Karl Blau: Earth Tones

March 20, 2012
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Photo by Joseph P. Traina
There's something mystical, majestic, and off-kilter about the Pacific Northwest, and few artists know that better than Karl Blau. A creative fixture in the small port town of Anacortes, Washington, Blau has been quietly churning out a string of artful and quirky DIY recordings for about a decade on indie labels ranging from Knw-Yr-Own and K Records to his self-started Kelp Lunacy Advanced Plagiarism Society (KLAPS) subscription series. He’s also an accomplished bassist and frequent presence on the greater Seattle music scene, which is what drew the attention of guitarist Dylan Carlson. In 2005, Carlson resurrected his genre-busting drone metal band Earth, and revamped its sound with elements of ambient folk, free jazz, and avant-classical forms. After a few well-received albums (including 2008’s The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, with guest guitarist Bill Frisell), then-bassist Don McGreevy decided to move on, and Blau got the call.

“I’d been freaking out on Earth since back in the day,” Blau says. “They were so dark and otherworldly, and they’re still a really ethereal and interesting band. A couple of friends recommended me, and we hit it off musically right away. We started getting together to rehearse, and pretty soon we were in the studio for a three-week session.”

Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II is the second installment from that session, and it walks a more meditative path than its predecessor. “Both albums were new territory for me. I knew I would have to practice pretty serious restraint. You get to feel the physical sensations of the bass that way. I played for years in a dance band—very noodly and very highenergy. Restraint can be difficult to learn, because you get antsy for making more stuff happen. But this music is all about the void.”

Blau’s main bass is a hybrid Fender with an early-’60s Precision body and a late-’60s Telecaster Bass neck. “It’s built for sustain,” he says. “It has a real fat neck that plays like a piece of driftwood, but it’s got that thump. If you can push the note down and hold it, the sustain is incredible. In the studio, I ran that through the mic input of an old Optimus SCT-86 tape deck to give it some bite. I set that really low, and then output to an old Ampeg B-15. We miked that with an AKG D12, a great low-end mic.”

Karl’s undertones get an added brick in the pants thanks to Carlson’s odd tuning—a quarter-tone below Eb. It stands out in the opening invocation “Sigil of Brass” (featuring cellist Lori Goldston), the menacingly low “Waltz (a Multiplicity of Doors),” and the mesmerizing drone of “The Corascene Dog,” with drummer Adrienne Davies cueing hits with Blau at a tempo that’s slowed to a narcotic crawl. Earth isn’t exactly built for speed, but the band’s dynamic arrangements are rich and complex—and almost wholly improvised.

With so many of his own projects in the works, Blau doesn’t know what’s next with Earth, but at this writing he’s scheduled to make the band’s UK tour in March. “I’m really excited about that. Dylan isn’t afraid to explore, and that’s cool. I think he likes to keep everyone on their toes about what direction the music is gonna take. It’s a courageous thing to do, but if you’re in the zone, it can be a really free and open mental space, and I like that.”

HEAR HIM ON

Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II [Southern Lord, 2012]

GEAR

Bass ’60s Fender Precision/ Telecaster hybrid
Rig Ampeg B-15, AKG D12 mic
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steel flatwounds

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