Earth‘s Unlikely Second Chance
Dylan Carlson has this joke. It’s one that’s been parroted for over a decade now.
“I joke I only had one good idea in my lifetime and have decided to run with it.” He laughs earnestly, winter winds bayonetting at his lungs as he relieves the catarrh from his throat. Carlson is currently travelling with his bandmates Adrienne Davies and Dom McGreevy to the north of England, a place he treasures for its folklore and sardonic humour. There’s this giddy movement to his delivery. “Obviously I’m as happy as pig in shit to be back in the UK,” he cracks another chesty cackle.
As the founding member of doom drone devisors Earth, Carlson’s ‘one good idea’ is currently traversing from London to Newcastle with multiple appearances between. The shows, championing the group’s eighth studio album Primitive and Deadly, are sell-outs. Starting at Islington Assembly Hall, Earth’s performance was captured as a live stream for Boiler Room. One shot dissolves into the next in a whirring delirium as Carlson slouches back into his music’s prolonged sustain. The audience hardly move, put under by Earth’s amplification. “We brought three guitar heads with us on this tour and blew two in Birmingham. I’ve really really missed playing loud” Carlson says, knowingly.
It’s particularly rare for a band like Earth to have the luxury of a second chance. Their legacy can be partitioned into two polemic eras. Formed in the grisly bosom of the Seattle grunge scene in the early 90s, Carlson’s first era of Earth was a clamorous slobbering of elongated instrumental fuzz stretched out into fragmented riffs that would repeat and repeat and repeat. Like the hallucinatory arcs Earth’s music was trapped in, the majority of this time Carlson spent doped in a storm of narcotics. His criminal activity was habitual. Wrongly famed for aiding his best friend, Kurt Cobain, in his suicide (he gave Cobain the shotgun which was subsequently used to end the frontman’s life on the pretence that it was only to be used in times of defence), Carlson’s career was ebbing away. After the canonical three-track debut album Earth 2: Special Low-Frequency was followed by two ill-received records between 1995 to 1996, Carlson succumbed to a sonic oblivion, disbanding Earth and tumbling off the radar for nine years.
Then came Hex, Earth’s 2005 return. While Carlson was in the wilderness Earth’s influence had grown far, inspiring a musical movement, including being more or less the sole formative influence of the now-adored Sunn O))) – but his newfound direction was starkly different. The devilish repetition was still intact, but Carlson’s guitar work had manifested into something far more shamanistic. Pocketed influences of Ennio Morricone and Neil Young were more overt while the previous nods to minimalist prime movers La Monte Young and Terry Riley were more pronounced. Carlson reflects on this time with a chastity of gratitude, “There are a lot of people who established us on our second run after the release of Hex. Since then, all of our records have been received very positively.
“There’s a contrariness and a resistance to modernity that I find attractive. I like being a curmudgeon”
“We’ve toured a lot more, we’re much more of a present, functioning band than during the first era. We just weren’t popular. It’s weird now, because so many people talk about Earth 2 as a seminal piece of work. But the first pressing of that record was only 2000 copies and it took three years to sell. It was not universally acclaimed.” Carlson begins to laugh again – now, with the success of Primitive and Deadly, the band have amassed a reputation surpassing what anyone could have speculated. “Our latest record charted.
I can’t really fathom that. When I got the news that the record sold more than all the Earth records combined in the first week alone, I was speechless.”
But despite Primitive and Deadly’s surprisingly accessible heavy rock marauding, Billboard chart climbing is not what drives Earth Mk II. “I knew from day one as soon as A&R men started crawling out of Seattle’s woodwork we were never going to be a major label band. That was not our route. But the success of this record is overwhelming.
“I’ve always felt like when you’re recording an album, you’re recording a specific moment in time and its set of variables will never be the same again. And it’s the same with live shows. It’s us and this audience who are creating this moment in time that will never happen again in the same way. It’s this moment of possibility and transcendence that doesn’t occur every time. The best shows for me are when I almost don’t even know that they’ve happened. I start and suddenly it’s over. Those are the shows that matter.”
Like last December’s unexpected Ninja Tune collaboration Boa/Cold with fellow low-end fetishist Kevin Martin of The Bug, Primitive and Deadly stands as proof of Carlson’s fearless thrust to evolve and better his previous works. Yet the album hasn’t been met with total esteem from Earth formalists. Amongst the throwback hard riffing of 70s heavy metal and the sludgey drone nuanced by the likes of Neurosis and The Melvins, are the occasional inclusion of vocals – a trait seldom utilised in Earth’s aural arsenal. “I always thought of vocals in a different way than most bands. It’s more like if we use them, how should we use them? I really love what Wolves in the Throne Room did with Jessica [Kennedy] on Celestial Lineage. For Earth, vocals need to be instruments rather than the cheaper front-and-centre thing.
“It’s funny because a lot of people that dig us are just into noise. And that stuff is cool. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I don’t think doing loud or extreme music means you have to sacrifice melody or a riff. Songs can still have arcs and development. To me, everything is focused around the riff. It’s the riff you want to hear over and over again. My influences for Primitive and Deadly were early riff-based groups like Scorpions and Diamond Head. Bands that could make the similar dissimilar.”
Despite his own synonymy with a very distinct musical subgenre, Carlson struggles to register with the music industry’s inclination to produce homogenous copies of the same sounds. “Bands, especially in metal, are obsessed with the microgenre. And instead of all these microgenres making music more broad, it has a reductionist tendency. It almost feels like people decide what kind of microgenre their band’s going to be before they start, rather than playing together and seeing what happens. You can be influenced by a band but that doesn’t mean you have to sound exactly like them. There just aren’t any gaps anymore.” But is this just another sign of Carlson’s detachment from modernity, the same detachment manifested in his fervour for English oral history? “I think there’s a contrariness and a resistance to modernity that I find attractive. I like being a curmudgeon,” he says. Yet modern audiences dote on Carlson’s Earth as he blithely explores the outer-boundaries of drone. “The Devil makes work for idle hands,” Carlson lets outanother crow of laughter, “I find myself very busy nowadays, but I need it to be that way. And thankfully people are still interested in Earth’s second era. Really, there’s a point where I think a band should stop. There are bands that shouldn’t keep going and bands that have stopped who should never get back together. Hopefully I haven’t worn out my welcome yet and hopefully, when that moment comes, I’ll know not to continue past it.”
Primitive and Deadly is out now via Southern Lord Records. Earth headline Temples Festival, Bristol, 29-31 May