Surely there is no greater sight in Australian rock music than Warren Ellis in full flight. With his wild eyes and dirty teeth gleaming out through his bushranger’s beard and skinny limbs flailing as he attacks his violin, he cuts quite a figure – whether appearing with Nick Cave as one of the Bad Seeds or leading The Dirty Three towards sonic Valhalla.
It is fitting such an idiosyncratic figure should have been involved in curating Australia’s first All Tomorrow’s Parties, a boutique event which has carved out a unique niche in the increasingly crowded rock festival scene.
Along with Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds bandmates, Ellis began throwing around names for the festival on tour across Europe. The group soon settled on a wish-list, which they forwarded to the organisers, who contacted bands, often more in wild hope than expectation. In keeping with the festival’s history of highlighting some of the more obscure corners of the musical universe, artists that were well outside the normal run of festival bands, reluctant tourists or groups that were long disbanded were all on the list. “You just throw anything out there in the hope that someone might grab,” Ellis explains.
The remoteness of Australia presented its own challenges, Ellis says, with some of the performers being too old to make the long journey. And having previously curated an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK with The Dirty Three, he is familiar with some of the challenges of assembling a festival lineup. “I remember at the time asking Jerry Lee Lewis and [his management] came back with a fee that was totally out of proportion to anything else…it’s a real minefield when you start out with it.”
Overcoming the logistical problems to assemble the lineup for the festival proved “a real feat, a real achievement.” He is full of rambling enthusiasm about the prospect of seeing New York cult act the Silver Apples as well as Ed Kuepper playing with both the original Saints lineup and the reformed Laughing Clowns. Arranging for Kuepper’s inclusion was actually the easiest part of the process. He was playing with the Bad Seeds at the time, along with Laughing Clowns drummer Jeff Wegener, and instantly registered his interest in playing in the initial tour-bus discussions.
Perhaps the group Ellis is most looking forward to seeing is the reformed Harmonia, a seminal 1970s band who get described as krautrock and electronica. “They were a super-group that was put together out of Neu! Kraftwerk and Cluster. They’re kind of the greatest band out of all that movement. They put out this one album with a bottle of detergent on the cover [ Musik Von Harmonia ] which is so fantastic. Everybody took from it – Bowie, all the bands around at that time.”
The last time Ellis was involved in curating All Tomorrow’s Parties he had a crack at reuniting some of his favourite bands like The Jesus Lizard and Pavement. Neither ended up playing, but the festival was home to an ever more unlikely coup, reforming the legendary The Only Ones, who fell apart after penning Another Girl, Another Planet, arguably the greatest rock song of all. “Do you like The Only Ones?” Ellis asks. I say that would be an understatement. “Then I tell you, you would have been in tears…They sounded exactly like The Only Ones, as soon as they started even though they hadn’t played for years. It was incredible.”
Such unexpected triumphs are the very essence of the festival for Ellis. “It’s kind of the whole spirit of All Tomorrow’s Parties, what it’s about. Always within each lineup there is something that is an incredibly unique one-off kind of event…I remember walking around and people confidently saying, ‘Thanks, I’ve just seen so much stuff I never would have seen, ever.’ That seems to be something that is genuinely exciting about the festival.”
One of the unique aspects of this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties is Ellis’ The Dirty Three playing their classic 1998 album Ocean Songs in full. With the band members having reached the age where spending time with family is increasingly a priority (Ellis’ children can be heard in the background of this interview, at one point enquiring whether you have to pay money when you’re in monopoly jail) and with Ellis based in Paris, their live shows are increasingly rare.
When I suggest we’re out of time, Ellis is keen to continue, but a record company minder suggests he has other interviews to do. His passion for the Dirty Three show is clear, and he enigmatically suggests that while the sentiments that inspired the record have passed, the three-piece are still able to find ways back into the record’s emotional core. Such a possibility is likely to appeal to any music fan longing for new experiences, wanting to explore the fringes of contemporary sound. Better still, it’s only a small part of the smorgasbord of avant-garde acts included in what promises to be a festival experience completely unlike any another.
Illustration by Nick Jones