Warren Ellis on His Odd-Couple Relationship With Nick Cave and the Power of Vulnerability
Warren Ellis didn’t know what to do with himself at first when Covid shut the world down. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the group he joined in the late Nineties, had just released a new album, Ghosteen, in late 2019 and were hoping to go on tour. But as 2020 started, suddenly he had a lot of spare time on his hands.
“Fortunately, I was in a position where I was able to do some things I’d never done before,” the Gandalf-bearded multi-instrumentalist, best known for his emotive violin solos and ethereal synth soundscapes, says over Zoom from Brussels, where the Bad Seeds are finally on tour. “I realized that whatever was going to happen was going to happen and I had to find some way of creating within that time.” So Ellis produced an album of poetry for Marianne Faithfull, wrote a book about Nina Simone, reissued the album Ocean Songs by his instrumental rock trio the Dirty Three, opened an animal sanctuary in Sumatra, and recorded a new album with Nick Cave called Carnage.
In between it all, he also found himself in front of filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s cameras as the director captured Cave and Ellis’ songwriting process alongside performances of songs from Ghosteen and Carnage for a new film. The movie, This Much I Know to Be True — which is available to stream via MUBI starting today — is a spiritual sequel to 2016’s One More Time With Feeling, Dominik’s documentary about the making of the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree album. Where that film was a personal look at Cave’s grief following the death of his son Arthur, the new one looks broadly at the artists’ reaction to what Ellis calls a “global trauma,” as they find their footing during Covid. Dominik, who has commissioned Cave and Ellis to score many of his films, including the upcoming Marilyn Monroe–themed Blonde, decided to show the mask-wearing crew at work on This Much I Know to Be True as the cameras spun around the musicians.
“Nick and Warren are both the same and completely different at the same time,” Dominik says, via email, about the difference between this film and One More Time. “There’s a fearlessness about dealing with the unknown, both in life and creatively, a willingness to place themselves in situations where they’re vulnerable and a belief in the strength of that.”
In addition to moving renditions of songs from Ghosteen and Carnage, the film has many revealing and sometimes funny moments reflecting Cave and Ellis’ artistry both together and apart. It shows the ceramic devils Cave has been making, as well as Ellis’ cluttered laptop screen, which contains what looks like thousands of musical snippets to pick from. It’s a lighthearted look at the creation of weighty music.
“The most fascinating thing about how Nick and Warren is how quickly they work and yet how often they are in a space where they can’t tell whether what they are doing is ‘good’ or not,” Dominik says. “And the way they move forward through that uncertainty, it’s a very fragile space they like to occupy, and it has to be negotiated carefully. A raised eyebrow at the wrong moment could kill something before it’s fully come into being.
“It’s also interesting how their actual relationship finds its way into the music,” Dominik continues. “There’s this piece they did for Blonde — Warren singing into a vocoder and Nick playing this strident piano — when I said to Nick how unusual the two things were. He said ‘I was just hitting the piano like that to try and get his attention. He’d been fucking around with that thing for hours.'”
Ellis likes the humor of it all, too. “I like the way [This Much I Know to Be True] chopped together aspects about how Nick and I work together,” he says during a chat about the film. “There are things, actually, that I didn’t know myself because we’ve never really had a conversation about it. So it was all quite funny for me to watch that.”
What did you learn about yourself from This Much I Know to Be True?
Andrew definitely took some editorial liberties and chopped together the chaotic moments of my appearance that he chose to use. I knew Nick was really “ordered,” but I didn’t realize how apparent the thing about us was. I just don’t see it, but there’s an element of chaos when we go in the studio that’s really about trying to grab anything that I can. I mean, [the differences between us are] even apparent from our appearances: Nick’s much more well-tended than I am and manicured. I guess I knew this, but to see it like that was actually really quite funny and contradictory. I found it very playful.
At one point in the film, Nick says, “Warren is always on transmit, never on receive,” meaning you’re creating all the time. What did you think when you heard that?
Nick and I spoke about this a while ago. I don’t know why we were talking about it, but he said he felt that my relationship to music was similar to his relationship to words, how he just kind of jumped in there and tried to grab something and then work with it, that he immersed himself in it. And his observation was that he thinks that’s how I work with things; I just kind of jump in there. Then maybe that’s why things have worked in our collaborative relationship because we have a similar approach to a different kind of thing.
Another funny moment in the film is when Nick says, “No more soft pads,” meaning he wanted you to stop playing the gentle synthy sounds that defined the Bad Seeds’ Ghosteen and your collaborative Carnage. How did you arrive at those sounds to begin with?
I got interested in synthesizers around when we did the score for that documentary, West of Memphis. That led into using them on Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree. When I started playing them, they allowed me to enter into the creative process in a really different way that the violin or piano didn’t enable me. They allowed me to work more with chords and melody. Ghosteen was done predominantly on one cheap synthesizer, this small, little $300 keyboard, that I sort of picked up and found a sound.
During Ghosteen, just days and days on end, I just sat there with this one sound playing. They were almost sort of mantras, just playing over and over, which is where a song like “Ghosteen” or “Hollywood” came out of — these big, long extended pieces, where they were done in one take. We’d just be playing them, Nick would be on the piano, and then we’d start singing. They became prayer-like meditations or something, and the synthesizer opens you to that world, in a way. I think the next record we make will be very different-sounding.
The film does an excellent job of showing your process.
Yeah, and I think there’s something about it visually. It’s Andrew’s attempt to lift the performance film to something else. It’s way more theatrical or operatic than just a static performance. The camera’s always moving.
Andrew was totally insane when he was making it, because he’s got to do something massive in a really small amount of time. Similar to our process, he’s just diving into this big thing. It was kind of terrifying and awesome to watch him at work. He’s just so focused. There was also the added intensity of having six days to do it and a massive undertaking of songs to do. There are four or five songs that didn’t make the cut that we shot.
I appreciated the shots of you letting loose and singing backup vocals in a falsetto. Did that come naturally to you?
I’d been doing a bit of backing vocals on previous albums, even Grinderman records, but doing Ghosteen, we were in a little studio in Malibu. I was trying to work out a string thing. And I said to [the engineer], “Can you hit record and just keep recording this? I want to put down an idea.” And then Nick was in there, and he goes, “You better come and have a listen to this.” And I went in there and I’m like, “What, is it bad?” And he goes, “No, it’s anything but bad.” We turned it on, and it was [the song] “Leviathan,” the big thing that exploded at the end. He’s like, “I think we’ll be doing some more of that.” So that was a sort of discovery in the studio, that I could stack things up.
Then with “Bright Horses,” I was again just singing a line when we were messing around. I thought someone else would do it, and then when we were recording, Nick goes, “You got to sing that thing.” And I was like, “Oh, I was just messing around.” He goes, “Yeah, but you’ve got to put it in.” That was his call, actually, to put that in there. If I’m given an opportunity, I’ll go for it.
Those were also some of the best moments on the Carnage tour you and Nick went out on earlier this year.
For me, singing involves taking a real risk to jump into something to do that. That Carnage tour was like that as well, because we were stepping into a rather raw and exposed format there. It was really vulnerable. There was definitely something about it that kept us on our toes every night, but it was exciting, terrifying, and ultimately felt really rewarding and really went somewhere. I think the audience felt something, that we were reaching for something.
One of the most surprising parts of the film was when Marianne Faithfull showed up, and you sampled and looped her voice reading a poem for the intro of “Galleon Ship.” How did that come about?
I’ve never played to a click or anything like that for timing. I kind of don’t get it. So I made these loops using backwards poems or things on my iPhone as tempo placements when I was jamming on Ghosteen. One of them snuck in on “Galleon Ship,” so we recreated that. I got Marianne to come in. As you can see, she’s in rather poor health due to the Covid, but she’s still incredibly defiant. And this extraordinary moment happened. It was fantastic that she could do that. It’s such a powerful moment in the film. It speaks to the time. You can see someone who’s been ravaged by Covid and on oxygen and still absolutely defiant and still incredibly Marianne Faithfull.
Since the film is a document of your time during lockdown, your Carnage shows with Nick earlier this year and the current Bad Seeds tour make for a great living coda to the picture.
Yeah. The film speaks to a moment that already feels like it was a while ago now to me. It’s interesting looking at it, and you go, “Wow. Yeah, that’s right. It was like that.” I realized at the time it was incredibly extreme what we were going through, but it’s looking back on it now when I just think, “No planes were flying?” I knew that was happening, but when you actually get back and engage in the world and realize what it meant. Like when I went to New York, I was like, “Wow, New York shut down.” Getting back out in the world and watching things restart and reboot, I realized just what an extraordinary moment it was. I just kept finding myself saying, “Wow, even that was shut down.” We’re still making sense of it.