Dirty Three - Biography
It’s hard not to wax energetic about the Dirty Three. At this point the Australian trio is an indie rock institution. The group’s members are involved in myriad collaborations and projects, working with greats like Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bill Callahan. Schedules are tight, and all three band members live on separate continents, but still every odd year brings another Dirty Three album that manages to capture the mercurial magic that seems to ignite when Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White are in a room together. The group’s music is utterly unique, blending elements of various folk traditions, free-jazz, classical music and psychedelic rock for a mournful, ecstatic and captivatingly emotive sound.
The trio formed in Melbourne around 1992 and initially played in local pubs. Forging a ramshackle yet urgent sound driven by Ellis’ feedback-drenched amplified violin, the group’s notoriety quickly grew in Melbourne’s music scene. All three members have deep roots in Australian rock, playing in bands like Venom P. Stinger, Feral Dinosaurs, The Moodists and The Blackeyed Susans. Together the trio vaulted over the typical Aussie swamp-punk into uncharted territory. On the strength of live studio recordings released in ’94 on the Poon Village label as Sad & Dangerous, the band secured support slots on tours with Pavement, Sonic Youth and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The debut record and the Dirty Three’s reputation for intense live shows led to a deal with Chicago’s Touch and Go label.
Touch and Go released Dirty Three in ’95. Essentially the band’s proper debut, the record consists of seven tracks with several stretching past the ten-minute mark. This lengthy, shambolic style continues to define the band’s sound. The group’s music incorporates elements of improvisation as each member riffs on set motifs. The results are often epic, undulating pieces defined by tidal swells and moments of serene, often elegiac lull. The album’s opening and closing tracks, “Indian Love Song” and “Everything’s Fucked” respectively, remain early examples of the Dirty Three’s masterful execution of its style, one that was fully formed from the beginning.
1996’s Horse Stories remains an absolute high point for the band. The three players seem locked into supernatural communication. These songs range from mournful, shimmering ballads to earthy stomps to walls of almost unbearable crescendo. Turner’s guitar creates subtle, understated motifs while White’s always innovative drumming plays with time, creating a polyrhythmic pulse around the heart of the music. Ellis proves himself a virtuoso here, coaxing sounds out of his electric violin that sound like no known instrument. It’s a tired analogy, but he does sound like the Jimi Hendrix of violin, creating a style that is at once sloppy and precise, soulful and extremely unique. Songs like “1000 Miles,” “Hope,” and “I Knew It Would Come To This” stand as some of the most compelling music recorded by this band.
A lot happened between Horse Stories and the next proper Dirty Three album. Warren Ellis officially joined Nick Cave’s band The Bad Seeds, beginning a fertile relationship that has seen the duo score music for several major films, most recently The Road. Both Ellis and Mick Turner released solo albums, and Turner and Jim White released music as the Tren Brothers. White also lent his unmistakable drumming style to records by Cat Power, Will Oldham and PJ Harvey to name a few. Around this time the group inaugurated its own label, Anchor & Hope. The imprint serves mainly as a vehicle to release music the band sells only while on tour.
Released in ’98, the group’s fourth record focused on the tranquil, quieter aspects of the Dirty Three’s sound. Ocean Songs is a set of gorgeous pieces that pulse and undulate with an eerie, sad calm. The album is also the most clearly recorded document of the band, due in no small amount to being recorded and produced by Steve Albini. Stark and crystal clear, the recording captures the quality of the music perfectly. White is in particularly fine form here, dominating the open space in this slower music with some truly astounding drumming. David Grubbs contributes harmonium and piano to great effect as well.
Two EPs appeared in ’98 as well. Ufkuko and Sharks are slightly hard to find, but well worth seeking out. Nick Cave lends some haunting vocals to the last song on Sharks.
2000 brought a new studio album, Whatever You Love, You Are. These songs mark the first time that Ellis has heavily layered his parts. The overdubbing makes for a formidable mini chamber quartet of strings, lending dramatic depth and color. Turner and White both turn in amazing performances and the trio melds seamlessly on every song. The crashing, noisy swells from Horse Stories are back in full force on tracks like “I Really Should Have Gone Out Last Night” and the stunningly cathartic “I Offered It Up to the Stars and the Night Sky.” Throughout the album the group exhibits its most cinematic melodic writing to date.
The Dirty Three teamed up with slow-core pioneers Low for Konkurrent’s In The Fishtank series in 2001. The resulting EP captures some truly amazing moments, ranging from textural ambient pieces to a rousing cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River.”
While maintaining all the various projects Ellis, Turner and White pursue, the band came together again to release She Has No Strings Apollo in ’03. While the album is by no means a weak release, it doesn’t rank with the group’s finest work. Although overdubbing parts and adding instrumentation like organ and piano creates a lush sonic atmosphere, the songwriting simply doesn’t hit as hard as it has in the past.
In late 2005 the group returned to release its seventh proper album, Cinder. The record boasts several notable changes from past Dirty Three releases. The songs are considerably shorter and more concise, with two tracks featuring vocals from Chan Marshall of Cat Power and Sally Timms of the Mekons. That said, its some of the best Dirty Three music since Horse Stories, with tracks like “Doris,” “Too Soon, Too Late” and the Marshall-led “Great Waves” ranking with the band’s best work. Notably, Cinder marks the first time the group recorded separately in the studio. That same year the band released a tour only album called Live! At Meredith. Featuring live versions of classics like “Indian Love Song,” “Hope” and “Everything’s Fucked,” this overlooked release deserves attention as one of the best documents of the band.
While each member remains musically active, it’s been almost five years since the last proper Dirty Three record. But the band has created one of the most unique and engaging discographies in recent rock music. All three members have crafted such a distinctive style that the group would be impossible without each unique element. The opposite of much of the bland post-rock the group sometimes gets lumped with, the music of the Dirty Three is some of the most emotive and powerful instrumental rock ever recorded.