By Jason P. Woodbury
Few bands can boast as impressive a second act as Seattle drone rockers Earth. Led by guitarist Dylan Carlson, the band’s early discography for Sub Pop defined the distorted doom/drone metal sound that inspired Sunn O))) (named in relation to “Earth”) and the Southern Lord label.
Following nearly a decade devoted to overcoming addiction and legal problems, Carlson returned with Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method in 2005 (issued by Southern Lord). It marked a seismic shift in Earth’s sound, embracing a distant, sunbaked tone that incorporated elements of country, blues, folk, and jazz. Carlson was afforded sure footing by methodical drummer Adrienne Davies, who’s remained a constant since.
The band’s maintained a steady clip: 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull was a biblical masterpiece, and Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light Vol. 1 and 2 (released in 2011 and 2012, respectively) brought in elements of funk and English folk rock.
Sound of the City spoke with Davies about the band’s improvisational approach, and the unlikely introduction of swampy R&B into the band’s arsenal.
Earth play Saturday at Littlefield with Eagle Twin and Stebmo
Sound of the City: The landscape most often mentioned in discussion of Earth albums post Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method is the “Southwest,” but you’re based in a greener area. Have you spent much time in the actual Southwest?
Adrienne Davies: It’s funny, because I’ve noticed that as well. It must just be innate, because no, not a lot of direct experience there. I know [guitarist Dylan Carlson] spent did spent some time growing up in New Mexico. But, no, not a lot of direct experience from there. [Laughs] Especially on Hex, and some of the more specifically country influenced stuff, it’s definitely there. I’m always amazed when people say that, because it must just be part of what we do at this point.
Are you guys touring with the Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light [1&2] lineup?
Actually no. We just did a tour of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, and oddly enough we just had a three-piece. It was more of a power trio at the time. It was Don McGreevy, our bass player from The Bees Made Honey [in the Lion’s Skull], and we couldn’t get [keyboardist] Steve Moore at the time. But for the U.S. tour, it’s Don McGreevy on bass and Steve Moore on Wurlitzer organ and trombone. It’s the Bees Made Honey lineup, so that’s always fun. It’s a little louder and grittier, but Steve always brings that delicate gospel flair with his organ.
Are you still playing a lot of stuff from the Angels of Darkness records?
Yeah, and it’s interesting to not have the cello, because it’s such a lead instrument and so present on those albums. We’re trying to rework stuff, which is something we always do anyway. It’s a different feel; it’s got more of a southern, gospel-y vibe. We’re reworking the material, and stuff from previous albums and also some new material.
You’re known for your restraint, and Earth is generally know for a minimalist style, but both Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light albums sound like the vibe was looser. Do you feel like that’s a fair characterization of those albums, specifically regarding percussion?
Yeah, that’s definitely what I was going for. It was one of the first times in the studio that I felt totally free, and without any expectations. I was totally free to play what was coming to mind at that second, and not feel locked into this very specific, very set and rigid [format]. Before, when we’ve done albums, it was a very perfectionistic, layer-by-layer, dense project. So the drums were extremely specific, and so controlled and tight. A very specific way of playing. The last two albums were totally the opposite: We were all playing without a set [idea]. It was much more immediate, and okay if happy accidents happened. It was okay to let things wander. The drums were much more of a lead instrument. It was really fun, is what it was.
There was more improvisation? Some of these songs were culled from long-form jam sessions, correct?
Yeah, there was a lot of rolling tape and just playing. The songs where we had more of an idea that we were working off had parts were we improvised within the songs, and then there were whole songs that were literally, not even a word of discussion, we just rolled tape and there it was. Like the title track from part one; it was completely [improvised], no overdubs. It was left completely as it was. That was just it.
Has that approach extended to the live shows? Have you left room for jamming? I know jamming is such a shitty word to describe it. When I think of a “jam band,” I certainly don’t think of anything like Earth, but I mean a more free, improvised approach.
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s what keeps it feeling good from night to night. It depends on how much time you have to work out new stuff. A lot of times we’ll come up with something during soundcheck, and it will morph and evolve. I know the whole idea of “jamming” just sounds horrible. A lot of the problem with improv is that it gets a bad rap, because people see it as a way to [perform] at full peak, manic all the way through. They never let it breathe, they never back off. They’re kind of showing their technical chops but they don’t see the music as the whole. They’re not listening to each other and stepping forward and stepping back.
For us, that’s cheap. If you’re going to be doing improv, you need to be able to listen, and lay low. That’s the beauty of it. [Laughs] You can fall on your face. It can completely unravel on you live. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you are with letting it build its own winding road. But as a drummer or bass player, you’re still guiding it and shepherding it. You’re building a form, but not constricting it too much.
The closing track from the second Angels record, “The Rakehell,” that’s really new territory for you guys. With that one, it feels like a new step.
We’re very specific about continuity, as far as albums. We like when you can hear a beginning, middle, and end, and it tells a story, and it has an arch. With that song, we were like, “This really is very different.” But I love that song; I fought for including it on the album, as it’s definitely a wild card. I don’t think we have another song in our catalog that has even a taste of funk to it, but there’s definitely a weird R&B/funk kind of groove. I don’t know if it’s Dylan’s guitar tone, but there’s almost an ’70s/Eagles vibe somewhere in there. It’s got a lot of weird, mismatched elements going on, but somehow it works. Bringing Steve Moore and Don McGreevy back in, it definitely gets more R&B/gospel infused. I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes.
It’s an astonishing song. The first time I heard it, I sat up in my chair, in a good way. But in a lot of ways, it feels very natural. It’s connected to other things in your work, styles like jazz and Americana. It comes out of left field, but not that left of a field.
I definitely had a soft spot for it. It’s actually the only song in that music we came up with on the spot for those two albums that just features Dylan and I. It was just drums and guitar, just going at it, following this weird rhythmic journey. There was no bass part, no cello. Dylan came in later and did a simple bass overdub. All the accents and fills were already there, just really giving it a strange funky vibe.
Do you feel like that song gives any indication of where you’re headed? I know you guys act in an intuitive, manner, and I’m probably speaking to something that doesn’t happen, where you guys sit down and sketch out what every album is going to be.
[Laughs] Yeah — “This will be our krautrock album.” No, I mean, we usually are the last to know and there it is. But it does seem to be leaning in more of a rock vein lately. Dylan is doing his solo thing over in England, so he’s getting all his fairy folk stuff out. I think when he comes back, it’s going to be gritty and dirty, some bluesy stuff going on. From the new material, it seems to be going in that direction.
Might we hear some of that new stuff live, or is it not quite ready?
[Laughs] Well, that’s never stopped us before.