It's one thing to be in Earth. Being under it is a different story. A few years ago, Dylan Carlson — founder of the influential drone-rock...

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“My poetry is, or should be, useful to me for one reason: it is the record of my individual struggle from darkness toward some measure of light

— Dylan Thomas

“I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.”

— Bob Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”)

“I knew this was the end. The end game.”

— Dylan Carlson

It’s one thing to be in Earth. Being under it is a different story.

A few years ago, Dylan Carlson — founder of the influential drone-rock band Earth — realized he had three options: 1) get his life under control; 2) spend the rest of his life in and out of jail; or 3) join his friends in the rock ‘n’ roll graveyard.

Carlson is a talented musician who is best known as Kurt Cobain’s friend and drug buddy. While Cobain was certainly the most famous of them, he was just one of many of Carlson’s old associates to come to an early, drug-related demise.

Spending what he says is a typically quiet night at a Greenwood apartment cluttered with books, CDs and music gear, Carlson sipped a soft drink and said he doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs anymore. It is a rather atypical lifestyle for a rock musician, but for Carlson it is really the only choice.

“None of my old friends — the ones I used to party with — are around. They either died or started going to jail …

“And I knew that was the end,” he said, matter-of-factly. “The end game. You either die, or you go to jail.”

Carlson speaks in a deep, low, ponderous voice, with plenty of pauses, plenty of room between the phrases. This is befitting a guitar player who explores the space between notes — who is far more interested in lingering vibrations than pop hooks and lyrical sloganeering.

At 39, he is a far cry from the scrawny, twitchy young dude with J Mascis hair. Carlson has gained weight and now wears his reddish-brown hair short. A Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos give him the look of a truck driver, or maybe Harley rider.

After drifting to Los Angeles in the late ’90s, Carlson returned to Seattle in 2000 and pulled his life back together. “Coming back to Seattle, I had a legal situation — I went to jail to take care of that. After that, I just wanted to be normal. I didn’t want to worry every time I see a cop.”

After spending most of a decade bouncing around in the underworld, he has held the same “day job” as a Sodo picture-framer for more than five years and settled into this unassuming Greenwood apartment for the same length of time.

“It’s nice being a square,” he said, with a short, rather joyless laugh. He added he finally realized the druggie lifestyle was not for him: “When you get older, you realize there’s no payoff. You have to associate with scummy people. You become a scummy person.”

Now Carlson is associating with classy people such as Bill Frisell, the jazz guitar virtuoso who contributed to an in-the-works Earth album. This promises to be one of the most exciting chapters of the long, twisting book of Earth.

Intrigued by long, dark, instrumental rock works by the likes of King Crimson and Yes, Carlson started Earth in 1989, while he was living in Olympia. There, he met Cobain, who played bass at a few Earth practices while waiting for Nirvana to bloom. (Cobain also recorded vocals for Earth’s “Divine and Bright” song.)

Like Cobain, Carlson moved to Seattle in the early ’90s, and like Cobain, signed to Sub Pop. Though they had similar influences (Black Sabbath, the Melvins), the two had wildly differing musical styles. While Cobain was marrying Beatles pop and punk-metal, Carlson was exploring the slowed-down metal sounds of hypnotic drone.

To characterize Carlson’s Earth music as merely slowed-down rock is a gross underestimation. His are sophisticated, complex compositions, deeply digging into individual note vibrations before moving on to the next … like a rock climber searching for the right grip.

After five Sub Pop albums, Earth pretty much fell off the planet for nearly a decade. Carlson quit playing guitar for a few years during his struggle. Once he got out of that downward spiral he picked up his guitar and eventually began his dig into Earth again.

Guitarist Carlson now has the band (trombonist-keyboardist Steve Moore, bass player Don McGreevy and drummer Adrienne Davies, who lives with Carlson) back in action, and moving forward at fast clip. Now showing some spaghetti-Western accents, Earth has released four albums in the past three years, with the above-mentioned Frisell album due for an early 2008 release.

A Pitchfork review (pitchforkmedia.com) of the 2007 release “Hibernaculum” also heaped praise on its direct predecessor, 2005’s “Hex, or Printing in the Infernal Method.” The reviewer called the album “a true rebirth. Filled with lonesome tunes built around Carlson’s clean, twangy guitar, the album painted pictures of windy ghost towns and moonlit deserts, and owed as much to post-rock and country as metal and drone. Many songs evoked the cinematic instrumentals of Slint or Mogwai, but with Carlson’s gift for Zenlike patience.”

Carlson himself seems to have a Zenlike presence, or at least an ability to dig far below the superficialities of fame — and infamy.

In the mid-’90s, Carlson was one of Seattle’s most infamous figures: the guy who bought the gun Kurt Cobain later used to kill himself (he says Cobain told him it was for protection). The guy in the documentary “Kurt & Courtney” who looked so … creepy. The doc’s director, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield, took an aggressive approach in exploring the idea that Courtney Love murdered her rock-star husband, and called Carlson “nervous and evasive.”

Broomfield also showed an Earth video showing Carlson buying a revolver, and said the Nirvana song “In Bloom” (“and he likes to shoot his gun”) was about Carlson. After the release of the film, and various books that touched on Carlson’s friendship with Cobain, Carlson was flamed on various “conspiracy theory” message boards and became the unofficial scourge of Seattle.

“Part of it was my fault — I presented this image of a drug-taking, gun-toting lunatic,” Carlson reflected dispassionately. “Then there was this whole thing where I was ‘the bad influence’ — which is kind of unfair. Everyone involved was adults. … I was starting to believe people, that I was just a [jerk].”

Though he has anchored himself enough to get back into touring and recording, he remains deeply cynical about the entertainment industry. “When you have a friend and he ‘wins the game’ of the music business and it destroys him,” Carlson mused, “I guess the game is rigged.”

Earth lands at El Corazón at 9 p.m. Saturday ($15). Also on the bill are Southern Lord labelmates Sunn O))), the former Seattle duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, who were inspired by Earth to descend into the drone-doom sound.

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com