Metal Maniac

An Interview with Agalloch (Don Anderson)…

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Greetings over there, Don! Hope all is fine with you. This is our third interview, being the first and the second recorded ones and this is a written one; so, let’s see how this will turn out. I’m pretty sure there will be some interesting answers and you have always been a gentleman, so I guess it will turn out fine (at least I hope so). How’s life treating you lately, Mr. Anderson?

 

Very good.  I’m really satisfied with the new record.  It was the first time I had listened to an Agalloch record over and over after we finished it. Usually, I’m burnt out.  But, I was so pleased with the outcome that I felt like I was a fan listening to it.  So, that has been a very positive part of my life lately.  Other than that I will be moving to New York to begin a tenure-track professor job this summer.  So, lots of major changes!

 

Something that I share a fascination with you, perhaps fascination isn’t the best word, but I am aware that you too love tasting new beers around the world. Have you discovered some new ones that you’d highly recommend? And also, what did you think about the Agalloch beer? That’s one that I really would have loved to try.

 

I won’t be able to try the Agalloch beer until our first gig of the tour in Minneapolis.  But, I’m really looking forward to it and was very impressed with the recipe.  I can’t recall too many specific beers while on tour.  But, Lithuania has very strong craft beer scene and I had a few that I really enjoyed there.  Of course Oslo is getting a lot of recognition these days and I’ve loved their beers.  I know Norwegian brewers have been inspired by the beers here in the Northwest and it’s great to see them expand on our Northwest styles.

 

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I am aware that now have a new job as a teacher on the state of New York. Have you already started this new work already? What are your expectations concerning it? As I too share the same passion of teaching, in my humble opinion, the most rewarding work is to teach, to share knowledge (of course there are many others as well, this is just my modest view), you can not be explained. It’s indeed a devotion that only those who share the same view can understand how you love to have such a demandable profession that doesn’t really pay well, hehe. Please, in addition to what I’ve already asked here, tell us when you felt this urge to become a teacher, the reasons that lead you to become an educator.

 

When I learned that I wasn’t interested in pursuing music academically, I went ahead and pursued English without any real career goal.  I was simply good at writing and enjoyed literature.  The most common career path to pursue with a degree in English Literature is to teach, sometimes High School, but if you go further like I did you typically end up teaching in higher education.  When I was around 21 years old I had a very encouraging professor who let me intern in one of her classes.  She let me teach for a day and “pre-grade” papers for her students.  It was thrilling for me to choose topics to focus on and run discussion.  I remember her encouraging me to pursue graduate school and she sort of described being a professor as thinking and writing all day and talking to students about literature and ideas.  Sounded great to me!  So, I decided to pursue becoming a professor.  It is incredibly rewarding and I’m lucky that I never, ever dread going to “work.”  I take very seriously the idea that I have a responsibility to make complex ideas and conversations accessible to students.  I want to facilitate their entry into the complex problems of our world.  I do this through teaching writing, philosophy, film, and literature.  I want my students to think and live deliberately, creatively, and finally meaningfully.  I believe this is the fundamental goal of the humanities and liberal arts generally.

 

There’s a lot of crossover between being a musical performer and a teacher.  Both require a kind of “persona” and I tend to be very conscious of my voice, the volume of my voice, my eye contact, and how I simply move around the room.  All of these things keep students engaged.  There’s a real theatrical element to being an effective teacher.  Again, you have to make students interested in the material and there’s really only one way to do that and that is to share your passion.  Passion is infectious.  As long as I love what I do, my students will likely get a lot more from my class.  The same can be said for playing a gig.  If it’s clear that I am giving it my all on stage and playing my heart out, the fans will hear and see that and it makes for a successful gig.

 

And now let’s talk about Agalloch. I believe I sent you my review on The Serpent & the Sphere. In my humble opinion, it is a masterpiece. I can not put in words how much I loved this release. I find it to be a bit of an enigmatic release, when it comes to the sound. Well, that’s just a personal feeling. Could you share yours concerning this release?

 

Right now we’re working with the songs in a live setting, so they are already taking on a new life.  We sometimes change little things here and there and I’m always trying out to ways to phrase certain guitar licks and melodies.  Sometimes I’ll add a harmony, for example.  So, the music has now transitioned from a permanent recording to something that can now breathe and continue to grow.  So, I’m mostly excited about that.

 

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When it comes to the songwriting process, was there anything different about it on The Serpent & the Sphere compared to previous albums? One thing that I always wanted to know is if you look back at your albums and think, we’ll do something completely different or do you feel that it’s also another source, that you drink directly from it and see your new release as a continuation of your previous albums?

 

I don’t like looking back too much or overthinking the past.  It’s pointless unless you do so with the goal of learning from what you might see as mistakes.  We certainly grow from our experiences, but each recording is an opportunity to learn how to compose and record.  Sometimes we like to change simple things about the writing process.  For example, “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” began as a single bass line written by Jason.  We thought it might be interesting to write a song from a bass line only.  Both John and I had a go at it, and it wasn’t until my second try that I came up with the main riffs.  Who knows if I would have written these riffs without the bass line that preceded them?  It’s interesting to think that something so simple would have such incredible consequences.  But, even more than that experiment, working with Billy Anderson for this full length also had a powerful impact on the sound and arrangements of the songs.  I think most of all what makes this album so successful for me is that I feel like we are getting closer to our sound and really understanding the sorts of choices we make regarding writing, lyrics, musical gear, and everything else.

Your full-length albums have been release with a “time slot” of four years between them (except for Pale Folklore and The Mantle). Is this something intentional? Are there any difficulties that you have to overcome to release full-length albums? Could you share with us?

 

The four-year gap was never intentional.  It sort of just happened.  Technically, Marrow came out late 2010, and Serpent came out mid 2014, so that might be more like three years, but either way, we do take a while for a full length to materialize.  There are not a lot of difficulties aside from living apart.  So, we have to all meet up, rehearse, and then track.  So, distance is always an issue, but that’s nothing new.

 

I’ve been reading some reviews on The Serpent & the Sphere and in one of them the following was stated: “The Serpent & the Sphere might disappoint fans of Agalloch’s more seething output. This is the band’s gentlest and most lucid album to date, and the musical knots that characterized Marrow of the Spirit’s long tracks have been pulled apart like strands of yarn.” Do you agree with such vision? Speaking of that, the usual question, but, fortunately or unfortunately, as it’s all a matter of perspective, always needed, how has been the response from both fans and critics when it comes to The Serpent & the Sphere?

 

I agree that it’s lucid, but I don’t understand “gentle.”  I don’t get the idea that we are “black metal light.”  The fact is, more importantly, we’ve never claimed to be “black metal” in the first place.  All these descriptors are just indicative of the burden on music journalism to describe and help promote a record.  The suggestion about “musical knots” being “pulled apart” is just a metaphor—I have no idea what it means.  But, like they say, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  I think the album has been doing very well.  The major magazines all seem to really like it and I’ve had positive comments from fans.  I’m sure there are plenty of people who don’t like it.  But, the most important thing is that we—the band—are happy with it.  And I can say one hundred percent that we are all very satisfied with the new album more than any other previous album.

 

Please, could you describe the most extreme climatic manifestation you’ve ever witnessed firsthand? Heheh, seriously, I was thinking about this weird question you shared and I really don’t understand why the person would ask this… Did you answer it? Were there any other strange or weird ones that you’d like to share with us? It can be the most recent ones as well as from Agalloch’s previous releases.

 

I tend to not really like questions that are already loaded with assumptions about who we are as people.  I know this is natural—one tends to associate the literature, music, or paintings with the person who created it, but it’s an incredibly limiting thing to do to someone.  I have to first confront these assumptions and then I find there’s really no question to answer.  I don’t mind talking about how my personal life, how teaching or whatever influences my work.  But, I’m not interested in talking about politics or anything that’s not somehow related to the music.

 

I’ve asked you this on our first interview, but I’ll ask you again in a different manner. You’ll understand the reason why. I was looking for “The Serpent & the Sphere” reviews and Google auto completed “the serpent & the sphere agalloch download” and “the serpent & the sphere download”. The album was fully streamed before its release. How do you feel over this, after working hours and hours to release the album, having expenses, fully streaming it and still many people just download it? How dissatisfying it is for you to know this?

 

I’ve basically accepted it.  It is an absolute truth that buying albums supports the band.  Period.  There’s no argument here.  However, the overemphasis on downloading impacting a band’s finances obscures the other, and sometimes more creative ways, a band can raise money.  In response to downloading, we’ve toured more and we’ve taken 100 percent control of all our merch, and also we make sure that our packaging is the best it can be.  The best way to directly financially support a band is to go to their show and buy a piece of merch whether it’s a T-shirt or an LP.  That’s how we raise the money that keeps us independent and making music.  I think most bands are reconfiguring how they collaborate with labels or how they handle their merch and touring.  Admittedly, not all bands are in our position—which is a very fortunate one.  I completely acknowledge that.  But, once a band is in a position to assume control of their work on all levels from t-shirts to recording, they should absolutely do so.

 

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Most of the Agalloch fans know this, but we can always hope that some people that are reading this interview are new to your music and got interested by it, so, I ask you to describe yourself as a musician and as a human being. What are your goals in life, your passions, hobbies, whatever you’d like to share with us.

 

We’re all really passionate about the music and after almost twenty years I think we’ve all learned to write, record, and play together in a really specific and meaningful way.  You don’t play that long with other people and not develop an original and creative rapport that shows itself in the music.  So, when you hear Agalloch you are hearing all those years of working together—the same three guys from Day 1.  Obviously I include Aesop as well in all of this as he’s made an undeniably huge impact on the sound of the band, but ¾ of the band has been doing this since the very beginning.  Our goal is to keep writing, recording, and touring when we can.  We’ll stop when we know it’s over.

 

Don, we have reached the end of this interview. Thank you very much for your kind gesture that is to answer this small conversation. I hope that in the future we’ll have the fourth, the fifth and so on interviews. I also would like to wish you and Agalloch all the best in your present and future plans. Do you have any last words for our readers?

 

Thank you very much for the support.  I appreciate the time and questions.

June 7, 2014

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