Dirty Three on their first record in 12 years: ‘The engineer was hanging on for dear life’

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Dirty Three on their first record in 12 years: ‘The engineer was hanging on for dear life’

dirty three
Words by Andrew Handley

Speaking to Warren Ellis is a bit like listening to a Dirty Three album – you’re not always sure where it’s going and it can take a while to get there, but it’s a beautiful, thrilling ride.

Sitting cross-legged on his bed in his Paris home, the 59-year-old’s iconic grey hair and beard fill the Zoom window. 

Before joining Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or helping form Grinderman, it was in the Dirty Three where Ellis made the violin a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll instrument. The instrumental trio, with Mick Turner on guitar and Jim White on drums, will release their ninth record in June. The release of Love Changes Everything will coincide with a national tour including three headline performances at RISING.

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Recorded in 2022, it is the first Dirty Three record in 12 years, with the wait made longer over deliberations of its title. “I had a name for it, and Jim liked it, and Mick didn’t,” says Ellis. “No matter how hard I tried to bribe Mick and offered to send him flowers every day for the next five years he wouldn’t budge, that’s why it took a year to come out,” he jokes.

Ellis wanted Help Us to Be, but Tuner thought it was too religious. “I respect that Mick has an issue with organised religion, and I agree, but I was thinking cosmically… you know, spiritually, because I have no truck with that,” he says. “I need that sort of thing in my life for it to make sense.” In the end, Ellis admits Love Changes Everything is “probably a better title.”

“Even though we’re a band that doesn’t sing a word, you put a title on something, and it does influence people what the song may or may not be about … it can give people a ticket to enter,” says Ellis. “A title is important… maybe even more important with us because there’s no lyrical context.” 

The simple track listing of Parts I to VI represents an album of cohesion born from recording the album within five days. “It was all written in those couple of days and it was all improvised, which is how I really like to work,” reveals Ellis. “I do that with everything, even film scores, it’s just about being in the moment.” 

“It’s been like that since day one… I don’t really have a structure in mind, I might have a couple of chords or an idea, but it’s about the moment where the ideas take flight,” says Ellis. “To work with people in that way requires a lot of trust.” 

It’s a trust built over 32 years as a band, which appears like telepathy during the band’s legendary live performances. “That’s the space that I really like to work in because it means that you’re constantly having to listen, you’re constantly feeling, and you constantly have doubt,” Ellis says of the recording process. “You’re making hours and hours of absolute shit and then suddenly something appears and you’re like, ‘Wow, what’s that!’”


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The sessions for Love Changes Everything were more improvisational than usual. “Other times we’d sit in the room for a week and try and get [the songs] into some sort of shape and then go into a studio and record them, but with this, we went in with nothing and just started playing,” recalls Ellis. “There was a piano there, so I jumped onto that, and the engineer was hanging on for dear life because I’d suddenly start smashing something out.”

The band live across the world with White in New York City, Turner in Melbourne, and Ellis in Paris. “With the music we were making, we needed to get out and find audiences,” says Ellis. “We’d seen other people do that, The Birthday Party, The Triffids, AC/DC, they all looked outside.”

“We knew that we weren’t making music that was going to get us in the top 10,” admits Ellis. “Not that we didn’t try – I thought ‘Everything’s Fucked’ [from their debut album] was destined to be a single. I was taking a lot of drugs, but we all thought that and no one else was, it wasn’t just a delusional state.” 

Though the top 10 eluded them, Ellis met his now wife while on tour with the band. Already living in London, he moved to Paris to be with her in 1996, and they continue to live there with their two sons. “Australia is my home because I was born there,” he says assuredly. “I walked past a flower shop yesterday and there was a bottle brush, and I was so moved, it was this poor little bottle brush trying to grow in a pot, and I was going to buy it.”

“I’ve tried once before and it’s just pitiful because there’s not enough sun, but it was the most emotional moment of the day for me,” says Ellis. “I went and smelled it, but I didn’t want to go through the heartbreak of losing it, but just to say, I’m still incredibly moved by things that are fundamental to me.” 

Ellis’ compassion is palpable and further demonstrated by the foundation of Ellis Park in 2021. He and his family purchased and donated land next to a wildlife centre in South Sumatra to home animals unable to return to the wild. “Even if I end up in Sumatra feeding monkeys, and they just roll me into a hole and put a coconut tree on me, if I die with a banana in my hand, I’ll still be that guy from Ballarat.” 

See Dirty Three at perform at Hamer Hall on June 14 and 15 as part of RISING Festival 2024. Grab your tickets here