Ian Maleney talks faeries, folk songs & working solo vs being in a band with Earth‘s Dylan Carlson.
Dylan Carlson has been the driving force behind sludge pioneers Earth since their inception in 1989. Beginning as a blisteringly heavy drone rock band, their more recent incarnation has moved towards a more spare, detailed and dynamic sound. Since returning from a lengthy hiatus in 2005 with Hex; Or Printing In The Infernal Method, the band have sounded more confident and more willing to allow space into what they do. While Carlson is the sole remaining member from the band’s first phase, his vision is matched by drummer and partner Adrienne Davies. Together over the course of four albums since Carlson’s return to work, they have created a distinct world of tense notes and epic wastelands of space. It brings together Cormac McCarthy and Philip K. Dick in the desert with a slow, sprawling sense of dread sometimes punctured with moments of crystalline beauty and release.
Carlson is also starting work on his first ever solo project and it was on that topic we started the conversation.
You’re embarking on a solo project for the first time, how did that come about?
I’ve always considered Earth a band and it’s now more of a band than ever before so I guess I wanted to establish a solo thing. There are certain things that I didn’t want to lump in. I’m sure if I wanted to do something in this vein with Earth, no one would complain but I wanted to do something on my own I guess. Then there was the Southern Lord business side of things and coming into contact with Karl and Clyde who had used Kickstarter in the past I thought, ‘Why don’t I just do it myself?’
The record is focused on ideas of fairy folklore and magic. Where did that interest spring from?
I’m always talking different theories in my head of what happened. I saw some kind of entity I guess you could say, outside Waterloo station in London. After that, I started exploring things like what they call the fairy faith and English magic, especially associated with English cunning folk. I guess that sort of was the genesis of it.
What kind of things have you been exploring in that field?
I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from this writer called Emma Wilby about the Isobel Goudie trial and Bessie Dunlop trial in Scotland, the witch trials. They had a lot of interaction with faeries. Many of the confessions were forced into this Satanic paradigm but that was more the hands of the interrogators rather than the accused. It seems like the cunning folk very rarely ended up in witch trials unless people got mad at them, seeing as they were kind of anti witches in a way. They often had faery familiars rather than demonic familiars which the witches had. I’ve sort of been reading anything and everything I can get my hands on, like the Tuatha De Dannan tales from Irish myths and the Welsh Mabanogians and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been reading a lot of John Dee stuff, he had a lot of angelic conversations. Though many of the entities are not very angelic! He often didn’t make a distinction he just called them “spiritual creatures”. Then of course there’s the Commonwealth of Faeries by Reverend Quirke and Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot and just a ton of stuff.
So where is the musical inspiration coming from? How do the two relate?
I went and got music and lyrics for a bunch of folk songs dealing with those human-faery encounters for the musical side of the equation. I mean, there’s not much music with a lot of them! It’s more suggestions you could say. They’ll use this mode a lot of that mode a lot and obviously the lyrics have been through numerous incarnations over the years so they’ll definitely be interpretations. In some sense they’re all interpretations ultimately, like I found out that ‘Elfin Knight’ became ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Girl From The North Country’ is the tune but the original lyrics were very different to ‘Girl From The North Country’!
That kind of thing is all based around interpretations and improvised versions.
Yeah, definitely. Fairport Convention did it quite a bit but definitely Pentangle, where their rhythm section came out of the jazz world pretty much so there was always that jazz improv thing. I mean, folk music is improvised music pretty much. There are some people who say it’s traditional but the tradition is improvisation and adding your own stuff to it. It’s not some canon like classical music where there’s one version. It’s a living music in that way. The lyrics that have been chosen to be performed by later artists are picked from multiple versions, there isn’t some ür song or anything.
How are you picking which versions to work off for your own purposes?
I’m trying to go back to the earliest instance of the song that they have, that’s going to be my attempt anyway.
How different do you find it writing solo material compared to working with the band?
It’s weird, maybe just because it’s me and I don’t write that differently, there’s a continuity. Maybe that’s my delusion. I think though, especially with this one where we got more a part of a collective experience, especially with improvising more, Earth feels more like a group thing. I guess I’m still the point man when it comes to the conceptual framework but I don’t write parts for people and I don’t tell people what to play. I find I get the best results by hiring people I know are going to do a good job and letting them do their thing. It just works better that way. I’ve never wanted to be the band dictator or anything like that.
The songs on Angels Of Darkness, Demons of Light seem more of a group effort than ever before. They’re also a lot more sparse and raw that the songs on Bees…
There was a lot more spontaneity. A lot of the songs on the first half were definitely riffs that I’d had for a while but a lot of the other stuff were riffs that I had come up with just before the tour that we worked on as a group during the tour before the recording. The second half is pretty much all stuff where we’d roll tape and play and if it was good we’d keep it. Or if we liked it we’d keep it, I guess good is a relative term. So this second half is definitely a continuation of that, like the title track off the first part where it’s the stuff that is just like, ‘Ok, let’s go’. The first track, ‘Sigil of Brass‘ is just me and Laurie playing and Stewart recording and we left it at that. Some of the other ones I’d go back during mixback and add one or two extra guitar but we tried to keep the over dubbing very minimal on this one. Bees is such a layered, lush record and this one is much more stark and this is it. It’s the closest our live thing and our recorded thing have been. It’s a very live record. I imagined something like old Blue Note records where they’d just come in cut a record, you know?
That kind of approach takes a very particular type of musician though, it takes maturity.
I think that’s the strength of this band. Laurie is like completely the superior musician, compared to me. She is also quite conscious of not stepping on anybody’s toes so it works quite well. She’s not trying to overshadow anybody or steal the show, she’s a very seasoned player I guess you could say. Karl (Blau, bassist) is a great player too, he’s one of those sickeningly talented individuals. He can play any kind of instrument and whatever he puts his hand to he seems to succeed at. I say that with love! It’s great to be able to tour with him this time, he was too busy to make the tours last year.
Karl also redresses the gender imbalance in the band, it’s an even split now. Do you notice any difference from when you were the only guy?
It’s nice to have women in the band and the van definitely stays nicer! I try not to see any difference. You’re a good musician or you’re not. There’s nothing wrong with like Revolver’s “10 Hottest Women in Rock!” or whatever, but it seems like it reduces them. It’s nice to see women that aren’t just the vocalist or the bass player or wearing a corset. Not that there’s anything wrong with women in corsets! You just shouldn’t have to do that.
You’re going to be touring with Mount Eerie and O Paon for this European trip, are you looking forward to that?
I think it’ll be great. We did our east coast tour with Genvieve and it went really well. They’re very self contained, very DIY type people and they tour quite a bit. I guess this is the first time they’ve toured together so we’ll see what happens! I don’t foresee any problems. Phil and I keep talking about doing a project together with one of the Norse vettas so hopefully that’ll happen this year. Then I’m hopefully going to finish the solo project at his studio up in Anacortes. After the European/UK tour I’m going to be spending a month in the UK collecting field recordings. Just like atmosphere kind of stuff and then, who knows? Who knows what we’ll find!
Earth play The Button Factory on Monday 5th March.