Interviews : Agalloch

Agalloch : A new chapter: Ashes Against the Grain
With Don Anderson
Interviewed by

I got the chance to catch up with guitarist Don Anderson shortly before the release of their newest album, "Ashes Against the Grain." Although it is only their third full-length release, one can easily sense a large degree of maturation in sound and atmosphere. I wanted to gain a greater understanding of how these changes took place, and whether or not they were intentional. Don and I discuss not only this progression, but Agalloch's progression as a whole, including the new video for "Not Unlike the Waves" and ideas for the next EP.

So first off I'd like to thank you on behalf of for taking the time to do this interview.

Well thank you for the support.

So to start, how was your experience in the studio this time around? Were there any notable difficulties?

There's always things you can't prepare for that happen, both technically speaking, in terms of computer problems and things like this, or the way the music comes about. Because we're very unorthodox in the way we write, we can't get together as a group to rehearse, because I live like four hours from the band. So you know, John will give a couple of guitar parts really rough to Jason, the bassist, and myself, and then we basically write our own album to each of those. So what's odd is that for some time there were three different versions of “The Mantle,” and three different versions of “Ashes...” and then we get together and I come down on Christmas break and we just hope that everything comes together.

There's a lot of negotiating and giving and taking, and I'll rearrange some of John's parts, and he'll rearrange my parts to make sure that everything fits. And so, for example, “Not Unlike the Waves” was radically different in the demo stages, and only became the way it was after maybe four different revisions. We do a lot of songwriting in the studio, which I like; John hates it because he feels out of his element because he's not a trained musician. So, if we have to immediately rearrange something or transpose it to another key, it's frustrating for him, but with my training it's not so bad. And I like to watch things grow; I like unpredictability. So that was frustrating for him. But then for all of us, the computer had some issues, and we kind of weren’t able to locate the .wav files, so there was a moment in time where the album was stagnant, and that’s kind of why it’s as late as it is. So there were some serious problems, and then there were just some, you know, common “Oh my god this melody doesn’t fit right, let’s rework it.” There was a lot of reworking and rewriting in the studio, but that’s it.

Okay, so let’s talk about the album art for a moment, as I was slightly taken aback when I first saw it. Can you tell me why you guys chose that motif and how you think it exemplifies the album title?

Yeah, well John’s the main driver for aesthetics with Agalloch, whereas we all sort of work with music collaboratively. But I know he really was interested in the idea of something very beautiful and free, like a bird crashing down to the ground with the wings and ashes burning away. And that’s kind of where we were with the album, you know, we wanted it to be very much ending on a very horrifying, nihilistic moment, as opposed to ending on a more hopeful moment like “The Mantle” had. And so he was really interested in that sort of image, and he commissioned A. Tolonen from the Finnish band Nest, who we’ve worked with and are friends with, to do the artwork. But he also had this photo that Veleda, who does a lot of our photography, had, that he was really into. Jason and I ourselves aren’t totally crazy about the CD cover, so that was actually a conflict in the band. The images in the layout I think are fantastic, with some of the best photography of the group and numerous other images that Jason and I thought were so strong that we felt like that wasn’t really an appropriate cover. But the album’s going to be released in a slipcase, and the slipcase will have Tolonen’s artwork, so I mean you can go back and forth about what’s really the cover. But there’ll be an actual charcoal texture cover of a bird crashing down through the sky, so that’s what it is.

But to me, “Ashes Against the Grain” definitely has specific ties to lyrical concepts, but also it kind of leaves itself open for multiple readings. I mean, one for me is that I’ve always felt the music of Agalloch should always go “against the grain” of what’s common, what’s normal, in terms of the genre that we participate in or the numerous genres that we sort of find ourselves in. But also that, you know, ashes are these hopeless things that sort of bang in the sky; I see ashes crashing against some force, some grain, that can’t penetrate the grain. And so it also has this beautiful image of hopelessness, of going against something so great that you can’t go against it; you’re just ashes against the grain. So it kind of ticks both ways, and I kind of like that dual - although somewhat contrary – reading of the album title. So that’s kind of the concept, for me anyways, between the cover and the album title.

Well this is big news and a first for Agalloch, and I’m of course referring to the video. Now I’m of the understanding that you’re a huge fan of film, so how would you say that your personal interests were reflected in the shooting of the video and in its style?

Well here, the funny story is that Nicole Phillips, the director, had done a video for the band Crisis, who we’re friends with and have met and gone to their shows, and we’re completely different musical styles. And when Andreas from The End said, “Hey, you should have her to direct it for you,” John was like, “Well I don’t know, you know, she’s done Crisis and they’re hardcore, and the footage wouldn’t fit with Agalloch and blah blah blah…” And John said, “Well I’d be really interested in someone who could do something like a Bergman film.” And so then he found out that Nicole had a framed photo of Ingmar Bergman on her desk, and so John said “Oh! Well that’s all I need to know!” like that was the only criteria that we needed. And she was really keen on the idea of doing a more cinematic video.

You know, me and John used to always fantasize about “What would a video be like?” And we said we’d love doing something more cinematic, even if there are shots of the band we want to make it more cinematic. And so she brought in two cinematographers and we basically spent a couple days, or a few days, maybe three, doing some shots of the band in a darkened room, you know, kind of the standard fare. We had projected forest scenery on to the walls; we had taken plastic films of forest scenery and put it actually in the lens. So we had this really strange sort of Mario Brava type of feel, as if we were filming on a set with fake trees. But it was really really cool. So it definitely reflects, at least for me, that horror film, Mario Brava type feel, but also the really stark black and white I think is hopefully going to be reflective of the minimalism of a Bergman film. There are a lot of shots of the Pacific Northwest, the very famous areas in the Northwest that we got on tape. So we’re very very excited about it.

Yeah, well understandably so. So when can we expect to see the video, if you can give us a timeframe?

Well I think it’s been about two and a half weeks since we shot it, but Nicole said it’d maybe be a month to edit it. And we took like six, nine hours of footage, and the song’s almost ten minutes, so I don’t know how long it takes to edit it; but she said roughly about a month or so. But from then on I don’t know, you know? We’re supposed to get on MTV and Headbanger’s Ball and some other video channels, which will be really cool. Of course it’ll have to be edited severely, which I’m of course conflicted about. I’m not sure if that’s a signifier for selling out or not; I haven’t reconciled that.

Haha, okay. So on to how the album actually plays. I’ve noticed that the use of acoustic guitar is rather diminutive compared to your previous releases. I find that where acoustic passages had existed now dwell post-rock, ambient or ambient noise passages. I’ll admit that I do miss it a bit, as it’s an aspect of Agalloch – especially on “The Mantle” – that I grew fond of, so what do you have to say to me and others who wouldn’t mind hearing more songs in the vein of “The Hawthorne Passage” or “The Lodge?”

Well, that’s not to say that we’re never going to do that again by any means. I think we were just finished with the neofolk influence, finished with trying to do more with that. I just find the endless guitar strumming, at the end of the day, to be somewhat tiresome. I’d like to see more finger-picking and classical guitar work, as opposed to strumming. Even like “Fire Above, Ice Below,” when John was originally doing a sort of standard ¾ strumming, and we nixed it, we said “no, let’s just play the strumming straight” to set us off from “The Shadow of Our Pale Companion,” or “The Lodge,” which has that sort of typical ¾ strumming. It doesn’t mean that that’s where we’re going to go, but we knew that our original goal with “Ashes…” was to begin to subtract from what we did on “The Mantle,” to begin subtracting elements; because we thought “The Mantle” was one really confused album; because we were trying on many different hats.

And it was just experimental in the sense that we were just playing with, “Okay, what are the possibilities with Agalloch? Can we do a sort of Nick Cave-y kind of “Hawthorne Passage” bluesy thing? Do I do a guitar blues solo?” Like, that was the biggest thing, you know? And now John hates my guitar solo there, and that’s a contention between us, haha. And, “Can we put in a mandolin? Can we put in an accordion? Can we try these things?” There was a lot of risk-taking, but I think those risks allowed us to finally see in a singular sense what we wanted to do and to begin subtracting from it, and one thing we subtracted was a lot of that acoustic guitar stuff, just to see if we could bring other things to the fore. And I think we were able to bring Jason’s bass playing a little more to the fore; you can hear him a little more clearer in “Our Fortress is Burning…” and “Fire Above, Ice Below.” But it doesn’t mean that we’ll never do it again! In fact, we keep kicking around the idea of doing just a straight-up folk mini CD, with songs just like “A Desolation Song” and “The Lodge.” We’d like to do just a mini CD of that; I have stuff written for that, and that’s hopefully something we’ll do. We’re going to make the “White EP,” which will be a follow-up to the “Grey EP.”

Cool, well we’ll look forward to that then. So another thing, John’s his vocals are used a little sparingly on “Ashes…” Is this something we can come to expect in future releases?

I think we’ve always used vocals where they were called for. Also, we all listen to a lot of instrumental music; you know, progressive rock, and of course the post-rock stuff. And I think John and I both think this, that lyrics are just a pain to write because we’re so steeped in the music. And so I was like “Oh my god, we’ve got to think of something to say.” That’s a lot of pressure too. So yeah, there’s not many lyrics, it is a sort of brief conceptual story, but that’s not to say that we won’t have more. I can guarantee we’ll never give up the black metal vocals completely. I’d like to see more clean tones, because I like his clean tone work, but we also like instrumentals like “Odal,” I mean we could never put vocals on “Odal.” My one major requirement was that we had to have vocals in “Our Fortress is Burning…,” otherwise it’d just be another post-rock song or something; you’ve got to have the black metal. So we tried to definitely bring them in and they’re definitely not going away.

Right. And also, I think it actually renders it more effective because it’s done so sparingly. When the vocals actually do kick in it carries more of a punch.

Yeah, I think so too. Because when he comes in on “Our Fortress is Burning…” it’s just -

It’s pretty intense.

Yeah, because it’s been a while since we’ve heard the vocals up to that point.

Exactly. So I think I can safely say that this album is the most eclectic, not just in terms of continuity, but I think musically you can see that you’ve drawn on a number of influences.

Mmhmm. But see, I feel like “The Mantle” is too eclectic myself, you know what I’m saying? I think that album is messily eclectic, whereas I think definitely “Ashes…” is more focused eclecticism. I just feel like we’re finally getting there. Our goal was to do a black metal Godspeed You Black Emperor!, because we find the guitar approach and the double picking is consistent in both those genres. So John and I were like, “It’d be cool if we could merge Enslaved and Burzum with Godspeed You Black Emperor!”

Oh definitely.

I think at the end of “Limbs,” and a lot of the guitar work in “Limbs,” if you listen, it’s kind of ambiguous: is that a black metal riff, or is that more of a post-rock riff? So I think they’re just better synthesized this time around, as opposed to having a post-rock type song with “Odal,” and then having “I Am the Wooden Doors.” I think we’re getting at more this time around. Because my guitar solo on “Our Fortress is Burning…,” the first part is trying to channel a kind of country western twang almost.

Yeah I was just going to say, I can definitely sense a sort of southern influence. Now I’ve always wondered: what fostered the elimination of female vocals?

Um…I broke up with my girlfriend, haha. Because that’s who it was; the girl I was dating at the time was an opera singer. And back in the late 90’s, we played really brutal music with female vocals. And John’s always really liked that contrast, so much so that he might be upset with me for saying this, but the female vocals from our demo “From Which of this Oak” are his mom. And so since I was dating an opera singer, we were like “Oh, well, we’ve got to use her. We have to make use of that.” And so we just don’t have that anymore. Again, it won’t be something that we don’t want to use, we just don’t know anybody.

So you might consider reintegrating it?

Yeah I guess we’d like to definitely. I mean I’d like to get away from an opera singer, and have more just female vocals, just a straight female voice; especially in harmony with John would be really cool. You know, something like that. But I just don’t want to have any more operatic type vocals at all. If we did I think it’d have to be just a nice, pretty sort of melodious voice.

Yeah that’d definitely be interesting and perhaps something to look forward to I suppose. So moving on to a more holistic look of “Ashes Against the Grain.” Now having not been able to get my hands on the lyrics, can you fill us in on some of the subject matter? You alluded to it being a little conceptual…

Yeah, this time around John was consciously trying to be more abstract with his lyrics and not get so caught up into jumbling large words and sort of awkward phrases like he used to do a lot; to do something much more simple. And again, I think it’s part of that subtraction we were trying to do. But in terms of the story itself I don’t have a whole lot of insight into it, aside from my own reading of it, ‘cause John doesn’t really talk about it too much; not because he doesn’t want to but we just don’t bother asking a whole lot. But obviously we’re still concerned about the same things, which is mankind’s abuse of nature and the sort of struggling relationship we have with nature. The meaninglessness of life, the lack of god, I think, was a big factor I think for all of us. I mean I constantly suffer from a sort of existential crisis all the time. And I think for us too this time around, death was a very prominent factor because my father was dying at the time we were recording, and I was going through a divorce, and then when I got back from recording, a friend of mine from Germany in a band called Escape the Day had drowned himself. And we were a fan of each other’s work, so we dedicated “Our Fortress is Burning…” to him. So existential themes have always been really prominent. I think now we’ve finally decided that we’re going to end this on a very nihilistic note, because this is how we really feel. The futility of meaning, of finding meaning, about getting a centre which to have any sort of understanding that there’s a compassionate god above, you know? So I know it’s probably our most dark and nihilistic expression yet.

All right. So I know that John has expressed having pantheistic interests, and surely there’s an appreciation and respect for nature expressed through Agalloch’s work. So is this pantheistic or neo-paganist ideology shared by all members of the band?

No, not at all. It’s purely John. I mean I’m definitely a very straight atheist in terms of that. I mean I appreciate it [nature], you know? A lot of my favorite bands do deal with it; my family goes back to Norway, so I have some affinity for Nordic mythology, but I don’t invest in it on a spiritual level because I don’t even really believe in a spirit. And I think I can speak for Jason in a sense too. But John is a practicing pagan, and you know, I go over to their house and they have all kinds of runes and statues of Pan and Thor, and a lot of weaponry on the walls, you know? He and his girlfriend Veleda who does all our photography are very much into it, but for me it’s not spiritually fulfilling; I don’t find much of anything beyond art and love to be spiritually fulfilling. But so with Agalloch, musically it’s a pretty equal collaboration between the three of us, but aesthetics or imagery, it’s still John’s baby in that sense. As long as he doesn’t get too off the ideological path…

Haha, yeah. So ultimately then, how would you say the art, the film, and the music combine with the lyrics to portray a synthesis of sensory stimulation for both the members of the band as well as the viewer or the listener? And to what end, if any?

I know the reviews I’ve read continually speak of the music in a very imagistic sort of sense, and I know John speaks that way when we work on music, because he doesn’t have the musical training to talk about key signatures, transposition, or any of those sorts of things; he doesn’t even really know chords. And so he really thinks – because that’s all he really has to go on – about what kind of feeling he gets, what he’s looking at, what he’s seeing. In the same way that I might think in terms of C sharp minor, he thinks in terms of “Which Bergman film does this sound like?” And so the resting point for Agalloch has always been imagery. And I think if John wasn’t a musician and I think if I wasn’t a musician then we’d want to be filmmakers and directors. I think that gives it its own unique sense, but for us, the imagery, the packaging is of utmost importance; that’s why we take so much time and effort, and why sometimes we can only do limited releases like the wooden box set, because that’s always part of the feel, you know? I mean John’s always wanted to have like little bird bones in records, and bits of ash, or something. We’re really into that, and that’s why we have limited releases, because they’re really high quality and they’re really expensive to put out. So yeah sometimes it’s frustrating that people can download the album, of course, because I think release dates are basically irrelevant at this point. But I’ve been proud of people who are like, “Well I’m not going to download it until it’s out,” or, “I’m not even going to listen to it until it’s out so I can have the package,” which is cool, but I don’t mind if people download it of course. It doesn’t bother me.

So let’s discuss the live aspect of Agalloch a bit. Now you’ve covered the video and the interview sides of promoting the album, and I know you’re doing three shows, but how about a more lengthy tour? Is anything like that in the making at all?

There’s a lot of desire to do that, I would love to do that, but the problem is that we can’t stay rehearsed as a band. And that’s the first issue because I live a good four hours away, and that’s not going to change for at least another five years. So that makes that really difficult. I mean right now the guys are rehearsing this summer for those shows, and I’m going to go down there actually tomorrow and spend a week and rehearse then. And I’m going to go down again near the end of July. I’m not really well-rehearsed, but the rest of the guys will be. But they need the most work, not me.

Hahaha, of course.

No no no, but it’s really awkward to stay rehearsed as a group. And that’s the biggest thing. Another thing is that I’m taking classes and teaching and that’s why I’m up here, and Jason has a one-year-old daughter, and John has another job, and so it’s really hard to do a sustained tour. I mean if it was over the summer then I could do it, but two weeks is pushing it with Jason and his daughter and his wife. So we’re hoping to do, you know, week-long tours we can have, ‘cause that’s usually no problem and we’ve done those in the past, but the best we can do is either a week-long tour of the east coast or just one-off sporadic gigs wherever we can get it. I mean our demands are really small, we don’t really demand much of anything, we don’t even demand getting paid, as long as people can fly us out and put us up, that’s all we really require. So as long as those sorts of things are there and it works with our schedule, we’ll always play live. It’s not that we don’t like it; I mean I love it; I’d love to go out for a month and just be a musician.

So you’ve said you enjoy playing live shows, but what about the rest of the band? There’s a lot of talk about how Agalloch are this reclusive entity, and aren’t really ones for taking part in the metal scene.

See well that’s what annoys me. People read into it and they chalk it up as elitism, which is totally not true. I mean, we would play anywhere that we can, it just comes back to live problems. I mean, I loved hanging out with Deceased; I used to listen to Deceased all the time, they’re like the epitome of metal. And backstage we were hanging out with them and I wish we got a picture to prove, “Yeah, we’re totally metal, we can hang out with metalheads,” haha. But that has nothing to do with it. Granted, we’re not involved in the local Portland scene, but it’s not like we just don’t play live. I mean we are to some extent antisocial, because all musicians who are into metal are antisocial when it comes to the music, but I’m like always on MySpace, you know what I mean? I respond to everybody who e-mails me and I love meeting people. John’s a little more reclusive, but I think all of us just have social anxiety disorders. It has nothing to do with elitism.

Well yeah, I didn’t expect as much. But I guess that wraps up the interview, so I’d just like to thank you once again.

Thanks a lot.