Earth, here and now

Pub date June 17, 2008
WriterWill York
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"I’m a big fan of Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton and Merle Haggard’s guitarist, Roy Nichols. I also like a lot of western swing, like Hank Thompson and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Jerry Reed. Waylon Jennings is one of my favorite guitar players."

Listening to Dylan Carlson rattle off a list of his favorite country pickers might seem a little strange. After all, this is the guy who practically invented the drone-metal genre in the early 1990s as the leader of Sub Pop outcasts Earth. Their snail-paced, sludge-caked drone explorations might be termed "primordial," yet they were anything but traditional or rootsy. Some probably questioned whether they were music at all.

The band’s landmark Earth 2 (Sub Pop, 1993) is a legendary lease-breaker of an album thanks to its wall-rattling sonics. For years the recording — and the band in general — puzzled onlookers, who wondered what Nirvana’s old label was doing releasing something so unseemly. Earth once played a music-biz festival in New York during the early ’90s, and as Carlson recounts by phone from Seattle, "I had friends telling me, ‘Oh, yeah, there were all these industry people here, and they were totally confused.’ They thought we were assholes and stuff, like we were making fun of them."

The joke’s on them now, even it wasn’t back then. Thanks to Earth worshippers Sunn O))) and the scads of other low-end drone specialists who have cropped up in recent years, the band’s once-misunderstood sound has come to be seen as pioneering, opening the way for a range of experimentalists operating at the crossroads of metal, improv, and avant-garde rock. The thing is, Carlson doesn’t have much interest in that sound anymore.

"Obviously it’s flattering to be liked by people and to influence people," he says. "But for me, it’s not something I would do again, since I don’t like repeating myself and I’m trying to move somewhere else."

Earth’s more recent recordings, including 2005’s Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method and this year’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Den (both Southern Lord), move at the same slow hypnotic pace of the older material, but they do so with less volume, more space, and a surprising twang element. These discs have come with the help of a new cast of supporting musicians — including trombonist-keyboardist Steve Moore and Master Musicians of Bukkake members John Schuller and Don McGreavy on bass — and a new, more clearheaded approach for Carlson. They also come in the wake of a long hiatus that led many to assume Earth was finished as a band.

"I got dropped by Sub Pop [after 1996’s Pentastar] and wasn’t sure I wanted to play music anymore," he explains. "And I had a lot of [personal] wreckage to take care of, so that’s pretty much what I spent those years doing."

He started playing the guitar again in late 2000, but found himself less interested in feedback and doom-laden riffs and more interested in country music. As he explains, "For some reason, every so often I’ll go to my collection, and for whatever reason something will catch my fancy, and I’ll become obsessed with it for awhile. And that was the stuff."

He started playing with drummer Adrienne Davies in 2001, whose minimalist, mostly brushed sound has been a fixture on the newer Earth albums. He wasn’t planning on playing live again or even using the Earth name, he says, but things fell into place thanks to a reissue of some old recordings and a coinciding East Coast mini-tour. As a result, Earth was reborn — with a different lineup and a different sound.

"I mean, there are similarities between everything I do just because it’s me doing it," Carlson says. "But I’m just always trying to expand with each record and grow as a musician, hopefully, rather than repeating the same thing over and over again." Even so, he adds, "I kind of hear how musics are linked, rather than how they’re different."

Earth: Mach II’s brand of sparse, loping, desert minimalism is a far cry from the wall-of-sound drones of the many Earth-inspired bands currently operating. It’s not metal, but it’s certainly not country either. It’s more like some sort of bizarre-world Americana, with its mantra-like repetition, subtle guitar twang, and wide open sense of space. Jazz guitarist and fellow Seattleite Bill Frisell, who has developed his own skewed take on Americana over the years, makes a guest appearance on Bees, and a Ry Cooder cameo wouldn’t be out of place.

Carlson credits the open-minded, genre-crossing Seattle scene for helping the new Earth evolve and branch out. "It’s not like during the ’90s when everyone was trying to get signed and was worried about playing a specific genre. It’s just people who are into all kinds of music and just want to do the best stuff that they can."


With Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter and Aerial Ruin

Fri/20, 9 p.m., $15

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750