“Magic and music were powerful tools for transformation.”
One of the great joys of being a fan of Earth is patiently watching the band evolve. The most radical shift was between 1993’s Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version and 2005’s Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method, as founder Dylan Carlson took the band, without any warning (save for more than a decade of relative inactivity), from drone/doom-metal to Southwestern-twang terrain. The two records that followed, 2008’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull and 2011’s Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I, saw Earth working within Hex’s minimalist, Cormac McCarthy-esque sound-world, but slowly — slowly — slowly — transforming into something new.
The leap from Angels I to Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II, out this month on Southern Lord, is the biggest one Earth’s made since Hex. On the eve of this new Earth album and two upcoming solo projects by Carlson — the Edward Kelley’s Blues cassette due in March on Tapeworm and the Kickstarter-funded Wonders From The House Of Albion — I caught up with Carlson and Earth drummer Adrienne Davies for a chat. Speaking on the telephone from their home in Seattle, Carlson spoke the way his music sounds — slow and thoughtful. And laughter sat between his words when silence did not.
Despite the most abrupt changes in Earth’s sound across the years — from Earth 2 to Hex to Angels II — what do you think has remained constant regarding its sound?
Dylan Carlson: Certain things have to be there. Tempos need to be on the slower side of things. Even our mid-tempo’s still pretty slow. [Laughs] The songs don’t have to be long on purpose, but they develop slowly. At this point, Adrienne’s been in the band for 10 years, and without her drums, it’s not Earth. When I write songs, unless I set out to do something specific, like on “Old Black,” most of the time it’s like riffs and variation, or theme and variation, I guess is what they call it. [Laughs]
Adrienne Davies: There’s a physical embodiment to Earth, and also a strong visual aspect. When I’m playing in Earth, I see the music as colors. I interpret it visually and texturally. The earlier stuff, before I was in the band, was so massive. It just floored you. There was no escape. But now, there’s still a heaviness, an almost oppressive quality, and a feeling of dread, but there’s a lot more nuance and emotion.
On Bees, Steve Moore’s organ and electric piano really expanded Earth’s sound. And on Angels I and II, Lori Goldston’s cello serves a similar purpose. How did Lori push the sound forward?
DC: Bees is a really dense record — there’s a lot of harmonics going on. The organ, piano, and guitar are all doing chordal stuff, and there’s a lot of overdubbing. Angels is more melodically oriented to me — even the drums are approached as a melodic instrument. There’s more interplay. It’s more linear, rather than a vertical slab. That’s the feeling I get. Its sparser and there’s a more nuanced sound. It’s less Wagner and more pastoral, I guess. [Laughs] I’ve always loved strings. I’ve always felt sort of disadvantaged with the guitar, and the bow allows you to sustain the notes much easier than a pick and amp.
It’s interesting that, at one point as a musician, before the rise of the recording artist and the commodity thing, you could play all week at the same place and make a living. Then musicians became recording artists, and you had to have a product, and then suddenly you’re touring and supporting the automobile industry, the petrochemical industry, the hotel industry.
AD: The addition of Lori couldn’t have turned out better, and we all instantly knew that. She gives Dylan something like a musical foil to play off, and it elevates his guitar-playing. For me, she’s always weaving between the time signatures and notes, and on certain parts she gives this almost lumbering, drunken feeling to it, and I love playing along with that. She’s amazing. I don’t think she’s every played the same thing twice. What I like about electric or amplified cello is that you hear the fingers on the fingerboard, and you can feel the strings stretching and the physical action of the bow moving.
While Bees was a more structured, composed album, you wanted to introduce more of an improvisational component to Angels. And on the last track of that album, the title-track, improvisation is more evident, and this spirit dives directly into the first few tracks of Angels II, which to me sound like the most heavily improvised pieces Earth’s ever done.
DC: Yeah, Angels II is sort of the continuation of the title-track. On that one we just rolled tape and went for it, and with II we also just rolled the tape and saw what happened. Then we went back and added just a few overdubs, like the steel-guitar on “His Teeth Did Brightly Shine.” Otherwise, what you’re hearing is just how we did it. We wanted to keep this album very minimal regarding overdubs, and we tried to keep the overdubs really off-the-cuff, too.
AD: I’ve never had a more enjoyable experience recording anything. We broke down all the rules, all the limitations, and everything about how a song is supposed to be made and how an album is supposed to be structured. Whatever format we had in our brain, we were just able to let it all go. It could have been a horrible disaster, but that was the fun of it. That’s why it came out so magical. We could really do no wrong. Everything made sense. We stepped back, and let loose of the reigns of how we thought things should be. We just let it happen.
It seems like, as a composer and musician, you’re almost trying to undermine your past work in some way. Or maybe overcome it is a better word.
DC: I hope it’s overcoming rather than undermining. [Laughs] But I do like to shoot myself in the foot. [Laughs] As I go forward, I sort of… I mean, who knows what will happen in the future. I don’t have a plan for anything. I like happy accidents. As Earth goes forward, it seems like influences go backward in a weird way. That may change, but I doubt it. Who knows what will happen.
One of your conceptual goals for Angels I and II was to challenge the rigid binary between reason/unreason and logic/illogic. Were you trying to articulate the grayish area between the extremes that doesn’t seem to fit into Western thought?
DC: I think many of our present difficulties are the result of the rationalist-materialist paradigm, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s foundering. I think we’re fighting to reclaim something, and I’m not sure anyone knows what we’re fighting to reclaim. I think people are starting to realize the evolutionary idea of history — that the world is always getting better — is a myth that we started to believe somewhere down the line. Binary logic and whatnot have given us very little in the long run. Some countries are materially better off now than ever before, but we’re bereft in other ways.
AD: Nothing’s ever as simple as either/or thinking would have us believe. People want to put things in very distinct categories, and in reality it can never be that way. It’s been a struggle for me over the years — getting out of my head, and moving beyond the black and white. Things are always a shade of grey. It’s easier to see things in black and white, but also very fatalistic.
Musically, people tend to think of rationality as expressing itself in composition, and have seen improvisation as something like a weapon against that. Composition is structure, improvisation is unstructuring. Do you think Angels I and II is challenging this problematic binary, too? Maybe you’re showing that the order=composition and chaos=improvisation construct is misleading?
DC: Yeah. I’ve always found it strange that when people talk about “free playing” it’s always skronky and disjointed, or vast and crazy. Free playing can also be slow and melodic. If it’s truly free playing, why is it always the same — why do people always have to maniacally blow the whole time? That sort of improvised music has become just as structured as its opposite. I see the improvisatory thing in more of a folk way, like a group of people getting together and playing music with each other.
Speaking of restraint, on Angels II, I don’t think you hit a drum until the third track.
AD: That was awesome. I loved that. I don’t like doing more than what a piece of music really needs. Those songs didn’t want it, and didn’t need it. When you’re a drummer in a rock band, you think that a song needs this, this, this and this to be a song. I love coming at the drum set from the mindset of a percussionist, and thinking about how each piece contributes to the whole — to layer and provide the subtleties a song needs. Some songs don’t need drums, and so I enjoy not playing. Then, when the drums do finally come in, they come out of nowhere and just kick your ass. With Earth, there’s never a set thing. It’s never like, “So when you get to the 12th bar, do this.” It’s never really formatted. We let things develop organically, and we’re not in competition with each other. It’s just a matter of listening to each other and being generous. None of us wants the spotlight.
Karl Blau plays bass on Angels I and II, but Angelina Baldoz took over bass duties for the last tour. Even though it’s 2012, or whatever, it was still a strange and powerful experience to see Dylan along with three women onstage.
AD: It is, definitely. I don’t know how much longer it will be, though. There are so many women involved in making music now and doing things they were told they weren’t supposed to do. I just wish it wasn’t about looks and shit, but more about the music and talent. It’s cool to see women playing and kicking ass, and making music that will stand up over time rather than a flavor of the month.
Dylan, on Darkness II and with your upcoming solo work, you seem to be taking a more pronounced step away from modern reason and rationality and toward magic and fairy tales. Is this a long-running interest of yours?
DC: Being in junior high and listening to Black Sabbath and reading H.P. Lovecraft, I’ve always been sort of interested in that stuff. I don’t know why. Before, occultism and religion were my primary focus, and that at least influenced the titling of the Earth songs up to this point. The current interest in English folk magic came about while we were working on Angels, and I pursued it on my own time while we were touring and doing press trips in London.
For the past few albums, it’s been almost impossible to read something about Earth without a comparison to Cormac McCarthy. There’s definitely a sort of Southwestern thing going on. But your upcoming work is more rooted in British history, so how do you think this geographic shift will change the sound of your upcoming solo albums, if at all?
DC: I’m going to experiment with acoustic instrumentation, and I’m getting some people who can actually sing to sing some songs for me. [Laughs] I’ll be doing some field recordings at specific areas around England. I did one in London while I was there on a research trip, and the Tapeworm cassette, Edward Kelley’s Blues, should be out in March. It also features the first lyrics I’ve written in a long time, and also my voice. It’s a continuation of Earth in a way, because country, and even a lot of blues stuff, is originally from the islands. A lot of blues lyrics are traceable back to old broadsheets and whatnot.
I think we’re fighting to reclaim something, and I’m not sure anyone knows what we’re fighting to reclaim. I think people are starting to realize the evolutionary idea of history — that the world is always getting better — is a myth that we started to believe somewhere down the line.
Did you capture any particularly interesting field recordings?
DC: I found this weird melody that was very hard to isolate. It was really hard to find, but I pulled it out. There was a lot of static around it. We had to have this one frequency cranked all the way to make everything else go down. It wasn’t like when you hear a car go by and you hear a melody. It was low tide on the Thames. I’m not gonna even say what I think was making the sound. [Laughs] I don’t know. It was just a weird melody. I’ll leave its origins alone. [Laughs]
So Edward Kelley was a scryer. What’s that?
DC: That’s the guy who looks into the crystal and spoke with the spirit. Kelley would do that, and his partner, Dr. Dee would write it down. I always find it funny that Dr. Dee was, you know, obviously a brilliant guy… but it’s funny that he’s been sort of redeemed by history while Edward Kelley is still shitted on by history. Everyone thought he was a charlatan. [Laughs]
In your other project, Wonders From The House Of Albion, for which you launched a Kickstarter fundraiser, you say the following in the video: “Magic and music were powerful tools for transformation.” Can you elaborate on this?
DC: I think of music as… well, at the end of the day, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I think music was one of the first group activities. Music, to me, impacts the physical world as much as our emotional and spiritual world. It’s like magic, where it’s doing something and maybe has an impact far off in the distance. Maybe this is just my ranting opinion, but I think it’s one of the first things we created way back in the dawns of antiquity to interact with one another and with the world. Even within the scientific paradigm, with quantum mechanics, it’s all vibrations and waves that have been solidified into matter. These ideas have always appealed to me. Um… wait, where am I going with this? [Laughs] I lost sight of my destination. [Laughs]
Maybe you just overcame yourself.
DC: Yeah. [Laughs] I mean, in my own life, everything good that’s ever happened to me has come to me through music. It’s when I don’t do music that I run into trouble. Music has transformed my life.
The story of Albion you’re telling is about these two Beings that were once united, but were ultimately divided and destroyed due to the introduction of reason and rationality. Was music and magic what kept them together? And, are music and magic the things that might help us improve things in the present moment, or are we fucked?
DC: I hope the former. We’ll probably never encounter those Beings again, but maybe music and magic can help us get our shit back together. [Laughs] I think we need to stop and figure out a better way to do things — something better than late-20th Century capitalism, which just tells us to keep making things. Like, nowadays, things haven’t really changed, but companies just put a green tag on it to make us think we’re doing something different when we’re really not.
It just makes it easier for us to rationalize spending money on things.
DC: Exactly. I call it the “Whole Foods Paradigm.” As if you can spend your way to a better world. As if my choices of consumption are going to somehow transform the world in a positive way. It’s ludicrous. Just because you buy fair-trade coffee doesn’t mean coffee plantations are suddenly a better thing. It sucks because we’re all enmeshed in this huge structure, so where do we apply pressure? It’s the same thing with touring. I love touring, but the whole time, in the back of my head, I’m thinking there has to be a better way to do this. The amount of fossil fuel I’m burning, and the amount of products I’m generating… It’s interesting that, at one point as a musician, before the rise of the recording artist and the commodity thing, you could play all week at the same place and make a living. Then musicians became recording artists, and you had to have a product, and then suddenly you’re touring and supporting the automobile industry, the petrochemical industry, the hotel industry. [Laughs] Musicians have obviously always traveled, and back in the day they were normally thrown out as vagabonds. [Laughs] But now, touring musicians are kind of forced to become a part of this global economy.
As capitalism develops, it becomes increasingly more difficult to do anything right.
DC: That’s a succinct way to put it. That would make a great t-shirt. [Laughs]
[Photo: Sarah Barrick]