There are few bands that have made quite as much of an impact on popular culture without anyone ever realising than Earth. The Seattlites arguably created drone doom with their seminal Earth 2, created a stoner metal masterwork with Pentastar and since 2005 have set about perfecting a sun-bleached take on Americana that continues to impress and awe, not to mention their early influence on the then-nascent Seattle grunge movement. With this lengthy career has come a steady stream of obstacles for sole constant Dylan Carlson, but just like the earth itself, he just keeps on going. We spoke to Carlson on the run-up to the release of Full Upon Her Burning Lips about returning to a two-piece, reinvigoration and why slower is always better but not necessarily easier.
How are things going these days? Are you just gearing up for the album release?
Yeah, that and practicing for the US tour. We’re bringing another guitarist with us, a guy named Tristan, who’ll be playing guitar and bass, so we’ll be a three-piece. I just got back from doing my solo dates overseas so trying to relearn the Earth material now.
You’ve been working largely on solo material for the past few years now. Is it a completely different mindset for you to be writing for Earth again?
Primitive and Deadly was our last record for Southern Lord and we also switched management at the same time. I knew it would probably be a few years before we got around to putting a new Earth record out and then the opportunity came up to do solo stuff, like the Bug thing and then I did the solo record.
How was the writing with the new record after that bout of solo work, and going back to working as a two-piece as well?
There were about three songs that we started working on during Primitive and Deadly touring – we did a lot of touring for that record, about 3 years straight. One of the songs was written at Hellfest and then the other two had their genesis with the live soundtrack that we did for Belladonna of Sadness at Ghent film Festival. Those were the first three out of the chute and the rest were actually written pretty quickly, in about a month. Before we went into the studio we just did a lot of playing together, writing like in the old days before Hex. That stuff came quite quickly and we did most of the arranging during the recording process. A quick album in that sense; the music was very spontaneous and written as we played rather than me sitting writing by myself.
In listening to the album, there seem to be elements of everything that you’ve done throughout your career, especially Pentastar. Was that an intentional move?
Earth does our own thing, no-one else does it, and I feel like this record was like a really strong representation of that. All of our influences have been distilled and become part of what we do rather than something that obviously stands out as an influence. I think we’ve managed to transmute our influences and they’ve become part of the fabric of what we do. The Earth thing is what we do, no-one else does it and I think this album is a representation of that. It has elements from the entire history of the band, but percolated into Earth music. I think it’s us playing at the best that we’ve played over the years. As much as I enjoy working with other people and having other elements within the band, I really wanted this record to showcase what me and Adrienne do. I think that drums are a huge part of what makes Earth unique and that’s apparent live but on record in the past, I feel like when you have a bunch of instrumentation, keys and cellos and things like that, you need to leave room in the mix so things don’t get cluttered and drums are often pushed aside. On this album I felt that I wanted the drums to be up-front and present in a way that they never had before. Same with guitar – my guitar is always the anchor that holds everything together but on this one, I felt that I got to explore the melodic side of my playing much more. Plus, I got to play bass. I’ve always enjoyed getting to play bass, as you get to approach the song in a different way, plus I approach bass in a way that’s probably different to a full-time bass player. I just thought it is a really strong showcasing of Earth and what we do. It’s the summation – not the ending – of us and what we do.
It sounds like a very free and liberating record to work on. Had anything held you back in the past from working on an album like this and taking such a stripped-back approach?
I don’t think so. The Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light sessions were quite free as most of the record was entirely done in the studio with a lot of improvisation. With Primitive and Deadly, the songs in general were much more constructed, especially since we were having vocalists involved; they weren’t as loose as some other albums. I feel like this one is more of a balance between composing and arranging, and just winging it – it incorporates both elements of the band, the composed elements and the freer ones.
“Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, I feel very strongly about – a lot of that has to do with the time it was made. I was ill, the possibility of death was in the air and I thought it might be the last Earth record.”
It seems to be a very clean, bright album. It’s great hearing your more melodic side coming out for the first time in a while.
I feel like a lot of our previous albums were very lush sounding. We used a lot of reverb, stuff like that, but I wanted this one to be very dry, to be upfront and present. I wanted guitars hard-panned, to be like a classic ‘70s record in some ways, where stuff is up-front rather than being massaged with prettiness.
Did working with Kevin Martin have any bearing on that? He also has that quite stark, unadorned style of production that seems to be in line with what you’re describing.
It’s definitely been an influence on me as it’s something that I was involved in. We certainly share certain musical tastes as in how stuff should sound, that less is more kind of approach. Our ideas of beauty encompass sounds that are not necessarily pleasant in the conventional sense of the word. I feel like a lot of things that are considered beautiful in music are just saccharine or maudlin. To me, beauty can be awe-inspiring and sharp; a mountain is beautiful, but it can also kill you; same with a black panther. A lot of the time in music, the conventional idea of what’s beautiful can be limited. Obviously, I find distortion and the harmonic depth that it provides part of the beauty of electric guitar.
Bearing in mind what you’re saying, that cover art seems perfect for the record. It’s beautiful in an uncomplicated way and it encapsulates what Earth are.
Originally, we were having artwork done but the moment I saw that photo, I knew that was the cover. I just knew it. It’s such a strong photo, and we’ve never done a band photo on the cover. So I just decided to forget about the artwork. It’s a statement photo.
You’ve switched to working with Sargent House for this record, though you’d been doing solo stuff with them already. How’s that relationship faring so far?
Good. We started with Cathy as our manager at first and then I did the solo record on Sargent House. That went really well and so we decided to do the same with the Earth record. She’s a great manager, a great label person; she’s supportive and cares about the band. There’s a great relationship with all the bands on the label – everyone enjoys the support of everyone else. It’s a good thing and I’m quite pleased with it.
You were talking earlier about Earth had subsumed your influences and were entirely your own thing. What was the first record you did where you had that feeling, that what you had created was entirely you?
I think all of the records are pretty self-evident and something that’s not like something else. There have been records where maybe the influences were a bit more obvious, like perhaps Hex, but I still don’t think that we’ve done a ‘genre’ record; even though there’s a country and western influence there, it’s not a country and western record. I think Earth has always eked out its own thing. For me, what I notice isn’t necessarily what other people would notice. I might hear something and think, “Oh, that sounds a bit too much like I was influenced by this, or that.” Others might not notice that, but I do because it’s my work. Even with Earth’s commitment to never making the same record twice, I still think we’ve always managed to make Earth records; some wear their influences more on their sleeves and others don’t. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, I feel very strongly about – a lot of that has to do with the time it was made. I was ill, the possibility of death was in the air and I thought it might be the last Earth record. It has a special stamp to it. From the very get-go, Earth didn’t sound like anyone else and the fact that Earth 2 is held up as this talisman or genre-defining moment speaks for itself. That’s not something I put on the record, but that’s the thing with music, or with any art form – you never pick your best moments, the audience decides and the audience are always right. You just have to be humble and accept it.
As an aside, given your love of drone and Celtic folklore, I’m surprised that you’ve never incorporated bagpipes. There’re probably some room in there.
I would never say no. Who knows, maybe somewhere down the road I’ll find a bagpipe player who wouldn’t mind joining. I sometimes joke that maybe that’s where my love of drone comes from, some atavistic Scottish thing from my grandmother. She came over after the war, but in my family tree there’s a lot of English, Scottish, some Scandinavian… my brother’s an archivist so I’m always getting reports from him on distant relatives.
How are preps going for the tour? Has there been any issues getting back into the swing of the Earth material after doing solo work for so long?
The only thing that’s kind of weird is that some of the songs I do on my solo thing that I do with Earth, like ‘Bees Made Honey’, is remembering how to play with the drums alongside. When I do it myself, it’s a little looser and freer and the pauses are of variable length, whereas with the band I have to remember that, “Oh yeah, there’s only four counts here.” The song that’s funny because it’s so deceptively simple is ‘Old Black’. When I play it solo, it’s a bit more uptempo and with Earth, the pauses are quite a bit longer, but getting that feel back is the only the thing that ever causes any problems. Other than that, it’s quite seamless.
That tempo can’t help, as when you’re playing so slow tempo makes a world of difference.
Yeah, sometimes it’s easier to relearn stuff. Normally I’ll play it at a quicker pace when I’m going over it, and then slow it back down. It’s also been helpful that we’re bringing a new person into the band, as it’s making us aware of my idiosyncrasies and phrasing. Trying to convey that to someone who’s new to it helps me understand it a bit better. When I’m doing that by myself, I don’t notice it, but when it comes to explaining it to someone else I can realise the things I do that aren’t normal. Not just with Earth but with a lot of music, like blues and R&B, there’s a weird intersection between feel and tempo, where you’re on the beat but don’t want to be right on it. There’s a laziness, a feeling that if you’re right on the beat it sounds too tight and constricted. Learning phrasing and feel is the key to playing slow.
You can learn so much from some of those guys, though.
Yeah, just listen to Miles, or Lee Morgan, all those cats. I try to listen to more than just guitar players because there are so many guitarists out there who don’t phrase. To me, the weakness of the guitar is that you can just play without having to take a breath or pause. It ends up not being very musical, especially with the modern tendency to idolise technique over musicality, like with all these ‘shredder’ guitarists. “Okay, great, you’re playing the E Phrygian mode all the way up and down the neck at warp speed, or sweep-picking arpeggios. Whatever – it’s not fucking music, it’s an athletic endeavour. Listen to a fucking horn player and learn how to phrase.” That’s my grumpy old man rant over for the day.