Adrienne Davies is one of two permanent members of Earth, a Seattle band formed in 1989 by Dylan Carlson and credited with inventing ambient metal—a contradiction that caught on and evolved into the doom genre associated with groups like Boris and Sunn 0))). When Earth re-emerged following Carlson’s recovery from addiction after 2000, his guitar playing confessed a tender spot for the gothic moments of American country music.
In its second life, the band evoked the cinema of Ennio Morricone, the hypnotic savagery of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, any Western with a sad and bloody ending. As striking was the addition of a new drummer in a band known to use machine programming in lieu of live percussion. With her unnatural restraint and stark rhythm patterns, Davies enhanced Earth’s geologic pace. Earth has since continued to expand on its meditative approach to hard rock, but 2019’s Full Upon Her Burning Lips promises an outlook sunnier than what the band’s followers have come to expect. On a recent tour, Davies spoke with me about the new album, her hybrid drum kit, the physical and mental challenges of playing at glacial tempos, and Earth’s fanbase—including a few doom-loving domesticates
Sheila Scoville (Rail): Full Upon Her Burning Lips is a departure from the last album because it is just you and Dylan without any guests. Did you want to return to an earlier, simpler sound or capture a different aesthetic? The album cover looks very 1970s, like the Stooges’ first record.
Adrienne Davies: Yes, Dylan and I are big fans of the way many ’70s albums were meant to be listened to in their entirety. We wanted to have one pure intention with this album and tell a first-person narrative through music. We also wanted an album that was intrinsically just us. Instead of leaving room for other instrumentation, I had the freedom to step forward. Drums are usually just for timekeeping, but they’re organic instruments. My goal has always been to play drums so they have a voice, a human touch and emotion, and this record captures that.
Rail: You apply unusual techniques on this album and play unconventional instruments like a bottle of water and a saw blade. The song "She Rides an Air of Malevolence" has this indeterminate rumbling.
Davies: That was the thunder rumble: a close-miked, hide drum with soft mallets barely touching it. I played the tiniest drum rolls but they made cavernous, apocalyptic sounds. Often, the quieter you play—it can sound heavier than hitting hard.
Rail: And “Descending Belladonna” has these time-arresting segments of feedback and underwater-like percussion. The drums draw the listener's attention with subtle variables. The guitar typically animates the songs, adding twists, but here it is almost the anchor while you get to spread your wings.
Davies: We had a strong idea about mixing “Descending Belladonna.” We both love dub and this album was the perfect chance to do something different like that.
On previous albums, I would almost limit myself to literally one fill per song. The band was so sonically dense, and the songs were so lush and multi-instrumental, the drums had to make room. I had to be patient and restrained. It's so different with this album because I wasn't held back by any reins. I felt like a wild horse running free.
Rail: You have a hybrid kit of instruments from various makers. Could you describe your set-up, and how it has evolved?
Davies: I would love to have a brand new matching kit, Ludwig or Gretsch, but as a working musician who still has a day job, I care more about the way it sounds. I just find cool drums that I like, and if it's not a matched set, I don't care. I do spend money on cymbals and snares, but the rest of the kit can come and go, and you can backline it and interchange.
I used to have this huge, unplayable rack tom, but finally, I said, “This is ridiculous!” Maybe Dylan's influence with smaller amps finally wore off on me. I pared down to this '72, 14 × 10 Ludwig orange sparkle, which fits much easier over a kick drum. You don't have to be spread so wide and set up to make room for the crash, and even though it's a much smaller drum, it sounds more massive. I'm learning bigger is not always better.
A guy named Gregg Keplinger in Seattle makes these amazing, hand-hammered, chime-like cymbals. I'm playing two on tour now on top of the ride and the crash. They're raunchy without being too trashy, just really musical, not shrill, and everything I love about accent cymbals.
Rail: What is your favorite piece of gear?
Davies: There's something that I bring into the hotel room every single night and have for 18 years since I've been in this band, and it's my '64 mahogany Ludwig snare. It's been my main snare on every album and on tour. I have a backup, a '67, and I always tell myself to bring that one on tour because if I lost it, I would be sad but wouldn't cry. But I invariably end up bringing the baby. That's the thing that if I ever lost I would be absolutely distraught.
Rail: Which do you prefer: playing with sticks or brushes?
Davies: Oh, brushes! But they are hard to pull off live. Since you and the other players can't hear them over the guitars and bass, you need your own sound guy who knows which songs have brushes to be able to adjust everything. We usually don't tour with our own sound guy; so it limits how much I can use brushes. But I absolutely love playing brushes, and some of the heaviest songs that we've recorded have them because a lighter touch can be darker, heavier, more ominous.
Rail: Recording or playing live?
Davies: That's a tough one, but it's always been recording. I will say this about playing live: I used to have a lot of issues with confidence. Stage fright is a flood of adrenaline. It makes your heart beat through your chest. If you need to play tempos under 70 beats per minute but your heart's racing at 130 beats, it's not good. I have tools for dealing with it, stretching and breathing, just getting myself ready to be in the creative head space to let the music come through. Now I can relax and enjoy playing live, and get into that state that you always search for: this transcendent, meditative state where you're not thinking cognitively or trying to control what you're doing.
Rail: You’ve talked about your experience of dialing in your less-is-more playing style and finding an approach to drumming in Earth that felt authentic to you. Could you describe that process?
Davies: The underwater dance quality or slow motion of my movements that people comment on, I just fell into that after swimming around until I found what worked. When I first began playing in Earth, we were at much slower tempos; there was almost no forward momentum. I had to jettison everything I'd ever learned. Instead of right angles and short, sharp movements that a drum teacher normally teaches, I had to do the exact opposite and adopt a cyclic motion. Also, to create drag and delay for such slow tempos, everything had to be as un-ergonomic as possible and angled to be hard to reach. Over time, I've been able to bring back the ergonomic, traditional school of playing drums, so I don't injure myself, but it is my own hybrid.
Rail: Earth is a crossover band for listeners who normally aren’t drawn to metal. Do you have categories of fans?
Davies: We definitely have a varied crew of fans. When I first joined Earth, it was a two-piece, just me and Dylan, and at the time we were kind of making brutal, therapy, war music. He was in a free jazz mode, and I was into loud, obnoxious metal machine music. When we first started playing, maybe you'd see one or two women in the whole audience. That has changed completely. There are so many more women in the audience; now it's almost 50/50, 40/60, which is amazing. I'm so happy about it because a lot of hard rock and metal in particular was and still is a boys' club.
Rail: What women drummers have you admired?
Davies: When I was 17 or 18 growing up in Seattle, Patty Schemel was probably my favorite when she was drumming for Hole. I remember living in Olympia, seeing Unwound play and just being floored by Sara Lund, a phenomenal, super-heavy drummer.
Rail: Last question. You are a cat lover. How many do you have, and are they Earth fans?
Davies: They do like Earth. They zone out and look kind of mellow. That reminds me! When our cello player, Lori Goldston, was in the band for Angels of Darkness, we used to practice at her house. She had a Belgian floppy-eared bunny. The second I brought out the drums he would hop over and crawl inside the kick drum; it was his favorite thing. No matter how loud I played he was just totally happy inside that big drum at full volume. He was an odd bunny.