A bit more pain in their lives: Dirty Three

Party Fears #19, 1994

Mick Turner — guitar
Warren Ellis — violin
Jim White — drums

The Dirty Three toured with the Blackeyed Susans over January and February for the convenient reason that Warren and Jim are in both bands. We popped along to see them and caught three songs running half an hour; turned out we’d missed the first number. Heh.

It’s all instrumental (microphone used for rambling intros only) and wildly jams and rocks out brilliantly for ages. Warren is particularly inspiring — plays violin whirling wildly around and jumping about, beating the music outta the bloody thing (remember, by the way, that a violin isn’t a solid lump of wood like a guitar and that violins cost, not a few hundred dollars, but a few thousand), with heavy effects and feedback — it took a while for me to work out it was actually the violin making that screeching screaming noise.

Pretty introspective stuff (in a very physical way ... if you see what I mean), but it satisfied the pure artistic bottom line. This is what music should be: the instrumental jam rising like an entity of its own from the rhythmic and melodic interaction of the players. And what goddamn great players, with a sense of music! (As Bernard put it: “So why don’t more people wish their dicks were violin-shaped?”) The crowd was mainly people who may have been gig-goers three or four years ago; they deserved it in full.

Interviewed by David at the Grosvenor on the Saturday afternoon after the show.

Mick: “We started about eighteen months ago. It all started because someone who ran a hotel saw Warren play one night and asked him if he’d do something down at his hotel, a small hotel called the Baker’s Arms in Victoria Street in Abbotsford — he wanted some acoustic music, almost — so Warren spoke to Jim and Jim spoke to me, and we made up some songs and went down and played there every week for a long time.”

Jim: “I’d been playing with Warren in a band called Busload Of Faith.”

Mick: “We did the tape after eight months. We used to tape our rehearsals — which are very few and far-between — on a four-track, and we needed a demo tape to get some other shows, and it sounded good so we decided to sell it.”

Jim: “There’s been about four hundred, four-fifty of those, and a lot we gave away and some we sold.”

Mick: “We’re not selling those any more because we’ve just done another recording that’s going to be a CD, with a few songs re-recorded from the tape. Some of the tape’s coming out on a vinyl record on a Boston label called Poon Village.”

Jim: “Yeah, they just found our tape. Apparently the tape went to New Zealand, then to New York or something, then this woman heard it in Jimmy Johnson from Forced Exposure’s loungeroom and liked it and wrote a letter.”

Mick: “We hadn’t sent any away, it had just been copied and sent around.”

Jim: “It was pretty funny.”

Where did you learn to play violin like that, Warren?

Warren: “I dunno ... I’ve been playing about two years now electrically with pedals. When I started out I had a guitar pickup attached with a rubber band and I plugged straight into the front of house. Then someone said I should use an amp — I don’t actually like the sound of electric violin or even electrified violin because there’s too many bad records around, but then I heard a Soft Cell album where this guy plays with an octave pedal and distortion and it sounded really good, so I started messing around. I’ve got a lot of things happening in there; I just run ’em all flat-out, ’cos I don’t know what they do, and it seems to work. Sometimes.”

I’ve probably had a sheltered existence, but I’ve never seen someone beat hell out of a violin like that. Most people treat it like something that’ll die if you touch it. When we saw you, a friend dropped his jaw and mentioned how his violin was insured for ten thousand dollars. So how many violins have you busted?

Warren: “Oh ... I’ve got one that I broke the neck of the other night, where the glue came undone when I hit it against the piano; it cracked once before, though I don’t know how that happened. The main thing I go through is bows, horse-hair — like, give me a horse! It’s about sixty dollars to get it re-haired. When I was running really badly, I was doing one bow every two shows. I use double-bass hair now, black stuff, which is coarser and tougher; it’s not quite as sweet-sounding, but it lasts a bit longer. And I changed my technique a bit — I used to really hack into it, but I’ve lightened up on my approach in the last couple of months.”

So do you have a fantastically well-paying day job so you can pay your violin repair bills?

Warren: “No, I just have a very sympathetic violin repairer. They’re really great at this place. I don’t have a job; bows and that I can usually cover, but when I cracked it I didn’t know what to do and they fixed it for me on credit. I use two violins now, so one’s in the shop getting fixed. That one’s a good one, about four thousand dollars, but I’ve just really fucked it now — there’s hunks out the side and it seems to chip quite easily. I might keep using the one I’ve got here because it seems a bit more solid. It’s an old German one. But I like the idea that it could break sometimes. It’s good.”

It’s good to see someone treating a violin like a rock’n’roll instrument that you bash sounds out of. The violin’s been classicised to death.

Warren: “The violin is ... I guess like the flute. I play the flute as well. I play two instruments that a lot of people think are disgusting. I played some flute on ‘Desensitised’ on the last Surrealists album.

“I like this guy Roland Kirk, who was this blind guy who played three saxophones at the same time and a flute with his nose. He’s about the best flute player I’ve ever heard, because he made it sound big. You could hear him spitting in it. It’s good when you can hear people getting really physical with stuff. I’ve got this beautiful recording of Kirk doing a tribute to John Coltrane the night Coltrane died. He does three tunes, then he goes into one of his own and he starts crying in the middle of it, he bursts into tears and he keeps playing, he’s howling his eyes out, and he’s got enough time at the end to grab a party whistle and go ‘whoooh!’ at the end! So there are good flute players in the world.

“When we get back to Melbourne, we’re doing a show for Nomad. We’re not sure what it is, but we’re just avoiding playing in forests and that.”

Jim: “They won’t let us do it in a pub — they reckon it’s too boring and everyone does it.”

Warren: “I haven’t told you this yet, Mick, but Graham (Lee) has this idea that we should market the Dirty Three as a New Age band. Jim’s gonna grow a dreadlock and start wearing kaftans. We’re quite aware that after this weekend’s visit, Perth’s population will double due to the unprecedented amount of love-children born as a result of our shows here.”

Graham Lee: “The Blackeyed Susans prefer infanticide.”

Warren: “Take a seat, Graham. Graham Lee will indeed be playing pedal steel reminiscent of his playing at the Big Day Out show; and believe me, Graham had a big day out. The main event of the Big Day Out was not Soundgarden or the Ramones, it was Graham Lee on the Esky.”

So what other bands are you guys in?

Mick: “Jim and I are in Venom P. Stinger. We’ve just done some recording and we’ve got a seven-inch single out now on Death Valley Records. At the moment I’m filling in playing bass in Charlie Marshall’s band The Body Electric, which Jim and Warren play in, while Brian Hooper’s away with the Surrealists. The Fungus Brains have died.”

Did the Fungus Brains ever sell any records anywhere?

Warren: “I bought one.”

Mick: “Did you buy a Fungus Brains record? When?”

Warren: Ages ago.”

Mick: “Really? Before you knew me? That’s nice for it. You never told me that. The first one sold out — there were three hundred made and it took six years and they’re quite sought-after now, or they were at one stage — and I don’t know how much the second one sold because the record company (Monash Records) closed down and we never saw any money from it and we don’t know where they are, though the record’s still available somewhere, and the last is still available from Frock Records (PO Box 219, Newtown 2042). There was actually a film clip for ‘Let’s Go Away’ which was shown on Rage.

Warren: “It’s got a puppet of you in it, hasn’t it? Mick was away overseas so they made a big papier machι puppet of him that sits there. Looked fantastic.”

Mick: “Looks like me, too. It’s scary.”

Warren: “I’m in The Body Electric. I’m in Kim Salmon’s band S.T.M. that’s been playing for a year and a half, and Kim’s solo album is coming out in April (eventually came out September — ed) with about eight songs of S.T.M. on it. The Blackeyed Susans. I play on records a lot.

“I was in a band in Ballarat when I was about fifteen called Paranoid who played one show. The bass player’s guitar never dried so he couldn’t play it without getting paint on his clothes. Also, I hadn’t worked out that a barre chord goes minor when you slide it down, so ‘Roadrunner’ sounded really weird. I sang with a band in Melbourne called Well who played for six or nine months, until the guitarist started going out with the bass-player’s girlfriend. I played with These Future Kings for a couple of months and then one day I just forgot to go and didn’t play with them any more. I played with the Slub for a while. I played in Busload Of Faith and I was thrown out of them for taking a piss during the middle of a show, though there had been a bit of internal friction in there as well.

“I started playing properly about two years ago. All these guys ... Mick Turner was just a hero in my scrapbook!”

Yes indeed. He was in the Moodists, you know. What else is Jim in?

Warren: “Jim is in all the bands we both play in and he plays on the Tex, Don and Charlie album. I played on one song on that too.”

How structured are your songs?

Mick: “Oh, they’re very loose.”

Warren: “When we played our first show, we had to fill up two hours and we only had five songs, so we just pushed them out and that became the norm. We have honed them down because we’ve got more songs.”

Mick: “Some of them’ll go for half an hour sometimes.”

Warren: “I think we did one song that went three-quarters of an hour. Fantastic. We’ve got a couple of short numbers ... it’s a fine line. Sometimes you’ve got to be careful because you might be really boring the pants off people.”

Oh, if you were going to bore them they’d get bored in thirty seconds.

Warren: “Last night was very interesting because it was definitely not a crowd of people who would have come to see us. The best comment of the night was one Graham overheard, when this woman said, ‘that was the most painful experience of my life.’ Now, that was good. Another guy yelled out, when I was talking, ‘You’re a shit!’ The image of a piece of turd sitting on the stage playing violin is really quite bizarre. Also, ‘don’t you know the words?’

If that was the most painful experience of her life, she needs a lot more pain. If you’re not playing a three-minute pop song, it really confuses people.

Graham: “A lot of people actually liked you.”

Warren: “I think there may have been some people who came to see us, but it was good because it worked and it’s good for people to get their heads around something they might not normally see. Get some pain.

It’s good to see musicians up on stage just rocking it out well, because it’s very easy to do it badly — “I shat it, it must be art!”

Warren: “You have to be careful you don’t start sounding like Hawkwind or something.”

Mick: “Billy Thorpe on Live At Sunbury — ‘Oo-Poo-Pa-Doo’ went for a whole side. That was the worst record.”

Warren: ”‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, that’s the one we have to avoid.”

Just remember that if CDs had been around in 1968, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” wouldn’t have run eighteen minutes, it would have run seventy-six. What is it all about for the Dirty Three?

Mick: “That’s Three, T-H-R-double-E, not the numeral ‘3’. The CD will be called Blow It Out Your Arse and will have us on the cover eating dim sims. This is to expel the New Agers.”

Warren: “I think there’s some discussion to go on this. I think you should buy our record just so that we can come back. Everybody needs more painful experiences.”

[ Party Fears #19 | Party Fears ]