by Phil Freeman
Guitarist Dylan Carlson‘s band Earth has undergone many lineup changes since its inception at the dawn of the 1990s. A sludgy, droning metal project on early releases Extra-Capsular Extraction, Earth 2, and Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions, it had mutated into a more classic rock-ish beast by the time of 1996′s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, which had a muscle car on the cover and a version of a Jimi Hendrix instrumental (“Peace in Mississippi”). Carlson’s drug problems made keeping a steady lineup and a record deal problematic, so live tapes and bootlegged demos popped up here and there for a decade or so, but there were no proper Earth releases until 2005, when Hex, Or Printing in the Infernal Method showed up and surprised the hell out of everyone. Metal, and even hard rock, had been almost totally abandoned; Earth 2 was a dark, heavy instrumental country outfit, making music fit to soundtrack a cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (a book Carlson acknowledged at the time as a major influence). The group followed this up with Hibernaculum, a disc of re-recorded versions of old Earth pieces in the style of new Earth, paired with a DVD documenting the group’s 2006 tour. In 2008, they released The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, a more expansive, thoroughly composed disc that featured jazz/Americana guitarist Bill Frisell on three tracks.
Now, Earth has undergone yet more changes. Almost everyone who played on Bees is gone, save drummer Adrienne Davies (Carlson’s on- and offstage partner for the last 15 years or so). The organ, trombone and other instruments heard on Bees have been swapped out for the cello of Lori Goldston, whose instrument melds with Carlson’s slow-motion guitar roar to create a powerful, hypnotic and somewhat ominous effect. The latest Earth CD, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1, is terrific, and represents a new phase in a continually fascinating artistic journey. At the same time, Carlson is revisiting his past, allowing Earth’s current label, Southern Lord, to repackage the group’s earliest recordings as A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction.
Here are some questions asked of Dylan Carlson, and some answers.
You changed up the instrumentation a lot between the last album and this one. Was that because people left the group on their own, or did you bring in new people because you wanted to change the sound, or a combination of both?
What happened was, there were some shows we had lined up that Steve [Moore, trombone/organ] couldn’t do because he tours a lot with other bands, too, so he suggested Lori [Goldston, cello] to fill in for him. I mean, I’ve always really loved cello and bowed strings, so it was nice to have that opportunity. And also Don [McGreevy, bass] is in a bunch of other bands, like four or five other bands, so there was some stuff he wanted to do that for whatever reason he wanted to do more at the time. So it was a combination of people movin’ on, and then we had a chance to have Karl [Blau, bass] play with us on the record, and he’s gone back to his solo thing. So now we have a new bass player. This lady Angelina Baldoz will be the bass player for the foreseeable future. So yeah, it was sort of like, whenever you look for good musicians they often have other—they’re in high demand, so you have to work around their schedules. But hopefully this will be the band for the next while. Here’s hoping.
What do you like about the interaction between guitar and cello?
I like the way that it’s brought melody and riffs back to the front of the band, sort of, and I also like, because of the bowing technique, how it’s given the music a sort of tidal quality. Or a quality of breathing. And the fact that it can do sustained notes and stuff. Bees has this real density to it, and almost a busy-ness to it, and the new music, while it’s still heavy, it’s not as dense. It’s more fluid, and interesting to me, and simpler again. Which, for whatever reason, I’m always in quest of simplicity, I guess.
Do you think the music on the last record was more complex in structure?
Definitely. I mean, there was some stuff that was open and whatnot, but it was definitely more of a constructed record, with kind of basic tracks and then a lot of overdubs and layers, and a lot of harmonic information, guitar chords and piano chords—it definitely had kind of a tightness to it [whereas] I think the new record has a looser, nicer feel to it, more of a live feel, and to me the live part is my favorite part, and now the live aspect and the record are becoming closer, in a way. I mean, the songs on Bees, when we played them live, they were often quite different than the recorded versions, and changed quite a bit by the time the album came out. Whereas this time around, it’s like the live version and the recording are closer in a way, and also the new lineup allows for greater improvisation for the guitar. Before, I always felt like the guitar was sort of trapped as the center of the band, and everyone was hanging off the guitar, and now it’s sort of returned to where the rhythm section is holding it down and Lori and myself can go off.
The first track is called “Old Black.” Is that a reference to Neil Young’s guitar, and if so, what does that signify? In what ways are you influenced by Crazy Horse?
Yeah, that’s like the oldest song on the record; we had it for the 2009 European tour. Me and Adrienne came up with it one night, we were just kind of jamming and she was like, ‘Play something kind of Neil Young-y,’ and that was the thing I came up with, even though now that I listen to it, it doesn’t sound particularly Neil Young-ish to me. [laughs] But at the time it did. And also, it was sort of an attempt to write a very structured song. It’s an ABAC structure, and it was also the first time I wrote specifically in a minor key, as opposed to usually I’m in a major key or doing modal kind of playing. It’s definitely the most structured song on the album, and then “Father Midnight” “Descent to the Zenith” and “Hell’s Winter” were riffs that me and Adrienne worked up and developed on a two-week tour of the West Coast before we went into the studio, and that’s where we worked those songs up. And then the last song, the title track, was completely improvised in the studio—we just hit play, played and there was no overdubs or anything, it’s just how it was recorded.
I’m curious how improvisation works within Earth; what form does it take, and what does it require specifically to improvise at this kind of slow speed?
There’s sort of two ways we do it. With the songs where there was kind of openness to begin with, the way it sort of works is, we play the riff and then I’ll signal the band and we’ll change to another one, or there’ll be a part of the song that’s left open for either Lori to go off or myself to go off, or else we just start playing and see where it goes, that kinda thing. It’s always funny ’cause it seems with a lot of improvised music, people try to fill up the space, whereas with us I try and limit the material as much as possible. Rather than a lot of notes or chord changes, I try to do—the few notes that I’m using, I try to make them stand out in other ways, whether through inflection or stuff like that.
Because there’s no change in the instrumentation from track to track, the new album kind of feels more like one big piece than previous records did. Was that deliberate?
I think definitely with this album Earth is becoming more of a collective experience of a band; it’s not so much my thing. It’s like, everyone is contributing at a greater level than previously. So where before all the songs were my songs—and I use that term lightly, “my songs,” because I’ve always felt like the whole ownership of music is kind of a convenient fiction we have to embrace to make a living in our society, but to me music has always existed, and I view myself more as a channel for it, and it takes a certain shape ’cause it’s coming through me, but if someone else is doing music, it will take a different shape. I’ve never been totally comfortable with the idea of ownership of music, but unfortunately it’s what we have to do, I guess. And then—I love the live thing, and so I like the fact that this album was done pretty much almost like a live record. We were all in the same room, with a little bit of baffling, but we also had a room mic to get the room sound, so it was pretty much a live record in a way, but without an audience.
So there was no conscious idea of making the album into a suite?
Not really. I’d always kind of felt like—to me, Earth albums have always sounded like each song, for lack of a better term, is part of something bigger and you’re getting—it’s like you’re tuning in a radio and you get this part and then you lose the signal. That’s sort of how I’ve always felt about Earth’s stuff, that it’s all part of one big thing. Not in a compositional sense, but just—I’ve always felt like you’re moving the radio dial and getting parts of something. For whatever reason, we’re not able to capture the whole thing or something. [laughs] But yeah, obviously there’s—to me, Earth has certain things that are the same, that need to be the same. Slower tempos, longer songs. There’s a similarity there, but hopefully there’s plenty of wiggle room to make it interesting. Definitely the new Earth, the music comes—before, with earlier Earth, there was a concept, and the music sort of grew out of the concept, whereas now the music comes faster than the concept. You have to go back and listen to it to figure out the concept, or see what’s suggested.
Everyone but you in this lineup is female. How does that change the energy on stage, and the way the band interacts?
[long pause] Well, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between men and women, other than we take in and process information differently, for whatever reason, so it’s weird to say there’s more of a balance to the band or something, but I definitely think in a lot of ways, for whatever reason, women are more mature than a lot of male musicians I know. It’s definitely easier to work with them, and there’s less ego and weirdness of that nature involved, and that’s a little less of a competitive thing and more of a collective experience in a weird way. I like the fact, too, because I think rock has been a boys’ club for far too long, and I’ve always had a lot of female musicians that I’ve always liked, so it’s nice to have them in the band.
See, a lot of guys like the boys’ club atmosphere.
It’s kind of funny, if I was looking at it in a purely rock ’n’ roll way, since we’ve had Adrienne join the band and now more females in the band, it seems like there are more females at the shows than there used to be. [laughs] For whatever reason. So if you’re gonna look at it in a predatory way, it’s definitely an improvement.
What made you decide to repackage the group’s earliest recordings?
That came about for two reasons. Greg [Anderson, Southern Lord owner] had always wanted to put it out as a full album, the way it was intended, and obviously only two songs came out on Sub Pop and it sort of dribbled out on bootlegs and whatnot, and then there was the No Quarter release of that stuff [Sunn Amps and Smashed Guitars] which was mostly mastered off bootlegs [laughs] ’cause I didn’t have access to a master copy at the time. And then the licensing agreement with Sub Pop, ’cause I paid to record it before I was on Sub Pop and they just licensed it from me, the licensing agreement came up and I got that stuff back and we got a master copy to remaster it from. So it was nice to finally put it out as it was intended, as a full-length album, and have a real vinyl master for it. ’Cause when Sub Pop did the vinyl, they just used the CD master, and those need to be different. Also, it had been three years since Bees, so it was a present for people for being patient, plus I was noticing a lot of people at the shows—where before, people at the shows had been familiar with us and the history of the band and all that, there was an increasing number of people at the shows who were not familiar with us before Hex and wanted to hear the older material. So it was like, well, here’s the beginnings of the band, and shortly after that it’s gonna be the newest album. Sort of a nice little concise history lesson, I guess, for people that weren’t as familiar with the band.
Other than the name and your presence, can you draw a line between that stuff and what you’re doing now?
I think basically, there are certain things that need to be there for it to be Earth. Slower tempos, longer songs, and within that, the wiggle room would be…hopefully, as I grow as a musician things will change, ’cause I can’t conceive of doing the same record over and over again, but also I don’t want to make genre records or have every record be completely schizophrenic. But if there’s any sort of—one of the commonalities is, in this weird way, as Earth moves forward my influences keep going back further. Like when Earth first started, it was obviously a heavy metal/hard rock influence, and then a sort of more classic rock influence, and then Hex was blues and country, and Bees was sort of, I don’t know, I guess more of the same but with some jazz thrown in. And now, I’ve been listening to a lot of folk and folk-rock and modern interpretations thereof like Fairport [Convention] and Pentangle, so it’s been the roots of where country music came from and stuff like that, or blues, and the relationships between them. So we’ve regressed, getting deeper into stuff. I’ve always felt music is a continuum and people rediscover stuff and re-present stuff and channel stuff from the past in a sort of new way. The whole idea of people inventing something is a little absurd in a way, but that would be sort of the continuity there, to me.