You reap what you sow – An Interview With Earth

MacDara Conroy spoke to Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies of Earth before their Whelan’s gig next Wednesday

The first thing you’ll hear upon playing the new Earth album, Primitive and Deadly, is a much heavier sound than listeners have been used to since the band’s revival in the mid 2000s. The Seattle-based drone rockers have lately trafficked in a dusky desert blues, quite some distance from the amplifier worship of the band’s noise/drone classics for Sub Pop in the early to mid 1990s, not least the profoundly influential Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version. The ‘new’ Earth – which had drummer Adrienne Davies join Carlson as the core of the group – also marked a significant change in its founder’s lifestyle, after struggling in the aftermath of his friend Kurt Cobain’s suicide (Carlson’s the ghost of a man interviewed by Nick Broomfield for his film Kurt & Courtney, the notorious figure who sold Kurt the gun) and surviving years of drug addiction. But with a return to Seattle from his ‘missing years’ in LA and the solid support of Davies, Carlson came back to music with an alchemic sound that might be described as ‘drone Americana’.

Following three subtly evolving albums for Southern Lord – the country-inflected Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method (2005), the older-stuff-in-new-style record Hibernaculum (2007) and The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull (2008) – Carlson faced further struggles after he was diagnosed with liver damage and hepatitis B. However, those health fears prompted creative vigour rather than depression, as he poured his energies into the marathon session that produced the two parts of Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, released in 2011 and 2012. And that’s not to mention his explorations of old English folklore via his Drcarlsonalbion side project, which more recently has turned into soundtrack work with a sunburnt score for German-language western Gold.

Vigour’s definitely the word when it comes to Earth’s new record, too. Primitive and Deadly brings the Earth sound full circle, with some of Carlson’s mesmeric heavy riffs of old back in the mix, and additional guitar heft from the likes of Brett Netson (Built to Spill, Caustic Resin) and Jodie Cox (Narrows) adding to the weight. But it also births a new direction for a band so long identified as an instrumental act, as Rabia Shaheen Qazi of Sub Pop-signed psych rockers Rose Windows soars over album centrepiece ‘From The Zodiacal Light’, and longtime friend and fellow grunge survivor Mark Lanegan lends his unmistakable tones to the ethereal ‘There Is A Serpent Coming’ and the shimmering desert psych drift of closer ‘Rooks Across The Gates’. It’s mapping new territory, yes, but it’s still Earth.

Ahead of the band’s current European tour – which takes in Whelan’s in Dublin on August 13th – MacDara Conroy got on the phone with Dylan Carlson in England and, a day later, Adrienne Davies at home in Seattle.

Dylan, you’ve defined Earth before in terms of elements that ‘have to be there’: Adrienne’s drumming, the slow tempos, the longer songs and the lack of vocals. But with the new record it seems the last of these no longer applies. How did you come to make that change this time round?
Dylan Carlson: Well I’ve never been opposed to vocals – I mean they’ve obviously been few and far between over the years. We hadn’t done vocals since Pentastar, and we hadn’t done any vocals since the return, I guess, of the band. One of the songs [on the new record], ‘Rooks Across The Gates’, I originally wrote as a solo song – that’s why it had lyrics written for it, because it was intended more for a Drcarlsonalbion thing – but Adrienne decided she liked the song a lot and that I had to use it for Earth [laughs]. So it was kind of like, if there’s already a song with lyrics written…

And I’ve known Mark [Lanegan] for a long time; we’d talked about doing something together for a long time and it never quite happened. But the opportunity came up. I already had the one song with lyrics written, and he said he wanted to do another song, and he wrote the lyrics for that one, ‘There Is A Serpent Coming’. I really like the lyrics he came up with.

Definitely with Mark Lanegan’s vocals, it seems like that’s something that was always meant to be, it’s such a perfect fit with the music you’ve been making.
Yeah, he’s an amazing singer. And like I said, we’d always wanted to work together, and this time it actually happened so I’m very happy about that. Obviously with vocals it changes the focus of the song, but I sort of view them as another instrument, and I think they’re fairly evocative lyrics, without being too ‘this is what the song’s about’.

We’ve played the tracks live – we just got back from Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and we’ve done a couple of shows in the US where we were debuting them – and they work as instrumental tracks too, I think. That’s how they’ll most likely be presented live unless we’re able scheduling-wise to do any touring with Mark, although it looks like there might be a couple of shows with Rose Windows on the upcoming European stint. We’ll see what happens.

You’re touring as a trio on the back of the new album, is that right?

Have you had any difficulty translating the record, with all its guest additions, to the live setting?
Not really. Obviously there’s a couple of extra guitarists on board for the record … But the trio line-up’s been nice, it allows me to stretch out on guitar a little bit more than usual. I wanted this to be a guitar record. In the other line-ups I always viewed the guitar in more of a supporting role; when you’ve got Steve Moore on trombone and keys and Lori Goldston on cello, who are both really incredible musicians, I let them do their thing. Whereas this time out, in the three-piece, the guitar comes more into its own. And we’ve definitely come round to a heavier, more hard-rock style on this record.

But it still sounds like the Earth of the last few records, even though when you listen to the first track it goes straight into a harder rocking style than the band has had on the most recent albums. It’s not a massive leap as such.
If it gets too far from Earth then I figure I should start another band [laughs]. I first came back to music, after the missing years, at first I was like ‘Is this gonna be Earth or something else?’ I didn’t want to just trot out ‘Oh this is Earth now’ because everyone knows that name. I don’t think it’s fair to the fanbase to be ‘This is an Earth album’ and it’s like dubstep or something.

We’ve been around long enough that we’re at a position where we can’t just play new stuff, we have to bring older songs back into the set as well as the new material. Which is fine; I like playing the old songs too, and it’s always different night to night and with different line-ups. And it’s just showing gratitude to your fans by playing stuff they wanna hear, rather than just bludgeoning them with new material the whole night [laughs].

Since you mentioned your return after the ‘missing years’, it seems like people are still talking today about that like it’s a big surprise. Even though it’s nine years since Hex came out, people still speak of it like a seismic shift…
Maybe it’s hard for me to tell because it’s always me … There are moments when I’m aware of my playing where I’m like ‘Oh, I’ve gotten better’. The guitar is such a weird instrument to me in that you don’t really notice that you’re getting better, you hit these plateaus and then suddenly ‘Whoa’. And better is a relative term, where suddenly stuff seems easier than it used to be.

It’s hard for me to separate. I think as I become a more well-rounded player – maybe that’s a better term – I hope growing as a musician and growing as a human being are both part of the same thing. At least that how I’ve always tried to view it. I love doing music but I don’t want to fall into that trap of becoming a caricature, and having to live that caricature…

Do you still feel like that’s hanging over you [being the Kurt and Courtney caricature]?
It’ll always be there, I think. And you reap what you sow, as they say. I lived my life in a certain way at a certain point and that’ll always hang around. You’re tied to history once you’ve been around for a while so I can never quite shake it … But on tour I’m pretty open to people [about my history]. I really appreciate the fans. Sometimes at the end of a tour you’re a little tired and you just wanna sleep backstage but I always feel you need to go out and say hi to people and show them you appreciate the fact that they’re coming to your shows and buying your records. Otherwise, who knows what I’d be doing? So I always try and be humble and grateful for what I have, rather than kvetching about what I don’t [laughs].

Can you see a change in yourself now compared to when you came back, when you were trying to find a new voice as a musician?
I think so … There’s been a lot of time since then, my life has changed in a lot of ways. To me, music and life are intertwined, but I always try and put the music first … All the best things in my life have come out of putting music first, and it’s only when I don’t that I get in trouble [laughs].

Obviously in the last few years there’s more than music occupying you, thinking in terms of your side projects. What prompted you to branch out? Was it a case of Earth becoming more of a collective experience so it wasn’t so much ‘your thing’ anymore?
I think it was a combination of things: Earth becoming more collective; not wanting to tie Earth to any one specific obsession of mine; wanting Earth to be free to flow and do its thing. At the end of the day Earth is a product of my psyche, or whatever, in a lot of ways. But with getting sick and being unsure of my future, I suddenly wanted to get a bunch of stuff done. I guess it’s my Protestant work ethic [laughs].

It’s just nice to be able to do multiple things. I love playing music and it’s nice to have Earth, which is a certain thing, and then Drcarlsonalbion which is a certain thing, and that changes based on who I’m doing it with. It’s good to have options, especially in this day and age… It’s funny, in the old days if a band had been around for 25 years they’d be at a certain level, and now it just doesn’t matter, you’re still always working [laughs]. I know what Earth does is fairly strange and we’re never gonna be huge with number one hits or anything like that, so…

We can’t all be the Rolling Stones.
Yeah, exactly. Nor would I want to be [laughs].

Your Drcarlsonalbion project delves into the esoteric history of the British Isles, if that’s a good term for it. Have you given anything to exploring North American folklore as well?
It’s funny because a lot of the American folklore that’s not specifically Native American, a lot of it comes from England. And Hex is a little bit about it: the Hex signs on barns and such, that’s specifically German and Dutch. But I haven’t explored that much. Maybe it’s a little harder to find in the States, other than Native American stuff, and even that’s harder to find, just because there wasn’t the same yearn to preserve it like there was in the British Isles.

And the fact that in the British Isles traditional behaviour has lasted a lot longer, whereas in America there’s been a homogenisation that’s occurred across the country where the regional distinctions are a lot less than they used to be. It’s harder to find sources maybe because of the American thing of moving on and making things ‘better’. Forgetting your past – that kind of frontier mentality, you just move on to a new town and create a new identity. But I’m sure it’ll come around.

Aside from the guests on the new record, you’ve collaborated with the likes of Sunn O))) and Boris in the past. Are there any other similar collaborations on the horizon? Or any artists you would love to work with?
There’s nothing on the horizon at the moment but we’ll see what happens. I did do some guitar for the new Bug record [with Kevin Martin]. I’m not sure when that’s coming out. That was a left-field kind of move, but quite enjoyable. As for people I’d like to work with? There’s probably a lot, but I generally try not to do wish lists, so I’m not disappointed when they don’t happen [laughs].

You don’t want to jinx it.

Adrienne, you and Dylan have been the core of Earth for some 14 years now, with your first recordings almost a decade ago. How do you look back at that time now, as you were finding a new voice together?
Adrienne Davies: It’s been a while! When I look back on it [I see] we always had a connection musically from the very get-go, and we never started playing together to do a professional [thing], or even go in an Earth direction with it. It was kind of musical therapy at the time. And now, we’ve had a lot of albums and countless times playing live together, we both know without having to talk about it where the other person is at.

We don’t have to argue too much about stuff, usually it’s a pretty easy-going process. I really respect what he brings to the table musically, and it feels good that he does with me as well. And we can always bring new people into the mix and it settles very quickly because the foundations is pretty strong between the two of us. It makes it cool to bring in someone without months of trying to fit them in. We make it work, even some very strange things you wouldn’t think would work musically.

In the case of Mark Lanegan, as I spoke with Dylan yesterday, it seems like a perfect fit and something you should have done a long time ago.
Yeah, we’ve wanted to work with him forever, and we’ve known him forever, so it was a combination of all of our lives finally being at the right spot and being in the right place at the right time, it seemed magical that way. We got him just in the nick of time because he’s such a busy man. But we’re looking forward to do more stuff with him possibly.

I understand it’s difficult to see vocals or a singer with Earth; I was a little reticent about it myself, [thinking] this could really not work. But Lanegan was the go-to guy to make it work. His ability to sing at these kinds of slower tempos is a trick in and of itself, to make it feel very intrinsic and not just ‘here’s the vocalist’. It doesn’t stand out in an awkward way, it fits in really nice. And he’s got a really great voice, everyone knows that.

Do you think that was a barrier to cross for you and Dylan, in terms of making the decision to have vocals across the record, not just on one song but three?
It wasn’t thought out in terms of ‘Oh, what can we do that’s new and different?’ or something along those lines. We were trying to write songs that were really approachable and immediate and without all the murk to bog it down. We wanted to be very visceral to engage from the get-go. And with vocals, we were like, we had no reason not to do them, let’s try them – and it ended up being great. So it wasn’t a super-concerted effort to say ‘this is gonna be a vocal album’, but I listen to some of the basic tracks before we had vocals and it just doesn’t sound right. The vocals really make the songs.

What about the new record are you most proud of, in terms of what you feel you’ve achieved with it, in the song craft or your playing on it?
I know where we were trying to go with it – we were listening to a lot of early metal, we were trying to make a much more direct sound. And with a lot of metal drumming, it’s kind of the antithesis of what I normally do, which is very minimal and less-is-more and making a lot out of very little. I was trying to find a way of bringing a very sharp sound from metal drumming but keeping what I do, so there’s the cymbal grabs and there’s mutes and there’s flams and all these little metal techniques thrown in here and there, but I was trying to not have it overwhelm, and have it still be what I do, so I was pretty proud of that. It’s not like ‘Oh here’s me trying to do metal!’ I was able to work it through and have it come out right. And I really am happy with the whole album – especially my favourite song ‘Rooks Across The Gates’, I love that one.

When you were making the album, did things happen in the studio or when you were writing songs that led you to things you hadn’t tried or considered before, maybe giving you something to explore in future?
Oh yeah, definitely, especially [during the recording when] we had Brett Netson in there and we had Jodie Cox, and just having that atmosphere and the time … Usually when you’re in the studio it’s a very rushed thing and you’re counting every second and the dollar signs are adding up. But this time we had the time to really flesh stuff out.

It’s a very guitar-heavy album, having two extra guitar players laying down what they can do, so the drums were able to be more in the forefront, less minimal, a little more burly. We didn’t do that many takes of the songs, it seems like we really got it going pretty quickly. I like this heavier [sound]; It’s still concise and stripped-down in some ways, but it’s definitely a little more ballsy, it grabs you by the throat right out of the gate.

But it definitely still sounds like Earth.
Yeah – like I said, I was probably the biggest doubter in the bunch. I was just worried about the idea of vocals, but I feel like an idiot now because they sound great. And it’s cool that Earth fans can follow us and not judge us too badly for changing and trying new stuff and not being afraid to fall on your ass but taking the chance to do it.

Speaking of change, and I talked about this with Dylan, when Earth came back with Hex that seemed like it was a big change – for fans, anyway – compared to what had been put out before. Obviously for you and Dylan it had been a long process over a few years. But were people receptive to it? Did you find there was any stonewalling?
I remember maybe the very, very first tour, an East Coast thing when we’d only been literally playing together [as Earth] under a month, and it was very just thrown-together, seat-of-your-pants. And I remember that was [awkward] because people were expecting Earth 2, of course. They were expecting nothing but the heavy wall of amps and guitars, and just the idea of drums alone was an affront to what they were expecting.

So I remember feeling a little antagonised – you couldn’t win one way or the other with that. But that went away pretty quick, and by the time we were touring Hex – we played a lot of that music live before we ever recorded it. It was very intense; that album was so all-encompassing, every song was very dark, and live it had a lot of continuity. It was a fun album to work on and to play and have it morph live into what it became eventually on the album.

So it wasn’t a case of taking a deep breath when you put it out and hope that people didn’t crap on it.
It was weird, there was almost a fearlessness. I know at that time I wasn’t even thinking like that. Dylan’s always that way where he really doesn’t care that much [laughs]. I mean he cares, he cares what people think, but it doesn’t in any way affect what he does, or how he does it. But especially for Hex, for me, I believed in it very solidly, so there wasn’t that thought process of self-doubt. It was a pure artistic statement that we were pretty connected to, and whether it crashed and burned or people loved it – and you still hear that, people either love that album or they hate it, though it is what it is – I was pretty removed from any feelings of responsibility over it.

We spoke earlier about the collaborators on the new record. Are there any other similar collaborations that you would like to do in the future? Do you have any kind of a wish list of artists you want to work with?
One of my big drum heroes – I love Jim White from Dirty Three, always have, and I would love to do something with Dirty Three or even just tour with them. And it was cool getting Brett Netson in there [on the new record] because I’ve always been a fan of Caustic Resin. It’s cool now that we’re open to bringing in some vocalists, that opens up a whole bunch of possibilities. It’s more ‘who’s available and who wants to work with us’ but we don’t shut stuff down, if it’s a possibility we’ll always try it.

I will add that I asked the same question of Dylan and he didn’t want to give me an answer because he was afraid of jinxing it.
Oh no! [laughs] Well at least I just mentioned one drummer!

In light of Dylan’s solo projects, do you have any plans to make music outside of Earth?
Oh yeah I would love to. I’ve just been super-busy doing Earth lately, a lot of touring, but definitely I would love to play with other musicians in the future. I hope to keep playing in Earth for many years but I love playing with other people – whether it’s live, studio work, session work, it doesn’t matter, I love it. I don’t have anything that’s set right now outside of Earth but I would definitely be open to it.

Earth play Whelan’s on Wednesday August 13th, doors 7.30pm and tickets €16 from the usual outlets. Primitive and Deadly is released September 1st on Southern Lord.

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