A FLEETING MOMENT IN NATURE
It is always exciting when Agalloch hit Europe. They are one of the few groundbreaking black metal bands of real status left these days that have not sold-out, but the clever manner they have managed themselves shows it is not impossible to get established and even afford to complement their intense music with powerfully visual shows. I have nothing but respect for them: young bands should look at their example so far, as it indicates there is an honorable way to be touring artists without losing integrity or becoming mainstream buffoons. I am particularly grateful to John Haughm for finding the time to reply to my questions during the preparation of Agalloch’s Lucifer Over Europe Tour tour, which starts on 21st April and will last for a month, so check out the dates near you!
It was really nice to see your excitement for the Voivod concert at Roadburn, standing right in front of the stage with your girlfriend: was it your first live experience with the band? Can you tell me about your early musical roots?
I hadn't seen Voivod live before. I didn't live in a big city until 1994 so I missed out on a lot of those classic bands when I was a teenager. Oddly, we seem to be sharing the stage with many of them nowadays (Morbid Angel, Satyricon, Voivod, Killing Joke, Venom, Obituary, Autopsy, etc etc). My musical roots are the usual story – discovering rock music as a child which eventually lead to heavier discoveries. By 1989 I was quite active in the underground black/death metal scene, tape trading and buying demos and shirts from obscure bands.
The vibe amongst the Voivod fans was amazing: the Canadians are one of those rare metal bands that inspire a mixture of huge admiration and sincere affection because of their humble attitude, which is underpinned by their old-school hardcore/punk ideals. Agalloch also reconnects me to those genuine times when people began to draw their own album covers, trade and publish music independently and valued integrity.
Yes, perhaps but I fucking hate punk music for the most part. There are some exceptions of course and I've learned to appreciate it a bit more later in life but I've always felt disconnected to the punk scene. I was a fan of Slayer and Iron Maiden long before I heard The Ramones. I was too young to be grabbed by the original punk scene and I simply didn't grow up around people who listened to punk music. I was always a metalhead who later discovered “other” music. The punk scene I did appreciate very much was the later post-punk movement. Bands like Bauhaus, Southern Death Cult, Joy Division, Play Dead, Christian Death, Killing Joke, and so on. Our bassist and drummer come from an old punk background (Note: You MUST check out Aesop Dekker's new project, Vöhl: fantastic omonimous album out on Profound Lore!). As for me, I'd rather listen to Mötorhead and Venom for that kind of aggression.
Whereas punks - in spite of their anti-social, nihilistic views - still believed in changing the world, 90s BM turned the exacerbated, despondent feelings into a form of individualism described as “intellectual”, “stoic”, “elitist”, often supporting the fast demise of human civilization. Speaking to a few old and new bands though, these views seems to be shifting slightly: some seem to be keener to work actively towards changing their own life and that of their children and friends; one way of doing this is moving closer to Nature. Can art ignite revolutions?
Changing the world is impossible so changing/bettering your own life is really all you have. A lot of pagan/heathen communities have this active, non-mainstream lifestyle and I think it is great. As for art - it is what it is. People can take from it as they see fit. I'm not out to ignite a revolution. Again, it comes back to me making my own life interesting...creating something that maybe I can be proud of and that other people might be inspired by in some way.
I remember reading somewhere that Don is very close to the ideas of Henry Thoreau, environmentalist and transcendentalist, whose core beliefs were: “the inherent goodness of both people and nature, faith that people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent; simple living”. Humans have the highest level of consciousness within the natural system we know: that we are able to ponder on the beauty and mysteries on earth and beyond, from the immensity of the cosmos to the infinitesimal quantum state, is something truly immense. I do not believe in the inherent goodness of people and nature (every single living creature, from trees to viruses to insects to mammals ultimately act for their own self-preservation) but I have chosen to live a simpler life that is self-reliant and independent. Care to comment?
Well I cannot speak for Don but his idea of living simply is probably the total opposite of some isolated neo-naturalist living in a yurt community in the middle of a forest.
Philosophical movements and art often aim at influencing politics, intended in its etymological meaning. Have you heard about the movement that shook the bastions of Italian politics recently, rejecting the traditional ideas of “left” and “right” to reclaim direct power for the citizens vs. the old parties’ casts?
No, I try not to pay attention to politics. I'm repulsed by it. All politicians are the same and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. The idea of abolishing both left and right wing parties sounds great to me but it would never happen here in the US. People need their absolute black or white belief systems. I imagine this is the same in Europe.
Not only you embrace European culture and have a lot of friends over here, but you travel to Europe very often. Could you tell me how you view the idea of Europe becoming slowly a Union of States?
Naturally I preferred Europe before the European Union. I am not a fan at all of the homogenization of Europe from a cultural standpoint, no, and don't think for a second that the union of states in America is working. In fact there are several states right now who want to succeed from the union, including states here in the Cascadian region. I think it would take another civil war to achieve this though...
Let’s move back to music and its recent history. Norwegian BM is a rather male-oriented movement (a typical old-school heavy metal trait), whilst in the US female vocals have been added to the mix quite early on by yourselves or Wolves in the Throne Room.
We used it as a texture in our early releases but I don't think we will have female vocals again...at least never in a “lead vocalist” kind of role. Again, we were influenced to use female vocals from folk music and death/doom metal. It was a cliché already back when we did it and now it is just a ridiculously over-saturated trend. The big thing right now is 70's doom rock with a bluesy frontwoman. Christian Mistress and The Devil's Blood were great but after that...it got very boring very quickly.
Returning to Roadburn 2012, you played on the opening day, which was packed with amazing acts: Voivod aside, who else did you manage to see? Are you still consumed by the need to discover new bands, new ideas, new music?
Yes of course, though I am often disappointed by newer bands. I really enjoy discovering or rediscovering old music that I missed out on early in life. Ulver's set at Roadburn was an excellent education as they only performed covers of old sunshine pop groups. I went through a period awhile ago where I just listened to Motown and some weird space jazz stuff from the 70's. On our last US tour, I amassed a collection of '60s electronic glitch and avant-garde classical records. I recently discovered the Miasmah Recordings label out of Berlin who has an impressive roster of dark, abstract mood music. There is a world of music out there waiting to be discovered. Best to look further than the pages of a metal magazine to seek out these treasures...
It struck me how, in spite of the large venue (main stage @ 013), your sound did not lose any of its intensity and emotionally enveloping nature, and the powerful visuals of b/w landscapes on the massive backdrop screen made us connect with the core of your music. For me the experience actually began while observing your ritual of placing incense and symbolic objects around the stage: your focused, introspective mood gave me a sense that something deeply profound was going to happen…
That is part of our own preparation for a performance. The mood must be set even on a huge stage like 013. When we walk out on stage, we need the darkness, the fog, the smell of woodsmoke, and the visuals to fully transform a venue into another world for a couple of hours.
Are you surprised at the explosive success of Alcest when Neige decided to play live shows? I have never seen kids cry at a “metal” concert before, although a very strong element of catharsis should arise from (“serious”) black metal: Agalloch and Alcest aside, I could randomly mention the sadly split-up Lunar Aurora, Dornenreich, Fen and Dordeduh (plus Burzum and Drudkh, amongst the artists who do not perform live) as bands that have the qualities to inspire such strong reactions from the crowd: surely it’s not by chance that you have a strong connection with most of the above!
Lunar Aurora split up for good? Fuck. One of my absolute favorites and one of the last great black metal bands ever. No wonder my interest in this scene is waning every year. At least Paysage d'Hiver is still making excellent music. As for Alcest...I think they were more surprised than we were. We told our booking agent in 2009 that if Alcest ever played live, they would be huge. We were right. They actually played their very first show opening for Agalloch in Romania. That was in 2010 and look where they are now. Its crazy. Very nice people though and I think Stepháne (Neige) is a bit of a misunderstood person. I have a lot of respect for them because they do what they want despite the constant criticism from teenaged black metal elitists.
“The Mantle” came out in 2002 but it could well be a recent release such was its influence on the black metal scene… How do you relate to that album today?
I think it is a good album but, as always, the production and composition could've been better. It should've been 15 minutes shorter as well. I have a difficult time stepping outside of our own stuff and viewing it objectively. I only hear my own personal critiques and disappointments when I listen to our work.
“Marrow of the Spirit” was Agalloch’s finest moment from an artistic evolution point of view. It’s interesting that at the time you were talking of a conscious effort in making it sound as pure as possible, focusing of the Agalloch-sound as a self-influence. As the process was very fruitful, what are your goals as far as your future full-length goes?
More of the same. I think we will try to get a clearer and more spacial production though as it will suit the new material better than the earthy, grim production on Marrow Of The Spirit.
Your latest release, the “Faustian Echoes” EP, revolves around Goethe’s Faust. Germanic cinema and literature seems to have a particular resonance within Agalloch: any particular reason?
For this release we wanted to approach a typical black metal concept through classic literature and film. The story of Faust certainly has a natural resonance with the aesthetics of black metal so we just explored it a bit. I'm a big fan of a lot of the more Germanic styles of literature and film so it is just a natural influence that I bring into the band.
It took a while before you were ready to play live. As art lovers, how did your relationship with your own music change and influence you since you have been able to incorporate the performance element to your music?
It single-handedly resulted in the way “Ashes Against The Grain” was written. After spending a couple years playing stripped down versions of “Mantle” songs live, we decided to try and make an album that could be reproduced live without as many compromises. Unfortunately, doing so created a compromise in the songwriting itself.....and not all of the songs on that album ended up being good live songs. “Not Unlike The Waves” has always been a struggle to pull off properly and “Fire Above, Ice Below” just simply does not work at all. We are constantly trying to find ways to translate more sounds into a live situation. I've started bi-amping so I can blend an acoustic clean sound to my usual rumble, among other things. This has really improved the way “In The Shadow...” and “Limbs” sound live. Don might start doing the same after the next album.
There was a time, as far as ten years ago, when some of you guys felt very skeptical if not annoyed with the overly-saturated metal “scene” for its mental rigidity and mediocrity. How would you describe the health levels of the underground at present?
I think it is the same but now the internet plays a larger role. Fans can be a bit more directly connected to the artist than it was in the 80s or 90s. This can be a positive and negative thing. Trends come and go at a faster rate as well. By the time I finish this interview, the female fronted doom thing will be completely out of vogue, heh. But yeah, I try not to pay attention to it as much anymore. There are some new bands that I'll discover now and then but, overall, the underground today isn't what I knew and loved 20 years ago.
You have always made it clear that Agalloch is an art project, and the fact that you all have jobs besides the band/s suggests an effort to keep it in its purest state in order to be credible and have the power to touch people deeply.
We have always approached it like an art project, yeah. It isn't just about making music but the overall design of everything has to fit together as well. It's very much a multi-media exhibition in a lot of ways.
What is your personal understanding of art? There is nothing like going through the stunning images or sounds of man’s masterpieces throughout the centuries to perceive how it might be our only worthwhile legacy after all, capturing a timeless universality that goes beyond medium, intent, geographic and historical parameters…
That's a loaded question. Everything is subjective, especially topics like art and the appreciation for art. I can't really explain why some things move me or not. They just do or they don't. And art is not necessarily something you find exclusively in a gallery. Some of my favorite works of art are found in a fleeting moment in nature. A spectacular sunset or aurora in the sky, a foggy pastoral landscape at dawn, an old growth forest moments after a spring rain, a gas cloud deep in the universe that looks like a sculpted deity, ….these are works of art greater than man can or will ever achieve.
The most powerful kind of art is to me that which combines radical, innovative and “spiritual” energies that connect us to our roots. Can you describe how you view BM as an art form?
I have always been attracted to Black Metal as a sinister journey of darkness and atmosphere. I think it’s why I'm not nearly as interested in black metal now as I was in the 90s. Most of the newer bands really miss the point and they manage to not capture any real, profound spirit. It is often overly polished, very paint-by-numbers, and almost a parody of the black metal I listened to from '90 -'95. The exceptions to this are mind-blowing though. Rhinocervs from San Francisco, for example, is fantastic.
What kind of relationship do you have with those who appreciate Agalloch’s art? Has the nature of this relationship been affected in any negative way at all by the steady increase of your “popularity” within the underground?
Well I have a difficult time relating to most people - fan or otherwise. We attract a few weirdos now and then, and there is sometimes the rare hostile encounter, but overall people are cool and leave us alone. I have met some really great friends through the years who are fanatical about our work. I'm a music fan as well so I understand how it goes.
Of course you must feel excited to be able to come back to EU again with this latest tour (Lucifer Over Europe, with Fen as support) and bring your show to more and more places. Is there a place in particular that connected with your consciousness?
It is always nice returning to Prague, which we will fly in and out of and gather our merch and backline from. I love that city. Personally, I'm more looking forward to seeing some new places like Spain, Portugal, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovenia. That is what makes touring interesting...the new experiences.
PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THE FOLLOWING VENUE CHANGES:
24.04.2013 - Erandio / Sala Sonora
26.04.2013 - Madrid / Sala Cats
26.04.2013 - Madrid / Sala Cats
Friday 17th May - Rock'n'Roll Arena, Romagnano Sesia (NO)