Warren Ellis: The Apprentice

May 10, 2022
The cult musician, performer and raconteur is by Nick Cave’s side in documentaries This Much I Know to Be True and The Velvet Queen.

This Much I Know to Be True is the second music documentary, after One More Time with Feeling, where Andrew Dominik directs his buddies Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The dynamic duo also worked with Dominik on the neglectfully underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and they have collaborated on the upcoming Blonde, Dominik’s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s historical fiction novel about Marilyn Monroe. Ellis and Cave also created the astoundingly beautiful soundtrack for the French documentary The Velvet Queen, directed by Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier, which won Best Documentary in the Lumieres, the French version of the Golden Globes, as well as the Cesars, the French Oscars. A kind of thriller, it follows two men as they search the Tibetan wilderness for a rare snow leopard.

Dominik, Cave and Ellis are three Aussie expats living in different countries, Dominik in Los Angeles, Cave in London and Ellis in Paris, where I also live. It was fascinating to catch up with Ellis over Zoom during The Berlin Film Festival, even if we live in the same city.

Do you remember the first time you met Nick Cave? How much has he changed since then?

I do you remember the first time I met Nick. And he’s probably changed as much as everybody else that I know who I met around that time. A lot of the people I know are dead. People change and I think Nick has changed. But I think there’s an aspect of him that is still the Nick that I knew.

Where did you first meet?

I met him in Melbourne in the mid ‘80s. But actually, it was just, you know, drug stuff. I didn’t even really meet him. He was just there. But I first met him in ’94 when a friend organised a dinner. He sort of said, ‘Hey, you play violin. Do you want to come in the studio for a day?’ He didn’t even know what I did. He just heard that I played. At the end of that day, he said, ‘Would you like to come in for the rest of the week?’ And I said ‘I’d love to.’ And then he was like, ‘Do you want to come on tour?’ And it’s been like that ever since.

What do you mean by drugs stuff?

Back in the ‘80s we were all knocking around certain places and looking for certain things and stuff like that. I was living in a house where people were turning up and Nick was one of the people who turned up. I think we crossed paths in the corridor, but we didn’t really meet. I used to go and see The Bad Seeds and was a massive fan of the band before I joined them.

When you talk to each other in the movie you are very calm. Was your relationship wilder in earlier times?

When you’re young you can function in a friction, but as you get older and you go on tour, you’re spending time with people, and you have to work out how to deal with things. My relationship with Nick has been very calm. Like in the film, that’s just how it is. We’ve spent a lot of time together and I can eat more meals with him than anyone. But we don’t even talk half the time. The last tour we did in the UK we just sat in my car and drove around. After spending so much time with him I felt closer to him, and we actually seemed to talk more for some reason. I don’t know what that means. Maybe there was a lot of time to fill.

Maybe you’re getting older and wiser.

No, no!

Can you talk about your friendship with Nick during his difficult time coping with the death of his son in 2015?

He sort of speaks about that quite candidly in the film and in a more articulate way than I could as it’s about him. But from my side of things all I could do as a friend was to say, ‘What do you need? How can I help?’ I have no reference for that, because I’ve never experienced it and I hope I never do. There are different sorts of compassion and I felt that the best thing I could do was to get him back working when he was ready and to support him in that. When things are derailing for me, work is the thing. Work was the thing for me with the lockdown last year when everything suddenly ground to a halt. I just sat down and wrote a book, we made a record and soundtracks and I did various things.

What was it like for you to be in front of the camera so much in This Much I Know to Be True?

I’d already been in front of it with Andrew for One More Time with Feeling and I trust Andrew and feel really comfortable with him. I’ll follow whatever he says. I think he is a kind of genius. But I couldn’t make films as a job. I don’t have the patience. Clearly, as Andrew points out, I’m incredibly chaotic and very messy. But making this film was really enjoyable for me. I actually like watching Andrew work, I like his process. He would be back at his apartment at night after the shoot, go through the shots on his iPhone walking around his room, getting in time with the music listening to the track. So when he got in the next day, he’d be like, ‘No, it’s gonna go like this. You hear this, move like this.’

Nick’s songs are very emotional. When we are at a concert or watching the film, we can even cry. As a musician when you play it, is it just a technical thing that you do 1000 times, or are you also capable of crying?

No, no, it’s not a technical thing, but in the studio, I’m not crying each time I hear the track. I’m trying to make the music go in a certain way, to engage or it won’t get done. But I have to feel something when I’m doing it, which is hard to articulate, actually. It’s about feeling, how I feel about it. I don’t think about the process at all. And I never have. Like when we perform Ghosteen live, I barely hold it together to play, because there’s something so incredibly beautiful listening to Nick sing. There are a few songs like that where I find them very hard to play and not enter too far into the emotion. You still have to function, but jostling with that emotion is a really great place to be. There are songs that we’ve played 1000 times, but I’m still moved by them. I’m still so happy to hear Nick sing ‘Into My Arms’, you know.

How would you categorise your music in terms of pop, rock and/or classical?

I don’t know. I can be taking a cab and I’ve got a violin and the driver will say, ‘So you’re a musician?’ And I answer, ‘Kind of, I guess.’ And then they ask what sort of music I play and I never really know what it is. I still haven’t worked it out. I guess the reason for that is that I still feel like I’m doing an apprenticeship in this. The day I don’t feel like that, then I must have arrived at a place where it’s time to do something else, like open a fish and chip shop or something. I’m 57 and there are a lot of young musicians nipping at my heels. But as long as I feel like I’m learning and moving forward and listening to people and things are developing, then I feel I should be here and it’s fine.

If I put myself into a category, I’m doing myself a disservice because I’ve never wanted what I’ve done to fit anywhere really. Whether other people see that or not, it doesn’t matter. That’s important to me and the people around me. So doing different things, doing film scores, doing things for exhibitions is just grist to the mill. It keeps me feeling not particularly safe. I don’t ever feel comfortable working. And if I do, it generally means that the idea is not very good.

If you were going to open a fish and chips shop, you wouldn’t do that in Paris? They don’t have them here! Would you do that in Australia? Might you go back there to live with your wife and kids?

No, my kids are adults now. And no, no, I’d probably try and do a French fish and chip shop or something. I’d probably go to Sumatra and peel bananas for the monkeys in my wildlife sanctuary, and pack coconuts and go out in a blaze of glory.

You still sound very Australian. What are your ties to Australia now? Do you go back regularly?

It’s interesting, because I heard a radio interview I did in 1993 and I sounded less Australian than I do now. And when I watched This Much I Know to Be True, I was absolutely astounded to hear how Australian I sounded. My family is still there, and I love Australia very much. But I think I have a kind of romantic aspect of it. A lot of what I remember about it isn’t there anymore. I haven’t lived there since ‘95. But fundamentally, that’s where I’m from. That’s what formed me in a way, and it continues to inform me as well.

Do you believe in perfection in music? Is it to be found in Bach or Wagner or would you say that we can find perfection in Bad Seeds songs?

I’m not sure about perfection. When I walk past the bakery shop, and I see stuff that’s laid out immaculately and tight and rigid, that might be someone’s idea of perfection. But it looks flawed to me. I don’t know what perfection is. I marvel at Bach, because it seems to be music from another time and there’s something incredibly ordered about it. But I’m not into things that are perfect. I think The Bad Seeds are far from a perfect band and you wouldn’t want them to be perfect.

You’ve created the music for The Velvet Queen together with Nick. It seems kind of perfect. How was it working on that?

That was extraordinary. I mean, meeting those people who just opened my heart to something that I hadn’t anticipated, particularly Vincent Munier the wildlife photographer. The kind of world he inhabits is extraordinary. Meeting those people actually changed my life.

In what way?

Seeing Vincent’s engagement with animals gave me the idea to open up a wildlife park in Sumatra. I just loved working on the film, and I love the film. I’ve seen it 15 times and I’m still in tears at the end. It always has that effect on me. It’s so wild and raw.

Can you speak more about your book?

It’s called Nina Simone’s Gum and it was published last year. It’s about a piece of chewing gum I stole off Nina Simone’s piano 20 years ago. It’s about ideas. I’d been offered a contract before the lockdown happened, so I had work to do when that happened. I’m not very good when I’m not working. I’m shit on holidays. I’m terrible. I don’t know how to do holidays. I have to be so tired that I deserve even two days off. My idea of horror is two weeks at the beach with nothing to do. Now there’s a horror story. Someone should get creative and make that film. That’s the film I want to see.

How has living in Paris changed you and your music?

I have no idea. Where I am doesn’t affect what I make. I can make music in a hotel room; I can make music wherever. When I moved here it threw me into sort of obscurity in a way. Everyone just left me alone and I could do my thing. I go out in the world and I come back. I’m a bit less obscure these days. It was good for me to get away from everything at a certain point in time.

You live in Ivry-sur-Seine, out in the suburbs. Nice suburbs.

Yeah, it’s good.

It’s good to raise kids out in the suburbs.

I wanted a tree. It’s funny, I was in an apartment in Paris in the Marais and it was too small. I could have a house with a garden and a tree that the kids could climb, and I wanted them to have a backyard, things that you think of in Australia. That was why I moved out here and I’ve never regretted it. I built a studio, and I couldn’t have achieved as much in Paris.

Are your kids musicians?

They like playing and listening to music. One’s working in a studio at the moment and one’s studying psychology. But I question the word musician. I think it’s just someone who likes to play music. I mean, that’s as far as what I think it is and anything beyond that feels….. You know, I don’t consider myself an artist.

This Much I Know to Be True is screening globally on Wednesday May 11, 2022, with limited screenings May 12 – 15 

Read our review of This Much I Know to Be True

The Velvet Queen will be released in 2022

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