On the evening of 1 July 1999, the Australian musician and longtime Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis watched from the stalls as Nina Simone walked on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. It was the penultimate concert of that year’s Meltdown festival. As the audience rose to its feet as one, cheering and applauding, she stood for a few moments at the front of the stage, one clenched fist raised, and glared out into the sea of adoring faces as if ready to do battle with them.
“I guess a lot of people must have noticed that she was chewing gum, because it was just the coolest thing,” says Ellis, “a small act of defiance that said so much about her whole fuck-you attitude.”
The 66-year-old star slowly made her way to the piano, sat down, took the gum from her mouth and stuck it on a towel atop the Steinway. She then began a performance that Ellis describes as “transformative” – both for her and the audience. “As she played, you could see she was becoming energised by the music,” he says, “It was one of those rare events after which nobody was going to leave the same as they walked in.”
After what turned out to be her final London appearance, Nina Simone left the stage victorious. Nick Cave, Ellis’s close friend and the curator of that year’s Meltdown, was still trying to take in what he had just witnessed, when he noticed a familiar figure “crawling up on to the stage, looking possessed and heading for the Steinway”. It was Ellis.
Cave recalls that moment in his short introduction to Warren Ellis’s first book, Nina Simone’s Gum, which will be published by Faber next month. In it, Ellis tracks the unlikely journey of that small piece of gum since he folded it in the towel and carried it backstage at the Royal Festival Hall. That journey becomes a metaphor for his creativity – the blossoming of a small idea into something bigger and bolder – but also a journey inside the impulsive, improvisatory mind of Warren Ellis, his passions, obsessions and superstitions. “I wanted the narrative to be in free flight all the time,” he says, “so you didn’t know what it was exactly, because I didn’t.”
I am speaking to Warren Ellis via video call to his home in Ivry-sur-Seine in the suburbs of Paris, where he lives with his wife, Delphine, also a film composer, and their two children, Roscoe and Jackson. He is sitting in the sun outside his studio at the bottom of the garden, looking even more biblically hirsute than usual. In conversation, Ellis is, to say, the least, discursive, given to long tangential riffs on all manner of subjects that interest him, from the celestial music of Alice Coltrane, his all-time hero, to the similarity between making music and meditation. Occasionally, our conversation is interrupted by drifting snatches of laughter and loud music. “We have an amazing band from Kinshasa, called Jupiter, living next door,” he tells me, approvingly. “It’s a really good neighbourhood, very communal, very diverse. We even have a communist council.”
A classically trained violinist and gifted multi-instrumentalist, Ellis has been a member of Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds, since the mid-1990s. On stage, his extravagantly expressive playing is something to behold, all flailing arms and furrowed brow, his bow held aloft like a matador’s sword before being drawn across the strings of his amped-up violin. It is in the recording studio, however, that the dynamic between the two has transformed Cave’s music of late. Their shared desire to push against the familiar has resulted in two of the most formally ambitious and critically lauded albums of recent times, 2019’s daringly ambitious Ghosteen, and this year’s Carnage – the first non-soundtrack record they have made in both their names.
The pair met in 1993 and have been through a lot together since, including coming off heroin at around the same time – “I don’t talk about it,” says Ellis, “because it’s the least interesting aspect of anything about my life.” Ellis was initially invited to play on a recording session by Cave, who was a fan of Ellis’s other band, Dirty Three, an instrumental group who came together in 1991 and are still going strong. “When I started playing with Jim [White] and Mick [Turner],” says Ellis, “it was the first time I found what I had heard in other music – just the liberation of feeling like you’ve scaled the top of a mountain one moment and you’re lying face down on the floor the next.”
At first Ellis found it hard to find a place for his violin in the Bad Seeds’ established lineup – “There really wasn’t a lot of room.” He turned up to his first recording session “wearing a purple jumbo-cord bomber jacket and a pair of shorts that my girlfriend, who was a speed freak, had made for me out of old flour bags.” What, I ask, was he thinking? “I wasn’t,” he retorts, laughing. “I do remember Nick saying, ‘Wow, you’re dressed very sartorially.’ When I got home, I looked up ‘sartorial’ in the dictionary and realised he was being ironic.”
More recently, Ellis has become a soundtrack composer much in demand, working either alone or with Cave. The pair have created hauntingly atmospheric scores for a dozen movies, including The Proposition (2005), The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012). Ellis also composed the music for Django (2017), a biopic of the musician Django Reinhardt, and the acclaimed documentary, This Train I Ride (2019), about young female train-hoppers in America.
“It’s an incredible privilege to work with Warren,” Cave tells me when I get in touch to ask him about their relationship. “In any situation, he wants the best for me and I want the best for him. We have basically developed a way of working where we both relinquish control of the music we make together. We spend many hours improvising music together, sitting and playing in good faith without the politics and power grabs of many partnerships. We just let the songs find themselves.”
The pair have recently finished a soundtrack for Blonde, their friend Andrew Dominik’s much anticipated film about Marilyn Monroe, to be released next year. Dominik, who filmed One More Time With Feeling in 2016, about the making of Cave’s album Skeleton Tree, is currently in London finishing a new a film based around Cave and Ellis performing songs from Carnage and Ghosteen.
“Warren is a character,” says Dominik. “Just conversationally the way he can go off on these incredible verbal flights is quite something. Creatively, he’s incredibly open, but I have to say, he’s also enigmatic, even a bit secretive. He appears to be letting it all hang out, but he’s not really telling you anything about himself. That’s why the book was such an interesting read for me – on one level, it’s a metaphor for the creative process, but it’s also a deep insight into his inner life told through the obsession he has with the chewing gum.”
In the book, Ellis recalls taking the gum home and not quite knowing what to do with it. “I didn’t show it to anyone or mention it… I didn’t think anyone would be interested, to be honest.” That turned out not to be the case. It has been exhibited behind reinforced glass in a display case as part of Stranger Than Kindness, an exhibition in Copenhagen earlier this year, which traced Nick Cave’s career. It has also been cast in silver by Hannah Upritchard, a jeweller in London, and a small number of ingots in the shape of the gum were presented to close friends of Ellis’s. With his blessing, the Belgian fashion designer Ann Demeulemeester produced an intricately carved silver ring in its image and, in September, her sculpture of the gum will be exhibited in Waterstones, Piccadilly, to mark the book’s publication. It will be roughly the size of a clenched fist.
“All I have seen the gum do is bring out love and care in the people who have come in contact with it,” Ellis tells me, sounding quite emotional. “And that love and care has carried the most humble thing imaginable and elevated it to the status of a holy relic.” Of course, the element of the absurd in all this is not lost on him. “I love the perversity of it, that it has become something almost sacred and spiritual, but, at the end of the day, it’s just this piece of chewing gum. It shows that you can take a leap of faith inspired by the most ridiculous thing in your head.”
The story of the gum says a lot about Ellis’s way of looking at the world. A psychologist, I suggest, would have a field day. “I guess so,” he says. “There are aspects of my behaviour that I assumed I shared with everyone else – the superstitions, the impulses and maybe the obsessions – but then I realised there is something a bit crazy about what I do. That said, everyone I talked to about the idea got it pretty quickly. They all immediately knew what I was on about. I think most people have stuff they keep that means so much to them and absolutely nothing to anyone else. It’s human nature, really.”
The book features photographs, mainly of the gum’s various transformations, but is also punctuated by musings on subjects close to his heart, such as friendship, family, collaboration, loss, spirituality and superstition, as well as the role of risk and serendipity in his creative life. A memoir of sorts then, I suggest. “Well, that was definitely not my original intention,” he says, “but weirdly it turned into a kind of fractured memoir. I think a book can pull your story out of you, which is what happened with this one. Through writing about the gum, I also found a way of reconnecting with people who meant a lot to me and trying to close a few narratives that had remained open-ended and unfinished somehow.”
Many of those people have since passed on, including David McComb, lead singer of Australian band the Triffids – “a quiet, beautiful and incredibly literary soul” – and Mick Geyer, a friend who shared his considerable musical knowledge with the young Ellis before introducing him to Nick Cave. Through writing the book, Ellis also reconnected with older brother Stephen, the two having drifted apart over the years. “Historically, we had had maybe 10 conversations since I left home,” he says. “I didn’t want to get into it too deeply, but something exploded in the house when we were teenagers, and it was just irretrievable. It was a big thing coming back to him, because I was always looking for an older brother.”
Ellis grew up in Ballarat, Victoria, the youngest of three brothers. His first instrument was a Hofner piano accordion which he found as a child while playing on a local rubbish dump – “I stepped on it and heard it wheeze.” Soon after, he switched to the violin on a whim. Encouraged by his father, Johnny, a would-be country and western singer who had recorded one self-written single, Mis’ry Is My Middle Name, before settling down to raise a family, he learned to play traditional bluegrass tunes on a $20 fiddle. It was his mastery of Orange Blossom Special, learned from a tape of The Johnny Cash Show, that won him a music scholarship to attend a local private school. “I never particularly liked the violin,” he writes. “It seemed to have attached itself to me.”
It has, I say, served him well. “Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he says, smiling. “Here I am, a guy who basically plays the violin rather badly, but has somehow managed to inspire a lot of out-of-tune violin players along the way.”
Is he being serious about not being able to play it properly? “Well, I have issues with it. I struggle on certain things like tuning. And timing. And technique. So, everything really.” He cracks up. “I always think of that observation someone made about Billie Holiday, that she only had 12 notes, but it was what she did with those 12 notes that mattered. It’s really about finding your voice. And where you sit in things.”
Ellis talks with wonder about the making of Ghosteen, the celestial-sounding record he and Cave created together in Malibu in 2018. Made after the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, in 2014, it is infused with an almost otherworldly spirituality that has no precedent in recent rock music.
“Ghosteen threw me for a while,” he says. “It felt like there was something – or someone – else directing it. I’ve never put much stock in things like that, but it did feel that, if there was ever anyone else in the room, it was then. When we finished, it just felt like the record I had always wanted to make. I remember thinking, how can we ever crawl out from underneath that? But, you push through. You keep going.”
Ellis is currently absorbed in a new project that has nothing to do with music. He recently announced the opening of Ellis Park, a wildlife sanctuary in Sumatra for bears and monkeys that cannot be released into the wild owing to the injuries they have suffered from abuse by humans. Working with animal rescue activists there, he bought the land for the park and donated it to Jakarta Animal Aid Network.
“I bumped into a woman called Larinda Jane, who used to book Dirty Three way back in Melbourne, and I was really impressed by her activism. She came up with the idea to make a beard oil with my face on it and all the money from that went to the orangutans. It just grew from there.”
He falls momentarily silent for the first time, lost in reverie. “My aim ultimately is to go there. I want to build this big stone replica of the gum and place it in the middle of a water feature so that the bears and monkeys can play on it.” He leans back on his chair, grinning. “That seems like as good way as any to end the narrative.”