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Down Again 

Shattered in the studio, Dirty Three picked up the pieces on the road

Wednesday, Apr 23 2003
Melbourne, Australia's Dirty Three has 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, touching emotional content without words is something of a revelation.

Speaking from a tour stop in Japan, violinist Warren 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, 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, the act's devastating soundtrack to heartbreak, the band members 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 his own way. Guitarist Mick 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 musicians 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. I think it made something in us really stronger, because 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."

The resulting album is a wistful, reflective piece much softer in tone and timbre than their previous recording. Compared to the harrowing sadness of Whatever You Love, in fact, it's almost exultant.

"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," Ellis says. "I don't find happiness a particularly productive state to be in. 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. It's the working out of it that I find heroic, because that reminds us that our heart's alive, and that's got to be good."

About The Author

Chris Parker


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