An Interview with Agalloch
By Ian Campbell
Before witnessing Agalloch’s sold out album release show with Yob at Seattle’s Highline bar, I was lucky enough to sit down with Don Anderson, John Haughm and Jason Walton to discuss Agalloch’s new album, The Serpent and The Sphere. Prior to the show I joined the band at the The Stumbling Monk, a highly regarded Belgian beer bar in the area. As we enjoyed some brews we had the following conversation…
Heathen Harvest: Nathaniel Larochette of Musk Ox contributes several interludes to the new record. How did he get involved in the album?
John Haughm: I knew in advance that I wanted to have some pure classical guitar playing. Not overdubbed nylon-string like we had in the past, but a person who plays classical guitar traditionally. None of us do, but we knew Nathaniel through touring with Musk Ox and I just asked him on tour if he’d be interested in writing some stuff for us. He wrote and recorded five pieces, it was easy. The great thing about it is what you hear on the record is one take, there are no overdubs; it’s just him playing. It’s great; there is one song that sounds like three guitars are playing. It really impresses me how classical guitarists can do that.
HH: I love how his first piece mirrors the themes of the album’s first song, “The Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation.”
JH: Which is weird because he hadn’t heard the songs, I just told him what tuning we were in and he wrote to that. I’d never even thought about that.
HH: The song seems to be quite a departure from anything you’ve done before. What inspired you to write in such a different way and use that as an album opener?
Jason Walton: We started by thinking about writing a song based on bass lines instead of guitar lines. We had already thought about starting the album with a slower song and I’d been working on some slow bass lines I’d written. So I wrote this four or five minute piece of just a few different bass lines and brought it to the other guys, they started demoing them and when we got into the rehearsal space that is what became “The Birth and Death…” So it was started with those bass lines and that is probably why it is such a departure, we approached the song in a way we’d never done before.
Don Anderson: Both John and I worked at the bass line, we passed it back and forth and eventually it was written. It was interesting trying to write something to just one line of notes, no harmonic material; single notes, and then trying to put chords around those notes and harmonic progression…
JW: And yet still let the bass lead the way, especially towards the end of the song. The bass is very much leading the way during Don’s guitar solo.
DA: The guitar parts are very simple. So I think it’s very interesting since it started out as a bass guitar line.
HH: Is Don playing the lead at the end of the song?
JW: That’s him, yeah.
JH: It’s very Floydian.
HH: That’s exactly what I thought. It reminded me of something off of Pink Floyd’s Animals album.
DA: I used a Fender Stratocaster played through a vintage Echoplex and a Gibson GoldTone combo amp. It’s a wonderful tone. I’d written that out as more of a melody as opposed to a guitar solo. It was the first thing I played over that part of the song. Sometimes you have to trust the first thing you do, there’s a reason why it happens.
HH: I love that the song builds up to what seems like an explosive climax, but then goes, nope—I’m going to go into a bluesy guitar part.
JH: Well, we don’t want to do what’s expected. That’s why we put a 10 minute slow song at the beginning of the album.
HH: And then a classical guitar track before things speed up at all.
JH: A lot of people seem to have a problem with that sequencing but it was completely intentional.
HH: How are you finding the overall response to the new album so far?
DA: I like a lot of what of the more established web zines or journalistic publications are saying. They seem to be saying this album sounds like Agalloch, we have our sound after 18 years, and that the album is a collection of all our previous stuff but also looks into the future. I like that theme; it seems to be coming up in a lot of the reviews I’ve read. We’ve put our arms around our discography and still added something new. I don’t want to reduce it to saying “we’ve found ourselves” but it seems like this is the most identifiable Agalloch album yet. I like that theme in the reviews.
JH: It seems like people expect us to do a complete 180 after every album. But, we’ve always had a style as our foundation. Sometimes we’ll add certain flourishes like more of a neofolk influence on one album, or more of a post-rock influence, or a black metal influence on another album. Really, this new album was more of a progressive rock addition. But the foundation has always been the same. So when somebody says “it sounds like a combination of their other albums,” yeah, that’s our style.
DA: But, they’re saying in a complimentary way from what I’ve seen. To me that is a good thing, because there is an Agalloch sound now.
JH: Exactly. I don’t think that we’ve fallen into a niche per se, because we’ve always had the same foundation that we’ve branched off of, but things always come back to the foundation.
DA: And I’ve liked the comments that we’re not following in the footsteps of bands like Opeth or Alcest who seem to have completely abandoned metal. I’ve always been proud to say we’re a metal band. I’ve never been embarrassed to be a metal band. I’ve loved metal since I was a small child. We’ve always been in metal bands since the beginning; we all grew up in death metal bands. I don’t ever see us abandoning that. I’m happy that we’ve been included in a niche of bands who have started flirting with post-rock or progressive rock, but many of those bands eventually consummated that flirtation and I feel like we haven’t.
HH: It seems like you have the EPs to experiment and do what you want without confines.
DA: If we do 180s they’re on the EPs. We’ll do a folk EP for example, but they’re minor statements. We don’t mean them to be major statements or have a huge impact on the history of the band.
HH: One of the most immediate differences I noticed with the new record is the lyrical themes, which revolve around celestial imagery instead of the more earthy aesthetics of your previous albums.
JH: Well, it’s not a sci-fi record. Really what it boils down to is that it is still a nature theme, but the core of nature. It’s at a molecular level, the manifestation of space and time and dimensions. We’re not just hailing some snowy landscape, you know what I mean? We touched on it a little bit with Marrow of the Spirit, “Into the Painted Grey” is about a plant cell: an entire universe inside of a plant, but personified in a sort of folky, godlike presence. I just added more to that theme on the new album.
The Serpent and the Sphere is the dichotomy of microcosms and macrocosms and how those things are a mirror reflection of other. You can have the vastness of the universe, but at our molecular level we have a whole other universe that’s just as vast and complex. So it’s still a nature theme, because it is about the fundamental points of nature.
HH: If you’re going to the very core of nature, where do you think you go after that?
JH: Ah, there’s more than one universe. (Laughs)
DA: The multiverse!
JH: I don’t know. Maybe we’ll go right back to the start. Go full circle.
DA: What’s the phrase? “If you reach the top of the mountain you either keep climbing or run straight down as fast as possible.” You can take what you’ve thought about and learned at the more universal level and then come back to the more local level with a new perspective.
DA: We’re never going to re-do anything, but we can always come back down. And you’re not the same person as when you went up.
JH: Exactly. I’m way different in my interests and everything than I was 15 or 20 years ago. So who knows what we’ll be doing in 4 years. If we’re doing. I don’t plan that far ahead, because… you never know.
DA: You’ve got to be in the present. After an Agalloch record I can’t even imagine where we’d go. It’s so blank right now. We almost need to do an EP that’s just a total 180 just to reorient ourselves. I feel like doing something completely off the wall is a way of refreshing ourselves.
JW: A blank slate.
DA: Yeah, but a deliberate, radical erasing of the slate to force ourselves to do something different. But I have no idea what we’re going to do next.
JH: One thing that we could do next time is have an album that is based on vocals. Because vocals are always the last thing we add. Maybe we could have something that starts with vocals and build around them.
DA: The process can be changed, not the music but the process, like writing a song off of a bass line. Or me writing foundational material for John, where it has usually been John writing the foundation and the rest of us writing over top of it.
JH: Maybe my foundation could just be a vocal line. There’s different ways you can approach it. It’s like having a canvas and choosing what to use for this piece of art, what colors, what approach.
DA: Even being in a new studio with a new producer, engineer, Billy (Anderson). Everything changes: new gear, a new effect.
JW: A new drummer.
JH: I’m really into exploring different effects pedals and things like that. Sometimes I will discover an effect and it will lead to a song. “Ghosts of Midwinter Fires” is one of those. Without that effect that song would never exist. I was just messing around with it and I came up with this riff and it evolved into that song.
HH: Agalloch has the reputation of liking to pick your own opening bands. What’s the process of finding these bands?
DA: After our long history I can say our first criterion is that you have to be nice.
JH: Yeah, we have to get along with you.
DA: You can’t be so green, you know? You have to be professional, because we’re taking a risk and it can interrupt us. We play with people we like and know. I know the guys in Vex. John knows…
JH: Obsidian Tongue.
DA: And those are people we personally like and we enjoy their music as well.
JH: And Jex Thoth, I know that she’s a pro.
DA: Yeah, and we like their music, that’s the main thing. We used to be really stringent about it, but I feel like we’re too busy thinking about ourselves right now. We’re more worried about new gear, new banners and things like this.
JH: As long as the band is professional, pleasant and makes interesting music, we’ll take them on the road.
HH: I find it really interesting that you guys will play a show with a band like Lasher Keen.
JH: That is interesting!
HH: I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not something you would ever really expect until it happens.
JH: But it works.
HH: Yeah, totally.
DA: The record release show, we see it as an opportunity. We want to use our power for good. We want to expose people to bands they would never be exposed to. Most of our fans would never have heard Sedan, or even Lasher Keen to some degree. And we want them to hear these people. Author and Punisher for another example. We want to use our power for that. Let’s give these fans something completely off the wall that we can stand behind and say “we love this music” which is why we’re playing with them.
JH: I tend to dislike playing with bands who are really similar to us.
DA: It’s a lot of heavy metal to take in one night. I prefer playing with those sorts of bands who are very different.
JH: But they’re complimentary.
JH: In fact, last night I had people coming up to me asking “how did you guys find Lasher Keen? This is amazing; I’m a big fan now!” And that’s great.
DA: It’s like making a mix-tape for your friend or something, “here’s some stuff you should check out,” but on a much larger level. When we play with Lasher Keen we’re basically saying “We love this music, we think you’ll like it too.” Yeah we want to give the bands exposure, but we also want our fans to see something else. It means a lot to me when our fans discover Sol Invictus or God is an Astronaut…
DA: Even if it is something really off the wall and avant-garde. There’s a sort of perversity if it is something really challenging; like OvO.
(John and Don both laugh)
DA: Or Allerseelen, to that degree.
DA: Taurus are a very good example.
HH: Do you find that you get polarized responses about playing with those kinds of bands?
DA: Oh yeah, from their music sometimes. But I’d rather have that than another folky metal band.
HH: I had that experience with Taurus when I saw Agalloch in Vancouver in 2012. It was like “whoa, this is not what I was expecting, this is amazing!”
JH: We played, I think, in Philadelphia…
JW: I think it was Virginia, where everybody left?
JH: Yeah, yeah. I was outside the main doors and these two guys came bursting out during Taurus’s set and were like “I’ve had enough of this shit!”
HH: I knew some people in Vancouver who did that too.
JH: I thought that was fantastic. (Laughs)
DA: It’s a kind of sadism. We kind of like that provocation. I think it’s a provocation that has very sincere intentions. Even if people react negatively, it comes from a place of sincerity. I feel like the audience should be provoked.
JH: We just need to find the new GG Allin.
HH: So what do you guys have coming up after this tour that has been announced?
DA: Nothing! (Laughs)
HH: Not a thing? No Europe?
DA: Probably next summer. But because I’m a professor on the side, the difference with my employment is that once the class starts it’s like a train: you can’t get off. So we have to do school breaks, so most of our touring has been relegated to spring break, summer break, winter break sometimes.
HH: Yeah, I hear that.
DA: Right, you’re a student right? But it’s good, we don’t want to burn people out anyways. We don’t want to get burned out. Three weeks on the road is a sizeable tour. I find when I’m not doing Agalloch, whatever I do in the meantime is still influential in some way. So there’s no lost time.
HH: Well, I don’t want to keep you guys too long, so if there’s anything you want to add we can wrap things up.
DA: I appreciate the support and the interview, the writing, and the review very much.
HH: Thank you very much, it’s my pleasure.
JH: I’m certainly a big fan of Heathen Harvest myself.
HH: Awesome, thank you guys very much.
Thanks to Don, John and Jason for their time, Sage L. Weatherford for setting things up, and Michael Korchonnoff for accompanying me.