CULTURE

Disregarding the industry’s ways

A silver-colored sticker depicting the figure of a voluptuous female on the violin’s back suggested its owner’s unconventional musical ways. Sure enough, come concert time, Warren Ellis – the classically trained frontman of the Dirty Three, one of Australia’s less anticipated yet fully deserved international success stories in recent years – and his band could not have offered more solid rock ‘n’ roll testament during their two shows in Athens last weekend. It was rock ‘n’ roll manifested in its purest, most uncontrived form – pre-industry-dominated, pre-video era, Hendrix-friendly, or «pre-rock» as Ellis quipped during one of the shows here, with one notable exception. The band leader was not some haywire guitarist doing the damage, but Ellis, a freak violinist playing through guitar pedals and a pickup for electric guitar to thicken the instrument’s thinner sound. His bandmates, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, provided expressive, sensitive backing for Ellis. Totally immersed, the violinist stood coiled over his violin, swung back and forth, occasionally erupting with kicks and leaps, but more importantly, played with masterful conviction through the potent material’s highs and lows. Going against the tide, the Dirty Three, a melancholy instrumental trio that plays sprawling songs way over the three-minute single format, sought their exposure not through hit songs and videos but by recording high-caliber work, all instrumental, and then – literally – going the distance to play to people. After encouraging signs in Melbourne during the group’s early days a decade ago, the Dirty Three ventured abroad. Numerous shows in Europe and the US – where the group bought a sizable old American car, loaded it with equipment, hooked up with a booking agent, and covered countless miles getting to venues regardless of size – eventually led to snowballing popularity. Within months of their arrival in the US in the mid-1990s, the influential Rolling Stone magazine had taken due note, voting the group’s «Horse Stories» album as the year’s third best. «I think we followed the lead of underground bands of the early ’80s like the Birthday Party, Go-Betweens and the Triffids who left the country because what they were doing was not viable to the commercial establishment, and the rest of the world seemed more exciting,» said Ellis. The group’s international fanbase has grown considerably and led to bigger venues. But as reflected by the act’s decision to open its current European tour with shows at small venues in Athens and Thessaloniki, whose capacities severely undercut the group’s local following, the Dirty Three have not abandoned their roots. «The venue we started playing at in Melbourne was a third the size of the place we’re playing in Athens. So I actually feel a real affinity with venues like this, particularly because I always felt that that’s where we would always play. But I move about a lot more these days and find it a bit restrictive playing small places,» said Ellis between his group’s two shows at the capital’s pint-sized Small Music Theater. «But what I like in those places is that we can really hear each other play, and that’s when the Dirty Three play best. We need that to feed off each other, and that’s when it becomes musically interesting,» he added, nibbling away on a favorite Greek dish, dolmadakia. It’s one of the violinist’s several Greek links: During the group’s two-day stay in Athens, Ellis caught up with veteran artist Arletta, whose song «I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me» the Dirty Three covered for an album; the band rushed off to see the maverick Cretan lyra player Psarantonis perform after their second gig in Athens last Saturday. They arrived late, but the Cretan got up to play for them; Ellis cited the Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou as one of his favorites; and according to the violinist, the Dirty Three’s existence can be attributed to an Australian of Greek descent, or the individual who ran the aforementioned Melbourne bar where the band debuted. «It’s that Greek connection again. He was a friend who’d just bought a bar, and wanted background music that wasn’t recorded. He knew I played violin and asked me to write and perform some songs with my mates,» Ellis recalled. «So Mick, Jim and I got together in my kitchen and worked out a few songs.» The success that eventually came the band’s way was never an objective, Ellis said, but the violinist admitted that it motivated the Dirty Three to persist. «I think that counting on success has certainly not been the way I’ve approached anything, or a reason for doing something. It was never on my mind,» said Ellis. «I’m really happy that we’ve kept playing as long as we have. I feel like we’re playing better and looser than ever before these days and I certainly believe success has helped encourage us to keep going,» he added. Before success surfaced, Ellis, who recently bought a house in Paris where he lives with his French wife and two children, was in financial straits. He took up a teaching job in English and music and worked in a Australian country town to pay off debts following a disastrous trip busking around Europe. His teaching skills remain apparent on stage. An entertaining, competent speaker, the violinist has a way with words, highlighted when he introduces Dirty Three songs, usually with tragicomic tales about their origins. On Saturday, while introducing a track titled «The Last Night,» which typically begins softly but evolves into a frenzy, Ellis remarked: «This one’s about sitting alone in the kitchen trying to figure out who’s going to keep that fifth plate, because there are only five left in the set and can’t be evenly divided.» A pool of musical talent, the group’s members had been involved with numerous underground Australian acts prior to forming the Dirty Three and still do side projects together and apart. Besides his work with the Dirty Three, Ellis began playing as a member of compatriot Nick Cave’s already established backing band, the Bad Seeds, in the mid-1990s. He has become increasingly associated and last year arranged Cave’s most recent album, «No More Shall We Part.» Though comfortable as a Bad Seed after eight years, Ellis considers the Dirty Three his real home. «The Dirty Three is something we’ve all worked at together. I’ve been with the band through the good and the bad. The Bad Seeds were already happening when I arrived,» said Ellis. «With the Dirty Three we do whatever we want. We’ve watched it grow, a bit like a child. Sometimes it behaves, other times it doesn’t.»