Regular IG readers and especially those that know me outside of music blog land are well aware of my affection for John Carpenter, and a sizable chunk of that affection is based on his soundtrack work. Films such as Halloween and Escape from New York simply wouldn’t be as effective without Carpenter’s sinister, tension-filled electronic soundscapes as accompaniment.
Aluk Todolo’s Occult Rock is one of the best albums you’ll hear this year; a monolithic double LP of blackened experimentation of the highest order. With help from the incomparable Nathan T. Birk, I contacted the band via e-mail to gain some insight into their instrumental alchemy. The following interrogation transpired…
In 2005, I interviewed Dylan Carlson, guitarist/mastermind behind drone/doom pioneers Earth for a multi-band feature on experimental music that I had been working on for my college newspaper. The story fell through when several other bands flaked out, and the interview w/ Carlson languished on a digital recorder in the bowels of my mother’s basement, destined to go unpublished… until now.
THKD: This is the first Earth release in a while for you guys and I was wondering, why such a lengthy wait? [note: at the time of the interview, Earth were preparing to release Hex; Or Printing the Infernal Method, their first album in nearly a decade]
Dylan Carlson: After I did Pentastar, to be blunt, I had drug problems and legal problems to take care of and my relationship with Sub Pop ended, so I spent the next few years sort of getting my life back together and that’s why it took so long.
THKD: Did those hardships that you went through have an impact on the new material?
DC: As a musician, whatever happens in your life is sort of grist for the mill. For a long time I didn’t play guitar. I knew I was going to play music again, I just didn’t know if I was going to do it professionally again or whether I was going to do Earth again and I feel very fortunate, not many people go away for seven years and have anyone interested in their next phase. I definitely feel fortunate in that respect, that a lot of people seem to want to hear from Earth again and seem very happy about the fact that I’m doing it again.
JH: So, was there pressure because of that when you were working on the new album?
DC: There’s always pressure when you’re doing a new album, especially it seems with Earth since Earth2 has become this kind of monument unto itself and anytime a musician does something that people view as their best work, there’s always going to be that pressure to try and better it or do something of the same caliber. I definitely think with this album we were able to spend the time and the budget to do things right, and I had time to work on the songs and make it the strongest album we could.
THKD: I’ve seen a lot of awesome reviews of [Hex], are you happy with the reaction it’s gotten and how it is being received?
DC: Oh definitely, as a musician it’s always kind of frustrating that you yourself don’t really determine your finest moment, it’s sort of up to everyone else. There’s always the case where someone thinks they’ve done a great album but the critics hate it and the public doesn’t want to buy it, so it’s nice when something that you feel strongly about is also well received.
THKD: You took Earth in a different direction than what had been on previous albums, what made you decide to steer it in that direction?
DC: To me Earth has always been the sum of my interests and the last few years have been sort of a rediscovery of musical roots with the country playing, and also I’ve been really interested in the older forms of instrumental music, like Duane Eddy. Back then it was like instrumental music was popular and it hit the charts, which is unheard of nowadays. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of books about the American frontier and the Cormac McCarthy books and it was just sort of my obsessions at the time and they came out in the music.
THKD: Do you think that instrumental music is starting to become more prominent again? You guys are back, Pelican is getting big now and a few other bands, do you think it’s making a comeback at all?
DC: I don’t know if it’s ever going to be as big as it was, but it definitely seems like it’s ok now to do it. I mean like Kinski and like you said Pelican, I haven’t heard them but I see them everywhere in magazines and whatnot, so yeah it definitely seems like it’s becoming acceptable to do it again, which is cool, I think. I think the last instrumental hit was a Joe Satriani song back in the eighties, before that I think the Ventures were the last, so I don’t know whether it’s ever going to be a chart trend.
THKD: On this album you played some additional instruments, such as the banjo. Did you already know how to play them beforehand?
DC: No, there just happened to be a banjo in the studio and I actually tuned it to guitar tuning. Although I’ve been learning banjo techniques like banjo rolls on the guitar, I’m not a banjo player. It was more like a color to use on the album.
THKD: What’s the recording process like for you? Do you take the same experimental approach to recording that you do to composition?
DC: For this album, we cut the basic tracks, like the guitar and drums, we did one take as the basic track and then just overdubbed the additional instruments, so I guess it was a fairly traditional method of recording. The songs were more nebulous and when we got to the studio, since in the live situation we’d been doing a lot improvising, in the studio we arranged the songs and decided ok we’re gonna do the definitive versions, and so we wrote up arrangements and whatnot. We knew we wanted the other instrumentation, so there’d need to be some charts for the other musicians to deal with.
THKD: Are your live shows completely improvised?
DC: They’re kind of semi [improvised] now, they used to be improvised, now we’re actually playing material off the album. It’s not like exact copies off the record, some of them are longer, some of them are shorter and there’s a couple newer pieces that are more improvisatory. Before when Earth recorded something, I would never play it live, it would sort of get left behind, but now we’re being more conventional and playing stuff off the album.
THKD: I know you’ve performed as a duo and and you’ve also done some things that are just you playing guitar solo, so what is the ideal live setup for you?
DC: I don’t really have an ideal one I guess. Right now we’re touring as three piece, we’ve got a new member Jonas Haskins playing baritone guitar. Part of what I like about the live situation is that it’s like a roller coaster ride and I like trying different combinations to see how they work and see what serves the music best.
THKD: On this album you’ve experimented with some different tones and layed off the super-distorted stuff. Did you have to change your equipment or setup?
DC: I don’t lug around all the huge speaker cabinets and whatnot anymore, I’m too old for that. I’ve sort of become a Telecaster freak and I have a couple tube combo amps, so 1x12s and 2x12s and then this last tour because we had to fly in for the shows, I was using one of those new Crate powerblock little solid state heads which seemed to work pretty good. I’m all about smaller amps now.
THKD: So, the sheer volume isn’t as important to you anymore?
DC: No, no… I mean we’re still pretty crankin’, especially now with the baritone guitar on board. We have the low end covered again so it frees me up to do my new thing.
THKD: Is it harder for a band to convey emotions without the use of lyrics and vocals? Or since you’ve been doing it for so long does it come naturally to you?
DC: I’m fortunate that since I’ve always tried to do that it seems to work. Even before we did the album, when we were playing the new songs live, people would talk to us about how it gave them the image of a ghost town or a desert, so it seems like somehow by obsessing on stuff it comes out in the music. I don’t know if it’s just purely accidental or not but I definitely think that’s the challenge of instrumental music and what makes playing instrumental music exciting. Plus I like it because it allows the listener a more active roll in the music process. When there’s lyrics it’s like the band is telling people what they should feel and what they should think about the song and with instrumental music I like the interactivity of it.
THKD: When someone comes up to you and tells you what they thought of when they heard the music, do you ever feel like it is being misinterpreted?
DC: No one’s ever told me they wanted to rape children or anthing like that. It seems like people get it or respond to it in a pretty similar manner.
THKD: What emotions do you go through when you’re playing or composing the material?
DC: I know the emotion comes out but it’s nothing definite, like “oh this part sad” it’s more like you’re offering the totality of your being. To me a lot of music exists in it’s own realm and you’re channeling it. It’s like if music was water and you’re a vessel and everything you’re obsessed with or feeling shapes that vessel and then music has now come through it and so that’s the shape it takes. Everything that you go through during the day seems to be wrapped up in it. I know that some people have commented that this album seems more hopeful than previous Earth records and I’d think it would have to be, because I’ve become a much more hopeful person and I have better balance and sense of priorities now, so I think it can’t help but come out in the music.
DC: I don’t know if it tells a story, but I think it definitely helps, especially since this is music that is fairly visual in its impact I think it’s one more thing that helps the music convey its meaning. Steve O’Malley was telling me basically what he did is spent a few weeks listening to the rough mixes and that’s where he started getting ideas and then looking for pictures. He definitely made the album cover while listening to it, so that’s why that’s such a seamless work, why they work together so well.
THKD: A more general question, how do you think your talents have evolved from say, Earth2 up to now?
DC: I’ve become a better guitar player, I definitely think I have a stronger sense of melody, a stronger sense of direction. My work ethic is stronger. Part of it is when I did Earth2 we were trying to make an extreme statement, we only had less than a week to do it. I think I’ve always tried to do the best album to the best of my abilities with what I’ve been given and I was fortunate with Hex to have a budget that allowed us to explore some options and gave us time to really work our asses off and then also gave us time to sit back and digest it and decide what we wanted to do, and when we decided to add instrumentation to be able to secure the services of some amazing musicians. I was able to devote more time and effort to the music than previously.
THKD: How did you hook up with Southern Lord for the release?
DC: In 2003, Greg [Anderson] invited us down to play at the Southern Lord showcase at South By Southwest. I had met Greg when I was living in LA and he had talked about reissuing some older stuff and it never quite came about but we had maintained contact over the years and then he invited us down for that and then he came to see us a few times after that. He was confident in our abilites and wanted to invest in the future of Earth, so it worked out.
THKD: I’ve seen a lot of interviews where Greg [Anderson] and Stephen [O’Malley] say they formed SunnO))) as an Earth tribute band, and it certainly isn’t just them that consider you influential. How does it feel to be so highly regarded?
DC: It’s very flattering. There’s so many musicians that aren’t fortunate enough to receive the opportunities that I did and I’ve been fortunate to have my music heard by people and have people enjoy it and get into it. I’m grateful for that interest and it’s pretty cool. Obviously, the kind of music I do, success is measured in different ways and being influential is one of those rewards.
THKD: My last question for you is kind of off subject. Have you ever been approached to do any soundtrack work or is that something that would interest you at all?
DC: Yeah, I would love to do that and unfortunately I haven’t been approached to do any! [laughs]