Melbourne, Australia’s Dirty Three have been making music for nearly a dozen years, forging melancholy instrumentals that shudder with the weight of their emotional heft. For those raised on rock without much exposure to classical music, the ability to convey such haunting and touching emotional content without words is something of a revelation. To hear violinist Warren Ellis work those strings over Mick Turner’s scratchy shards and squalls of guitar, buoyed by drummer Jim White’s spare framework, is often to be brought to the brink of one’s own despair.
Speaking from a tour stop in Japan, Ellis talks about the latest disc, She Has No Strings Apollo, an album that almost signaled the end of the band. Not in the hackneyed, internal conflict manner so familiar to the denizens of rock ’n’ roll, but because of the creative nadir experienced while trying to record it.
“It’s probably one of the first times we had a real dilemma musically in the group. I mean, we’ve had plenty of other dilemmas going on — like every other dilemma you could imagine going on — and suddenly this thing that has always kind of been there. It was saying, ‘No, fuck you,’” recalls Ellis.
Returning to Australia after a year of supporting Whatever You Love, You Are, their positively devastating sound track to heartbreak, the band set about recording their sixth album.
“We came up with a bunch of stuff that wasn’t particularly inspired. So we just threw it out,” says Ellis. And with that, each of them went their own way. Turner recorded a solo album, Ellis went off with the Bad Seeds, and Dirty Three went into a troubling hiatus.
“I’m sure we all thought that maybe that was the end. So this album could well be a testimony to sheer fear of God that was instilled in us because it could’ve been the end,” says Ellis. When the band reconvened, they took an unconventional approach to working out their creative block. Instead of returning to the studio, where Ellis attests none of them feels particularly comfortable, they decided to hit the road with their half-formed ideas.
“It was Mick who just said, ‘Look, we know how to play. We know how to play in a really good way. Let’s just fucking play,” recalls Ellis. “We went out and toured with these ideas and played for two months in Europe, just playing these songs to try to get them into some kind of shape, and walked out on the stages with these songs that we didn’t know at all. That was really good because, you know, you can sometimes get a bit too comfortable up there, and that’s not good.”
The result is a wistful, reflective album that’s a lot softer in tone and timbre than their previous album. Compared to the harrowing sadness of Whatever You Love, it’s almost exultant.
“I think it made something in us really stronger by not just going, ‘Oh, that’s OK, let’s just put it out.’ Because you have to kind of listen to what you feel,” says Ellis. “You’ve got to feel some passion about it. I’ve always been horribly afraid of being a band that gets up there and just plays the same set list night in and night out.”
Speaking about the melancholia that permeates their music, Ellis adds, “We’ve never deliberately sat down to make a record that was sad, it’s just what we do, that’s the music that we make. I don’t find happiness a particularly productive state to be in. I don’t find that it makes me work. I work when I’m questioning things or I’ve got problems. When I’ve moments of being really depressed and when I’ve been really sad, it’s the working out of it that I find heroic. And generally it seems like quite a lot of our music would come as a result of that. I do personally find our last record very sad because I know at that particular time it was an incredibly sad period of time, and there’s moments on there that I know I hope I never actually go back to again.
But he always goes back.
“You always go back there and you never think you can get down that far, and you do. You always seem to surprise yourself. And it’s probably good too, because that reminds us that our heart’s alive and that’s got to be good.”
Dirty Three will perform Saturday, April 5 at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit). For more information, call 313-833-9700.Chris Parker is a freelance music writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org