Resurrected Dirty Three has something left to say
Warren Ellis is in a reflective mood when he’s reached on his cellphone in Dirty Three’s tour van, this having something to do with the fact the group is headed to Canada, specifically Montreal. What he’s reminiscing about is the band’s first swing through the Great White North, on a ’90s package with Pansy Division.
In hindsight, it took some serious nards to sign up for the tour. In Pansy Division you had a gay pop-punk unit famous for flaunting its goods—sometimes literally—on-stage. Dirty Three, meanwhile, was a group where the frontman played a violin long before the world was accustomed to bands thinking outside the box. In retrospect, Ellis finds it amazing that he, guitarist Mick Turner, and drummer Jim White made it out of Canada’s smaller towns alive.
“It was one of the best tours that we’ve ever done—it was really great,” the fabulously bearded musician says. “What I liked about it was that it was so wild. It was like those shows in the early days where you didn’t know if people were going to cheer or stand there throwing stuff at you. When that happens, there’s a kind of weird energy that really makes for good sport.”
If Ellis seems jacked about being back on the road today, it’s with good reason. Not that long ago, he was convinced Dirty Three, which released its eighth album, Toward the Low Sun, earlier this year, was done for. Instead, the new record has been hailed as one of the best of the group’s 20-year career.
The first thing that hits you is that Ellis and his bandmates aren’t in the mood to play things safe; the opener “Furnace Skies”, for instance, mixes Turner’s filthy stoner-rock guitar with White’s frenetic just-the-right-side-of-free-jazz drumming. For all the out-there excursions, there are also moments of strange beauty, from Ellis’s delicate violin on the softly discordant “Rising Below” to the languid melancholy of “Rain Song”.
Toward the Low Sun didn’t come together painlessly. All three Dirty Three musicians live in different cities, but they usually write songs by getting in the same room and jamming. Complicating things is that Ellis has had no downtime over the past half-decade. In addition to raising a young family with his wife in Paris, he’s been Nick Cave’s favourite collaborator on soundtrack work for films such as The Road, as well as playing with the brooding Australian icon in both Grinderman and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
When Dirty Three did get together, it was obvious that forcing things wasn’t going to get it done.
“Every time we sat down the songs sounded familiar rather than going somewhere new,” Ellis says. “But we all really wanted it to continue, and realized that, playing live, there was still something vital to what we wanted to say.”
The solution was to accept that some things are best left uncontrolled, the songs finally clicking when the group backed away from the more straight-ahead feel of its previous effort, Cinder. The result is a record that’s challenging in the most beautiful of ways, but not so inaccessible that it’s going to get Dirty Three killed in Hanna, Alberta.
“We eventually realized we were trying to harness in our energy each time we went into the studio,” Ellis says. “Finally, we were like, ‘Let’s just explore and let the sessions take over.’ I remember going to Jim, ‘I’m going to play this, and you can just go for it,’ and that’s pretty much what happened.”
Dirty Three plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (October 1).