Dylan Carlson on the wondrous second life of Earth

The heavy but transcendently nuanced instrumental band plays September 8 at The Frequency.

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The music that guitarist Dylan Carlson has been making with his project Earth in the past 10 years would stand up formidably by itself, even without Earth’s early-1990s forays into furious, abstracted sludge. Carlson’s more recent work keeps some of the droning deliberation of Earth’s beginnings, but re-focuses it through ringing melodies and harmonically complex but clean-toned chords. In fact, it’s surprising that last year’s album Primitive And Deadly incorporates as much distorted bite as it does, considering Earth’s other recent albums. On 2007’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull, Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies (the only other constant member of Earth’s current incarnation) use their command of slow tempos to create not languor but suspense, as the songs build up in shimmering layers of organ, piano and surreally twangy guitar. The companion albums Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I and Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II, released in 2011 and 2012, and recorded while Carlson battled a near-fatal strain of hepatitis, showcase a more loose and improvisational approach to Carlson’s instrumental compositions, with help from bassist Karl Blau and cellist Lori Goldston. Primitive And Deadly switches things up still further with three tracks featuring vocals, two from Mark Lanegan and one from Rabia Shaheen Qazi of Rose Windows. Recently Carlson also has been exploring his interest in British folklore, and further dimensions of tuneful but challenging guitar explorations, in a solo project called Drcarlsonalbion. Ahead of Earth’s show on Tuesday, September 8 at The Frequency, Carlson spoke with me about Earth’s frequently shifting lineup and execution.

Tone Madison: What is the Earth live setup like on these upcoming shows?

Dylan Carlson: It’s the lineup we’ve had since June of last year that we’ve been touring with. It’s myself on guitar, Adrienne Davies on drums, and Don McGreevy on bass. He played on Bees and has toured with us for quite a while over the years. And then Bill Herzog, who’s on [Primitive And Deadly], unfortunately is not always able to tour as often as we do. So Don’s been pretty much the full-time bass player for most of the shows over the past year. So yeah, the power-trio lineup, and then for part of this tour, we’re lucky—Brett Netson, from Built To Spill and Caustic Resin, who played on [Primitive And Deadly], is gonna join us. Unfortunately, he has to leave the tour in New Orleans, so Madison will have the trio.

Tone Madison: Do you find it interesting to see how the material changes as the lineup varies, from tour to tour, album to album, and even, like you were just saying, from show to show?

Dylan Carlson: I mean, I guess the benefit of being a long-running band—you get to play with a lot of different musicians and a lot of great musicians, and everyone sort of adds something different to the mix. And then especially, yeah, in the live situation, that’s why I like the live thing, because it’s always different every night. Even if you’re doing the same set, it’s never the same. It’s like the band and the audience, you’re creating a moment that can’t be repeated.

For example, [when Earth toured with metal band Sabbath Assembly], they had this guy Mike, their guitar player, who joined us a few nights at the end of the night, and then when we toured with Richard Bishop, he would play the last song with us. So yeah, it’s always fun to do stuff like that. Brett’s an amazing guitarist and we’ve known each other for a long time. His band Caustic Resin, Earth opened for them—that was our first show in Seattle, I think? So we go quite a ways back.

Tone Madison: Has having all these different collaborators, especially on the last four Earth albums where you and Adrienne Davies are the only consistent members, informed your approach to the songwriting itself?

Dylan Carlson: I don’t know if it necessarily informs the songwriting so much—more just the execution. I’m not one of those control-freak bandleaders. The people I play with, I basically trust what they’re gonna do. I have a hard enough time dealing with what I have to do [laughs] so I don’t want to have to keep telling people what to play. Especially people like Lori Goldston, who’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever met, you just let her do her thing. Pretty much anybody I play with, that’s generally my attitude. I like what they do, so I’m just gonna let them do it.

Tone Madison: It’s a really stark comparison between what Bees sound like to some of the more loose, conversational moments on the two Angels records.

Dylan Carlson: Those records were definitely the loosest in that way. That was a very improvisatory record, I guess, in a certain sense. There were basic structures for some of this stuff, but we set up live in the studio and played and there was very little overdubbing on that record. A couple of the songs were just done in the studio, just roll-tape-and-see-what-happens kind of things.

Primitive And Deadly is definitely more of a thoroughly composed record, although there’s moments where it’s a free-for-all, I guess. Then with the vocals, we did the tracks and then one of them I had written lyrics for, the “Rooks Across The Gate” one, and Mark did the vocals however he saw fit. And then he said he wanted to do another song and I said, “Yeah, cool,” and then he picked the one that became “There Is A Serpent Coming,” and he did the lyrics for that. Unfortunately, because of timing, I didn’t get to see him do those, and then with Rabia, too, the track was originally instrumental. That one, there was a little more interaction because she was in Seattle, so I came into the studio and we talked about placement and stuff, but she wrote the lyrics for that too. We just discussed a vague theme and then she went for it. It was very collaborative in that way.

Tone Madison: Was there a lot of thought put into how the vocal melodies interacted with the guitar parts? Because it’s usually not a thing where the vocal melody is emulating the guitar melody—it’s a more angular relationship.

Dylan Carlson: Primitive And Deadly was funny because I wanted this record to be more concise and immediate. Unlike previous Earth records, this one had a lot of cutting of material. It was funny when we were mixing and stuff, because—I can’t remember which song, but [engineer Randall Dunn ] said it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in the studio, because there was this one song and I was like, “Just cut out this seven minutes here.” [Laughs] It was a large chunk of music to be edited out. I always think it’s funny how you have these intentions for a record, but things are always a little different from how you intended as they enter reality. Some of those songs ended up being quite a bit longer than I had planned. I came back to Seattle and did overdubs and then sat down with Randall, and we just were like, “OK, what’s necessary and important?” So we kind of really streamlined stuff.

Tone Madison: When you made the Angels records, you were working really quickly, in part because you were really sick at the time. So with Primitive And Deadly, did you have an opportunity to approach things differently and enjoy the process more?

Dylan Carlson: Yeah, I mean, that record I think was really informed by the fact that we had been touring so much and I started writing the songs while we were on tour, our first tour of Japan and Australia. “Even Hell Has Its Heroes,” I came up with that in Perth. Because we were touring as a trio, the stuff had a harder edge to it, because as a trio you’re obviously a bit louder and everyone has to do a little bit more to fill in stuff. When I’m on tour, I listen to a lot of music, and I tend to gravitate towards the stuff I grew up on, hard rock and heavy metal stuff. I find it energizing. And then also, I definitely view this record, when I was writing it, obviously I was healthy again and we were playing a lot of live shows. It’s funny, because to me it’s all still rock, and hard rock and heavy metal, which of course have different meanings now to some people because of some micro-genre trend, but to me heavy metal has always been rock n roll regardless, and it’s the stuff that made me want to do music. To me, a record’s a response or a result of a specific time and what’s going on in your life, and so since that will never be duplicated, that’s why every record is different.

It’s funny, I think, back in the day the bands that were considered hard rock and heavy metal and are now considered classic rock, like Zeppelin and Deep Purple and I mean even Scorpions and stuff, they had a broad set of influences. I mean, Zeppelin was influenced by reggae. I just think it’s funny now how if you do a specific genre you’re not supposed to be influenced from outside of it. I think that’s really strange.

Tone Madison: And I’ve seen interviews with you before where you talk about having influences, but not trying to sound like them.

Dylan Carlson: Yeah, I don’t think you have to. To me it’s always been “This is something I like. What can I learn from it and how can I incorporate it into what I do, but without aping it?” I love Peter Tosh, I love dub, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna try and do a reggae band [laughs]. I just think it’s funny that there’s this, “Oh, I’m influenced by this so I want to sound exactly like it.” That’s just never really been the way I look at it.

Tone Madison: What have you been getting out of doing the Drcarlsonalbion stuff that you don’t get out of doing Earth?

Dylan Carlson: The Drcarlsonalbion stuff, originally it started because on the Angels albums, I was heavily into English folk and folk-rock stuff, and that kind of metastasized into explorations of other so-called folkloric material. I’m still really into that stuff and heavily affected by it. So I wanted to be able to pursue that still, but not have Earth do the same thing again, because to me Earth is something that changes. Whatever the driving force behind it, it still involves other people. I wanted to still be able to pursue this interest and not have it necessarily make the next Earth record the same as the previous one. And then also, it’s a little freer in that way. There’s not the same expectations as with Earth.

Tone Madison: What’s next for you?

Dylan Carlson: I’m at the moment getting a Kickstarter project finished, which is the Coleman Grey and Drcarlsonalbion project, so yet another moniker involved. That’s getting done. The vinyl is almost completed. Just finishing the DVD and CD of the film and music and figuring out how to get the book that comes with it done. There’s some stuff in the offing that hasn’t necessarily been confirmed yet. I’ve been writing new Earth material, so I’m hoping maybe at the start of next year, we can start working on a new Earth record. But yeah, I’ve been pretty much on tour since June of last year, so it’s been quite a busy year, and then I had three months off at the end of last year where I got married on December 20, so, it was—you know what I mean, I was planning a wedding. It’s kind of like planning a tour with one show, a very important show. But I’m very fortunate. My wife is a lovely human being and very helpful and supportive. But yeah, hopefully I’ll have some time off and can start thinking of the next Earth record, and there’s a few solo things in the offing.