The guitarguitar Interview: Dylan Carlson of Earth

Published on 24 May 2019

Earth are, to fans of deep, hypnotic grooves and atmospheric guitar music, a special band. Over a career that has spanned decades, guitarist Dylan Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies, along with an alternating cast of additional members, have claimed expansive sonic ground, rich and fertile in its gains. From their native Seattle (more specifically Olympia, Washington), Earth grew out of the nascent late 80s Grunge scene, inventing ‘Ambient Metal’ along the way and ending up today, with the type of sparse, sun-bleached, mysterious, cinematic music that owes as much to author Cormac McCarthy as it does to any musical influences.

Earth’s newest record, Full Upon Her Burning Lips, focuses on the relationship between Carlson’s guitars and Davies’ drum performances, allowing the space, repetition and intricate nuances of phrasing to stand as their musical language. There’s plenty of depth and atmosphere to be had here, and the performances are spellbinding.

We managed to briefly catch up with Dylan on the eve on the new album’s release. What I noticed, and no doubt you will too, is that Dylan goes into considerable detail about his amps and pedals, but never once mentions particular guitars! He is very specific about which pickups he prefers, though, and he certainly knows his gear! In the past, Dylan has used everything form humble Squier Stratocasters to semi-acoustic Hagstroms to Gary Moore Les Pauls. Perhaps his relationship with sound is more important than his relationship with particular guitars. It's a refreshing attitude, for sure, as is his preference for solid state technology over valves! Read on to find out more about tone, overdrive, minimalism and folkloric wisdom!


(Photo by Sean Stout)

Hi Dylan! Thank you so much for talking with us! Earth’s new record, Full Upon Her Burning Lips, is a beautiful and deep album. For this album, it’s just you on guitars & bass and Adrienne Davies on the drums. How did you arrive at the decision to strip things back to just two people?

It seemed like it was a natural progression, and sort of coming full circle, as it is our first album for Sargent House, and I really wanted to show what the core of the band was capable of.


Also, on this new record, you’ve said that you have limited the materials used to make it. How does that reflect in your set up? Can you take us through what gear you used to record with this time?

I used my live set up basically, though it has changed slightly since I recorded the record. I used a Burman 100w EL-34 amp into a Dietz 1x12 and a DV Mark Micro 50 into an Ampeg 2x10.  For the bass, I used the Burman and the 1x12. Overdubs were a mix of both amps since the solid state DV Mark has a generally darker sound.

For effects, I used my MXR Custom compressor, MXR Shin Juku Drive, Dunlop Uni-vibe (JD4S Rotovibe- Ray), and Dunlop Echoplex delay. There were two additional pedals I used on a couple overdubs: a Boss Combo Drive and a CKK Q-Cat envelope filter. That was about it! It is a challenge I enjoy, to get as many sounds out of as few pedals as possible.


And does your live gear differ from your studio set up?

It didn’t at the time. I’ve changed my live rig a bit since then. I still use the same pedals (the MXR and Dunlop ones) and now I’m using two Trace Elliot Elf heads (200w solid state bass head that weighs 1 1/4 lbs.), one with a Dietz 1x12 and one with a Mesa 1x12.


Do you have separate rigs for US tours and overseas shows?

I did, but now I bring the Trace Elliot heads, and I have a Fender Bassbreaker 1x12 , and I would pair it with a Boss Katana 50 or a WEM Dominator mark III/I combo, but I’ll be getting another 1x12 and be using the two Trace Eliot in future.


One of the new tracks is called ‘Datura’s Crimson Veils’. Datura, as I know it, is a primary element in Haitian Vodou for creating the so-called ‘Zombie powder’. Is this something you’re referencing here? And have you ever read Wade Davis’ book The Serpent and the Rainbow? 

It is used in a number of traditions for its hallucinogenic properties, as well as the source of scopolamine for western medicine. It was also part of the witches ‘flying ointment’, and apparently a favourite ‘trip’ for the Manson Family. I was aware of it in the zombie context as well, and I’ve read both books he wrote on the subject.


(Photo by Sean Stout)

That's pretty amazing! Those books are well worth reading. Though Earth are well-known for their expansive, monolithic sound, do other genres of music play a part in forming and inspiring you? For example, I can often hear a Country influence...

Definitely, I love lots of music, country, r n b/soul, blues, jazz, African music, dub, reggae, rock n roll...


How does the writing process for Earth work? Do you both need to be in the room together to create or can you write at home and bring things to the table, so to speak? 

I used to write and then present the songs to the band, but increasingly, and especially with this album, it was me and Adrienne just playing and recording ideas and then picking the best of them and arranging them in the studio.


You’ve mentioned about highlighting a more ‘witchy’ side of Earth’s sound, with terms like ‘root doctor’ and ‘superstitious beliefs’ being used. Can you expand on the more folkloric elements of the record please? Do these elements play a part in your everyday life?

I have an abiding interest in ‘occult’ folklore, and magical practices. It is mostly of a historical nature, but there are aspects I incorporate in my day to day life, especially things involved with health and well-being.


Though there isn’t an overriding narrative to the album, you still seem to build in a kind of dramatic arc to every song, would that be right?

It is a goal of mine that every song has a narrative arc, no matter how vague it may be, as well as an arc to the record.


Riffs obviously play a large part in your musical vocabulary. What do you think makes for a great guitar riff?

It should be something that catches the attention of the listener, and be something you want to hear again (and again and again...). Phrasing is very important as well.


How does Seattle, where you live, factor into your music?

It just happens to be where I live part of the time when I’m not in London or on tour. I’m sure it has some influence, perhaps climatic or a place to escape from, haha!


(Photo by Holly Carlson)

It’s relatively difficult to pull out individual influences for Earth’s music, apart from Black Sabbath of course! What musicians (guitarists or otherwise) have inspired you the most over the years? 

That’s a tough one as there have been so many. Steve Cropper and Cornell Dupree, Sonny Sharrock and Dominique Gaumont, Pete Cosey, Jimi Hendrix, Earl ’Chinna’ Smith, John McLaughlin, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Uli Jon Roth, Richie Blackmore, Roy Buchanan, Dickie Betts, Bill Frisell, Buzz Osborne... I could go on, but I think that’s a pretty full list.


It is! Diverse too! I love your latter-period guitar sound: can you drop any hints about how to get a similar sound? Are we talking volume? Fuzz pedals?

I used a Boss Blues Driver for quite a while as my main OD, and recently it’s the MXR Shin Juku Drive and also an MXR Dyna Comp, later the Custom Comp version.


On the record The Bees made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, Bill Frisell appears on a number of tracks. How was that experience? Did his approach to playing influence you in any way? The results were fantastic!

I consider him an influence definitely. He is the nicest cat I’ve ever met. He came in and just played, he’s completely amazing.


What sort of qualities do you look for in an electric guitar? 

Does it sound good to me in terms of resonance and can I get a Dimarzio tele bridge p/up to fit in it? And is it under $600 or £ or €. I also prefer lighter more resonant bodies, and thin or no finish.


(Photo by Sean Stout)

Do you use standard tuning? And what gauge of strings do you prefer?

I use standard dropped a 1/2 step - Hendrix tuning, I call it - and occasionally I’ll drop the top string another step for some songs, though mostly not with Earth.


How about plectrums? They are more important that some players account for! What do you like using?

My favourites are the Dunlop Primetone 3mm but any thick Dunlop pick around 2/3mm with a sharp edge.


Wow, that’s really heavy, haha! I’ve read that you are a fan of the DiMarzio Cruiser pickup: is this for pushing your amps a little harder and getting some compression, maybe? Do you have other favourite pickups? 

The Cruiser is actually close to a standard Strat output (it’s not high output, but maybe a little hotter than a 70’s Strat, a 60’s Strat I guess they say). I also use the Fast Track T which again is not a high output pickup. I generally prefer lower/medium output and the hottest I’ve ever used is the Tone Zone T. I want a lot of clarity and I find that high output pickups are murky and fizzy and just don’t do it for me. I prefer DiMarzio single coil size humbuckers for their clarity.


How important is volume for you?

I like a full sound, but I also like dynamics, and I don’t think volume equals heavy and I’m not trying to hurt people. Also, I’m not in some kind of competition for who’s loudest.


Repetition is also a large compositional factor in your songs. Do you use it for a sort of accumulative, trance-like effect or is there another artistic agenda at work?

I think it is in large part trance influenced, but I also I feel if it’s a good riff, I want to hear it a lot, haha!


Can you recommend a good overdrive pedal for us please? And a good fuzz?

My favourite is the MXR Shin Juku Drive. Fuzz is tricky, but the MXR Variac Fuzz and the Way Huge Conquistador are ones I like, though I generally don’t use fuzz pedals.


Finally, Dylan, what do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when playing live?

Don’t get in your own way and let the music flow.


Earth's new record Full Upon Her Burning Lips is out now on Sargent House Records. Keep up with Earth via their website here.

We would like to thank Dylan for his participation in this illuminating and throughtful interview. We'd also like to thansk Lauren Barley for all of her help in making this happen.

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