Earth “I met this guy in England who’s in a folk band now, and we were talking about how funny it is because he’s my age, and he was like, ‘All the folk guys I know started out as metalheads.’”

Since Earth’s “reboot” (which will be explained later), Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies have managed to strike a balance between constants and variables, or as Carlson calls them, themes and variations: Each new album has maintained a set of constants (spacious guitar and drums, repetition, slow tempos, esoteric titles and semi-mythological underpinnings) and introduced variables (revolving band members, diverse instrumentation, ever-renewed influences ranging from folk to jazz to country). Earth’s newest release, Primitive and Deadly, brought about two major and surprising variations: 1) a guitar-driven return to the group’s heavy metal roots after several years of increasingly ornate albums, and 2) the addition of vocals and lyrics on three tracks after a near-decade of entirely instrumental music. Featuring the classic-grunge vocal contributions of Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and the heavy metal wail of Rose Windows’ Rabia Shaheen Qazi, Primitive and Deadly is a startling and powerful return to origins for a band who had drifted away from their drone metal roots.

Tiny Mix Tapes sat down with Carlson and Davies before Earth’s sold-out show at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill to discuss the new record, The Scorpions’ touring jams, and murder ballads. Despite being known for music that is atmospheric, spacious, and mostly instrumental, they are talkative, funny, and endlessly articulate.

So tell me about the genesis behind Primitive and Deadly.

Carlson: The first two songs written were “Badger’s Bane” and “Even Hell Has its Heroes,” which we wrote on the first Australian tour in 2012 at the sound check in Perth. And then “Rooks Across the Gate” was originally written for my solo project, but Adrienne really liked it –

Davies: It’s my favorite song on the album.

DC: And she wanted me to do it with her so I fiddled with it a bit. And that’s sort of the genesis of where the vocalists came in, because when I wrote that one I’d written lyrics to it, since it’s kind of a murder ballad, I guess. And then the rest of the songs I completed in 2013 when we were on the road then. So then when we recorded it, we went to Rancho de la Luna in Joshua Tree to do the basic tracks, and since there was a song that… had lyrics, we were like, “Oh, we should find a vocalist.” I’d known Mark [Lanegan, of Screaming Trees] for a really long time, and we’d talked about working together and it had never quite happened for various reasons. So he agreed to do “Rooks Across the Gate,” and then he really liked the record and asked if he could do another one. So then he wrote the lyrics for “There Is a Serpent Coming.”

AD: That was kind of a surprise. With “Rooks Across the Gate,” I could only see Mark [singing] it. I was dead-set on Mark and I was like, “Come on, man, please do it.” And then he was into it!

DC: And then since we had a male vocalist, I wanted to do a female vocalist, and then there was talk about some other people doing it and it didn’t quite work out. We were just doing the mixing and final stuff up in Seattle with Randall [Dunn], he had just worked with Rose Windows. We had met their drummer.

AD: I’d seen them live a couple times and liked them. I give Rabia [Shaheen Qazi] high marks.

DC: It’s funny because the song Rabia picked, “From the Zodiacal Light,” was the one track we were kind of not sure we were gonna use. And then she put the vocals on it.

AD: It was a split decision until the vocals came in.

DC: So yeah, this record was quite a bit different than the Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light series, which was a lot of playing together and just rolling tape and seeing what happened, whereas this one was much more like set songs. The first Australian tour we did as a power trio and I really liked the format. And I liked the idea of this being more of just a guitar record instead of venturing into cello and trombone and all that. It’s funny, too, because there hadn’t been vocals on an Earth record since Pentastar, and there had never been vocals on an Earth record since the reboot. You know, Earth 2.1. The Upgrade [laughs]. And I love instrumental music and I’ve done instrumental music for a long time, but it’s not like I was ever like, “I don’t like vocals blah blah blah.” Earth’s first release had vocals, so it’s not like I was opposed to vocals.

AD: You started out with guest vocals.

DC: Yeah. I always try to do something different with every album, anyway. I mean, I’ve always thought of Earth as a rock band – a hard rock band or a metal band. When you buy us on iTunes we’re listed as metal… To me, metal is a broad term. All heavy music back in the day was hard rock or heavy metal. It was all the same thing. And now we have all the microgenres.

AD: So much of it is the visual element of the spectacle.

DC: Which I think is funny, because so many people slagged off hair metal back in the day and made fun of it, but it’s almost kind of the same thing, it’s just we don’t use hair spray and spandex, we use, you know, whatever it is…

Some music is repetitive for the sake of being repetitive or slow for the sake of being slow, rather than asking, “Is that what this song needs?” And, I mean, I don’t dislike CDs, but to me what happened when the CD came out was like, bands had all this time to fill.

Black nail polish.

DC: Yeah, black nail polish.

There definitely is more of that hard rock/metal feel on Primitive and Deadly than on the last couple releases. Was that an intentional shift?

DC: Yeah, I mean – it’s funny, I don’t have a grand scheme for all this, there’s no playbook. It’s not like, “Now it’s time to do this record.” But I mean, I like so much music and I have kind of a ridiculous music collection, so often I’ll find something I used to like and get back into it, and it’ll influence me in that way. And when we did the Angels albums, obviously that was influenced by the folk-music thing and all that, which I’m still into. I mean, that was why I started the solo thing, ‘cause that’s something I’m really into but I didn’t want Earth to be tied to that. And it’s funny because I met this guy in England who’s in a folk band now, and we were talking about how funny it is because he’s my age, and he was like, “All the folk guys I know started out as metalheads.”

AD: Folk music is where metalheads go to die.

DC: So yeah, for some reason I guess, this was my mid-life crisis record. Metal is the stuff I grew up on; it’s the stuff that made me want to do this in the first place.

AD: I went into the studio from the beginning trying to have a much more aggressive, immediate, grab-you-by-the-throat style. I wanted to still do what I do but incorporate a lot of metal techniques, stuff like flams and cymbal-grabs, but have it be part of what I do. I was trying for a much more present sound.

DC: Angels I and II was done right after I had basically almost died from liver failure, and it was a more pensive, reflective kind of album. And I was thinking, “Well, this might be the last one,” so we got a lot done in the studio. It was very collaborative. And then this album was a little more like, “I’m healthy again, I’m alive again, I’m touring a lot… Let’s kick some ass.”

AD: I’m sick of all this jazz stuff. Let’s rock!

I don’t know if they’re more up-front in the mix in this album, but the drums punch through way more, especially on songs like “Torn from the Fox of the Crescent Moon.”

AD: Thanks. I was using different techniques that would work well with heavy, faster drumming. So the actual playing was louder, more powerful, stronger. But then also in the mix, they made it much more present. I wasn’t as worried about leaving all this open space for fifty-zillion instruments.

DC: Yeah, like, before too with my guitar, I’ve always felt more like I’m providing the structure for other people. Like, when you’re playing with someone like Lori Goldstein [cellist on Angels], you just want to get out of her way and let her go. Whereas on this record, it was more like I was the focal point. I wanted the guitar to be more the focus on this record, so that’s why the only extra musicians that we had other than vocalists were other guitarists.

AD: It’s a dense guitar album. I fucking love it.

DC: And then mixing it, too, we kind of pushed it. I remember the first time we were mixing “Even Hell Has Its Heroes,” there’s those crazy rock bits on the fret at the start and Randall was like, “Do you think these are too loud?” And I was like “…No.” [laughs] And I was even like, “Let’s push it a bit more. Let’s just do it.”

AD: You did a lot of severe hard-panning. It was really hardcore pushed.

I thought I heard church bells somewhere in there.

AD: Yeah. On “Even Hell” in the breakdown part; it’s kind of a little more of a Sabbath-y feel.

So you had the same producer for this album, Randall Dunn, as you used for the several previous albums. Given that it has this really different sort of sound than the last few albums, was that a challenge for him?

DC: No. He’s one of the few people I know that I would actually call a ‘producer.’ There are so many people that call themselves producers and they’re really just engineers. And Randall always has his eye on the whole thing and is also very musical. He got known for doing heavy stuff and has worked with so many different kinds of artists. He has a really broad depth.

AD: It was a little strange for Randall coming in at the end, instead of from the very beginning. I wish that we could have brought him with us to go to the desert to start. But he had our basic tracks that we had laid down there and then weaved it into this evil monstrosity from there.

So what inspired you to record in Joshua Tree, and what was it like recording down there?

DC: Well, since Bees we’d worked at the same studio. It’s an amazing studio and –

AD: And it’s 10 blocks from our house!

DC: It’s my favorite studio. But we thought it would be kinda cool to all go somewhere and be in one spot. Kind of isolated.

AD: Greg Anderson, our label boss, was really pushing for getting Earth out of Seattle for the first time.

DC: There were a couple different ideas. Budget-wise, Joshua Tree ended up being the most doable. It was great there. It’s a cool place. Rancho de la Luna is definitely what I would call a ‘vibe’ studio, where it’s just about being there. And Dave Catching was an awesome dude, has great equipment, super-cool guy, great cook. And obviously there’s a huge history of great music coming out of Joshua Tree.

AD: Dave’s got so much energy. He’s just so excited about what you’re doing and you feel his heart behind it. It’s great.

Did you feel that being in Joshua Tree influenced the record or the ideas behind it?

DC: I mean, to me, that’s what a record is – it encapsulates a specific period or moment. And so, whatever is there or is going on around you is going to affect the music, just because it does. That’s just how it is. That, to me, is the difference too between doing a record and playing live. Recording is saving one moment, whereas live is like, there’s a band and an audience and we’ve all come to this spot and we’re doing something that will not happen again. It’s different every night, different every time, and it’s not going to happen the same way ever again.

For me, with Earth, the vocals are gonna be more evocative, rather than, “This is what the song is about.” Not that I dislike songs that do that, but I definitely prefer songs where there’s some resonance or evocativeness to the vocals and the lyrics rather than the straight, “This is the song about doing drugs, this is the song about falling in love,” etc etc.

On “Torn by the Fox,” it sounds like there’s less improvisation than on some of the previous stuff.

DC: Yeah, that one’s the most structured and the most composed.

AD: So much counting! I didn’t know there’d be so much math involved.

DC: “Even Hell” has a big part in the middle where it was more loose, I guess. But yeah, pretty much that album was very much like, “Here’s this part and here’s this part.” Much more traditional structures, which helps with the vocalists.

AD: Yeah, that was essential.

DC: Not that I don’t think they could have done something else, but it’s already difficult for a singer to do slow stuff, usually, and if there’s no structure…

AD: Randall’s pretty insistent that if he’s gonna work with a vocalist, it has to be very structured. Especially if they’re gonna be doing overdub vocals and backup vocals, it’s gonna be so much easier to have a very clear structure.

DC: And to me, those structures exist for a reason. I’ve done stuff that’s not structured and stuff that’s much more structured. Like with “Old Black” – it’s like when you decide to do something because you haven’t done it before and see how it’s gonna work out. So with that one, I wanted to try a very traditional ABA song structure, whereas before a lot of the Earth stuff was more I guess what I would call theme and variation. Like, there’s a riff, and then the riff changes.

AD: Almost like a call and response.

DC: Right. I’ve done a lot that way. It’s funny, because earlier with the first one and actually even Earth 2 – they’re very structured. And then it got kind of loose and eventually came back. Just trying different things.

Were all the vocals dubbed in later?

DC: Yeah, they were all done after the tracks were recorded, because they were all originally instrumental tracks.

AD: Especially with those slow tempos, it was absolutely necessarily for the vocalists to at least have an extremely steady, charted-out, ready-to-go song, so that they could get their breathing down. It’s really hard to do.

DC: Randall and Rabia really worked together. And then Mark came in and just did his thing.

So it sounds like having the vocalists is really tied to having the more defined song structures.

DC: Yeah. I still don’t think it’s totally, like, verse-chorus-verse. It’s definitely closer to that, but it’s more like the impression that’s created by repeating a line. I think they both approached vocals differently with Earth. For me, with Earth, the vocals are gonna be more evocative, rather than, “This is what the song is about.” Not that I dislike songs that do that, but I definitely prefer songs where there’s some resonance or evocativeness to the vocals and the lyrics rather than the straight, “This is the song about doing drugs, this is the song about falling in love,” etc etc.

AD: And the same thing was true with the lyrics in the songs, to make the vocals work with what we do. Just like the instruments are brought to the song very methodically and thoughtfully and with a less-is-more approach, when we brought in the vocalists I think they knew that you don’t want to just sing your heart out, and over-sing everything. It was definitely done with a kind of tasteful restraint. So it’s not like, “Here’s a singer, and here’s a backing band.” We wanted it to be very integral. And I think we succeeded with that.

Even the vocals give space to the song.

AD: That’s what we were going for.

DC: Obviously, the songs had to work as instrumental tracks as well, because we’re going to be playing them that way most of the time.

How much do the songs change through the recording process?

DC: This time around there was a lot of trying to make it very concise, as opposed to sprawling. There was a lot of reducing this time. It was additive in terms of, like, “Oh, we need a bigger guitar sound here, we need this here,” but in general it was reducing.

AD: Cutting off the fat. We really made sure it was a lean piece of meat.

DC: And yet still, the average length of the songs is like eight minutes long… [laughs]

A lot of Earth’s music seems like it’s very textured-oriented. I’m curious how much time you guys spend working out specific sounds and textures.

DC: Usually, I’ll go in for basic tracks and try a few different amps. If I’m not playing with my own amp and I’m playing something in the studio, usually I’ll try a few, but then the moment I find the one I like, that’s the only one I’ll use for the rest of the session for basic tracks. And then for overdubs, me and Randall have this real ability to just be like, “Oh, we need this” and say “OK, that amp with this pedal.” I don’t know if it’s just that I’ve been doing it for a long time but –

AD: You guys just vibe off each other.

DC: Yeah, it’s just like, “Oh, we need a big guitar here” and then it’s like, “OK, that Marshall and this fuzz,” and so on.

Recording is saving one moment, whereas live is like, there’s a band and an audience and we’ve all come to this spot and we’re doing something that will not happen again. It’s different every night, different every time, and it’s not going to happen the same way ever again.

AD: It’s similar with the percussion. Because, you know, drum tracks, most of them you don’t do a lot of drum overdubs, but you’ve got the basic tracks, you can beef them up, but percussion ideas, things for counter-rhythms, textural sounds, bells, that kinda stuff, is gonna be done later and then put in. So same thing with Randall, that’s also how I work with him. We hear something, and we don’t have to do a lot of tries. Usually we don’t try every single idea we have. We try to make sure it really is necessary and make good use of the space allotted and make sure everything serves the song, and you’re not just doing it ‘cause you can. Even though it’s tempting to!

DC: On the basic tracks I used a Marshall JMP that was Dave’s, and then the overdubs I used my amp, but then I tried a bunch of pedals, either that were at the studio or were from my collection. I just used one of those Egnater Tweaker heads, the little 15-watt ones. And then I had this fuzz pedal called the Submarine, and then the Dark Matter overdrive, the Uni-Vibes, plus the Prescription Electronics pedal, and then sometimes I’ll get the tone and Randall will be like, “Let’s get the delay on it” and we’ll break out the Echoplex.

AD: What’s hilarious is I get to be in the room while Randall and Dylan fight over his compressor. Dylan tries to sneak it in, Randall’s aware it’s there, he’s like quashing it out, Dylan’s trying to sneak it in again. It’s a war over compression.

DC: That’s the one pedal, if I could only have the one. What happens is if I’m compressing a lot and then he wants to add compression while mixing –

AD: He doesn’t have any room.

DC: So yeah, I usually have to use less compression than I use live.

AD: I’m in a place there that’s much more open there in the studio. It’s a lot of things that you tweak and alter for a studio sound, versus what you do live. I’m trying to use different snare sounds, to have each song have its own drum character and feelings and emotions. I’m really, really sensitive to tones of cymbals, and how they mesh in the key of the song that we’re playing. I’m almost OCD about it, really hyper-aware. Either it works or it doesn’t. That’s how I see it. So I pay a lot of attention to that.

I’m really curious about the drumming, because I often find drummers have such a hard time playing slow and the slower it gets, the harder it is. How much are you able to play that way using more technical tools like counting, versus how much is it more by feel?

AD: It used to be much more by feel and feel alone, and the technical counting and all that was used tangentially. And now, it’s like the feel is integrated and the feeling of keeping the movement going. For me a lot of rock drums is all these super-sharp, bright, right angles and everything is very square. And the way I play generally, even when doing rock, is more circular, cyclical. My movements are very broad and elaborate and always moving. There’s not a lot of sharpness. So I found that even when playing with more of a metal direction, I’m able to integrate those metal techniques into how I was previously playing to give it more of a burliness. But I’ve just kind of developed my own style. It’s not accent drumming. You’re playing extremely slow, well under 40 or 50 beats per minute, but you’ve still always got the backbeat, you’ve always got the pick-up note, you’re keeping it as a groove instead of just accenting. That’s what I try to do. That’s the goal, having it feel like a heartbeat, the way drums are supposed to. The heartbeat of the song.

Earth’s music tends to be really evocative. A really sort of visual, atmospheric music. I’m curious how much, when you go to write a song, you have a specific story in mind or a specific atmosphere or feeling.

DC: I usually don’t have a specific story so much, but I always think of the song as an arc. I feel like it’s coming from somewhere and ending somewhere, even with all the repetition. To me, the song needs to be an arc and the album needs to have an arc.

AD: That’s what’s missing in some of the modern stuff.

DC: Yeah, I mean, some music is repetitive for the sake of being repetitive or slow for the sake of being slow, rather than asking, “Is that what this song needs?” And, I mean, I don’t dislike CDs, but to me what happened when the CD came out was like, bands had all this time to fill. To me, the great records, it’s not just like, “Oh, they had these really good songs on it.” It’s also about the song order, and the arc of the record. And that was kind of lost with CDs, because it became, “Oh, we have 85 minutes,” and I think either bands or labels were saying, “You gotta fill it up,” and so then it was like, just fill the fucker. And then it became, “Oh, we’ll put the hits up front and the filler in the back.” Or not even worry about the order, because it’s a CD and they’ll just skip through it anyway. I don’t think you need to fill the whole CD, I think how long the album is is how long the album is, and if it needs to be 40 minutes, then 40 minutes. That’s how long it used to be because with vinyl you’d only get 20 minutes a side. But yeah, the songs to me always try to have some kind of arc, and then once they’re recorded and it’s time to arrange the record, I’ll go through different orders, and really be like, “I think it needs to go this way or that way.”

AD: Sometimes we’ll have elaborate debates and have to do a presentation on why this song order works better, and why that just doesn’t work like that. We have different opinions, and we kind of brainstorm until we find the perfect thing.

DC: Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it long enough, but the songwriting isn’t a super-conscious process. It’s more like, “Oh, I want to do this with this song and this riff feels this way to me” without being super-specific. There’s obvious musical influences, but I’m also influenced by books I read and films I like and you know, locations I like and people I meet.

Were there specific books or movies or other locations that influenced Primitive and Deadly?

DC: It’s funny, this record was definitely a lot less like that. Maybe because I’d been touring so much that year, and there wasn’t as much reading as previous records, and a lot less film-watching.

AD: Yeah, not like with Hex and Blood Meridian.

DC: Yeah. It was more like being on the road and touring and playing shows every night.

AD: It is kind of influenced by that. Being in a different city every night.

DC: It’s kind of like the Scorpions’ records starting at Blackout and Love at First Sting, where every song is like, “We came to town, we rocked you, we love you, we’d really like to stay, but we gotta go!” [laughs]

AD: “We gotta go!”

DC: So maybe that’s what the next Earth record will be.

All touring jams.

AD: Love ‘em and leave ‘em.

DC: The love ‘em and leave ‘em tour band. But yeah, I mean, I love the Scorpions, so I’m not saying anything bad about them. To me, this album has a lot more momentum to it, even though the songs aren’t necessarily faster than previous Earth records.

It definitely feels more driven.

DC: Yeah.

AD: There’s kind of a little bit of a “Hell yeah!” throughout the whole thing. [Laughs]

DC: With Bees we were looking for the driver, and now we’ve found the driver and we’re driving.

Whose sweet car is that in the press photos?

DC: The artist Samantha Muljat, who did the album art.

AD: She came out and we bunked together in a little backwoods cabin.

DC: Yeah, we played at Pappy and Harriet’s out by Joshua Tree and she came out.

AD: We did this awesome little desert photo shoot the next day and she was like, “I got this sweet car,” and we were like, “Let’s use it!”

It’s funny, too, because there hadn’t been vocals on an Earth record since Pentastar, and there had never been vocals on an Earth record since the reboot… But it’s not like I was ever like, “I don’t like vocals blah blah blah.” Earth’s first release had vocals, so it’s not like I was opposed to vocals.

Did you request a specific type of cover art from her?

DC: I wanted to do a photographic cover this time because the Angels covers were so much about the visual art of Stacey Rozich. It was much more like, artwork. I really wanted to do a photographic cover this time, because it’s something we hadn’t done in a while, since Hex. Samantha is the art director at Southern Lord. I’m very happy with how it came out, and I had a very specific idea for the cover.

AD: You guys did a lot of collaborating on it.

DC: I shouldn’t say that, because she did it all, so I don’t want to say we collaborated…

AD: She came through, is the important part.

DC: Yeah. She did a really good job.

Do the five moons have a specific significance?

DC: She presented me with three choices and that was the one I liked the best. I really am into the moon, and the number five is my favorite number, so maybe that had something to do with it.

You guys were talking earlier about being a metal band, and you’ve worked with some musicians like Karl Blau and Brett Netson who are more associated with the kind of indie-pop scene. I’m curious how those collaborations came about and what that crossover brings.

DC: Well, I’ve known Brett almost as long as Mark, because the second Earth show was with Brett’s band Caustic Resin.

AD: I was a huge Caustic Resin fan. I didn’t know him personally then but I was a big fan.

DC: And then we both lived in L.A. for a while at the same time. And Caustic Resin was definitely more of a ‘rock band’ than Built To Spill. We had done a show in Boise, Idaho, and Brett sat in with us. And he’s a great lead player.

AD: He’s very distinctive. You can tell it’s Brett Netson without having to see him.

DC: So that’s how that happened. And his thing is definitively a more raw rock kind of thing. It’s still pretty jammy and soloing when he’s with Built To Spill, but I also think of him with Caustic Resin, which was more of a heavier thing. And it worked out well live. So that’s how he got on board. Karl Blau happened through the What the Heck Fest in Anacortes. We played with Geneviève [Castrée] and Ô PAON. Her band had played with us a few times and we took her and Mt. Eerie out and then we played with Mt. Eerie a couple times. Our manager Clyde [Peterson] does a project, Your Heart Breaks, and I saw Karl playing drums with them. He’s one of those guys who’s just so talented.

AD: He’s sickeningly talented. He can play drums, he can play bass, he can play guitar, and all so well.

DC: We also found out we both had a shared love of hair metal.

AD: Yeah, we were in Italy in this big-ass church and all of a sudden Karl busts into the intro of “Wanted Dead or Alive” on organ.

So the next Earth album could just be…

DC: Hair metal. Power ballads. [laughs]

So what inspired you to try writing lyrics for “Rooks Across the Gate” in the first place? Do you think the lyric-writing will continue in the future?

DC: I wrote lyrics for that song because it was based on this folkloric research I had done. Like I said, I wanted it to be like a folk song, so it was about murdering your lover, as such folk songs are.

A whole lot of those.

DC: Yeah. I mean, I’ve written lyrics before. I just don’t write them very often.

AD: “Writing lyrics is hard!”

DC: [Laughs] It is.

AD: I was just happy I got a song title in this one.

Which one?

AD: “From the Zodiacal Light.” But my original title was “From the False Dusk to the Zodiacal Light.” I think the last time I got a title in was on Hibernaculum.

DC: But yeah, right now I’m focused on this album and touring and some solo stuff that needs to get done. We’ll have a few months off after this tour, but then we’ll be starting up again early next year doing a full European tour. I’ve started writing a couple new songs already, but whether they survive to make the next record, we’ll see.

AD: What they’ll warp into, we don’t know.

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