Pulling a guitar from its case, Dylan Carlson chuckles with nervous laughter, “ I’m probably going to get glassed tonight, right?”
With his heavily tattooed hands, the type that remind you of a man who has spent a few years in the can amusing himself sporadically by etching designs on his skin, Carlson turns the body of the guitar outward to reveal a sticker of St George’s Cross attached below the bridge.
The promoter lets him know that those days are now in the past. Carlson looks at him assuredly, convinced that he could associate with that sentiment. After all, the past is still something that he too is coming to terms with in more ways than one.
As the driving force in drone metal, Dylan Carlson rose to prominence with Seattle band Earth in the early nineties. Taking inspiration from British metal bands such as Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, Carlson created a sound that has become synonymous with his home city of Seattle. It was also in Seattle that he met Kurt Cobain. The two would go on to become close friends with Cobain contributing vocals on Earth’s debut EP, Extra Capsular Extractions.
Those who are familiar with Nick Broomfield’s documentary Kurt and Courtney will remember Carlson as the vulnerable, scared and clearly high 20-something year-old in a hotel room just months after his best friend committed suicide with the gun that he apparently bought. It was a dark time for Carlson and a period that he doesn’t like talking about, particularly with journalists.
Carlson is now clean and has been for quite some time. He does, however, have a tendency to smoke like his life depended upon it.
Meeting him in the alleyway at the back of Whelan’s venue in Dublin, it is clear that years of heavy addiction have taken their toll on him. His slight frame tenses with each step. A quick handshake and next thing I’m loading boxes in to the venue. His misty eyes light up with a sense of wonder when he explains today’s trip to Meath to undertake some research. Carlson has that years of drug abuse way of talking where his sentences begin loudly and slowly descend into a broken croak until finally he’s done. Later on upstairs, we sit down to speak about his forthcoming solo albums.
“During the last Earth Record I got really into English folk rock – Fairport Convention, Mr. Fox and so on… and then it kind of turned into an obsession with the occult folklore of the British Isles.
I wanted to let Earth be able to do what Earth does, which is mutate with each record. So I decided to do this as a solo project. “
Carlson seems composed when talking about the UK. He smiles when he remembers his first association with the place he refers to as Albion, “It probably goes back to family roots. My Grandmother is from Fyfe, she came over after the war and most of my family is Scotch-English. My Granddad had an encounter with one of the White Ladies – he told me that story when I was very young and it stuck with me.”
Thinking a little bit longer he clarifies, “It probably comes from too much heavy metal and reading books. I’ve always been interested in history and a couple of weird experiences I had in London kick-started it. They were just weird happenings I guess.”
These so-called weird happenings in London are something he is unwilling to expand on. I ask him if they were ‘paranormal’ but he says he doesn’t like that word.
His new solo material is a big step away from Earth but it seems like something he has wanted to do for a long time, “Some of this stuff I’ve had in my record collection for a long time and I wanted it to be something separate from Earth. In Earth, I have a lot of freedom but there are certain things that have to be there for it to be Earth: Adrienne’s drumming, a slower tempo, longer songs and lack of vocals. I wanted to work with more regular song structures and singers.”
La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Smoke is a Latitudes session from Southern Records featuring Teresa Colamonaco on vocals. It’s a collection of original and cover songs including PJ Harvey’s “The Last Living Rose” and The Kinks’ “Wicked Annabella”. Separate to that, Carlson has a self-funded record due for release in May of next year.
“The outdoor recordings are more for the Kickstarter self-funded project. We’re going to cut the film and music in January and we’re going to try and get it out in May. That’s the one that’s going to have the book. The two projects are definitely tied together, but the DRCarlsonalbion projects are more like modern folklore and the Kickstarter is about older folklore.”
Carlson had spent the day in Meath close to the site of the Hill of Tara from which the High Kings of Ireland once ruled. He seems genuinely excited by ancient history and jumps at any chance he can get for a short adventure to the countryside: “they decided not to put two of the shows on so we had some time off. I usually tour pretty hard and then try and do that (research) stuff at the start or the end. It’s a smaller tour, smaller venues, and smaller audiences. It’s funny – with Earth we play to 800 people at Union Chapel and 200 people in Leeds or whatever. The shows vary a lot. I generally like the smaller shows. I don’t like big festival very much. I like small shows. Today I went out to a couple of places in Ireland but mostly the stuff has been focused more on England and Scotland…the two best of the trip were this cave in Strathclyde in Scotland and I had a really good trip to Suffolk where I met someone who had a history. It’s good to have a guide. I have some friends who have a lot of information.”
These friends and their information remain firmly behind Carlson’s sealed lips but he does seem to have a knack for finding the right people in the right places, “Obviously it seems like a lot of stories are being lost and you have to meet the right people. A lot of it has been from books but I mean that’s why the guy I met in Suffolk was so interesting.”
As we talk Carlson fidgets with his laptop and seems to amble in and out of conversation. Talk quickly turns to his interest in occult art and, in particular, the aforementioned tattoos on both his hands. He rolls back his sleeves: “These two are from this book The Discoverie of Witchcraft which was an anti-witchcraft book but the publisher didn’t think it would sell well so he loaded the back with a bunch of spells. It was popular with cunning men as a source book. This one here is to make spirits appear this one is for protection if the spirits show up and these are the symbols for the 7 fairy sisters from a sending spell.”
Cunning men were practitioners of magic active from the 15th century up until the 20th century. We would refer to them nowadays as wizards. The term was widely used in Southern England and Wales but the same people would often be referred to as Hexenmeister in Germany, Curanderos in Spain and Kloge folk in Denmark.
In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell uncovers a common link between folklore from many disparate cultures. In modern fairytale the fairies themselves are often portrayed as helpful folk of a playful demeanour But that is not the case historically. Take W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”, in which the fairy steals the “human child” and takes him far away from his home. These inconsistencies Carlson also recognizes: “In the early Scandinavian sagas the term Finn, Elf and magical practitioner are all interchangeable. Lots of the terms in the early elf terms are all references to White – which is the colour of death. In Scotland the fairies are associated with death and there are people who are dead who live with the fairies instead of going on to heaven or hell. They are always associated with burial grounds, mounds, water buriers…when you say fairy everyone thinks Tinker Bell: They don’t have wings god damn it.”
As I hand him a Yeats anthology a smile gathers on his face, this is clearly not the first time he has received a gift on this tour, “Since I started doing the blog people have been handing me books so I have an extra suitcase going back.”
As the stage time looms Carlson quietly resides over the idea of his musical future. “Earth is obviously where I earn my bread and butter. I’ve written 5 new Earth songs and we played three of them in Australia, New Zealand and Japan so Earth is still going to be a going concern but I’ll be doing as much solo stuff as possible to keep me out of trouble.”
La Strega and the Cunning Man in the Sky is out on November 5th on Southern Records as part of the Latitudes Sessions.
Carlson’s Kickstarter funded Falling with a Thousand Stars and Other Wonders from the House of Albion will be released in 2013.