For over 20 years, Earth guitarist Dylan Carlson has been a pioneer of drone. From the ambient works of their earliest days of Extra Capsular Extraction (which, as a recent reissue proves, is still ahead of its time two decades on), to the abrasively noise-fueled Earth 2, to the recent years of increasingly developed arrangements and melodicism, Carlson has stood at the fore of a truly unique kind of instrumental creativity and never wavered, never repeated himself and never given into expectation, be it inwardly or outwardly imposed.
Earth’s latest album is the cello-infused Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I (on Southern Lord), and I was thrilled to have the chance to speak to Carlson—joined in the newest incarnation of Earth by longtime drummer Adrienne Davies, bassist Karl Blau and Lori Goldston on the aforementioned cello—to mark the occasion of its release.
Tell me about bringing the cello in. The way it sounds on the record, it’s such a natural fit for what you guys are doing. How did that come about?
That, like many things in my life, was sort of a happy accident. There were a few shows that Steve [Moore] was not going to be able to do, some local shows in Portland, because he does a lot of other work with a lot of other bands. I can’t remember who he was going out on tour with, whether it was SunnO))) or Sufjan Stevens or someone else. Maybe it was a Bill Frisell thing. But he wasn’t going to be available, so he suggested Lori, and he suggested that she might be a good fit.
I’ve always loved cello and bowed instruments. He introduced us. Weirdly enough, considering her history, we hadn’t met earlier, but we hadn’t. She really worked out well on those shows. And then it turned out that Steven and Don [McGreevy] both had other stuff that they wanted to pursue. Don’s in I think four other bands, and Steve does a lot of session stuff and then has his solo thing, so they weren’t going to be available anymore to record with and probably not able to play live with us, at least in more than a one-off kind of capacity occasionally, so it just worked out that way.
Also, it was good, because if anything, I sort of view Earth as progressing in a more melodic kind of way, as opposed to [the last album, The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull]—even though I really like Bees, it’s a very dense record, with a lot of guitar chords, piano chords, and then a lot of overdubs and stuff like that—whereas, I like the focus being on guitar and cello as melodic instruments, and then, you know, with a strong rhythm section. I don’t know why, it just seems to be working very well that way.
Maybe because of the more improvisatory nature of the music, or my shift in focus, or something. I just like the feel of it better. The bowing gives a nice, breathing quality to the music, I think. Long answer to say it was a nice accident, I guess (laughs).
It seems like Lori a lot of the time is running counter to the guitar and bass. She’s not really following it. How far into the writing did she come aboard?
Well, on the new record, we kind of did things a little different than previously, depending on the song. The first track, “Old Black,” that song was the oldest song. I had written it in, I think, the middle of 2009. Me and Adrienne came up with it for the last European tour we did with Steve and Don.
Was that “New Song In E Minor?” I saw that video.
Yeah (laughs). And then the next oldest was “Father Midnight,” which had been sort of written in that tour, but then the newer material, with the exception of the title-track, me and Adrienne had come up with some of the riffs together, jamming.
Before the recording session, we did a two-week tour of the West Coast with Wolves In The Throne Room, and that’s where we worked on that material, finishing it up. So [Lori’s] parts were added in a live situation, and then the last song, the title-track of the new record, was done completely improvised in the studio. There was nothing. We didn’t have any riffs or anything. We started rolling tape, and started playing, and people came in when they felt they were ready to come in.
That one was created very differently to the previous stuff, which has always been either written out beforehand or created by me and Adrienne jamming and then presenting it to the band and then them working out their parts. That song was just, “roll tape and let’s see what happens in this situation.” We didn’t do any overdubs on that one.
It was all played live in the studio. In fact, this whole record was recorded in a much more live way, where we all set up in the studio at the same time and played. I tried to keep the overdubs to a minimum this time around. It’s a much more live record, I think, than Bees.
What brought about that change?
I think just my increasing interest in the live situation. I think that’s been the big change between the current Earth and the previous Earth. Before, Earth was a much more recording-oriented, conceptual band, whereas now it’s much more about playing live. I still like recording and doing records, but increasingly I think the live thing is becoming more important.
I see it as, as the major labels die and fall off—I don’t think it’s ever gonna return to how it used to be—but in the olden days, being a live musician was important and playing live was important, and recording was less privileged. You made records to play live, and then somewhere along the way that changed into this whole differentiation between live musicians and recording artists.
Recording artists were the ones that had contracts and got all the money, because they made these objects that could be sold and marketed, whereas live music was a little harder for an industry to control…
And I like the interaction with the audience. The audience is participating in the creation of the event and whatnot, as opposed to the thing of a recording artist delivering these messages from on high. I think that’s probably why our recording is coming closer to the live situation.
I’ve always kind of viewed recordings as these slices of time, like “Oh, this is what’s going on at this point,” as opposed to trying to create the perfect version of the song.
More about the experience than the product.
Yeah, exactly. Unfortunately, the kind of society we live in, we have to have a means of making a living at what we do, so we have to have something that we can say, “I own this and I’m selling it to you,” but I’ve always thought that was a little false in music (laughs).
To me, music is something that’s existed for a long, long time, and no one’s inventing anything. It’s all being reinterpreted in this continuum, and so the idea of someone owning music is a little bizarre, you know? I guess you sort of have to do that. In a live situation, people are paying to get into the club and you’re making money that way, it’s a much more direct exchange and it’s not privileging anybody…
Are you doing a sequel to this album? Will there be an Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II?
Yes there is. In fact, it’s already done. We recorded the whole thing at that time. It was gonna be too much for a double-vinyl release, and also with production schedules and all that label stuff, I don’t think it’s going to be out until the following year. Originally, I’d wanted to try and get both of them out the same year, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
The second part is more stuff like the last song. It’s all straight improvised stuff. It’s a continuation of the last song on the record in that way, where it’s spontaneous playing, composition, whatever you want to call it. Improvisation. There’s still a similar feel—hence the similarity of titles—but the first album to me goes from the more song-like song to the most improvised song, and then the second part is all improvised.
So the title-track on this is a precursor of what’s to come on the next album?
Yeah, definitely. I view it that way. Except, well, there’s one song on the new one that’s more written, so it’s kind of a throwback to the previous one. I really wanted that last song on the first album, so that’s why it ended up there.
It was written in the studio, but it was definitely more written than the other stuff, and the rest is all improvised. We’re gonna use the same artists and stuff, so there’ll be a continuity there. And of course, the same musicians, similar feel. It was a very fruitful session.
Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light I is available now on Southern Lord. More info at myspace.com/earthofficial.