Dylan Carlson on witchcraft, tattoos and being away with the fairies - literally
Words Jessica Crowe
Dylan Carlson is a man so obscured by swirling rumours and muddied, sycophantic plaudits it’s often difficult to get to a clear sense of what he might actually be like. Vanguard of the drone/doom genre, Carlson’s recent development of a more mature, folk-tinged sound with his band of 23 years, Earth, is pretty reflective of where he’s at right now. Spending much of the past two decades years in a pretty heavily altered state — legal and illegal — and winding up with a near-fatal dose of hepatitis B due to past “nefarious influences”, he really has been there and back again. Having had a rough time with the press in the past (he was BFFs with Kurt Cobain and intrinsically bound to the Seattle scene) you can imagine our trepidation at meeting the fellow.
So, is Carlson the intimidating icon of doom all that would suggest? Actually, no. Small in stature and incredibly quiet and humble, he seems older than his 45-ish years. Maybe it’s the Victorian-style mutton chops, or the way he whispers his answers into our dictaphone, but something about him suggests the vulnerable air of a wise elderly chap. We want to make him a ham sandwich and give him a cuddle. Where do you even begin with a man who has such a curious history? You begin with his curious present. The past couple of years has seen Carlson develop a deep interest in magic, the Occult and folklore of the British Isles. He’s here tonight in Camden to play his interpretation of British folk songs, some over 400 years old. We sat down to talk to him about his solo project, Occultist tomes and fairies — Carlson had only just got back from a folklore trail round Britain.
So, how did the fairy hunt go on Saturday?
We went to Suffolk, and it was a glorious day, we met up with a man who was local to the area and had a really interesting heritage and history and put it all into context… We were wading through meadows… I’m definitely going back.
You’ve been in the UK for a couple of weeks then?
Yeah, I got back from the European (Earth) tour on the April 8th, so I was in London for a couple of weeks. Then we went up north.
Ah really, where abouts up north did you go?
Er, Wharf… Wharfedale?
What, the Yorkshire Dales?
Yeah! Ilkley Moor. West Yorkshire. It’s beautiful, but it’s very bleak. I found people very friendly in Yorkshire. Then we moved further up north, Scotland, towards Ayreshire, then came back down through Lancashire, and finally back to London.
How are you feeling at the moment, how is your health?
Good, just… tired. Normally at the end of a tour I get like two weeks to stay in and recuperate but I haven’t been able to this time….not ’til the end of the year anyway. I’ve got quite a few shows coming up and things I’m working on. The soundtrack thing I’m doing with Lori [Goldstein, on Vanessa Renfrew’s forthcoming feature Charismatic Megafauna] We’re doing that in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Then there’s work on my solo project and tour, so…
How do you find being on tour, do you still enjoy it?
Yeah, I mean I’m born gypsy so, haha, if I stay home too long I get itchy feet.
So you’ve developed an interest in the folklore of the British Isles. Where did that come from?
If I was to trace it super far back it would probably be my grandmother, who was from Fife, and when we were kids she’d tell us folk stories from there. My Grandad was an America, they met during the war and he had a story about him seeing a Grey Lady (the name of quite a few alleged ghost in castles round the British Isles — Ghostbuster Ed), and one day in London I had this experience, I saw something (Carlson has said in the past he saw “a being, and the next thing I knew it was an hour later”) so I guess that’s kind of what kickstarted it again. I’ve always been really interested in religion and magic, anyway. My brother’s a history professor and my dad was a history major, so it runs in the family tree I suppose. I started listening to a lot of English folk as well, so that combined with having this experience of some sort, I guess that’s what really started it.
Your recent favourite albums list on The Quietus was drawn largely from British folk and prog music. I was surprised that you had such down-to-earth influences, I suppose we were expecting something a bit more obscure.
Haha, yeah I suppose prog rock is sort of a boy thing… A nerdy boy thing, haha! And British prog especially is pretty eccentric.
So obviously your musical influences are pretty audible in the current Earth albums, but what would you say were your other inspirations?
Erm, well my favourite book of all time is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (contemporary Victorian tale of two magicians by Susanna Clarke). I love the sort of British Victorian magic element — the way magic was completely normalised in their society. And those sorts of things are more interesting than sort of regimented history books, although I don’t read that much fiction actually.
I read today that you really loved the film Black Death?
Yeah, and it was very quiet, that film, it slipped through the net somehow. It never came out in theatres, even in the States, and they show those sort of things on cable TV in the US. Same with Centurion, I saw that the same way too. Its amazing… But Black Death is set in a interesting period in British history. Christianity trying to civilise ancient religions…
Do you mind talking us through your tattoos? (Carlson’s hands are heavily covered in symbolic artwork)
Oh sure, these two are from a book called The Discoverie Of Witchcraft, by an English guy called Reginald Scot in 1584, which was originally written as an anti-witch book, it had records and reputations of witch trails and medieval practices You know how they put to trail magic practitioners — even jugglers… But then the publishers were worried it wouldn’t sell well so they put these two appendices of spells in the back, and it became a sort of source book for cunning folk. This one is for protections from bad spirits and this one is to make good spirits appear and then these are the Seven Sidgels (the seven archangels that rule the seven heavens, according to ancient folklore).
How long have you had these?
I got them last December. I mean, I couldn’t go near needles for a while, so… I had to wait.
You’re working on a new solo album Wonders From The House Of Albion, which includes interpretations of 15th and 16th century folk songs from the UK. Can you talk us through the development of that?
Well, I wanted to keep Earth free to move in whatever direction it wanted to. It’s sort of a group thing, so it’s like I have to keep it free to move. So I said I’d take this obsessional book thing and pursue it. I’ve recently made friends with the owners of Faulkners bookshop, and they show me things they thing I’ll like. I’ve always loved books, especially old books, so I thought it’d be cool to do a kind of book and music thing together. So it’s going to include field recordings from travels around the British Isles. And it’s all going to be filmed.
I wonder how, considering your interest in mythology, how you feel about yourself being mythologised?
(very long pause) I mean obviously its flattering… Errrr, (shuffles uncomfortably) I mean, I just try and be like a normal person and be a good person and be nice to people. I just see myself as a musician. I’m obviously happy people like it. I just set out to play music and I’ve been super fortunate, I just try to be grateful and humble, I suppose.
So it’s not something you relate to?
No, I mean sometimes you’re just tired and you don’t want to have to talk to people, you just want to go back to your hotel and go to sleep but I always try to remember why they came here and try to talk to people… You have to push the grumpiness aside. That’s the thing with musicians, they’re all mostly normal people… Some are eccentrics. I try to treat people nice, and the way I want to be treated. I hate that way some bands have a contempt for their audience, if it wasn’t for the audiences and people buying records those guys would be washing dishes. I don’t understand that arrogance at all.
How was the Brookdale Lodge gig? Did you pick up on any strange sinister undercurrents? (Earth recently played at the reputedly haunted abandoned Brookdale Lodge in Santa Cruz county, California)
The booking agent there always liked to use that venue rather than one in Santa Cruz. We played there a couple of times. Found blood on the sheets, the pool was flooding into the venue, necessitating sand bags around the PA. Part of the place had burned down before the gig. Weird scenes in general, but lots of good people and great breakfast.
And finally, what books would you recommend to the grimoire/occult novice reader?
Avoid anything by the Golden Dawn, Crowley et al. Go for the rogue eccentrics of the early modern era. Or the ‘classics’ — Arbatel. Key Of Solomon, St Cyprian. Arthur Gauntlet, Black Books Of Elverum. The books of Emma Wilby — Cunning Folk And Familiar Spirits, and Visions Of Isobel Gowdie. Alaric Hall’s Elf Charms In Anglo Saxon England. [Owen] Davies’ history of grimoires is a good place to start, although some of his attitude is annoying. Keith Thomas’s Religion And The DeclineOof Magic is a good place for history and sources. Owen Davies also has a good pamphlet on cunning-folk sources. Go find real folkloric sources: old folks and relatives of magical practitioners. Avoid hierarchical organisations and self-proclaimed experts and new age stuff. Remember all magicians lie and some more than others.