When we tell Dylan Carlson we’re calling from Los Angeles, he chuckles and says he used to live down here. After forming Earth in Olympia, Washington, in 1989, he moved to Seattle and recorded three albums for Sup Pop while hooked on heroin—a period that culminated in him buying the shotgun that his friend Kurt Cobain used to commit suicide. As things got worse, Carlson skipped town. “The lost years were spent down in Los Angeles,” he says. “I was there from 97 to 2000. Then I moved back to Seattle unintentionally. I went for a visit and they said I couldn’t leave.”
That’s because Carlson was arrested and convicted for a burglary he committed just before moving to Hollywood. “The sentence was supposed to be a year, but I got a first-offender waiver so I only did 30 days—and then I did another 30 days on a violation,” he explains. “When I got out, I still had two years probation so I couldn’t leave the state. I was like, ‘I guess I’m back!’”
Carlson is laughing as he tells this story, mostly because he appreciates his life more than ever. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Hepatitis B that he likely contracted during his heroin days. “I’d had it for a long time, because it basically ate half my liver,” he ventures. “So now I take a couple of pills for the rest of my life and I can’t drink anymore. But there are obviously a few others things I don’t do anymore, either.”
Earth’s latest album, Primitive and Deadly, marks a sort of return to Carlson’s dark period. Featuring guest guitar work from Built To Spill’s Brett Netson and Narrows’ Jodie Cox, it’s closer to a rock record than the droney, twangy Americana he’s been been known for since resurrecting Earth in 2003. It’s also the first Earth album to include vocals since the 1996 dirge classic Pentastar: In The Style Of Demons. As if that weren’t enough, Carlson’s old drug buddy Mark Lanegan sings two of the songs. We talked to Carlson about how the new incarnation of Earth compares to the old days, the time when he and Mark were roommates, and why he wants to venture more into film soundtracks.
You’re playing with a bunch of different musicians on this album. Is the idea to expand Earth’s palette through collaboration?
Dylan Carlson: Even though I’m the main guy, I’ve always viewed Earth as a band—especially now that I do the solo thing as well. I mean, I thought of Earth as a band even when it was just me. But I think the cool thing in music is playing with other people. I’m not a control freak when it comes to that. I let them do their thing. That’s kind of the main difference between the old incarnation of Earth and the new incarnation. In the old incarnation, I was much more of a control freak. When I play with other people, they bring something I wouldn’t think of—and it’s usually cooler than something I would think of.
Primitive and Deadly is the first Earth album with vocals on it in nearly 20 years. Did you write these songs with singers in mind?
The song “Rooks Across The Gate” was something I had originally written for my solo thing because the original version was very folky. It’s a murder ballad, and I had lyrics written for it. But [Earth drummer] Adrienne [Davies] liked it and said, “You can’t use that for your solo thing. You need to save it for Earth.” [Laughs] So I changed the music a bit for the Earth version. But since we had lyrics for it, we thought it’d be cool to get someone to sing them. And I’ve wanted to work with Mark for a long time. I’ve known him from way back into the misty dawn of antiquity. He agreed to do it and then heard some of the other tracks and said he’d be into doing another one. I told him to pick whichever one he wanted, so he did the lyrics for “There Is A Serpent Coming.”
Were you going to sing “Rooks Across The Gate” initially?
Well, I thought about it. But I have not sung since Pentastar, and I could barely sing back then. [Laughs] So I decided to find someone to do it.
How did you first meet Mark?
It might’ve been 87 or 88. I was in Olympia playing in the band I was in before Earth. The city had this thing called the Capitol Lake Jam, and we played with the Screaming Trees. Mark and I lived together for a while in Seattle after that, and then I moved to Ellensburg briefly, where the Trees are from.
You guys were roommates?
The first time we lived together was in a house with me and him and a bunch of dudes, and we all worked at this record store warehouse, sending out records to the stores. Later, during the bad years, we were “running together” as they say. [Laughs] We talked about doing some music together back then, but it never happened because the Trees were in full swing on a major and stuff. And then he started doing his solo thing. I kinda helped out on his first solo album a bit, with a song title and a chord progression that I gave him. I don’t remember which song it ended up in, though. Then he moved to L.A. around the same time I did and went on to do more solo stuff and Queens [of the Stone Age] and stuff like that, whereas I took a little bit longer to get my shit together.
You recorded this album in Joshua Tree. Why that setting?
Every album is different, and it’s nice to try different places. Our label knew Dave Catching out at Rancho de la Luna Studios, so we did the basic tracks there. Rancho is what you’d call a “vibe” studio. It’s a cool environment where there’s nothing to do but music because you’re out in Joshua Tree, away from everything. I really like that area out there, out in the desert.
Did you go to the Integratron?
No, but I really wanted to go there! A good friend of mine from LA has been a few times, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time on that trip. I’m hoping to just come down some time and have a trip to the desert and visit the Integratron. I found out about it through this weird book that’s like an encyclopedia of extraterrestrial and ultra-terrestrial encounters. There was a big thing on the guy that built the Integratron. I’d really like to get out there and see it.
The press release said the recording sessions were “preceded by hours of meditation.” Is that what happened?
[Long laugh] Oh… I guess I’ll have to say yes, then! I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
Do you really meditate, or did your label just make that up?
Well, I’ve done some meditation. I’ve gone with a friend of mine a couple of times for some classes and stuff. I don’t have anything against it, but I don’t do it regularly. I think playing music is meditative. I don’t think you have to sit in the lotus position. [Laughs] There’s other ways to do it.
How did you settle on the title Primitive and Deadly?
It’s a line from “There Is A Serpent Coming” that really jumped out at me. I think it’s a good description for the music, because this is kind of a rawer, back-to-basics album. I’m also a huge Scorpions fan, and it kinda sounded like the title of a Scorpions record. [Laughs] And metaphysically, it’s a good description of the world as it exists now. I think the whole idea that history is evolutionary and the world is getting better is not true. So I think “primitive and deadly” is a good description of the world right now and the world that’s gonna exist after all this madness comes to a halt.
You’ve also got a couple of guest guitar players joining you—Brett Netson from Built To Spill and Jodie Cox from Narrows.
I met Brett years ago. The second Earth show we ever did in Seattle was with his band Caustic Resin, so we’ve been friends for a long time. I’ve also known Jodie for a long time, originally because he worked as our booking agent in England. Then I found out he was a guitarist and worked with him on the DRCARLSONALBION Latitudes sessions. He came and played with us the last show we did in London, too.
Speaking of DRCARLSONALBION, you released a solo record under that name earlier this year—a soundtrack to a Western called Gold. Was that music you were already working on at the time or did you write it specifically for the film?
It was done specifically for the film. It’s kinda funny because there’s that Jack Bruce song “Theme For An Imaginary Western,” and that was kind of the genesis of the Hex album that Earth did. I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is an amazing book that will probably never be a movie. But I thought if it ever was a movie, I wanted to do the soundtrack. So that was Hex—my theme for an imaginary Western. And then lo and behold, I got to do an actual one.
What can you tell us about the movie?
It’s about a group of German migrants that come to North America and are trying to get to the Klondike gold rush, so they’re going across Canada to get there. The story is based on this diary that was found, so it’s not a conventional western. The director, Thomas Arslan, had seen us play in Berlin a few times. One of his early shorts had a bunch of black metal in it. Then he did something with Bohren & der Club of Gore. And the movie he did before Gold had that Norwegian ambient guy doing the music—Biosphere, I think? Then he asked me to do the music for this one. They were shooting up in Canada, and he sent me some rough cuts, so I basically watched it and composed. Once they had a finished cut, Thomas came down and made different suggestions and moved some pieces around so it was very collaborative at that stage. It’s very different than making a record because you’re serving the director’s vision.
Do you see yourself doing more film work in the future?
I’d definitely love to do that. Before I started doing Earth, when I was between bands, I got really into film, so it’s always been a bit of an influence on me. I love touring and playing live, but as you get older it obviously gets a little harder on you. [Laughs] Doing film work is a little more sedentary and you can stay at home.
J. Bennett also enjoys staying at home.
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