The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Warren Ellis

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Interview with Warren Ellis.

“I like to work and when I’m not working I find a lot of things quite difficult to deal with. And actually the more work I’ve got the better I feel in certain respects.”

—Warren Ellis

Words: Mark Carry


In W.G. Sebald’s novel ‘Austerlitz’ – the German writer’s celebrated tale of one man’s odyssey through the dark ages of European history – a central question is posed: “Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction?”

Certainly an unquantifiable dimension forever lies at the heart of Warren Ellis’s singular, sonic creations that maps the rawest of emotions and ceaselessly traverses the human space. The Australia-born, France-based musician is responsible for some of the most mesmeric and profoundly moving music of the past two decades—across the many film soundtracks scored by Ellis & Nick Cave; the life-affirming records of Australia’s Dirty Three (alongside drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner) and as the longtime bandmate of The Bad Seeds (joining in 1995) and Grinderman.

The sacred songbook of Ellis reminds us that it is still possible to be outside time. Many cherished memories flicker to the forefront of my mind: witnessing the near-mythical live performance of Dirty Three—the larger than life figure of Ellis sprawled across the floor as the mournful violin melody of ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ graces the atmosphere, culminating in a sheer catharsis as an ocean of noise -and emotion – engulfs every aching heart pore. The ethereal sonic canvas to Andrew Dominik’s ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ remains one of Ellis’s most formidable artistic achievements. Equally, the majestic looped violin motifs of ‘The Proposition’ and brooding tour-de-force of ‘The Road’ and last year’s illuminating ‘Mustang’ soundtrack represent further crowning jewels in the Australian multi-instrumentalist’s storied career.

The Australian composer’s debut solo score, ‘Mustang’, a French film directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, saw Ellis deservedly winning ‘Best Music’ at this year’s César Awards.

‘Mustang’ is out now on Milan Records. 



Interview with Warren Ellis.

Congratulations on your recent score, ‘Mustang’, it’s a really gorgeous film score. Please take me back to the period in time in which these pieces of music were created? It marks a departure too in the sense that it is your first solo work, which must have given you a new perspective too?

Warren Ellis: This is the first one [‘Mustang’] that I have stepped out on my own. It’s interesting because there’s obviously a lot of things I’ve developed through Nick [Cave] that I used— there are certainly aspects of the way we work together in there.  Something that I definitely noticed was the lack of another voice to bounce things off, which is one of the big positive aspects of our working relationship that we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and questioning things—what the other person will do and that feels very healthy and fertile, at least until now. I definitely missed having that voice of question.

But I actually had that with the director [Deniz Gamze Erguven] because the score was done very quickly – it was done in six days – in my shed in the back of my house, I have a little studio. I actually said that I couldn’t do it at the time because I had a big tour coming up with Nick and I had to get prepared for that. And then I eventually changed my mind after a couple of people persuaded me to try and make an effort, which was really good for me to try and do something like that. So then I did it but it was done in like six or seven days I think in total and the director was very proactive, she was very amazing, Deniz she was really incredible because she knew what she wanted, what she didn’t want. She also knew when I sent things—if the majority of it was good but if something had bothered her – she could explain to me what she wanted to be taken out which is not a skill a lot of directors have. So she had a flexibility with the musical lexicon that I really appreciated.

I’ve since done two more scores on my own but haven’t been released yet. I’ve done a manuscript for a film on Django Reinhardt and I’ve written a manuscript that he wrote a dedication to the victims of the Holocaust; the Romanian gypsy victims and it was a piece of music that is real and did exist but it was lost after a performance (the manuscript). I was asked to re-write it so I have done that for five organs, strings and choir with Romanian Gypsy language dialect, it’s a Mass Requiem kind of thing.

In January I did a horror drama Australian film – a very small budget – but again I had a set of rules to work with and I wanted to see if I could so a score while I was on tour. Doing ‘Mustang’ in such a short space of time and being on such a shoestring budget really gave me a hunger to do more things outside of my usual comfort zone. So I did this other score and I had to do it on tour because I didn’t have access to a studio, so it’s been done in hotel rooms, apartments, on my laptop only and I used synthesizer and bits and pieces I had lying around and I mixed it on the airplane coming home, I’ve got a tiny speaker. I wanted to see if I could do that and I think I have. I actually enjoy the challenge of stripping it back and with limited tools and limited resources what that can do. And then I just did a score with Nick as well called ‘Comancheria’.

As you say Warren, it must be very refreshing when the limitations for you as a composer and musician that they become the liberating factors and gives you the freedom to create?

WE: I think anything that allows you to find a new way into something that you’re very familiar with has to be good and sometimes it’s about having more things at your disposal, trying to find something. I know this with records when I go in, I might have a whole lot of stuff and I’m looking for different sounds: I’m bringing in instruments I don’t know how to play but I’ll try and get something going on; I’m not playing violin this time, I’m only playing synthesizer or I might say ‘I did that with the score, I’m only going to play synthesizer’. I try and set myself things to do but that would be the way that you can find a new way hopefully back into something that does not have a lot of parts to it really.

Listening to the different pieces of music and the many scores, it’s amazing to hear the endless amount of ideas – all these little motifs and details – that are always present in the work.

WE: I approach score work like I do the music in the bands whether it’s The Bad Seeds, Grinderman or Dirty Three. I mean the last thing you have done is your launching pad and that’s what you don’t want it to sound like and then whatever has come before you try to navigate around that as well. So with the score work, I’ve done something like ‘The Proposition’ which was very lean and muscular and very atmospheric and then we did a kind of stringy score for ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ and ‘The Road’ and to see how far we could go with that idea was appropriate. And again with film work, it’s whatever is appropriate for the image, I mean there’s not much point putting a hard rock song on something that doesn’t need it or whatever and so it’s obviously with that in mind. The approach that I have to my score work is definitely the same as I write to any music that I create, I’m looking for something different each time with the limited skills that I have.

All those John Hillcoat scores are incredible too and how the relationship between sound and the visuals work so well together. 

WE: I don’t think we’re everybody’s cup of tea to be honest. It’s not just by chance that the films that do work are by people who actually like what we do. I mean the problems we have had in the past with scores has generally been because other people involved in the film – be it producers or financers – they don’t really get the way we work.

We don’t work in the traditional sense: find the score in the studio and then put it on there. Most composers present a temp score and then they mock it up and they get to hear it and they go ‘yes I like this I like that, oh can you change this melody? etc etc’—we don’t do that and that makes a lot of people nervous. Unless they know what our potential is which John [Hillcoat] and Andrew Dominik do, they know what we can do and they like what we can do. And it actually poses a real problem I think for a lot of people outside of the directors because we don’t work in the usual way.

There are other composers that work in that way now like Trent Reznor and Jóhann Jóhannsson —I don’t know how they work but I would assume that they do a lot of stuff and they stick it to the image and they probably have surplus of music left I get that feeling as opposed to the traditional composer who just by the cue by cue has their things already in place. These days they want to hear something mocked up on a computer and all that. And just to back-track, the people that we work with is generally because they like what we do. I think that a film director who just got us based on who we were and didn’t really know what we do would be in for a rather unpleasant shock.

There’s that lovely trust between what you are creating and what John Hillcoat is creating.

WE: Yeah I mean having said that we have stepped away, John’s got a new film [‘Triple 9’] that Atticus Ross is scoring, which is really good he has a different composer on board. We’ve done ‘Loin Des Hommes’ we’ve done this new film ‘Comancheria’ with David Mackenzie who has done ‘Starred Up’ and we’ve done a lot of work with Amy Berg on documentaries and that feels good for us too to move in different circles. It’s important for us to have other projects coming up. For me, ‘Mustang’ was important: I didn’t know the director, I saw the film, I loved the film and once I engaged in it I wanted to see what I could do with it. And also not knowing the director was really good – and some of the others I didn’t know the director – and that made it instantly a different kind of world that took me out of my comfort zone.

You must always have a number of different projects going on at the same, and these different avenues you’re thinking about?

WE: I like to work and when I’m not working I find a lot of things quite difficult to deal with. And actually the more work I’ve got the better I feel in certain respects. At this point in time I have five things on the go at the moment and little things keep appearing from them and I like that they are out there slowly coming together. I mean when you play in a rock band you make one record every two years – you write twelve songs every three years – that’s not really very much, I don’t think the average rock band is very ambitious or far thinking in that respect in terms of creating music and you hear about that struggle about making it and all that.

I actually like the idea of having too much to do so that you keep moving through it. I like the idea of making stuff. When I was younger I didn’t really but now in the last fifteen years since I’ve started doing score work, things changed for me, I really enjoy having that possibility to make music that I wouldn’t normally make in a rock band setting and to be asked to do things that was outside of what I would normally do. I really enjoy that challenge about it and I like the fact that the film score has somebody saying to you ‘Hey I don’t like that’ and you might really love it and you have to let go of it.  There’s something incredibly liberating about that and when I was younger I just would have told the person to get f**ked and walked away because I wasn’t interested in that and you need to have that attitude in a band I think to protect you from the rest of the world and to protect your idea about the band.

But I think there’s a point also too where it becomes stagnant and you stop moving and you need other things. For me, I needed other things to do and I didn’t look for it, the film stuff just came along by accident when Nick asked him to do ‘The Proposition’ with him and it just developed from there and we found we had this great way of creating things together and it was something we both really enjoyed. So actually I really cherish having those things to do.

dirty three press_web

Dirty Three are one of those truly special bands for so many people, and for me, has been my favourite band for many years. You must have so many cherished moments with Jim and Mick over the years and across the many records?

WE: I don’t tend to look back. I don’t really have a sense of nostalgia about things. We have started re-releasing the vinyl records right back to ‘Sad & Dangerous’ and they’re doing an extended issue, double-vinyl with Record Store Day coming up and that gave me a chance to look back on stuff. Unless I’m trying to remember how something went I don’t go back, I don’t listen to the stuff I do, it always feels counter-productive in a way. I do like to think of this as something moving forward so if I do have any nice ideas: probably from long ago or when we were touring America when we started our or in Europe.

But having said that, I got together recently with Dirty Three in Australia and we hadn’t played together for about three and a half years for various reasons. We did two shows in Australia – one in Sydney and one in Melbourne – and they were genuinely moving to play the songs again and to play with Jim and Mick again was genuinely really emotional and I was really happy for that because you never really know if it’s all going to kick back in again, you hope it will. I think it’s certainly the thing with that band and it’s a similar thing with the Bad Seeds too where it starts up and you just feel this thing that is outside of everybody’s control and outside of the people that’s in it. It’s the amazing thing about playing in a band that’s known each other for a long time and that has worked together for a long time and have developed this way of communicating. And you hope it’s going to kick in each time but you can’t just take it for granted. I was genuinely moved to do these shows and to play these tunes that I haven’t played for a long time; it was very moving.

Would you have moments of inspiration that you can recall from your score work, Warren?

WE: Well not so much by the end but during the process of making it there are certainly moments I can remember with each of the scores but particularly ‘The Proposition’—it was extraordinary doing that one because we didn’t really know how to make a score and we just made a load of music and started sticking it to the image. It was amazing to see when something would just work with the image and it hadn’t been even made for the image. That was genuinely thrilling to see that with ‘The Proposition’, it’s a very strong memory I have working on that one and it was done very quickly like in five days.

Also, I have strong memories with ‘Jesse James’ particularly because I do feel if there is like a finest hour in someone’s creative life that would be one of them. It felt like in respect to the film and the music that everything came into alignment with that and I am very proud of that film and my work on that and I’m very proud of the score Nick and I made for that. And I remember certain aspects of making it where it felt like we weren’t going to succeed and being terrified that we may not realize this one so I have strong memories of that one and also the turning point where it did start to work just by sheer determination.

I have in many ways probably a stronger dialogue with the soundtrack work than the band work; the band work is a collective thing and everyone comes in with what they do and then it gets spread amongst the band and it becomes this band thing. I probably have a stronger opinion about the soundtrack stuff in many ways.

Going back to ‘Jesse James’, the music was so powerful and those magical scenes of the train coming in, the trees, the lights—in terms of what you were working with in order to create those sounds, did you have the script and stuff like that?

WE: For that film, we made the time to see a cut of it and we booked a studio because that’s how we work: we start going in February, we need to cut by then and they go ‘yes we’ll have it’. So we go into the studio but we’re not very flexible because we go touring as well so we can’t just chop and change things. We got in there and they had nothing for us so we composed and we just started improvising like we would do and ended up getting a lot of the main themes, probably forty percent of the music was recorded in four days without even seeing anything. For me, my logic I have always had with film scores is that we very rarely make specific cues for certain moments, it feels like the things you discover by accident—by putting them on and seeing what they do it creates a different kind of dynamic with the image.

There’s also a sense of an accident that happens and that also creates a sense of a purpose and it creates its own meaning. I guess it’s what happens in the rock ’n’ roll world too where you think you’ve got a good idea and it’s bullet proof but it’s actually not bullet proof and it doesn’t really work. And then you have a really simple idea that you think won’t fly at all, it’s one that comes through. I think certainly from my point of view there’s too much control and there’s too much manipulating going on, it feels like they’re the kind of ideas that very rarely get through. Sitting down and making cues to image has never been appealing at all.

For ‘Jesse James’ a lot of that was done without ever seeing the film and then we saw the film and we started to fine tuning it. Obviously there’s a point where you’ve got to start to fine tune it, ok they need something for here so what can we do. Even then when we had done it, Andrew just changed everything around and did what he wanted with it, which was a fantastic thing about that film, you know you never really know until you go see the film in the cinema.

I love how the soundtrack work is like a document that work so well as just records so you see them as records more so than just soundtracks.

WE: I think because of the process that we do and I’ve spoken to other composers and they mention that about our scores that they actually work on their own. And they actually pointed this out to me that the problem they have is that they just do the cue and it might be a thirty second cue and they have no time to build around it whereas we make pieces and then find thirty seconds that work. So mainly the ideas that we have are fully realized and then we see if they fit with the film. So that’s why we end up having pieces that in their own right stand alone. It’s not just a bunch of incidental music joined together in the attempt to make something which a lot of soundtracks feel like that.

In terms of films and composers, would you have long term favourites that you come back to?

WE: I like Ennio Morricone; I like Popol Vuh and all the scores of Herzog like ‘Aguirre’ and ‘Nosferatu’, I really love their scores. I really like ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’ I still think it’s one of Bob Dylan’s best records. I really like John Carpenter’s scores, I think they’re just fantastic. I really like Artemiev who does the scores for Tarkovski’s films, those electronic scores—I really love those scores, I think they’re so bold and they’re so far-reaching. I love Hans Zimmer’s scores for ‘Thin Red Line’ and for the Batman films. Also, Mica Levi’s ‘Under The Skin’ soundtrack is just incredible and really blows my mind when I listen to it.

‘Mustang’ is out now on Milan Records.




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