Warren Ellis on Steve Albini, Mad Max and the best sandwich: ‘Whipped cream and banana on white bread’

Warren Ellis on Steve Albini, Mad Max and the best sandwich: ‘Whipped cream and banana on white bread’

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

There was no worst, really. If you have to work, you have to work. I needed money. So I cleaned dishes at a strip club, I cleaned nightclubs. There’s something incredibly meditative about mopping in nightclubs; you have all the base elements of humanity scattered all over them after a Friday and Saturday night. I was a toilet cleaner as well. So I have seen the nasty end of the business. But there was something incredibly meditative about it. I still like to mop the floor.

What’s your favourite instrument to play?

For the last decade, I’ve really loved playing synthesiser because I’m curious about what sounds can be made, and the synthesiser is neverending in that regard. Instruments ask of you to think in a different way, to create something that you never would have created before. I find it an incredibly emotional instrument.

But I also love the violin, as much as I really disliked it growing up. It took until I started playing in a band to actually like it. There’s something about the relationship I have with it that’s a bit like mopping floors, very meditative … The chatter stops and everything stops and I just feel at one with something.

Is it true that you sometimes watch TV with Marianne Faithfull and eat lemon drizzle cake?

Yes! We watched this terrible show about a time-traveling nun who would appear in the American civil war or the 70s or what have you. Marianne would have it blaring and she would fall asleep. I’d have to wake her up and say, “Listen, if you’re going to put this on, you’ve got to watch it.” It was a lovely way to pass a couple of hours in the afternoon.

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I haven’t seen Marianne for a few years now because she’s not living here [in France] any more. But I must go see her and watch some rubbish telly.

What do you do when you can’t get to sleep?

I used to watch Mad Max. I must have seen it hundreds of times. I don’t know why, but it has this incredible, calming influence on me. I think it’s just familiarity; I watched it a lot as a teenager because it was one of the only videos that we had. But I haven’t done that for quite a while.

Getting to sleep has always been a problem. I’m still up until three or four most mornings. It is particularly hard to sleep after a concert. For 25 years I haven’t drunk or pursued recreational ways of knocking myself out, so I have to wind down in other ways, which takes time. I have tried meditating. I can’t play the violin at four in the morning so I end up texting people or doomscrolling, which is the worst thing to do.

Who is the most famous person in your phone?

I have no idea. How do you measure fame?

Not Nick [Cave]?

Nah. I’ll come back to you.

Later, sent via email: Norman Reedus is the most famous person in my phone book. I eat eggs with him when he’s not killing zombies.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The most instructive was Steve Albini, who said, “Don’t forget why you came in here.”

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It was during the making of [Dirty Three album] Ocean Songs, which was a really challenging record for us to make – a quiet record compared to everything we’d done before. We only had five days in the studio with Steve and we listened back to some of it and had a real moment of doubt, where you suddenly think, “What the fuck are we doing?” This was in the mid-90s, I was quite early into my career, so it was really devastating. And Steve Albini said, “Can I say something? I’ve seen you live and I thought we were gonna make the greatest rock’n’roll record since Raw Power. So when you told me you wanted to play really quiet, I have to confess, I was really disappointed. But all I’d say is, don’t forget why you came in here.”

That advice gave us the strength to proceed as we intended … We were putting ourselves in the unknown and we were feeling worried. But you learn that that is the best place to be, creatively.

If you had a sandwich named after you, what would be in it?

If I had a sandwich named after me, I think that would be the height of my career. Who wouldn’t want a sandwich named after them? I do like a straight butter and banana sandwich. It’s incredible. That was one of the culinary highlights of my childhood, with a tin of tomato soup. My father swore the greatest sandwich that he had in his life was whipped cream, banana and sliced ham. I don’t eat meat so I would say whipped cream and banana on a pillowy white bread.

I eat bananas all the time on tour because I don’t like to eat before I play. I usually keep one on my amplifier and it saves the day. I remember seeing Johnny Thunders do a concert in Melbourne. He was literally dying out there and then suddenly this guy appeared in the crowd. The audience parted for him like he was Moses leading the people to the Promised Land, and walked to the middle of the stage. Johnny clocked him and took off to the side of the stage, took his drugs, then came back on stage and shredded out this amazing solo. That’s a bit like my banana.

If you had to fight a famous person, who would it be, how would you fight them and who would win?

[Dirty Three drummer] Jim White, because I like rugby tackling him. I wouldn’t mind a loincloth situation, to do some sumo wrestling with Jim. It’s a pretty terrifying image. I’d like to do it when we’re like 70. There is not going to be a venue big enough. I think I need to put that idea out there now.

Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?

Absolutely. How could you not? It immediately closes off the imagination to something extraordinary. I respect both answers to that question, but ever since I was a kid, the concept of aliens was the most exciting idea to me. I just can’t believe that, for the vastness of everything, we are the only people out there. I believe in ghosts too.

If animals could talk, who would be the nicest?

A whale. I think of them like [Marlon] Brando in The Godfather. He’s got the weight of the world on him. He’s got to decide things. He’s tired, but he’s still trying to do the right thing. There’s a beautiful melancholic mood about him that I think a whale probably has. They just roll around in the darkness, lost in their thoughts. A whale would be very understanding, because it’s such a large creature. It has to be considerate. I think they’d probably make the greatest therapists.

You know, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.

I’m glad. I really hope that some Melbourne sandwich bar reads this and they make your sandwich and name it after you.

I’m thinking Australia-wide. Let’s franchise this out.

Source: theguardian.com