seat'--and a new song called 'Black Hair' that's on his new record that I just recorded with him about a month ago." Future projects with Cave include music for a theatrical adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's Billy the Kid that's scheduled to open next February in Vienna.
The Three have also recorded with Will Oldham of the Palace Brothers--a natural pairing, given the dust that blows through the more lonesome passages of Horse Stories. Likewise, the trio enjoys playing with George Zalouras, a Cretan musician friend now located in Melbourne. Ellis savors tales of Zalouras's father, a figure of mythic proportions and a lyra player renowned in his native Crete: "When he was about 25, he turned to his family and said, 'I'm going to the mountains to learn music,' and he didn't come back for like twenty years--and some say he never came back. He's this really feral dude with a beard and long hair, and he hardly talks." The elder Zalouras is rumored to know one piece of music that lasts for eight days; his son has shared crumbs from the epic with the Three, much to their delight.
But the performer whom Ellis is most eager to accompany is Arleta, an aging singer associated with rembetica, a folk music created by Greek refugees who were expelled from Turkey during the first half of the twentieth century. (This group subsequently congregated in the ghettos surrounding Athens and Piraeus.) Traditionally accompanied by violin, oud and baglamas, rembetica singers wailed ballads of displacement and paeans to hash dens. Beginning in 1937, such lyrical content and Eastern musical flavors in general were censored under Greece's Metaxas regime because, Ellis remarks, "they thought they were leading the youth astray. And so the music went underground, because it was illegal to play. Arleta was imprisoned during the rembetica period."
While in Athens last year, the Dirty Three performed a song popularized by Arleta, "I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me," before a throng of 5,000 at a basketball stadium where they were opening for Cave. Ellis recalls, "As soon as I started playing the melody, honestly, the whole place exploded--they were dancing and singing louder than we could play. It was, like, the most amazing experience I've ever had playing live." In a hushed, respectful voice, he says, "I'm hopefully going to approach Arleta about doing a version of it with her."
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Considering that the closest approximation to what Ellis is currently doing fiddle-wise are the tracks John Cale laid down on White Light/White Heat nearly twenty years ago, it's not surprising that he would look to urban Greek folk music and other Old World styles for inspiration. But the Dirty Three constitute an island, not an anachronism, in a modern music scene in which too many participants are hungry for distortion but circumspect when it comes to emotional effluvium. Like the unrepentant rembetica musician he might have been in another life, Ellis has never subscribed to the dampening of passion for the sake of self-protection.
"When you jump in the fire, you're going to get burned," he points out. "Even really bad things and depressing times--I've tried to get something positive out of them. Not say, 'Oh, I won't do that again.' I generally throw myself even more headlong into it.
"I've never liked complacency," he continues. "If people are angry, you should scream, and if you're happy, you should scream, too. A scream can say more than a thousand words. I believe you owe it to yourself to get your hands as dirty as possible."
Beck, with the Dirty Three. 9 p.m., Friday, October 4, Mammoth Events Center, $12.50, all ages, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-