Interview and photos by Dominic Goodman via RCRD Magazine
I understand you moved around a lot growing up. Were you influenced musically by the places you visited or even just in a more general cultural way?
Yeah I mean my Dad worked for the department of defence, so I guess sort of an army brat in a weird way. Not in the military, I guess a child of the military industrial complex. As soon as we were born we left Seattle for Philadelphia and then from Philadelphia to New Mexico, then New Mexico to Germany and then we moved three times within Germany and then back to the States where we lived in Texas and then New Jersey and then back to Washington. My grandmother was Scottish. She came over to the States right after the war. We still had relatives living in Scotland so when we lived over in Germany we used to visit our relatives in Scotland quite a bit. My Dad worked for the military but wasn’t in the military, except for one year, so we didn’t live on bases, we lived out and about. We did go to U.S. schools but apart from that my parents definitely took advantage of the fact that we lived overseas and travelled a lot. Unlike, I remember there was a Sergeant that worked for my dad and he was proud of the fact that in his five years of being stationed overseas he had never left the base, never eaten outside the NCO club, didn’t know any German, you know, complete isolationist just waiting to get shipped back home basically. It was really strange, that kind of mentality of being somewhere that had so much to offer and just basically ignoring it.
Did you feel like you picked up on those cultures as you were moving around?
Yeah, definitely, we travelled a lot during school breaks and stuff like that. My dad had friends who were, you know… there was this one couple that were my parents friends. He was French but in the US Air Force and had a German wife Then our friend Peter, he had a German wife so they lived outside the base, they didn’t live in the enclaves. I guess nowadays you couldn’t get away with that.
Were you interested in music at that stage?
Music was sort of ever present in the house just because of my parents being of the generation they were. I guess you could say I grew up listening to a lot of my parent’s music. When we were like five as part of our Easter egg hunt we got the first Allman Brother record as a prize. I grew up listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and The Band, I guess what they would call ‘Classic Rock’ now. My Mum’s best friend’s husband was a big Zeppelin fan and Blue Oyster Cult fan, so sort of like through osmosis I picked up a lot of music. Once we moved back to the States when I was in Junior High, at about 11, I could start buying music myself or at least wanted to buy music myself. That’s when I guess I gravitated towards… my first record was an AC/DC record, that’s when I started getting into hard rock and heavy metal I guess. What they called heavy metal back then, now of course it would be called something entirely different because of the micro-genres.
What kind of age did you begin to play or start to want to play?
It’s funny, I guess the first time was the moment I heard AC/DC, that was when I wanted to start playing. I didn’t quite figure out that you could play until a few years later, so I guess it was about 4 or 5 years of wanting to play before realising ‘oh I actually could play’.
Would that have been with friends? Did you form bands with friends at that time?
Not right off the bat, I mean right off the bat I just wanted a guitar and got a guitar and started learning to play and learning to write songs. It was weird because later, as I met people who played guitar, most of them spent most of their time learning to play other people’s stuff and I never really went that route. I just started trying to write songs from the get go, which, sometimes I regret not learning how to play other people’s stuff at the same time. For some reason it seemed like instead of learning to play Stairway to Heaven I should just learn how to write a song.
Obviously around that period of time, around Seattle, so much great music was being created. Do you think that there was something happening or a cultural aspect that enabled that, or just chance and a knock on effect from one band to another?
I think it’s a combination of things. Ultimately I think it’s the fact that you have an area where there’s not a lot going on. I can still remember the very first article on Seattle that was in NME and the description of Seattle was: “An obscure West Coast seaport”. I think the fact that Seattle wasn’t LA, or New York or one of those kind of places where people looked for things to happen it kind of created this blank slate for things to happen. Once people saw that there’s people doing things and it’s like getting noticed then more people wanted to start doing stuff. It kind of builds from there. I don’t think anyone set out to be like “Seattle is going to be the cultural nexus of rock music for the 90s”.
Was it exciting to be a part of that scene or was it frustrating that it very quickly had so much attention focused on it?
It’s weird, I mean at the time, you don’t really notice that’s going on so much. It’s just sort of like, stuff is happening and you see other bands doing stuff and they’re getting noticed and other bands aren’t. At least from my perspective it’s not a very conscious thing, it just kind of happens and some people are able to take advantage of it and other people aren’t.
I’m interested in the sound that you and Earth have It seemed to sort of be there from the outset and yet you’ve managed to integrate that into different styles while still keeping this very idiosyncratic sound. Was that sound for you something that was very instinctual or was it something that developed through a number of years as you were beginning to play music?
I guess it would have to be sort of an instinctual sound, choosing to do it in a specific way….
Your guitar sound has certainly influenced lots of people. It’s instantly recognizable in the context of Earth but you have also been able to integrate it into a lot of different styles sometimes not always expected.
It’s funny I look back on the old days and where I was very equipment specific and “oh I need this” or “oh I need that” and now it’s like, I’ve sort of realized that I don’t really need any of those to do it.
Because it’s coming more from you than the equipment?
It’s not the gear, I mean, there is certain gear that makes it easier but ultimately, regardless of what I’m given, it’s going to be me that it comes out of. It’s not based on what I’m using.
Going back to the early days, specifically Earth 2 feels like a very daring record in it’s simplicity. Did it feel like that at the time it first came out? What was the reaction to it at that time?
Well, yeah. Earth 2 definitely was the most conceptual album. At the time it was like, what’s the maximum amount of time we have for a CD? which was like 73 minutes, so it was like, let’s fill up all 73 minutes. Again we ran into another problem which was that at the time you could only get a half an hour reel on a recording tape hence it had to be broken up into three parts. Conceptually that was intended to be the extreme of what technology could handle so that is what we wanted to use.
How did people react to that when it came out?
It’s funny now that it’s gotten this patent of ‘oh it’s such an amazing record, blah, blah, blah”. Obviously there were a few people who liked it but ultimately when it was first pressed there were 2,000 copies pressed and it took 3 years to sell those 2,000 copies. It was certainly not a popular record [laughs].
You talking about Earth 2 being the most conceptual, it seems in a way that all your records feel quite conceptual. Is that something you think about before you even start writing or do you begin writing a record and it just develops in that way?
I think nowadays, they’re much less that way. Originally I used to have notebooks of song titles. I’d write music and eventually I’d go through and be like “Oh this song title works for this piece” whereas nowadays the music comes a lot faster than any kind of song title.
Regarding Earth, do you put in time where you say “we’re going to write” or is it just an ongoing collaborative process?
I’m always writing stuff. Some of it will be an Earth song, some will be something else, so yeah it’s not compartmentalised. It’s not like “now I’m writing an Earth record” or “now I’m writing this record”. I’m just writing and I think this might be good for an Earth song or this one might be good for something else.
You’ve obviously got a very strong understanding within the band when you’re playing. Are the tracks very structured before you play live or is there a lot of improvisation going on?
I’d say there’s a lot of improvisation. There’s like certain riffs and those riffs can vary the number of times they’re repeated.
So there’s a general structure and you just work around that? Is that the same with when you’re recording?
It depends upon the song, recording wise some of the songs are more structured than others.
You mentioned about you having ancestry from the British isles. Is knowing that something that drew you back here or do you think it was something in your genes that you connected with?
I think it’s definitely something I was aware of.
You visited Scotland growing up?
Yeah we visited Scotland and England quite a bit when I was younger.
And (your interest) in the folk aspect?
I guess that came later.
The origins of the background to some of those songs? Did you do some research on that side of things?
Yeah luckily, you know, there’s Cecil Sharpe House and Child Ballads those are quite a bit of information available on the history of that, which was quite helpful.
I’m interested in The Bug collaboration and how that came around. On paper I couldn’t really of envisaged it but in reality it works so seamlessly.
That happened kind of like out of pure serendipity. Simon Fowler, who’s illustrated a number of Earth album covers has also done a number of Bug album covers, so I guess was the catalyst.
In terms of you guys meeting each other?
Yeah, Kevin [Martin] was aware of my work from back when he was a rock journalist. He’d been given an Earth2 record to review back in the day. I guess he must have kept tabs on what I was up to…
So he approached you with a concept for a project?
Yeah, originally he was doing this ‘Angels & Devils’ record and he wanted me to play guitar on a couple of the tracks and then for whatever reason it ended up becoming separate tracks. We ended up doing two 12” and keeping it separate from the record. We’d done a few shows together at the behest of Ninja Tune, and he was like ‘Oh why don’t we do a full record instead of just a 12”’ so we did that and the response has been really overwhelmingly positive.
Were you familiar with The Bug before?
It’s weird, I wasn’t as familiar with his music as he was with mine. I went through a period of time in the late 90s, during my – what do you call it – ‘silent era’? where I got quite into Jungle and stuff. I mean I’ve always been a big dub reggae fan so I guess it grew out of that. That’s where the interest came from.
So you were listening to more contemporary electronic music?.
Yeah, I mean, there’s music that I love and listen to a lot but there’s also music that….I mean, I think there is good music within every realm, I don’t think anyone has an exclusive hold on what’s good music and what’s bad music. There’s certain genre’s where it’s harder to find good music but.. [laughter]
Do you feel like you’ve gone through periods of time where you’ve listened to different genres in that sense?
Yeah, I mean I try not to. To me genres are kind of marketing tools, marketing gimmicks.
You mentioned that hiatus period when you weren’t putting any records out and then you came back. Was Hex the first record after you came back?
It was the first I guess that was [a proper album]. We’d done a live record: “Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword” and some other recordings but they were all live.
Was there a catalyst at that point where you thought it’s time to get back to creating?
Weirdly enough that time I started playing guitar again just because I wanted to play again, I didn’t set out to either restart Earth or restart guitar to be noticed.
You were just drawn back to it without any particular reason?
There was no plan to redo Earth or even necessarily to perform as Earth again.
Now, moving forward is your plan to continue with another Bug album, or work on your own stuff? Are there other plans for more?
I recorded a solo record in May of last year that’ll be out soon. We’re going to do another Earth record there’s no date yet for it or anything, but we’ve been writing it and we’ll see what’s up with it…
Dylan Carlson’s new album Conquistador is available now – HERE