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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grinderman's Warren Ellis speaks!

Warren Ellis (standing)
  • Deirdre O Callaghan
  • Warren Ellis (standing)

Grinderman (featuring Nick Cave, Warren Ellis Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos) plays the Variety Playhouse tonight (Nov. 18). $40. 8:30 p.m. Variety Playhouse, Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. 404-524-7354.

Chad Radford: How have the shows been going so far on this tour?

Warren Ellis: Really great, actually. The show seems to be developing as opposed to disintegrating, which is good. We haven’t done that much touring with Grinderman so it’s a bit of an adventure for us. It’s still finding its feet which makes it exciting, and the potential for it to keep growing and evolving is there. It’s different from the Bad Seeds because some of that material has been played for 25 years now. But Grinderman has a pretty lean selection which makes it quite a different show for us, which is fantastic.

When I first heard Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” a few years back, I thought, ‘damn, this is not the Bad Seeds!’

No, that would never happen with the Bad Seeds. Last night Nick was on stage and said that the song has been horribly misinterpreted and it’s actually about not having a pussy. You can work with that…

I watched your performances on the few late night T.V. shows that you’ve done, and noticed that you carry a lot of the songs. Do you play a larger role in the songwriting as well?

The way the material is put together on the Grindeman albums is different in that we all get together and start from scratch. With the Bad Seeds Nick brings us into the studio when he feels like he’s got enough songs together to do something interesting. With Grinderman we’ve tried to bring in some different kinds of ideas. Nick reached the point where he realized that while sitting in a room on his own, he can write a certain kind of song, and there are things that are hard for him to do. He got us to come into rehearsals and try to flesh out some different things to work on. So it’s a fresh start and we leave there with a collection of about 4 or 5 CDS worth of different ideas that range from really great to absolutely diabolical and pick through them to see which ones might actually be turned into something. That gives the music a different dynamic from the outset, because it’s written that way.

The lyrics usually have spontaneity about them as well. Then we go back into the studio a month later and put some material down. Its very fast and we try to keep it a spontaneous process. And I guess because the group is smaller it gives me more room to try some different things that we’ve been doing, like with soundtrack work and things like that. I get a bit more room, but its certainly not all coming from me.

We go into this room and take everything that we’ve got and try and make something with no mind as to how it might actually be played, or what would happen if we played it live. It’s very much like a laboratory where we go in there at 10 o’clock in the morning and start smashing away until midnight, and do it for 5 days straight. It’s a really cathartic experience.

I also like comparing the monkey on the cover of the first Grinderman record, to the sleek looking wolf on the cover of Grinderman 2. That says a lot about experience and where you guys are.

Hopefully that’s just the second of many animal thematic albums that will come from Grinderman.

A lot of people say that we’re trying to sound like the Birthday Party and that’s rather nonsense.

People have really said that?

Yeah, they say that it’s an attempt to recapture it, or that we’re trying to be young again, and it’s just kind of lazy journalism. One thing with Nick’s songwriting is that he’s never concerned with what’s fashionable or in vogue, he’s just someone who writes because he writes, and that’s rare in the songwriting world. He’s genuinely interested in the process of writing and in what interests him, and he’s never been bothered by a lot of things that push people to write songs.

The Birthday Party was great, but they played the music of twenty-somethings. Grinderman is a group of middle-aged men writing about experience.

The Birthday Party were an amazing band, but it’s easy for people to say things like that because Nick’s involved. Grinderman is musically very different, and lyrically it’s a very different thing. It feels like we’re making the music of a bunch of people that are our age.

What comes out is certainly a lot different from the heavy heart and the kind of burdened righteousness that comes out of the Bad Seeds.

I don’t think of the Bad Seeds material as a burden in anyway. It’s not like we're unhappy. We just want to make as much good music as we can before we pop our cork.

What I’m getting at is that there’s a darkness to the Bad Seeds, and it’s very literary. Grinderman is a lot more… Manly and gruff.

The songs with the Bad Seeds are more considered and Nick spends a lot of time with the lyrics. A big part of Grinderman was that it was a way for us all to be able to throw something down. It’s fast and liberating and it shakes us up. We set out a few basic rules and said, ‘Let’s stick to these and away we go.'

Nick likes to tackle difficult things as well. When you’re a 50 year-old guy and you exist in a rock and roll world it can be a rather thankless place. It’s good to feel like you’re playing these songs that are relative to your age. Nick’s always been like that, he’s always where he’s at, rather where he thinks he should be, or where everyone else might be. It makes him an honest writer and that’s always a good thing.

You started playing with Nick in the Bad Seeds around ’95, correct?

Yeah it was something like that.

I saw the Dirty 3 play a show in Iowa City one night around ‘95 and a few months later I saw the Bad Seeds play in Chicago, and there you were, the guy from the Dirty 3…

Oh yeah, that was me. All of those things kind of happened around the same time. I started playing with the Bad Seeds on the Murder Ballads tour. I played on the recording and then we did a tour of Europe and Nick asked me to come to the States

You told some crazy stories the night that I saw the Dirty 3 show. It’s been so many years that I don’t remember the details…

Me neither…

Your stories were pretty wild, and they became something that was talked about a lot in the press. Were you making things up as you went along?

It depends. After a while there was a certain regularity to it, but I never constructed any of that stuff before hand. It started out as a way to break down the barrier between the band and the audience because we didn’t have lyrics. People thought if we were an instrumental band we must be playing jazz, and maybe they didn’t like jazz. What we were doing wasn’t apparent to the alternative rock scene which was where we found our voice. We had this aggressive and confrontational kind of sound going on and I started talking because it gave people a way in. I don’t know if they needed one or not, but I was going to give it to them. After a while I really started enjoying myself and finding that you could take it places that you couldn’t really go normally.

When it was improvised there was something really attractive about the idea that it could fall apart at any moment. Sometimes it did, but there was something that felt really good about.

It’s very different from what you’re doing now with Grinderman.

Yeah, I’m enjoying playing the whole set, now that we have it down. It’s pretty relentless. One song flows into another and it’s really high-energy, and that’s exciting to play. I like playing “Kitchenette” and “Worm Tamer” and “Bellringer Blues.” We go for about an hour and then do half an hour of encore. It’s been described as an assault, and it kind of is.

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