I would hear riffs from bands that I liked and I’d want them to keep playing that riff. I was always wondering what would happen if you just stuck on that one riff. . .
From soundwaves to landscapes, the sonic experience conjured up by Earth is both a meditative and an immersive one. From having laid the root foundations of rock’s infamous exercise in extreme minimalism with the classic Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version, the Seattle-born earth-shakers have braced through the decades carrying a legacy of slow, heavy riffs and long, introspective song-structures with a strong emphasis on repetition. The band has kept their pace slow and steady whilst branching out into a multitude of directions, ranging from stoner rock on Pentastar: In the Style of Demons to the esoteric desert-rock musings on Primitive and Deadly. For the band’s first record in over five years, leading member Dylan Carlson has decided to strip things down for a back-to-basics, raw approach, working as a duo alongside drummer Adrienne Davies to harken back to Earth’s core sound. We caught up with Dylan ahead of his solo performance at Paris’ Sonic Protest Festival to ask about his upcoming record, as well as learn more about his approach to sound and music playing.
E&D: Last time you were scheduled to perform in Paris, you unfortunately had to cancel due to some serious medical emergency. How have you been, how is your health?
DC: I’m much better. It was a gallbladder infection, so I was put on a bunch of antibiotics and I did a bunch of tests to clear it up. I’m fine now.
E&D: Welcome back to France. I understand your mother speaks French, by the way. Is that right?
DC: Yeah, that’s true.
E&D: You grew up moving around many different places, including in Europe. Have you ever lived in France?
DC: No, we lived in Germany, but we visited a lot because my mum liked Paris. The first year, we lived in Ramstein, which is basically just an airbase. Then we lived in Augsburg, Bavaria for three years. It’s an hour away from Munich. I also lived another year in Wiesbaden, which is by Frankfurt. We used to travel a lot. We went to the United Kingdom a lot, too, because we had relatives in Scotland. This was in the Seventies. We came back to the States in 1980. I was in first grade, so this was between the age of six to eleven. We were in American schools though.
E&D: May 24 will mark the release date of the first Earth record in five years, Full Upon Her Burning Lips. Back in 2014, you stated that you had already had started sketching out three songs for the follow-up to Primitive and Deadly. Have you kept these ideas for this new album or have they been used for your solo and side projects?
DC: They were kept. Generally, when I come up with stuff, it will be earmarked for whatever project it was originally meant for. We played a couple of the ones that ended up on the album a few times live. We played one of the two songs at Hellfest in 2014. Two other songs were developed from playing live and held over. We also did a live soundtrack in Gent for Belladonna of Sadness and we tweaked and kept one of the tracks we performed. The rest of the material was pretty much done a month before we went into the studio. So basically there had been three tracks that had been bouncing around for a while and the bulk of it was done really quickly right before the studio sessions. I came up with a lot of the arrangements in the studio, too.
E&D: Since Primitive and Deadly, you’ve released three solo albums and a collaborative album with The Bug. Did you originally plan on taking this ‘hiatus’ in between Earth albums?
DC: When we did Primitive and Deadly, it was the end of our relationship with Southern Lord. We had just gotten new management with Cathy from Sargent House. I knew it would be a bit of a while before the next Earth album came about. Things had to settle down and we had to test the waters, see who was interested in us. I had this other material that I thought would be a good solo record. It also gave me a chance to work with Sargent House as a label. Cathy was our manager but we weren’t with the label up until that point. It gave us a chance to do a solo project and a chance to work with Emma Ruth Rundle. It just kind of happened, I guess. It seemed like a good time to do it.
E&D: Coming into writing and recording this record, did you have any initial ideas or a particular head-space that guided you?
DC: This album was actually a bit different, in that I’d usually have a super strong conceptual idea that precedes the record. The records started out concept-heavy, but now it seems like I write music faster than I come up with concepts! [laughs] The concepts reveal themselves in the music more than the concept guides the writing of the music. This record came really fast because we decided we were going to do it with the core of the band, which is me and Adrienne. I ended up playing bass on the record. It was time to show what Earth can do with its core elements, as we’ve had so many members and guests join us over the year. We had been doing a lot of playing and writing in our practise space, just the two of us, and when it came time to do the album I figured “Let’s just do that!”. I also felt like it was a chance for the drums to really shine on record. I think the drums have been a big part of the band live, but with all of the instrumentation and overdubs, the drums aren’t left with much space on record. The drums were typically the last in line on record. For this record, I wanted everything really upfront and present. We’ve also had records that were quite lush-sounding, but I wanted this one to be really dry and stripped.
E&D: Did going back to a two-piece formation require some time to get re-accustomed to?
DC: No, not really. We’ve been working together for so long now that we don’t really think about it. When we add people, I generally know right away whether someone is going to work or not. For the tour that we’re getting ready to do, I’ll be adding another guitarist called Tristan. We did an improv show right before I left Seattle. We interpreted some Miles Davis stuff and we just clicked right away. We met because he was my driver on my solo US tour, before I found out that he was in a band. I invited him to jam and do this join, and now he’s joined the band for the tour.
E&D: Do you approach working as a duo or trio differently from a strictly solo performance?
DC: I find playing with people more enjoyable, certainly, it’s more fun to explore with other people and see what happens. Playing solo is different in that it’s just you, there’s no real buffer. When you’re in a band it’s much easier to cover up mistakes and wing it I guess [laughs]. At the same time, it’s still enjoyable to just playing.
E&D: Part of what makes your shows with Earth so impressive is how “locked-in” you all are at these slow tempos. It’s as though the band followed its own organic pace, like synchronised “breathing”.
DC: Yeah, it’s not “tight” but it’s that weird kind of “loose but on’” thing. It’s not like a regimented prog thing [laughs]. I guess the best description for it, to me, is that it “flows”. You play and things just go right, everything just flows, you’re not getting in your way.
E&D: Is this something you work on with the musicians you add to your line-up or is it something that needs to naturally lock into place from the get-go?
DC: I pretty much know once we play together whether it’s going to work. They either “flow” or they don’t [laughs]. It either just works or it’s not happening. It’s not something you can force.
E&D: You mentioned that this record was written with a more open approach, without a conceptual backbone to guide the sound. Looking back on the end result, what do you “see” when listening to the record?
DC: I think the album titles that came out of it give a general idea. I wanted this album to be more “witchy”, so to speak, with magical plants and animals. I think that it has a very strong feminine energy involved with it. I feel like the music industry in general, and rock in particular, can be very unbalanced and hyper-masculine, and I think it’s reflected in society now, too. We’ve had this hyper-masculine society for so long now. If you hear a band like Metallica, there’s no hint of the feminine anywhere in their music, lyrically or conceptually. It’s this super-weird, “hyper-male bubble”. To me, music, in addition to being intellectual and emotional, is also sensual – especially rock and blues music. It’s from the hips as well! [laughs] I was trying to tap into that side of existence more on this record than on previous ones.
E&D: I was going to say that I did feel some hints of what you mentioned when I first heard Primitive and Deadly.
DC: Yeah, it definitely started with that record, and I feel like it’s reached fuller expression with this one.
E&D: When it came to prepping the recording sessions, what guided your decisions regarding the gear and sound you wanted for the album?
DC: I basically used what I use live. Sometimes it’s nice to have a million choices for overdubs and whatnot, but for this one I just stripped it down. It forces you to be more creative with the materials that you do choose. I just used the same gear as my live setup, which is pretty minimal. It was really exciting to get all of the variety of sounds from those, rather than looking to do overdubs with a collection of gear like on previous albums. This was how me and Randall Dunn would work. We’d have a plethora of things to choose from, whereas I wanted things to be stripped back this time. There were four or five pedals at the most, but I used them in different ways than I had previously done.
E&D: For many, myself included, your music has marked a turning point, a discovery of a new way of listening to music. Can you remember what first raised your awareness of this way of ‘processing’ music? What made you want to go down that path?
DC: I guess, musically, I would hear riffs from bands that I liked, and I’d want them to keep playing that riff. I was always wondering what would happen if you just stuck on that one riff. At the time I was heavily into metal, but I was also into King Crimson. Through the Velvet Underground, I learned about La Monte Young. It was just this idea of enjoying the repetition of stuff. I used to listen to my guitar droning and practice singing through it. I would learn how to hold a note. I had done a couple of other bands before that, and I didn’t really like them very much. As I said, it started with a conceptual thing. Drone is a technique that’s in a bunch of different music. Indian music is probably its highest form of development, but Blues has it too with open string root notes. Maybe it’s this atavistic Scottish thing about bagpipes since I have Scotch heritage, I don’t know.
E&D: Was this on your own or in a band?
DC: It was more on my own, I guess. After my second band broke up, I just went into what I call “woodshedding”, for a couple of years. I was practising and listening to a lot of music, and thinking about what I wanted to do next. That’s where the ideas coalesced, I guess.
E&D: Any overview of drone genre inevitably mentions two figurehead acts: Earth and Sunn O))). Having met the band and having worked with them in the past, have you had an opportunity to discuss your respective approaches about the genre, what “drone” means to you?
DC: Yeah, I’ve guested on their records, but other than that they’re doing their thing and I’m doing my thing. We’re both pursuing different aspects to me. From my perspective, I view myself as always serving the music. The riff needs to be worth repeating, it’s not just about repeating it. It needs to be something that grabs people. I’m constantly concerned about increasing the melodic content and the musicality of what I do. I’m also not as concerned with being the loudest or the slowest, which I feel can reduce the music. Back when I started, the bands wanted to be the fastest bands on earth. Whenever you play something ahead of the music, the music suffers. I just always consider myself a servant of the music and a servant of the song, first and foremost.
E&D: The new album features songs that are fairly short by Earth’s standards. Given that repetition plays an important part in your music, how do you determine the length of a particular song?
DC: I guess there’s a couple of things. There’s the feeling that you’ve said what you needed to say in that length of time. A lot of the time, our songs tend to grow in length live. I sometimes view shorter songs as snapshots of longer pieces. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the physical means of reproduction limits you to a certain amount of time. People aren’t going to buy an eight-album set – you need to get it down to two LPs [laughs]. We need to consider how it’s going to fit on the vinyl.
E&D: Finishing off, can you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
DC: There are so many albums, it’s hard to pick just one [laughs]! I guess I’ll say Memphis Underground by Herbie Mann for the LP. Movie-wise, I’ll say Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville. Book-wise, Blood Moon by John Sedgwick.
Earth’s new album, Full Upon Her Burning Lips, is released on May 24 by Sargent House. Pre-order here…