Interview with Warren Ellis

For two through and through Australians, you’d think that Warren Ellis and Nick Cave are as American as a backwoods apple pie after listening to their hauntingly authentic, stripped-down take on the lethal outlaws, hardscrabble natives and salt of the earth lawmen that their film music has conjured. While they might have achieved alt. rock cult status in their other band incarnations as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grinderman and The Dirty Three, Cave and Ellis are cutting memorable figures in creating the kind of strikingly rural scoring that hasn’t been heard since “The Long Riders” and “Paris, Texas” glory days of Ry Cooder.

Effortlessly segueing from their stage and album gigs to scoring in 2005 for John Hillcoat’s visceral outback western “The Proposition,” Ellis and Cave’s use of heartbreakingly intimate rural instruments, as merged with stripped-down experimentation, has created a poetically distinctive vision of our nation’s mythic west, and forgotten wastelands with such scores as “The Road,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” “Lawless” and “West of Memphis” amidst other stylistic scores.

Yet perhaps no soundtrack of Ellis and Cave’s is as lyrically sad as the ghostly lost people, and unsolved murders that sweep over “Wind River.” Marking the filmmaking debut of actor-turned writer Taylor Sheridan, “Wind River” reteams “Avengers” actors Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in a way that’s anything but superheroic, throwing them into a beautiful, white wasteland as Cory Lambert and Jane Banner – a tracker and an FBI agent reluctantly teamed to find how a native American woman ended up frozen to death – yet another casualty in a land where her people have been laid to spiritual, and economic waste.

Taking a bleakly effective turn from the ironic, unplugged western score that they’d provided to Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water,” Ellis and Cave create a score full of lost souls and madness, pushing their powerful, alt. backwoods sound into new emotional territory as environmental as it is cutting edge. Melody for fiddle and electronics create an air of mournfulness, with crystalline organ the unforgiving snow. Piano and strings speak for the pain of unmentionable family loss, with voices moaning for the desolation visited upon a tribe that’s become victims to hopelessness of their reservation. Perhaps most powerfully, Nick Cave’s voice is used as song-score, creating some of the film’s most powerful moments of reflecting mortality.

Ellis and Cage have made “Wind River” a powerful, lyrical journey into the heart of frozen darkness where death can come in seconds – a musical realization of nature’s power to drive men mad in spite of its beauty. Sticking in the mind like ice on lungs, Ellis and Cave once again evoke a distinctive regional sound that shows their talent at revealing the universal nature of an outback the reduces humans to their primal selves, with all the poetry and savagery it entails in their deceptively stripped-down approach – a collaboration that Ellis now ventures into.

Was film scoring ever on your radar when you began your music career?

No not at all. I was aware of music used in films and soundtracks as I have always loved instrumental music and watched films all my life. It felt like it gave me more freedom with my imagination than a lot of lyrically driven material. I moved between David Bowie and Stravinsky and Coltrane as a teenager. When Dirty Three started people assumed we would be a natural to do score work. Nick asked me to work on “The Proposition” and it all just fell into place. We realized we could create a world and sound that aided the image and create an ambience with minimal parts. We also realized we could make large quantities of music in a short amount of time, and create music that wasn’t on our radar at all. Then people started asking us to do other films. 
 I remember NIck and I rehearsed for an afternoon the day before the recording session and we came up with all the major themes. The fact we didn’t really have a clue what to do left us wide open to chance!

Warren plays with The Dirty Three

What particularly drew you to ethnic and folk instruments?

I have always loved folk music. The first tunes I played were bluegrass pieces I learnt from a book my father bought for me. Over the years I have realized I am primarily attracted to different kinds of sound, from whatever sources, and manipulating them. I am always happy to buy an instrument I know nothing about and try to make something work with it. I remember buying a Bombarde on a Dirty Three tour, and the guy said it was as loud as a jet engine. I then used it on “The Road” and the first Grinderman album. I recently saw a video of someone playing one in a church in Brittany. What an instrument! I was hitching across Europe in 1988 and some Hungarian musicians gave me a Foruja, a flute made from a reed. I guarded it preciously and took it home because I was so entranced with it’s sound. I also played the Erhu in a Chinese Orchestra in Melbourne for a few years. So I always figure I will get a song or a sound at the very least from any instrument I buy. It’s all just a matter of waiting for the moment. I bought my first synth in 2004 and it wasn’t until recording “West of Memphis” that I found its calling. Now I am never without three of them.

What was it about your music that attracted Nick Cave to collaborate with you?

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

It was apparent the moment we met during the recording of Murder Ballads that we liked playing together. Something just connected. There has always been a shared love of trying to make a song work that is slipping through the cracks. I had been aware of Nick’s work for some time since his early forays in Melbourne with The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party and I was a relative new comer when we met in 1993 .It was amazing to see him and the Bad Seeds work in the studio. I think it was the second time I had been in the studio and they were working on Let Love In. I was trying to play some string arrangements Mick Harvey had written up and I was losing! Mick was incredibly patient with me.

I think over the years we have been able to bring out the best qualities in each other with composition, and also to develop that creative partnership. There is an energy when we work that is addictive and still driven in a very pure and primal way. I remember when Nick saw Dirty Three for the first time, and he loved the attitude and energy of the group. He then invited us on tour to open for The Bad Seeds in 1995. There is always this unsaid notion of pushing each other as far as we can and taking risks.

How easy was it for you and Nick to transition from rock to scoring?

It just happened. He asked me to be involved with “The Proposition,” and we realized we had a way of working and a flow that produced large quantities of music in a short amount of time. We would just sit and improvise, make music and an editor would put them to image and try finding spots that worked. Over the years we have narrowed this process down, but at its heart there is still a process like day one. These days it is Nick, Jake Jackson, and myself and we record, edit and place the music. 
I guess having had a background in instrumental textures, and Nick having such an instinctive sense of melodic phrases and form possibly helped the transition. I just remember when we recorded “The Proposition,” something immediately indicated a way of working together beyond the band set up. Score work encouraged undertaking music normally outside of our comfort zones. So it has had a knock on effect in all the areas we work in. When I first met Nick he would play the piano and I the violin and we would play for hours, just messing around mostly without words. After a few scores I remember talking to Nick and wondering why we didn’t incorporate this approach in a band. Hence Grinderman.

How did you scoring process work, and evolve through the years?

When we started we had a very basic palette of piano, violin, loops, bass and drums on “The Proposition.” With each score we approach we have a discussion with the director about what style and tones they might be thinking, then we think about sounds and instrumentation. I think the first three scores we used similar palettes, adding strings, celeste and pump organ to the mix. Then it just seemed evolve organically, like making albums, trying to do different things from the previous scores, and also trying to make different types of cues. The inclusion of synthesizers and more electronically generated atmospheres came around “West of Memphis.” This score seemed to really influence “Push the Sky Away” tonally to my ear. Our aim is to bring something of worth sonically to the film and not just adding musical glue. Our scores have a certain sensibility that is not for every film or director. We have discovered the directors need to really want to work with us because of our existing work. There are certain scores we just cannot deliver, which is probably a good thing. The process is very much a sum of its parts. We both bring something to the proceedings and the realists are better for it.

Could you talk about your work with Nick for John Hillcoat on such movies as “The Proposition,” “The Road” and “Lawless?”

NIck has a long relationship with John and it felt like I was just swept along for the ride. Those scores and “Jesses James” feel like when we were cutting our teeth and working out how to do a score on our own terms. “Lawless” was different in that there was an idea that it was song driven and the score was more or less incidental. We moved to L.A for that one and found it rather difficult working within the machine so to speak. I think our distance from there was probably a good thing for the earlier films. But it is interesting to think of these films because they were mostly not temped with other people’s music, just some placeholders. I think in many ways it helped us form a style. Temp scores are such a nightmare to be up against. The powers that be get so stuck with the pieces and it is hard to offer anything that will make them let go.

John was always great to work with, knowing what he wanted with a vague musical description. He also trusted and supported us in the process. We can be quite a terrifying proposition for producers because we don’t make demos, so to speak. We go into the studio to find the score. I remember with “Lawless” everyone wanted to hear our music. But we told them that were why we were here, to find the score, and that caused some alarm bells to ring. There was definitely an air of “Who are these amateurs?” That film felt like a struggle. “The Road” also had issues in that Cormac McCarthy’s book had been so popular, as had the film version his “No Country for Old Men.” So there was a lot of pressure for that film to perform.

Another western score, and film of yours that’s only grown in cult popularity is “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Could you tell us about that scoring experience?

As we tour a lot, our windows for working on scores is very small and not very malleable, which doesn’t fit in with a film’s schedule. With “Jesse James,” I remember Andrew had two references for “Jesses James” – Alex North’s score to “Carny” and Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals.” We had asked for a cut to work with, and received 30 seconds of Brad Pitt trying to fire a pistol in the snow as he contemplates suicide. They didn’t have a cut together, so we just started playing. It was Nick, Marty, and myself and we put down a load of ideas and sent them to the director Andrew Dominik. I think he was not very impressed with them, and we had another session where he suggested a celeste and pump organ to the mix, and again I don’t think he liked what he heard. In the early days we would have Gerard McCann out the back editing our improvisations to image, and he was fed a live line from the studio where we work working with Jake the recording engineer. When Gerard heard something of interest he would come out and tell us to put some of that down. It was a process we used on “The Proposition” and “The Road.”

Oddly enough Andrew ended up using 40% of those initial ideas, and we developed them into themes. I remember there was a point in the creation of it that it felt like it was going to get away from us. We had a hard time with the final cue “Song for Bob.” I remember, as we had never done anything quite like it. Then we had some string arrangements that we put in the mix and they seemed to resonate better with Andrew. They really helped make our ideas more cinematic and wide. I remember seeing the film in the cinema and Andrew had moved a lot of the cues around. I also remember being so blown away by the film that I couldn’t believe we were involved in it! I lost sight of the fact we had done the music, it was so immersive. That score was definitely one of those moments where you question if you are in fact going to be able to finish it. It felt so out of our reach at times. I must add Andrew kept batting for us, despite the calls from the studio to get us off the film. He is an amazing director and I would work with him in a heartbeat.

What was it like for you and Nick to score the documentary “West of Memphis?” Had both of you both been supporters of The West Memphis Three before it?

Yes, totally. We had both seen the previous documentaries “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Lost 2” and were aware of the travesty that had occurred. I remember while we were working on the score, there was the retrial and the director Amy Berg suddenly had a very different ending to the cut we were working on. To see the edit change to such an outcome was extraordinary, if bittersweet for the guys. Making a documentary was a new thing for us, and it requires music that adds a tone, but doesn’t steal the limelight with melodies, as there is so much dialogue to follow.

“Wind River” is a far more downbeat, yet no less riveting film for Taylor than “Hell or High Water.” Could you talk about what makes him a unique director? And did your collaboration vary here, given that this is a darker film?

I like very much Taylor’s scripts, in particular the dialogue. He has a keen sense of social observation and also a wry sense of humor. “Wind River” is his directorial debut and he said when he wrote the script he always had us in mind to do the score, and that he always planned to direct the final part of his trilogy. Reading it you could sense there was lots of room for score and that with the snow and melancholic mood it would require us to find a very different score tonally. He had temped the film with some of our existing scores that made it easy to target things.

Temp scores are such a bane for film composers. Directors and producers develop temp love then you spend so much time trying to get it out of the film. So often you see films where the music is so reminiscent of another score/cue and you know the temp has been imitated. The edit gets made to the temp piece, and then the editor has a hard time seeing it with a new idea. It can be such a bore because it takes away the composer’s duty to come up with something original.

Director Taylor Sheridan on the set of Wind River

Fortunately the temp for “Wind River” was only a placeholder and Taylor wasn’t attached to any of it. Better yet, it was our music .The longer a temp score sits on an edit the harder it is to get out. We made the score relatively quickly, two sessions of five days from memory. Taylor came to the sessions, as did David McKenzie, who directed “Hell or High Water,” which really helped move things along .In the early days the directors were always in L.A so there was a day delay in feedback and quite often more than that. So having the director in the studio helps target ideas more efficiently and creates an efficient dialogue.

For “Wind River,” we did as usual, which was to go in the studio and start making ideas we think might fit and try to find a palette. The electronics seemed to accompany the snow and internal workings of some of the characters and the vocals, piano and choir the overarching sense of loss and redemption that consumes the characters. Taylor was fantastic to work with. He was very trusting, open and let us do what we felt was correct. He also told us the film was very fast and dynamic to shoot, and he even rides the snow buggy sometimes. There is something about the film’s leanness and economy that is appealing due to the way it was shot. There is talk of more work with him, which would be great.

Tell us about your ensemble here, and how sampling plays a part in it?

Warren and Nick compose

Some pieces are straight improvisation with Nick and myself playing in real time, and then we develop that music. Others are built on atmospheres I create. We never use sampling as such. I make electronic atmospheres using whatever I have at my disposal, recording with loop stations and modulating them with pedals. I don’t own a sampler. Quite often I make 20 or so atmospheric ideas before I arrive in the studio with the film in mind, send them to NIck and he composes melodies to go with them. With “Loin des Hommes,” I remember 14 of the ideas found a target. On this one Nick branched out on the synthesizer as well as piano and celeste. But as I have said, it’s mostly about the moment of improvisation and creating ideas on the fly then targeting things when they start working.

We have a general idea now how to make a score and shape it to follow the dramatic arc of the storyline. We also added piano, celeste, pump organ, violin, viola and a string section and choir. This all feels like possibly the widest score sonically we have attempted, and the most spacious as well, because we really wanted to push the bottom end in this one and create a haunting glacial atmosphere. It’s the opposite sound to “The Proposition,” yet similar in it’s vastness of setting and internal rumination.

In “The Proposition,” you and Nick somewhat dealt with the plight of Australia’s aboriginal culture. How do you think what they went through compares to the devastation that befell American Indians? And how did you put that feeling into “Wind River” when you see the sad state of the reservation and its people?

Obviously there are parallels. Both Indigenous people gave been displaced and destroyed by white settlement. It wasn’t something we discussed to target intentionally. As our music has a certain melancholic and supportive tone, maybe it is why Taylor wanted us on board to reflect that aspect. I know he said he didn’t want a traditional score and he stood by his word. I am glad the score made it through unscathed as we intended.

Your scores have often dealt with stark environments, whether it’s the old west or the apocalypse. That being said, “Wind River” is likely the “coldest” film you’ve scored. How did you want to reflect the kind of icy mountains and plains that drive people mad here, yet are also beyond beautiful for those who can find peace in their surroundings?

There is something about our music that attracts directors making films with people wandering around lost in vast landscapes. It wasn’t by design it just happened. But it follows on from the types of music we generate in the bands we play in. I think once we found the electronic base for this score we had the cold/ snow aspect of it underhand. It was so amazing when we put the first cue to the shooting of the wolf in the opening scene. We instantly knew what we were looking through and worked through the reels cue by cue, sent them off to Taylor. Then he came over and we topped and tailed the reels in 5 days with his involvement. He was very trusting with our ideas and very generous in his enthusiasm and admiration for what we were creating. In many ways that permitted us to go on different excursions and take risks because of Taylor’s confidence. He didn’t get blocked on cues, which was a first.

As this score was unfolding we became aware that it was like a mix between “The Proposition” and “Jesse James” to our ears. Obviously the recited poem is something that occurs in “The Proposition,” and it felt appropriate to do something similar, as there were several meditative journey scenes. Nick developed something using the poem on the refrigerator and recited it over an ambience, and then we added a choir and strings. I think from memory this is the score that came together the fastest with the exception of “The Proposition.” That took 5 days from start to finish.

How did you want to play the “murder mystery” aspect of “Wind River?”

I think we let the narrative tell this part of the film. It seems like something that just unfolds in front of our eyes in a linear way. For us, this score was more a meditation on loss and the plight of the Native American Indian and we underpinned that aspect with the score rather than the “murder mystery”

In addition to its stripped-down organic sound, there’s some frightening and unusual use of electronics in “Wind River.” Can you talk about that element of the score?

I think “Far From Men” was when we started experimenting with odd electronics, like the way hip-hop is put together. I make these mostly with anything I find. For “The Road,” I used things I though might be around after the apocalypse, wind and wire that would sound like the earth in trauma. I made vocal loops, flute loops, and guitar loops for “Wind River” and pitch shifted and manipulated them. Then NIck, Chris Blakey and myself started sculpting the cues in the studio. The aim was to make these moments have impact and be in stark contrast to some of the more pastoral cues and ambiences. I have a big bank of loops now and I was working with Richard Russel from XL on his album. I didn’t know what to do so I plugged my pedals in reverse order, which is how I found that I could actually sample and DJ my own sounds. That really influenced how I made the loops for “Wind River.”

Not only are your scores “primal” as such, but they often deal with peoples’ baser emotions. How do you think that comes across in “Wind River?”

The score taps into the rawness of the emotions in the film due in part to its fragility and sense of being held together by the barest of musical threads. Also the fact there are kind of spectral voices in the mix that support the haunted aspect of Toby and his internal rumination. There is also something quite epic about this score to my ears when it reaches its climax. It is possibly our most realized and complex score in some respects. The string arrangements had to be very specific, and fortunately Ben Foster understands our work.

“Wind River” makes haunting use of voices. What gave you the idea for them, and what do they represent?

I think we have been featuring voices more and more in the scores, and when we made “Tell Me What It Is” and “First Journey,” we knew it was something that would need to develop and recur doing the film. Again it was something that once we saw the idea to image we knew we were onto something. “Three Seasons in Wyoming” is as big as our music gets in the film. We wanted that to be the emotional peak of the score, that final run through the snow. There was something beautiful and meditative about it, like the horse riding scenes in “The Proposition,” which felt kindred in spirit to this film.

Given that the loss of a child is a major theme in “Wind River,” did that make scoring “Wind River” particularly emotional for Nick?

We never spoke about this actually. He read it and said he wanted to do it. I am not able to speak for him on this. Obviously it must have resonated in a very different way for him than anyone else in the studio.

How did you want to use Nick’s song in the score?

It feeds into the meditative nature of the film and the way the score slowly develops and stakes its ground. It keeps changing lyrically slightly as the story unfolds. I guess it is part of Corey’s internal mantra as he searches for the killer and redemption.

As sad as “Wind River” is, especially with how you use an elegiac organ, was it also important for you to reflect a sense of healing for the characters?

Of course. There seems that moment in the film when Corey eventually starts to forgive himself when he is able to do for someone what he felt he failed to do himself. And we see in these circumstances that life does go on. I think some of the piano based ideas and violin themes underline that sense of compassion, healing and redemption.

Do you think that a stripped-down score like “Wind River” is more effective then if someone had taken a more conventional, orchestral approach to it?

I think you do whatever it takes and feels right to you and the director with a score. How stripped down often depends how much risk the director will take. There is a tendency to fill films with music because I think producers fear silence means boredom, and they don’t trust their audiences. The Europeans in general are much more economical with their scores, and very rarely does it underscore an action or sad scene. American films tend to do the opposite. I think the score for “Wind River” is effective in that it creates it’s own space and supports the film without overstaying it’s welcome. It doesn’t sound on the nose to my ears in terms of the emotional content of the music.

You and Nick also recently scored the eccentric Netflix film “War Machine,” which was a different sound, and subject for you. Tell us about that Netflix film.

This score was a genuine pleasure to create. The director David Michod was really hands on from day one with the creation of the score and it was a learning experience to see him in action. He’s a very generous and intelligent guy. It was so great ask why he wanted certain things and tones and he was very specific to the micro second it seemed. He really wanted us to do something very different from our usual scores, the Roedelius pieces were his idea, and he had a very definite idea of what he wanted the score to underpin. It was also great for us to step away from our traditional instrumentals and try to do something totally out of our musical experiences. I think it’s one of my favorite scores we have done.

Not all is beautiful gloom with you, as the biopics “Django” and “Gaugin” will show. Is it even more rewarding to score artists, whether they’re musicians or painters?

Vincent Cassell as Gaugin

I don’t really think about such things. Biopics are generally a “do not enter” for me, and I find them rather uninteresting with a few exceptions. In many ways, it feels easier dealing with fictional characters the known identities. I’d prefer scoring bank robbers to artists! But there was something attractive about trying to recreate the lost Requiem of Django Reinhardt and it was a style I had never attempted. When I watched “Gauguin,” I saw it as more than a biopic of an artist, it was more an allegorical look at a life opening when it was closing. I found the performance of Vincent Cassel incredibly engaging and moving. It was also apparent the music was given lots of room from the first cut I viewed.

Is a symphonic style something you’d like to try more of, especially as you and Nick went to “Mars” using a broader sound?

I think we are open to trying anything. Certainly “Mars” was another shift for us in terms of sound. Composing for a TV series is a different thing to a film. That was an interesting to approach. I should add what an integral part of our team is Jake Jackson. He has done most of our films, with the exception of “Lawless,” and he still reminds me of that. Since “The Proposition,” he has helped us define a way to work and shaped our ideas so that we can move in the soundtrack world. Initially he was recording the material only, but after the budgets shrank he started editing with us as well.

I would start bringing in ideas to get us up and running, like instant atmospheres, and Jake just keeps the tape rolling. We have developed a way of working together which is very copacetic over the last decade or so. It was as though recording “The Proposition” kicked the wheels in motion and the idea of how to create scores with Jake has been developing ever since. As he had worked on TV series before he was able to bring a lot to the table in terms of placement and form and structure. I think it very a very mutual exchange over the years.

When he arrived to record “The Proposition,” he was told we were a bunch of drug addicts so he had no idea what to expect! Jake said he was shocked to find we were actually incredibly hard working and straight. I like that with our scores there is a continuing search to move on from the last thing we have done, like with the bands we work in. It all feeds in to the next thing. Since “Skeleton Tree” we have made six scores which will shape where the next Bad Seeds album goes when we sit down to start that. You can make quantum leaps in style doing a score and get things out of your system. The also make you happy to go back to your day job of touring and making albums.

Do you feel like you’re following in the steps of Ry Cooder, whose use of stripped-down regional instruments brought a new sense of authenticity to American scores? And do you both think you’ve helped stretch the sound of film scoring in general?

I have no idea. We came into the score world from a rock and roll background and there was something in this approach that appealed to certain directors. As we aren’t musical technicians as such and don’t have wild technical abilities I think it adds to the simplicity and stripped down nature of what we do. I am not sure we are bringing new sense of authenticity to “American” scores. I think there are a lot of great film composers who have jumped over from other worlds, Mica Levi does amazing work for example with scores like “Under the Skin” and “Jackie.” TV series have also changed the musical ballpark, as they have for every other aspect of film making without stating the obvious.

If Nick and I have contributed something along the way then great. But there has always been a history of composers coming from left of center and doing scores, usually in the independent scene – or when there are little resources. Look at “Maniac,” “Driller Killer,” “Aguirre,” “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid…” The list is endless. Even John Carpenter did his first films because there was no budget and he knew what was needed.

In a way, given how many movies you’ve scored set in our backwoods, do you think you feel as American as you do Australians when it comes to composing?

I actually wish we were able to score more Australian films. They just don’t come our way for some reason. There is something about the vast vistas in the American landscape and the wildness that resonates as an Australian. There is a sense of space and isolation that is instantly recognizable to our own country of birth. Maybe that’s what it is.

What’s the biggest tip you may have learned to help you survive if you ever ended up in a blizzard at “Wind River?”

Be on the back of Corey’s buggy!

”Wind River” opens on August 4th, with Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s score available from Lakeshore Records HERE

Listen to Warren Ellis and Nick Caves scores like “The Proposition,” “The Road” and “The Assassination of Jesse James” HERE

Visit Nick Cave’s website HERE