How does one go about making an instrumental concept album about womankind? What does that do to a band? Dirty Three violinist and pianist Warren Ellis is almost as mute as the album, She Has No Strings Apollo, on the subject.
"I can't give all the answers," he says almost apologetically in his Australian accent. "I think our music is really for people to take on in their own way."
It's little wonder that he doesn't like to talk about Apollo. In the first place, he believes the music speaks for itself. Second, the making of this album almost broke up his band.
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Interviews aside, the Dirty Three is not one of those instrumental ensembles that leaves you begging for a vocalist to tie everything together. No voice could speak as clearly as the combination of Ellis's feedback-laden violin strings, Mick Turner's guitar and Jim White's subtle drumming. You can picture Helen of Troy's visage launching a thousand ships in "Alice Wading," or Botticelli's Venus rising radiantly from the sea in "She Has No Strings." Violin and guitar swathes paint the songs in bold colors like a stunning sunset tints the sky. But the most wonderful thing about the Dirty Three is that no one else is making music remotely like theirs.
"We've never been in any sort of movement," Ellis says. "We've been out of fashion pretty much the whole time we've been around. I kind of feel like I have more in common with older people who sit around and play in their local pub."
With this kind of originality coursing through the group, a creative drought seemed impossible. But after a promising beginning to the Apollo sessions (which were held near the beach in Victoria, Australia), there followed weeks of suffering through what Ellis calls the musical equivalent of writer's block. Ellis, Turner and White -- who had seen most of their earlier albums, as Ellis puts it, "lay like golden eggs" -- stood by in disbelief as their freewheeling, open-ended modus operandi backfired.
For most bands such roadblocks are signs of impending doom, and the Dirty Three prepared for the worst. "We certainly arrived at the point where we found that we didn't really know where to go with it. I know it crossed my mind that maybe that was the end," Ellis remembers. "But I think we didn't really want to accept that."
There was too much at stake. For the band to part would have been something like a divorce: Their immediate situations might have improved, but it's tough to dump a decade of shared memories.
"We certainly saw each other at our worst and at our best throughout that time," Ellis says with a sigh. "It's a very unique relationship there. I mean, none of us are lovers, so there's not that kind of a relationship. But you really depend upon each other. When we started this we were not young men, you know -- I was 26, and Jim and Mick were nearly 30. When we first left Australia, we had nothing at all. We just lived in the same room for nearly two years or something, three to a bed sometimes, and really just bangin' around the feckin' backlots of any country you'd care to name. It was really exciting on one hand, and it also did almost irreparable damage in a way."
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When a project isn't going well, sometimes the best thing to do is simply walk away for a time. The more mileage between you and the damned thing, the better. For the Dirty Three, a respite from the Apollo program proved fruitful: Ellis guested on Cat Power's You Are Free, toured as a Bad Seed with Nick Cave on the No More Shall We Part tour and cut a three-song EP of violin excursions called -- fittingly -- Three Pieces for Violin. Turner began work on Moth, his third solo outing, and teamed up with violinist and pianist Jessica Billey for what became the first Bonnevill album, Pelican. White hit the road with the likes of (Smog) and Will Oldham, with whom Turner had collaborated in Marquis de Tren.
When the band members felt ready to resume work on Apollo, they took an unconventional approach. They hit the road, armed only with the bare bones of their abortive sessions. "We had about 40 things to pick from and recorded them and then went and did a tour for a couple of months and just played these songs," Ellis explains. "We had no idea how they went -- they were just really basic skeletons. It took us away from a place that we really felt comfortable -- suddenly getting out and barely knowing how our songs started and really relying on our wits again."
It was a risky strategy, but in the end it paid off. "It's a really important album for us," says Ellis. "It's really an important statement of our integrity and of our desires as a musical group. In a way, for me it resonates with the potential that we might have shown a few years ago. I still feel like we have a strong narrative going on. I feel that's worth something, you know?"
For all the looseness and easygoing vibes that the finished product radiates, it's hard to believe that the making of Apollo was as much a hardship as it was a revelation. "I guess we learned the hard truth, that you have to work," Ellis says. "Not many things fall out of the sky and land on your head."