Earth’s Dylan Carlson: Guardian Feature (Posted By Harry)

Earth 'Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II'

Earth 'Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II'

“There was a time when knowledge was magical; music was magical. It was a magical world..”

Guardian Feature

Written By Jamie Thomson

“Releasing albums as partworks is rarely a sign of an artist at peace with themselves. It can be a grand act of self-delusion and hubris (see the Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion debacle) or manic footstamping that ends with someone getting arrested (Erykah Badu springs to mind). But for Dylan Carlson and Earth, it was literally a matter of life and death.

Released last month, the follow-up to 2011’s sublime Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1 is a collection of mostly improvised songs recorded as a safeguard for Carlson, 44, suffering from the effects of drug use, in case he never got the chance to commit his ideas to tape again.

“I had liver disease and was definitely not healthy at the time we did the record. I was really, really sick, so I think that’s why we did so much in one fell swoop … just in case.” Carson smiles ruefully, his grey greatcoat and colonial moustache – not to mention his avuncular drawl – making him seem every inch the southern gentleman, albeit one who has spent his life in Seattle, and has been a fixture of its music scene since the grunge era. Mercifully, the illness that prompted the recording of Angels of Darkness II has since been brought under control – “It’s a permanent condition, but I’m on medication” – and the band are currently on tour in Europe promoting the album.

To label Earth as an instrumental post-rock band is to do their sleepy, panoramic soundscapes a major disservice – they are the soundtrack to the great American road movie that has yet to be made. (“I’d love to score a film,” says Carlson. “Unfortunately, right now, Hollywood is making really, really bad movies.”) Abandoned gas stations caught on sun-bleached Polaroids; desolate highways with a shimmer of heat haze in the middle distance: while not quite a blank canvas – everything about Earth’s music speaks of Americana – it’s the spaces between the ponderous beats and lazy, reverb-soaked guitars that fire the imagination. And Carlson is more than happy to let the audience fill in the gaps.

“Music is a collective thing – the audience and the band create the situation, so I think it’s cool when people have an experience with the music and then tell you what they felt, and it’s similar to your own,” he says. “So the music does something more than just take up space – it conveys information in a way that language can’t.”

It seems a long way from Earth’s original incarnation – when Carslon (with the occasional input of his friend Kurt Cobain) would explore the limits of his amps (and the tolerance of Seattle’s audiences) with walls of feedback-drenched noise, inadvertently inventing drone metal and inspiring a generation of artists such as Sunn O))) (their name a pun on Earth and the brand of amps they used and abused), Om, Khanate and many more. It’s a development that bemuses Carson.

“When I started out, I didn’t plan for anything to happen. And, at the time, the audience wasn’t as appreciative as they are now. Buzz [Osborne] from the Melvins told me: ‘You can do two things – you can try and be the next big thing, or you can just keep doing what you’re doing, and eventually people will pay attention. I pursued the second course.”

It was Sunn O))) who prompted Carlson to start writing music again after a 10-year hiatus, their label, Southern Lord, reissuing his early material, and providing a thread of continuity for him to introduce his new, less confrontational instrumentals.

“They’ve been hugely supportive,” says Carlson. “There was a time when I wasn’t doing anything, they were keeping the word out there, so more power to them. With their own music, they’ve taken something I did and expanded it. I took my influence, and that’s how it works. There’s no original ideas, it’s just one big loop – so long as you take your influences and do something different, then that’s cool.”

And, although there is a marked difference between the two eras of Earth – it’s quite a leap to go from abrasive noise to ruminative, cello-led studies of dark nights of the soul – Carlson is confident even his earliest fans are still along for the ride.

“That’s the great thing about metal audiences, they love music,” he says. “They don’t give an eff for trends. If they like you, they stick with you. So we’re lucky we have that group, but it keeps expanding.” So does he envisage any conflict between the diehards and the new constituencies attracted by their excursions into jazz (2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull featured jazz guitarist Bill Frisell) and folk?

“I still think of us of as a rock band, but we have a broad appeal. Everyone seems to get along at the shows. There’s no fights breaking out between the folkies and the metal kids,” he says, laughing.

One source of friction in Carlson’s life has been that, for years, he was best-known as being Cobain’s closest friend, and for the fact he bought the gun the Nirvana singer used to kill himself. However, it’s an unfortunate association – despite the hoopla over Nevermind’s 20th anniversary last year, Carlson managed to avoid it all, for the most part.

“I sort of didn’t notice until I was taking a bus to the doctor and passed the EMP, Seattle’s rock’n’roll museum, and they were having a huge vaudeville about it, which seemed so strange to me,” he explains. “It’s weird. There’s the public guy, and there’s the friend I knew, and I try to keep them separate. It’s seems enough time has passed so I don’t get dragged into it any more. It’s not like the first few years after it happened, so that makes it easier to deal with.”

While recent history is something Carlson is keen to avoid, delving further back into the past has become a passion. His next project is to explore English and Scottish folk music, and travel across the UK making field recordings like a modern-day Alan Lomax. From ear-punishing heavy-metal noise to exploring the building blocks of popular song, Carlson’s approach to music – stripping it down to its constituent parts – is almost regressive in its progression. Is the ultimate goal to find some kind of connection to simpler times?

“I hope so. I have a computer now, which I never used to have, and I’m being forced to engage with the modern world. But I’m one of those people who thinks the golden age was some mythical time in the past. It’s not on its way – I’m a little pessimistic that way,” he says. “There was a time when knowledge was magical; music was magical. It was a magical world, and these things had value, whereas now …”

Carlson trails off with a mournful smile, letting the silence, like in so much of his music, tell the story.”

• Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II is out now on Southern Lord. Earth play the Button Factory, Dublin, on Monday 5 March. Then tour until 12 March. For more details, visit

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