Last year, Earl Sweatshirt returned from two years at a Samoan reform school with new song ‘Chum’ in tow. But instead of a howl of triumph celebrating his freedom we heard him sounding unusually vulnerable. “I’m indecisive, I’m scatter-brained and I’m frightened,” he admitted, finishing the final verse with, “Been back a week and I already feel like calling it quits.”
It wasn’t the Earl Sweatshirt we were used to. His first album, Earl, was a parade of monsters. As his frequent guest, collaborator, co-pilot and big-brother figure Tyler, the Creator, said, “This is my zombie circus / you better get a fuckin’ ticket.”
Together they pretended to be vampires and devils as well as serial killers and rapists, not seeming to realise or care that there was any difference between fantasising about being John Wayne Gacy or Count Dracula.
EarlWolf was another of those monsters, one they formed when combined together, a two-headed angry teenage misfit who hated the world because it was full of homework and parents who were either absent or overbearing. The skit where Earl’s mother tries to wake him up for school by saying she won’t make him breakfast if he doesn’t get out of bed, to which he replies, “I can fix myself breakfast, I’m 16!” might be the most perfectly self-aware satire of teenage rebellion ever recorded.
But Tyler’s last album, Wolf, wasn’t about annoying old people, taking the piss out of himself or playing Halloween dress-up as Satanists and rapists. Reviews called it “deeper” and were surprised to hear him sounding “remorseful”. Tyler found more mature things to rap about, just like Earl, who told the New York Times that after working in a crisis support center in Samoa as part of his counselling and talking to victims of sexual abuse it wasn’t possible to write songs about the subject any more, “if you have any ounce of humanity.”
“I think I speak for me and him both when I say it happened naturally ‘cause it was just like outgrowing it,” he says of the change in his and Tyler’s music. “Like, enough shit had happened to the point where we didn’t have to rely on that or have to go there, because there was other subject matter. There’s other very pertinent, very personal subject matter for us to touch on.”
While he was in Samoa Earl had to talk to therapists every day and take educational courses, but he also found time to read Richard Fariña’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (“I fucking love that book, like I read that book like 10 or 11 times”), and learn the basics of playing piano (“I just try and find chords that I think are cool”).
Those experiences are part of what’s going into his next two albums, Doris and Gnossos, the second of which is named after the main character of Fariña’s book. He’s eager to have the releases ready and a little frustrated by performing with Tyler on his current Wolf tour and getting bigger reactions when he pulls out the old stuff.
“I’m having a lot more fun performing now,” he says, “but I just really want this album to come out so the crowds can be familiar with it when I play new stuff ‘cause I’m not sick of the old stuff, it’s just that at this point I’m transitioning out of wanting to play it all the time.”
The EarlWolf shows, which they’re currently touring around the US before they come to Australia, feature Earl and Tyler performing a joint set, with backup from fellow Odd Future members of Jasper Dolphin and Taco as their hypemen.
“There’s like a tentative setlist but me and him have a bunch of songs that we’ve done together. Like, I have solo shit, he has solo shit, so it’s just a mixed bag of all that stuff.” If it’s anything like the footage on YouTube of them performing together it’s likely to be chaotic, featuring them changing their mind about which songs they want to do halfway through and Earl having to talk Tyler into doing ‘Tamale’, the goofiest, bounciest and least mature song on Wolf. “Yeah, that’s the most fun song in the entire world,” Earl says. “We played that two times last night.”
Watching footage like that of the two of them on stage, clowning and goofing off, Earl and Tyler seem so closely connected that it’s weird to hear that they weren’t always so tight. But when they first met, Tyler having tracked down Earl after hearing him rap on MySpace, their meeting was underwhelming. “We didn’t really like each other at first,” Earl says. “I don’t know, we both thought we were annoying.”
Plenty would agree with that first impression, but somehow they got past their mutual abrasiveness and Earl became an essential part of Tyler’s posse of skate kids and rap brats. “There was no, like, joining processes,” Earl says of becoming part of Odd Future. “We did songs and then that’s how that happened. We just started doing music together. We did ‘Couch’ and ‘Asthma’ first out of anything and then it just happened naturally. It wasn’t like, ‘All right, man. Fucking jump through this hoop and beat this wizard and you can be down with me and my homies.’”
BY JODY MACGREGOR
Earl Sweatshirt plays Enmore Theatre on June 6 andWolf by Tyler, the Creator out now on Odd Future Records/Sony.