ROB ELLIS INTERVIEW (FROM THE FUNKY MOFO ARCHIVES)
When asked few people can answer precisely who Rob Ellis is… This drummer has recently released the second volume of his “Music For The Home”, in which he leaves the drum kit to sit behind digital instruments to deliver a personal and experimental musical photo album of his life. Rob is also the man who brought rhythm to PJ Harvey’s band for the last fourteen years or so.
23rd June 2004, Le Zénith, Paris. Funky Mofo is in the City of Lights to witness PJ Harvey and her band conquering once more the French audience. This event should’ve been crowned with a meeting with Rob Ellis. A mishap and a re-scheduling later…
15th July 2004, Brixton Academy, London. It’s a hot, electrical stormy day in the English capital. We met Rob outside the venue and walked around Brixton in search of a “quiet and relaxing” pub to sit, have a drink and a pre-gig chat. Well, let us tell you that it’s easier said than done and after a 20-minute promenade and a phone call to a local friend of Rob, we finally managed to unearth a place hidden at the heart of Brixton. Some drinks were ordered and we jumped behind the bar to take possession of the calm back room.
Funky Mofo : What’s behind the title “Music For The Home”?
Rob Ellis : It’s basically based on (Rob is suddenly distracted by a tinny music sound from a car outside) – the title comes from…a lot of people think it’s a Brian Eno related thing, “Music For Airports”, but it’s not, although I did get him involved when I first tried to send the record out to people. I sent him a copy and he wrote a very nice letter back about what he thought of it. Because he wrote that nice letter, when I actually did get a label to put the stuff out, which was Leaf, I wrote to him and said “Would you mind if I get your stamp of approval and endorsement for the record in our promotional material” and he said “That’s fine”. So he connected in some way but not actually, just by chance, not the title at all.
I was listening to Radio 3, as I do, and there was a controller for Radio 3 saying that the target audience for Radio 3 these days is mainly people who do their housework. They’re doing their housework while listening to contemporary classical music, Harrison Birtwistle or whoever. Radio is generally listened to while people are doing their ironing, whatever. That’s it and it also goes further than that, especially Volume 2, it’s very autobiographical, it’s my own domestic life kind of thing reflected in it basically.
FM : That’s funny because I thought the first one was more like that.
RE :Some of it.
FM : Volume 1 is more accessible than Volume 2.
RE :It is. I’m not pretending to be polite about it. It’s as ugly as I can possibly be with that album, it was intentionally supposed to be like that and I realise that it’s a hard craft if you’re not used to it, having a pair of ears that’s used to listening to music like that.
FM : It has comparisons to Free Jazz in the sense that you either love it or loathe it.
RE :Yes. Contemporary music is very… If you’ve got an ear for it it’s extremely rewarding, for me anyway, it’s the music I listen to.
FM : And also comparisons with Modern Classical like John Cage or Steve Reich.
RE : To be honest, in a way it sounds terrible to say it so, but music only exists when it’s listened to. It doesn’t exist on the page, it exists when it’s performed or listened to. But actually all that stuff was written for me, I didn’t write it for anybody else so I don’t care whether anyone likes it or not. I’m quite happy that someone was even able to put the material out there, frankly, so that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t say I don’t care what everyone thinks, of course I do, but those two records pretty much sum up what I’ve written in my own time over the last ten years, twelve years, during my time with PJ Harvey basically, in my spare time so to speak. To be honest with you, I didn’t really edited that much, I literally just stuck…the first volume was half the stuff I did, the second volume was the rest, that was it. (Rob laughs at that point) That’s why it’s pretty ugly in places because I was fooling around with self-compositional ideas which very pretty ugly and sound it. The record sleeves don’t explain what’s really going on in the music at all. Most modern classical composition releases will have a little bit of a pamphlet inside saying “Well, this happens, this is why it’s done this way because of this.” Mine doesn’t, it’s packaged more like a Pop record which doesn’t explain the music at all. Which is kind of a difficult one, because it probably does need some explaining and I’m thinking of addressing that. I had a website myself and I’m actually thinking of getting the guy who runs it to sit down and interview me about a track by track explanation for what’s going on with these records basically
FM : I sometimes think it’s best not to put too much explanation or justification behind the tracks otherwise it could distract the listener.
RE : I think you just give enough to… you get people a way and they can find, if they want to go in of course, but you invite them in by doing it and if they like the look of it, they’ll come in and find out themselves, have a look round.
FM : When did you start learning music and what did you start with?
RE :I started playing the drums at the age of seventeen and I’ve been doing music ever since. I started really composing about fourteen years ago or so, first started hearing and loving the music where my heart lied, just contemporary classical, 20th century classical music. I remember the first time hearing “La Mer” (by Claude Debussy, ndr) and the first time hearing “Daphnis & Chloé” (by Maurice Ravel, ndr) and Stravinsky and it just opened a whole New World. Up till that time I was just a drummer in a local band, playing “artsy-pop music” in a band called Automatic Dlamini, a Bristol-based band. Until I heard this music it felt like I’d never actually found real music and it just happened to coincide with me meeting Polly and we started off the band. I started getting interested in taking scores and following recordings with the scores and thereby to notate, taught myself how to write music. I ended up writing stuff, strings stuff with Polly, the same strings on “Man Sized Sextet” (off PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me album), because I was fooling around with this whole new Sound World that I’d just discovered and very arrogantly decided to throw it at Polly, saying “Right, we’re going to make a version of “Man Sized” that sounds like Bartók!”. She didn’t know what the hell I was talking about but we did it anyway! On “Plants & Rags” (off PJ H’s Dry) there’s a sort of avant-garde cello which started bringing those interests into that.
FM : You’ve produced many artists, Marianne Faithfull on her latest album, Charlotte Hatherley (Ash’s guitarist, new solo album out on August 16th), Petra Jean Philipson (singer in David Holmes’ Free Association) and Martina Topley-Bird, as well as Danish band Kitty-Wu. It seems you work more with female artists though…
RE :I do, it seems that way. Laika is another group I’ve worked with quite a lot because Margaret is the singer for Laika. It does seems to be the case, it does seem to be women all the time. People have pointed it out to me. Apart from the fact it’s very nice to work with them, it is a complete coincidence. Having said that, in certain cases like Martina’s, the artist asked to me to work for her, because she knew of my work. I think that, latterly, any work from women that comes through is because of, obviously, the PJ Harvey connection, they say if Rob can do that, he can do this! (Rob laughs!) Women in the music business, quite rightly, find it very difficult to get on and it’s very hard to find people who can work well with women and not treat them like you’re looking down at them. There’s still some sexism going on in the music business.
FM : Now let’s talk about your drumming styles over the years. Did the people you’ve worked with affect your style?
RE : In the early years I was younger and wilder, now I am older and wiser! What are you basing that on, you’re thinking of the PJ Harvey albums, aren’t you?
FM : Mostly. Her style of music obviously affects.
RE : That’s true. There have been a few exceptions on recent records where the drumming has been pretty wild, I can think of one notable example Kamikaze (off “Stories…”). The thing about that is although it’s pretty wild and fast, it’s also extremely measured and controlled and disciplined. It’s based on Drum & Bass, that was the whole idea of that. At the time I was really into things, percussion parts that move fast and basslines that move slowly, I still like that kind of thing. On the whole you’re right, the early albums…Polly wrote differently then. When I first heard her songs, I thought now I know exactly what I can do with these, it was like Taylor-made for what I wanted to do, my own interest that I was getting, bringing contemporary music interest to the drum kit even at that point. Like “Dress” – I’ll let into a little secret – was influenced by “The Rite Of Spring” by Stravinsky! I was completely and utterly obsessed with that and I got interested in cross rhythm! (Rob starts drumming a pulsating rhythm on the table!) If you take the middle section of “The Adoration Of The Earth” from “The Rite Of Spring” there’s all that stuff going (more drumming) and the third one is all that stuff, things moving at different rates and that’s where that comes in. Polly’s music of that time…she also wrote in different interesting time signatures and contrasting time signatures as well. Nowadays it’s pretty much 4/4, with a few exceptions, it’s much straighter so you have to play straight. You have to play what’s suitable for the music. If she’s writing a song in 4/4 then I’ll just have to play it like that, great, so be it. But if she’s writing a song in 7/8 or something that goes (Rob drums the beat vocally) then I’ll have to go (more vocals) or whatever that “nonsense” is on “Kamikaze” then there you go, it depends on the song!
FM : Do you like France?
RE :Do I like… France? Love it! I’m certainly a musical francophile. If I was pushed I’d probably instantly say that my favourite composer is Debussy and probably closely followed by Stravinsky, who was a honorary Frenchman really anyway, he wrote in French a lot, he stayed in France a lot. Ravel, Poulenc, Satie, it’s just a list of wonderful French composers and even in present day Pierre Henry, Boulez, it just goes on…There’s something about the French… It’s funny when I talk to people and I say that my favourite music is French music, they go “What? Joe Le Taxi?” and I say “No no no no! Messiaen”, just him would be enough. What is it about France that produces great music I don’t know.
We then asked Rob whether his family life filled his art, as some of his children’s drawings appeared on his website. His answer was a complex and intense discussion revolving around some titles of the first volume of “Music For The Home” (Bedtime Story – Three Little Pigs, Unreasonable Behaviour In The Nursery) and their relation with fairytales like Alice In Wonderland and Harry Potter books. The latter effectively addressing serious frightening issues to children, who eventually need to be exposed to “horrible facts” to get a more precise idea of the world outside the shelter of their parents’ home. These tracks are – as Rob himself declares – “tongue in cheek”, they would not provide the young listener with a good night sleep.
Other tracks, particularly on the second volume, are more or less subtly autobiographical. It so happened that Rob’s family life changed dramatically between both albums as he eventually bought a house, got divorced. These tracks then sort of act as reminders of that time in his life, creating musical snapshots for his personal benefit. A way to let out issues in the open with the instrumental medium, to bring catharsis to a difficult situation.
FM : At the beginning of this interview you mentioned your label Leaf. How did your signing with them come about?
RE : They’re a great label, they’re fantastic and Tony, the guy that runs it, does a brilliant job. A very interesting, well respected electronica label. My stuff is as far as they go in terms of “really out there” classical stuff. I knew Tony through 4AD (cult label featuring Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Throwing Muses). At the time I was sending out this material to various people I remember phoning Tony and asking him “Who should I send this to?” and he advised me to send it to so-and-so here and so-and-so there, so I did. I didn’t hear anything back from them so I rang Tony again and I suggested him to put it on his label. He was delighted to oblige and that was that!
FM : We cannot help but mention PJ Harvey…Polly has in the past collaborated with John Parish (“Dancehall at Louse Point”) and most recently Josh Homme (“Desert Sessions 9 & 10”). Can we expect a “Dorset Sessions” with Rob Ellis in the near future?
RE :And the answer to that is…yes and soon! Polly’s already calling it “The Dorset Sessions”. We don’t know where we’re going to do it or when yet or even if it’s going to come out, we’re going to try and see what happens! (Watch this space, dear readers, as we’ll try to keep you informed on the progress of that project!)
Céline Lux & Jo Whitby