FREE EXPRESSIONS The Dirty Three

The wizards of Oz release their first album in
seven years – and a North American tour kicks off this week.

 

BY
JENNIFER KELLY

 

 

“We tried
to record this album a couple of times, and nothing seemed to fall into place,”
says Warren Ellis, for 20 years the violinist in one of rock’s rawest chamber
orchestras, the Dirty Three. “Then we did some shows and we realized that the
way in was to kind of try and concentrate on the way we play live. We needed to
take some really basic material, really skeletal structures and explore them in
a very free way.”

 

“After
stagnating, we decided we wanted to capture
the spontaneity and energy evident in our live performances on tape,” concurs guitarist
Mick Turner, another of the band’s three founders. “So we tracked all three of
us at same time.”

 

The band’s
latest album Towards the Low Sun (Drag City)
is its first in seven years, reconvening the Aussie trio of Ellis, Turner and drummer
Jim White in an explosive, restless exploration of possibilities that pushes at
the boundaries of rock, post-rock, jazz and classical music.

 

Its first
two tracks “Furnace Skies” and “Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone,” bristle with
an uncontrollable energy, White’s drumming surging and ebbing like a natural
force, Turner’s guitar a howl in a vortex, Ellis’ violin swooping and swooning
in bruising, rough caresses. Says Ellis of this initial barrage, “I like the
risks that we took. For me, the first two tracks moved in a direction that we
might have tried to go but never kind of got there, and there’s something to me
that’s particularly exciting about them.”

 

Dirty
Three has been playing together since the early 1990s, when a friend asked
Ellis if he could put a band together to play instrumental background music at
his restaurant in Melbourne.
Ellis called White, his bandmate in a couple of other projects, and White
subsequently called Turner. The three rehearsed for a few hours in Ellis’
kitchen and worked out six songs. That night, they stretched these half dozen
musical ideas to fill the three hour gig, inaugurating Dirty Three’s
free-roving, improvisatory style. “The first time we played, we realized that
there was a freedom that we didn’t have in other bands, particularly bands with
vocalists, which takes up all the space,” Ellis remembers. “Suddenly we had
room to do what we heard on the records that we loved… jazz records and things
like that, the freedom to improvise.”

 

From these
small beginnings — all three of them earned $50 for the night and an
invitation to make it a regular occurrence – Dirty Three came into being. Since
then the band has recorded eight full-length studio albums, collaborated with
Sonic Youth, Low and Nick
Cave, and curated its own
edition of All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2007. Its three members work on an eclectic
assortment of other projects, putting their instruments in service of the Bad
Seeds, Grinderman, PJ Harvey, Nina Nastasia and Bonnie Prince Billy, among
others. In the interim between 2005’s Cinder and Towards the Low Sun, Ellis worked
with Nick Cave on several soundtrack projects,
including The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James and The Road. It’s an experience that has
taught him to be flexible, he says.

 

“In that
setting, you have to make everybody happy,” Ellis says. “You get the director
or the producer saying, ‘Look, I just don’t get it. I don’t like it.’ It might
have been an idea that you really liked and you just have to let go.” He adds that
the experience of having to discard old ideas, rethink and recreate, especially
on the Jesse James soundtrack was
uncomfortable at first, but ultimately freeing. “Rather than feeling all sort
of protective about our work, we just kind of moved on, and it was incredibly
empowering and liberating. You can let go of things, and that’s a wonderful
thing.”

 

Yet at the
same time Ellis was learning to let go, he was also reaching back towards the
very earliest days of Dirty Three. “There was a period in the beginning when
Jim and I had this very fluid language,” remembers. “Then around 2000, it
disappeared and we locked into a kind of more formal kind of way of playing
together.” A “Don’t Look Back” track-by-track performance of 1998’s Ocean Songs for the popular All
Tomorrow’s Parties concert series reminded Ellis, he says, of the old dynamic. “When
we sat down to play that stuff, we kind of fell back into that way of playing,”
he says, “We started getting back into taking chances again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim
White agrees that his drumming style shifted for Towards the Low Sun. “On the last album, Cinder, I sort of contained the drumming, and for example on Ocean Songs part of the thing of it was
bringing small sounds to become the meat. Part of what I used for that was a
technique I developed at the time using fluttering brushes,” he says.
“This time I didn’t set any strong conscious boundaries. Maybe it shares more
in approach with our first recordings. Of course, a lot has happened since then
and a lot of music has been played.”

 

Turner,
too, had been learning while he was away. After opening solo for the hotly
tipped Melbourne
duo, Kid Sam, he began to experiment with heavier guitar sounds. The brutal,
distorted tones in “Furnace Skies”, for instance, come from an altered, and
slightly damaged, amp set up. “I used a different kind of amp, and I managed to
rip the speaker,” he says. “That’s the sound on a few tracks, a dirty tone from
a ripped speaker.”  You can hear Turner’s
new set-up quite dramatically in the blistering rocker “That Was Was,” a song
originally recorded in a folky, pretty-sounding version, then blown to
smithereens for the album take.

 

Turner
also painted the album cover, as he has for all the band’s releases. The main
image, of a toothy-jawed horse rearing over a sword-wielding, crowned boy, is
both whimsical and slightly menacing, with the aura of a fairy tale gone dark
and dangerous.

 

“Mick had
a bunch of covers for us, and that one seemed the most appropriate, because it
seemed sort of congested and confused and psychotic,” says Ellis. Like the album,
he says, the cover transmits a lot of information, some of it contradictory,
none of it very overt and obvious. “The cover felt really good because it’s so
it’s hard to pin down. I think that it kind of added to the general maelstrom
and confusion that’s going on in the record,” he added. Turner says only that
the cover was conceived before the album, and that it reflects a friend’s
illness and eventual recovery.

 

Despite
all the years between albums and all the different experiences Dirty Three bring
to new recording sessions, Ellis says that they are always, unmistakably, the
Dirty Three when they come together. “The way that we play together, it’s the
only way we know how to play together,”
he says. “When we go apart and do other things, we play differently. But then
as soon as we get back together again, the same thing happens, the Dirty Three.
It’s the thing that we’re always attracted to and we’re always instantly
reminded of when we get back together.”

 

 

An edited version of this story originally
appeared in the Australian music special in BLURT print issue 12.

 

 

[Photo
Credit: Brian Searcy]

 

 

Dirty Three Tour
Dates:

Thu. Sept. 20 – Montreal, QC @ Ukrainian
Federation (Pop Montreal
Festival)

Fri. Sept. 21 – Allston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall

Sat. Sept. 22 – New York, NY
@ Pier 36 (All Tomorrow’s Parties)

Sun. Sept. 23 – Washington, DC
@ Sixth & I Historic Synagogue

Tue. Sept. 25 – Detroit, MI
@ Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot)

Wed. Sept. 26 – Chicago, IL
@ Lincoln Hall

Thu. Sept. 27 – Iowa City, IA
@ Gabe’s Oasis

Fri. Sept. 28 – Minneapolis, MN
@ Cedar Cultural Center

Mon. Oct. 1 – Vancouver,
BC @ The Biltmore Cabaret

Tue. Oct. 2 – Seattle,
WA @ Neumos

Wed. Oct. 3 – Portland,
OR @ The Mission Theater

Thu. Oct. 4 – Portland,
OR @ The Mission Theater

Sat. Oct. 6 – San Francisco, CA @ Golden Gate Park (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Festival)

Mon. Oct. 8 – Los
Angeles, CA @ Bootleg
Theater

 

 

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