Interview: Dylan Carlson (Earth)
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Dylan Carlson has walked a tough road. He struggled with drug abuse for years and recently survived a rare form of hepatitis that was likely linked to previous addictions. He was devastated by his close friend and onetime roommate Kurt Cobain’s suicide and stalked by the media. Finally, Carlson gave several interviews – including one for the film Kurt & Courtney – which he still regrets. Little wonder, then, that a sense of loss and confusion permeates Earth’s music. Earth formed in 1989 and is responsible for influencing much of today’s drone metal, particularly Sunn O))). Earth recently released Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Part 1, an album informed by Carlson’s illness and his thoughts about mortality. The second part will be released in 2012. Carlson has since recovered and is now touring with a lineup that includes his wife/Earth percussionist Adrienne Davies.
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How is your health?
Much better. The doctors put me on liver medication. At one point, I turned bright yellow and was swollen like a balloon. I learned I had a rare form of hepatitis B, a type that is prevalent in Asia but isn’t common here. I’m assuming I got it from past bad behavior. They said I’d had it for at least 10 years.
My stepdad does stem cell research and was explaining the way the virus works. It gets in, and then your immune system can defeat it or hold it at bay. If it holds it at bay, the virus will mutate until it can get around your immune system. If it does, that it starts doing damage, and you are in trouble. It hadn’t found the right way to attack my liver, and all of a sudden it did.
When did it get so bad that you went to a hospital?
In October 2009. I corrected it a little though diet, but I didn’t get the medication going for a while. I was actually sick a lot during recording. We did a two week tour with Wolves in the Throne Room, and the doctor said I should have been in the hospital the whole time. For whatever reason, I had to get the record done.
Were you worried about death?
I think that’s one of the reasons we got the record done and recorded so much in one session. That’s why it was so productive. I thought it might be the last one (laughs). We did the first one and did the second part all in the same session. It would have been too long for a single release. We could have done a double CD, but since we always do vinyl, it would have been like six records, which would have been cost prohibitive. So we decided to break it into two parts. It flowed well. Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light goes from a composed, constructed song to the title track which was completely improvised. The second part of the record is mostly improvised.
The new album has an elegiac quality.
I’ve always viewed records as a snapshot of when they are done. I think there was that feeling at the time. I don’t know about the other musicians, if they thought this might be the last Earth record. But I felt that. I was hoping it wasn’t the case but you have to be prepared. It’s funny, because when you are partying, you take that stuff l’ightly like, OK, you’ve OD’d or almost died and think it doesn’t matter, or you don’t care. Being sober and facing a life-threatening illness is much different. You’re more aware of what’s going on, and you’ve lost the devil-may-care attitude of youth, that false sense of immortality.
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Were you listening to any particular music during your illness?
I’ve been on a big binge listening to Fairport Convention and Pentangle, modern English folk music. I’ve been revisiting early Jethro Tull records. But there’s definitely a Scottish and English folk music influence. That’s my thing right now. If I had to pick the most influential thing on the album, that’s it.
You play around a lot with repetition. How do you do that without sounding stale or redundant?
To me the goal – even if you are repeating a simple phrase – is to be more aware of subtle things: altering the notes with vibrato or digging in more with the pick. On this record, I fingerpicked a lot. I’ve been trying not to use the pick; I’ve been using my fingers. I like the variations you can do with fingers, the sharps or muted notes. I work on the expressiveness of the playing. There are two schools of playing music: play as many notes as possible, or play fewer notes and make the notes more expressive. I’ve always striven for the second.
I try to play less with more feeling. The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull was a very dense-sounding record. There’s the piano and guitar playing chords and overdubbed solos. This time we reduced the instrumentation, especially with cello moving to almost exclusively a melody instrument. The best music feels like the melody has been around forever. Even though it’s new it sounds like a new version of an ancient melody.
A while ago I was listening to an interview with Guillermo del Toro in the extras of Pan’s Labyrinth. He talked about the soundtrack, and how he had a hard time finding a composer. He wanted a lullaby, and they wanted chords and orchestration. He thought it needed to be simple and memorable. He knew it worked because his daughter was sitting in on the sessions and started humming. It was simple and immediate but also timeless. It’s always been a goal of mine, to make music like that.
Does your music reflect how you are?
As I’ve become older, improving as a musician has meant improving as a human being. Sometimes I feel like I became a caricature of myself in public. Look at the Amadeus myth, that you need to be born a genius or a great artist. I’ve always loathed that concept. I try not to be egotistical and more genuine. It’s a complex thing because you want to be open and truthful with your listeners, but you also don’t want to overexpose yourself to strangers. There’s always a fine line. I just try and treat people the way I’d like to be treated and be honest.
If you watch Amadeus it seems like he was being punished for his free spirit and honesty.
Well, again. I don’t like the idea that he was born this genius, and everyone around him was shit out of luck. I didn’t come from a musical family. Deciding to play the guitar was out of the ordinary. I had to work. Then I read about Hendrix, who played, like, 18 hours a day. That’s why he was great. He put in the work. I don’t like the whole thing that says. “You have it at the start or you are fucked”. Mozart was trained beginning at age four by his father.
When I first got into music, it was because I loved it. It seemed like something other people did. My dad suggested I play guitar. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, but also listened to X and punk bands. Going to see all-ages shows and seeing bands allowed me to learn that this is not reserved for the rock stars. They started somewhere, too. They didn’t jump out of the woodwork. They weren’t placed here by Zeus.
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Do part of these feelings come from knowing Kurt Cobain and seeing what fame did to him?
Well, I know it sounds shallow, but when you start a band, you want to be a rock star. That’s the career path. Now I’m older, and I realize it’s bullshit. Someone you know gets there, and it destroys them. It made me reevaluate my worldview. This was supposedly the dream, and they were destroyed when they got it. On a personal level, my friend is gone but my worldview got fucked up. I built a dream on a false premise. It’s like being deeply faithful and believing in the Bible and finding out it was bullshit, or being a devout Catholic and finding out priests were molesting kids.
When you two lived together did you have any inclination what would happen?
No. No one in Seattle knew. Everyone was just doing music, and all of a sudden it turned into something else. You can’t plan that stuff. The most important advice I got was from Buzz [Osborne, Melvins] was just to do what you do and do it to the best of your ability. And if you do, people will eventually see it and respect it. That’s the most important advice I’ve ever gotten. Some people do it for quick gratification, but they don’t last. When Led Zeppelin first came out, there were negative reviews. They were hated by Rolling Stone. Now how often do we see some laudatory article about how great they are? They started as a metal band and now they are classic rock. They didn’t change, but people did.
Is it strange to see a close friend turned into a commodity?
I’ve ignored it. If I paid attention to it my memories, would be subsumed by that image. I remember coming home shortly after [Cobain’s death], and there was a television crew in front of where I lived. They called me, and I said I wouldn’t talk or do interviews. And the lady said – I thought it was so arrogant – “He doesn’t belong to you anymore. He belongs to history”. I didn’t pay attention to that. My experience with him doesn’t belong to anyone. I made a few mistakes with interviews early on, and now I don’t.
How is sobriety?
Good. I’m not a 12-stepper or anything like that. You take what you need and leave the rest. I use pointers I find helpful, but I don’t live in meetings or anything like that. I’ve been out of it so long, I can’t imagine going through the trouble to do it again. It would be a chore. And now it’s not that I would die in the future. If I did it now, I would really die. The problems that I would be trying to avoid would still be there. I did my time in the trenches. Like anything in life, it’s a learning experience, and you need to know when to stop. I’d much rather be playing music and touring.
How is it working with Adrienne?
I always considered touring and playing music peak experiences. But it was hard, because the girlfriends I had didn’t participate. With my lifestyle, they only got the bad side. Now I can share the peak experiences of my life with someone rather than having someone only with you at home.
What will the second part of this album sound like?
It will be very free. A lot of it was completely improvised. There will be some surprises, too, and one song that is unlike anything we’ve done before. There’s one song that’s just guitar and cello. There’s a song where I play bass and guitar. There’s a lot of cool percussion overdubs. It goes from very composed to very improvised.
Does the term heavy metal even apply to Earth anymore?
When I came of age, it was much broader. You had Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. Some of the bands wouldn’t be considered metal, because as a term and a genre, it’s become pretty limited. I love metal and learned a lot from it. Genres are hard to define, anyway. There’s good music and bad music. I hope we make good music. I definitely appreciated starting out and being considered weird metal. Metal fans are super-loyal but they are also very open-minded. So we’ve kept our original fan base and haven’t lost people who liked us in the past. They’ve been willing to grow.
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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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