A slow Odyssey
The few times that Dylan Carlson appeared in mass media, the story was told about a man in a famous rock band that committed suicide with the gun Carlson gave or sold to him. Also, he had introduced him into harsh narcotics. Can be right. But we are much more interested in Carlson the musician, main man of Earth. It’s a story of a man in search for himself. On the verge of the release of two new albums, we unleash upon thee, Carlson’s ideas that we captured in 2008.
Dylan Carlson is the main character of his own narrative process. He had to fall back on himself during many years. Years, wherein he discovered emptiness and distance. We guess that, in accordance to Odysseus, Carlson’s his fears evaporated and he more or less left the material bonds that characterise the entertainment business. We’ve always found a connection with David Lynch’s Straight Story, mainly because of the narrative character of Earth’s music. Carlson admires Lynch and tells us that he likes stories as much as melodies. “I guess that makes me not postmodern. Postmodernists always criticise narrative as something bad.”
Carlson struggled with a harsh heroin and speed addiction during several years. The point where he is now – clean and tidy – is a good example of the phases he has been going through. His drug rehabilitation period also seems to define the schism between Earth parts I and II. We saw Earth (at that time Carlson and Adrienne Davis) in 2003 in Antwerp (Cultural Centre Luchtbal) and were not amused. Not that Earth should be about vulgar entertainment of course, but we just saw an uninspired show.
Looking backwards, it is clear that Carlson was in a period of transition, experimenting with a new approach to his musical landscape. Earth sounded as doomy as ever, but the riffs were different, less drony and the sound wasn’t Phil Spector’s equivalent of an electric guitar anymore. Earth experimented with a clean sound instead of a wall of sound. We couldn’t imagine that these ideas could ever end up in a release that genius as the ‘comeback album’ Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method.
A ‘real’ band
Earth started in 1989 (Carlson being 21) in Olympia, Washington, with Slim Moon and Greg Babior as partners. They would be the first in a row of Carlson’s companions. Joe Preston is the most famous: later in The Melvins, today solo as Thrones and a member of High On Fire. Dave Harwell (bass player) might be the most important in the first part of Earth’s existence, appearing on the first ep, Extra-Capsular Extraction and Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency Version, known as one of the pioneering drone albums in the world of doom.
Only five years before the start of Earth he for the first times held a guitar in his hands. Before starting Earth he was into two rock bands. First a punk band, later a band called Nisqually Delta Podunk Nightmare. In recent interviews Carlson describes this band as a cross between Flipper and Cinderella.
After an early diet of classic metal, prog rock, classic rock and kraut, Carlson in his early twenties started to discover Terry Riley and La Monte Young, which changed his view on music dramatically. Soon after, he started to apply the ideas and approach of these minimalists. If you dig into their oeuvres and you listen to Earth carefully, things become very clear. There’s obsessiveness in Earth with the approach of pure minimalists. In spite of what the appearance of Earth tells us, the approach hasn’t been different through the years. Carlson has just implied their ideas on different genres.
Earth’s early years were more desperate though. Listen to these early records and hear differences between the songs on one album. There is less coherence compared to later albums. But roughly taken, Carlson first applied his ideas on Sabbath riffs, later classic rock, the last years on country, american and minimal blues. He always tried to pure out ‘the note’ and searched for the metaphysical strength of it. With the music he makes, Carlson thinks he searches for energy. Again, he sees an analogy with La Monte Young. He hopes to “continue down (Le Monte Youngs) path. It is the closest I come to any kind of religious feeling or spiritual tradition in music.”
Earth shed its skin and transformed from a dictatorship, or at least a band where one person made all artistic decisions, to a ‘real’ band. The metaphor of the 2008 album, The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull, refers to that in different ways, Carlson explains. “It has a sort of myth around it. It’s about what’s dead and gone, and about what is new. It’s also a metaphor for the new band, which is made of the bees, as in more than one person. It’s dead and we’re dying and we’re trying to create something new out of that. There are a lot of metaphorical issues that we can pull out of that symbology. It is also about the clash between American and western culture with other culture’. This is basically a social thing. “It is about people working together.”
Carlson has a specific way of dealing with things. For the Hex album he said to Randall Dunn – his current producer – he wanted the album to sound like blood marillion. But there is a difference between that album and other Earth albums. For Hex “there was a concept, and the music flowed from that. With the latest album the music came first and then looking back at the songs we arranged them for the album and we came up with titles. We saw a pattern in that. Before I had the idea first and then I worked from there. So, the newest is not a conceptual piece. After living with the music and examining it, we saw this cycle of redemption, from darkness to light. It’s that cycle of darkness, despair, imprisonment moving to redemption, freedom.”
Through the years melody became more important for Earth. What was the process that you were going through?
That’s what always separated Earth from a lot of other bands in metal or heavy music in general. My goal is to make music that transcends my influences, rather than sound like them. A melody.. well, it is what makes people interested in music. It is what draws people in. It’s that hook. Steve Cropper (Stax Records guitar player, pianist and recording engineer, red) called them the money licks. It is what grasps people. I’ve always liked bands that haven’t forgotten that. I mean, in extreme music, a perfect example to me has always been Slayer. Anything as heavy or what not, they always have that melodies and hooks. There are so many older metal bands that not stand the test of time, like early Slayer records do. That is because they forgot melody. I just think that is an important part of music. It makes music stand out.
Did you feel fear at the point where you wanted to incorporate more melody in you music?
I try not to do music like how people are going to react to what I’m doing. I just do it. I just throw it out there in the broad daylight. Hopefully they’ll like it. That’s for me the difference with what I do to what other bands do. Underground bands do what they do regardless the trends and money. They forget for whom they play. They just make music. You do what you do and people will notice. Eventually they’ll take it seriously. When I started Earth, looking back now, there was hardly an interested audience. People asked if it was a joke? Eventually people get into it. I try not to be conscious about it. I’ve been really, really fortunate. Firstly, because all the people still cared and wanted to hear Earth again after I came back. And second, the fact that the new stuff allied with original Earth-fans that are still Earth-fans, and who are moving along with us. And we’re also attracting new listeners, and those new listeners go back to the old stuff. I’ve been really really lucky. It’s amazing.
Earth is always one step ahead of bands that imitate, or in the best case, interpret the band. Is it a conscious thing to do something different over and over again?
For whatever reason, I have to keep moving. Learning and developing music is like life and development. I’m constantly trying to get better and move forward. At a certain point I stopped putting the music first. I got in other things, like drugs. I had to go away for a while. Once I’ve put the music first in the driver’s seat, things got better. I want to be a good musician and a better human being at the same time. The practices are inseparable. As I learn more about music, I learn more about life.
In general, people always want to do what they know. How do you challenge that?
There’s always something new to listen to, something new to read. As a child we’ve moved around a lot. I’ve always had that restlessness. I don’t understand people that are bored. I don’t have enough time. Maybe I wasted too much time in the past with drugs. Because of that I might be more conscious about getting as much out of life as possible.
Do you think that music in general can say something about the era that we live in? Does it reflect something?
I hope it transcends that, but there is no way that it couldn’t reflect it. I am who I am, living in this time. I’m a product of historical evolution and, because I’m born in the west of the United States. This created me. The goal of making music is about the time and the reflection about that time. Hopefully we create something that also transcends that, and speak about – whatever you like to call it – the human condition. There are parts of being human that don’t change, and that transcend time and history. So, I hope we speak about the time and go beyond that.
Do you think there is timelessness in music?
A lot of my favourite records that I listen to are 30 or 40 years old now, and they still speak to me and they still are vibrant and alive and challenging. The amazing thing about music is that it sends this message across from people in the past to people in the present and the future that will also receive the message. I think it is one of the few things that people do that has the ability to transcend the time they live in. I think it is one of the things that uniquely make a human being. I think it is a unique form of communication or activity. I’m always amazed by people that aren’t into music and don’t listen to music. What is wrong with these people? What are they into? It’s mindboggling to me. It’s interesting that older societies were much more musical at heart in everyday life. People made music together at their homes and went to see live music. It was much more a part of life, while today it has more become a gimmick or in other cases a sort of suppliant. Look at ringtones for example.
Thinking about what is timeless in music seems in the first place subjective. But does it also wear objective aspects in it?
I definitely think it comes from somewhere else. It’s the closest we get to experience something transcendental, whether it is God or the universe. I see a good connection to modern physics about particles and matters, something that is vibrating. You can look at matters being made out of waves as well as of particles, but for me the whole universe is made of vibrating energies, with music as part of that. It’s about the creation of the universe, in all this music and great songs.
A Social Activity
You told that you changed habits as to your work ethic and the functioning of the band.
After the 2006 tour with Sunn O))) (the band that started as an Earth tribute band, red), I had 6 months off, without doing any shows. So, I could just concentrate on the writing. This time we have been writing as a group. Me, Adrian Davis and Steve Moore, the keyboard / trombone player, not the guy from Zombie, as The Wire mistakenly said. We would get together and play, and come up with stuff. For the previous records I had written everything. After I wrote the songs people would come into the studio and play along. This album is more of a group effort. We had the songs arranged, ready to go when we hit the studio. And this time we had also the most time to work in the studio. We spent about two weeks on the basic tracks, then had some time off, then came back and had overdubs and then had a couple of months between that and listen to them and make the final decisions.
The fact that there are more people involved meant that it influenced the ideas, but did it have a big influence on what it became?
I’ve always presented Earth as a band, even though there have been times that it wasn’t anybody else than myself. I find it more creative and more enjoyable to balance ideas off to one another. I think music is a group activity.
And a process?
There is just a different quality to people being solo-musicians. They just do things by themselves. When you perform music, people have to be there and have to listen to it. It’s a social activity. There is music for yourself, which you do by yourself. I do both, but I enjoy the group activity more.
Does that mean that it is also important for you to release the music?
Yeah, you have to let it out and let people hear it, and react to it. If you don’t do that, it’s kind of pointless. I’ve known people in the past who have been spent all their time working on music and then weren’t putting it out. It beats the purpose if you don’t put it out. I’m not saying you have to, and it is not that it has to be released on a format, like a cd, but I think that at a point you have to let it hear to people.
Does the music change when you play it in front of people?
The songs are already slightly different then when we recorded them. There are parts that we extend; there are parts where we improvise. Both live and in the studio, doing overdubs and stuff. We listen to the track and play to it. But definitely live we make it different. There is a lot possible, night after night. I’m not doing free jazz of course, but there are parts of the songs where people can do different solos or different parts. When you play live, the energy of the room and the people attending are very important. The audience can really contribute.
Does a new album change how you listen to the previous albums?
Most of my older albums I don’t listen to anymore. The Lions album is the first one I can listen to, and not have the idea that I could’ve done this or that better. I’m absolutely positive about it. I can forget that it’s my album and just enjoy it.
Is that also connected to the group-thing?
I’m sure it is. The fact that there are other people playing allows me to be less critical.
Interview by Peter, Brussels 2008, article 2011