This interview is with John Haughm of Agalloch, questions by U. Amtey
1. I'd like to start off by saying that I'm not really interested in giving our readers a complete history of Agalloch - for those who are interested in such things all of this information can be found in other places. I came to your band after I read your interview in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess zine that Jim Raggi puts out from Atlanta, and I was intrigued enough to risk buying your CD from the label people at the Milwaukee Metalfest without listening to it first. I was surprised by its evocative and atmospheric nature, and above all by the concentration it shows in delineating or setting down certain definite points of departure from traditional American metal. All of this was highly attractive to me. I'm going to start by assuming that you don't really consider yourself part of any one scene or style, do you? What made you concentrate so much on creating an original sound? Why is that important to you? What dangers do musicians in metal face when they branch out and try to write original material?
Hmmm....well I guess we are currently a part of the metal scene whether we like it or not. We are, afterall, a metal band even though we explore many different styles under the dark curtain. All of us listen to a variety of music including; metal, apocalyptic folk, electronic, classical, ambient/darkwave, techno, and so on. We've never really been all that gung - ho about originality. Breyer and I just wanted to form a band that explored various emotions and expressed ourselves honestly. This, ideally, attracted the other two members (Anderson and J. William). I personally think that what we're doing isn't as original as you (and many others) make us out to be. There are many bands that use similar aesthetics even more effectively than we do. In The woods... is a good example of one of those bands. Of course, this is just my opinion and it is true that artists are never completely satisfied with what they do. Therefore my opinion about ourselves is, more or less, worthless to the listener. The only danger I see with trying to do something new and original in the metal scene is the bad criticism from close-minded metalheads. We have recieved such criticism from a few and I really don't care about it. I don't put much stock in what your average, gung-ho metalhead loser thinks...
2. I remember reading in a separate interview with friends of yours that you tend to concentrate on imagery or the evocation of specific visual effects in your music - and that this is one of the most important parts, to you, of the power of Agalloch's music. Is this a vital part of writing 'atmospheric' music - appealing to other senses in the composition of material? Do you consciously try to summon images or memories while writing the music, or is imagery just very inspirational to you? What scenes or memories are you trying to communicate through music? How is it possible for your music to communicate things like this?
Yes itıs true that I write from a more visual aspect. I also listen to music this way. I think good music should appeal to many different senses and emotions. A band can be atmospheric as hell but still be very bland. I like to listen to music in a way so that it fits with certain situations. For example, electronic music (like Coil or the new Ulver) is great to listen to while working on the computer, sipping coffee. That, of course, also depends on my mood. I also tend to listen to a lot of music while driving and different scenery can certainly bring out more elements. Depeche Mode or Sisters of Mercy is great city-driving music. Of course, majestic ambient, folk or dark/black metal stuff is great to listen to while driving through the woods. On the other hand, when I traveled up to Mt Hood to take the wintery photographs for the CD layout, I listened to Cocteau Twins "Four Calendar Cafe"and it went marvelously well with the frozen scenery. This is all subjective of course. So yes, imagery is VERY important to me. Memories? Sure....nostalgia is another great source of inspiration. It doesnıt really matter what the memory is so much as it makes me feel a certain way (be it bitter or sweet) and, thus, creates the canvas...
3. I have noticed that so far, and despite the eager attempts of various music 'journalists', it has been almost impossible for your band to be labeled or categorized according to the prevailing genres that metal is always divided into. Is this a source of satisfaction for you? Do you think that Agalloch will be able to escape categorization like this in the future? Would you be amused if they had to invent a new genre for your band? In your experience, how do musicians react to categorization?
Someone has actually called our music 'grey metal'. I don't understand it and I'm not amused by it. I mean you might as well call us 'brown metal' or 'dirty purple metal'. It's stupid. Do we really need to fit within the standards of a certain genre just so we can make these journalists' lives easier? In my experience, it seems that many musicians are eager to find an immediate categorization, try to fit within it, and then they eventually grow out of it. I'm certain this isn't the case with everyone though...
4. In defining a new sound, there is always a certain amount of precariousness in gaining listeners, but after this has been done, and you have a concrete identity in the minds of the 'public', it is almost inevitable (if you are truly original) that there will be bands trying to derive a formula from your music and then appropriating it for themselves. How would you react to bands who did this to you? Would it flatter you or make you angry? Is there a way to escape this cycle?
Well like many others, we have our musical influences (Ulver, Katatonia, In The Woods..., etc). I do think we make use of our influences wisely and still manage to have a somewhat unique sound. I don't really think we have anything that other bands could borrow from us that hasn't already been borrowed from other bands. Not yet anyway. I'm trying more and more to compose from my visual and emotional influences more so than the musical ones.
5. What, for you, is the 'essence' of Agalloch? What 'makes' the Agalloch sound? Why do you write this kind of music? What are you trying to say with it? Do you have a definite agenda - is there a certain stylistic goal that you want to reach? Is there a form that Agalloch might take in the future that would please you? How is Agalloch different from other bands, in this respect?
I don't know! I never think about these things. I think my only agenda is to create music that truely expresses my feelings and moves me. I think we are progressively getting closer and closer to achieving this agenda whether we do it via metal or not. Metal can be an extremely limited forum for me to express myself. Lately I've been noticing this more and more. I think one thing that separates us from many bands (in the US in particular) is that we don't really care what the scene thinks about us and we don't try to impress anyone. We do what we want and we're flattered even if people hate us...
6. I had read that you were wary of the effect that the second song on 'Pale Folklore' might produce on your listeners in the scope of the entire album - that you were a bit unsure about the result of placing an instrumental/ambient piece right after the opening song. To tell you the truth it doesn't seem 'out of place' to me at all. In fact it is important in defining the tone of the entire album in that (for me, at least) it states that you are deadly serious about the atmospheric nature of your music, and that you want the entire album to be taken as a whole - not picked into pieces or divided into individual songs and 'examined' in that manner. As a bonus it sets up the third song perfectly. Has there always been a predetermined order to the songs on the album? If so, do you feel that the actual order of the songs on the album contributes to their collective impact? Is there a sort of 'building' process in the songs that makes 'Hallways', for example, that much more evocative when it comes to your ears after the first two? I think that there have been several classic albums that owed their enormous impact in part to the way that the song order was structured - can you think of any?
We were actually somewhat wary about putting an 18 minute song as the album's opener. In my opinion, "She Painted Fire..." is the best way to start the album because it really sets the tone for the rest of the album. "The Mishapen Steed" was placed after that epic because it ends "She Painted..." very well. It closes it musically and conceptually. It is like the cigarette after great sex (to use a stupid comparison) and youıre right - I think it does set up the 3rd song (track 5 on the CD) very well. We did have some order in mind for the album but for a long time I considered having "Of Stone,Wind and Pillor" (our 7" ep song) on the album instead of "Dead Winter Days". However, the enthusiasm from Anderson and J. William about "Dead Winter..." helped me change my mind. Yes I do think that the song order on an album can determine it's impact. I think "Hallways..." is more evocative after the first two because it is so different stylistically. As for albums that have a good song order structure.....Hmmmm....Ulver "Bergtatt", The 3rd and The Mortal "Painting on Glass", In The Woods... "Omnio", Bathory "Twilight of the Gods" to name a few. I also like the way Current 93 "Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre" is structured. Devil Doll albums are also structured very well. They are, however, built on parts rather than songs.
7. One of the things that I like the most about 'Pale Folklore' is the use of space and distance in the material: the ways in which the songs communicate an atmosphere of patience and an almost epicurean delight in taking your time with the presentation of the most melodic or evocative passages. There is a lot of breathing space (for the lack of a better phrase) in your music, it doesn't feel rushed in any way, and in that respect it is very relaxing. Are there certain methods for producing this effect in music? Are they indicative of any of your convictions concerning the writing of music - are they a distinct stylistic statement you are trying to make? Will this always be part of Agalloch's music?
This might be from my enthusiasm for Current 93's acoustic albums. I like how they let the listener hang for awhile with a repetive riff and then - bam- out comes this gorgeous chord change and the song then changes it's face so to say. I dunno. We tend to labor our creations abit. We write and re-write until the song finally forms its personality. This process could also be the cause of the 'space and distance' you find in our music. As for remaining a part of our style, I guess it will depend on how we write our future material. It may also depend on what I am trying to say with the music and possibly what I am influenced by at the time.
8. 'Pale Folklore' is relaxing to me, but of course when energy or excitement is needed it is presented in full force and with all due conviction. However, I never really get the impression that your music is trying to communicate an overwhelming emotion of any sort: be it despair, anger, happiness, etc. What does come through, however, is a sort of calm melancholy - a genuine resignation - that is refreshing in the light of all the theatrics of depression that the underground metal scene has given us over the last few years. Is this a deliberate gesture on your part, or do you think the music is a faithful reflection of your state of mind? How do you view the cult of despair that all the gothic metal bands spread with their music - is it only a matter of style or is it real? Why is depression or nihilism attractive to all these musicians?
Hmmm....well we do like to make an impression within our music. I would like to think that certain parts would, for example, give the listener chills. However I do agree that "Pale Folklore" is a sobering album. This doesn't mean our next one will be. Yes, I think the music on "Pale Folklore" is a quite acurate reflection of my state of mind. All of our releases will be. I really don't know if the despair of other gothic bands is real or not if I don't know the people involved. Even then it is difficult. People who just know me upon meeting me probably don't think I'm all that depressive on the outside. I like to have a good laugh and conversation as much as the next guy. When I write music, however, the feelings inside come pouring out. I'm damn serious about it. Our bassist (J. William W.) once said that depression, and negativity in music makes for a great catharsis. I have to agree. It is a great release of all of the corrosion inside that would probably eat me alive if I didn't have an outlet for it. For this reason, I am also attracted to darker music or simply music that moves me in some way inside (sometimes with the help of great visuals). Nihilism is a little different as it is more of a philosophical element that some bands like to talk about. This also includes us to some degree.
9. In what direction will you be taking Agalloch in the future? What other stylistic elements do you want to incorporate? Are you interested in moving your band away from metal and all the problems that come with being involved in the metal scene?
I guess time will tell. I'm not too fond of the metal scene anymore. I haven't even bought one metal album in last four months. It just isn't very interesting to me and most of the people involved with it are empty-headed and dull. Our 2nd album will be metal but with probably a more 'apocalyptic folk' base. I would also like to work more with electronic music in the future as I am finding it more interesting with each passing day. All four of us share this attitude to some degree. The atmospheres that we like to create under the Agalloch banner should always be there, nonetheless, whether we are metal or not. So shall remain the elegance as well.
10. I know that you are a big fan of gothic music - in what ways can the influence of those bands be combined gracefully with metal music? It doesn't seem, to me, to have been done very successfully by that many people. Out of all the 'gothic metal' bands out there, I haven't heard many that really succeed, for example, in translating their enthusiasm for the Sisters of Mercy or Bauhaus (I'm leaving Paradise Lost out of all these points I'm trying to make - to me they are no longer part of the movement they created). Is there a dividing line between the two styles of music that makes it difficult to blend them together or to create a new style out of their marriage? Why is it that gothic music has remained so fascinating for so many people? What is the relation - if any - that gothic bands have to metal?
Hmmm...I really can't say for sure. Take "Hallways Of Enchanted Ebony" for instance. You can obviously tell that I was listening to alot of Fields Of The Nephilim and Love Like Blood during the period it was composed. However, we added bits of our black metal heritage like the grim vocals, the dissonant chords and the atmospheric guitar breaks and made something unique through the careful marriage of both influences. I don't really know too much about other 'gothic metal' bands and what their intentions are. I think many are just searching for an identity or niche (like Paradise Lost or Sentenced, for example). We aren't looking for a single style to just repeat with each passing album.
11. Finally, I'd like to ask you a very important question: when can we expect the next Agalloch release? Please use this space for anything else you'd like to say.
Your guess is as good as mine. It took us over two years to make "Pale Folklore" so I'm sure it will take at least that to make our sophmore album. We will just take our time and let it naturally mold into form...as always.
Thanks for this nice, thought-provoking interview. I enjoyed it....