Stephen O’Malley

Unedited EARTH vs WIRE transcript via SAVX

Posted: Oct 23, 2005

Unedited EARTH vs WIRE transcript via SAVX

The Wire 261, November 2005
Unedited transcript by Edwin Pouncey


What music helped shape the Earth sound?

"My musical origins come from growing up listening to Black Sabbath records, seeing the Melvins perform and reading about musicians like La Monte Young and Terry Riley."

Did you get to hear much of their work?

"I finally did. The main one was Terry Riley's Persian Surgery Dervishes on the French label Shandar, then I got La Monte Young's The Well Tuned Piano box set and The Second Dream Of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer that Gramavision put out. At the same time I was listening to early Ted Nugent stuff like 'Hibernation' or 'Stranglehold', where he's using feedback and really repetitive riffs, and wanting it to be more. I started thinking that if somebody those hard rock riffs and played them like La Monte Young then something cool would happen.

"La Monte Young wrote some technical articles that I read about the false harmonic that's generated from the vibration of the ear. Before I started playing with anybody I took a guitar and tuned it to open strings. I was training myself to hear the overtone series and combining that with a rock or Metal aesthetic.

"There would be a song where I'd hit a dissonant note and there'd be a vibration. I would count the number of vibrations and go to the next part. It was like listening to that and hearing what was going on in the upper registers of that kind of music. A lot of people think that the drone in music is just making a noise but there's actually a structure to it that evolves out of the overtone series."

A good example of this in your own work is "Sonar And Depth Charge" from Earth's final album for Sub Pop, Pentastar.

"That was the first time I'd been in a studio that had a piano, so I thought I would try and do something with it. Unfortunately it wasn't a grand piano, it was a stand-up with a broken keyboard, so it was a somewhat failed experiment. A lot of people thought 'Sonar And Depth Charge' was filler, they couldn't understand what it was doing on this rock album.

"One of the reviews said that I had scared myself and had retreated into making rock records. So many people reacted badly towards Pentastar like, Oh it's a rock record. He's making rock music now! Like that's such a horrible thing."

"Nothing I do is going to be a pure genre record. It's going to be slow and have repetition but every album I record will have something that will expand the music and help it grow. There are certain things I can't stop doing because that's how my psyche's organised. No matter what I do it's always going to be Earth."

How did the early line up come together and what made you choose those people to work with?

"When I picked the other people I didn't really tell them what I wanted them to do. I instinctively knew they could adapt. I just had a feeling that this person could collaborate and I trusted them implicitly to play something that would fit. I probably wasn't capable of that kind of organisation at the time but I tried not to be a tyrannical band leader."

Can you describe those early Mike Lastra sessions that involved Kurt Cobain?

"When we [Carlson and Cobain] lived in Olympia together we did this weird noise collage thing with a bunch of old synths. Then we started playing music with Tobi Vail who was later in Bikini Kill. She played guitar and vocals, I played bass and Kurt played drums. We'd both gotten turned onto Gang Of Four around then so we were playing angular post punk. They weren't things that we were planning to pursue full time, it was just stuff we did together when he wasn't doing his thing.

"We booked some time with Mike Lastra, took a week off work and went down to Portland, Oregon. Smegma Studios was in Mike's house and a lot of the Portland bands recorded there because it was inexpensive. I invited Kelly Canary along, who I also had a crush on at the time, and then Kurt came along. We were friends who were interested in what each other was doing musically

"He sings the lead vocal on 'Divine And Bright'. I felt that his voice would be better for that song because it's a sort of pop song. On the other song ['A Bureaucratic Desire For Revenge'] I sing lead and he was more of a backing vocalist. I wanted different vocal textures. My voice was a monotone, his was a gravely pop vocal and Kelly made cougar howls. Rather than have a straight vocal I used more textures to prevent it from being a straight pop song.

"When I started Earth, it was kind of slow going at first because the two other people I started with at the time, Slim [Moon] and Greg [Babior], were all gung-ho to build this practise space and they didn't want to start practising until the space was finished. Finally I just said, I'm going to do this, I don't want to wait any more."

How did Earth get signed to Sub Pop?

"We opened for L7 at a club and Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop people were there. After the set Bruce came up to me and asked if we had recorded anything yet, so I told him about the Mike Lastra sessions. Originally Sub Pop wanted to release 'A Bureaucratic Desire For Revenge' as a seven-inch for their Singles Club series, and then Bruce decided it would be pointless to release a seven-inch and changed it to a CD. Bruce was definitely the person we had more of a relationship with at Sub Pop who, compared to Poneman who was very rock oriented, had a more varied taste in music. When he left that's when my relationship with the label started to become strained.

"I had drug problems. At the time I couldn't see it and became all self righteous but looking back I realise that I did things that were not acceptable."

What was the idea behind your second album Earth 2?

"With Earth 2 we wanted to make as extreme a statement as we were capable of making. We'd talk to Bruce about how much we could fit onto a CD, which was about 73 minutes. Unfortunately, though, you could only get 15 to 30 minutes on tape, then you had to string it all together.

"Back then our music was more structured. After that, with Phase 3, it became the opposite. Phase 3 was recorded during a very chaotic period in my life. For the first session I showed up late with no equipment and no songs. I walked in and said, Let's roll tape. After we'd been recording for a couple of days producer Phil Atkin went and got a guitar and some other equipment for me to use. Sub Pop were not very happy about that so they pulled the plug on the record. We went back in a year later to finish it and everything was going fairly well until some more bad stuff happened and Sub Pop pulled the plug again. By then, though, we had about 58 minutes of material recorded which was enough.

"A lot of those songs were not finished but those that were are among some of the strongest things I've done."

What happened after Sub Pop?

"I lost my contract with Sub Pop. I had legal and drug problems. My lifestyle had become self-destructive. I started out doing drugs and making music. At the start you think that the drugs are helping you to create the music, but eventually they become a crutch. ÊI can't remember the exact date but I remember crossing the street on my way to score. I also had a meeting with Sub Pop to go to and there was all this other stuff to do. Suddenly this light bulb went off above my head that said, 'the drugs should come first and then everything will work out!' and from that point on it just all went downhill. At the time, though, I thought it was clarity."

Can you tell me something about the Dissolution series, the latest instalment being In The Gleam Of An Unsheathed Sword.

"They haven't consciously been written as a series. The first one we played was like the sound of stuff falling apart. Then another song might somehow evoke or become a facet of that original theme and it becomes a new Dissolution. There might or might not be another one, depending on what might happen in-between. "We had these shows coming up and I'd just started performing again. It was like, what are we going to do? Well we've got this riff so let's just go for it. There were nights when we were really on the ball and others where we were falling apart. That record is made up out of the two shows that were recorded. I like the idea of a live recording being a snapshot of the event with no overdubbing to make it sound nice. Like what Psychic TV did with their live series. Some of those were really cool records and some were just horrible but it was an interesting document of an event."

Another memorable live recording of Earth is 'Ripped On Fascist Ideas', the concert that you performed at Disobey in 1995 for Blast First [later to be released as Sunn Amps And Smashed Guitars].

"I remember this one quote where they jokingly suggested that I didn't play guitar, I played amplifier. To me 'Ripped On Fascist Ideas' is a good example of that, where the guitar is more of an extension to the amplifier rather than the other way around. This book I was reading said there are guitar people and amplifier people. Guitar people own one amp and 25 guitars and amplifier people own one guitar and a bunch of amps, they realise that it's the amp that gives them the true sound they're looking for."

Are Sunn amplifiers still your amp of choice?

"I think they're one of the few solid state amps that still sound really good. I was originally turned onto them by Buzz of the Melvins because that's what they used. They have that great square wave generator for their overdrive channel that gave them their sound. The guy that was in [60s garage band] The Kingsmen started the Sunn company with the money he made from recording 'Louie Louie' with his band. When we played live I usually had to rent amps because we weren't touring and had no back line to truck around. We always used Marshalls because they were easy to get and you could overdrive them.

"For 'Thrones And Dominions' on Phase 3 I used a Marshall that once belonged to Rory Gallagher and had been stolen during one of his first US tours. It had ended up at some pawn shop in Ellensburg, Washington. I also used a Marshall to record Pentastar. Now that I'm older I don't want to carry so much equipment around, so I'm into smaller combo amps.

"As I've learned more about amplifiers you start to realise that the big guitar sounds on albums by bands like Led Zeppelin or whatever were done with small amps. Back in the day they needed all those huge amps because there were no PAs and your sound level inside the club was dependent on the size of your amp. Now it's almost like this macho thing. Most people don't need an amp above 30 watts. Basically a larger amp has more headroom and so it's harder to overdrive, so to get distortion it's better to have a smaller amp because you're pushing the output tubes and getting it to clip and saturate and do its thing."

What were your feelings about Sunn O))) calling themselves an Earth tribute band when they first started?

"It's a very humbling thing and you feel gratitude really, knowing that you've done something that someone admires that much and feels that strongly about. More power to them is what I said at the time, and I still say that. I think they have evolved into their own thing."

Do you ever envision making music for films?

"I've always wanted to do music for films. I hope it happens one day. I especially think that the new album has a very filmic quality to it. Apocalypse Now is one movie I respond to musically and music makes up a large part of that movie. For me real film music creates a whole gestalt where the song allows you to enter another universe. It becomes a complete entity that surrounds you."

What are the musical influences behind Earth's latest album Hex?

"Before I had money to buy my own music my parents bought me a couple of Willie Nelson albums. I've always liked American music like country and western and blues and as I got older my interests have returned to American forms of music. I see music as a continuum, in that each person adds their contribution to it but it exists as this stream. I began to see Earth as part of that stream.

"I started listening to a lot of instrumental music, back when instrumental music was a commercial dominant force, by people like Duane Eddy. I also started listening to the drone in country and western music, in the way that they sing, how the banter rolls and there's always that open string. There's still that whole sense of the drone being present, playing against the note. As I've learned more about playing the guitar I think country guitar players are some of the best there are. I wanted to learn some of their styles and apply it to what I do with my music.

"Gram Parsons had this term, 'the cosmic American music' and that's how I kind of viewed it. There is so much bullshit that has become identified with America, the revisionist history of America and how America views itself that I just wanted to express what America meant to me."

Stirrings of the occult in Old West mythology seem to be stirring through the music on Hex too. Was this deliberate?Ê

"I think an occult history of America has yet to be written. I remember when I was a child my grandmother gave me book called Folk Tales Of The Ozarks or something. Inside were all these creepy magic things, this crazy redneck voodoo shit that most people, when they think of America, don't know exists. Slim once told me there was this theory that the American continent is evil and that all the bad stuff that's happened there has been a result of that. All of these people dumped on this landscape that's forbidding and dark, whether it's the forests of the North West or the Californian deserts it's not conducive to America's well being.

"When The Blair Witch Project came out I went and saw it with some friends and we were like, Anyone who's scared of this movie can't be from the North West. The woods in Blair Witch seemed totally tame. It was like they were lost in a park or something. The woods in the North West, at least the ones that haven't been chopped down, they're brooding and strange. The North West Indian cultures that lived there believed that the woods were inhabited by cannibals and spirits and that atmosphere is still very potent.

"The Pennsylvania Dutch were this God fearing Mennonite people who came to America and had to put these crazy hex signs on their possessions to protect them from whatever evil forces exist in America. They had to break with their austere religious tradition and practise magic."

Hex is also more orchestrated than previous albums.

"I always envisioned Earth as being something other than guitar, bass and drums. For the album I was planning before Sub Pop dropped me I had booked a string and horn section. It was going to be a big production but that never happened. So Hex gave me the opportunity to do something like that, where we added trombone and pedal steel guitar to the regular line up and we were able to marshal some musical force.

What are your plans for the future?

"I'm into this thing right now where I'm actually contemplating about adding acoustic sounds behind the electric textures. I also want to use space more. On a lot of the early Earth stuff the space is so full... I just like the idea of listening to space, to the silences in-between."

An article based on this interview appeared in The Wire 261, November 2005

© 2005 The Wire.