Warren Ellis: ‘I worry about future generations. I worry for my kids’
Warren Ellis, untamed wildman of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, has never seen the devil onstage, but he can’t say he’s never felt him lurking. “It may have been the devil, but there was something else there,” he says, recalling a rather magical two weeks in Malibu recording The Bad Seeds’ captivating 2019 album Ghosteen. “[That] was the only time where there was this presence of something else in the room. I don’t know what it was but clearly something else was in the room when we were making that record.” He dismisses any suggestion of diabolical influence, but he’s not a man bereft of brimstone visions. “When I saw Nina Simone [at the 1999 Meltdown festival], the whole room transformed into this sort of fiery inferno,” he says. “I could see stuff, I was hallucinating. The imagination is a wonderful thing.”
Ellis, 57, has become a totemic figure in the Bad Seeds since his arrival in 1996 – looking, as he is, like a man who found his first piano accordion in a local tip as a child and who went on to become a classically trained busker, composer for Australian theatre and art exhibitions, and heroin addict: he first, briefly, met Nick Cave in a drug dealer’s corridor. Overcoming his addiction by the late Nineties, this impassioned multi-instrumentalist and violinist emerged as one of the most riveting performers in one of the world’s most riveting rock bands – limbs flailing, body convulsing, his bow a flashing rapier. And through his work on Bad Seeds albums, film soundtracks, records with his fiery instrumental trio The Dirty Three and recent book about Nina Simone, he’s become a fashion and rock icon to rival Cave himself.
It’s his lustrous landscapes that have reshaped and expanded the Bad Seeds’ sound over the past decade, and his ascent through the ranks from backing violinist on 1994’s Let Love In to Cave’s key creative foil, enjoying equal songwriting credit with Cave since 2013’s Push The Sky Away, is touched on in Andrew Dominik’s new documentary This Much I Know to be True, a kind of sonic continuation of his 2016 Cave film One More Time With Feeling.
Intended as a cinematic stand-in for the Ghosteen tour that looked like it might never happen, the film compiles enthralling soundstage performances of tracks from Ghosteen and Cave and Ellis’s 2021 lockdown collaboration Carnage, often featuring the pair playing alone or with a choir and with Ellis teasing otherworldly textures from synths, guitars and violins or sat on the floor thumping noises out of church organ foot pedals. Between the songs, made all the more intense by themes of loss and grief that infused the albums following the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015, Cave describes Ellis as the silent assassin of the band. “He took a subordinate role of just embellishing what was going on there and slowly, one by one, taking out each member of the Bad Seeds,” he jokes. “I know I’m the next to go.”
A plot that almost fell at the first hurdle. Over a video-free Zoom, Ellis recalls being hired by Cave to add some violin and accordion on the Bad Seeds’ 1996 album Murder Ballads after The Dirty Three (est 1992 and still playing today) had supported Cave on tour. Ellis made an above-his-station suggestion that B-side “The Willow Garden” might work well in the style of Van Morrison’s “Carrickfergus”.
“We just sat down and started playing,” he chuckles. “[Nick] looked at me and he said, ‘Do you want to come in for the rest of the week we’re here?’ Years later [Bad Seeds pianist] Conway Savage – who sadly is no longer with us – told me he was in the control room and when he heard me say something, he just thought that Nick would say ‘get out of here’. He thought Nick would just tell me to get out of the studio. And he was always really surprised that he didn’t. I think there was something that we instantly liked about playing together.”
Taking in Bad Seeds albums and numerous soundtracks including The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Road (2009), it’s a creative partnership that has propelled them to some strange and telepathic places. “It gets into this strange meditative state where you have no idea what’s going on, and that’s when stuff happens,” Ellis – described by Cave as a domineering collaborator who’s “almost always on transmit and not so much on receive” – says in the film, and Cave elaborates. “A whole lot of terrible s*** happens when Warren and I get into a room but there are these moments… it clicks into something transcendent. I’m taken away by it… but they’re just snippets in an ocean of bullshit.”
Why does it work? “I guess the fact that we like to just get in a room and see what happens,” Ellis says. “There’s a kind of trust between us that you can take risks, you can do whatever you like within that. And that’s not something that happens with a lot of people, that’s something that is incredibly hard to find… A lot of what we do goes on in conversation, on the phone, just putting ideas out there: ‘Why don’t we try this’ or ‘why don’t we use these sounds’. It might be over dinner or it might be on the phone or it might be on the way to a concert or something. There’s been this ongoing conversation that is a big part of the result.”
Their habit of sending such ideas back and forth between Cave’s home in Brighton and Ellis’s base in Paris naturally leant itself to a productive lockdown. Between making Carnage and working on accompaniments for Marianne Faithfull’s 2021 album of spoken-word renditions of 19th-century Romantic poems, She Walks In Beauty, Ellis found time to write a memoir called Nina Simone’s Gum and work on soundtrack music, including an entrancing score (featuring Cave) for last month’s acclaimed wildlife documentary The Velvet Queen. This stunning film, following photographer Vincent Munier and writer Sylvain Tesson’s trek into the Tibetan highlands in search of the snow leopard, came with a strong ecological message on the fragility of a glorious planet.
“It’s a really extraordinary film,” Ellis says. “And one of the great things about [it] is that it has this incredibly powerful message about climate change. What are we doing to these animals? What are we doing to the earth? Without rapping people over the head and over the knuckles and laying the blame on people, it allows you to draw this from what you’re seeing and I think that makes it incredibly powerful. We’re really scolded so much these days about things and I think for some people, your instincts are to just turn away from that.”
Having recently bought a patch of land in Sumatra to convert into a sanctuary for animals abused by the Indonesian trafficking system, Ellis is clearly concerned about our ecological impact. “Action is the thing that we need,” he argues. “The thing I like about [the sanctuary] is that it’s people taking on other people’s f***-ups, taking on the responsibility of trying to correct something. It’s thinking small, in a part of the world, and the idea of that is incredibly appealing to me. That somewhere, we’re trying to do the right thing. For me, that’s the future.”
He finds the threat of climate change “overwhelming – nobody seemingly knows how to deal with it, and we can’t get our head around it. It’s like we won’t really accept it’s happening until the water is lapping over the front doorstep, and by then it’s too late. I genuinely worry about what future generations are going to have. I worry for my kids. I can see the effect that the war in Ukraine has had on them, that the pandemic has had on them… it feels like the pressure on younger generations is enormous at the moment. I do feel very sad about what we are leaving for them.”
It’s like we won’t really accept climate change is happening until it’s too late
In the meantime, Ellis is leaving behind his Parisian home studio and the far-right threats of French politics (“Oh man, it scares the f*** out of me, I’m concerned every time the far right are in the final round and I think everybody should be”) to cavort across Europe with the Bad Seeds for another summer. He speaks about being “in awe” of the band before he joined – “the Bad Seeds has always been about making a different record each time, they constantly kept challenging their listeners” – but what arcane art does it take to become one? “I think it’s something that’s just understood. It’s definitely about the people involved, but there’s no blood oath taken or anything like that. It’s just the sum of its parts.”
Onstage, the Bad Seeds often teeter on the brink of chaos (“that’s the best place…such a great place to be”) and Ellis himself seems captured in reveries. Where does he go? “I don’t know. I just know that I’ll see photos of performances and I can’t connect myself to that image that I see. As soon as I started playing, it allowed me to transport myself somewhere else. I used to feel like how I got with alcohol and drugs. I thought that was all down to that, [that] taking drugs was what was enhancing my experience. And then when I actually cleaned up at the end of the Nineties it became even stronger, the connection to whatever that spirit is, or whatever it is that happens up there. That connection became way more convincing and way more real than being exacerbated by stimulants. It’s one of the great mysteries and such an honour for me to be on the stage every night.”
It’s why the devil’s never played with the Bad Seeds. He’d only get upstaged.
The Velvet Queen by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier is out now in UK and Irish cinemas – the official soundtrack is released on 10 June. This Much I Know to be True is in selected cinemas from 11 May