Interview: Ernest Ellis
"If you asked me five years ago if I'd feel comfortable with a Phil Collins comparison I would have punched you in the face".
Six months ago I received an email from Roland "Ernest" Ellis asking me to give him some feedback.
That song became Black Wire, the first single from Ellis' new album, Cold Desire. To say I was expecting something this evolved from his previous records would be a lie. I was instantly taken aback by the very new sound — evaporated was the soulful, guitar-based rock that I'd become accustomed to on his previous two albums, Hunter and Kings Canyon and in its place a sonic tapestry sown together with synths, keys, electronic thumps, chubby bass lines, 80s-style drums and crying harmonica.
At first I wasn't sure how to interpret this new direction. But as I listened to the song again and again, my appreciation for this new direction and the way it framed the timbre of his voice grew and grew. The harmonies hovered beautifully throughout the mix and provided a completely unique perspective to anything I've heard his throaty croon paired with before.
Over the following months, Ellis continued to send me sketches for the new record, each of them more surprising and eclectic than the last. The one thing that was obvious, despite these radical and unanticipated variations, was that he was in the midst of an incredibly experimental transition as a musician and an artist and I couldn't wait for the rest of the world to hear this new material.
Finally, last week, Ellis released, Black Wire, the first taste of what we can expect from Cold Desire. In anticipation of its release, I met up with Ellis in an Enmore pub on a frightfully cold Sydney night to drink a few schooners and discuss his new record and musical direction, as well as his thoughts about quitting music; the freedom of not being signed to a label; and our shared, newly discovered love for Phil Collins.
The first time I saw you mention the record publicly was on Facebook in October last year. You said you'd be making a dirty sounding record at the time.
You also thought the first single was going to be out around Christmas. Has the recording process just taken longer than you though it was going to?
I guess I had an idea of what the record was going to be at the time. It's such a compulsive medium, Facebook. I go on there all the time and put anything up there and say, "Something will be out around Christmas," and that's the way my brain works.
This was in October, so you were leaving yourself a decent amount of time.
I had an idea that we were going to put out this "Band-y" sounding record because we'd been playing together a lot — the guys I play with — and something just dissipated in that idea, that it was going to be a dirty, Nick Cave-y, Grinderman-y kind of record. We recorded a few demos and stuff that sounded that sort of way. But then I started on this new material with Russell Webster, who I play keyboard with and who lives down in Austinmer [Editor: and plays in recent Spunk signing, Shining Bird]. He's one of the — probably the most naturally gifted musician I've ever played with. Russ and I worked together for a long time since the first Ernest Ellis record and then he played all the keys for the second Ernest Ellis and the Panamas record, Kings Canyon, so we've had a great working relationship and friendship and everything. So I just started going down there to work on a few ideas in Austi and the whole shape of what I wanted to put out as Ernest Ellis changed as a result of that. It just turned into this project that was sort of a balance of what Russ had to offer on keys and vocally it just seemed to fit with what I'd been looking for from music. I liked those two records I've put out. I'm a "fan" of them. Well, "fan." I'm proud of them. But I just had this feeling that I wanted to move the whole sound of it in a different direction and that direction came up really naturally and we ran with it basically and made a record.
Early recording session. June, 2012.
I don't want to harp on about Facebook posts but you did write just the other week that before recording this album you thought about never making music again. What moved you into that mind frame where you thought about giving it all up?
I think what got me into that mind frame. I guess I got so bitter about how the Australian music industry worked. I felt that it was just putting too much emphasis on the success I wanted from those records. Not "success," but I wanted them to be a thing that more people got to hear them.
Well the way the music industry here is set up it has to fall into a very specific paradigm to be "successful".
And I refused to do that or I just didn't want to make music with that in mind and I felt I was just moving in a different direction. I wanted to write more. I was really bitter about it. The fact that I lost, we lost a lot of money on those records — not personally but label-wise. I just got to the point where I felt music wasn't the thing for me emotionally, in a way. I just wanted to step away from it for a while and from how it was happening and all my thoughts of the industry had just clouded how I was making [music] or what I expected from it. I just found it such a limiting experience in this country in a lot of ways for a lot of groups that are amazing. The best groups in this country, in my view, most people have never heard of. For some reason I took that personally and just was fed up with it.
I was at a point where I wanted to move on and write other things, so I was like "I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to make music." But I realised quickly that's not possible for me. It's just not. You can't just step out of something like that. It's what I wanted to do.
You spent some time in New York and you were song writing over there.
I was trying to. I didn't do much.
Woody and Ern working on some new tracks, Stateside, 2012.
Was that something that was tempting, to move overseas and try again?
Of course. Given the option I'd move over there and try again. But it's a hard city just to work in. I'd like to move over there to do a PHD. But just in terms of living there it wasn't practical for me at the time. I just couldn't afford to do it. But yeah, I feel once you get over to a place like New York City and a place like Brooklyn, you get this feeling that music matters in a different kind of way or that there's such a channel for groups that you really love over there that I get the feeling would never really break through in this country. I think a group like The Drones, had they not been on Pitchfork or had some pick up overseas, that the Australian media wouldn't have embraced them. I have this feeling the same way with Nick Cave. You know, suddenly Nick Cave is Australia's favourite son.
And he hasn't lived here for 30 years.
Exactly, because we ostracised him affectively. He had to go to Britain to make music.
So it was a good experience going there. It was a good holiday. I tried to get a lot of song writing done but it just didn't work out that way.
You've said that you think that this record is the best album you've made so far and judging off the sketches that you've shown me, I'm prone to agree. Is there any particular thing about this album that makes you feel that way? Is there something about the way you've recorded it or playing keys with Russell has brought that out in you? Do you feel any closer to what you had in your own head for what you wanted your music to be?
I think that you go into certain records and certain sessions with an idea of what you want and it never works out that way. It's like anything — the idea is the purest form. Then when you go to put it on paper and you go to put it on tape, it's never what it was. I felt that with this album it just feels exactly conducive to the type of record I wanted to make and to what I wanted to get across. I always felt that I'm not a great singer and I've always felt that my voice was swallowed in a way by bigger sounding records and bandier sounding records because I try to sing in this higher register. There's a great amount of space on this record. There's not much going on in terms of instrumentation and everything has a place when it comes in and I just felt that that was a great amount for me to vocally flex and get across lyrically what I thought made these tracks. It's a hard thing to put your finger on but I got to a point where I was listening to one of the songs, Black Wire on the way home after sitting down and recording it with Russ and it was just such an accident the way that song happened. It wasn't a plan like, "I'm going to go in and use Phil Collins-esque fucking drum sound and keys only through the verse and this bass sound." It was kind of those were the tools we had available so that's what we used. But I listened to it and I was like, "You know what? This is exactly how I want my music to sound now," and I've stumbled on to it completely by accident. I'm not going to lay claim that I had this pre-conceived idea. Once that song was done and that sound was there — that was the first song — once that sound was there, I was just so sold on it and I wanted to make a whole record that sounded sleazy and 80s.
As you said, this album seems to showcase your voice in a completely different way to what your previous records have.
Look, if we don't keep moving, we die. It just felt like the exact sound that suited my voice. It suited the melody. Certain songs, we'd done certain songs here in a band format but it just hadn't quite worked. I though that they were still really good songs but they just haven't there was an anxiety about them or just a "samey, same" sound that we'd made on the last two records, which I really liked but this one needed to move in a different direction. This one was influenced a lot by what I was listening to: Destroyer and Roxy Music, Bowie and stuff.
I was going to ask you, the first time I heard the new music even before you said anything, with the sax and the keys, I felt it sounded a lot like Phil Collins or Destroyer or even the Bon Iver record. Are those comparisons that you are going to comfortable with?
If you asked me five years ago if I'd feel comfortable with a Phil Collins comparison I would have punched you in the face. I used to use Genesis as a mock... it was a fucking joke to me! But there has to be something said for Phil. Maybe Phil's solo work. That wasn't a direct influence on this stuff but I'd have to agree with you that the start of that 'Black Wire' song sounds like fucking Phil Collins! Whatever. I'm not going to say I can't use that because it sounds like Phil Collins because it suited the song. If people start using this record in the same way as Genesis then I can't complain because.
You'll sell 40 million records.
It felt right for me. It felt perfect for the sound that I wanted to make. And look, it's a completely different pallet for sounds and template for sounds. I played it to my dad and the first time he heard it he was like, "What the fuck is this?" Clearly because, you know, it sounds so different and electronic in a way. But he came around.
I think I would have said the same thing about Phil Collins. Five years ago, if someone asked me about Phil Collins I would have said, "Fuck Phil Collins," but now if I hear the start of Against All Odds, I'll stop everything I'm doing and listen to the whole song.
I was driving home the other night and 'In The Air Tonight' came on the radio and I was like, "Fuck this shit," but I kept driving along and I kept turning up the volume and now I'm the fucking gorilla doing the "doo, doo, doo, doo!" So it's undeniable in a way. I can't get away from the fact that it is Phil Collins-sounding. I think there's more depth to the lyrics but maybe not.
So has the recording process for this been much different? In the past you've gone away to properties and cabins and written and recorded there. But this sounds and feels more like a written and recorded in the studio type of a record — going in without pre-conceived ideas of how you were going to record and just feeling your way through it rather than going in with pre-written songs and just trying to fill out the sound.
The process has been extremely different in that before I was determined to get to the studio with the song written. The band rehearsed, put the song down in a live way and that was it. That was the song.
But with this one the process has been extremely different in that the songs, the basic song, has been written but I've gone into the studio with an attitude that I'm not going to hold dear anything about this tune except for the actual melody.
You haven't been precious about it?
Yeah and I think I've gone in before with an idea that's pretty precious about, "No this has to be a guitar sound and this has to be this and this and this." There's hardly any guitar on this record. There's a bit of guitar but it's a window dressing, it's not a feature thing. That's a different step for me because [when] you're a guitar player, your tendency is to put a fucking guitar on there. But I stepped into this record with a real idea to be completely flexible and just do what suits the sound of the tune more and it's resulted in pairing these songs right back to their genesis and really approaching it from a completely different angle. A lot of that was situational. We recorded most of this record in a house, in Russ' studio in the front of his house and that was perfect for how it sounds but at the same time it's limiting in terms of using a live drum kit and it's limiting in other ways. I think that that forces you to consider other options and be a bit more flexible with how you make a record. But it just seemed to suit it.
There are unexpected turns on the album as well. The first thing you sent to me was Devil Head about six months ago, which at the time you said you thought had a real Eels feel to it. And then there's Exorsize It which is a real electro, psych fuck out breakdown kind of song. Are those extreme variations the result of that stream of consciousness style of recording?
I've never been able to lock down in my mind the point where I'm like, "It's going to be this, this and this." Continuously through making a record things have been all over the place. I think this one has the consistency that it didn't before but at the same time it's always felt like a fluid process with say a song like Devil Head or Exorsize It. It just happens on a certain day and then I find a place for it on the record. It just comes out in whatever way it is and I don't really think that, oh, okay it's going to be this or that. It's got to be such a fluid process. It's got to be so you're open to any idea and where it can take you and I felt that.
[Bruce Springsteen comes on the pub speakers]
The Boss was a huge influence for this record. Just in that driving, Nebraska sort of thing. It's just got this constant sort of pump to it. It's a subtle thing but it's got a subtle, road music sound. I just wanted it to be a record that didn't stagnate; that didn't feel stale by the end. And also, I only wanted to put eight or nine songs on, so that it's not overwhelming to listen to in one sitting.
There's also really interesting textures on a lot of the songs. There's certain ways the acoustic guitars have been recorded and some of the electronic sounds come out that that have that really strong and unusual presence in the mix. Has that also influenced how you've approached the record with a sense to try and make it a sort of a headphone masterpiece?
The bass sound was the backbone of the entire record. It really derived from me watching Drive. I watched that and there's this synthy, thuddy bass sound. It has this feeling where it gets you right in the gut. The bass sound is often a kind of obsequious instrument. It's there but it's underneath everything else. I wanted the bass to really dominate this record and to have that pulse-y feel that is hypnotic in a way and it carries these songs forward. So, in that sense, that texture of the bass sound was super important. The use of keys and the use of saxophone, which we've still got to put a lot on a lot of the songs, They just suited the aesthetic of the record and I wanted this "sleaziness" — that was the adjective that kept coming to mind. I think that I write these sleazy songs that are always down trodden and never optimistic. It's not by design, it's just what comes out and I felt that the sax and the bass and these keys are really sleazy instruments. The guitar is more of a straight up instrument and I thought that the sax lent sleaziness to the record.
You're obviously still working on it that the moment. What's the plan for releasing it?
Well I'm going to Europe for six weeks [now]. Try and finish it before then and then have it out in say September/October.
What's your label status at the moment?
I have no record company at the moment.
Is that good? Do you feel you have more ownership over your music and your direction and where you want to take this and what you want to do with it?
I don't have to deal with A&R. That's a nice thing.
Look, the priority for me with this has changed. When you first start making records and you're 18 years old and you sign a record deal, you're just happy to be in the room. You're just happy to be in the conversation with someone talking about your music. The idea that someone cares and someone wants to put something out is so appealing. That changes over time and it changes courtesy of technology. For this thing, my priorities completely changed to be I just wanted to make the record that you want people to hear and you want it to get out there. I didn't really think, "I wonder if people will put this out?" It was a really selfish process and that's conducive to making a good album. The first two records I was concerned with, "Is this going to get on Triple J?"; "Is this going to be a thing we can tour on the back of and play big shows," and all that sort of stuff. But this one I haven't thought about any of that. I haven't thought about, "This song could be on this or this could be on this." It just hasn't been a factor for me and that's been a really liberating process.
Thumbs up to the legends in The A&R Department.
We're in talks with people about putting the record out. If people come to the table and want to do that, then that's great. But the record's not going to change. It's not going to be a discussion about, "Oh maybe we should do this bit and that bit," because, to be honest with you, not writing off the job of all A&R people because a lot of them serve great functions. I mean you look at John Hammond and what he's done with Dylan and Springsteen, they're obviously great examples. But at the end of the day a lot of A&R people have never played music; never played in a group before. So why should I have to listen to what they have to say about a record if I don't really care about the commercial success of it? You know?
If people want to put it out and it's done in the right way, that's great. But I just decided I'm going to keep making records, keep putting it out, if something comes of it, that's great. If not, it still feels to me like a thing that I need to do. As a human being I need to make music. That's a wanky thing to say but I just can't not. It's a compulsion to do it and I'll keep doing that and keep making records and what comes comes. It's not really my concern.
Is there a slight comfort factor in the fact that even though you're no longer with a label now, because you were signed for the first two records you've had a chance to reach a bigger audience and now you know that when you put this out there is going to be an audience that knows you and knows your music?
Sure. It's a nice thought that you can put something out there and people will hear it whether they've heard your first records or whatever. That's nice because people lie if they say they don't want recognition for things they do and they want people to embrace it and to feel something for it. That's one of the most rewarding parts of the entire process, is having people respond. I think that that's a great thing and obviously I really hope for that.
People that buy into it are one thing. And then an industry or a mechanism to get things out is another.
Things have already changed so much in terms of delivery even in the expanse of your career, which is relatively short.
It completely has. We've looked into options of doing it through our own label and things like that and people do that successfully. That's definitely something that's on the table. But I don't know. I'm terrible at planning things for the future. I just have faith that I've made a good record and it's something that I'm proud of. If people want to hear it, they'll hear it and if they want to come to a show, they'll come to a show. It's a naive thing to think but at the end of the day, and fuck it sounds wanky to say, but I'm an artist and the pragmatic factors don't factor in. That's been to my massive detriment in the past. You burn bridges. You don't do things that could further your career. I don't really give a shit about any of that. All that makes me feel good is the process and making the music.