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Agalloch interview November 2010

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    Posted: 05 Nov 2010 at 5:39pm
 Thanks to Conor Fynes for the permission to post the Agalloch interview on Metal Music Archives. The interview was originally posted on Prog Archives.
A band of no small stature in the post-metal and underground circles, Portland, Oregon based 'dark metal' group Agalloch has developed quite a reputation and fanbase for themselves, despite very little help from the media. With a new, eagerly anticipated album on the horizon, guitarist and composer Don Anderson was kind enough to share a few insights into the band, the music, and the future of this intriguing project.
Can you share a little bit about how the band met, and how Agalloch came to be?

I met John in late 1996 and we were both beginning separate projects—for me this was Sculptured and for him this was Agalloch.  We shared a mutual love of European underground death/black metal and bonded over many of those bands.  When he heard me playing lead guitar he asked me to basically “guest” on the demo From Which of This Oak.  At the time I was completely focused on Sculptured so I didn’t see it as anything more than supplying some guitar solos.  Once Jason moved in with me to join Sculptured it only seemed natural for him to also work with John as they had been very old friends already (both having been from Montana).  Then we recorded the song “Of Stone, Wind and Pillor” as a three piece and that was supposed to be a 7 inch.  That song really is the first full band recording of the group.  I’d say at that moment Agalloch became a band.  So, early on, Sculptured and Agalloch was almost the same band.  And when my old drummer for Sculptured left, I asked John to help me out on the second Sculptured album.  We basically saw ourselves as close friends with similar musical interests and goals.  So, we didn’t feel like we had to search for anyone else to work with musically.  We ended up basically doing the first Agalloch and the second Sculptured back to back as the exact same band.  Not many people know this; but the same line-up that did Pale Folklore, also did Apollo Ends.  But, Agalloch grew in popularity more quickly and eventually became more of a full-time band than Sculptured.  Once we began playing live I put Sculptured on the back burner and focused only on Agalloch.

How would you describe the music of Agalloch, in your own words?

Metal.  I mean, it’s that simple.  We all come from a long and rich metal background.  So, I see Agalloch as part of that genre and hopefully pushing on and developing that genre.

How do you write music; what is the process of composition and arrangement?

John starts with a basic structure of usually one main guitar with some melodies or other parts and sends that to me.  I write my parts over his parts and mix those down and send them back to him.  Once he and I develop the guitar arrangements all that gets sent to Jason who begins thinking of bass and to Aesop who begins thinking of drums.  It’s very piece meal.  We can’t rehearse or “jam” since we live apart, at least for now.  So, it’s a very clinical and slow process, but it works in our favor.  It’s paradoxical because we compose collectively in isolation from one another.  Sometimes I’ll write a foundational riff and send that to John and see what he adds to it.  We are all responsible for our own parts, so it’s collaborative, but we also comment on and make suggestions for one another.  At some point John and I get together face-to-face and finalize tempos and arrangements.  Then we enter the studio and continue tweaking.  So, the music has gone through many stages of revision by the time you hear it.

Throughout your career, Agalloch’s lyrics and subject matter has revolved deeply around nature and its beauty. What makes nature such a magnetic topic for Agalloch?


John writes all the lyrics and handles the aesthetics, so this is a better question for him.  But all I can say is that we live in a very inspirational part of the United States.  The Northwest is filled with evergreen trees, waterfalls, rows of massive mountains and the coast.  It’s impossible not to be affected by it.  I grew up alongside the Columbia River gorge, and I have many personal memories attached to these surroundings.  John and Jason grew up in Montana which is even more massive and wild.  So, we all really connected over our natural surroundings.


In terms of the studio albums Agalloch has previously released, what are your thoughts and recollections concerning...

Pale Folklore:

I remember Chris Maycock from Dawnbringer/Superchrist hanging out with us during the session for our promo ’98 that eventually evolved into Pale Folklore.  He was really into what we were doing until we laid down the clean tone guitar parts.  He hated that and thought it detracted from the power of the riffs.  I’m glad we didn’t listen to him because that kind of sound—what you hear on the main riffs of “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony”—has become our kind of trademark.  I wonder if he remembers this; we’re label mates now.  I think if you listen to the first demo and then the promo and Pale Folklore, you can see that we began finding our sound immediately after the first demo.  It’s almost a different band.  I remember John showing me the melodies to “Hallways...” back in ’98 and I was thinking, whoa, that’s way different from something like “The Wilderness.”  What can I say?  It was our first full length and we just wanted to make the best record we could.

The Mantle:

This album is much more significant.  John and I were in a major transitional period where we just stopped listening to Metal.  We spent a lot of time together record shopping and going to shows and just exploring new music from stuff like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, to Electronica like Autechre and Aphex Twin, to neofolk and the whole burgeoning “post” rock/instrumental rock sound.  The only metal record we listened to during The Mantle sessions was Bathory’s Hammerheart.  One thing that stands out to me about this record was the risks we took.  I know it might sound cliché, but this was definitely a period where we thought we could do anything—there were no limits.  Anything was possible.  I remember tracking the bluesy guitar solo in the middle of the first part of “The Hawthorne Passage” and knowing I was doing something we could never have done on Pale Folklore.  But, it fit so perfectly to my ears.  Also, the piano on that song was very different from what we’d done before.  “Odal” was a real ear-opener for us in terms of the possibilities offered by the guitars in Agalloch: what else could they do?  what other kinds of effects could we use to sort of “paint” with the guitars?  “Desolation Song” was also something very different.  I remember having the instruments in mind first.  I knew I wanted acoustic guitar, accordion, upright bass, and mandolin first and then I wrote the song.  I think this album was also the first time that cinema really began to emerge as an influence on how we thought about the flow of the album as a whole.  Finally, “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion” is, I think, still one of our very best songs.  It encompasses everything we are about.  Overall, The Mantle was absolutely crucial in our development.  Sometimes it might not sound as cohesive to me as I think it should, but I also like that it’s a little all over the place and really shows what we are capable of.  I loved the experience this album gave me as a musician.  I have very fond memories of this session in particular.

Ashes Against The Grain:

I think this record has great songs, but looking back I, and the band, regard it as too polished and ultimately in terms of approach, misguided.  It’s too clean and accessible and I don’t think this sound represents us at all.  The music is simpler and more direct than The Mantle, which I think was the natural approach after tackling something as immense as The Mantle.  I think too our experiences with playing live were influential since we have to “reduce” a lot of our songs to play them live with only two guitars (we don’t believe in pre-recorded backing tracks).  So, we had a more simpler and “rock” approach.  But to this day I regard “Limbs,” “Not Unlike the Waves” and “Bloodbirds” as some of our best work.

Agalloch fans seem to be divided in terms of what their favourite album is... personally, how do you think each album compares to each other?

I think they are all different and represent who we all were at specific times in our lives personally and collectively.  I don’t regret anything, even if I maintain some basic criticism.  You learn from each previous album you do.  Even now we are already asking ourselves: where is Marrow pointing us?  what on this record is worth developing further?  So, each record is a learning experience and directs where to go next.  For example, ok, we thought Ashes was too polished, so let’s not use PODs or worry about too much editing on the next record; let’s go in the opposite direction and see where that takes us.  Let’s use real amps again and really consider things like how the room sounds and how the best way to mic this and that amp.  So, we found a guy, Steven Lobdell, who was really skilled in that area.  Each record has a philosophy and approach and these aren’t things you discard but instead complicate and expand on.  You ask questions of what you’ve done and you listen closely to what the music is telling you to do next.  In some way, I want the music to “write me”—meaning, I want to learn from it what I’m supposed to do as a musician.  I think if you take this approach you’ll always be doing what’s best for the music.  I think each album has engaged this general approach.  I mean, The Mantle still makes me ask questions about the music we do.


A matter of great interest to the Agalloch fan is the release of your fourth studio full-length, ‘Marrow Of The Spirit,’ which is being met both with extreme anticipation from the fanbase, and great acclaim from critics. What can the fans expect in general from this new album, and what can be said about it?

I suppose it’s the critics job to decide what can be said about it.  As I mention above, it’s safe to say that Marrow is involved in that approach of expanding and complicating what we’ve done before and that it is hopefully refreshing and new enough to also point to the future.  That’s really the key, I think.  Does the record simultaneously reflect back on your history while pointing forward?  It’s when your music no longer looks forward that you’re done for. So, I hope this record does that.  I think it does.

Please explain the recording process for this new release.

Emergent?  I think that’s a good word.  We don’t record live so the record really continues to be revised as we track each instrument.  Eventually the songs appear and we begin to get familiar with what we’re doing.  Sometimes things don’t change from the demo stage and some things change completely.  We were especially more conscious of the amps, heads, effects, and guitars we used this time.  Steven had a treasure chest of gear.  There was an electric sitar, but alas, there was no room for it in the songs.

Any personal favourite moments or traits of ‘Marrow’ that you’re particularly proud of?

Yes.  At exactly 5:33 in “Into the Painted Grey” when everything but the guitars stop and I play a little sliding melody based on 7ths.  This was the very first thing I did when I first played along with the demo.  It just happened.  This little pattern was actually an exercise I had came up with for my own practicing and I just ended up doing it when jamming along with the demo at that very spot and it never changed from that point till the final recording.  I knew it was just right when I did it the first time.  It’s a minor little part, but for me it, it connects this album back to its very beginnings.

What is your reaction to the way listeners have been treating the album thus far?

I’m of course pleased that people like it.  I’m also terrified of hype and inflated expectations.   I think there have been a lot of both.  We’re just a metal band made up of four guys who love playing music. I don’t want it to be any more complex than that.

Any final comments on ‘Marrow Of The Spirit?’

I do think it’s our bleakest statement yet.  I feel confident in that for sure.

New to Agalloch is San Francisco-based drummer Aesop Dekker. This must have changed the group’s dynamic...

Oh yes.  He brings a lot to the feel of the band.  It’s amazing what a new drummer can do for a band.  People tend to think that a new vocalist or guitarist will drastically change a band—and that can be true, but strangely it seems sometimes bassists and drummers are seen as more replaceable.  But the foundation and the feel changes with those two players.  Personality-wise too, he’s just great to be around and we all get along very well. 

Agalloch is not considered to be a widely active touring act, but what performances the band has made have been well-received. Can you explain the experience of playing the material live and touring, as well as some of the challenges that may have arisen?

There’s a lot of satisfaction in hearing a song you’ve written finally get mixed and mastered and end up on a record.  However, recording, while a wonderfully creative endeavor, is not necessarily cathartic.  So the real moment that I feel these songs are alive is when we play them.  There is nothing comparable to performing music live.  We don’t worry about whether we’ll be able to play anything we write and record live.  We first and foremost want to make the album that we want without any limitations.  So, it’s a challenge, but one that I enjoy, to rearrange or tweak the arrangements for the live presentation.  Case in point is “In the Shadow of our Pale Companion” which has a very different live arrangement; it even has a completely new transition that we added.  I also love touring and wish I could do it more.  I enjoy meeting our audience.  I also love travelling and seeing other countries and cultures.  I love trying new food all the time.  Touring and eating is as close to being Anthony Bourdain that I’ll ever get.

Besides working with Agalloch, what other things are you and the other band members busy with?

Jason has been incredibly busy with his new project, Self Spiller.  I’m also involved with that.  It’s been a number of years in the making.  I think it’s the best thing he’s done and I’m very excited to hear the final mix.  I’m always thinking about another Sculptured album.  I’ve got ideas and a few riffs and now that Marrow is done I can begin putting more effort into that. 

What are your views on the current metal and progressive scenes?

This is that moment where I say something really controversial that will betray how much of a dick I can be, right?  Well, I do think we have witnessed a much healthier metal period over the last 5 years.  There are a lot of genuinely interesting and great new bands that have emerged and I feel like there are a lot of great labels that have backed these bands.  I’m proud to be active in this period and I’m proud of a lot of our peers (most of whom are our labelmates).  The one trend I can’t stand is triggered drums.  I also don’t like, and this may come as no surprise, overly polished metal.  I love technical metal, but I don’t like the type of polishing that protools can allow, if you know what I mean.  The stuff I sometimes hear is so processed and fake that it lacks all human feeling.

Any favourite progressive or metal groups? What have you been listening to lately?

My favorite era of progressive rock is 70s Italian prog.  I’m always listening to Museo Rosenbach, PFM, Locanda delle Fate, Le Orme, Metamorfosi, Osanna, Semiramis and many, many others.  I also love Magma, and of course the English scene.  Also, 90s era Swedish prog, Krautrock, acid folk.  There’s a lot.  I don’t listen to any progressive metal though.  Currently I’ve been enjoying Worm Ouroboros, the new God is an Astronaut.  I also have to say something about this strange Portland group that Aesop had on his blog called—and they have a terrible name—Disemballerina.  f**king incredible.  They remind me of The Rachel’s, or A Silver Mt. Zion.

Your views on ProgArchives and/or its sister site, MetalMusicArchives?

Well, ProgArchives is pretty damn invaluable.  I’ve used it A LOT to find rare, obscure prog groups.  Incredible site and you guys have always been good to both Agalloch and Sculptured.

Anything else you would like to add?


Thanks so much for the interview and support.

A big thank you to Don Anderson of Agalloch, for sharing these insights in such depth!
Agalloch's MMA page can be found HERE.
Agalloch's Homepage can be found HERE.

Edited by UMUR - 05 Nov 2010 at 5:41pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Vehemency Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06 Nov 2010 at 6:33am
This was an interesting read, and great interview! Thanks for posting.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Andyman1125 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10 Mar 2011 at 4:43pm
I would not have expected RPI to be a favored genre of his LOL
It's also cool to hear about artists who use the sites that support them. Over at PA I always get excited when I see Phideaux post something.
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