Instrumental rock band
Known for their elaborate, rough-cut symphonic pieces, the melancholy instrumental trio Dirty Three uses sounds, not words, as a vehicle for self-expression. “We don’t have words to tell you what it’s about; people can kind of work it our for themselves,” explained classically-trained violinist Warren Ellis in an interview with Colin Berry for Magnet. Comprised of Ellis along with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, Dirty Three create a sound described as raucous, wistful, fiery, bittersweet, and intimate, and share a musical vision with singer-songwriter Nick Cave. Their albums, from their debut Sad & Dangerous through Whatever You Love, You Are, all won the acclaim of critics who applauded Dirty Three’s musicianship, and provided the trio a following among independent music fans.
“Ellis’ violin is capable of evoking sounds that range from shimmering insect wings to the rollicking clankery of a runaway locomotive,” wrote Berry. “White’s drums are booming and palpably live—he seems to be playing right in the room while you listen. For his part, Turner strums with the kind of thoughtful violence borne of any good garage guitarist: part country, part city, part Crazy Horse.” Boston Globe staff writer Jim Sullivan agreed: “There’s the quiet and the storm, the anger and the resolution, the surreal and the grounded. It’s a head trip, a journey well worth taking. It’s art, it’s punk, it’s a joyous mess.”
Dirty Three formed in 1992 in Melbourne, Australia, under the leadership of Ellis, a formally-trained musician who first began writing and performing his work for art openings and plays. In addition, he tenured in the groups Blackeyed Susans, Paranoid, and the Nursing Mothers. After enlisting Blackeyed Susans’ guitarist Mick Turner, formerly of the Moodists, and drummer Jim White, a veteran of several Melbourne bands including the Sick Things, the Moodists, Fungus Brain, and Venom P. Stinger, Ellis took his new group and his unique violin style to the high-energy bar room set. At the trio’s first live show, he attached a guitar pickup to his violin with a rubber band, providing the instrument with a distorted, feedback-drenched tone far removed from a violin’s more traditional sound.
Soon a main attraction in Melbourne, Dirty Three picked up impressive support slots, opening for bands such as Pavement and the John Spencer Blues Explosion even before releasing a debut album. Sad & Dangerous, essentially a repackaging of the trio’s demo tape that blended free jazz with noise rock, saw release in 1994 on the independent Boston label Poon Village Records in North America and on Torn & Frayed in Australia. This collection, coupled with subsequent touring with Sonic Youth, John Cale, Morphine, and again Pavement, led to a record deal with Chicago’s Touch and Go Records, which released the group’s self-titled second album in 1995. Dirty Three, featuring the classic epics “Indian Love Song” and “Kim’s Dirt,” was also issued on the Big Cat label in Europe.
In support of their first two efforts, Dirty Three traveled that year to North America and Europe, joining the Lollapalooza tour in the United States and playing live at the Reading and Phoenix festivals in the United Kingdom. These performances enabled the trio to convert thousands of new fans, despite their unusual lineup, wordless compositions, and inclination to improvise—a formula that may seem at odds with conventional rock. “Paganini was supposedly spawned by the devil because he could incite such powerful feelings in people with his violin,” Ellis once commented, as quoted by Bradley Bambarger in Billboard. “There’s something about the instrument that seems to speak to people’s souls.”
After touring, the trio took on a number of other projects before concentrating on a new album. Prior to hitting the studio, they recorded ten tracks with the venerable Will Oldham (who records under the name Palace) in Northern California at Prairie Sun Studios. The project came about, Ellis informed Berry, when “Will wrote us a card and told us how much he liked our records. It sort of transpired from there.” During the sessions, both Oldham and Dirty Three realized a mutual admiration for one another. “Will seems to work the same way we do,” Ellis added. “He goes with the feel of things, and isn’t worried if a certain cymbal isn’t on a perfect beat. That’s how we work; we never do more than two takes. If it’s not working, we just stop and do something else.”
Members include Warren Ellis, violin; Mick Turner, guitar; Jim White, drums.
Formed band in Melbourne, Australia, 1992; established themselves on the live circuit, early 1990s; released debut album Sad & Dangerous, 1994; signed with Touch and Go, toured with Sonic Youth, John Cale, Morphine, and Pavement, released Dirty Three, 1995; released Horse Stories, 1996; released Ocean Songs, 1998; released Whatever You Love, You Are, 2000. Dirty Three have also recorded and performed live with Will Oldham and Nick Cave.
Addresses: Record company —Touch and Go Records, P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL 60625, phone and fax: (773) 388-8888, website: http://www.southern.com. Booking and Management —Billions Corporation, website: Billions Corporation Online, http://www.billions.com. Website—Dirty Three Official Website: http://www.members.nbci.com/XMCM/dirtythree/home.htm.
Subsequently, Dirty Three worked with the musician who would become their truest soulmate musically— fellow Australian Nick Cave. He became a fan of the trio at one of their furious live shows back in 1994 and often appears with the group for an impromptu jam. Likewise, Ellis sometimes plays live with Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. In 1995, Dirty Three performed with Cave (also a participant on the Palace project) in London for a live soundtrack for Carl Dreyer’s silent film La Passion De Jeanne d’Arc, shown at the National Film Theatre. The following year, they collaborated with the singer on original and unbilled songs for the X-Files soundtrack entitled Songs In the Key of X. “He’s a really fantastic person, Nick,” said Ellis of Cave, as quoted by Berry. “Totally uncompromising, always done what he wanted to do. I think he’s been one of the most consistent people for the past 20 years. There’s not many that can continually come up with such quality.”
Although years from matching Cave’s lengthy discography, Dirty Three sustained their talent for offering a genuine alternative to contemporary rock with their third album, Horse Stories. For this acclaimed set, the trio formed their own label called Anchor & Hope, distributed by Shock in Australia, Big Cat in Europe, and Touch and Go in the United States. Released in 1996, Horse Stories featured several standout tracks, among them the hard-luck piece “I Knew It Would Come to This” and the lamentful “At the Bar.” “It’s a staggering performance,” wrote Jason Fine of “At the Bar” for a Rolling Stone review, “and one that doesn’t need lyrics to convey the despair and debauchery already resonant in the band’s playing.” Ellis himself further explained, as quoted by Bambarger, “That’s the power of instrumental music: It encourages listeners to draw on their own emotions, their own experiences.”
Dirty Three resurfaced with another evocative album, Ocean Songs, in 1998. In a four-star review for Melody Maker, Stevie Chick concluded, “Forget the words, say it with melodies.” The group released Whatever You Love, You are in 2000. For their fifth album, Dirty Three decided to record in London following some gigs in Norway that finally pulled them together from various locations. At the time, the members of Dirty Three—by now living in separate countries—had been busy throughout 1998 and 1999. White and Turner spent much of their energy performing with Cave, though the three-piece ensemble found time to perform at a major Australian concert, The Big Day Out. Additionally, Dirty Three performed at the opening for the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part as part of Cave’s Melton Festival. This event also featured such luminaries as Nina Simone, Lee Hazelwood, the Bad Seeds, Les Patterson, and Billie Whitelaw. Meanwhile, Turner released his second solo record called Marian Rosa, the follow-up to Tren Phantasma, and toured in America; White joined Oldham for a handful of shows; and Ellis recorded with German diva Ute Lemper. Then Dirty Three played nine shows with Pavement in the United States, from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Tuscon, Arizona.
After recording some demos in a deserted railway storage building in Paris, the trio returned to the famous September Sounds studio to make the album. Produced by Dirty Three along with Lincoln Fong, Whatever You Love, You Are continued the trio’s exploration of instrumental structures. As with all their records, the work earned rave reviews. “In a world plagued by plastic perfection,” wrote Billboards Michael Paoletta, “it’s nice to know that Dirty Three are still making a brave, beautiful mess of things.”
Sad & Dangerous, Poon Village, 1994.
Dirty Three, Touch and Go, 1995.
Horse Stories, Touch and Go, 1996.
Ocean Songs, Touch and Go, 1998.
Whatever You Love, You Are, Touch and Go, 2000.
Billboard, September 7, 1996; April 4, 1998; February 19, 2000.
Boston Globe, March 31, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1995.
Magnet, December/January 1997.
Melody Maker, March 28, 1998.
Rolling Stone, October 31, 1996; May 14, 1998.
Village Voice, September 24, 1996.
Washington Post, May 15, 1998; April 7, 2000.
Billions Corporation Online, http://www.billions.com (December 16, 2000).
Yahoo! Music, http://www.musicfinder.yahoo.com (December 16, 2000).
"Dirty Three." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dirty-three
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