With Grinderman launching its second full-scale assault on North America, now is as good a time as any for guitarist Warren Ellis to admit that he has a problem.
What has him worried is his outrageously epic work on the Nick Cave–led quartet’s second album, Grinderman 2. Ellis puts on a stunning showcase, wringing sounds out of his Mandocaster so gloriously art-damaged that the record almost sounds not of this earth. The multi-instrumentalist made no effort to limit himself in the studio, salting the songs with violin, bouzouki, and pretty much whatever else he could get his hands on. Basically, Ellis did no shortage of experimenting, his contributions helping make for one of the year’s most thrilling artistic triumphs.
Reached in his adopted home of Paris, the Aussie-born musician reveals that much of what you hear on the album was recorded on the fly. And that’s where his problem starts. With Grinderman—which also features drummer Jim Sclavunos and bassist Martyn Casey—now hitting the road, Ellis has to figure out how he’s going to play the songs live. That’s a challenge he’s not sure he’s up to.
“There are things on the record that are impossible to re-create,” Ellis says with a cackle. “A lot of the sonic stuff that you hear is very much one-off, and that was also true on the first album [2007’s Grinderman]—there were things that were impossible to reproduce. When I’m working I usually have a bunch of stuff set up, and by the end of the session I’ll have this giant twisted pile of instruments, plug one of them in, and then find some sound that I like and go with it.
“I never note down what I’ve used,” he continues. “I’m just not that organized. And also these sessions move so fast that I can’t imagine going ”˜Hey, can you all wait while I write this down?’ We’ve reduced the odd producer to tears with the speed we like to work at.”
The band, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more elated with the manner in which they gave birth to Grinderman 2. Grinderman started out as a way for the four musicians—who all play in the full-time project Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—to strip things down to primal basics, something more than evident on the band’s eponymous debut. Grinderman 2 proved a different beast.
“We’re really happy how it turned out,” Ellis notes of the sophomore effort. “The first album was kind of a real sort of cathartic event—we went with the idea that the potential was there to make something really different, so we just started banging away. With this second one the challenge was ”˜Where do we go now so we don’t make the same record?’ And I think that we were all relieved that it moved somewhere else—into a much more challenging place. This one is wilder.”
No shit. It doesn’t take long for the savagery to begin, with the kick-off track, “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”, starting off with 30 seconds of menacing bass and drums and then exploding into a disorienting ball of super-fuzzed violence. One track later, “Worm Tamer” loads up on hell’s-carnival organ squalls and Middle Eastern–scented waves of distortion, creating what sounds like trash-can postpunk being played backward. From there, Grinderman goes on to dabble in everything from crashing hyper-scuzzed blues (“Evil!”) to Death Valley Americana (“When My Baby Comes”) to vintage-field-recording antifolk (“What I Know”). And just when you think it doesn’t get any better, things slink across the finish line with the scratch-acid mindfuck “Bellringer Blues”, a song custom-made for the jukebox at Twin Peaks’ One Eyed Jacks. It’s jaw-droppingly great stuff.
The coolest thing you can say about Grinderman 2 is that it’s insane-sounding enough to make one seriously wonder what the band’s members were smoking, snorting, drinking, and/or ingesting during its creation. Amazingly, it turns out that the answer is basically nothing.
“We were bad-asses at one time, and when we were bad-asses, we were really nasty,” Ellis reveals. “I can safely say that if you have heard anything about those earlier days, it is all true plus a hundred times more. But I’m 45 now, and there aren’t that many people my age who’ve managed to maintain that kind of lifestyle and keep working. And if they do, it’s generally because somebody is picking up all the pieces after them. The thing is that you realize at a certain point that there’s a lot of work involved with touring.
“You need to be together mentally and physically,” Ellis continues. “I would find it too hard to tour today if I had the lifestyle that I had 10 years ago. It would be virtually impossible. The thought of a hangover these days is enough to make me vomit. I actually haven’t had a drop for 10 years.”
By the look of things, that’s also about the last time that Ellis shaved, which gives him something in common with the band’s also fabulously bearded drummer Sclavunos. Since coming together in Grinderman, both musicians have cultivated a look that suggests street people who’ve just rolled out of inner-city dumpsters. (Sorry kids; based on recent pictures, Cave is no longer sporting the ’70s-porno-star ’stache he started wearing around the release of Grinderman.)
Ellis acknowledges that his bag man–chic beard has, in some ways, become a major part of the band’s appeal. At home, though, it’s a different story. In fact, you can almost say that it’s become a problem even bigger than figuring out how he’s going to play the songs on Grinderman 2.
“This year I had to take some time off,” he explains. “I took five months. It’s at the point where my youngest kid said to me, ”˜I wish that you would shave your beard off.’ I said ”˜Why?’ and he said, ”˜Ever since you grew it, we never see you.’”
Raising the question of whether Ellis thought seriously about investing in a Gillette razor. Not to mention an industrial dethatcher.
“No way,” he says with a laugh. “But I did stay home for a while.”