As the creative center and driving force behind Earth, guitarist Dylan Carlson seems to have a permanent seat at the forefront of progressive musicality. For over 20 years (admittedly, with a break in there following 1996′s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons), Carlson‘s droning work has been instrumental in setting the course for bands across a variety of genres, and his influence can be felt in modern psychedelia, doom metal, stoner rock, noise and elsewhere.
Even that’s selling it light. I remember a chance meeting with the dudes from hippie/freak folk outfit Akron/Family in 2008 and all they wanted to talk about was Earth‘s then-new release, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. The level of impact albums like Earth 2, the recently-reissued Extra-Capsular Extraction and Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method — the latter the launch-point for what Carlson seems to thinks of as “new Earth” — is inestimable. As Earth have always existed outside the confines of genre or expectation, so too has their reach been limitless.
I’ve already reviewed it, so I’ll keep the ranting about Earth‘s latest album, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I, to a minimum. Carlson — once again tasked with revamping the band’s lineup around himself and longtime drummer Adrienne Davies — focuses on heightened melody and improvisation, less layering than there was on The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, and by incorporating the warm bass of Karl Blau (already left the band) and the cello of Lori Goldston, the group arrives at a sound both natural and constructed, pastoral and exciting. It is a varied, and frankly, gorgeous record.
We spoke for the following interview for nearly an hour. Carlson‘s voice shares some of the same hypnotic deliberate calmness as does his guitar, and as he spoke about his opinions on physical vs. digital product, Earth‘s rotating cast, the differences between instrumental and vocalized songwriting, the themes at play on Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I and why his preferences have shifted to playing live over recording, it was easy to hear that the atmospheres affected through his music are a clear extension of the man himself. I hope that comes through as you read.
Full Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.
Tell me about bringing the cello in. The way it sounds on the record, it’s such a natural fit for what you guys are doing. How did that come about?
That, like many things in my life, was sort of a happy accident. There were a few shows that Steve [Moore] was not going to be able to do, some local shows in Portland, because he does a lot of other work with a lot of other bands. I can’t remember who he was going out on tour with, whether it was SunnO))) or Sufjan Stevens or someone else. Maybe it was a Bill Frisell thing. But he wasn’t going to be available, so he suggested Lori, and he suggested that she might be a good fit. I’ve always loved cello and bowed instruments. He introduced us. Weirdly enough, considering her history, we hadn’t met earlier, but we hadn’t. She really worked out well on those shows. And then it turned out that Steven and Don [McGreevy] both had other stuff that they wanted to pursue. Don’s in I think four other bands, and Steve does a lot of session stuff and then has his solo thing, so they weren’t going to be available anymore to record with and probably not able to play live with us, at least in more than a one-off kind of capacity occasionally, so it just worked out that way. Also, it was good, because if anything, I sort of view Earth as progressing in a more melodic kind of way, as opposed to Bees – even though I really like Bees, it’s a very dense record, with a lot of guitar chords, piano chords, and then a lot of overdubs and stuff like that – whereas, I like the focus being on guitar and cello as melodic instruments, and then, you know, with a strong rhythm section. I don’t know why, it just seems to be working very well that way. Maybe because of the more improvisatory nature of the music, or my shift in focus, or something. I just like the feel of it better. The bowing gives a nice, breathing quality to the music, I think. Long answer to say it was a nice accident, I guess (laughs).
The point you make is interesting, talking about more emphasis on improvisation and that kind of thing. It seems like Lori a lot of the time is running counter to the guitar and bass. She’s not really following it. How far into the writing did she come aboard?
Well, on the new record, we kind of did things a little different than previously, depending on the song. The first track, “Old Black,” that song was the oldest song. I had written it in, I think, the middle of 2009. Me and Adrienne came up with it for the last European tour we did with Steve and Don.
Was that “New Song in E Minor?” I saw that video.
Yeah (laughs). And then the next oldest was “Father Midnight,” which had been sort of written in that tour, but then the newer material, with the exception of the title-track, me and Adrienne had come up with some of the riffs together, jamming. Before the recording session, we did a two-week tour of the West Coast with Wolves in the Throne Room, and that’s where we worked on that material, finishing it up. So [Lori’s] parts were added in a live situation, and then the last song, the title-track of the new record, was done completely improvised in the studio. There was nothing. We didn’t have any riffs or anything. We started rolling tape, and started playing, and people came in when they felt they were ready to come in. That one was created very differently to the previous stuff, which has always been either written out beforehand or created by me and Adrienne jamming and then presenting it to the band and then them working out their parts. That song was just, “roll tape and let’s see what happens in this situation.” We didn’t do any overdubs on that one. It was all played live in the studio. In fact, this whole record was recorded in a much more live way, where we all set up in the studio at the same time and played. I tried to keep the overdubs to a minimum this time around. It’s a much more live record, I think, than Bees.
What brought about that change?
I think just my increasing interest in the live situation. I think that’s been the big change between the current Earth and the previous Earth. Before, Earth was a much more recording-oriented, conceptual band, whereas now it’s much more about playing live. I still like recording and doing records, but increasingly I think the live thing is becoming more important. I see it as, as the major labels die and fall off – I don’t think it’s ever gonna return to how it used to be – but in the olden days, being a live musician was important and playing live was important, and recording was less privileged. You made records to play live, and then somewhere along the way that changed into this whole differentiation between live musicians and recording artists. Recording artists were the ones that had contracts and got all the money, because they made these objects that could be sold and marketed, whereas live music was a little harder for an industry to control. It’s a more direct way of relating to your audience, and I like to think that that’s what’s changing now, that bands in our realm of the woods – as opposed to the major label bands, who are incapable of playing live because everything’s AutoTuned and pitch corrected and digitized and whatnot – none of those bands play live anymore, or if they do, it’s an excuse for a dance routine – whereas now I think people are interested in seeing bands and being like, “Oh look, they can actually play their music.” And I like the interaction with the audience. The audience is participating in the creation of the event and whatnot, as opposed to the thing of a recording artist delivering these messages from on high. I think that’s probably why our recording is coming closer to the live situation. I’ve always kind of viewed recordings as these slices of time, like “Oh, this is what’s going on at this point,” as opposed to trying to create the perfect version of the song.
More about the experience than the product.
Yeah, exactly. Unfortunately, the kind of society we live in, we have to have a means of making a living at what we do, so we have to have something that we can say, “I own this and I’m selling it to you,” but I’ve always thought that was a little false in music (laughs). To me, music is something that’s existed for a long, long time, and no one’s inventing anything. It’s all being reinterpreted in this continuum, and so the idea of someone owning music is a little bizarre, you know? I guess you sort of have to do that. In a live situation, people are paying to get into the club and you’re making money that way, it’s a much more direct exchange and it’s not privileging anybody. The whole object thing is definitely problematic. I think that’s why the major labels are so afraid of downloads, mp3s and all that kind of stuff. The product that they’re offering, there’s no difference between the CDs they manufacture and the downloads or the ringtones or whatever, whereas, I’m hoping with us, we try and make the object that we sell something special. That’s why vinyl is making a comeback. It sounds good and you have a whole full piece of artwork and whatnot. It’s trying to offer something that’s not gonna be the same as a download or a CD. I think the CD is dying out because it’s more of a commodity than a special object, like an LP or something.
There are people who are doing special edition CDs too, though.
Yeah. I like those better than the standard. I think, in this day and age, if you’re gonna be selling objects to people, they need to be something special. The major labels are desperately trying to copy the smaller labels by offering stuff on vinyl again. Their system is not working anymore.
Tell me about creating songs with different personnel. Would you be interested in having a steady lineup at this point in the band, or do you enjoy what different personalities bring to the songs?
Obviously, Adrienne and myself have been the steadiest two in the band this time around. I’m hoping this current lineup will last a while. I’ve always thought of Earth as a band and wanted it to be a band thing. Unfortunately, there’s times where it hasn’t been, for whatever reason. I guess the problem is good musicians are always in high demand, and also, as creative individuals themselves, they have their own stuff that they want to pursue, so trying to get everyone to subsume their identity to a group thing can be problematical. I’m hoping this time around that the band will stay reasonably in this lineup. Karl Blau, unfortunately, is not going to be touring with us. He has a solo thing too. But we have a new bass player; Angelina Baldoz will be touring with us and hopefully participating in future recordings. I’m hoping this lineup will last a while, because I definitely enjoy this lineup a lot and the possibilities of this lineup. Knock on wood, as they say, we’ll see what happens. Stuff comes up and people need to move on and do something different.
I guess that’s what happens when you work with creative people, not hired guns.
I’ve never viewed anyone in the band a hired gun-type situation. Hopefully they’ll integrate and stay with us for a while. Sometimes that doesn’t work out. I think the only time that I really had per se hired guns was on Pentastar. I was friends with them too, but they were both guys that did session stuff and played in Top 40 bands. They were definitely professional musicians, as opposed to band-type guys. Everyone else I’ve always considered a part of the band. I don’t like to dictate to people what to do. I like to get people involved, and I like what they do, and I figure if you let people do what they’re best at, you’ll get their best work. Plus, I don’t write music in the traditional sense. I don’t pull out staff paper and write music. It’s not like a “here’s the song” situation. “Now play it this way.” I’m not a neurotic Frank Zappa type, drilling my band in a creative way. I want people to feel a part of it and feel like they’re contributing too, not just playing some part that’s been written for them.
How has the mission of the band changed? You alluded before to adopting a different mindset where the focus is not so much recording, but playing live, and even just now, talking about wanting to work with people who aren’t just professional musicians, but who really want to be involved in the band creatively. How did all that develop for you?
I guess growing up, it seemed like most of the music I was into was bands. There were some exceptions, like King Crimson, which was always sort of the Robert Fripp show. But it seemed like he was always trying to find people to fit in with him and was not very good at it (laughs). I don’t know him personally, so I might be saying something bad about him, but it just seemed like he was always trying to find people to move in a certain direction and was always frustrated. Most of the bands that I liked, it seemed like they were a band. It was a group of people joining in the thing. Later, of course, you find out most bands have a team of songwriters. There’s Jagger and Richards, Geezer and Iommi and all that. Some other bands that I’ve always really liked – even though I’m not supposed to admit it – but The Grateful Dead has always had more of that group ethic. I listen to a lot of jazz players and stuff like that, where it’s more of a group thing. That’s always appealed to me. It’s weird, because most of the bands I know that were successful or long-lived always seemed to have fallen to the “band dictator” thing (laughs), with other people along for the ride. I don’t know if it was out of laziness or if I was afraid to look like a megalomaniac, I just never wanted to be that kind of band leader. I have enough problems with my own guitar parts (laughs) and figuring out what to play with that instrument to dictate to other people what to play. The times where Earth was basically just me, it was not the most enjoyable times when I was doing it. I like being around people and interacting with people, I guess. I’m a social creature in some way. It just seems more enjoyable when everyone’s participating to me. That’s what I like about the live thing too – the audience is participating. That’s what I’ve always liked about instrumental music. It’s allowing the listener to participate in creating meaning or figuring out meaning to the songs, as opposed to lyrics saying, “This is what the song is about.” I have this abhorrence of that leader/follower kind of thing.
You don’t want the music to dictate to the audience how to feel about it.
Yeah, exactly. To me, that’s what’s cool about instrumental music. Obviously, with instrumental music, the concepts are a little vaguer than with music with lyrics, but what’s cool is when that vague concept solidifies and then you find someone else in the audience who you don’t even know gets the same feeling about the piece or whatever. I think that’s the cool thing about instrumental music; its ability to communicate in that way. I think it communicates on a whole bunch of different levels, whereas language sort of communicates on one level. I’ve always thought what’s weird about music is how it’s privileged as this art form, and because of that, it’s sort of been imprisoned. Say someone like Randy Newman, who writes from a character’s perspective, is always being misunderstood by people, because for some reason there’s this idea that music is this direct – that whatever you do in music who you truly are, even though all other art forms are allowed to be multi-faceted, and you can write in a different character than who you actually are. Somehow, music is viewed as this pure opening of your soul to other people, or something. Not that I’m saying it can’t be, it just limits what music can be, I think, and imprisons it in a romantic ideal. Like when Guns ‘n Roses did that one song and everyone was like “Axl Rose is a racist” or whatever. Maybe he is, but he was saying, “No, the song’s not racist. It’s about a character and it’s about a time where you’re so angry that you’re willing to cross lines and say stuff that you don’t necessarily believe.” No one would let him do that. It was like, “No, he’s just a racist.” I don’t know why music isn’t allowed to be a multi-faceted thing by some people. It has to be this thing that can only communicate one thing, which is really limiting to what it is. What’s cool about music is it’s this multi-faceted way of communicating and telling stories and transmitting stuff.
Tell me, then, some of what you’re communicating on this album. What are some of the themes for you?
This album, to me, is about — obviously from some of the titles – an idea of marrying opposites. I feel like as humans, we’ve trapped ourselves in this either/or, black/white, good/evil Aristotelian dual universe, and that there’s more to the universe than that. The quantum world, or whatever you want to call it, there’s that “maybe” that we always forget about. It seems like a lot of times when people are trying to pursue one course of action, they end up creating the opposite. In a quest for order, they create chaos. I just feel like, as humans, we’re always limiting ourselves in a weird way. We like to trap ourselves in logic and there’s this world that’s beyond that and that we miss out, we cut ourselves off from a lot of experience and a lot of life. Especially as we’ve progressed technologically. I think a lot about if someone from ancient times came here from the Dark Ages or the Middle Ages or something, they would probably go crazy because of all the noise and dirt and information. Back then, people could smell animals. We trusted our instincts and we were better able to interact with the world. We’ve had to cut all that off because we’re inundated with all this information and noise. In all the connectivity, as we become more and more connected and instantly available, we have less and less to say to one another. By pursuing this weird idea of always being available and always being reachable, we’ve destroyed any form of communication. It all has to be said in 140 characters or less. I don’t know. It just seems like everything’s about being fast, and tons of stimulation and it’s producing the opposite effect. People I think are more cut off, more isolated, and less able to deal with the world than before. I think that’s one good thing about Earth live. I was joking with someone once about how we’re like a park in a city. It’s this one spot where there’s not instant communication, texting and emails and fast stuff going on. It’s a respite from that. I don’t know if that’s the whole concept of the record. I’ve noticed as I’ve changed my methodology and I’m creating more in the moment and with people, the band has become less conceptually oriented. The concept takes time to ferret out now. The music comes first and then I have to go back and look at it and see what it’s telling me, whereas before, I would start with some concept and then the music would grow out of that. I think that’s a big difference in the new Earth as opposed to the old Earth. There’s still concepts, but they arise out of the music spontaneously and take a little while to come to me, as opposed to before, where it was like, “Oh, here’s the concept and now I’m gonna write music to fit that concept.”
Is Earth that “place apart” for you?
I guess maybe. It is, but it’s definitely more of a group thing like that, whereas my personal time is more doing other stuff now, just because obviously I’m touring and playing live and meeting people and stuff, so it’s more of a group thing, whereas off in a park-type experience is a personal thing. It doesn’t have to be, obviously. That was the benefit of the situation in the old days was people could interact. Yeah, I definitely think it does that. I mean, I don’t own a computer and I don’t own a cell phone and I’m not “cutting edge” in any way technologically (laughs), but I’m still aware of what’s going on in the world, so I definitely feel like I’m working against the grain. Maybe. Maybe I’m just in a rock band and think too much about it.
Maybe since Hex, or even before that, I’ve noticed that the artwork has really tied into the album. You mentioned before how Bees had a lot of layers, a lot going on, and sure enough, the artwork is the same way. Hex sounds black and white when I listen to it. How much thought to put into the album cover? How much are you involved with that?
It’s kind of funny, because I’m less of a control freak about the covers than I used to be. Now, I pick out an artist I like, but I pretty much give them the record to listen to and then let them do what they want to do. Again, it’s that happy accident where their artwork is perfect in that way, whereas before, the Sub Pop years, I was really involved and, “Oh, this is what the album has to look like and these are the pictures I want on the cover.” I was much more of a control-oriented kind of person. Now, I find an artist that’s speaking to me at the time and if they’re willing to work with us, I give them a copy of the music to listen to and then see what they come up with. It’s always seemed to work really well that way. Again, I think it’s that idea of letting people do their best work and being rewarded. I definitely think Stacey Rozich’s stuff really works with this album. I love her folk-like quality and the sort of simple, mythic quality to her work that I think fits this music very well. She’s an artist I like because she has sort of an obsession quality to what she does. She calls them “demons,” but they’re just these weird creatures that she does. Part of it goes too back to that thing of wanting to make the best thing possible. That’s another thing that’s suffered. Back when records were more prevalent, the artwork was important, the order of the songs was important, and with the advent, it seems like a lot of people just record a group of songs and figure people are gonna shuffle them or with an iPod Shuffle or whatever, they’re just going to play them randomly, so why bother putting them together and not just put them out? To me, the great records are great records because of not just the music, but the order of the songs and the artwork. It should be a complete package, as it were. It should all be working towards the best object that you can put out there. When I listen to Paranoid, that order is part of the thing. I like to hear the whole – if I have time – I want to hear the whole record from start to finish. Listening to Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, I want to hear the whole thing. I don’t want to just hear the hits (laughs). I’ve never liked greatest hits packages for that reason. They’re good for certain things, like if you’re on a drive or on an airplane or whatever, but I definitely prefer hearing the actual album and hearing all the songs that are on that album, including the ones that aren’t necessarily the hits or the most popular songs or the most well-known songs. An album should be a whole. Otherwise, you might as well just to singles (laughs). Just release 7”s. I’ve always liked the B-sides best (laughs). Maybe I’m a product of my upbringing. I was a small child during the advent of FM radio and album-oriented radio, so maybe that’s why I like the “whole album” thing. I don’t collect 45s. I don’t collect downloads or ringtones.
Are you doing a sequel to this album? Will there be an Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II?
Yes there is. In fact, it’s already done. We recorded the whole thing at that time. It was gonna be too much for a double-vinyl release, and also with production schedules and all that label stuff, I don’t think it’s going to be out until the following year. Originally, I’d wanted to try and get both of them out the same year, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. The second part is more stuff like the last song. It’s all straight improvised stuff. It’s a continuation of the last song on the record in that way, where it’s spontaneous playing, composition, whatever you want to call it. Improvisation. There’s still a similar feel — hence the similarity of titles – but the first album to me goes from the more song-like song to the most improvised song, and then the second part is all improvised.
So the title-track on this is a precursor of what’s to come on the next album?
Yeah, definitely. I view it that way. Except, well, there’s one song on the new one that’s more written, so it’s kind of a throwback to the previous one. I really wanted that last song on the first album, so that’s why it ended up there. It was written in the studio, but it was definitely more written than the other stuff, and the rest is all improvised. We’re gonna use the same artists and stuff, so there’ll be a continuity there. And of course, the same musicians, similar feel. It was a very fruitful session.
Apparently. No wonder you want to keep this group together. Although Karl’s already gone.
Well, he was always kind of temporary. He did the two week tour with us, but he has a solo thing to do and he produces a lot of people’s records and is a busy fellow.
I know you guys are doing Roadburn again, but do you have anything else planned for touring?
Right now we’ve got March 3, we’re doing the record release show in Seattle, and then we’re doing a festival in Mexico City in March, the middle of March. And then a European tour April and May, which Roadburn is part of, and that’s all confirmed. And then we’re planning for when we get back from Europe, the US stuff. We’re gonna do a Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and West Coast thing between June and September, and then we’ve been approached about Japan and Australia. I don’t know if that’ll happen this year or not, but that’s in the offing. Plus, I’m hoping at some point to do a solo record, which’ll be something different that’s been germinating in my head. I have a concept and everything I want to do, which I’m keeping secret right now (laughs), but I’d like to try and record it this year, but whether that happens or not. It might be next year before I get to it, but hopefully it’ll be out before the world ends in 2012 (laughs).
Would that just be guitar?
Maybe even acoustic guitar and then this other thing that I’m thinking about doing, which eventually I will talk about more. I’m hoping it’ll be a surprise and people will either be like, “He’s lost his mind,” or, “Wow, that’s a cool idea.” We’ll see what happens.
Tags: Earth, Olympia, Southern Lord, Washington