It’s hard to think of many great songwriting partners so at ease with one another as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who have worked together on countless projects over the last few decades.
Warren Ellis – steady, easygoing, doggedly dedicated, and unassuming – has proved the perfect foil for Cave’s theatrical flair and poetic, mercurial brilliance, naturally in command of the spotlight.
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You could be forgiven, as a casual observer, for underestimating Warren Ellis’ contribution to their work, such is his tendency and willingness to work in the shadows of his more flamboyant partner. Yet, since joining (Nick Cave and) the Bad Seeds in the 90s as a violinist, Ellis’ influence and versatility has grown steadily to the point where his unorthodox stylings are intrinsic to the sonic foundation of their records. This article is a brief overview of the some of the many pieces of gear that inspire him.
A motley selection of strings
Primarily, Ellis plays stringed instruments; he studied classical violin at university, before diving into Melbourne’s rich music scene, forming iconic experimental post-punk band Dirty Three with guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White in 1992. Moving in those sordid circles in the early 90s in Melbourne, it was only a matter of time before he crossed paths with Nick Cave, initially being invited by Bad Seed Mick Harvey to track a couple of string parts on the record Let Love In before joining the band as a permanent member.
Through the rest of the 90s, Ellis’ contributions were mostly violin based, but 2004’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus saw him take on the role of resident Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist, laying down parts for mandolin, bouzouki (a plucked stringed instrument from Greece, similar to a mandolin but pitched lower), and even flute.
After touring this record extensively, Cave and Ellis took a sharp left turn and formed their raw, guitar-driven side project Grinderman as a palette cleanser. Their eponymous debut was a refreshing blast of electrified punk, with a more free-form songwriting process based around guitars and electric instruments – Cave wrote on guitar rather than piano, and Ellis took on electric mandolin and electric bouzouki as well as violin and viola. Warren Ellis said to Designing Sound:
“If I sit down and play the piano I just do a certain thing, but when I get into this terrain with instruments that I don’t really know, or when I don’t know what I’m doing with the loop stations and the synthesizers, that’s when I start finding things.”
The following Bad Seeds record (2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig) was the first on which Ellis picked up the tenor guitar, a four-stringed instrument with a short scale neck which was originally designed to allow banjo players to double on guitar. These days, Ellis has his signature range of guitars made by Eastwood, all electric instruments with a Fender Mustang-style body shape and a wide neck to accommodate his fingerpicked playing style. An intriguing array of unique instruments, the Warren Ellis Signature range includes 5 and 6-stringed guitars, a ‘mandocello’, a 4-stringed baritone, and, of course, several tenor guitars.
Loopers and loopers and loopers and loopers
Loop pedals, these days, tend to be associated with the Tash Sultanas and Ed Sheerans of the world – one-person-band types. This is not how Warren Ellis uses them – since 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig, the Bad Seeds have used loops as platforms on which to build songs, underpinning tracks with anything from ghostly ambience to unbridled chaos. Here’s Bad Seeds producer Nick Launay talking to Audio Technology about the songwriting process for the Push the Sky Away record:
“All the music is based on loops that Warren would make up using various instruments and his sample pedals. He has two Boomerangs [Looper], which are very old and probably still 8-bit, a couple of Eventide pedals, a Digitech Jam Man Stereo Looper/Phraser pedal and a Boss RC-30 Dual Track Looper pedal, plus a lot of distortion, EQ and other pedals. He plays with them and his instruments (violin, viola, tenor guitar, mandolin, flute, synthesiser, electric piano) until he gets something that feels good, and then the band plays to the loops. The loops often have odd ‘mistakes’ in them, are never consistent, aren’t necessarily in 4/4, and it can be debatable where they start and end. It always led to interesting things!”
Tone makers, manglers and shapers
Warren Ellis’ sprawling metropolis of a pedalboard would be the envy of many a noise musician – and his approach to it is probably best described in those terms. Here he is talking to Designing Sound again about the sessions for the Grinderman record:
“I ended up in this mess of cables, because I could have twenty or thirty different panels, ten or fifteen instruments, I’d just grab things and stick them in and it was all in a tangle. Everything was in a mess. I’m not taking pictures of knobs to see how they are, so half the time I don’t really know what the sound is. I’ve had instances where I’ve done things, left it there, come back the next day, flipped something, turned something on and suddenly an idea comes from there and I don’t remember how that was. That happens a lot with me. I might be working with something and turn it around the next day, so yeah, I’m kind of as in the dark as you are.”
Some of the usual suspects include the Colorsound Wah (typically used for thick filter sweeping effects such as in this performance of ‘We Call Upon The Author’, the seminal POG octave pedal from Electroharmonix, as well as their Freeze (a ‘sound retainer’ pedal which momentarily captures the input signal and sustains it infinitely – see the haunting drones under ‘Jesus Alone’ for a great example).
Nick Cave’s raw, window-to-the-soul lyrical genius will always take centre stage of any record he makes; there’s a visceral quality to his imagery and an emotional honesty in his delivery that captivates his audience like no other artist. But the soaring, stark, chaotic, harrowing, and beautiful musical landscapes over which his songs are built has everything to do with the vision of Warren Ellis.
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