Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beauty in Agony - An Interview With Agalloch

Beauty in Agony - An Interview with Agalloch

It was something to be seen. Portland, Oregon metal behemoths, Agalloch, did not so much shred or destroy like so many other metal bands. No. Agalloch did what they do best both with their music and their live performances. In a rather short period of time, Agalloch managed to take those in attendance at the Bottletree Cafe in Birmingham, Alabama to a wholly different place - a place where the agony and despondency of mankind is voiced through the echoes of crushing riffs and absolutely gorgeous melodies. Even for those who had not before allowed themselves the opportunity, the entirety of that small venue was transported, if only briefly, to a place created with the craftmanship and sheer tenacity of the band Agalloch.

After the show, I had a chance to sit with John Haughm (lead vocals/guitar) and Don Anderson (guitar/vocals) from the band. Here’s their take:

With Faustian Echoes, what compelled you guys, as artists, to go in that direction?

Don: You go. [to John]

John: There were a myriad of things, really…a lot of coincidences came up. When we were coming back from Israel, we had a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and one of our favorite places in that airport is called the Goethe bar – you know, the author of Faust. So we were actually sitting there having breakfast talking about doing an EP, like more of a black metal EP and so that was one coincidence. And then another one was, I was watching the Svankmejer film “Faust”, and I started to realize ‘Wow, there’s a lot of really great samples in this film that we could totally use to really make an interesting piece. And then I was reading Faust – because it [the film] actually inspired me to read the actual Faust poem, and I realized there were a lot of passages, at least in the English translation, that were very similar to my lyrics – you know very…

Don: Agallochian

[All laugh]

John: Well yeah, you know, like very damning towards mankind and that kind of thing. And so it just really fell together and, in fact, Don was actually teaching a class which actually went in line with one of the samples in the Svankmejer film about language.

Don: Well, you know…the whole discussion of language as being inferior or unable to represent human emotions and feelings and always failing at that is a standard component of post-modernism and post-structuralism.

Okay, I’m going to assume you’re a teacher. What do you teach?

Don: I’m an English professor.

[Laughs] Well you and I have something in common. But back to the idea of language – the lyrics: one of my closest friends, in our discussion of Agalloch’s lyrics, used the terminology “dark poetry” – a kind of a poetry of the adverse in his description of the band’s lyrics. On that note, what are your feelings as far as when you look at how metal is defined or, kind of misconceived into this stereotype by fans and even the press, because of a lack of understanding or lack of knowledge, even?

John: Well it depends on the region. I mean, in Europe, metal is just as popular as pop music – it’s just as revered as anything else. I just think it’s a cultural thing, really. I mean, in the States it’s a bit different, but it’s changing. I mean, it seems like metal is being a little more respected…again. You know, obviously this goes in cycles. If you were talk about this in the nineties [laughs] – it would have been a completely different story.

Don: Things have loosened because you know short-haired people. [All laugh] You know, metal was strange in the early 90s.

Jon: [Laugh] Or even in the 80s.

Don: Yeah, I mean, we all cut our hair. Things like that. Having too much clean tone guitar parts – where if you had a clean tone guitar part or, god forbid, an acoustic guitar – it was like Metallica’s Fight Fire with Fire was a sort of joke that was destroyed by brutality coming after it. Sepultura was good at this too. But…John and I have always been heavily influenced by so many other forms of music besides metal. And I’ve always found syntheses between those other forms. Like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and neo-folk. And we felt like well, this is all dark music – and even some of the instrumental techniques are very similar to black metal. It’s seems seamless to integrate them.

John: I mean, you can find darkness in a Loreena McKennitt album that’s darker than any black metal.

Don: We just always absorbed all kinds of influences, and just stir it in a pot, and it comes out like Agalloch.

So, where are you guys headed now, from a musical perspective? I mean, a track like Faustian Echoes is one I’m still absorbing even weeks after listening to it for the first time.

Don: We don’t really know. It’s a wonderful period of potentiality. We’re not even sure. I kind of like the idea of putting myself in a place where I don’t exactly know where I’m going, because that’s when it becomes exciting – the music becomes – I mean, we’ve been together for sixteen years. John and I have done the same thing since I was eighteen years old and it’s always that potential for something new and different. Once it becomes a recipe or something like that, it becomes boring.

I think that’s where that respect for metal that you mentioned, John, is coming from. I think it’s due in part because there’s not a movement to compartmentalize yourself as artists. There’s more of a movement to be eclectic.

John: I put Agalloch more in line with artists like Current 93 or Rush who, you know, just do it their own way. They’re always putting out something interesting, and there always just pushing boundaries within their own style.

Don: Yeah, I think bands like Rush or King Crimson are big influences musically. Not just musically, either, you know, they have phases. They have a few records in each phase. I mean, you think of Van Gogh during his blue period or whatever…you have a period where you’re doing these things, and that’s what I like to see with Agalloch. I don’t know what phase we’re in now. It’s not Pale Folklore. It’s not The Mantle. But I like to think we have the longetivity and the creativity to continue evolving.

How difficult is it to maintain that signature Agalloch sound with each album being so inherently different from its predecessor?

John: The thing about it is – we don’t try. We don’t try to make a different album. We really just sit down and write. I think the signature is just in my style. My sort of songwriting I put forth and then we collaborate on that. I mean that – you know, the red thread. I have those certain techniques that I always do, but we always put those techniques into different situations where we can express ourselves differently and have different feelings and different aesthetics.
Don: I think John’s a very good melody writer. I’m not a good melody writer. You can draw a straight line from the melody in Hallways of Enchanted Ebony all the way to the melody that opens Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires. Those sort of weird post-punk melodies. And that’s always been consistent. And, of course, the effects. We’re big into using every color we can find. I think we’re a band that paints with a wide palate – I mean we’ve got nylon strings, acoustic string, etc. – they’re always there – when we want to use them, and we never shy away from the coloring.

When we’re talking about aesthetics and painting with a wide palate – how important is the atmosphere of the show itself to the band?

John: Well it’s just as important as the lyrics, it’s just as important as the sound. I mean, it’s just as important as anything else to me. The thing I hate the most is seeing a band I really want to see and they get up in jeans and t-shirts and just play. I like bands that transform an otherwise boring venue into another world. And we try to do that. I mean, some venues don’t let us use the fog. We’ve got the incense and we have the banners – it just depends on the stage. You know, we have a lot of things to pull out of our hat to make the experience for the fans – to make them really absorb what’s happening.

Don: I think the biggest or one of the biggest influences on Agalloch is and has been cinema. And in cinema you have this phrase called mise en scene – you take a frame or a shot, and you see that it’s really well-balanced, and well, we do the same thing musically with our show and placing objects on stage. And it’s like when we come onto the stage one by one, I come into my little space, and I have my incense here – I can smell it, I have fog here, the amp starts to feedback, and then it’s like I’m just entering a whole other world.

It’s transcendent.

[Both]: It is.

John: Yes, exactly.

Don: I even have the ritual of taking my glasses off.

[All laugh]

Don: You know, I go from English professor to Agalloch guitar player. [Laughs] It’s just helpful for us and the audience.

As far as venues go – where you’ve played, what’s crucial to you as a band? What do you desire or look for?

John: Big stage. Big sound on stage is very important. We were actually talking about this today.

Don: It sounds so important because the music we play is dynamic – the quiet parts, the loud parts, the clean parts, lots of guitar, just different harmonies. It’s just really important to have good sound on stage. If it’s crappy, we’ll just fuck it and be punk rock and go through.

John: I really love this place.

Well, in my mind, it speaks volumes that you made such an incredibly small venue seem absolutely anthemic.

John: Well, that’s really the point of what we try to do.

Don: You know we were just talking today when we saw the venue, and we were like ‘Oh, man. That’s really small,’ but that’s a change. It’s always nice to come to a small comfy place where the people are nice and the people are courteous, and I mean…we even got to watch Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” here backstage.

[All laugh]

That’s important. You have to have Lynch here in the South.

Don: Well, exactly. With the trailer and the South. Yeah [Laughs]

What do you guys read on tour?

John: I try to sleep. [Laughs]

Don: I do have a couple of books. I do both. Two kinds of literature. I have James Baldwin, who’s one of my absolute favorite writers, and then I’m reading Giovanni’s Room. That’s serious reading when I want to confront questions of existence in the absence of god. When I want to just read something light, I have Anthony Bourdain’s book. If I don’t want to focus too hard, I can read about food and travel.

I assume you guys have eaten some of our Southern food, then.

John: Oh yeah. Chicken and waffles.Don: Yeah, we had chicken and waffles in Raleigh – I don’t know if that’s Southern enough – if that’s considered the South. [Laughs]

Oh, hey. If it’s any kind of waffle combination, you’ve officially crossed that cultural barrier, and you’re in the South.

[All laugh]
Thanks to my friends at Bottletree and The Birmingham Freepress  for their support and, most of all, the kindest regards to Agalloch for being so incredibly gracious and insightful.

Lastly, if you support journalism and the press as it should be then support The Birmingham Freepress or your local corporate-free news.  These people support actual journalism and not sensationalistic bullshit.  Support good metal.  Support good music.  Cheers.


Jonathan Dick is a writer/musician from Birmingham, Alabama.  He is an award-winning writer of poetry and prose in addition to being a metalhead.

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