Australian musician Warren Ellis has been Nick Cave’s musical soundtrack for years. The new music documentary ‘This Much I Know to Be True’ shows how close their relationship is. “It’s almost like a meditation when we sit together.”
It seemed like an exciting idea. Five years ago, Australian singer Nick Cave accepted a proposal from filmmaker Andrew Dominik (‘The Assassination of Jesse James’) to turn the recordings of his new album ‘Skeleton Tree’ into a music documentary. When the project was well underway, however, disaster struck: Cave’s son Arthur lost his life.
After much hesitation, Dominik decided to continue his film. The result, ‘One More Time with Feeling’, became a gripping document, pushing Cave’s best friend and musical twin brother Warren Ellis more forward. He was also the man who took charge of the ‘Skeleton Tree’. The documentary will be shown in Belgian cinemas next week as a kind of event.
The close relationship and collaboration between Cave and Ellis is evident from ‘This Much I Know to Be True’. In the hopeful documentary, Dominik takes the viewer to Cave’s life outside of music – he turns out to have a ceramics studio – and focuses on songs from the albums ‘Ghosteen’ (2019) and ‘Carnage’ (2021). According to Dominik, the way Cave and Ellis join forces is special. ‘As Nick puts it in the film: Warren is a sender, not a recipient,’ laughs the filmmaker. “It’s almost impossible to get Warren to listen to you. It’s like the music is flowing out of him. He makes music by the meter ‘.
Ellis can laugh at it at the Berlin Film Festival, where ‘This Much I Know to Be True’ was presented to the world. “I honestly did not realize I was so chaotic,” he says. “I did not realize it until I saw the movie. If you click with another musician, do not question it. When Nick and I go into a room, something always happens. It does not always look like anything, but something is happening. We are both still curious. We are working on instinct and emotion. ‘
Can you still surprise each other?
Warren Ellis: ‘I think that’s why we’ve been with each other for so long. If we do not surprise each other, we will try again. Our hope is that we will continue to evolve that way. We never stop to think about what we have done before. We are thinking ahead. It’s almost like a meditation when Nick and I are sitting together. We just invent things, without fixed ideas. To do that, you need to have a lot of trust in the other person so that you can take risks and not be afraid of making a mistake or falling over your face. ‘
In recent years, you have also worked with other musicians, such as Cat Power, Marianne Faithfull and the Malian band Tinariwen. What do you get out of those experiences?
Ellis: ‘My whole creative life feels like a learning process. The day I no longer have that feeling, I better hang my instruments on the hook. I want to constantly challenge myself. I often get suggestions to work on something, but I do not always say yes. Sometimes it seems worth it, sometimes not. I have been lucky because during my career I have always met the right people. First Jim White and Mick Turner for Dirty Three, then Nick Cave. It has made me a much better musician. I am also someone who needs other people to get the best out of myself. Then I do not have to think. You put me in a room, you wrap me up, and I’m off. ‘
Sometimes you have to give up ideas and start over. When I was younger, I stubbornly stuck to what I had, mostly out of a lack of self-confidence.
You also write soundtracks, usually with Nick, but sometimes alone. Do they affect your other work?
Ellis: ‘Absolutely. Those soundtracks have helped me keep working. They force me to look at music in a different way. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ was a turning point. Before that, I felt like one day my career would be over and I would not be able to perform anymore. At ‘Jesse James’, Nick and I got stuck at one point, but it made us try something new. Then I realized that sometimes you have to give up ideas and start over. I could never have done that when I was younger. I always stuck to what I had stubbornly, mostly due to lack of confidence. Since ‘Jesse James’, I find soundtracks very liberating. And they give Nick and me inspiration for Bad Seeds. Without our music for ‘West of Memphis’, ‘Push the Sky Away’ would have sounded very different. Suddenly I decided to leave the violin and just play the synthesizer. ‘
Is it not important that Bad Seeds has a recognizable sound?
Ellis: ‘I think it’s crucial that we sound different every time. If some people crave the rock we used to play, it’s unfortunate for them. This is how life goes. For me, it’s a good sign that I’m nervous when we’m in the studio. My job is to challenge the public, just as I challenge myself. I still remember when I first heard David Bowie’s ‘Low’. I did not know what to do with it, but I kept listening to it. Such albums become my favorite music, like Brian Enos’ ‘Here Comes the Warm Jets’, composers like Stravinsky, Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s tough times. The same goes for movies such as Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’. When I saw it, I went to look again the next day. I felt there was something in it and I wanted it. ‘
You are a multi-instrumentalist. Are there any instruments you do not master?
Ellis: ‘Brassere. That’s where it ends for me. I can handle everything else. My studio has almost everything, up to and including Vietnamese instruments. To be honest, I’m not very technically savvy. It’s never been my thing. But I enjoy exploring what each instrument has to offer. I made a career out of it ‘.
You usually get lost on a stage. Does your beard never get tangled in the strings of your violin?
Ellis: ‘It really is a problem. Because we have not performed so long due to covid, my beard is longer than ever. It often happens that there is a hole towards the end of a trip. He gets stuck and then I have to pull him out. But the show must continue ‘. (laughs)
‘This Much I Know to Be True’ plays in several Belgian cinemas between Wednesday 11 May and Sunday 15 May. Details at thismuchiknowtobetrue.com.
- Warren Ellis (57) is an Australian multi-instrumentalist trained as a classical violinist.
- After working in the theater and art sector, he founded the band Dirty Three in 1992.
- In 1994, Ellis became a full-time member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
- With Cave, he also starred in Grinderman and wrote music for films such as ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ and ‘The Road’.
- In 2021, he published the autobiographical book ‘Nina Simone’s Chewing Gum’.
- Andrew Dominik’s documentary ‘This Much I Know to Be True’ focuses largely on songs from ‘Carnage’, the first studio album by Cave and Ellis as a duo.