Q&A: Dylan Carlson of Earth

Earth: Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light 1Earth: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol. 1 (Southern Lord, 2/22/11)

Earth: “Father Midnight”

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Most God-fearing people would probably characterize Earth’s cinematic drone-rock music as dark, and the assumption is not without merit. Since 1989, Earth’s founder and guitarist, Dylan Carlson, has specialized in a kind of down-tempo, almost lethargic style of slow rock that easily allows listeners to conjure thoughts of an emotional purgatory.

Carlson describes Earth’s musical destinations in a conversely different light. For him, the band’s resonant, slow-forming instrumentation represents a musically cerebral path to some sort of middle ground, but it’s not so much as a waiting room to hell as it is a medieval common area, where people are free to simply be, free to do as much or as little as they’d like. Earth’s womb-like melodic cocoon is in many ways an external and extremely personal catharsis — an intimate attempt to make sense of an ever-present melancholy that pervades Carlson’s vision of humanity.

What do you think has allowed Earth to maintain the same musical continuity for so long, while so many other bands from your time period have faded from the radar, sold out, died, or come back playing something completely different than what they started?

I think it’s still pretty similar. I think the main difference is more seen by working with [drummer] Adrienne [Davies] and working with the other members of the band more; it’s more of a collective experience than before. There were times when there were very few members of the band — no members of the band — [laughs] except me, so it was definitely more of a solitary pursuit at points, where now I have the luxury of being able to attract musicians to play with me and are able to play with me for at least a couple years at a time, instead of album by album.

That’s different, and I like that. I’ve always viewed Earth as a band, and wanted it to be a band, but it’s not always the easiest thing to find musicians to work with and keep them. I’m more cognizant of what I’m doing than before.

Do you think your sobriety has played a role in that?

Yeah, I definitely think so. I’m definitely more focused on doing music now and not wasting my time running around chasing [pauses] other things [laughs], so that’s good. And I’ve obviously been more productive in this second go-around than I was in the first, in terms of output and performing live.

Has your creative process changed at all over the years?

Yeah, I mean, for the most part, I guess. To me, there are certain things that need to be there for it to be Earth, otherwise I’d do something different. Within that, it should be slow, it should be simple, and hopefully be on the longer end of letting things develop — the longer end of the scale. There’s some wiggle room to do some other things, but if those three things aren’t there, then I should do a different project.

And if I were going to do something different, I’d do something completely different and wouldn’t try to sell that off as Earth. I think Earth has an identity of its own. I don’t think that would be fair to people to make something really fast and new-wave-y and call it Earth [laughs]; that wouldn’t be Earth. That would be my really fast new-wave-y project.

So are you saying you’ve got a really fast new-wave-y project in the works?

I’m hoping to do a solo record maybe later this year, and we’d like to start recording that as soon as possible, depending on our touring schedule, and that’s something that I hope would be different than Earth.

Is it going to be like ska or something?

No, no, no — but like acoustic guitar and some other stuff.

Will there be vocals in that, or will it be instrumental?

I haven’t decided yet. There’s certain things [that] I have in my head [that] I’m sort of keeping secret. I think it’ll definitely be something different, but hopefully people will be interested enough in it.

Speaking of that Earth sound, do you feel any sort of ownership to the sound that Earth has been said to have “pioneered”?

To me, the ownership of music is like this fiction that we’ve all agreed on. Unfortunately, we live in what they call a free-market capitalist economy, and there’s an exchange of goods required for people to survive. We’ve all sort of agreed that there’s this fiction that “Oh, I wrote this,” and “Oh, I own this,” and “I’m selling it to you.” To me, music is as old as time itself, and there’s nothing that invented it.

Right — it’s like give a penny, take a penny?

Yeah, exactly, but because of the society we live in…we have to have the object to sell people, which is the object of the CD.

Do you think that certain catch-22 of music has made it harder for less-established acts to earn a living? Bands with a massively established audience like Radiohead can count on their fans to continue supporting them. Do you think that new bands have to rely more on touring as a means to stay financially solvent?

Yeah, and that’s my hope. My hope is that live music will become more important, like it used to be, but the economics of that don’t always work out. Back when music was big live, there was no TV, no radio; we didn’t have 24 hours of Internet porn [laughs], so we’ve got competition now.

I definitely think people seem more excited about live music than they used to be, and they want to see bands that can actually play their instruments as opposed to backing tracks and dance routines, and that kind of spectacle. I think [that] the only people in trouble are the major labels, and their whole factory thing. Justin Beiber in front of a bunch of teenagers at a mall is not a live show; most people realize that.

As much as I hate to talk about Justin Beiber, he brings to mind something that I hear you mention in a lot of your interviews. Authenticity is a really hot commodity right now in music, and I think that’s largely because of what you were just talking about — people aren’t just looking for something to tap their feet to, but they want something they can connect with — but is that authenticity something that you can feasibly and consciously strive for or knowingly attain?

We have all these myths and representations of music and art, like it’s something for other people to do rather than for everybody. Like the Amadeus myth that there are just born these phenomenal musicians, and the rest of us can only mash our teeth and plot to murder them because they’ve been given this gift that we don’t have. I absolutely abhor that whole myth.

The reason Mozart was Mozart was because his dad started training him when he was four. The reason Jimi Hendrix was a great guitarist was because he played guitar 18 hours a day. They put in the work; that’s why they were good. Everyone wants to go out and be on American Idol and be a star and believe there are people that are somehow just naturally gifted, but that’s bullshit. Ultimately, if you want to do music, and you put in the work, you’ll do something worthwhile.

Have you ever thought about your music as a sort of guided meditation?

Not specifically that sense. My favorite analogy that I heard was someone saying that Earth reminded them of a busy city, like the world as this busy city and Earth as this park where people can go to just be for a while, whether they want to meditate [pause] or alter their consciousness somehow. I remember a brief time when I was homeless, and the most frustrating thing of that whole experience was that there was just no place that you were allowed to be, where you didn’t have to be buying something, or paying for something.

There are no more places in the world for people to just be; you have to be doing something or spending money or being involved in an exchange. It’s really frustrating. In the old days in England, before the Enclosure Act, there used to be a thing called “the commons,” which no one was allowed to own, and anyone could use it, or they could just leave it alone [laughs]. That whole concept is gone. Now it’s all about “What can we do with this?” and “What can we make it pay?” and that’s happened to people. No one’s allowed to just be; you always have to be in motion, and playing the game, and you know, burning [laughs].

It’s like an acid trip; it’s all about what you make of it…

Yeah, you could have a great time or you could lose your marbles [laughs]. Life is fraught with risk. I’m sure there are theological arguments for why that is, but that’s life: there’s no free ride. It’s like doing drugs; as good as you feel at that one moment, that’s as shitty as you’re going to feel later. There’s a trade-off. So, yes, I think there’s a melancholy to Earth, or darkness, but I also think there’s another side as well.

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