Notes from the Director
For most of my life, I have felt as if I was born 10 years too late. I missed grunge and the height of the Seattle hype. I moved to Seattle in the summer of 1993 at the age of 13. I was a science nerd who loved fly fishing and trains and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
A few years earlier, my best friend Megan in San Diego had placed her Walkman headphones over my ears and I heard the first few chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I had no idea what the fuck the sound coming from the cassette was. It’s embarrassing to me now, but I remember actually removing the headphones from my head. But I lived in San Diego, with little access to money or information. All of my musical and cultural knowledge was filtered through various playground chatter while learning Paula Abdul dance routines or through Megan, whose family could afford $20 CDs. Her collection reflected that of a rich white girl from San Diego at the time: REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Harry Connick Jr., Garth Brooks. An eclectic mix of bands famous enough to have a CD pressed and sold to the masses at Tower Records. She recorded these CDs onto cassette tapes for me to enjoy.
There was no internet. All I knew was that I loved Garth Brooks and the soundtrack to Les Misérables. I deeply identified with Gavroche, the plucky street-rat urchin child in Victors Hugo’s tale, and yes, I was pretty fucking miserable. I spent a lot of time staring at the ocean and wishing I was anywhere but there.
As the years progressed, I moved to Seattle and slowly made new friends who played instruments, formed bands, and gave me rides to shows all over the Northwest. I learned about local music and local record labels. Screaming Trees was my favorite band. I joined Seattle Young People’s Project and helped organize to repeal the Teen Dance Ordinance, a piece of antiquated and racist legislation that made all-ages shows in Seattle nearly impossible to host. This law was compounded by a poster ban, enacted in 1994. In 2002, the poster ban was ruled unconstitutional by a state court, making it once again legal to post flyers and show posters on poles throughout the city. That same year, the Teen Dance Ordinance was repealed and replaced by the less-draconian All-Ages Dance Ordinance.
With the repeal of the Teen Dance Ordinance and the poster ban came an explosion of all-ages venues. The power poles in town were soon wrapped two inches deep in posters and the years following might be an epoch considered by some to be The Great Poster War. There were alliances and rules around whose flyer you could cover up. People made entire careers out of postering for production companies. You would see them out on Capitol Hill in Seattle, messenger bag overflowing with a series of posters, in a never-ending war for perfect pole position. There was no such thing as the perfect backpack for carrying a roll of posters. It was always a little awkward, trying not to crush them. But the posterers’ staple-gun technique was flawless. Whap whap whap whap: A staple in every corner, no time to waste, on to the next pole.
All of this flooded my memory as I worked in the loft of my art studio this week, filming the last B-roll for Even Hell Has its Heroes. I had my old four-track out. I dusted it off and it powered right up. The red “Record” light flashed. I was taken back in time by my high-school guitar case in the corner, covered in stickers from the 90s and early 2000s: Kill Rock Stars, Thrones, Seattle Young People’s Project, The Purdins, my own band Your Heart Breaks, and many more. And it struck me, perhaps for the first time in my life, that maybe I had not been born too late. That in fact, the road I was on in my younger years had led me here, to this exact moment, and all I had to do was follow it this entire time. Had I been born earlier, I certainly would have not known Dylan, Adrienne, or anyone in the band Earth the way I do today. I would not understand the complexity of having lived in a city that had in effect banned all-ages shows. By fighting that legislation as a teen and experiencing the explosion of all-ages venues following its demise, in reaping the rewards of organizing against such crude conservative laws, I found a love of punk and a D.I.Y. community.
DV8, RCKCNDY, Velvet Elvis, Fenix Underground, and the early VERA Project were the stomping grounds of my youth, but Dylan Carlson and Adrienne Davies had held their breath in the same urine-soaked alleyways before me. Like me, they’d waited in line for shows, bummed and smoked cigarettes between bands, transferred their paid admission wrist stamps to a friend or Sharpied a plausibly smeary version of their own to get in free.
As I examined my guitar case, I felt time and space collapse. I left my body momentarily, finally able to see in detail the ecosystem of the Northwest music scene. Though the music I play is very different than theirs, as strange as it may seem, I have shared many bandmates with Earth. In fact, that’s how I met them.
Despite Seattle’s sprawling geographic imprint on the land, its art and music community has always felt very small-town at heart. This has always been one of my favorite qualities about the city. Seattle, for the most part, goes to sleep at 10pm. You can roam entire neighborhoods and not see a soul. You can’t get a slice of pizza after 9pm, even in the most active neighborhoods. But out there in the night, artists and musicians are working, practicing, writing. This city has always been ours until the morning commute.
And so it was that my very first meeting with the band Earth took place well after dark, late one evening in 2007 at the new Krispy Kreme donut shop in SoDo. They fueled up on coffee and donuts for their midnight practice session at a nearby art-framing shop where guitarist Dylan Carlson worked. We had a mutual bandmate, keyboardist and trombone player Steve Moore. I was in need of work and looking for a change. They were looking for a manager to help get organized before their new album, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, was released.
We were all night owls and we all liked sugar, so it seemed to be a good fit. They scratched their phone number on the back of a donut receipt and just like that, I had a new job and the feeling that my life was about to change. That receipt hung on the wall of my certainly illegal, $500-a-month, only slightly finished basement bedroom in Ballard for years.
At the time, Earth didn’t have email, cell phones, or home computers. They had a landline with an answering machine, which they used to screen their calls. This was truly annoying to many people that worked with them, particularly bookers, record labels, and press agents. But I lived just one neighborhood away and would drive over with a list of questions if needed, have a nice visit, and pet their cats. I enjoyed rambling on their answering machine until one of them picked up the phone. We seemed to both enjoy the analog lifestyle.
The core members of Earth, Dylan Carlson and drummer Adrienne Davies, passed the time in a small apartment in Greenwood, reading books, watching history programs on tv, working various service-industry jobs, and doting on an army of cats, collectively too numerous to count at times, but each wonderful and unique.
I didn’t know much about the metal scene. I had spent the early 00s enmeshed in what could be described as indie and folk and punk scenes and all of their various intersections. I could write a dissertation on folk-punk in the southeastern United States from 2000–2006, but I could not, at the time, tell you the name of more than one Metallica album. In many ways, my life with Earth was my introduction to metal and drone. We shared common ground, because unlike many metalheads, the members of Earth came from jazz, experimental, country, Deadhead, and rock backgrounds. We talked about Willie, Waylon, Davis, Jerry, Coltrane (both Alice and John), Erik Satie, and English folk ballads.
Personally, I have found no other experiences in life that can offer what an Earth performance brings, and I know I am not alone in this feeling. Founded by Dylan in 1989, Earth is a recognized as a pioneer of drone metal. Hypnotically slow, instrumental, repetitious, lengthy, a typical Earth song begins at ten minutes in length. A typical Earth performance, six songs or so, will often surpass two hours of music, with legendary stories of them playing for three to four hours at a time. The band has included over thirty members throughout the years, rotating around Dylan and Adrienne.
I worked with Earth for five years. Managing, tour managing, selling merch at shows, emailing, calling, connecting, organizing, supporting. In those years, Earth traveled all over the world. I wish I could say I was there to film it, but often I was home, working on the next tour, album plans, press release, poster. The office work needed to happen to keep the machine going.
A few lucky times, I joined them on the road or flew out to a festival with them. Those times were extraordinary, full of long nights, late shows, exhausting drives. Somehow time seemed to slow around the band. Drives that should have taken five hours lasted for eight. It was a vortex, a mystery of cigarettes and complaints and jokes and hilarious van prattle. And yet mid-show I would always find myself so lost in their music. Every ounce of stress would leave my body. A sea of humans held onto a single note that Dylan stretched out for miles, while Adrienne played more air than drums really. Attending an Earth show and enjoying the long spaces in between notes often felt like the only way a human could slow down in this expanding world of immediacy. And so it was that I began to understand their cult following.
After five years with Earth, it was time to move on. I began making animated feature films, and Earth’s popularity had grown. It was more than I could handle with my small-town manager experience. As Nick Cave once told me backstage, “You’ve got to get them into the soundtrack business.” And I honestly had no idea how to do that.
I’d known for many years that I wanted to make a film with Earth that not only reflected their style of experimentation and patience, but highlighted the scenery that surrounded them in the Northwest. For the past five years I have been making this experimental music documentary with the band, dragging them to the Columbia Gorge, Rattlesnake Lake, the Wayside Chapel on Highway 2, and various locations on the west coast and in the southwest of America. Earth composed an entirely new soundtrack for this film and recorded it in 2019 with Mell Dettmer at Studio Soli in Seattle.
The entire movie is shot on Super 8mm film that I bought with a credit card while working countless minimum wage jobs to pay off the debt. At points throughout production, I was so deeply in debt from the cost of film that the stress was overwhelming, and I was nervous constantly. But it always felt worth it to continue. For me, this film has been a labor of love, respect, and admiration. I could make this film forever because the more I learn about Earth, the more I learn about the city I grew up in. Stories unfolding from every musician who ever played with them, leading to more tales of ridiculous journeys and pranks and misadventures. In some ways, I feel I’ve only wiped a bit of dust off the jacket on the Book of Earth. How do you discern life from tour, when tour is life? What is under that layer of hype that we left behind as we all moved on from grunge? As humans, we tend let our gaze fall upon the brightest stars in the sky and be satisfied, but lift up a rock on any beach and you will find an entire ecosystem that’s been here the whole time.
Earth cellist Lori Goldston often says, “Seattle is a city where you need to show up. The people who show up are remembered.” The people that show up create this scene. There are plenty who stay at home, deterred by rain, terribly slow or nonexistent mass transit, and general depression. This is the reality of living in the Northwest. Earth has been showing up for over 30 years. Grossly unacknowledged and underappreciated in Seattle, and far more popular overseas, Earth is a study in perseverance and patience. It is with this understanding and experience that I present Even Hell Has its Heroes: The music of Earth.
-Clyde Petersen, 2023