Talking to Earth About the Occult and Playing in a Doom Band When You're Happy
"I always loved the really slow-paced movies where things culminated very slowly into some sort of huge climax."
Dylan Carlson has been the only constant member of the band Earth since 1989, blending influences ranging from English folklore to Ennio Morricone to Cormac McCarthy into a style of doom music that is completely his own. Earth has released eight full-length LPs but their most recent, Primitive and Deadly (out now via Southern Lord Records), shows the band continuing to evolve. No huge moves, though. Just the progression of a darkness that has pushed Earth's career forward since 2000. In other words, they still sound like the noise ringing in your head after you wake up from a horrible dream about meat and blood and a far-off city on fire.
The first two Earth albums paved the way for the drone doom of Sun O))) and Boris; their third, 1996's Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, showed off Carlson's roots in early metal and stoner rock. But thanks to his affinity for guns, heroin, and legal trouble—as well as the suicide of his friend Kurt Cobain—Carlson dropped off the map.
He hardly touched a guitar until the early 2000s, when he began playing with drummer Adrienne Davies and introducing other musicians into the mix. The new lineup changed Earth's sound entirely. 2006's Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method, is a nod to both Neil Young and the spaghetti Western film score composer Ennio Morricone, and 2008's The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull is a cinematic soundscape of dilapidated Americana with songs named after lines from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Their last two albums, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I and II, reflect Carlson's love for English mythology.
I caught the band last week at St. Vitus in Brooklyn. They were as heavy and disciplined as ever, strictly adhering to the core tenet of their disciples, Sunn O))): "MAXIMUM VOLUME YIELDS MAXIMUM RESULTS." Carlson has been outspoken about his lifelong interest in English folklore and mythology—he’s discussed past experiences of faerie sightings and even made a crowdfunded solo record of folkloric songs in 2012—so I decided to sit down with him and Davies to talk about the band's evolving sound and how these influenced have shaped Earth's philosophy.
VICE: This record reminds me of some of the really early Earth material. I feel like you’re returning to your roots.
Dylan Carlson: Definitely. After I started doing my solo thing, which was heavily influenced by British folklore and folk music, I wanted to leave Earth free to do whatever it was gonna do next. Then I found myself—for whatever reason, midlife crisis or whatever—going back to the music that inspired me during Earth’s formative years. The music that made me want to do this in the first place was hard rock and heavy metal. As weird as we’ve been, I’ve always viewed us as that kind of band. There weren’t any other bands on Sub Pop wearing Morbid Angel shirts in their photo shoots.
We did a tour of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand as a three-piece, so right then we’re not dealing with the cello and the trombone and that kind of stuff. One of the songs I started writing in Perth was "Even Hell Has Its Heroes," around the time we went to Bon Scott’s grave. AC/DC was the band that made me want to play rock 'n' roll in the first place, so it seemed fitting.
The folk element crept in a bit because the song "Rooks Across the Gate" was originally for my solo project, but then Adrienne really liked it. The lyrics were based on a folkloric trip I took to Suffolk, and it’s also kind of a murder ballad. It was originally a folky tune and then I redid it as an Earth song.
I was gonna ask if your work on the House of Albion stuff had you writing lyrics that were mostly influenced by folklore.
Definitely. "Rooks Across the Gate" is based on an East Anglian tradition, so that one’s specifically folkloric. [Guest vocalist] Mark Lanegan came up with his own lyrics for "A Serpent Coming," and I really liked the lyrics he came up with—the title Primitive and Deadly came out of that song. It was a good title for a number of reasons. A, it sounded like a Scorpions record. B, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light was a very introspective, quiet album. This one was a "storming out the gates" record.
Adrienne, you’ve said in the past that there’s a real "physical embodiment" to Earth, and a visual element to the music. Can you elaborate?
Adrienne Davies: We always try to make music that’s very evocative and emotional, especially now that we have vocals. Music that can take you out of reality and transport you to another one. It’s almost a meditation in a strange way—not consciously forcing the audience to do it, but hopefully influencing them. When I play music with Earth, I experience it that way. It’s very soothing and transports me somewhere else.
I like how the influence of occult themes and esoterica ends up leading you to make music that has a shamanic or ritualistic effect on people.
Carlson: There was a shamanic tradition in every culture. In some cultures it’s been totally exterminated, but in others it’s very present. I always find it weird how that term automatically connotes "someone in the Amazon," or something. I think the traditions are the same everywhere—they just have different outer manifestations.
It’s a very human thing.
It’s what humans do. We alter our consciousness and attempt to deal with the world in the best way possible.
Davies: We honor our dead and communicate with our elders, and so on.
Carlson: I think in the old days, everyone did it to some extent. And we’ve kind of abandoned it for technology.
If someone wanted to read some texts in that vein, what would you recommend?
To start with, Religion and the Decline of Magic by this guy Keith Thomas. It came out in 1971. It’s a long, tedious book, but it’s the first book to really talk about English cunning folk. Another book came out somewhat recently called A Grimoire for Modern Cunning Folk.
There’s always been a separation among historians about "high magic" and "low magic." High magic was what John Dee did for the Queen of England, whereas Arthur Gauntlet was low magic because he did it for some lady around the corner—but they were using the same techniques.
Davies: There's also Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is fictional, but about the history of magic and our relationship and interpretation of magic. It’s very cool.
Carlson: I’d start with the Keith Thomas one. It’s extensively footnoted and has a ton of references if you want to get deeper into it.
Primitive and Deadly album cover
What’s the significance of the album art? It’s notably different from the past covers.
In the past we’ve done more artwork covers, and Hex was old found photos. This time I wanted a photographic cover. We worked with Samantha Muljat, the art director at Southern Lord, and she shot the photos. I wanted something that evoked the title. It’s an alien landscape, but not necessarily another planet—more like another realm or spirit world. Also definitely has an 80s metal vibe to it. I wanted a metal cover.
Do you think future songs will continue to reflect your early metal influences?
I’ve got a few songs I’m working on that are definitely a similar vibe to these. We’ll see what happens. It’s definitely continuing in the harder vein.
You both have a minimal and deliberate way of playing. It's very disciplined. Do you find yourself doing that consciously or is it just the way you’ve evolved?
It’s just how we work now. My songwriting hasn’t changed much over the years. I’ve matured, obviously, but the main way I write is all theme and variation. It starts on a riff and then just variations on that riff.
Every once in a while I’ll set myself up and try to do a real structured song. "Old Black" was a A-B-A-C structure, and there are a few songs on this album where we worked with vocalists and were put in a verse-chorus situation that we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Except for "Rooks," they were all written and then vocals came later.
Davies: When I was first playing with Earth, the goal was just to be as unobtrusive as possible and to let the guitar shine. That was how I developed my restraint and use of space—less is more. But on this album I’ve been able to be a lot less restrained and more ballsy.
Carlson: It’s all about creating an arc, even if it’s instrumental music. I’ve always approached songs with the idea that there should be an arc rather than just repetition.
It’s pretty cinematic.
Yeah, film was a huge influence, especially when I first started.
Davies: I always loved the really slow-paced movies where things culminated very slowly into some sort of huge climax.
On that note, were there any really unusual influences or things that have happened in the past few years that have shaped this record?
Carlson: The Angels era and the impetus for my solo project were inspired by a number of personal experiences I had in England of an "othernatural" nature. And then, during the Angels era I was chronically ill and—near expiring, I guess you could say. That was obviously a big influence on the whole situation.
This record definitely reflects the fact that I’m healthy and excited by life again. I’m in love with somebody, engaged, and going to get married. This isn’t what someone would expect from an Earth record. And I’m really fortunate to still get to work with Adrienne and maintain a friendship over the years.
Davies: If nothing else, we’ll always have the music.
Carlson: At least my midlife crisis is helping the music progress.