The Creator Has a Master Plan: A Conversation with Warren Ellis

Warren Ellis loves monkeys, bears, and pigs. He loves Beethoven and Sumatra, Indonesia. He loves Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Johnny Thunders, and pianos. He loves clowns in a backyard, 15-foot statues, light, anxiety, touring, his family, Nick Cave, The Bad Seeds, Ellis Park, his brother, me reading his book in an elevator control room, Carnage and Ghosteen, Arleta, Dan Papps, Alexa von Hirschberg, film scores, Nico, Brian Eno, boats, plinth helmets, reading, transparency, ideas, Hannah Upritchard, Mick Geyer, David McComb, Paris, Snow Leopards, gold nuggets, Acca Dacca, Robert Quine, Jeffery Lee Pierce, Malibu, civil rights, parting the seas with kabobs or smack, and Nina Simone. He loves Nina Simone so much that during a concert of hers in 1999, he was so inspired by her performance that he crawled onto the stage and took a piece of gum she had removed from her mouth and placed in a towel atop her piano. For 20 years he kept the gum and did not mention it to anyone.

Now, this past year, the gum sat in a glass case in a museum in Copenhagen. Why? Because things grow and ideas sprout other ideas, and beauty eventually finds a way to link the past with the present, shaping a future where we may find our better selves reflected through acts of kindness and compassion. This runs through Warren’s new book, Nina Simone’s Gum.

“I wanted it to be about the good in people. The light, rather than the darkness, especially after the year we’ve all just had.” 

And it is. I spoke with Warren via Zoom. He appears (much like every photograph I’ve ever seen of him) as some mix between father time and a 19th-century Russian author. His eyes, big and kind, like his sense of humor, immediately put me at ease. I accidentally say, “I’m not going to ask you your birthday,” and he replies, “Good, because I wasn’t going to tell you my birthday. I am a gentleman and should be treated as such…these days.” Indeed. | n matsas


Aquarium Drunkard: Where are you?

Warren Ellis: I’m in a hotel in Aberdeen, Scotland.

AD: What is it, 09:00 by you, right?

Warren Ellis: I believe so. I actually just woke up because we had a big drive and we’re doing this tour around the UK–me and Nick and a couple of singers and another guy doing some other things and we’re just presenting Carnage, the record we did together, and Ghosteen.

AD: How’s the tour been so far?

Warren Ellis: It’s been amazing, actually. We’ve all had to kind of learn how to do it again in a way. We’re in this COVID bubble, and I got to say, the crew, our crew have been amazing. They’re all in masks and things like that. Everyone’s being incredibly responsible. So there’s that aspect of it that’s new and challenging. But actually, I hadn’t really played on stage in three years. With The Bad Seeds was the last time, and that was three years ago. I did a series of shows with Nick in 2019, too. We played our film scores with the orchestra in Australia and we had four dates in Melbourne and three in Sydney and the last one of those was December of 2019. But that was just standing in front of an orchestra and playing kind of thing, you know? So I hadn’t done a lot. I think I did a couple of Dirty Three shows that year too. It’s been a while.

AD: I received a copy of your book about a week ago and read it twice. Both times in an elevator room at work. I spend hours reading and writing in an elevator control room. I’m the world’s worst employee.

Warren Ellis: That is wonderful. It makes me happy to hear that. I used to work in a strip club cleaning the dishes and stuff like that, and there was a big floor show everyone was supposed to go to and watch and I would sneak off to this grand piano they had, and one day I got called into the office and the owner said, “I hear you’ve been playing the motherfucking piano.” He thought he was an Italian gangster in Melbourne. He’d seen things like Scarface and such, and I replied, “Yeah, I guess I have.” He said, “Normally I’d just fire your fucking ass,” and I was like, “Ok, I guess it’s goodbye,” and he goes, “No. I hear you actually play music.”

“I guess so.”

“If I catch you again you are out of here.”

AD: When I read about your brother it really affected me, emotionally. You wrote, “To say we are estranged wouldn’t even come close.” There’s a real sense that this book reconnected you with a lot of people. Has your brother read the book?

Warren Ellis: No. I’ve had it sent to him. For me, that’s the bit I get emotional every time I talk about it. It was something I hadn’t anticipated and I was letting the story unfold. I didn’t know what the story was. Yes, the gum and the care of the people around it, but, I was talking with Oren Moverman, an Israeli screenwriter who helped me a bit with the writing, and he kept saying, “This is about you, Warren. You think it’s about the gum but it’s about you. It’s about why you care…Why you care.” And after a lot of arguing, and stuff like that, I did take his point. For a while, I thought all I had to do was just present the gum and people would get it. But then I just sort of turned myself over to what Oren had said. When the events in the book go into diary form, that is where I started writing the book. I had the nuts and bolts of ‘then I did this, then I did that,’ and I had a storyboard of 450 photos.

What I didn’t anticipate was, when the exhibition shut down, and everything was under wraps, like the sculpture and Arleta, my brother, and how everything sort of ends, that all came as I allowed the narrative to unfold in front of me, ya know?  The book finished at the point in time when I stopped writing. The stuff with my brother, I didn’t know that was going to happen. Talking with Oren, telling him about the Beethoven stuff, and these changes, then I remembered any time I had a sort of supernatural experience with something–by the way, everything I’ve written is true. I haven’t changed anything for the sake of the book. These are very deep, personal experiences that are happening to me and are connected, somehow, to why I care about this piece of gum. Why I believe in the supernatural. Why I’ve been looking for spirituality all my life. Something to connect with, which music has given me in so many ways. It has given me something to gravitate to, and as I was talking about these things to Oren, and then I remembered the story that I opened the book with, and told him about it, he said, “That’s your first experience with the supernatural and probably defined who you are.”

Warren is referring to a story when he and his brother looked out of their childhood bedroom window and saw a caravan of clowns in their yard.

Oren went on to say, “If you would have looked away or been scared of it, maybe you wouldn’t have picked up that accordion. Your willingness to embrace things.” You know, when I heard John Coltrane for the first time, I thought it was the voice of God.

AD: I’ve got to show you something.

I pick up my laptop and bring it into the next room where I have a wooden John Coltrane portrait hanging on my wall. His eyes light up and I tell him about how I found it in a Seattle garbage dump.

Warren Ellis: Oh, man, that’s beautiful. That is beautiful. Yeah, I thought God was speaking to me the first time I heard him, or some God was speaking to me. Alice Coltrane…I’d have these things that weren’t even drug-fueled, ya know? Most of it happened when I was quite young. It was sort of when I realized psychedelics weren’t for me. I already had an active imagination. My mind seemed to be active enough, and the odd time I’d try psychedelics it terrified me in a way. It’s sort of why I went for the things that slowed me down rather than sped me up. Or a combination of things that slowed me down and sped me up (laughs), that was probably better.

AD: The stuff you used to hide in your watch on tour while crossing borders?

Warren Ellis: (Laughs) I talk about that in the book, weirdly, and toward the end of the book when I talk about my brother again, and the clowns, and the light, and these concerts, and the light that accompanies them, I emailed my brother and then when I called him I was like this:

Shows us a shaky hand.

I didn’t want to go into what had happened between us because I really didn’t want it to be a memoir. I wanted it lean. I wanted it to be about the essence of things. So there was a point when someone at Faber & Faber wanted me to include why our estrangement happened and I didn’t want to give that. I don’t think it matters. The result was the connection and I don’t think going into it would have done the story any good. When I put up the photo of us as kids in the book, I did that instinctively, and I realized that the little guy who sat at the window with his brother was the same little guy watching that Nina Simone concert, and the same little guy you see on stage every night. That photo. The chronological aspect of the story didn’t matter. Once Nick had offered to write the intro, then I was like, where do I go now? I’ve never written. I did not know what to do. Then I put in the clown story with my brother. Then the rest linked up and made these ideas eternal in a way. I love that interaction with my brother. Somehow, for me at least, we got caught up and it addressed this thing with me. When we spoke on the phone, everything I said he would reply, “I can see you now, Warren. You’re five years old in that light.” And it was everything I remembered. For me, it’s those things you remember your entire life. Memory. Our memory defines us. That’s what this book is about, in a way. It’s Nina Simone’s fucking gum. I thought it was responsible for my creative output. I had so much invested in it. I wanted it out there, in the community, so it could stay alive. That’s what storytelling does.

AD: Do you think by grabbing Nina Simone’s gum, you were reconnecting with yourself? That little guy? From what I gathered in the book, just prior to this you were going through a turbulent period in your life and it felt like you became that boy at the window with his brother once you got the gum.

Warren Ellis: Yeah. I’ve never thought of it that way, but yeah. There’s something about that. Connecting with that kid again. It’s like the transformation in Nina Simone, when she’s playing, and Nick. When his son died, I could see his old self trying to come to his rescue. Transformation. Transformation of the gum, and in all of the sub-narratives that are going on in the book. I never really thought of my transformation, but that is what’s going on too. Someone the other day said they read my book and it was the classic hero’s journey. But, ya know, what you’re saying about reconnecting with myself, I never thought of that and I can see it. I recently reread the book to do these interviews and I realized we have this capacity for awe and wonder as a kid and if you fuel it and feed it you can have it all your life, if you’re curious.

AD: I have a friend who recently kicked heroin and he told me about how far away he had gotten from himself…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to turn the conversation in this direction.

Warren Ellis: No, no, I think that’s right. It does take you further away. At some point, when we were in the editing process, someone said to me, “You just threw this thing in there, that you’re in this state, and I think we need more information about the state you were in,” and I thought there were enough books about that sort of shit, ya, know? What was important for me was, I mean, if you have half a brain and when I reveal the contents of my briefcase, it sort of tells you everything you need to know. I wanted the book to be about awe, wonder, and beauty. I sort of realized it is about turning an addictive personality into something positive. I clearly have an addictive personality. My obsessional thing. I think I’m OCD. Probably ADHD as well. I know my addictive thing…I just won’t let ideas go in the studio. I don’t give up, and that’s it. Writing the book helped me. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t realize what I had taken on. I’ve never written anything. I was incredibly anxious about it. I knew it was going to be judged by people if I finished. I was thinking about self-sabotage, which is so counterproductive. I was fortunate enough to have amazing people at Faber, Dan Papps in particular, and Alexa. They were critical of my drafts but also very supportive. When you step out into an area you’re not familiar with, even if you are familiar, it’s so easy…When you’re in the zone of creating something, when I’m in the studio, someone can say something that can whither you and totally blow your mojo.

AD: Before talking with you today, I was very anxious and what helped calm me down was thinking about the part in the book where you talk about being anxious while filming 20,000 Days on Earth.

Warren Ellis: I think you need anxiety to move forward and to challenge yourself. I think if you go into something extremely confident, you don’t have a radar on. You need to question yourself. I don’t put any stock into the suffering artist thing. When you’re really down, you can’t get yourself out of anything. You can only create about it after you start to move out of there, and you can get a look at it.

I think anxiety is really important to the creative process because it means you’re looking at it in a way that’s subjective. I think if you’re happy with whatever you’ve been doing, your bar is lower.

AD: You’re not moving the bar.

Warren Ellis: All my life in the studio… If I’m terrified of something that I’m doing, that’s the thing I go towards. Even on this tour Nick and I are doing now. I’m just playing synthesizer most of the time, and sitting, which is something I’ve never done before. Even the orchestral thing we did, I was like “this is going to be awesome, let’s do it.” But when I went into the rehearsal and was standing in the concert hall, I was so terrified I just stood there and went, “Oh my fucking god,” and my stomach fell onto the ground. I can’t even play in tune and it suddenly dawned on me I was going to play with an orchestra. We start rehearsal and the guy starts moving the stick and Nick is like, “what the fuck is he doing?” All of this is important for the process because it means you are challenging yourself. The book was like that. The anxiety pushes me on. I’m in a good spot when I’m anxious because it means I don’t really know where I am. Not getting bla·sé about it. With the Dirty Three, it was always like that. “Where are we? What’s going on? We must be doing the right thing! No one has any idea”kind of thing, and that it could fall apart at any moment. Risk-taking. That’s what I love about the music I listen to. I remember hearing Coltrane. Kulu Se Mama just blew my mind. It just absolutely blew my mind and I’d go up to people and they’d say the critics panned it. I couldn’t believe it. After all, I heard, it was getting panned. I was picking it up for 2-3 dollars in the bargain bin because pissed-off jazz people were throwing them out. Alice Coltrane. All the stuff I like by her: Cosmic Music, World Galaxy, Universal Consciousness, I picked up because people threw em’ away.

AD: Do you listen to Pharoah Sanders?

Warren Ellis: Oh yeah. I saw Pharoah Sanders play.

AD: Where at?

Warren Ellis: A club in Paris. It was an amazing experience. I love Pharoah Sanders and I’d seen a Johnny Thunders concert in the 80s when The Heartbreakers came to Australia, and I lived with a dealer. Johnny Thunders and Nico were all coming around to score off this dealer and Johnny Thunders was doing this gig at a University. He was up there, dying on stage. He was melting and hanging out, people booing, and then I saw this dealer I lived with walking through the audience. The seas parted–like Moses–and Johnny clocks him with his eyes and shoots off the side of the stage and disappears with the dealer…He comes back and does this awesome solo. It was really awesome. So when I saw Pharoah play, he was up there playing and looking around and I’m like “I’ve seen this before,” and this guy walks in with a tray of kabobs above his head, and the audience parts like Moses, Pharaoh clocks him, shoots off the side of the stage and eats a ton of kabobs (laughs), jumps back on stage and rips into a solo and I was like, “kabobs or smack, it’s the same thing (laughs).” You part the seas and bring on an awesome performance.

AD: I can’t wait to read Pharoah Sanders’ Kabob Stick, your next book.

Warren Ellis: Yeah (laughs), we had to edit that out. Took too much away from the gum (laughs). That is book two.

AD: Was Nina Simone anxious before she played?

Warren Ellis: I don’t know. I didn’t see her before she played. Nick had been back there. Matt Crosbie, our sound guy who is just incredibly charming, was there. He’s the one with the story about Nina’s demand for champagne, cocaine, and sausages. I called him up and recorded the conversation and put it in the book. Classic conversation with Matt. He remembers facts. He’s a real raconteur. He can entertain you about the stupidest thing and you’re just having a heart attack laughing about what he’s saying.

AD: I laughed so hard when he said, “Half-line of coke on the table” in Nina’s dressing room, and goes, “I finished the coke, as one does.”

Warren Ellis: (Laughs) “I helped myself to the half of the line…as one does.” As far as I’m aware, she had her entourage and backstage was really off-limits to people. I started to do some research about the evening, to see if anyone had spoken about the concert, and found this interview with her that’s incredible. She’s on fire. I think the guy interviewing her asks, “who do you like these days,” and she replies, “I don’t” (laughs). There’s something about what she built around her that made sense when you hear the stories about what happened at that concert. It was this incredible symphony of stuff going on around her.

AD: In the book, you talk about how she transformed on stage.

Warren Ellis: Yeah. Listen, I couldn’t really tell you what songs she sang. The room transformed into something else. In the first song, you could sense in the audience that she wasn’t going to be able to do the show. She was hacking and trying to sing. I think it was “Black is The Color of My True Love’s Hair”, and she was smashing the piano…When she walked out, you could tell she was in a lot of pain. She hobbled out there. It was really hard for her to walk. So it was a miracle she was there, but then something happened after the first song. Something clicked within her and by the end of it, she was spinning around in circles, blowing kisses, and smiling. This transition had taken place. I’d like to think it was the love from the audience that came in and reconnected her with herself. It was so incredible. One of the greatest concerts I have ever seen. It’s Nina Simone. She’s in a class of her own. One of the greats. You can put her there with Picasso…Where she was, in the place of things, the whole civil rights movement. She was so fearless. A black woman who was totally fearless.

AD: It seems like she only cared about the right things.

Warren Ellis: Yeah, I think so too. Unafraid to say what she thought. I love that quote, where she met Dr. King and said to him, “I have to warn you, I’m not non-violent” (laughs). There’s just this thing about her that’s no-nonsense. 

AD: To those unfamiliar with her music, can you recommend an album to start with?

Warren Ellis: I didn’t realize this at the time, but I started later in her career because that was what was around. Again, it was probably the music that was in bargain bins. Things people didn’t want. I heard her version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”on Black Gold, that album. My brother had that in his collection. Then I got Emergency Ward, which I think is my favorite record of hers. I love that record so much. Baltimore is an amazing record. I started with that and then went back to “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” One thing I did do, when I was getting sober and clean, I went to meetings, I went to primal scream therapy, AA, NA…I kind of just put the wagons in a circle around me because it felt like my last shot at it, and I made a conscious decision in my head to either give it up or give in to it, and whatever I did, I would do to its ultimate conclusion…And I noticed when I got clean, I transferred whatever into buying music. So Nina Simone was someone I bought everything you could possibly have by her. I have a lot of unopened CDs (laughs). I would buy 30 CDs and just look at them in a cafe and that was my way of avoiding going down and getting on. I bought shirts, that was the other thing. I filled every cupboard with shirts. I still have unopened shirts. A very strange transferral. Always makes me laugh. That’s when I caught up with her earlier music. It’s a different age with Spotify where you can access everything now. When I was a kid, even into the ‘90s, you could buy a couple of records. But I didn’t have unlimited funds to throw at things. You would find a record and fall in love with it, or someone would recommend something to you. You couldn’t have every record at your fingertips.

AD: Before Youtube was a thing, I remember being 14 and buying Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and while I was in line to buy this CD I kept repeating, “Please don’t disappoint me, please don’t disappoint me,” because I was spending the last 13 dollars that I had.

Warren Ellis: I remember buying Here Come The Warm Jets by Brian Eno and I had gone home and put it on and liked the first track but by the end of the second I decided I had to take it back because I couldn’t keep a record I wasn’t sure about, and now it’s one of my favorite records that I absolutely love. I couldn’t take a chance. I love the idea of you spending the last of your money on a Captain Beefheart record. These are the beautiful little moments we have. These little mantras and superstitions we have in order to make sense of the world and attach us to something. When I was writing the book, it was really important it was going to be about the good stuff.

AD: Speaking of good stuff, your park in Indonesia.

Warren Ellis: Yeah. I decided to buy some land and donate it to this establishment in Sumatra via Jakarta Animal Aid Network, and we’re building homes for animals with special needs. All these animals need help. We have an armless monkey, we have bears without teeth because they were used in the tourist industry so people could take pictures with them. There are monkeys with brain damage because they’ve been beaten up. There’s a little one who had to have his hands amputated because he had been handcuffed and it had eaten its way through the bone…Just horrific stories and I wanted to do something about it, and I met these women who have been doing something for 20 years, championing animal rights in Sumatra. Ellispark.org is the site. We had to build this site and I put it out there and folks rallied around it. Bad Seeds community had an auction and raised 19,000 pounds. 65,000 euros total raised. I donated some things and became aware I could do something to help. I’ve been given an incredible privilege. We’re building this park. We just expanded the land, and what I want to do, what we are going to do, is build a 10-foot, 15-foot version of the gum and let the bears and the monkeys fucking play on it.

AD: That is amazing.

Warren Ellis: It’s going to happen. I got someone who wants to document it and I’m thinking about making it a boat journey. So I’ll jump on a boat and go across the sea and arrive in Sumatra with a pith helmet like Jeffery Lee Pierce in a safari suit. I’ll waddle into Ellis Park and peel bananas and feed the monkeys and install this big piece of gum. Then do a big concert there, just me and Nick and an orchestra and play on top of the hill. Play for the animals. The beauty of ideas. You throw them out there and see what happens.

Nina Simone’s Gum comes out on Oct. 19th. Pre-order here.

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