In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
When you define a genre with your first record, where do you go from there? Earth’s frontman and only consistent member Dylan Carlson was living in Seattle during grunge’s reign over popular music. Being a young contrarian, Carlson decided to outright reject every trend that defined what was around him at the time. To his label’s prediction, Carlson’s cerebral brand of engulfing drone metal was not an immediate hit. With Earth, Carlson was never looking to top the charts, participate in a movement, or even start one. He was looking to do something different and do it well.
After a nine-year gap between records due to drug use, legal problems, and a lack of equipment, Carlson took Earth’s minimal, distortion-heavy sound and infused it with an Americana twang. The resulting sound was a career resurgence for Carlson and Earth. Although Earth sticks to a few principles such as open strings and repetition, the band’s adventurous second phase has found their heavy sound stretching into post-rock, psychedelic rock, and country. With such a varied catalog, Carlson admits he found ranking these records to be a challenge, “It would have been much easier to make a Greatest Hits record.”
Carlson has a busy month of April planned. Earth will be filming their show at The Crocodile in Seattle on April 18 for a new documentary on the band entitled Even Hell Has Its Heroes. One week later Carlson will be dropping a new solo record, Conquistador, on April 27. The record recalls some of the American Southwestern themes that Earth has explored on prior records. Ahead of Conquistador, Carlson was happy to revisit his career in Earth and rank his records with Noisey.
Noisey: In prior entries in this series, a common trope of the lowest ranked album is that the experience of making the record is what gets it at the bottom spot, not necessarily the music itself. Is that the case here?
Dylan Carlson: In a lot of ways, I really like Phase 3, but ultimately it’s unfinished. It was done at a time when I was at my lowest ebbs physically and mentally. It almost didn’t even get made. It was made in two different sessions a year apart. I showed up to the first sessions two or three days late with absolutely nothing. Thankfully we just rolled tape and my producer Phil Eck handled it very well. We headed to his house, grabbed a guitar and amp, and went right back to the studio. [Laughs]
You showed up with no gear?
Yep. [Laughs] Nothing at all! So after a few sessions, Sub Pop pulled the plug. Sub Pop didn’t want to put Phase 3 out but we eventually convinced them to do it anyway about a year later, so the second round of sessions started. We were a few days in and my girlfriend at the time overdosed in the studio bathroom and that cut recording short. [The whole process] was kind of a mess and so was I. We ended up just mixing what we had. Really only “Phase 3: Agni Detonating Over the Thar Desert…,” “Tibetan Quaaludes,” and “Thrones and Dominions” was finished. A lot of tracks sound just, like, broken off midway to me. I’m glad it was “finished” and it is out there, but I feel like I shot myself in the foot with this one. I take full responsibility for that.
Earth 2 sounds like such a rejection of what was going on around you at the time with the grunge movement, but Phase 3 is much more accessible in terms of track length and more traditional riffs. Do you think grunge possibly bled into this record a bit?
Not really. I always viewed Earth as separate from that entire thing around me. We’re Seattle’s redheaded stepchild. [Laughs] I never really felt like I was a part of any kind of movement, genre, or trend at this time.
Was there a concern with putting this record out on Sub Pop, considering the label at that time was releasing mostly grunge records? It’s hard to imagine Sub Pop’s core audience embracing this release at that time.
Sub Pop was a great label and I’m happy I was on it. Sub Pop put up with a lot of shit from me personally. I think a lot of people definitely bought this record because it was put out on Sub Pop and did not get what they expected at all. In that way it was a bit of a double-edged sword, but Sub Pop was great people to work with.
Earth was my first attempt at a real band. I mean that in that I had very strong concepts and presentation that I wanted to push, and I didn’t have that before. I was talking to Buzz Osborne around this time and I’ve always held on to this advice he gave me. He told me, “Doing music, you can go two ways: jump on the hot thing or do your thing and keep doing it well. If you choose the latter you won’t have to compromise and eventually people will begin to notice.” I’ve always tried to follow this advice to the best of my abilities. I think it applies to more than just music, too.
It’s well-documented this record is inspired by La Monte Young. From what I’ve read you were inspired by his writings detailing his approach to music more than his actual music. Were you just trying to imagine or emulate what La Monte Young would do with distortion and a guitar?
That’s true, but it wasn’t emulation. I had really only heard his “A Well-Tuned Piano” tracks since his music was tough to get physical copies of in the early 90s. It was much more reading about him and his ideas than the actual music he made. Musically, it was metal and King Crimson-inspired. La Monte Young was much more the conceptual inspiration.
In a prior interview you stated, “To me an album represents a specific period of time and a specific set of circumstances.” Could you describe how Earth 2 represents its time period and circumstances?
It very much represents my age. At that time, I was young and full of vigor as they say. It represents contrariness and willingness to be unpopular. [Laughs]
Isn’t that a bit ironic now that Earth 2 is considered a popular and influential release?
Well it hasn’t been popular in terms of sales. [Laughs] I think it took us three years to sell 2,000 copies, so it’s hard to think of it as my claim to fame in that way. I don’t think that’s one of the more popular Earth records but it has been considered “genre-defining” or whatever. It’s certainly referenced a lot. I guess it will be my footnote.
The rating here is very much musical. If I was just going by concept and execution I probably would’ve ranked this higher. As I’ve moved on to new material, I’ve changed in my compositional ideas and musicality. I think I’ve rated it less highly because I feel like the conceptual side of this record very much overrode the musical aspect. To me, a lot of people talk about how huge this record sounds. I think this record sounds very claustrophobic. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve definitely recorded it differently, but then it would be a different album, huh?
I’m very glad that people responded to it though, eventually. It’s very gratifying to know that this record has had a small effect and achieved some sort of notice. To know it’s inspired people to do stuff is really cool.
Was there a time after your prior record, Pentastar, that you thought you would never record music again?
Definitely. The entire time I was in LA, I did not own a guitar. I never had an intention of playing professionally. When I came back to Seattle I got a guitar, but it was more for personal reasons. Not to start a band. I kept my day job for quite a while, too, even after Earth was back in 2002. I didn’t do Earth full-time until 2009.
This is the first record you recorded with Adrienne Davies. Did you know pretty quickly that she was going to be a part of Earth for as long as she has been now?
At this time, we were together as a couple and we connected musically, too. Before we started recording this record I was not in a great spot. I was still sorting myself out and recovering from my time in LA. She was there for me in a number of ways and we started making music too. At this point I still wasn’t intending to start Earth back up, even. It was going to be a new project, but somehow it turned back into Earth. We’re at the point now that when I play with other drummers it feels strange. [Laughs] We’re not a couple anymore, but she remains a good friend. At this point I cannot see anyone else filling that drum chair. She’s the second longest member of Earth at this point and she’s a great drummer.
Can you describe the feeling of putting out this record after such a long layoff?
This one went really well. We had some rough patches earlier with bad labels and bad people in general who were more interested in capitalizing on the past. This was our first record with Southern Lord and they liked what we were doing now. We had a strong conceptual theme with Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and creating a soundtrack for an imaginary western. My guitar playing was finally back up to scratch after my years in LA. It was our first chance to show the new phase of Earth and I felt like we did a good job of that. We made a strong opening statement.
Was combining that cleaner country twang sound with drone a very natural process for you? I know you’re a country fan, but I don’t think most would initially connect the two genres and expect the harmony that you created with this album.
I think with all music I try to see similarities, especially historically. Country has a connection to Scotch-Irish and English folk music that is very apparent to me. There is a lot of blues influence on country too. I never want to make a record that sounds like a genre. I don’t want a “country album” or a “blues album.” I want to stir genres.
I think a lot of people have a misconception about drone and think it’s a sound. I think it’s a technique. It’s not a sound or a volume thing. It’s an approach or a harmonic stasis. It exists in all kind of music and, to me, I guess I saw that connection in what appeared to be disparate.
I’ve heard you refer to the first three records as your wilderness years. Why do you think this is the best record from that period?
There are some good songs on it! It’s a good rock record and has some talented people playing on it. After the Phase 3 nightmare, I felt particularly focused and confident on these tracks.
This is the only full-length record that you’ve recorded your own vocals on. What made you decide to sing on this record? Do you ever see yourself singing again?
I just sang more back then and wanted to do it. I don’t practice singing as much as I play guitar now. I was practicing singing then, but I just don’t practice now. Plus now I know a lot of good singers and would rather hear them sing anyway. [Laughs] Maybe I’ll sing again sometime down the road.
Were the drug problems you had in the mid to late 90s interfering with the process at all yet?
It interfered on all my recordings after Earth 2 and before Hex. It has a way of convincing you it’s working and that you’re better than you are, but you’re really not. Some of us need a strong slap in the face to wake up from that.
I’ve read that the last track on Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 was completely improvised. Did improv play a large role on these records as a whole?
Yeah, definitely. The first record actually runs from the most composed track to completely uncomposed. The second installment follows that same path of more composed to less composed. Funnily enough, Conquistador follows this as well.
These sessions were particularly productive because of my illness. I had liver failure and chronic Hepatitis B. I was afraid this was going to be the last Earth record. Lori Goldston, who plays the cello on these records, is such an amazingly phenomenal improviser and musician. We just rolled tape for these and went. “Old Black” was totally composed. I had a couple other riffs floating around and used a couple of riffs I had created during the Bees Made Honey sessions too. That was it. We just hit the studio.
How did the illness affect the music you wrote and the recording process as a whole? Does it feel more rushed or strained?
It’s certainly a personal record for me. It wasn’t really a rushed feeling, it was the least forced record I’ve created actually. The sessions flowed really well. Just everything was coming out and flowing well. It’s hard to describe but I was just feeling particularly creative.
This album has a lot of the English Folk roots that you usually reserve for your solo material. Why did this stuff feel right for Earth at the time and why is it mostly reserved for your solo records now?
I really took the deep dive into those themes on the solo records after the Angels of Darkness series, but these records are what kicked it off. I think that the medical situation I had was what focused me on my ancestral roots. What often happens to me before a recording process is that I put on an old record and get really obsessed with it. During this time, those older English folk songs and Led Zeppelin were really inspiring me. I also took a trip to London before this which really kicked all of these themes into overdrive.
In an interview you gave around the time Bees came out you stated, “The improvising started with the Bees Made Honey album. I was listening to a lot of jazz and I’m a self-confessed Dead head. That was one of the things I always loved about the Grateful Dead was their improvisatory nature and the fact that none of their live shows were the same and none of the songs were the same night after night.” What’s your improv process like? Was this a brand new style for you or had improv played a small role on past Earth records?
It kind of started a bit before the record by playing with Steve Moore [piano/organ] who has a jazz background. I didn’t write his parts. He was coming up with his own stuff. It was more like just leaving space in the songs to play around with. Earth wasn’t doing that before. The songs on Bees are very compositional, but they have quite a bit of space. We left things open. It wasn’t straight improv. More like: here are a few structures and here are a few open areas. The Dead and Miles Davis have compositions with really loose structures that let the musicians do their thing. We wanted to have that free playing ability.
Everything about this record from the sounds, to the art, to the Blood Meridian references place it in the American Southwest. You’re a Pacific-Northwesterner with Scottish and British roots. What draws you to this region of the country?
It has to do with my upbringing. My dad worked for the Department of Defense and we had to move around a lot. I was in New Mexico from three to five years old and really liked that setting and have some memories from it. I also spent considerable time in Texas during my middle school years. I think I just like stark environments, whether it’s an English moor or a Southwestern desert. They call it the land of enchantment for a reason, you know.
These tracks have been a huge live hit every time I’ve seen Earth play. People really respond to these tracks. Was there a conscious decision on this record to make tracks that would be great live pieces?
Yes, definitely. “The Bees Laid Honey in the Lion’s Skull” has been in the setlist for ten years for this reason. It’s fun to play and its always different. Playing that song live is just great. I don’t get why people play exact representations of their own songs live. Like, you may as well throw on the CD up there and lip-sync. I’ve always wanted to see bands that play their music differently live.
That’s been the biggest change of my career. When I started my career I was all about the studio and was not interested in playing live. Now, it’s totally the opposite. I just want to get the record out there and hit the road. The songs change on the road. You learn which songs are really great live. It’s just a fun and exciting creative endeavor. It’s not planned and really can’t be planned. Recording in the studio improves certain things and playing live does that too.
What gives this album the top spot for you?
Well, this series forced me to go back and listen to some stuff that I haven’t heard in a long time. The reason this is my favorite, though, is because it was from the time when I met Holly [Carlson’s wife]. She was the inspiration for so many of the tracks. She was actually supposed to be on the album cover, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I was happy to get her on the cover for Conquistador.
On top of that, it’s a really strong record for me. I think the material is great. I think its concepts were really well-executed. It’s also our best-selling record and we know the public is never wrong. [Laughs]
I like these songs and they’re still fun to play even though it’s not improv-y. Only “Even Hell Has Its Heroes” is improv-y. I think this record is the complete package for us. It’s a great rock record and I’ve always thought of Earth as a rock band, even if we’re a weird one. [Laughs]
This album has the most vocal passages of any Earth record. Was that a conscious decision as the songs were being written that vocals would be paired with the instrumentals or did it happen in more of a “hey, let’s try vocals over this” kind of way?
Well, I wrote some lyrics for “Rooks Across the Gate” but was planning to use them for my solo stuff. I was keeping it for myself, but Adrienne heard it and saw the lyrics and wouldn’t let me keep it for myself. [Laughs] So I liked the lyrics but I didn’t want to sing it so we needed to get a singer. This is when we reached out to Mark Lanegan [Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age]. I thought a female vocalist would contrast a male vocalist really nicely for the record so then I called Rabia [Shaheen Quazi]. I just gave Rabia some themes here and she wrote the lyrics and ran with the vocals.
Chelsea Wolfe actually almost sang on this record too. We really wanted her to, but she wasn’t available. Hopefully someday soon that collaboration will happen.
I’ve heard that this is your “midlife crisis” record. What do you mean by that?
[Laughs] It’s a return to my hard rock youth. And I picked the title because I thought it sounded like a Scorpions record. I was listening to a lot of the Scorpions and AC/DC and the middle school soundtrack I grew up on.
Are you the kind of guy that is always trying to top your last record or do they all kind of exist independently?
I don’t think of them like “this one has to be better” or “I want this to sell more.” I think of them like, “how can I make these new songs up to snuff with what I’ve done in the past?” I try to write music that is not nostalgic. I don’t want to write music that feels like it has always been there. I don’t want to make music that sounds like it was made in a certain era because that is how you sound dated. Like, so many songs from the 80s sound like the 80s right? My goal is to make the best record that I can with what I have, but I want it to have a quality that is hard to pin down. No matter where I am going conceptually I try to let this guide me.
TJ Kliebhan is on Earth. He’s also on Twitter.