Dylan Carlson Is Away with the Faeries
The drone icon and Earth guitarist opens up about the eldritch inspirations behind his otherworldly new solo record.
"Away with the fairies."
That's an old Irish saying that I came across years ago, while I was dating a patient Irishman with a superhuman threshold for my often wandering mind. "You're away with the fairies again," he'd say with a grin, startling me out of whatever reverie had momentarily captured my imagination. I asked him what it meant the first time he said it, and he obligingly gave me a quick Celtic mythology lesson. That common phrase has its roots in the doings of the "little people," the parallel universes said to be contained within their innocuous-looking hill mounds, and various examples of the eldritch mischief that's allegedly plagued the long-suffering Irish people for centuries.
The Celtic folk tradition is far darker than a leprechaun-loving public would like to believe, and bleeds over into the rest of the British Isles, who host their own versions of that shadowy netherworld. This is the world that Dylan Carlson—renowned musician, recovered addict, and forever controversial ex-friend of a famous dead man—moves within. Best known as the riff-wielding cornerstone of Seattle drone gods Earth, Carlson is also an accomplished solo musician, having released a variety of albums and EPs under the moniker Drcarlsonalbion.
His solitary compositions speak the language of drone, but as we hear on his most recent work, Falling With a 1000 Stars and Other Wonders from the House of Albion, there's a certain gentleness at play, manifested in quiet, dusky, looping melodies. The album—which he funded via a successful (but stressful) Kickstarter campaign—is not altogether dissimilar from Earth's latter-day work (the wavering, pastoral sunshine of The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull leap to mind) . However, it is a wholly personal effort, and one that springs from an unexpected source—the faeries.
That's not the whole of it, of course, but I was surprised to find out just how large the little people loomed in Carlson's creative process. I sat down with him and his wife, London-based artist and dancer Holly Carlson, to get to the root of the album's otherworldly inspirations. In an aside, he mentioned the strange legacy of his friendship with Kurt Cobain (he told me that he still gets sent death threats to this day, especially when he announces a new tour) but that's not what we're focusing on in this piece.
Our focus here is less... terrestrial, shall we say. He brought up how his Scottish grandmother's stories got him interested in eldritch matters—and in the privacy of our dark nook, with voices low, we also ended up talking a lot about ghosts.
Noisey: You mentioned that your grandma is Scottish. Did she tell you fairy stories?
Dylan Carlson: The one tale that she told was about this seer, this guy with a second sight that predicted all this bad stuff for one of the clans, I can't remember which one it was at this point…I think it was the Macdonalds. And my grandfather, during the war, was stationed in a English town that had a White Lady. These two buddies of his were sneaking out of camp to go to a cockfight, and wanted him to go with them. He didn't go, and apparently my granddad heard the White Lady scream, and saw her in a medical ward. Those two guys died in a car accident on the train coming back from the cockfight. Those would be the two stories that I remember.
Being into metal, there are a lot of supernatural themes that run through the music. I've always been a history buff. My dad was a history major, my brother is a history professor and archivist. The history thing runs genetically. When I was 12 in Texas, [at my school] a kid needed to turn his Rush t-shirt inside out because it was considered Satanic, [but] the librarian was really cool. They had a book on magick that talked about Edward Kelly and stuff. I found that stuff early on in my youth.
Where do you find these stories now? What sources do you use to find the things you're interpreting now on the new record?
My new stories are found in two sources. There's the Child Ballads, which is a five-volume set of old the folk songs that've been collected; those are just the lyrics, the music is harder to find. There is only one collection of the music. It's a two-volume set and the last time it was issued was in 1972 by Princeton. They've never republished it. I went to Cecil Sharpe House, which is part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society; they have a library, so I got some stuff there.. There are certain songs where they know that they have the music, like the song "Elfin Night" that morphed into" Scarborough Fair" over time. A lot of the songs with a supernatural element, but moving forward, they would drop out the supernatural elements. It's kind of like "Danny Boy"— the only reason it survived is because the guy that heard some old lady walking by singing it. She was the last person to remember that song. Now we hear it at Irish wakes, but without that, it would have been gone.
What you're doing fits perfectly in this tradition of folk reinterpretation, using these unorthodox methods. Throw distortion in there, and it opens up a whole new realm.
It's kind of weird. With folk, there are people that take it and do stuff with it, but there are hardcore people that are like, 'Oh, we must bury it in amber and preserve it." I think that's kind of lame. To me, it should be a living tradition, not a museum piece.
Metal likes to bury things in amber too, as I'm sure you might've noticed through your years of experimentation.
It's funny how it went from how AC/DC was heavy metal, and Led Zeppelin was heavy metal…it was all heavy metal or hard rock. Now, it's been parsed into more and more specific micro-genres. It's really strange.
When you were choosing these particular songs, what behind your selection process?
I tried to restrict myself to stuff that is from the historical record. Most of the information about that stuff is from trial records, in witch trials when faeries appear. Unfortunately, most of that material is in the ecclesiastical court records, which have never been gone through. I could apply to have access to them, but that would take a long time. Maybe if I decide to become an academic or something, follow my brother's footsteps [laughs]. Climb the Ivory Tower.
I wanted to dispel the Disney version of faeries. In the historical record, they're very different from what they became in the Victorian era. The process began with Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, where they made them smaller and friendlier.
Speaking of the Victorians, are you familiar with those famous faerie photos? I can't think of the name of the sisters that faked it, but there was this incredibly famous photo of what people believed to be faeries.
Yeah, the Cottingley ones! Actually, the famous author Arthur Conan Doyle got behind the Cottingley Fairies photographs.
Oh yeah, he was deeply involved the Spiritualist movement.
And actually, both his father and grandfather were committed to asylums for claiming to see fairies. So he was hellbent to prove that they weren't insane, and that was a big part of why he got behind the Cottingley thing.
You mention in the press bio for the new record you drew on some of your own experiences on this album, too; can you tell me about them?
The one that kickstarted it all was when I was on a press trip for [Earth's] Angels of Darknes record. I basically almost died of liver failure right before we did those records, so I was still recovering from that. I had an experience with an entity right around where Holly lived in Camden. Another one, when I was at Waterloo Station. Interestingly enough, Waterloo Station used to be a marsh that was owned by the Earle of Rundell. It was a famous pleasure garden. And. that whole area—basically if you were an astrologer or a magical practitioner of the era, you all lived in this area. It was outside the city of London; the south side of the river has housed all the things that the city-dwellers did not approve of.
So that all stuck with you.
There was the ghost in Leeds, too. I was in this hotel, all the rooms were themed, and I was in the Whitby room. I was asleep, and the curtain opened and woke me up. The sun was shining. I went into the bathroom, and during the night, something had unscrewed the hot water tap and the sink was running over and filled up this garbage can. It was totally screwed on when I went to bed.
So in your experience, England is really a hot spot for that kind of activity, and this album feels like a very Dylan Carlson way to process that. Musically speaking, what did you do to make these songs come to life?
I met this guy named Drew, who works with Alasdair Roberts, who's a folk musician from Glasgow. He turned me on to this Scottish music, this old tradition called the high music. It's basically the laments of dead chiefs, and it's based on a tradition called keening, that women would sing at funerals. It's this really slow, monotonous and limited melodic range music. He turned me onto it, and I really liked it. This kind of influenced how I did the folk songs—how I stripped them to their melodies, put a bunch of drones in the background. I decided to keep it quite limited.
The folk tune is still buried in there, though. It's really interesting—even when I heard the record I did not know really what to expect. I was thinking it'd be a Scott Kelly kind of thing, dark acoustic music, and then—whoa.
I don't even know how to play acoustic guitar, so the world's safe from that!
It seems like every older metal musician either gets into that dark folk kind of thing, or goes country.
I love country. I love George Jones. I got thrown out of a bar for playing George Jones once. I put 5 dollars in the jukebox and played "He Stopped Loving Her Today" for every song. It came on like 20 times.
Do you have any interest in going into a different direction with this stuff and doing a straight up folk record, or do you think you've got it out of your system with this one?
Most of the people that I know that I like that are doing folk music, like Alasdair Roberts, they are doing modern folk. It was really cool, I got to work with Maddy Prior for the BBC. That was fun, she was really cool. If the opportunity came up, I probably wouldn't turn it down but we'll see what happens, I try to keep all of my options open.
Do you think you'll make more of the kind of music on Falling With a 1000 Stars, then?
I don't know, we'll see. I'm about to work on another solo record starting in a couple of days. This one has more of a desert-vibe. I don't know what the next record's going to be. There's no blueprint; I don't like making the same record over again. It's impossible because everything is different every time. Also like, why?
All music has repetition, but within that…there are a few things I always try to keep in mind: songs should still have an arc, within that arc there should be melodic passages that also have an arc. It's not about starting and then finishing. When I first started playing slow, it was a reaction to the fact that everyone was playing fast. I love Slayer, but everyone was trying to be the fastest band on earth. When you reduce music into one element, it turns into an athletic event, rather than music. Then the exact opposite happened, everyone wanted to be the slowest band on earth. You're ignoring the music part because you're focused on tempo. Take people somewhere and bring them back. It's not about just being slow or loud or fast.
Is music a spiritual thing for you?
I think that music is spiritual. Everything around us is made of vibrational frequent energy. Basically, matter is frozen and a standing wave. As a musician, my goal is to make music that is transcendent and isn't specific of a certain time. Good music transcends time. It's timeless. Music takes a certain shape when it goes through me. When I have a really good show…I start and I know when it's done.
There's so much real magic involved on this record, too; Holly mentioned to me earlier that you used to be more interested in sort of the physical side of creating magick.
Spells have always interested me, since I was in junior high. It's more of an abstract and historical approach now; for the most part. I think it just happens. The world doesn't operate on a rational basis. We have mastered electricity, but even electricity, we don't really know anything about it. Like that it flows instantaneously in a circuit. Electricity doesn't flow like water, it's instantaneously throughout the entire circuit and it's not rational. Weird things happen…unexplainable things happen.
The cover art for the album seems like it's another one of those weird coincidences—it looks just like Holly! You guys worked together on the artwork for this, right?
Holly Carlson: It was kind of an accident!
Dylan Carlson: The first time I saw her at Union Chapel, she looked like an entity I'd seen before.
Holly Carlson : When we first met, it was a little bit awkward. We knew a lot of the same people, and we knew who each other were. Dylan was kind of shy and didn't say much. He said he didn't say much because he thought that I was one of the faeries; maybe that sounds super cheesy, but that's what he said. When he asked me to do the artwork, I was a little surprised. I am used to making art that is just for me. I've been definitely been going down more of an abstract route, so I told him to tell me exactly what he wanted. What he usually does with artists is like, 'This is the vague idea, go with it,' and I think that's really beautiful. I really wanted him to like it, regardless of the fact that it was done by me. I didn't want that to affect it.
He said that he wanted there to be a female fairy-like creature. He sent me some reference images, which were drawn images. I didn't have anything else as a reference. I was trying to make it not like me. When I drew it in pencil, it didn't look like me at all. Once I painted it, I couldn't really recognize it. Then everyone was like, "it's you!"
The resemblance is pretty uncanny. Overall, was this tough record to get together?
Holly Carlson: He kind of had to fight, even after the [Kickstarter] funding.
Dylan Carlson: Obviously you go up and down after a project takes this long. I'm much more used to making a record, like boom, get it done and get it out. This has taken a lot longer. I had to pay for everything. I did everything myself. Going back to DIY 25 years in [laughs]. Nothing I had done was self-released before this. Nowadays, there are very few labels that are doing anything labels used to do, other than putting out product. Unless they are running recording costs, which some don't even anymore, it's very self-run. They are just paying for the pressing and taking half of the money. Ideally, I think the best thing would be to self-produce and then license it. It's obviously nice to have a budget to work with, too.
Looking back on it, I doubt I will ever do that [Kickstarter] route again. If you're the kind of person who budgets, Kickstarter is a great idea. But I'm not that kind of person. I go, 'Oh! I have an idea! Let's do it.' I didn't do enough planning or budgeting. I didn't realize how expensive stuff could be.
Do you think you'll go with a self-release next time, or do you prefer having that label support?
The music industry has changed drastically. In the 1990s, everyone was expecting to get signed to a major label. I knew we wouldn't be. That just totally vanished. Even if you have a huge album out, it's not like you're living the high life. The industry's changed so much from what it used to be. There's no money. No one's getting million-dollar advances and shit like that anymore. Licensing music is where you make money. That's why hip-hop makes so much money. It costs almost nothing to produce and then they license it…and they're guaranteed sales. They're making money right away. You don't need gear…you just need a studio. That's why all the big studios are closed.
I don't see it going back, unless the internet just stops. It's about finding other ways to sell yourself. Even touring…the more you toured, the better it got. Now you can over-tour. People are very different about touring now. I'll say this for the States. The charts in the States are sales-driven. In Europe, there's no unified chart. In England, you see the difference. In England, there's still print media. Print media can still influence things.
Have you noticed how your British fans have reacted to this very British album?
I think that England is my biggest market outside of the US. I get recognized sometimes in London, and that never used to happen to me, ever. It's very strange. We were in Durham, and there was this guy that looked like this guy I knew from Leeds. I walked up to him and I said, 'Hey are you Drew from Leeds?' He freaked out because he was listening to Earth when I walked up to him. He said no, but he always gets recognized as this guy from Leeds. He was like, 'What the fuck are you doing here?'
It was like I was an apparition of someone else.
Dylan Carlson on tour:
Fri 21/10/2016 Belgium, Ghent, Vooruit (Film Fest Gent)
Sun 06/11/2016: UK, Newcastle, The Cluny 2
Mon 07/11/2016: UK, London, Koko (supporting NEUROSIS)
Tue 08/11/2016: UK, Birmingham, Rainbow Warehouse
Wed 09/11/2016: UK, Manchester, The Ruby Lounge
Thu 10/11/2016: UK, Bristol, The Fleece
Photos by Holly Carlson
Kim Kelly is hunting for ectoplasm on Twitter.