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Warren Ellis: “I got spooked by making ‘Ghosteen'”

As The Bad Seeds gear up for their live return, Warren Ellis tells Rolling Stone UK about his unique relationship with Nick Cave

By Joe Goggins

Warren Ellis (Picture: James Gray)
Warren Ellis (Picture: James Gray)

Ensconced in the studio of his Paris home, Warren Ellis looks much the same as he always has; unruly hair winding past his shoulders, wild beard as piratical as ever, as he leans over his iPhone and into our Zoom call. That the most recognisable Bad Seed has not undergone any kind of radical transformation during these past two pandemic years is fitting, given that he navigated them by simply keeping on keeping on; after bandleader Nick Cave and the rest of the Seeds met with the most rapturous reviews of their career for the gorgeous, sprawling Ghosteen in 2019, he was already having thoughts of the end of the road, even before the world was turned upside down.

“It felt like one of those insurmountable albums that you’re never going to actually make,” Ellis offers. “And as great as it was to push through that, I did wonder whether that was it. So, making Carnage, there was a relief to that, that there was still life in the collaboration. I got spooked by Ghosteen.” He and Cave surprise-released Carnage last year, having crafted it in lockdown, the first time they’d made an album of songs as a pair after more than a decade of fruitfully branching off into scoring films.

That, in and of itself, set another working relationship into motion, when they soundtracked Andrew Dominik’s 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Since, Dominik – a long-time acquaintance of Cave’s – has gone on to helm One More Time with Feeling, the searing part-documentary, part-concert film that affectingly chronicled the making of the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree at a time when Cave was beset with grief at the sudden loss of his son, Arthur. Now, Dominik has returned to the format for This Much I Know to Be True, chronicling the making of Carnage – and, in the process, one of the most beguiling creative pairings in modern rock.

Did your relationship with Andrew Dominik begin with The Assassination of Jesse James?

Mine did, yeah. Nick’s known him a lot longer; they’d both dated Deanna Bond in the eighties, who Nick wrote [the 1988 Bad Seeds song] ‘Deanna’ about. But, really, I’d never sat down and had an involved, one-on-one conversation with Andrew until we made This Much I Know to Be True. He’s been coming to the shows forever, but it wasn’t until we made One More Time with Feeling that he started to become more and more a part of our world, to the point that he’s almost like the third spoke in the wheel, at this point. He was around in the studio a lot while we were doing Ghosteen, which was actually very helpful, because he’s never short of an opinion, and those opinions are always worth listening to. All we need now is for him to join Grinderman!

Was it important to have somebody close to Nick work on One More Time with Feeling, given how sensitive the subject matter was?

There was nothing obvious about that situation; I mean, what do you do? Nick didn’t want to do any interviews, but wanted to do something around it, and Andrew came in, by his own admission, not quite sure what was going to come out of it; all we knew was that the final say would be down to Nick. But the result was an extraordinary piece of film, and you can see Andrew trying to navigate this trauma in a way that wasn’t reliant on emotional manipulation. It felt like an incredibly bold work. And, yeah, I think Nick and Andrew having a friendship was part of that. Collaborations are about trust, and that trust allows you to take risks.

Is that also a fair summary of the central idea of This Much I Know to Be True?

I guess so. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I think we still would have made another film with Andrew, because he’d been closely linked to Ghosteen and we already had talked about doing something visually around that. We had ideas of doing something like playing the album with an orchestra and a choir somewhere crazy, maybe south America, like Pink Floyd in Pompeii, something really cosmic and far-reaching. But by the time we were looking at postponing the Ghosteen tour a third time, we accepted it was dead in the water, that the moment had passed, and we cancelled it.

So, because the film is based around the making of Carnage, it’s about a specific moment in time, of us making the best out of a situation where the Bad Seeds couldn’t be in the same room together, and I think, in that, you get an insight into the way Nick and I work together and the working dynamic of a close friendship that goes back 25 years.

Are there any specific moments in that time that strike you as a key turning point in the way you work together?

Yeah, when we composed our first film score, for The Proposition. That informed us that we could create music differently, that we could work in a way that wasn’t song-based. And that’s something that’s led on to an output that is quite massive, when you take the scores we’ve done, and Grinderman, and all the Bad Seeds albums into consideration. But, you know, when I first started playing with Nick, I had no expectations. I’d been a fan of the Bad Seeds for long time before I joined, and The Birthday Party and The Boys Next Door before that. I loved the fact that you never knew what to expect next from them, that they were so willing to take risks, and do whatever served the song best. I was just trying to work my way into some kind of musical thing where I could do that, too. I would never have believed this is where I would end up, 25 years later.

And now you’re gearing up to head back out with the Bad Seeds…

Yeah, we start rehearsals next week. There’s a real excitement among the band to get back out there, for sure, especially after we couldn’t tour Ghosteen. Before that, the shows we did for Skeleton Tree were the biggest we’d ever played, and yet it still felt like we did them entirely on our own terms. We sounded big when we wanted to sound big, and small when we wanted to sound small, and it was really rewarding to make those huge venues feel intimate. So, we’re looking forward to getting back on the road.

But Nick and I toured Carnage in the UK last year and in North America earlier this year, and what I noticed is how excited the crowds are, as well. It felt like we were up on stage figuring out how to do this again, and the audience was doing the same; maybe its was the first time they’d been out in two years. It made for this incredibly emotional moment that you could feel in the room; there was a sort of ecstasy about the shows that was really moving. It elevated the communal aspect of a concert even further, because everybody has been through this trauma together.

Looking ahead, the two of you have just finished scoring Andrew’s next film, [Marilyn Monroe biopic] Blonde. Is there anything you can say about it?

Not really. I think it’s out at the end of the year, and they’ve just settled on the rating; it’s apparently going to be Netflix’s first X-rated film. What I will say is that I thought The Assassination of Jesse James was Andrew’s masterpiece, but Blonde is just incredible.

Have you thought about what he’d play if he joined Grinderman? Bongos, maybe?

He’d do it in a heartbeat! I think he’d be happy to give up the directing. He’s always saying, “it looks like so much fun to be in a band, but making films is just horrible.” Bongos is a good suggestion – we’ll start with that and work backwards from there!

This Much I Know to Be True screens across the UK for one night only on May 11. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play All Points East in London on August 27