Stranger Film Genius nominee (circa 2015) Clyde Petersen is making a documentary about the influential Seattle rock group Earth, titled Even Hell Has Its Heroes (named after a song on 2014’s Primitive and Deadly LP). With their 1993 album Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version, Earth invented ambient metal; it was a once-in-a-lifetime Big Bang of a recording, sounding like “Metal Machine Music as interpreted by a La Monte Young acolyte,” as I wrote in a 2013 Stranger feature.
Earth mastermind Dylan Carlson has gone on to explore more conventional forms of heavy rock over the last 25 years, while also branching out into solo guitar explorations, soundtrack composing, and abstract electronic music with British producer the Bug. Undoubtedly, Earth’s long and fascinating career, and their brilliant, iconoclastic leader are ripe for the film treatment, and nobody’s better suited for the job than their former band manager, Clyde Petersen. I asked him some questions about this promising project, which he expects to complete in spring of 2019. (Note: Petersen will be filming Earth's April 18 show at the Crocodile, so if you want a chance of getting your mug in the picture, you should go there and plant yourself in the front row.)
What inspired you to want to make an Earth documentary? (I’m so glad you are doing this, by the way.) I worked for the band Earth for six years as their manager, from 2008-2013. The first time I met them was at midnight at the Krispy Kreme in Sodo. They were just about to have band practice in the frame shop where Dylan used to work. My bandmate Steve Moore, who plays in the weirdest cross section of bands ever: Sunn O))), Earth, Laura Veirs, Your Heart Breaks, Sufjan Stevens, and First Aid Kit, to name a few, mentioned to me that Earth needed some help.
At the time, all they had was a landline telephone and a website. They were pretty lo-fi, which was cool. I’m not sure if they had e-mail yet. I used to have to call them on the landline or drive over to talk to them about tour stuff. The album the Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull had just been released and they were touring a lot and really feeling the momentum of that masterpiece of an album. So after a few donuts, they decided that I would be okay to work with me, and I spent the next six years helping them out. I wish I had been able to film those shows as I was on the road with them, but I would often be driving the van or selling merch or just totally exhausted or back at home while they were touring Europe or Japan. I did bring a field recorder on a West Coast tour and recorded a bunch of shows and van prattle.
In 2013, I decided I wanted to make the film Torrey Pines, so I retired from being Earth’s manager. But in the back of my mind, there has always been a part of me that really ached to document the band Earth. I studied documentary filmmaking in college, so I am always looking around at the world through the lens of documentation and I think it’s a freaking miracle that almost every member of Earth is still alive. I’m always wondering, do we really have to wait for a band to die before we get to see a movie about them? Can't we celebrate them while they are still here and able to tell their own stories?
Another inspiration for making the film is my desire to understand this Seattle that is rapidly disappearing. I moved here full time in 1992, and I was not quite old enough then to understand the intricacies of the music scene at that time. I came of age in the awkward generation as the Teen Dance Ordinance was repealed, between the end of grunge and the beginning of indie, so for me, the film is an exploration of things I didn’t quite understand in my youth in Seattle.
As a young person I went to shows all the time, but I never saw Earth. I remember the smell of the alleyway at the Velvet Elvis, or the dreariness of waiting for a bus that would never seem to come to take me home after a show at RKCNDY or DV8, my ears ringing and my flannel smelling like someone else’s weed. So I am trying to find that place again through film, for Dylan and Adrienne [Davies] and the changing Northwest, and I suppose for myself, too.
Will the film be a comprehensive look at the band, or are you narrowing the scope to a specific period? The film is a comprehensive look at the band Earth, their role in Seattle’s musical history, and their place in the larger world of music. The film also treats the Northwest as a character. I’m trying to get past that Nirvana layer of musical history that Seattle firmly clings to. Don’t get me wrong. Nirvana is great, but there is a shitload of other incredible bands who have history in the Northwest and we are losing that history every day. Through the interviews I have been doing for the last seven months, I find myself in a deep web of stories about art, rock, the Teen Dance Ordinance, secret shows, alcohol and drugs, and all of the friendships that were once the youth of Seattle. I love it. The more interviews I complete, the more questions I have.
Do you intend to stick to the conventions of music-oriented docs, or will you deviate from them in some way? Even Hell Has Its Heroes is an experimental documentary. It is a collaboration between myself and Earth. There will be no talking heads. The people interviewed are in the band or worked with the band closely. It’s primarily composed of three layers that will make up the film. The base is an audio track of interviews, edited together to tell the story.
On top of that is all new Super-8 film footage shot by myself, Ben Kasulke, and Britta Johnson. We are filming a live show at the Crocodile on Wednesday, April 18. I’m very inspired by the filmmakers Guy Maddin, Wes Anderson, and John Waters. They all have a fantastical view of retelling history, real or imagined, and I’m hoping to have Earth reenact some of their own history for the film. I’ll be filming a lot of the Northwest, working to capture a visual feeling encompassed in Earth’s music.
The third layer is an all new score composed by Earth. I'm hoping that Earth will be able to tour with the film and perform the score live at festivals. So that’s the general layout of the project.
I really despise the kind of documentary filmmaking that asks celebrities who have nothing to do with an artist, what they think about the artist. I recently saw a documentary about Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City, and thought to myself, "Why the hell is Amanda Palmer interviewed in this film?" She seems to be the resident expert for all documentaries these days. No offense to her, it’s just that she has nothing to do with Tales of the City, and surely that time in the film could have been better spent talking more to the actual author. So I’m trying to stay away from that vibe.
We’re keeping this project in the family. (P.S. Amanda Palmer was in that film because her husband Neil Gaiman did a reading with Armistead Maupin. Can you see my scowling filmmaker face right now? SMDH.) On the film side, I just really enjoyed watching the new David Lynch documentary about his painting career, which is just 70 minutes of him smoking cigarettes with a voice-over of him talking about painting. And Earth loves to smoke, so you can expect a bit of cigarette smoking in the film.
Are you planning to dig deeply into the members’ personal matters, or will you strictly focus on the music? The film goes a lot of places. We talk about music, philosophy, their personal lives, growing up, what living in Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, and Aberdeen was like for them. We took a road trip to Aberdeen to find “the Turtle House” that Dylan and Kurt [Cobain] used to live in. It’s a garden now. Word is they had a lot of turtles in that house, living in a bathtub with a ramp that led outside to a kiddie pool. Wild shit.
Whom will you be interviewing? I am trying to interview every single person who was ever in Earth or played on an album or recorded the records or put them out, etc. Some are more resistant than others.
Have you encountered any substantial challenges or setbacks in the making of this film? So far I have been self-producing the film, which always has challenges. We’re shooting on film, which is really expensive, so my credit card is screaming right now, but it will probably work out. I’m determined to make this film no matter what, so I try not to dwell on the hard stuff. Making art is hard and it’s a job. (But if you are reading this and you want to become a fiscal producer on the film, let’s talk, because I think this thing is going to blow up.)
What’s your favorite Earth album, and why? If had to live on an island with only one Earth album, my first instinct would be Pentastar: In the Style of Demons, but I know after a few months, I would miss The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull. And after a year, I’d be hurting hard to get a copy of Hibernaculum. Those are my go-to records, for sure. Every Earth record is so different, and I love how Dylan and Adrienne can take all of these ideas from the world and churn them into beautiful instrumental songs with clever titles, and they speak so much, but have no lyrics. It’s so wild. How do they do it?
A lot of people are probably wondering if you’re going to touch on Dylan Carlson’s friendship with Kurt Cobain. Is that on the agenda? I am excited to talk to Earth about whatever they are willing to talk about. The band has a fairly public history in some ways, though I would say that a lot of the older interviews of Dylan and his relationship to Nirvana and Kurt seem fairly coercive in their nature, and I am working with the band to make sure the stories told are accurate and reflect their lives. Dylan and I spent an afternoon talking about drugs, the early days, and Kurt, and all the hard stuff. We’ll see how much ends up in the film.
I’m hoping the film will break the barrier of the common tale that is told of Earth, which is really not about the band at all, but is about a friendship between Dylan and Kurt. Earth’s been a band for 25 years; they have a ton of amazing history and tour stories and music that goes so deep. I am trying to help them bring the whole story to the world.
When do you expect to complete the project? I’m hoping to have it finished in a little over a year. I’m doing a residency at Cucalorus Film Festival compound in June to spend some time getting deep into it. I spent all of December at a residency in Miami, transcribing my interviews. I have hundreds of pages of interviews, probably about 40 hours of audio for the film so far. I’ve interviewed about half the people I want to get on tape. I have a lot more questions.