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The Dirty Three

an interview with Warren Ellis

The Dirty Three in Maximum Ink in June 1998 CD: Ocean Songs
Record Label: Touch & Go Records
by John Noyd
June 1998

The fluid ease with which Dirty Three create the romance of tidal pulls and the despair of lonesome oceans in their new CD, Ocean Songs, is both tranquilizing and electric. Drums, guitar and violin serve a common purpose, swirling with deliberate ingenuity that lulls and soothes while cutting against the grain. Billowing sails and creaking timbers have room to stretch out. Gurgling mysteries lay simmering beneath the trio’s simple nuances and subtle twists.

Formed in a bar on the rough side of Melbourne, Australia, Dirty Three sound both weathered and full of life, deliberate, yet lazy. Warren Ellis’ winding gypsy fiddle skims and plummets while the cavernous drums of Jim White sound like sharp splashes and plodding depth charges. Their spacious longing can turn romantic and does so several times, stunningly in, “Sea Above, Sky Below,” while the sullen, barren slogging of “Authentic Celestial Music” forms a musical mechanical contraption that starts out of breath then steps up the pace. The ambling ambiance is both hypnotic and ambient, gracefully stumbling in slow motion then turning dangerously monomaniacal. No better example of this appears than Mick Turner’s breezy guitar playing on the whispery “Distant Shores,” a three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn from his crashing, savage churning in “Deep Waters.”

Live, they are simply incendiary, and their Madison show on June 4th was no exception. As epileptic flamenco dancers go, there are few who could hold a candle to Mr. Ellis, whose pre-song asides were as lively, amusing and out of the blue as his convulsive footwork and emotionally cathartic violin. Holding down the fort with laconic grace, Mr. White’s strong arm and slow unfolding tempos had the band hanging onto his every beat, giving an air of suspense to the moments before a crash. While Mr. Turner’s guitar was more muffled than on record,  he retained the honor of harnessing the energy of both violin and drums, cuing each when the floodgates could open and the fireworks begin. While the crowd obviously favored the dense walls of sound to the loose knitted tapestry, it was the journey between these two extremes that highlighted their ingenious chemistry. Only a combination of luck and fate seemed to make everything work out, and everything worked superbly. 

Backstage, before the show, Mr. Ellis chatted about how nice it would have been to play “Ocean Songs” outside by the lake, how the band felt they really got something down with the new tunes. The way the band uses space and silences brought up the question whether they were dabbling in post-modern jazz. While acknowledging he listens to some jazz, Mr. Ellis deflected all analysis with a shrug. “I just play,” he said. Truer words were never spoken as he and his bandmates commanded the stage for an hour and a half, playing what can only be described as themselves-poured through amps and rolled onto cymbals, leaking into pickups, and bouncing off the sound of a big bass drum.

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