30 09 2005
#890


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Under the Influence

SUNNO)))’s Stephen O’Malley interviews Earth’s Dylan Carlson

No need for a blood test to determine SUNNO)))’s paternity. Recalcitrant doom frequency seekers Stephen O’Malley (Khanate, Burning Witch) and Greg Anderson (Goatsnake) have freely acknowledged Earth’s daddyhood from the getgo—to the extent of giving a track on The Grimmrobe Sessions once and future Terran Dylan Carlson’s name. Recently issued via Anderson’s Southern Lord label, the Los Angeles-based duo’s new LP, Black One, displays unbridled fealty to the rumble-buttressed spirit of Carlson’s vision without hewing too close to its letter. They’d have been fools to do otherwise. Dronecraft advanced ridiculously fast in the years following the engine of their inspiration’s 1991 debut: Extra-Capsular Extractions, spurred largely by progress in effects pedal tech and cannabis cultivation. O’ Malley and Anderson had—and have—access to timbres unimagined by their progenitor, who after taking much of the ‘90s off, returned to eventually eschew drone and doom alike in favor of sinister melodiousness and cinematic nuance—e.g., likely eventual (soundtrack money. Also on Southern Lord, Earth’s newly-released Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method finds Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies fashioning a heavily populated post-apocalyptic ghost town out of vibrating air molecules and bad intentions without so much as alluding to the guitarist’s original m.o. Decibel thought it only fitting that O’Malley put Carlson to the question regarding the contents of his new bag, especially given that SUNNO))) might borrow its contents it at any moment. As always, we telepathically asked each of our correspondents to conduct the interview naked and oiled without mentioning his to the other.

I’ve listened to the new record quite a bit. I really like the way you’ve developed your guitar playing over the past few years. I enjoy that it’s sort of like trance—the circular pattern thing is really prominent there but there’s this other different sense of melody and harmony going on in your new music. How you think you’re playing has changed in the past few years, just from a technical standpoint?
On a purely technical standpoint, I think the harmonies are more intricate. I mean not that they’re easier or anything, they’re just different. Before I used to use a lot of root octaves and now, I still do the octave things for the drones but I used a lot of fourth and sixth intervals and I like to combine closed and open strings. I really like open voicings for chords now, which leaves a lot of room between the notes.

Sort of like spreading out the idea of the tones.
Yeah, instead of all being within one octave, the chord is spread out over two or three octaves if possible. I think the source material, with any kind of music that uses circular riffs, the riffs or the melodies need to be memorable. And I just think that maybe the source material changed. Whereas before the source material was more identified with heavy metal, now the source material, I view it more as part of the continuum of American music. That would be the major difference. At the core it will always be about repetition and length.

One of the biggest things about your playing that influenced my own playing was the long form chord structure. You can create a much bigger object through that structure but it can stay memorable and again also be complex and intricate, but I not really overly technical.
The complexity develops organically out of the music, not out of arrangement. It’s not arranged complexity; it’s the harmonic structure of the music that creates the complexity rather than the contrived structure of parts or anything.

And I also really respect the power of the resonance with the instrument and the strength that creates—how it can hold a particular resonance once you get it going, too; it starts creating its own detail.
I can’t remember the song now but in one of the older Earth songs there was this one part where you could here the intervals kind of vibrating against each other so I would count like five of those vibrations so the structure was coming out of the notes being used rather than the arbitrary…

How do you feel about being the conduit for your music? I think the music on your new album is just human as it’s ever been before. The human element also comes from what you were saying about being with the American tradition of music. Or maybe some of the more drone stuff was influenced by something a little bit older or, more archaic, what do you think?
I definitely think with the American thing, it’s just closer to a narrative tradition as opposed to a mythic tradition. I think you guys really work in kind of a mythic tradition. I mean, the whole vibe of SUNNO))) is like a, not Neanderthal, but like the druid and all that, is like an archaic, mythic kind of stage. And Earth now is working in more—it’s a mythic space as well—but it’s more narrative. It’s a more recent myth kind of thing. I think we’re both working with similar terrain in a weird way even though what we do is different from one another. We’re all kind of on the same page with different footnotes.

It seems like you’ve really developed as a player in the past five years.
Yeah, before I never bent notes, I never used finger vibrato, on a purely technical level my playing has changed in that respect. I think I’m better able to get what I want out of the guitar. Whereas before a lot of it was like almost accidental. I’d sit down with the guitar and it was more happenstance where I think now I can kind of structure the song or whatever, I think I’m better able to put it together.

Do you think there was a point where you discovered that you became more of a songwriter than a guitar player?
I think I always have. From the day I first started playing guitar I was writing songs rather than learning other people’s songs and I’ve always thought that the guitar serves rather than the song be a display of technique or anything like that. A lot of the guitarists I respect were more almost session guys who aren’t necessarily flashy. They just played what was necessary. They didn’t show off. It was more about what’s necessary. I definitely think what I play is like that.

It’s like more of a craftsman style of playing instead of entertainment or whatever.
I think that’s one reason why I gravitated toward the telecaster. It’s rudimentary. It’s kind of like you have to work within its parameters in a lot of respects. A lot of guitars are easily malleable so do whatever you want. Whereas the tele sort of has its own voice. Like when people say, “Oh, he’s a tele player.” It’s like saying to someone. “Oh, he’s a catholic.” It’s like the tele and the tele player.

Was there a point where you were like, “I’ve got to get a telecaster for what I’m doing”?
Yeah, before I wanted lots of overdrive, which is cool. I mean I still love that. I will always be a big fan of saturation and whatnot. I also really like the sound of a really just pure electric guitar tone, you know just the pure clean, but still with power. I love being able to hear like the wood and the metal, with the tele they have this like “clank” to it. And that cuts through any effects you try.

So do you get sick of people asking you about Earth Two? I mean, really? You know this record is going to come out and people are going to be like, like any review is going to mention it.
I try not to, but I mean obviously whenever you’re a musician there’s your grumpy days where you’re like, “stop bringing up the past.” That’s one of the things about being a musician—a lot of times you don’t determine your greatest moment, which if you’re a control freak can be frustrating. You may be saying “this is my best album,” or “that was my best show.” So I kind of try to be gracious, grateful and accept, “hey, this is an album that people love.” And I consider myself fortunate to have created something that people respond to that much or love that much. I don’t want to be ungrateful for being unhappy about it. It would be arrogant. This person has obviously been moved by something that I’ve done.

It’s pretty awesome that you can make something that becomes its own presence.
It’s almost like having a child, in that, I mean I haven’t had any yet, but I mean watching your child go out into the world and be successful. You don’t wish it anything bad. And it’s cool to because it kind of helps kick my butt into gear, because it sets a bar. I may have thought that was a good album, but it didn’t resonate the way that one did so what can I do now.

Did you find that you were more focused the recording sessions for Hex than on previous Earth recording sessions?
Definitely, yeah, I mean it was all around the most focused I’d been. There was still a lot of creativity in the studio—like arranging and the overdubbed tracks. You know, I’d role tape and pick up the baritone and play to it, but, yeah, it was definitely the most focused. I was very lucky to have the money and time to do it right. We were given the resources to totally do it. When stuff came up and we were like, “Well, should we do this to save money?” it was like “Eh, fuck it, let’s do it right.”

The album really comes across as being really focused and confident, very calm and collected. It’s not about tempo anymore or being slow, it doesn’t have anything to do with that.
It’s just how I play. You’ve played slow for a long time, you know when you see someone who just does it and they’re trying—it’s like it’s something that. I mean, a lot of times it’s weird, where there was like speed metal, it became, instead of being about the music it became like an athletic event. Like who can play faster, the music didn’t matter anymore. It was just about who’s fastest. And then the opposite, some of the slow bands, “Oh who’s slower? Who’s down lower?” And then like, it’s like no, that’s athletic. To me, you can be heavy and neither incredibly slow or fast.

It’s interesting what the concept of being heavy is. It’s really objective of course, but it’s also like the more abrasive or overpowering something is, just on the surface level, that like qualifies as heavy I just think that the heaviest stuff is always melodic in a way, not like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or anything, but you know there’s always the line there. That there’s information that remains to be seen. Whether it’s a one note, melody or not.

Rough edit, to appear in Decibel Magazine, edited by Albert Mudrian. Photos courtesy of Plotkin.

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