Interview: Adrienne Davies (Earth)

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Long before she became Earth’s drummer, Adrienne Davies was a teenager in Washington State who lived through grunge’s seminal years. She met Earth founder Dylan Carlson when she was a teenager, but lost touch with him until the 21st century. Davies began jamming with Carlson and later joined Earth on drums. She also married Carlson. She’s a staunch minimalist with an appreciation for over-the-top percussion.

— Justin M. Norton

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How did you meet Dylan and get involved in Earth?

I’ve known him more than half of my life, so it could get kind of rambling if I were too detailed (laughs). I met him when I was 17. I was a big fan of Earth before I had the pleasure of playing with them. I was too young to go to shows because there were very few all-ages shows in Seattle. There were some in Tacoma and Olympia, but few in Seattle. I actually had a fake ID that belonged to a friend of mine named Bo – he was really effeminate with a unisex name. I was 17 using a 28 year-old man’s ID to get into shows. Dylan took off for California for a while. We ran into each other about 2000 and started playing music without any aims. It just fell into our lap, the opportunity to take it somewhere. But it was a little chaotic in the beginning.

When did you start playing drums?

I did some drumming for school bands in the fifth grade. I had four brothers and came from a real musical family. I got my first drum set early, and it was my pride and joy. I had to keep my brothers from destroying it. It was a used kit, a Ludwig from the ’70s.

I lost the vibe for a while and didn’t pursue it in high school or college. Then I played in garage bands with some friends when I was in Olympia. I didn’t take it too seriously until I got into this band and decided to do it right.

How did you approach putting together your drum parts for Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light?

The cool thing about this album is we were going through a transformation. Two people were moving on, and we had a brand new bass and cello player. So we were reformatting the band. When we got to the studio, we had finished a two-week West Coast tour. We had three pretty solid songs and were working stuff out on the road. We had ideas and a few set songs.

This flood of creativity set in. It’s the first recording I’ve done where the structures were removed and self-imposed perfectionism was let loose. It opened this whole freedom to experiment. So the drum parts were much looser, freer. Every single song involved some level of improv, even if it was charted out.

Before Dylan went into the studio, he was going through a big health crisis. Anything that gives you a taste of mortality can turn your mind around. It was more of a scare than anything, but at the time we had no idea what was happening. He was feeling the vibe that this might be his last album. We all tried to make it extra special for that reason. There was finality to it. Luckily, he’s fine now.

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“Descent to the Zenith”

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A lot of Earth’s songs are very modal, and there’s a lot of repetition. Working in that framework, how do you keep your drumming fresh and interesting, especially during very long songs?

Part of my ability to play at a slow tempo is to get my breathing to slow down and make sure my heart isn’t racing. I’m normally a bit of a hyper person, so I have to adjust my body to play slow.

There’s a risk with this type of playing of getting too into your own head. I have to make sure I’m in tune with everyone else musically and visually so we can play off each other better. It’s a new development for me. I try not to get so deep into a trance that I’m unreachable.

Were you living in Olympia during the time when grunge broke?

I was a teenager during those years. I was always the young one in the scene, and a lot of my friends were six or seven years older than me.

When you get older, it’s different. The drive to go to shows every single night isn’t there as much. I have trouble seeing live shows unless I’m out playing, probably because I see so much of it from touring. And if you’ve been a drinker or into drugs, and you aren’t anymore, it’s like being a new babe in the woods.

Bands like Nirvana had this meteoric rise and flamed out pretty quickly, but Melvins and Earth are still recording.

Dylan has always said if you do something long enough and don’t follow trends or genres, people will take notice, even if they disregard it for years. It’s like hitting your head against the wall and finally breaking through. I was a huge Mudhoney fan. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen them live. They are still relatively active, and we’ve run into them on tour.

This is something you really have to want to do for 20 years. Dylan is the founding member, and he’s the core of Earth. He can hardly go a day without playing guitar. He can’t turn it off. If you are going to do something for this long, you better get something out of it besides fame or royalty payments.

When you had your little Ludwig kit, did anyone ever try to discourage you from playing?

My family was never like, “You’re a chick, and you need to play the flute”. The only annoyance was when I played for three hours. I didn’t ever feel I had to go a certain direction because I was a female.

When I think of Earth’s early music, I don’t think of percussion much. When you joined the band, were there discussions about how to best incorporate you?

Yes. It wasn’t until the third Earth album that they had a live drummer. Everything else was done on a machine Dylan programmed. That wasn’t their desire; they just couldn’t find someone who fit with their musical taste. I wouldn’t touch that [early] stuff with a ten-foot pole, because I love it as it is.

My whole thing was trying to fit into the band musically. I’m all about keeping songs as simple as possible and serving the song. I’m not a showy drummer. I like to find the heartbeat, the feel of a song, [to] give it movement and dynamics. There are tons of showboating drummers in rock, but in this band and format, we could never have a 20-minute drum solo.

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Davies names her drumming influences

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You aren’t going to drop a big Peter Criss solo in the middle of an Earth album.

I would really hope not (laughs). It wouldn’t play very well. Even fills I keep to a minimum. In this band, it’s about what I don’t play. I like to play on the precipice, [to] see how slow and relaxed I can get. It’s right on the cliff of accent drumming, where you don’t play a groove. I try to play with tempo and see where I can take things. Less equals more in this band. That’s not just with drums, either.

Have you always been a minimalist, or were there ever times you wanted to let it rip like Keith Moon?

Everyone loves getting a drum set and just banging the skins and playing as loud and fast and possible. It’s fun. But it’s not always fun for the listener. I’m most comfortable playing relaxed and laidback. I like drums that build the song and stay out of the way. If the drums in Earth were too in your face, it would wreck the whole dynamic. I’m very aware of that.

Meg White’s drumming for The White Stripes gets criticized, but the minimalist approach works.

If you putt Matt Sorum in The White Stripes, it would be a disaster. The way she plays definitely works for what they are doing – the simple and child-like nature of the songs. She gets a bad rap.

Do you like practicing with a click track?

It’s absolutely essential to be able to do it. In the studio, it can suck the life out of things.

Do you enjoy playing live?

I had some issues early on, because I feel like I jumped into the fire quick. I had occasional stage fright and nerves. That’s the death knell for being able to play slower music. You can’t be having a panic attack. Over the years, I’ve played a lot more live music. I can’t say I don’t still have some issues, but I’ve learned to make it work a little better. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s 3,000 or 30 people. Halfway through the first or second song, it becomes more enjoyable.

So you got over stage fright by continuing to play?

I’m a perfectionist, and I had this fear that it would be a complete disaster, or that I would screw the whole set up. These negative things were paramount in my mind. I just realized if I completely blew it, the world wouldn’t stop turning. I was making a bigger deal of it than I needed to it and taking the fun out of it. Your brain eventually just needs to wrap itself around reality. It’s not perfect now, but it’s so much better.

I thought it was funny that when I downloaded the new album it was classified as “other”.

“Other”, huh? Wow (laughs). Well, two weeks prior to the release date, iTunes was doing some kind of special push for it on the rock page. We’ve been categorized under country and soundtracks and rock. I’d rather have that than metal at all times. It’s nice to incorporate disparate ideas. I’d much rather not be classified.

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EARTH – UPCOMING TOUR DATES

EU tour w/ Sabbath Assembly
4/29 Unwound – Padova, Italy
4/30 MC Velenje – Velenje, Slovenia
5/01 Arena – Vienna, Austria
5/02 Feierwerk – Munich, Germany
5/03 Beatpol – Dresden, Germany
5/04 Gebaeude9 – Koln, Germany
5/05 Stadsschouwburg – Brugge, Holland

US tour w/ Ô Paon
6/08 Mayne Stage – Chicago, IL
6/09 Mad Planet – Milwaukee, WI
6/10 Magic Stick – Detroit, MI
6/11 The Strut – Kalamazoo, MI
6/12 Grog Shop – Cleveland, OH
6/13 Johnny Brendas – Philadelphia, PA
6/14 Wadsworth Atheneum (Aetna Theater) – Hartford, CT
6/15 Middle East Downstairs – Boston, MA
6/16 Le Poisson Rouge – New York City, NY
6/17 Ottobar – Baltimore, MD
6/18 Braddock Carnegie Library – Braddock, PA
6/19 Southgate House – Newport, KY

ATP Fest, curated by Portishead
10/02 I’ll Be Your Mirror, curated by Portishead & ATP – Asbury Park, NJ

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