UNSUNG: Earth Drummer Adrienne Davies Finds Transcendence In Rock Subtlety

UNSUNG is an interview series where we speak to the band members you rarely hear from in the hard rock and heavy metal bands that you love.

“I definitely was a fan,” explains drummer Adrienne Davies about Earth in the 1990s. “Pentastar’s Mike McDaniel totally influenced me.” Little did she know back in the days when Dylan Carlson’s band was making pioneering drone metal records for Sub Pop that she would go on to become its second longest tenured member.

Since Earth’s triumphant return in the new millennium, Carlson and Davies have proven one of the most potent creative partnerships in rock music. From the sheer weight of the duo’s earliest live recordings like Living in the Gleam of an Unsheathed Sword compared to the beauteous atmospheres of 2019’s stripped down studio effort Full Upon Her Burning Lips, their records built an entirely new and sturdy legacy for a project that, upon its initial dissolution in the twilight of the 20th Century, seemed altogether unlikely. Davies’ indelible mark on Earth’s sound reflects a certain restraint, one of several topics we discussed over the phone about her nearly two decades in the band.

THE PIT: Who made you the drummer you are today, and who inspires you now?

ADRIENNE DAVIES: I’ve always liked the session drummers, the ones that aren’t really showy. They just serve the song. You can usually tell it to them, because it’s like there’s something very distinctive about how they play. It’s not attention grabbing, it’s very musical drumming. That’s why Jim Keltner really stands out. Then there’s some of the jazzier stuff, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette with Miles Davis. In A Silent Way is just really fluid, uh, little subtle flourishes. It’s almost like guiding the music instead of trying to control it. I like some heavier stuff too, for sure, like Bill Ward and Nick Mason. In terms of drummers that I’ve seen live, Jim White from Dirty Three just absolutely blew my mind.

If I’ve done my math correctly, you’ve been in Earth for 17 years. Does that sound about right?

I first met Dylan when I was 17, so we’ve known each other for a long time. Then, in the early 2000s, we started dating. Earth was totally kaput. Dylan didn’t even have a guitar. I had played drums and done music before in Olympia. We just started playing together, not in any way trying to reform Earth. It was almost like therapeutic playing. It was just, it had to happen. We had no idea if this was going to be a band again, nor we were trying to have any ultimate goal. Playing live just fell in our laps. I think we had only had three songs when we left to do the [2002] East Coast shows as a two piece. It was very improvised, kind of raw and brutal.

At what point did you know that you were gonna reform Earth or have a go at recording together under this moniker?

Once we went out, we were like, we gotta pick a name, this has to be listed as something. It was daunting, the analytic expectations. Earth was very different earlier on. A lot of stuff had to be considered. Dylan and I have always been impulsive on things, creatively, not a lot of serious planning and forthright timelining or anything like that. We just go with the gut on a lot of stuff.

Speaking to the collaborative, creative dynamic that you and Dylan have, how does material emerge between the two of you?

Dylan tends to write with this call-and-response, kind of a cyclic pattern. He doesn’t really do song structure of A-B chorus-verse. I mean he’s capable of it, but he doesn’t tend to write that way. Usually, it’s more risk-based guitar ideas that he’s coming up with. We’ll just play with them, pull them apart like taffy it, and really let them guide it to where it needs to be. It’s kind of this collaborative clay process of sculpting stuff and then knowing when to stop and take the hands off of it.

Obviously, you have been at it a long time. How much has that dynamic changed over the years in Earth?

It’s definitely changed a lot. We’ve always tried to pull in some really top flight, cream of the crop musicians. And when you’re playing with other people that are maybe a little more advanced than you technically or amore well rounded skill set, you tend to play up to their level and learn a lot. I think it’s really helped both in our playing and writing. We’re better at being able to communicate instead of having it all be telepathic or very intrinsic work. We’re now more able to verbalize it, clarify it, and get to stuff a lot quicker instead of taking the long road. We have a lot more shortcuts involved now, which is good for sure.

As a listener, there’s a meditative quality to what you do in Earth. Are you able to lose yourself in those moments when playing or is it a very active focused process for you?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a really fine balancing act. You need to be able to completely trust what you’re doing and not be consciously trying to control what you’re doing. You have it in the back of your mind but also [can] let yourself go. It’s almost a lesson in attention and intention, being able to be present and then also let it go somewhere else where you’ve transcended to another state. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s been a real journey and it’s been the linchpin of where I’m happiest with certain performances or certain recordings, when that happy medium was reached.

2008’s The Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull is a favorite among many of your fans. You guys were already in your stride by then, with a number of releases for Southern Lord. Given what Earth meant at that point. what did you go into making that particular album looking to accomplish?

If people haven’t heard Earth or if they want to know what I do, I usually will suggest that album. It’s so rich and dense and layered, and has a kind of San Francisco Grateful Dead influence. I think it’s got a lot of stuff to pull people in. The writing on it is very concise and clear. It grabs you right away and it’s got a beautiful album arc. We were working with Randall Dunn again. Greg Anderson had kind of given us carte blanche, because he had a lot of faith in what we were trying to do artistically and knew [that] we knew what we were doing at that point. He took his hands off the wheel and let us drive. We had Steve Moore on board, just phenomenal, incredible from a jazz perspective, kind of musician. We pulled in Bill Frisell and these amazing musicians that were able to come and bring their take to what we do.

From that same period, roughly, you worked on the Sunn O)) and Boris album Altar. “The Sinking Bell (Blue Sheep)” is such a powerful, moving song. What do you remember abut recording that session?

I wasn’t there very long. I just came in and did my part. I think it was Stephen O’Malley that wanted me to play on it. They had a feel for some kind of cyclic brush snare work, and I showed them what I had. It was a one or two take thing, real quick and easy. I thought it was a beautiful song. I’d come in towards the end, so I could hear where most of the song was, what they were doing with it. I believe they mixed what they wanted out of what all happened.

Your most recent album, Full On Her Burning Lips, strips Earth back to the duo format. Knowing that there weren’t going to be guests involved in this process, what was it like composing and writing for this album?

We were doing basic tracks. We had all these song ideas, a lot of ideas going on. We had time to change our mind or decide to bring more people in. Once we were getting songs recorded and seeing what was flowing into what, the intentions and emotions and feelings for the album, we were realizing how dense and strong it felt. We weren’t feeling like we needed to bring anyone in; if anything, we needed to subtract. I thought that the ideas and the song structures were so strong that they could hold their own and sound pure without being tethered to very lush instrumentation and dense layers.

Why is this appealing to you as a musician, to exercise this restraint?

It strips away a lot of the distractions. When you hear a long ago child’s lullaby, you can swear you’ve heard it. You know it, you can’t put your finger on it, but it’s intrinsically a part of you. We’re always trying to do that, to create something that’s timeless and feels really familiar. It’s an interesting idea to strive to, to try to create something almost recognizable in your DNA. There’s something that latches onto the memory of it, even if it’s your first time hearing something. That’s our goal with a lot of the music, to have it hit on a deeper level.

When I think of the music I like and what I like to listen to over and over and over again, it’s always soothing, unfettered. If I listen to bebop, I wanna blow my brains out. Something that has tons of key changes or really quick time changes, my brain hates it. The way Dylan writes, I try to support and play off of what he’s doing, but also leave a ton of space for him, step forward here and there with little things that don’t pull the listener out. Subtle things sound good to me and feel right.

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Words by Gary Suarez