Agalloch are not only one of the most popular bands to come out of the US black metal underground, they’re also one of the best. Often, the two don’t always go hand-in-hand, but in the case of this Portland-based ensemble, their penchant for ambition, atmosphere, and progressive mindedness has served them well. After seeing them live for the first time last month, paired with the release of a twenty minute Extended Play, I had many questions for Agalloch in regards to their art and craft. Don Anderson (guitarist and co-songwriter for the band) caught me up on the latest from this intriguing act.
Just in case anyone reading might be oblivious to the music of Agalloch, introduce yourselves!
DON: I am Don Anderson, guitarist for Agalloch.
Any highlights on this tour so far? If anything, it’s marked by your first Vancouver show!
DON: The Vancouver show was really great and the crowd in particular was welcoming and very excited for the show. Other highlights were Toronto, Brooklyn, LA, and SF. Although the shows are the main reason to tour, we also took time to visit Walden Pond which was a personal highlight for me as I am a devotee of Thoreau’s work and regularly teach Walden in my courses. We also love trying the local food of the areas we visit. So, there are lots of non-musical highlights on tour that help you stay sane.
I think I can speak for almost everyone at the Vancouver show when I say that the setlist was superlative. Is it very difficult to make a list of songs, or does everyone involved generally concur on what they want to perform?
DON: The setlist definitely evolves. A set can only be abstract until you’ve performed it a number of times. We changed it regularly throughout the tour, but we noticed a really strong list emerge about halfway through the tour. This one seemed perfect and we mainly used it with a few modifications. We agree on most songs, but there are some disagreements here and there. It isn’t too hard to choose the songs. Again, we kind of have a working primary list that is altered depending on how close the previous city is to the one we are currently playing. We realize a lot of fans travel to multiple shows. So, for example, Dallas and Austin had really different setlists. But a list is also determined by curfews and how many opening bands there are. Opening bands typically mean that the headliner has to cut their set, so this is why we were careful in selecting key openers. The one challenge is that our songs average ten minutes, so a set list may look like there’s only a handful of songs, but it’s still two hours long!
Travelling with you on this tour are Portland-based acts Eight Bells and Taurus; both sonically interesting performers, although quite different from Agalloch’s core style. Much like the almighty GWAR, it is my understanding that Agalloch maintain control over who tours with them. What was the process behind getting these bands onboard; was there much competition?
DON: I think most hands have some say in who is the main support and opener—those are two different things and can be controlled by different sources. Main support can be label driven (which we don’t have to worry about), or a negotiation between the label and the band, or just the band. Of course the booking agent might have some say, but Agalloch is very much in total control regarding main support. Local openers can be forced on you by the club too. But, we try to control that since, again, the more openers, the less time we have to play. Eight Bells was only on the first four dates and are not only a great band but good friends. We do focus on non-metal, or at least non-folkish/blackish metal bands when we can for openers and main support. I’d rather have our fans hear Pinkish Black or Eight Bells than another metal band that might sound too much like Agalloch. We did have bands ask us to open, but again, we tried to keep openers limited for time constraints.
When Agalloch first started playing live, you would often modify songs so that they might better fit the live setting. On this tour however, it sounds like you are more dedicated to recreating the studio experience in full. What was the reasoning behind this, or am I off the mark completely?
DON: We still do some minor rearranging when necessary. For example, if a song has a three part harmony I try to do something that incorporates each harmony with one guitar. Also, songs keep evolving. There are accents in Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires that do not occur on the record-but I wish they did. So, when we perform the songs live, we do mess with them a bit and let them breathe more. But, also, we are using a lot of the same gear that we now use in the studio. So, something like Faustian Echoes will sound almost exactly like the recording. We also recorded that mostly live so that helps too. But, we even made minor adjustments to it as well. Live is simply another environment from the studio so the songs need to be almost reimagined for that environment.
Seeing Agalloch for the first time, I was expecting, yet taken aback by the ritualistic atmosphere of the concert. Suffice to say, it’s not a typical ‘metal show’ experience; what was behind the decision to have incense, bones, chopped logs as part of the Agalloch experience?
DON: Well, you said it yourself; an Agalloch show should be a full experience. We don’t want to go all the way like King Diamond or early Genesis or something like that, but we want to create the right mood and atmosphere for our music. I feel what we do is subtle, but perfectly frames the performance. I know for me I transform into a member of the band as soon as I walk on stage amidst the fog and incense. Once my guitar starts feeding back, all those things help me get in the right head space to perform. I assume this is the same for the fans. Obviously the band name is derived from a kind of incense and our nature imagery is expressed with bones and animal parts like the deer legs.
This year Agalloch released “Faustian Echoes”, a twenty minute epic based on Goethe’s telling of the age-old story of a man who vends his soul to the devil for knowledge. I have only read Marlowe’s dramatization; what makes Goethe’s version the most appealing to you?
DON: The English translation has some very “agallochian” like phrases in it. I think people who don’t know that the lyrics are taken directly from the English translation might even mistake some of them for John’s lyrics. The futility of mankind, pursuit of knowledge, a bit of misanthropy – all those things are there. For us, this Faust theme emerged naturally. We are fans of Svankmajer’s film adaptation of Faust (which we sampled), and we worked with Steven Lobdell who is a sometime-member of the legendary German band Faust (who we are fans of) on Marrow. He did the remixed “noise scapes” you hear on the EP. John had begun rereading Goethe’s version and finally, we always had our European layovers in the Frankfurt airport and would frequent the Goethe Café—where, coincidentally, we began talking about this EP. It all just came together.
Agalloch is no stranger to the ‘epic’ format; “In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion” is even being performed on this tour. However, “Faustian Echoes” is the only one that’s ever reached “A Change of Seasons” territory in passing the twenty minute mark. This must be a much more harrowing writing process than Agalloch is used to…
DON: Not really. Faustian is in two parts and we tend to think of a standard song being around ten minutes. There is a cohesive structure, themes and variations, and parts that return later on the EP, but we definitely thought of it in two ten minute parts. It was the first time we really wrote as a three-piece (John, Jason, and I). We would meet at the rehearsal space and work out riffs and ideas and draft the overall arrangement on a black board. This was very different than working via demos and mp3 files over email which we used to do due to living apart. So, it was a very enjoyable and rewarding experience. We hope to do the fifth album this way.
In my last interview with you upon the release of 2010′s “Marrow of the Spirit”, you mentioned that Agalloch was pursuing darker, ‘bleaker’ depths than ever before. This was certainly true on “Black Lake Nidstang” and “Into the Painted Grey”, and perhaps even moreso now on “Faustian Echoes”. Is this a conscious decision to take Agalloch down a grittier avenue, or a natural byproduct of age and maturity as a musician?
DON: Some of that came from our own hostile resistance to Ashes which we all agree is too polished and have even regarded as our “pop” record. Using analog and vintage gear without a lot of studio hocus-pocus was mean to be confrontational—we don’t like the sound of modern Metal or the sound we had on Ashes. So, that is one reason we’ve moved in this direction. But, we’ve always been very morose and existential songwriters. I really can’t do anything artistic if I am not, in some genuine and meaningful way, confronting the reality of death. Art is to me, like philosophy, a way of confronting difficult questions about our existence. I prefer to engage films, music, and literature that approach these questions and I prefer to write music that does as well—whether that’s Agalloch or Sculptured. I have no interest in fun or happy music or art. That may be a sign of maturity or just being an old curmudgeon. I’m not sure which one.
“Faustian Echoes” is complimented with audio samples for the English dub of Jan Svankmeyer’s brilliantly weird “Faust”. This use of film dialogue in Agalloch’s music has some very memorable precedent, employing samples from a couple of my favourite films among others; Bergman’s “Det sjunde inseglet” and “The Wicker Man” (the Cage-less original, thank science!). Is this ‘cinematic’ element of Agalloch important to you; are there any film scenes you may want to work into your music in the future?
DON: I think film is fundamentally almost more influential on our music than music. Film is regularly a reference point for a type of feel or mood when we are recording in the studio. John thinks about music in terms of images—he’ll describe a riff using an image. I don’t usually do this, but he and I are complete cinephiles, so it works. Image as a whole is very important whether in terms of cinema or Veleda’s photography. Layout and design is just as important as the music itself. It is something we take very seriously.
Speaking of films, any you might recommend?
DON: There are always films to recommend. We all enjoyed Lars Von Trier’s recent Melancholia. Tarkovsky’s work is really important to us such as: Stalker, The Mirror, and Solaris. And some fans have probably heard us mentioning the work of Bela Tarr whose Werkmeister Harmonies was something we were all into during the writing and recording of Marrow.
At the show, I noticed some copies of Jason’s long-awaited Self-Spiller project on sale. In what little I’ve heard of it, I was reminded greatly of Ulver and some of Tenhi’s more ambient-leaning stuff. What’s the story behind Self-Spiller?
DON: It’s a long story. Jason has spent years on this project. It’s made up of “pieces” of music—everything from a single riff, guitar lick, to longer instrumental passages all composed by a diverse group of musicians from around the world. Jason basically culled all this material together and arranged it into songs. It was a laborious process, but I love the result.
What lies in the future of Agalloch? Any plans for an upcoming full-length?
DON: Yes, now that the Summer tour is over we are going to focus on new material and hope to record within a year. We are also looking at Europe again and will try to hit cities and countries we haven’t played before.
What have you been listening to lately? Anathema and Anglagard both recently released incredible albums!
DON: I have yet to hear either, but while on tour I listened to our incredible opening bands like: Pinkish Black (formerly The Great Tyrant, whose record is amazing!), Author & Punisher, Pallbearer, Musk Ox, Velnias, Eight Bells, and Oskoreien. I can’t recommend these bands enough!
To all of those young musicians (including myself) who may have not found exposure or artistic inspiration yet, what advice or words of wisdom might you give to them?
DON: How can you not find exposure these days? I think the problem with music is overexposure. Sure, everyone is in a band, but back in the 90s you didn’t hear about it. So, the challenge is how to stick out amidst the endless deluge of projects and bands with a facebook/myspace page. I have no experience with this specific problem. Agalloch began before the Internet and did it the old fashioned way with demo tapes, tape trading, and paper ‘zine interviews. I sound like a curmudgeon, I know. But, people your age have it both easier and harder. You have more control, but less control—it’s paradoxical. You can independently record and release music, but then it gets passed around, written about, and promoted without your participation. “Word of mouse” is a double edged sword. Agalloch benefits from it, but we also see the negative side which is the mass of misinformation about us, the members, and the music that gets treated as truth. Word of mouse is helpful but not when every word is read as “truth” on the Internet.
If I got four demo tapes in the mail, I spent quality time with each of them. Now, I see links to 100s of new bands. So, the challenge is to stick out and I really have no idea how to do that. You need to do music for yourself first and foremost and I realize that is a cliché, but it remains absolutely essential. What happens later is up to chance. We really had no expectations for Agalloch back in 97. We just wanted to make the music we wanted to hear. We’re lucky.
Any final words to any who might be reading: fans, friends, metalheads, proggers, mankind in general?
DON: Thank you for listening to Agalloch. We appreciate everyone that comes out to our shows, buys our merch directly from us, and helps spread the word (whether by mouth or mouse). For information please visit official Agalloch sites on the web: