Warren Ellis on nearly 30 years with Nick Cave: “I’m there for him, whatever he wants”
“Collaborations are really curious things,” says Warren Ellis, the multi-instrumentalist, author, composer and – most potently – yin to Nick Cave’s yang. “Because you don’t have to question them if they’re working. There’s something about the very nature of me and Nick getting into a room that leads to something. It may not always be good, but it always leads to something.” After almost three decades together, theirs is one of rock music’s most indelible – and unbreakable – partnerships. “We’re both still curious about the process,” he adds. “These collisions that happen.”
“Collisions” is a beautiful way to describe the Ellis/Cave musical rapport, one that’s flourished since Ellis became an increasingly prominent member of Aussie rockers The Bad Seeds. If Cave brings the poetry and the front-man flamboyance, his fellow Australian is like the backroom engine, scooting around stage with all the energy of a whirling dervish. Ellis’ mesmerising abilities with a vast array of instruments (accordion, flute, mandolin, to name but three) has seen him gain a reputation as one of the most soulful and skilful musicians on the planet.
“When me and Nick get into a room, it always leads to something”
We’re speaking over Zoom, Ellis ensconced in his studio in Paris, where he lives with his wife and son. In the background, Stanley Kubrick’s masterful period epic Barry Lyndon is playing on a flatscreen, the strains of the main theme – Handel’s ‘Sarabande’ – tinkling away. “It’s such a great [movie] and the soundtrack is fabulous to work out too as well!” Ellis enthuses. “If you need your cardio, you’ve always got the requiem to keep you in check. A good ‘Sarabande’ and a harpsichord beats around the head when you’re flagging round the corner!”
The idea of Ellis jogging to the 18th century composer is an amusing one, particularly given his wild-man appearance (long streaks of silver-grey hair and an untameable beard). “I realise I’ve still got my lockdown look,” he chuckles. “But I had that a long time before anyone! I patented that.” Sprouting from his chin like an unruly ferret, his distinct facial hair is “probably at record length” now after two years of not performing live. In the ‘Before Times’, it could “cause problems” on stage, snagging in the strings of his beloved violin. “It gets stuck, and I have to pull it out,” he chuckles, “but the show must go on!”
Like every other musician, the pandemic meant cancelled tours for Ellis, with the extraordinary 2019 Bad Seeds album ‘Ghosteen’ a victim of closed venues. Yet rather than sulk, the affable Aussie kept fiercely busy. He released his first book, Nina Simone’s Gum, wryly recounting what happened after he nicked the titular singer’s chewing gum when she performed at the Cave-curated Meltdown Festival in London in 1999. He collaborated with his dear friend Marianne Faithfull – more of which later – and dug back into his hard drive to pull together The Bad Seeds’ ‘B-Sides & Rarities Part II‘, released last October.
Unsurprisingly, it’s his ever-evolving relationship with Cave that really came to the fore in lockdown. The two chipped away at the music for the just-released snow leopard documentary The Velvet Queen and Andrew Dominik’s upcoming Marilyn Monroe movie Blonde. They also knocked out ‘Carnage’, their first studio work as a duo (aside from the various soundtracks they’ve collaborated on). It’s this eight-song LP and ‘Ghosteen’ that form the basis of Dominik’s other new movie – and the reason we’re chatting today – This Much I Know To Be True.
Part-documentary, part performance-piece, it’s a dazzling look at Cave and Ellis’ creative process, and their on-stage fusion. Dominik stages the songs in a church-like warehouse space, his camera circling the musicians as they deliver truly electric versions of ‘Hand of God’, ‘White Elephant’, ‘Albuquerque’ and others. “It’s kind of operatic, the way everything moves in sync with the music and the lights,” says Ellis. “The way this film looks is so extraordinary. I’m not a fan of musicals… but it seems like a musical you can actually watch!”
Better yet, This Much I Know To Be True is an illuminating, incisive look at Ellis and Cave’s friendship. “I’m there for Nick, whatever he wants,” says the 57-year-old Ellis, who is seven years Cave’s junior. “Our collaboration feels, to me, to be codependent. We each do something that the other doesn’t. I don’t know much about words. I can get in there and make a mess of music and then Nick can order me. That was interesting watching the film – I realised how chaotic I am. Andrew amazingly chopped it together – this absolute chaos that seemed to be around me. And then Nick is so ordered. I’d never really thought about that, until I saw it.”
“I’m chaotic… Nick is so ordered”
Born in Ballarat, southeast Australia, Nick came to music quite by accident. Discovering an abandoned piano accordion at a rubbish tip, he took it to school where a kindly teacher demonstrated how to play it. He later went to university in Melbourne, studying classical violin, but had no designs on being a musician. Instead, he was scraping a living washing dishes in a strip joint, cleaning nightclub toilets, even selling drugs. After busking his way round Europe for nine months, he returned to teach in a country school in rural Victoria near where he grew up.
When Ellis moved back to Melbourne, he gravitated towards the music scene, violin in hand. “I was lucky,” he nods. “I landed with really great people in the early days.” In 1992, he formed Dirty Three with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White; their experimental, eccentric sound propelling them into Cave’s orbit. Initially called in by The Bad Seeds co-founder Mick Harvey to play a string segment on 1994 album ‘Let Love In’, Ellis blossomed in the company of other musicians. “I always felt like I was someone that needed other people to draw my better self out.”
That “better self” has become steadily more assured ever since, though modesty prevails. “My whole creative life feels like an apprenticeship, and the day that I don’t see it like that is the day that I shouldn’t be doing it,” he says. As Bad Seeds members came and went, Ellis became increasingly prominent in Cave’s musical journey. In 2006, he, Cave, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn P. Casey formed Grinderman, a none-more-black Bad Seeds side project that spawned two albums – the first of which, 2007’s ‘Grinderman’, was recorded in just a week. Ellis even let rip with his own voice. “Someone had to do the backing vocals and I just stepped up,” he shrugs.
By this point, Ellis and Cave were adding another string to their jointly held bow, crafting music for movies. “For me, soundtracks have been instrumental for me staying in the game,” says Ellis. After scoring the thrillingly violent 2005 western The Proposition, which Cave also scripted, they returned to the genre for the Brad Pitt-starring The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – their first major collaboration with Dominik. “I found Jesse James incredibly liberating,” Ellis says.
Since then, Cave and Ellis co-composed on such acclaimed films as Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, Depression-era tale Lawless and the Oscar-nominated thriller Hell or High Water. For Ellis, making movie music has become a “crucial” component to his creative relationship with Cave. “It pushes things in a different direction,” he says, citing the 2012 movie West of Memphis – and how it influenced The Bad Seeds album ‘Push The Sky Away’, which arrived a year later. “I just went in and said, ‘I’m only playing synthesiser; I’m not playing a violin!’ And Nick was like ‘Are you sure?’”
This gutsy kick-out-the-old attitude is typical of Ellis’ desire to not only challenge himself, but also The Bad Seeds and their fans. “Whatever you think of the sound of The Bad Seeds now, for me, it’s so important that it just doesn’t sound the same, that it’s moved on. The people who miss the rock side of things, that’s just life. If I feel nonchalant – ‘oh, I’ve heard this before’ – I don’t want to hand this to the people who are listening to this stuff. I always remember when I heard ‘Low’ by David Bowie. I thought ‘What is this fucking record?’ Now, any record I have problems with, entering into, are records I keep going back to, to find out what they are.”
“It’s important that The Bad Seeds don’t sound the same”
As Dominik observes, Ellis’ partnership with Cave is built on mutual respect. “For Nick, it’s all about what Warren thinks. Nick trusts Warren. And I think it’s all about Nick having to match Warren.” The director first set about chronicling the pair on the 2016 doc One More Time With Feeling, which captured the making of ‘Skeleton Key’, the sixteenth Bad Seeds album. Arriving after ‘Push The Sky Away’, this most haunting of records was written by Cave in a state of sheer grief, as he painfully processed the tragic death of his son Arthur in 2015.
“It impacted him and his family in a way that… it’s that thing that’s forever,” says Ellis, seeking out the right words for a difficult subject. “His way of navigating that has been so humbling to watch.” Has Cave changed since? “Well, who hasn’t changed?” he retorts, his Aussie accent going up an octave. “I mean, everybody changes. That’s what life is… it’s about change. Of course, we all change because life changes us. I don’t think it’s specific to Nick. Of course he’s changed. Nick, like anybody else, is out there living a life.”
It’s exactly what This Much I Know To Be True shows. During the pandemic, with nowhere to perform, Cave started working with ceramics, creating a series called ‘The Story of the Devil in 18 Figurines’ that explores themes of birth, death, and the afterlife. Ellis, meanwhile, invites Dominik into his Hove apartment, showing off his coveted book of pressed flowers. It’s a rare chance to peek into his home. “I’ve never seen my life as worth looking at,” he says. “For me, it’s about the work and what happens outside of that is just my concern. I’ve never really been a person of interest in that respect. A celebrity or whatever.”
This is typical of Ellis’ unassuming personality, happy to stay in the shadows behind Cave. In person, he’s thoughtful, inquisitive, the sort that can talk to a prince or a pauper. “I can have a conversation with anybody,” he says. “I like having a conversation with anybody. I do. A lot of people have a story to tell – the reason why they are why they are. I get insights from people. Like the guy who makes my shoes. He’ll say something and I’ll go ‘Wow!’ You don’t have to be [Roman emperor and philosopher] Marcus Aurelius – you can get wisdom wherever if you keep your ears open.”
Nor is the Ellis/Cave relationship musically exclusive, as their love for the mighty Marianne Faithfull shows. “For the past decade… I’d go and eat lemon drizzle cake with her and watch insane TV series,” he grins. She, Ellis, and Cave collaborated on her 2018 album ‘Negative Capability’ and, during lockdown, the ‘60s siren and Ellis conjured up spoken-word record ‘She Walks In Beauty’, with Faithfull reciting poems by Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Alfred Tennyson. Then she was hospitalised with COVID-19, almost dying. It wasn’t enough to stop her joining them in the studio. “It’s an extraordinary moment in the film, because she’s so defiant,” says Ellis. “It was very moving. It was a lot of effort for her to come and do that.”
He feels the same kinship with Dominik. “Andrew is somebody who on some level I can relate to. We’re just waiting for him to agree to join Grinderman so we can make that elusive third album!” he says, half-joking. Together with Cave, their time working on Blonde “was an absolute joy”, Ellis adds, recalling how he’d sit up from midnight to 7am watching footage of what is said to be Netflix’s first X-rated movie. It won’t be the only new Cave/Ellis work this year. June will see the release of the spoken-word album ‘Seven Psalms’, which will include a 12-minute instrumental from the sessions that spawned ‘Carnage’.
Then there will be live shows – a series of festival dates across Europe this summer with The Bad Seeds. “It’s a privilege for me to walk on stage,” says Ellis. “To be next to Nick or behind him, it’s always such an honour. An honour to be with The Bad Seeds on stage. The playing side of things is really what it was all about for me. It’s a place where something happens that doesn’t happen in the rest of your life.” It’ll mean more beard-snagging on his instruments, no doubt. And more of those creative “collisions” with Cave. This much we know to be true.
‘This Much I Know To Be True’ is in cinemas on May 11