Interview: Earthling Society
“Well, the idea of psychedelic music is to create some sort of a journey, that’s why our music doesn’t sit still, It starts out as one thing and as another. Its about evolving, morphing, transcending all those elements that takes you to another realm entirely”
Whilst psych music has taken many forms over the last few years, few bands have managed to dive deeper into what it actually means to be psychedelic than Earthling Society. A band who are equal parts Sun Ra, Can, Hawkwind and even Happy Mondays, they stand alone from the rest of the pack in a singular existence, plotting their own path through whatever takes their fancy on each album. From jazz freakouts, minimalist kozmische music, dub and straight ahead garage rock, no album sounds the same. Riding high on the back of the excellent Ascent To Godhead, Earthling Society are still very much an underground concern. For any true connossieur of psych though, they remain an essential part of the scene.
“Earthling Society formed in 2004 originally as a three piece of Jon Blacow, on drums, Dave Fyall on bass, and myself on guitar and keys”. Fred Laird, main man and psychedelic traveller is waxing lyrical about the history of the band. “Dave and I came from a recently split band called Transmissions that had been playing up and down the country for a couple of years. Jon had not played drums for a number of years and was stickman for a prog outfit in the 70’s called ’Isis’. They had supported some up and coming bands in their prime, Black Sabbath being one of them. We met in the local pub and realised we had a connection musically and we just got together and jammed”.
This fortuitous beginning would take on an even more exciting slant later when, having been provided with rehearsal space in a glass factory, Earthling Society would cut their first album Albion. An encounter with one of music’s most intrepid explorer’s and compiler of the compendium Krautrocksampler would give them their first break. “I sent a copy of the album to Julian Cope who gave it one of his prestigious albums of the month”, Fred elaborates, on an event which would lead then to providing support on some of his tour dates.
Looking back, Albion contains many of the elements which would build into what is the current Earthling Society sound. Of particular note is the track ‘Universal Mainline’ which over its length, takes a non-conventional exploratory route. The album has fared well, with a 10 Year Anniversary remaster giving it some much needed life. Indeed, you can sense Mr Cope seeing kindred spirits within the music. This great start wasn’t to last though.
“From our great start things took a bit of a downward turn between 2008 – 2012. Band members came and went, Dave our bassist went through a pretty bad period and eventually moved away to Brighton. We made some pretty questionable albums with the wrong personnel culminating in this horrible shitty keyboard/synth sound”, states Fred, in what is a pretty scathing review of a period when, whilst the band may not have been matching up to the promise of Albion, were laying the groundwork for what would come. “In 2012 I decided to change how we were as a band and stripped down to a 3 piece again focusing more on the power trio ethic like Cream or Blue Cheer”, Fred explains the rebirth of the band, which would feature the core of himself on guitar and vocals, Jon on drums, and Kim Allen on bass, “From Zodiak to Ascent to Godhead I think we’ve made some pretty good records”.
To understand Earthling Society’s music, which to the uninitiated may sound like their mind is actually caving in at times, you need to understand the vibe and influence behind it. ES are not your normal run of the mill band who like to keep it easy, and to fully immerse yourself is to open yourself up to a world of culture outside the norm of the mainstream. Not just in music, but in film and literature too.
“Yes, I am a big movie buff, Werner Herzog, Fellini, Lynch are all strong influences on me. A lot of Japanese movies too such as Onibaba, Kureneko and the Lone Wolf and Cub series. One of my favourite films in Boxer’s Omen aka MO. Its a kind of Buddhist horror film cum fantasy. It’s madder than a box of frogs”, Fred opens up, before explaining a new recording they are currently working on, “The soundtrack was completely intentional. We was given studio time in Leeds at the College of Music and we wrote a sequence of songs; all relatively short by our standards. Anyhow my son and I where talking about Boxer’s Omen and we listened to the songs and they seemed to fit the movie. There’s some electro jazz funk, Freeform freak outs and a very eastern vibe to the whole thing. To me that side of the album would not be as successful unless you have something to link it to. It’s also a bit of a departure for us and a very big production.”
Whilst film may provide a visual liberation from reality, it is within literature that more deeper thought comes. Current album Ascent To Godhead may feature Buddha on the cover but there is a deeper chain of spirituality running through their work altogether. “A lot of the earlier music like Albion was very much influenced by the likes of Arthur Machen and Aleister Crowley. A kind of Pagan thing, As the years have gone by I have moved more towards Buddhist thought and eastern philosophy so my reading time is mainly taken up with works such as the Secret of the Golden Flower and The Hagakure”, Fred explains, before dropping in “I am also a huge fan of Yukio Mishima although that can be frowned upon in some circles because of his empirical views”.
Where Mishima may have mixed his more creative side of poetry, drama and film with a right wing aesthetic, particularly towards nationalism, Fred is more happier to let his creative juices flow into the music. There would be no ritual suicide this time, but a creative rebirth as the pull of psychedelia, and jazz, mixed with the core trio of the band, served to send the band on a run of albums which would redefine what psychedelia means in the new century. Ask Fred about music, and psychedelia, and his response encapsulates everything that makes ES such an essential band, “Well, the idea of psychedelic music is to create some sort of a journey, that’s why our music doesn’t sit still, It starts out as one thing and ends as another. Its about evolving, morphing, transcending all those elements that takes you to another realm entirely. I have never really understood the repetitive element, it just becomes a boxing in of the mind. An oppression rather than an exultation. Listen to the really great psychedelic albums, Easter Everywhere, Piper at the gates of dawn, Ash Ra Temple, Tarot, Parallel world, You’re on a journey, there are different musical styles sometimes in one song. Jazz too has a great influence on me, Alice Coltrane in particular, John and of course Miles Davis’ electric funk period.”
Once you start Fred off on jazz music, you get a sense of how important it is not just to him, but to the band as well. “The thing with jazz you can give total expression. With a 3 minute pop song you’re kind of confined into a small narrative, but with jazz you can really express yourself in the truest sense. The only problem about venturing into the realm of jazz is the po-faced seriousness of it. We would probably get slated by the jazz critics if they heard our stuff but they can fuck off!!”, Fred laughs, before drilling down into what makes jazz so special, “Musicianship is a key to that style of music. That’s what I will admit. Especially for percussion. You’re not going to cut it with a shite drummer or a drum machine. The drummer is key. It is he/she that makes the band good or bad”. The floodgates are open now, as a list of essential albums spew forth, “Agartha by Miles Davis, Coltrane’s Live At Birdland, Alice’s World Galaxy, Happy Trails, Tarot by Walter Wegmuller, Yeti 2”. It’s a list complemented by bands including Grateful Dead, Dr Jon, 13th Floor Elevators and many more, all providing some insight into the inner workings of Earthling Society.
But how does this all fit into the music? “Most of the time the songs build from a basic structure. I demo a song in its rawest form and the rest of the band learn the changes or rhythm of the song. We then play the living hell out of it in the rehearsal room until the song transforms. For an example, ‘Outsideofintime’ was a very hothouse languid piece, just kind of drifted along. The song developed into a psych guitar freakout and then morphed into a dub song purely from one long rehearsal. It wasn’t planned, it just developed naturally”, “Ascent to Godhead was mainly spontaneous especially parts 1&2. I turned up at the bass player’s house with the porta studio and said Ok put two bass parts down to a tabla track. We had no idea where we were going with the song. It just became. Same with part 2. We just pressed record after I told Jon that I wanted him to play some kind of calamitous jazz drum thing. Kim got into a groove with him and then I took it home and started to overlay the guitars. Bou Saada was an acoustic number I originally recorded for earthling 1. I just wanted to give it the right treatment. I could hear influences like John Coltrane’s ‘ole running through it or ‘8 miles high’ and then a Can groove creeps in….”, before Fred answers a question relating to themes and differences in each album, “There are no real themes as such. Someone latched onto this theme for England Have My Bones, that it had some concept on slavery or something to do with imperialism, because it references pirates, Crowley and the like. They all have a spiritual theme building through them reaching it’s peak with ‘Ascent to Godhead’. I think that album and England Have My Bones are very much brother and sister albums. They are both the most realised albums in the bands canon”
Ascent To Godhead and England Have My Bones ,may indeed be the most well rounded albums so far, but it is within another release, Zen Bastard, that we discover not just a penchant for exploration, but one for revisiting too although Fred is adamant that their won’t be anymore, “Mainly out of improvement. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting anymore. It was mainly Kosmik Suite that I was most desperate to re-create after it was tortured to death by shitty Vangelis keyboard pre-sets 11 years ago. I just think its a great straight driving space rock number. Like Neil Young jamming with Prime 70’s Hawkwind. I’ll go as far to say it’s a classic of the genre”.
Listening back to the reworked ‘Kosmik Suite’ now, it certainly does epitomise not just the ES sound, but also a scene which has become very fluid. Fred is quite open about not just the scene but the underground itself, as he explains “There is certainly no career to be had nowadays for left field or underground bands. Back in the 70’s you had labels like Virgin taking big risks signing bands like Faust or Henry Cow, and making significant sales. No big label would do that now; but I also feel that the majority of the modern music listener just like safe and pleasant music. It’s like fucking Soma or something”. This bleak outlook is tempered though, with a parting shot on how he figures the psych scene to be right now, “However, there are still some great bands out there that are doing it for the love and the artistry and that is the right reason. Carlton Melton, Plastic Crimewave, Terminal Lovers, Kikagaku Moyo, Hibushibure, AMT to name a few are all really great bands to be admired. The whole scene has grown dramatically over the last 3 years. There were only a handful of psych bands when we started back in 2005. Now its saturated. Its not something that bothers us nor does it bother us that bands come along and have some moderate success whilst we remain very much in the shadows. That’s cool too”.
That’s cool too, and with that we can reflect on what has been an interesting conversation into one of the UK’s most idiosyncratic bands. As we drift off to the strands of Journey Into Satchidananda, their reworking of a jazz classic, and with a new album ready for release, the future is looking particularly exciting for Earthling Society. As the storm dies down on the psych scene, we will be left with a body of work which aims to expand, enhance and contradict our minds. England may have their bones, we have their music.