An intense and vibrant artist, Warren Ellis takes inspiration from his ever-changing surroundings, absorbs the world through osmosis while synthesizing and emitting bright rays of electrifying aural energy. Warren is a multi-instrumentalist who has traveled the globe for decades as a core member of bands like Dirty Three, Grinderman, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. He has also scored award winning soundtracks to several films (both on his own and with Nick Cave) and still finds time to produce and record with artists like Marianne Faithfull and Tinariwen. Warren wrote us from his home in France where he has lived for some time, but has always maintained his Australian irreverence and swagger. We are honored that he Spilled the Beans, and happy to report that without snobbishness or pretention, he is an unabashed devotee of coffee in its pure form: untouched by a drop of milk and consumed morning, noon and night. Join us as we discuss his incredible career, musical loves, and coffee addiction.
Hi Warren, thank you so much for taking some time to Spill The Beans. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a father, musician, composer and performer. Australian born and reside in France. I am a pescatarian and was born on Valentine’s day. I like watching films and television series. I have no grievance with gluten. It’s welcome in my orbit. I am suspicious of spirulina. I found myself in the profession of musician. I believe People have the Power. Global warming is the most serious issue we face, please tell your president and all the others who doubt it.
Warren Ellis, photo by Jamie Williams
How amazing, decades. It still astounds me how they have stacked up. Music is something I was interested in from a young age. As long as I remember, I loved listening to music, and one day I became a player. I found an accordion at the local rubbish dump and learnt how to play it, and it just went from there. I was always able to get a tune out of most instruments. Playing violin, flute, and accordion, and listening to AC/DC all seemed rather incongruous. I never dreamed I would make music a career. I went to university and became a school teacher. In 1988 I went to Europe and lived on a Whiskey Distillery, busking and learning tunes. That was for me my first musical experience of great worth. Then I met Jim and Mick and we formed Dirty Three in 1990. From there, I met Nick Cave and it’s just kept growing organically.
Once I started playing, I knew straight away it was on.
Dirty Three. L-R: Jim White, Warren Ellis, Mick Turner. Photo by Annabelle Mehran.
I first became aware of you with the release of Dirty Three’s Horse Stories, and your live shows and records continue to have a huge impact on me. I remember seeing you in a small club in Saint Louis, standing on top of one of the monitors and playing your heart out to about a hundred people, but have also seen you in giant rooms (still playing your heart out.) I’m sure that over time and with different projects you’ve been involved with, certain aspects of your creative process and experience have changed, while some may stay the same. After all of this time, what about these experiences stands out to you?
I think it is true what you say. I have always played my heart out, whether in a room or a studio, with 1 or 100,000 people present. It’s the act of playing that is sacred. I have been blessed in that I have been rewarded for my work, and it’s meant I can raise my family on music alone. I never intended to create music, that was down to the company I was keeping and the wonder of being in a group. I am only as good as my latest project. I always wonder when I go in the studio if it is the last time something will appear. I have been wondering that for 28 years. Somehow something continues to evolve. The main thing is to turn up, no matter what. The rest takes care of itself. I always said I would continue doing this as long as I have something to say.
Dirty Three, performing live for NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts series in 2012.
I have been fortunate to work with people who bring out the best in me. I love a struggle and love to work. In the studio, Nick quite often just walks out at the end of the day and leaves me banging away. I don’t know how to stop.
Screen print for a Dirty Three show in Chicago by Dan Grzeca.
What would you consider the biggest influences on your music?
The desire to do something great. The terror of knowing it might never happen.
You have also scored several films, both as a solo artist and with Nick Cave. Do you have a singular approach for these projects, or do you treat each film uniquely?
An approach has developed since we created "The Proposition."
We are very economical with time it seems, and keep it loose, similar to making an album.
It’s my job to question the musical aspect of things. I like to keep it unexpected and tackle the unknown against my better judgment. Generally a script is read or a cut watched, then we have a discussion, then start making music, and hope some beautiful collisions happen.
Warren with Nick Cave, photo by Kevork Djansezian.
What do you find yourself listening to these days?
Mostly soundtracks and instrumental music. I listen all the time.
I keep going back to Brian Eno. Philip Glass, and Moondog. Strumming Music by Charlemagne Palestine, amongst many.
I still listen to I’m New Here by Gil Scott Heron very much, and Alice Coltrane. Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Beethoven and Stravinsky. The sound of the city I am in or the sounds in my fingers and head. I make a lot of music and I am constantly listening to that. I can put a loop I have made on and leave it running all afternoon and go about my day, then add to it.
I have worn out several copies of "Blade Runner." I think streaming is fantastic for the listeners and creatives. Such a rich resource on hand.
But it could be something different in a week.
I am always listening to demos and new scores/ideas in progress.
A playlist featuring Warren and artists he enjoys.
What can we look forward to from you next?
I have recently released a new album Negative Capability by Marianne Faithfull that I produced with Rob Ellis and played on.
I am looking at some scores and possibly doing Dirty Three at some stage. I heard a live recording yesterday from 2009 that stopped me in my tracks.
I am just back from a tour of almost 2 years for Skeleton Tree. I will try to find employment as a neighborhood Santa Claus and buy myself some musical instruments. Whatever I am going to work on next, it must potentially be the best thing I have ever created, or there is no point.
Note: since this interview took place, Warren recently stated that he is currently producing new music for Tinariwen, and Nick Cave recently announced at a live performance that he and the Bad Seeds were almost finished with a new record.
You’ve lived all over the place, as well as toured extensively. How have you seen the artistic culture differ in places you’ve lived, and what are some of your favorites to visit?
Istanbul is beautiful and I love Israel. Driving across America is still a wonder.
I loved Mexico City recently and Sao Paulo.
At the Pyramid Of The Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico via Twitter.
To be honest I love touring and movement. Artistic culture? hmm... I don’t feel qualified to comment. I can work anywhere and all I need is a place that I can unload my internal rumblings. It’s very often that the environment around me inspires me. Except the last studio I was in in Malibu. Something creeped in.
Ok, it’s coffee time. What do you think of that stuff?
It’s "grouse," Australian for awesome.
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
Bold taste and clean. I think I like coffee in general, to be honest.
I like drinking all sorts, I am not a coffee snob. Like food, I just want it clean and healthy, made with love.
How do you make coffee at home?
I have a machine that grinds beans then makes espresso. I push a button and watch the magic.
A French press or Plunger, and a Moka or Italian pot. Photos by Kristan Lieb.
If you are grabbing a coffee at a cafe, what is your go-to?
Double Espresso or a Noisette which is a Macchiato outside France.
I am not into Americano. I prefer a filter coffee or roadhouse.
Milk based is not my speed.
Are there coffees from particular regions that you are especially fond of?
Not really. I will drink anything, I am not a coffee snob. I have instant coffee on hand and find it comforting. It takes me back to my youth.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
I drink coffee all day. I’m hooked. I also like a cup of Lady Grey tea in the afternoon to break it up. If I don’t have coffee it all starts spiraling apart, starting with a headache. I drink coffee before bed sometimes. Nick always rolls his eyes at me at dinner when I order.
Warren & Nick, from the documentary "20,000 Days On Earth"
Thanks so much, Warren. Lastly, have you heard any good jokes lately?
How do clowns taste?