Interview: Dylan Carlson
Well, to me all the best music should transport one to somewhere, and so it's something I certainly hope for when writing, performing, playing music.
Dylan Carlson has just released his wonderful and sprawling new solo album Conquistador. Gavin Brown caught up with him to hear all about the album and the story behind it as well as what Earth are up to next, the influence of folk music on his work and the influences and experiences he has had on his vast musical journey,
E&D: Your brilliant new album Conquistador is out now. How did the record come together and what is the story behind it?
Dylan: Earth did a lot of touring after Primitive And Deadly came out and as well as hitting the Southwest as part of three full US tours we also had a run from Levitation in Austin to Psycho California that included the Southwest and Joshua Tree, and Primitive was our last record with Southern Lord. So while Earth was in the midst of sorting things out I had been working on some material and thinking about this half remembered story of this conquistador and his moorish squire Esteban, their 20 years in the southwest and the Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain informed what I was working on. Another ’theme to an imaginary western’ as it were. I had some solo dates on the east coast and a week between a couple of them, and Emma Ruth Rundle was going to be available at the same time, as well as Kurt Ballou so it was pretty serendipitous.
E&D: The album has a mesmerising quality to it. Did you have that in mind when you were making the album?
Dylan: Well, to me all the best music should transport one to somewhere, and so it’s something I certainly hope for when writing, performing, playing music.
E&D: How did the recording of the album go?
Dylan: It was done fairly quickly and the session really ’flowed’. it was a very enjoyable session.
E&D: Emma Ruth Rundle features on the album, what did she bring to the music on Conquistador?
Dylan: She is an incredible ear player and a wonderfully creative person.
E&D: Were you a fan of hers before working with her?
Dylan: I became one at the same time we first met, Earth was playing with Deafheaven and Marriages in LA, and she loaned me her amp as Earth had just flown in, and then saw her solo a few times and became friends over a short period of time.
E&D: Converge’s Kurt Ballou produced the album. How did working with him on your solo album go and what did he bring to the sound of the album?
Dylan: It was the first time I worked with him and he is full of good ideas and has a lot of interesting gear and works quickly and efficiently and has a very nice studio.
E&D: You are touring the album playing with Kurt Vile, Sleep and Mary Lattimore at various dates. That’s three quite different audiences, are you drawn to paying to such eclectic crowds?
Dylan: It’s always interesting to see how you’ll be received by an audience.
E&D: As a performer, what do you like to bring to your live performances that differs from your studio recordings?
Dylan: Well, live they are always different than the recordings, tonally and bits will change and some things work in a live situation and others don’t and may have to remain an album only track.
E&D: Will you be playing Conquistador in full at the shows?
Dylan: That is the plan.
E&D: Are there any plans for any U.K. And Europe dates supporting the album in the near future?
Dylan: Yes there are, most likely in September. Though nothing has been announced yet.
E&D: Do you feel that playing your songs live is a cathartic experience and if so why do you think that is?
Dylan: I don’t know if I consider it cathartic. I find that when i’m playing at my best, the shows seem to go by really quickly from my perception, it’s like I start, and then it’s done and I’m back, those are the moments where I don’t get in the way, the music just flows through me. show’s where I think too much, or get caught up in something mentally, feel harder and longer and less effective. The more improvisatory a show, the more tiring it is, but in a good way, it requires listening to others and letting the music direct you, the more structured sets are more invigorating in a way, there’s still moments of improvisation in all the things I do, but some have more than others. Maybe that’s catharsis, but I feel like that’s more of a releasing of negative emotions or something, maybe i’m misinterpreting the word, but I don’t consciously feel like playing is cathartic in that way.
E&D: Who have you loved touring with the most in the past and who would you love to tour with in the future?
Dylan: Well, everyone I’ve toured with has been someone I’ve generally gotten on with, or respected what they do, which has been fortunate. particular favourites, would be Ô Paon (Genvieve Castree) who I thought was an amazing person, as well as enjoying her music and art. Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter and Wolves In The Throne Room were really enjoyable tours. Future dreams would be to tour with Blues Pills or if I was touring solo, with Dorrian Sorreaux, Blues Pills’ guitarist who has a solo thing he does now. Be nice to do some shows with the Melvins.
E&D: You’ve previously recorded as Drcarlsonalbion and collaborated with artists such as Maddy Prior and explored British folk and folklore. How was that experience and is that still a big inspiration to you as a musician?
Dylan: It was an incredibly nice opportunity and I felt quite honoured to be considered for that collaboration. Maddy Prior was so warm and welcoming and really a pleasure to work with. It remains an interest and one I plan to continue, i definitely haven’t exhausted the well in that direction.
E&D: Folklore of all kinds has been a constant feature in your music. What draws you to that as an inspiration for your music?
Dylan: Well, I love narrative, and how stories and music change over time, and are constantly evolving. Also I consider all ‘popular’ music to be ‘folk’ music. It’s not ‘high’ culture, i mean i’ve never cared for those terms, like ‘high’ and ‘low’ magic, its all the same, just if it’s done by the learned or wealthy for the learned and wealthy it’s ‘high’ and if its a cunning man doing it for a farmer it’s ‘low’, the same applies to music, and it’s endlessly fascinating.
E&D: How did you hook up with Kevin Martin aka The Bug for your joint album Concrete Desert and what inspired you both to create the album last year?
Dylan: We were introduced by Simon Fowler, and I had worked on the Boa/Cold 12″, but that was a collaboration where we weren’t physically present in the same time/space coordinates, and we were both in LA to play for Ninja Tune’s anniversary, and Kevin had a bunch of tracks, and I was available and we found a studio and were able to collaborate in person. So it seemed a good opportunity and we took it. It was his first time in LA, and I had lived there before, so it was really kind of inspired by our reactions to LA and through that to the Western US in general I guess.
E&D: How was the experience of touring the Concrete Desert album?
Dylan: It was quite different than an Earth tour, as it was mostly flying, or taking the train, rather than loading up the van and hitting the road. it was quite enjoyable, as the songs really grew and evolved over the course of the tour, the songs became much more dynamic and forceful I found, not that they weren’t good on the album or anything, haha, but I felt they really grew in a live setting.
E&D: Are there any artists that you would love to play with or do an album with in the future?
Dylan: Well, Ellin and Dorrian from Blues Pills. Billy Gibbons would be amazing. Uli Jon Roth.
E&D: Are there any plans at the moment for a follow up to the last Earth album Primitive And Deadly?
Dylan: Yes, Earth is recording June 20th through July 5th.
E&D: 2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Earth album The Bees Made Honey In The Lions Skull. What are your main memories of making this seminal album?
Dylan: Well I guess the biggest one is getting to have Bill Frisell play on it, he is such an amazing musician and such a wonderful human being. It was a real honour and a treat to have him involved.
E&D: Will you be revisiting the album in any live capacity to celebrate this anniversary?
Dylan: We are playing the album at Desert Daze 2018 in October.
E&D: What are your favourite Earth songs to play live and why?
Dylan: Hmmmm, well they all have a special place to me, some I keep in the set for the audience, more than myself. I guess ‘Torn By The Fox Of The Crescent Moon’, because it was inspired by my wife, Holly. ‘There Is A Serpent Coming’ I really enjoy. ‘Bees’ is a crowd favourite, that I also like because it changes so much with each time it’s played. ‘Old Black’ is another crowd favourite that I also enjoy playing. I usually gravitate to the newer material we do, as I like working songs up in a live situation, seeing how people respond to them. I think it helps with honing them, and then it gives the audience a chance to see what might be coming up on the next album.
E&D: Earth is obviously different to your solo work, how do you get into the mindset when you are working on your various musical projects?
Dylan: Well, My solo projects generally have an idea or concept behind them, one that may have been used with Earth, maybe not, but I like to leave Earth open to change and I don’t want it to get ‘stuck’ with one idea or concept, and sometimes the idea or concept for an Earth album evolves over the course of writing and recording it.
E&D: With all your different musical endeavours, how do you get into the mindset for each one?
Dylan: Well, I generally have a strong idea or concept floating around, and as I begin to work on it, it develops and becomes more present. Kind of targeted obsession. Though sometimes the concept can be hard to encapsulate, it develops over the course of completing the project and then talking about it.
E&D: Who has been the greatest influence on you as a musician?
Dylan: That is a tough question. I guess conceptually it would probably be Robert Fripp, in doing your own thing and doing it no matter what. Also Buzz Osbourne and Jimi Hendrix, for similar reasons, and they made me realise that an electric guitar is not just an amplified ‘acoustic’ one. That the guitar and amp are a unified instrument and that it creates a whole field of sound with which to create beauty. and all three made me realise ‘beauty’ in music is not maudlin or ‘pleasant’ necessarily. That it’s fierce and awe inspiring and beyond such timid signposts as that.
E&D: What are your initial musical memories and what got you into music in the first place?
Dylan: My parents were into music, and I got the first Greg Allman solo record as part of an easter egg hunt they had when I was in kindergarten. I liked the band a lot as a child, and my mum introduced me to the Velvet Underground early on.
E&D: What was the first album you ever bought and what affect did it have on you?
Dylan: AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and from that moment (I was 11) I only wanted to be a rock n roll guitar player.
E&D: Was the punk and hardcore scene of your hometown of Seattle an early starting point for you as a musician?
Dylan: I went to a lot of shows, as there were a lot of all ages shows then. When I first moved to Seattle I bought the first EP by a local band the U-men, my first year of high school, I started to get into music outside of the hard rock/classic rock/heavy metal field, bands like X and the Gun Club, then when we moved back to Seattle I started going to local shows. Even if I didn’t really like hardcore or punk all that much (there were bands that I did like, but they were never the by rote hardcore/punk bands) it was important because it was seeing that I could actually do music, it wasn’t abstract, it wasn’t like surrounded by the ‘rockstar’ mythos. I mean when you read about bands before, they never talked about playing in shitty clubs and hitting the road in a van, it was all groupies and jet airplanes, even though they all started in little clubs and such, that was never really shown.
E&D: What music are you listening to at the moment?
Dylan: I’ve been listening to a lot of different things, old dub, like Burning Spears first album, this Nigerian Rock compilation (72-77), Ali Farka Toure, There’s a Riot Goin’ On on by Sly Stone, a lot of like Zeppelin stuff, but like the out takes and later stuff, not the hits. a lot of Herbie Mann like Memphis Underground and Push Push, a lot of Tulsa stuff like J.J. Cale and Jesse Ed Davis and Leon Russell.
E&D: What have been some of the undisputed highlights of your career thus far?
Dylan: Playing with Bill Frisell. Scoring a motion picture. Playing shows all over the world. a dance/music performance with my wife, Holly (something I hope to expand into a joint project).