By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A few violin players might complain of the occasional bad
back, but a very select few complain of severed nerves as a result
of jumping off a drum kit. Warren Ellis is among the select few.
When we caught up with Ellis last week, he was nursing an old war
wound, aggravated again by another animated performance a few
"I took a fall off a monitor up in Boston,'' Ellis said. "I
fell on my knee and brought back an old injury when I dove off a
bass drum and severed a nerve. I'm nursing that a bit.''
You might not expect such madness from a violin player,
especially when his band is an instrumental setup, but Ellis
shatters every stereotype with his music and performance. His band,
the Dirty Three, plays the most evocative instrumental music
currently in the rock idiom. Ellis' violin breaks your heart, and
if you can listen to the band's latest disc, "Horse Stories,''
without tearing up at least once, you have no heart.
This is not chamber music, mind you, unless your chamber
happens to be a garishly decorated boudoir full of lonely hearts
brooding and reminiscing in the twilight. Jim White's astonishing
drums and Mick Turner's manic-depressive guitar gives breath to the
songs, and Ellis uses his violin to sigh — sometimes harsh and
scraping like John Cale's most frenetic Velvet Underground moments
and sometimes sweet and weeping like the most masterful Stephane
Grappelli ballads. (Turner's history delves into the scummiest of
Australian rock, from the Sick Things to Fungus Brains, and White
emigrated from The People With Chairs Up Their Noses — a band name
I could not resist printing.)
It still rocks, and Ellis' off-the-handle live shows are not
the stuff of stuffy concert halls. He often lightens the mood with
long, rambling stories of lost love involving such characters as
Meatloaf, Siouxsie Sioux and "that little chap from New Order.''
The concert reviews from around the country have been paragraph
after paragraph of gaping jaws.
All this from an instrumental band — and they're opening for
Beck. What will the restless young ones in that crowd think of
"Some people think instrumental music is a bit of a chore,''
Ellis said, "but you can never tell, really. When you're doing
support spots, people came to see the main band. It's much nicer
that way because then I can just go out and play and let completely
loose. It's different than playing in a club where all the people
came to see you and are expecting a certain thing. This way
nobody's really expecting much from us, and we really divide the
audience. They either love us or hate us.''
Like any youngster with a burgeoning interest in rock music,
Ellis started playing guitar. Meanwhile, he was studying classical
violin for eight years. About four years ago, he'd been hearing
about electric violins, and he decided to try it out. He attached a
guitar pickup to his violin with a rubber band and began playing.
"People began bringing me different effects pedals to try
out. We just sort of plugged them in and turned out this music and
saw what happened,'' Ellis said.
Dirty Three formed shortly after that. Ellis' reputation as a
startling musician spread quickly, and he began working with other
artists, as well. Most notably, he worked with Nick Cave on the
music for the film "The Passion of Joan of Arc'' and a recording
of the dark theme to "The X Files,'' which opens the television
show's tribute disc, "Songs in the Key of X.''
One reason for the expressive quality of the songs may be the
result of one of Ellis' rules: no practicing.
"We never practice,'' he said. "I've never understood bands
who practice for 18 months in a rehearsal room. It probably
destroys any intuitivity about the thing, you know? Music is about
communication. You should be out playing it to people.''
Ellis communicates quite well. When he drizzles his bow over
the strings in "Sue's Last Ride,'' you can almost picture Sue as
she looked to Ellis's character the very last time he saw her. You
don't have to see the title of "At the Bar'' to know that here
Ellis and the other players are exploring the depressant qualities
of fermented grains. These melodies and countermelodies communicate
just as much as a fluid line of poetry if you listen carefully.
"The kind of music that inspires this is stuff with really
common themes — having a bit of a broken heart and such — things
that are very basic to our experience. That's our sort of medium
for communicating. We don't have fireworks or pyrotechnics to draw
people in, and we don't wear makeup ...
"I guess whatever you do is an extension of yourself, a way
of expressing yourself that maybe you can't do verbally. I guess
that means I'm kind of squawky and out of tune inside.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.