Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Agalloch
This is the 32nd installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Album: Marrow of the Spirit
Label: Profound Lore Records
Favorite Song: "Into the Painted Grey"
The Bare Bones: Marrow of the Spirit is the fourth full-length album from American black metal band Agalloch, and the first to feature drummer Aesop Dekker (Ludicra). It would prove to be the band’s penultimate album as Agalloch would disband in 2016.
The Beating Heart: Agalloch was and remains one of the most influential black metal bands of the twenty first century, certainly in terms of the American scene, but their reach and impact has since spread everywhere. They seemed to magically bind neo-folk, progressive rock, shoegaze, post rock and Norwegian black metal into a spellbinding blanket of sound and mystery. To a large extent Marrow of the Spirit proved to be a watershed moment in the band’s career, both in terms of increased exposure and touring, in the band's internal dynamics, as well as, perhaps most importantly, in its sound. Whereas its predecessors deployed the allure of a shimmering source, whether in post-rock or folk form, Marrow was harsh reality, robust instrumentation, and stripped-down musicianship. The result is probably the most direct and least “magical” of Agalloch’s releases, but for precisely those reasons it remains one of the more human, mesmerizingly flawed, and arresting moments in their catalogue.
Now, it goes almost without saying that this interview was not a trivial or uncomplicated undertaking, for many reasons. In the quite toxic aftermath of the band’s dissolution and the more recent controversy involving founder John Haughm, I, in all honesty, thought it would be both impossible to include the album in this series and perhaps unwise. What ended up happening was a slow process of gauging and examining that culminated in this somewhat more extensive full-band format. And before we get to the interview itself I think a note on methodology and ideology are both required.
In terms of method this interview is, for the first time in Albums of the Decade series, a full-band interview, meaning that I spoke/corresponded with all band members in an attempt to gain as much insight into both the recording process and the band’s slow progress toward its ultimate dissolution. This larger piece is in fact “sewn together” from interviews with guitarist Don Anderson, a combined interview with bassist Jason Walton and drummer Aesop Dekker, and a correspondence with John Haugm. I knew from the get go that this would be the form it would have to take, and so I made sure to keep all those conversations revolving around similar topics so as to enable the final coming together of everyone’s views and words. Is it an interview? Is it an “oral history”? You decide.
In terms of ideology: I’m not going to go into this at length, but I am sure that some will be irked for this inclusion, as a result of the controversies detailed above. There had been times in this series where I intentionally avoided bands I thought were outside my own personal pale. Agalloch was not one of those bands, for the simple fact that a) the result of said controversies was an apology and a retraction, a rare event these days, and b) each member of the band was more than happy to discuss Agalloch in terms of music and in terms of their personal dynamics as musicians and people. If anyone was injured by these brouhahas it wasn't me but them, and if they were willing and happy to talk about the band and its music, and if they were the ones insisting on including all band members in this piece, then I was more than happy to see what would come of it.
As always, before proceeding to my conversation with Agalloch I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, with a few more exciting conversations yet to come (of special interest here are the interviews with Ulver, Panopticon, Cobalt, Wolves in the Throne Room, Yellow Eyes, and others). You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local metal, hardcore, and noise. Thank you all for being here. On to Agalloch. Enjoy.
I'll start with my first question, which is kind of the question I always begin with, which is whether or not you remember a time when you were hit by a song or an album that completely changed what you thought about music? That warped your brain and made you see music in a whole new way?
JOHN: There have been a few of those moments at different stages in my life. When I was not even a year old I vividly remember crawling up to my sister's bedroom door to listen to the strange sounds coming from her stereo. I later learned that it was Kiss' Destroyer, which had just been released. That was definitely my first memory of being enamored by music. Later when I was six or seven years old, I was obsessed with Mussorgsky's “Night On Bald Mountain,” probably a result of watching Fantasia. When I was 10, I was floored by Genesis’ "Land Of Confusion," which started my interest in buying music. Around the same time, a family friend introduced me to Christian Death Deathwish, which opened my mind to the more dark and twisted stuff. A couple years later I heard Slayer’s Hell Awaits, which completely opened my mind to the really heavy stuff. From there albums like Bathory’s Under The Sign Of The Black Mark, Sentenced’s North From Here, Ulver’s Bergtatt, and other left permanent impressions on me as a metal musician, while artists like Coil, Rush, and Laibach opened doors to a broader milieu of genres to pull more sophisticated inspiration from. I can't say why these particular pieces of music and artists had such an effect on me, other than it was exactly the kind of magic I needed at the time I discovered them.
DON: It’s hard to narrow it to just one, but the album that came to my mind when you asked that question would probably be Cynic’s Focus. Because when I took guitar lessons I studied very strict jazz with a jazz guitarist. And because I wanted to be a lead guitarist, I spent a lot of time learning scales, learning the modes, improvising, and soloing. So when I heard genuinely jazz-influenced death metal it blew my mind and it opened up the possibilities of what extreme music could be. And also it was the record that, when I first heard it, the moment the sort of jazz break happens, about a minute into “Veil of Maya,” it was as if I was hit by a train. I couldn't believe that this band was playing what sounded like deliberate and sincere jazz. It wasn't just jazz-influenced death metal, it was very well integrated. So I would say that album and definitely shaped what I was doing with my other band, Sculptured, at that time, which was also trying to do more forward-thinking, progressive death metal, and I would say Focus was an album that really changed what I thought about extreme music.
Sometimes when I ask this question people will bring up, you know, Michael Jackson from when they were in grade school, and so when you talk to metal musicians, for instance, you can try and delve deeper into who they, as adults, would try to explain that early attraction. But in this case it seems like Focus was processed in the moment as a revelatory experience, that you knew in the moment why it was important to you. Is that fair to say?
DON: Yeah, I would say so. So maybe an artist in hindsight would probably be something from Bach, probably the Brandenburg concertos. I heard music like that by listening to Yingwe Malmsteen, and hearing that style of orchestral music, I guess that would be an early moment where I started thinking about music as more than just a rock band, with polyphony and multiple lines, the fugues, four-part harmony. As a very young person I was very into Bach, in particular the Brandenburg concertos, the orchestral suites, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Even today, if someone asked me for a desert-island composer, as much as I love contemporary classical music by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Ligeti and folks like that, the complete works of Bach, for me, that’s everything. That's where everything goes back to.
You said you got into Bach via Malmsteen and when you spoke about Cynic it was jazz. So, would you say that you were always interested, and perhaps still are, in not necessarily the purest form of any one genre, but more in what happens when you kind of collide genres or styles together?
DON: Yeah, absolutely. When I met up with Jason, I was 18 or 19, he introduced me to Mr. Bungle and through Mr. Bungle I started getting into John Zorn and that sort of genre hopping, and getting more and more into mixing genres and styles, it was almost playful. And I did that a little bit with Sculptured – jazz brakes, or try to work in classical music. That's also what I appreciate about bands like Gorguts, who aren't just “neoclassical,” because Luc Lemay is bringing in a lot of twentieth-century classical techniques into extreme music. So, yeah, I'm not really that interested in purity. I mean, I'm skeptical of purity existing, unless you’re talking about something like AC/DC, that’s as pure hard rock as you can get. And I like AC/DC a lot, but I'm always thrilled by hybridity, heterogeneity, when things mix and blur the boundaries between A and B. And that's something I’d like to think Agalloch was successful at to some degree. I mean, we weren't weird, we didn’t do trumpets or something, we weren't doing jazz, but we tried to integrate different genres of dark music or moody music. If we were someone like Darkthrone we would do the same thing over and over again.
Jason and Aesop, what would that album be for you? An album that changed everything for you?
AESOP: What comes to mind is Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, for me, still, to this day. Like, what a weird record to hear when it came out. I mean, I could go on for hours about a 100 records but I’m just going to go with that one.
You’re originally from Florida, right? So did that have anything to do with that?
AESOP: I mean, maybe being from Florida meant that I was exposed to it a little sooner, but it was just that nothing sounded like that. The guitars, the way the drums were played – mainly the way the drums were played. It was definitely an eye opener. I did not know that some of the things I was hearing could actually be achieved with a drum kit. It broadened my horizons.
Do you feel like it still plays a part in who you are as a musician today?
AESOP: Oh yeah, I probably listen to it every two weeks.
Do you have a different take now on why it attracted you as much as it did at the time?
AESOP: I just hadn't heard anything like it and there was no point of reference for me. I mean, up until that point I think the heaviest thing I'd heard or the fastest was Slayer, and it didn’t sound like Slayer. I mean, it was probably a jumping-off point for it, but it seemed pretty far removed. it kind of created its own universe. And I was aware of Napalm Death, and I think that was probably the most extreme thing I'd heard up until that point. But to me it was I had never heard music like that. It was an evolution, the next thing after thrash that, for me, was way more interesting and way stranger. Everything, the total package – the lyrics, the cover, everything about it was just so just full of weird.
JASON: Mine is somewhat similar to Aesop's. I could probably list 100 different records that affected me like that, but the one that popped into my mind was Reek of Putrefaction by Carcass. People who know me know my love for Carcass and know that that record changed my life in many ways. And it’s kind of the same thing Aesop was saying, I was into thrash and I was into punk and I was into fairly extreme music. And then I heard Reek of Putrefaction and, again, like Aesop said, I had no idea that could exist, and when listening to it I couldn't even tell if I liked it because it was so out of my frame of reference. It just opened up my mind and my world to so many things. Because of that record, I got into tape trading, and that led me into wanting to play music and because of that record I've done all the stuff that I have done in my life. That was the catalyst for everything. So that record for me is extremely important. And to echo what Aesop said it was just I had no idea that was even a possibility, from the vocals to the production…. The production is ridiculous, but I wouldn't want it any other way. It's perfect for that record. The drumming is ridiculous. I mean, everything's just ridiculously over the top, the lyrics, and the artwork. It just blew my mind, and whenever I revisit it it still blows my mind. It's still my favorite grindcore record.
Interestingly there’s a grindcore connection with both your albums, because of Pete Sandoval [of Morbid Angel and Terrorizer], and Carcass, so there’s a grindcore foundation to both. And not to harp on this too much but one of my favorite quotes that has stayed with me and I have no idea who said it. I think it was a writer. And that person said about another writer something like: “I didn't know you were allowed to write like that.” And the reason I like that quote is because the focus isn't on technical prowess but almost the idea of permission, that you're supposed to do something a certain way. And then someone comes in and does this stuff you're not supposed to, and it feels wrong in some deep sense. So does that speak to any of your guys' experiences? That it’s not just “Oh coo, I didn’t know you could do that” but “Oh shit, is this even legal?
JASON: I kind of felt that way about Blessed Are the Sick, because I felt like that even went further into Morbid Angel being just evil. Or like the first Deicide record. I never really felt like I needed permission, it was more about I didn't know my brain could even go there. I didn't even know it was possible. And the first Deicide record I felt like that was just so perfectly evil that I've my brain couldn't even go there. So I see what you're saying. But I think I'm a little uncomfortable with the word “permission,” it’s more about even knowing that that was possible.
AESOP: I definitely remember being a teenager and hearing that first Bathory album. I mean, I grew up listening mostly to punk, and somebody played it for me, and it's essentially a punk album. But I remember, I was 14 or 15 at the time, and looking at the imagery on that record and feeling like it was forbidden, it was naughty, you know? I've been asked a couple times by people why do I think Florida had this explosion of death metal, and one of the factors I think, is when you grow up someplace where there’s a lot of old people and it's a very religious, Christian place then the teenagers’ ability to shock people is always exciting. But that's not something that occurs to me as an adult. Now as an adult, when I hear music that feels like it's sort of pushing a boundary or saying: “I don't care about these trappings or conventions” I get really excited and think: “This is going to create 1,000 amazing things,” like Morbid Angel or Carcass did. But at the time my thinking was too myopic for that.
JASON: Yeah, I felt that way too.
Interestingly, just as a side note, I interviewed one of my favorite drummers, that isn't Aesop, obviously [laughs]….
AESOP: Oh, I see.
…[Laughs] four years ago, and it was Chris Reifert. And I asked Chris the same question you said you were asked about Florida, and he said, basically, there was nothing else to do. Just like, it's the most boring place on Earth. That was his answer, I guess. But I yours ties in with that too, because I think teenagers out to shock people, it helps when they're bored, right?
AESOP: Well, teenagers, I think, generally feel like they're the most powerless things in the world, and to be evil and freak out adults is a great source of power.
This is a good kind of introduction into the Agalloch portion of our conversation, because Agalloch is one of those bands that was and remains, whether intentionally or not, mysterious, a blending of all these emotional, minor, transcendent modes of making music. I know some of the bands mentioned as influences in the past were Godspeed You! Black Emperor and even electronic music. Whatever it is Agalloch is one of those bands where it’s difficult to pierce through that mist, like holding onto a wet soap, that it's made up of specific parts that work together, but there’s something impenetrable about it. How do you feel this mystique surrounding the band and its music while being, you know, a person in a rock band that is aware of the human, laborious aspect behind that veil?
DON: I mean, I’d like to think, and I guess it's up to critics to assess this, that for whatever reason we were good at synthesizing and weaving, as opposed to having a goth-rock part, a post-rock part, and a black-metal part. For one all of us are very eclectic listeners, especially when it comes to The Mantle. When we were doing The Mantle we weren't listening to any metal at all. We just were kind of burnt out on metal because the early 2000s, as you probably know, weren't the best years for metal, we really withdrew from that. So I think part of what you're hearing is, fortunately for us, synthesizing goth rock, post punk, stuff like Fields of Nephilim, with sort of post rock with neo folk, and all these genres. They just seem so complimentary. And what was really an isolating moment for me was when me and John went to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor in about 2001, and I got to watch them produce the music that we really were into, and I remember saying to him that it looks like they're playing black metal.
You’re saying the physical movements looked like the physical movements of black metal?
DON: Yeah, they’re playing black metal, but on a greater range on the guitar, and they have a ton of reverb, and so it really wasn’t that different. And so that's when we were like: “Well, we should integrate that into our sound.” And listening to things Einsturzende Neubauten and Swans and that kind of post-industrial stuff. It was heavy. It wasn't fast, but it was heavy and it was epic, in its own way. I mean you could think of Helloween and Bathory as epic, but Swans and Neubauten felt epic to us. So we took away that idea that this kind of music can be epic, that this kind of music can be black metal, and let's integrate that into what was always our foundation, which was Ulver’s first record, Bergtatt. That was always the point of departure. So I think it's really just about how you're not really synthesizing in terms of genre, but maybe synthesizing in terms of feel and the ambience of the sound. We're not trying to rip off Swans, we're just trying to capture that big, colossal sound of a band like Swans. So it's more a synthesis of mood and feeling as opposed to, you know, musical, technical terms.
I like “epic” and “colossal” here, because we're obviously talking about existentially epic and colossal. Not grabbing at as much human action as you can, which is what an epic technically does, and more like focusing on a moment and making that moment colossal. Because Agalloch definitely feels epic and colossal, but in a kind of more reflexive way.
DON: Yeah. A point of departure for us has always been cinema. And in the same way you have a widescreen, panoramic image. And if it’s a landscape you’re going to have a lot of things, mountains, and trees, and rivers, but it's still very simple in that it's just this big shot. And in Agalloch the music is simple, it's not technical, it's not maximalist, it's actually quite minimalist, with a lot of repetition and layers. So its components are simple, but there's just a sense of a very expansive landscape. So film was always a big influence. Because there's “epic” in the sense of a Hollywood blockbuster epic action film, but then there's epic in the sense of someone like Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which has these beautiful landscapes and the camera’s moving very slowly. That's what we always tried to capture, that sense of vastness.
So, I was only going to get to this question later but one of the things that's been interesting to as a follower of mostly American metal is to ask what is it that makes American metal different. And I've reflected about that question quite a bit in the last few years, specifically in terms of American black metal – bands like Agalloch, Panopticon, Cobalt, Krallice, Yellow Eyes, Wolves in the Throne Room, and so on. And one of the tentative conclusions I’m playing with is this idea of space. That American black metal is very focused on space as opposed to narrative. And that may also make sense with cinema, at least in the American strain of cinema, as well. Because in my mind the American cultural impulse allows for someone to be alone in a big space without that space being filled with something else, perhaps even with gods. So if someone is alone in the woods in Northern Europe he's never really alone, while American metal seems to me to stand in this vacuum is not being filled by any immediate kind of theological or philosophical system, it is just me and the ability to sustain that experience . Does any of this make sense to you, in terms of your writing, and Agalloch?
DON: Yeah, I mean, I think generally speaking, the American landscape has always been represented, both in American literature but also like the American Western as this open vastness of space. Europeans who write about the U.S. regard it as having too much space, citing states like Wyoming, Nebraska, and Montana. But this notion is also informed, initially, by a European colonial perspective. Because the nature is absolutely filled with Gods, mythology, and religions and sacred sites, which belong to the indigenous Native American tribes. Everywhere you exist, especially in the Northwest, you're always already on land stolen from the indiginous peoples. So there is always a hint of having colonized and taken away something. And looking at it from a European perspective, because I'm not directly familiar with a lot of the indiginous perspective, beyond studying indigenous literature, it's empty to me as someone from a European background, but wouldn't be empty for people who belong to Native American tribes, who are still here. When Europeans settled here, they were terrified of it, because it was seen as a new promise, the New World, and it could turn into either a new Babylon or a new Inferno. And that risk of taking on that new world, obviously informed by a brutal and violent colonialism brought people to kind of…. It was also kind of horrific. When you go back and read a lot of the work done by the early writers and settlers and the Puritans, they’re all terrified of judgments of God in the New World.
But, I know what you’re saying. I think that, growing up here, you're alone a lot if you go out to the woods, but still always haunted by what was there before. Knowing that you don't really have much of a claim to it as a white European, because my ancestors go back to Scandinavia.
So, I'd like to maybe tie the colonial aspect, and the European point of view, and the American metal aspect through one of the bands that I found myself fascinated with when thinking about American black metal, and that band is Neurosis. And one of the reasons Neurosis is interesting in this context is that Neurosis is spacious – a heavy implementation of the post-rock sentiment together with an almost ritualistic drumming. So, in a way, both the space and a kind of understanding of the musical and cultural traditions that inhabit that space. Has Neurosis ever introduced itself into Agalloch’s music specifically?
DON: I'm a huge Neurosis fan, also because of their size and epicness, and I would say that Neurosis influenced me as a songwriter mainly for the last Agalloch record, The Serpent and the Sphere, because I liked the big, expansive heavy chords. And so when I wrote the opening track for The Serpent and the Sphere my main influence was Neurosis. And yeah, I think a lot of these black metal bands are very open to and probably have, you know, some understanding of indigenous cultures, simply because you can't escape it. When I grew up here it was very common to grow up near a reservation, and you can still buy smoked salmon from the native peoples on the highway along Columbia River. And so you're sort of surrounded by it. I mean, even people who go to casinos on the reservation and people who buy their fireworks on the reservation. It’s impossible not to be touched by it. And then you take a look at a movie like Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch, a film that was a huge influence on Agalloch, that also brings in that confrontation between European and Native Americans on the American landscape. We even referenced it on The Mantle, there was a guitar line that was reference to Neil Young’s soundtrack, it’s probably one of the biggest Agalloch influences ever.
Jason and Aesop, what is it that you feel about this idea of American metal and space? Because that helps me understand bands like Agalloch and Panopticon, and Neurosis, and Cobalt to an extent. That space is part of the aesthetics, I guess.
JASON: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I'm just not really sure how to expound on that. But at least for me, I grew up in rural Montana, where there's tons and tons of space. You could drive for a couple hours without running into another person. And I know Austin of Panopticon as well and I know that he very much appreciates isolation and his space. I don't really know what to say about that. I guess there's a lot of that in Scandinavian bands as well. But yeah, I don't know. Aesop, do you have any thoughts on that?
AESOP: Yeah, it's a fundamental difference between the sort of the aesthetics of American and European metal. I mean, America is geographically huge. I've met people in Europe that really didn't understand just the size and the scope of the United States, and it's culturally very different from state to state. I think particularly with black metal, it came to America kind of late because I think Americans saw it as this purely European thing and: “We can't really know what this is like.” I think it was also when they were early black metal bands from America, they were kind of like a laughingstock, because I think most people thought of America as people from Los Angeles or New York, and thought: “You can’t have black metal from those places.” You know, it’s like hearing about hip hop Denmark, it just doesn’t feel the same, you know?
AESOP: So, you know, I can only speak for myself. For me, personally, the first time I heard Agalloch I thought: “This is incredible that this is such a European-sounding band. Oh, they’re from Oregon, that totally makes sense.” Like if you knew the vibe there, the Northwest as a whole, it totally made sense. And so for me Agalloch and Weakling made it that American black metal no longer had to be a laughingstock, that it can be really good and high art. But also, I mean, I don't think it's just any one thing. I mean, America is such a weird place culturally. I obsess on bands from Japan, and I don't even understand a lot of it, because I'm not Japanese. I don't understand the culture, all the variables that have come together to make this thing what it is.
Agalloch, for all intents and purposes, is done, and has been for a while. Do you have a better understanding now in hindsight of what it was you personally brought to the table, musically, or thematically? I guess that at the time everyone is pitching in and it might feel like a magical process between/ people. But can you better identify your strand in the weave that is Agalloch?
DON: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's funny because I think John and I got along very well as songwriters, but we're also very, very different types of musicians. He’s self-taught and I'm not self-taught. He's someone that likes to rely heavily on inspiration and mood, and for me writing music has always been a craft. I sit down, I write. If I get up at 5:30-6:00 – I write, I see it as work that I do all the time. I don't wait for inspiration, I just do it and then something will come up that I can use. And so music has always been for me something that was, in some ways, very technical. The performance was always emotional, the performance was pure emotion, purely transcendental. But the songwriting was really just a craft. And I can see how certain musical ideas come from thinking about the best way to, say, voice that chord, or maybe there's a really interesting key change. And that was all driven by just a more technical approach, which I brought to the band. Whereas John is the type of guy that would turn off all the lights, or would often go get a cabin in the woods and write lyrics, he was very much into that. So we were never really conflicted. I think he and I were both searching for the same mood the whole time.
Having someone who is intuition-driven and who also has a strong presence as a writer, is that something that the band is OK with, does it require some time getting used to it, or is it a democracy where everyone pitches ideas?
DON: I would say that in the very early days it was completely driven by John, because it was his solo project, and when I first met John we were both kind of doing one-man bands, and he only asked me to join him to do guitar solos on From Which of this Oak and it was completely his thing. Even on Pale Folklore I started writing my own guitar parts over his parts, but it always started with his writing. And then with The Mantle it became a lot much more collaborative, and from then it became much more collaborative. But John was always the person who wrote the lyrics, who had the themes and ideas and the imagery, because he did a lot of the graphic work as well. But for me it was all for the music and for the friendships we shared, that was more exciting for me. Whatever John decided to write about lyrically really wasn't too much of a factor for me at all, as long as it didn’t conflict with any of my politics. But it never did, I love all of his lyrics and I think he got better and better as time went on. So it was a real good dynamic. I mean, people had their role. We knew that John would come up with an idea, a theme, a kind of vision, and then he would come up with songs, and then we would put stuff on top of those songs and we’d build, and build, and build, and demo, demo, demo, and then eventually it would be realized in the studio. And so I thought it was a very good dynamic, peaking for myself. I think John would agree, and I think the songwriting part has always been the most rewarding for me, and we did have a very comfortable songwriting relationship.
JASON: I mean from the beginning, up until Ashes, it was basically just the three of us and we worked really well together, so it's really hard to pinpoint [what each member brought to the band]. Obviously you can you: “Oh, this is Don’s guitar solo” or things like that, but so much of it was just we'd be in a room together and we'd all work on each part. So, it's not like I wrote guitar lines for Don and John and I didn’t write vocals or lyrics for John, but we'd all pretty much have opinions on each other's parts. So it's hard to pinpoint things that might have been a stamp that I put on it. I think there are a few parts that jump out to me just as a bass player, I feel like “Bloodbirds” was very bass-forward, and I'm really proud of that song, that might be my favorite Agalloch song. And there are some nice little bass parts on “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony” that I like a lot. But really it was such a collective, it was just the three of us feeding off of each other. But then later in our career with Ashes there was a little bit of Chris Green in there, and then of course Marrow changed everything when we got Aesop, that was a totally new formula for us. And a little bit off topic, but Aesop just propelled us into the stratosphere as far as writing and especially in terms of live performance. But it’s just different because Agalloch was “friends first and the band second,” so it's really hard for me to say: “This is what I brought to it.”
AESOP: As someone who came in later, my experience was vastly different. Like when I met them I was a fan. I had heard Pale Folklore on the recommendation of a friend and my mind was blown and I became a fan. And then our bands played some shows together, and it was really refreshing that these were like three people that were great folks. And I was just in awe of just how they worked, I felt like how they made records was something they had over every band in the world at that point. Just their ability to make a really great record and how they worked in the studio and how they wrote together. So it was really neat to see that process up close. But it's true what Jason says – once I joined…. It was something I was apprehensive about, at first, but the dynamic changed. It went from being this studio project that occasionally plays live to being an actual band of four people concentrating on individual parts. And I was very, very nervous about sort of changing the pH balance of the whole band because I was such a fan. Like I definitely at first felt like I was really on tippy toes around it, because I just did not want to fuck up one of my favorite bands.
Did the pH change?
AESOP: Definitely, I think that was a point where Agalloch became a band. You know, we’ve had some very concrete conversations about it. What changed once I joined was we went from three people working on something to four people working on something, and it became more like how bands work where you write together and you rehearse and then you play shows and you tour. I think one of the things that was really interesting for me was I wanted to learn how Agalloch made records because that was something that I was trying to do with other bands I was in, I felt like we had never made a record as flawless as anything Agalloch did. And I think that they saw bands I was in and said: “Oh, that's how a live band should be.” It was almost like this weird skill trade in the beginning: I learned about making records from them and I think they learned about playing live from me, which was something that I had a lot more experience doing. And that, just playing that many shows and whatnot, just changed the shape of the band. It went from being, I don’t like the term “project,” but I think it went from being a project to a band.
JASON: Yeah, I completely 100% agree. And I think that it's easy to put some negative connotation on that because we did have this formula, but it's exactly what we wanted and what we needed. Like we couldn't continue that same formula past The Mantle or Ashes, we needed that input. Aside from live shows, we needed someone like Aesop to be in there and help us progress and expand the Agalloch formula. And he did exactly that.
John, to a large extent you were in charge of the style, lyrics and overall themes in the band. But what would you say, either in those realms or in the music, was the set of influences or ideas that put your own stamp on Agalloch? What were some of the things you personally wanted the band’s music or aesthetic to be like?
JOHN: I just wanted the band's themes and aesthetic to reflect my personal interest in the esoteric, atavistic, and Heathen ideologies at the time. The band's initial foundation was rooted in this. I was also really influenced by the filmmaker, Bela Tarr during this period and much of the aesthetic of his later monochrome films can be seen in the inner booklet photos and design.
And Seeing that you were at the helm, so to speak, of a lot of the overall themes in the band, did you find it easy to translate those ideas into practical band-related dynamics? Was there a set way in which you all collaborated in the writing process throughout the years?
JOHN: Agalloch never functioned as a normal band so there was no further thought as to how the themes would affect our process. The other guys added their collective input to my foundation up until that last couple recordings we did, Faustian Echoes and The Serpent and the Sphere, were far more collaborative efforts.
So I wanted to ask you guys about Marrow of the Spirit. I went back and listened to all your albums in preparation for this and, perhaps this is completely off, but Pale Folklore and The Mantle seem, to a large extent, to be of a kind. Or at the very least very close cousins in terms of atmosphere and songwriting and just a general vibe. And then Ashes Against the Grain sounds much different, and what I mean by by different here, and I'm using stupid terms because I'm a stupid person, is that it it sounds more European: richer, the production is sleeker, it sounds like something that was made to sound good, cohesive, pretty, I would even say. And then Marrow comes along and it’s quite different from all of those. When I was taking my notes I wrote down: “rock album,” because it feels kinetic, the production is much leaner, it's not as pretty. You can actually make out the instrumentation. Your guys’ production has always been great and so this is not a judgment, but Marrow feels like it has the kind of production you’d find on a classic rock album in a way. Was it your intention to make a more “stripped down” album and what were some of the ways in which the writing or the production was different?
JOHN: Sure. We were fed up with the overly polished sounds that were permeating the scene and wanted to do something radically different. In hindsight I think we went too far with the dirty sound and I would like to see a proper re-mix happen but, for now, it is what it is. I think we were very fortunate that it got the reception that it did.
The artwork for Marrow seems starkly different than that for the previous albums, much darker. What were some of the things you considered when going down that path, a return to the natural scenes that are so synonymous with Agalloch, but in a much more painterly, dark, maybe even raw manner?
JOHN: I always wanted to have a very cold and textured winter painting for that album. Fortunately I discovered the work of Mark Thompson and forged a friendship with him right around the time we were writing the album. He commissioned two original pieces for us and that became the aesthetic benchmark we wanted to achieve with the music.
Don, what were some of the things that were different about writing and recording Marrow?
DON: I would say the writing of it wasn’t different, but it was during a serious transitional phase. Because I think it was around 2008 when we did not renew any kind of contract with The End Records, okay. And then after 2008 we also decided that we were going to try a different recording engineer in a different studio. So we were making a lot of changes that felt pretty radical. So Marrow out of a really rocky series of changes. And so we found an engineer, Steven Lodbell, and he had a philosophy of using vintage gear, using a lot of analog tape. We even used a “Leslie” – I don’t know if you know what a Leslie is.
I don't think I do.
DON: It's a huge box with a fan that turns around that creates the effect of a chorus guitar pedal, it's the old-fashioned way to create a chorus. And it's used for organs to get that nice organ tone, but you can plug a guitar into it as well. It’s a huge box, you can’t take it on tour. So we were using as much organic, analog, old-fashioned stuff as we could. Almost everything is old on that record, even the amps – the distortion, the gain is not super high, you can hear the guitar notes. And so we did a lot of risky things that took us out of our comfort zone. We left our old record label, we left our engineer, we got a whole new studio and a new engineer, we also bought a whole bunch of gear since we finally had some money saved up and we could buy the gear we wanted, and we all pretty much committed ourselves to using classic gear – for me it was a Marshall and a Les Paul, for John it was a Travis Bean and an Orange and later Hiwatt. We were resisting triggered drums and a lot of vocal correction and heavily editing things. We were really trying to avoid that because, and I don't want to sound like an old man, but I think a lot of people my generation don't really care for the sound of modern productions. So, the songwriting was the same, I really don’t think there was something different about it. We knew when we wrote “Into the Painted Grey” that it had a lot of blast beats, that it was really intense, we knew that. But then a song “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires” to me is classic Agalloch, it sounds like a cross between Chameleons and black metal. So the songwriting didn’t change, but we took a lot of risks. A lot of things changed then.
I guess that all kind of makes sense with part of what I was saying before , and, so, I wrote notes for each song, which include words like “darkwave,” “Bauhaus,” “rock song,” “Van Halen,” and then about “To Drown” I wrote “literal Godspeed You! Black Emperor.” Now the reason I'm raising this is that you mentioned Godspeed as an influence, and yet the sheen of production, say, in Ashes Against the Grain enables everything to meld together. But when you take that step back, which I guess was your intent with the more analog approach and suddenly you could, well I could, hear it. So in a way you created a much more stripped-down and I would imagine exposed and vulnerable position for you guys as musicians, right? Because you can hear yourself right?
DON: One’s always vulnerable in the studio, because you're putting your guitar playing under a microscope, and you can isolate just what you're doing and you can really pick it apart. We tried not to obsess over it, which is part of the vulnerability. There was a very specific part, not to get too micro analytical, right before the first verse of “Into the Painted Grey” where John and I, partly panned, are hitting the guitar chords at different times. And you can tell it’s two different guitar players. Now, had this been Ashes we may have been like: “Oh, we have to accent those chords at the same time.” But there was a real commitment to, and part of this was because of the engineer we had, Steven, he was just like: “That just sounds like a band, it sounds like there are two guitar players.” And it was kind of like [mimics his mind exploding] because I had grown up on technical perfection, listening to Rust in Peace or …And Justice For All and the idea that everything had to be precise, and so there was a vulnerability in letting us sound more loose. And we did use a click track for marrow, but then we didn't use a click track for either Faustian Echoes or The Serpent and the Sphere, and so we allowed ourselves to get more and more vulnerable as we went on.
And Jason and Aesop, you mentioned the band becoming “a band” following Aesop’s introduction into the band. Does that feed into Marrow being more of a “band album”? Is that what makes Marrow stand out from the rest of your albums?
AESOP: I think, and this is just from a fan perspective, because I wasn't there, but I think Ashes sounds much different than those first two records because what you're hearing is these guys getting better at songwriting, better at playing, and you’re hearing Ronn [Chick] getting better at recording. I honestly think, and this is hard to say, but I’ve struggled listening to Marrow. I don’t want to say I don’t like it, but I feel like when I listen to it there are all these obvious, glaring “could have, should have, would have been better situations.” I kind of have come around on it and listened to it. Last time I listened to it I said: “It's good, it's good, it's great.” But when I first heard Ashes as a fan, my first listen through it, I fucking hated it. I was really unhappy with it, [especially] after The Mantle. And then with repeated listens it became one of my favorite records, which I think is one of the amazing things about Agalloch records is that they're hyper lush, there's ideas and things… The ones that I didn't play on, because they hold this air of mystery to me. The ones that I was involved in I just don’t listen to them, I don't want to Listen to them.
JASON: Yeah, I have a lot to say about this, actually, and Aesop's right about the production. I think the thing that needs to be said and reiterated about Marrow is that we were working with a producer/engineer that we barely knew and that we'd never worked with before. And it was problematic in a lot of ways. And, you know, not to beat a dead horse because this has been said many times, but the production is lacking in a lot of ways because of that, and there are certain performances that were lost, there were certain takes that were “lost.” I know for a fact that there were certain drum performances that were the ones that he wasn't supposed to use, there are certain solos on this record that are buried in the mix you can't hear. So this is really problematic. And I think part of what you're talking about it sounding less like magic and more like a rock band is because it's just more raw. And that's somewhat intentionally because that was the first time Agalloch ever used mic’d amps, and vintage gear, and things like the two preamps and not having the best takes out of every performance, just a much more loose and raw record all the way around, and that definitely lends itself to that. I think Marrow compositionally has some of the best stuff that we ever did, but it's one of those things, I don't like to really think back and be like: “Oh, wish it was better,” because it can't be better, it's done, but…. I don’t listen to Agalloch, so it’s been forever since I’ve listened to the songs, and I'm proud of it, you know, it was a place at a time. And as problematic as the production and the situation was I feel like we did the best we could with what we were working with. And I mean, “Into the Painted Grey” is still one of my favorite Agalloch songs.
AESOP: I mean, when it came out I was kind of mortified, but people's reaction to it was so positive that I started to think that maybe I wasn't listening to it correctly, and I wasn't hearing it as someone who wasn't involved with it or didn't have – I don’t want to say – painful memories around making it. It was a hard record, it was difficult to make, and I don’t think it was as good as it should have been. But, once I started realizing that people saw it in this totally different way than I did, I really really struggled and tried to listen to it objectively and when I do now that I'm so far removed from it, I hear its merits. But there are little drum things in there that just will make me cringe [laughs].
Just out of interest, Jason, do you have moments you referet when you listen back to The Mantle?
JASON: Ah, no.
JASON: I do with other records but not with The Mantle. I guess the one regret I have with Marrow is I think it's unfortunate that Aesop’s first experience with Agalloch was that recording experience. Because it was so problematic and it was so different if we had recorded Marrow with Ronn, the producer that we were using before, we would have had the ability and the time to really go through every little bit of everything like we did on Pale Folklore and The Mantle. And so I have no regrets when it comes to those records because we went over that stuff with a fine-tooth comb with someone who knew what we were going for. So yeah, I don't have regrets on that. I mean, I'm a little uncomfortable with parts of Ashes, but I can’t think of a single thing I’m uncomfortable with The Mantle.
I'm just asking just because I wonder whether or not Aesop’s experience of cringing with Marrow is perhaps a result of him being in the band when it was recorded.
JASON: For sure, for sure. I absolutely hate the beginning of “Fire Above, Ice Blow” on Ashes. I think it’s dreadful.
AESOP: We’re taking our band down a peg. But I think it’s great, that song is perfect.
JASON: Yeah, when I tell most people that they say “Oh, you’re crazy,” but it’s just one of those things – I don’t like that part. But that's really the only thing out of our entire discography I can think of that I'm like: “Oh, that's just crap.”
AESOP: I have one of those moments on every record I ever played in.
So, just as an insight before my next question: One of the things that I've found out when talking to some of my favorite musicians, which I've been doing intensely for the last few months is really like what I sit at home and listen to different albums from some of my favorite bands and notice changes…. So, this is about to be a moment of self parody because I’m a huge Megadeth fan.
A rare breed. But if I were to interview Dave Mustaine, and this is the general point about musicians, and I wo that are about to make that, sitting in my room and hearing what changes from, say, Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction I would wonder what artistic impulse led them to, say, change the production up like that. And then I would ask Dave Mustaine about it in some imaginary interview and his answer, if I’m to go on what I’ve heard from musicians thus far, would be something like: “Oh, we just got more money for production.” It seems every time I ask about what seems like a complicated aesthetical question ends up being: “Yeah, we fought with a producer,” or “The drums were off that day,” or “The mic fell.” Like I remember interviewing Jay Yeunger from White Zombie and him saying: “Yeah, the amp blew up in the middle of recording so that's why it sounds like that.” And I guess it's a weird question to ask, but is that how it's actually like? Just these random things that happen and influence an entire album and entire sound?
JASON: It definitely can be.
AESOP: There are a lot of variables.
JASON: There are tons of variables. And, you know, with Marrow, it sounds the way it does is because of us working with [Steven] Lobdell. There are some benefits there, but there are a lot of issues there too. And it would be a much different record if we were working with a different producer. But that can be said about any record. If we recorded this with Billy [Anderson] it would have sounded way different.
AESOP: There isn’t a record that I’ve played on, and I don’t know how many full length records I played on, I'm going to guess 12 or so, that sounds how I hoped or intended. They come out the way they come out. And you know, you work really hard to make them as good as possible with what you have. We spent a lot of time trying to fix Marrow, which we didn't have to do, say, with Serpent because it was a vastly different experience. And the one thing I can say about all the painful experiences that were on Marrow is it taught us what not to do. And we learned that the best way for us to make a record in this incarnation as a four piece working band is to just practice and play our songs the same way we do in a practice space, which is I just the way I've always made records. And when I met Agalloch that was not the way they made records. And I thought it was really bizarre, but I could not argue with the results they got.
JASON: Yeah, you know, I think the biggest thing we learned in that period of time is, in typical fashion, we wrote the songs independently of each other, and then recorded them together. Having never played them as a full band. And once we toured Marrow we would add these little flourishes in there and change little sections as we were on tour….
AESOP: And we would play the songs better than they way we played them in the studio.
JASON: Right. And they were slightly different and better, and so the live versions of those songs were so much better than the record because of it. And it made us realize: “Oh, we should approach this differently in the future.” But really working with Lobdell, it was a step in the right direction but we chose the wrong space. We decided like: “Hey, we want to use real amps, we want to use a real studio, as opposed to…. Ronn basically had a mixing studio that we were recording in. So we were on the right track, but we just had a misstep in location, unfortunately. But then after that we worked with Billy, which was the best of both worlds.
So I had a question about that. It has something to do with what you just said, and also what something Don said. In the way you describe it the three of you, John, Don and Jason, you were almost in sync with each other. And as long as it was that unit making albums a certain way, it was like this embryonic stage of passing fluids from one from another, like a perfect, self-inclosed union. And it seems at some point, you wanted more of the outside world, right? You want it to be a band. And what you got was being a band. And this has nothing to do with the fact that Aesop joined or not, just the fact that you became a band also brought with it band problems…
… such as what we're talking about right now. But one other thing that brought in, and this is something that came up with Don is money. You started making money, you toured more, so you made more money off touring. And that also had, I think you would agree, a gradual impact on the band. So to what extent is Marrow that album where reality infiltrated, the kind of cosmic space of Agalloch. And Marrow is such a fascinating entry in your catalog because it feels like real people playing music, and that, as a listener, is a revelation. And I wonder now that we know that Marrow is the one album before last, by way of full lengths, does that fraying or exposing have anything to do with how the band ended ultimately, when you look back? Do you think that album had any kind of transitional role, perhaps even in your relationship with each other?
DON: I think just coincidentally, since it was the album that triggered us touring more, and it was after that album that the band became more successful, financially, as well. I would say that what led to the break up was ultimately really cliche and banal band politics. It was almost like Spinal Tap or Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster – it wasn’t the music, it was the relationships, and growing, and priorities changing. I remember lamenting “Oh my God, this band that we’ve been in for 20 years ends up concluding, based on the most rock n 'roll cliches: money, girlfriends, that kind of stuff [laughs]. You've heard it all before, and those are the reasons why it fell apart in the end.
Recently as part of this series I've talked to two bands that in my mind had an aesthetic and biographical similarity to each other – ISIS and Cult of Luna. And the reason those bands are interesting is because they're almost exact contemporaries – also with you guys – and while ISIS ended in 2010 Cult of Luna are still going. And so I interviewed Aaron [Turner] about why it ended and he said, basically: “We stopped talking to each other. communication fell through. We started a band as very young people with undeveloped communicational skills and those stagnated into nothing.
DON: Yes [nodding].
And so you're saying “yes” and you're nodding so that you think that's what happened to you guys as well.
DON: That was part of it, that was definitely part of it. It’s weird because I was 18 years old when we started, and between 18 and 37, which was how old I was when we broke up, and you change between 18 and 37, and the other guys change, and you become different people. I’m always skeptical of metaphors, but the one metaphor that never stops delivering is that a band is like a marriage. And most bands are like a polyamorous marriage, right? I'm married to three other guys. And so things happen in a marriage where you stop talking, you stop communicating, that also happens in bands. And so I can definitely relate to what Aaron was saying with ISIS. It becomes a business, it becomes a job, in some ways.
When I went back to some of the interviews you gave after the breakup it seemed like, and you never said this outright so this is my interpretation, everyone changed except John. That one of the things that happened was that you guys all developed parallel lives to the band and for John it was always just the band. And so it sounds like you're saying everyone changed but him. Would that be fair to say?
DON: He changed too, but he was someone, and I’m sure he’ll tell you the same thing, that all he wanted to do in life was be a musician. And he was presented with an opportunity where had Agalloch decided to tour nine months out of the year we could have been more like Amorphis or Opeth, bands that can make a living off of it. They're not buying mansions or cars but they’re making a living, and we probably could have done that. But, and you brought up Neurosis earlier, and me and John have since talked about this, I've always been like: “We should be like Neurosis.” We were popular enough that we could do a short tour, we’d be able to pay all our expenses, and the shows would likely sell out, but then we go back to our jobs. And instead it became a moment where we had a tour in order to support people's livelihoods. I think that in hindsight, and John and I have talked a lot about this, he sees the flaw in that, because you don't want to make a record or go on tour so that you can pay your rent. And the rest of us wanted to keep it pure, we're doing music because we love it – even if it's financially successful, even if we get to travel the world, even if we get to go to Israel, we're still doing it for the music. And I think for John he really wanted it to be his life. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but again, it's like a marriage. One person wants one thing and another person may not be in the same place. So yeah, in a sense, I mean, he changed because I think we wanted Agalloch to be part time and he wanted it to be full time. That created some conflict.
The reason I raised the Cult of Luna interview is because in some way ISIS and Cult of Luna serve as a kind of mirror image of each other. Cult of Luna is a band where everyone has a job, much like Neurosis. The band is what they do for emotional, personal fulfillment. And when I talked to Johannes of Cult of Luna and I said: “Look, I just interviewed Aaron Turner. And he said that money became an issue because they began to have arguments like ‘Should we tour with that huge band and make a lot of money, and other people in the band felt like it would compromise our artistic integrity and all that.’” And I told Johannes that it feels like Cult of Luna may never have reached that point because you made a conscious decision to not have money as an issue in your band. And he said that you never thought of it that way, but he did remember an early tour where they were just grinding it out which I guess when you're everyone when they're an artist has a fantasy of being an artist full time. I think everyone has that fantasy, and the more I talk with artists the more I see the dangers in that fantasy as well. – being promised something but you're going to pay for it. Anyway, he said they were grinding out this for the very early tour, and somewhere around kind of mid point of the tour they noticed they stopped talking to each other, and that they hated every moment. And so they kind of realized that: “No, we're not doing this again ever again. Because this is supposed to be fun, and it's not fun anymore.” So, yeah, you're nodding again.
DON: Yes, it's very relatable. And like I said, I don't I don't blame John for having that attitude. There is a way, I mean, there are artists who do that successfully. But it led to a situation where you got done with a tour and you count up how much money you made that you could take home. And if it wasn't what you had hoped then all of a sudden you got disappointed. Even if you just did 30 days of Europe, which I never dreamed I would even visit Europe, and here I am being like: “Oh, should I wish I'd made a couple more thousand dollars,” and being disappointed like it’s a terrible thing. So, again, John and I have talked about this since then and I think he's definitely more in a place now where Agalloch could be a part time thing, that he burned himself out and that just drove a wedge mostly between him and the rest of us. And, again, it’s so banal, that money becomes the root of all evil. Once you start doing things for financial gain, things do get compromised. I don’t think the music got compromised but the friendship got compromised and the band became compromised.
Yeah, I mean, money has an influence. I guess when you guys started out, just like when any artist starts out, you never even imagined that a day will come that it could even be a part time job. And then surprisingly, when the money does come it's always a problem.
DON: I didn't start a death metal band in 1997 and I didn't join Agalloch in 1998 and play weird atmospheric black metal to make money, of course not, that’s ridiculous. But then here we are [laughs], it just happens. And now you're like: “What do we do with this?” And you're stoked. I remember the first time I made like 50 bucks, 100 bucks, I was on cloud nine, so it's easy to get toxicated with that and so that. And with Marrow of the Spirit, that was the album where everything started to change, also within the band: we started touring more, we got a sound guy, Billy [Anderson], and we started touring Europe, longer tours, bigger festivals, we're meeting all of our idols. You go back to when you were 13 years old and here I am hanging out with Obituary, Gene Hoglan, and Morbid Angel and all these bands that I'm meeting on tour, becoming friends with Cannibal Corpse, it was the weirdest thing, but we just kept parking next to them on tour. And so you go back to where you were 12 and 13 years old, you're listening to Butchered at Birth and here they are next door, drying out their clothes on the clothes line, just like I am! They're out there sweating every night and they gotta do this thing where they have sweat stains on their pants and they’re hanging them outside the tour bus. I shaved right next to George Corpsegrinder! So you just get swept up in everything and you want to do it more, and more, and more, and I don't blame John for being sort of drunk with that. Because I always went back to being a professor, he went back and waited for the next tour so you can see where a kind of bitterness may have started to emerge, and that’s ultimately what happened.
Jason and Aesop, does this ISIS and Cult of Luna resonate with you, regarding the role of communication and growth in what ended up being Agalloch’s situation?
JASON: Yeah, I think that accurately describes the Agalloch situation, to a degree. Relationships change, every relationship changes. It's no wonder that most people aren't friends with the same people they were friends with when they were 12. So that describes us to a degree, I guess. But you know, Don and I are still as close as ever, even though I've been working with him for 20 some years now,
Is that a testament to you to your relationship’s ability to adjust over time? Not just that you super like him but that you've been able to change with him?
AESOP: I think you super like him.
JASON: I super, super like him. Don, and Aesop, and I, when Agalloch was going through all these growing pains, we still had other things going on. And we still have day jobs, we didn't pay rent off of the band. And I think that is what allowed us to grow in perhaps a more healthy direction. And it’s exactly what Cult of Luna said, I think that's key like – if you're worried about paying rent with your record, if you're counting on making a record to pay rent or play shows that's putting too much stress, stress on your art and I don't want to be making art because I need to pay the rent.
AESOP: Yeah, art is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It never has been
So, I guess I want to ask you Aesop, as a musician who has been a musician as for as long as you have, isn't it difficult thing to explain to young bands or musicians who are just starting or any kind of artists really, that whatever they have in their mind what success means, which for a young mind obviously sometimes is a kind of the total experience, that that total experience they're yearning for is a trap. That it in fact needs air to survive?
AESOP: It's a weird duality, right? Because for anything to be good you have to commit a lot of time to it. And this is one of the things that, and not to wax political or whatever, but I've always believed that European bands who could get government grants and government practice spaces sort of don’t understand what it was like for an American band, where, to play in a band, you pay money for the longest time. It took me years before I didn’t have to reach into my own pocket. I mean, I still do on occasion, but by and large I don't have to and I'm very lucky for that. I would be afraid to tell any young person “it's a trap” because, you know, art is not a trap. I have a kid, right? And what I tell my kid is: “If you can make money off of what you love doing then you're really blessed and you really won't have to work a day in your life.” I haven't been that fortunate, I'm not into the kind of art that has any kind of real bankable commercial viability. So, yeah, it's a sacrifice you make, but you do it because what else are you gonna do? I feel bad for the people in my work that that's their life – they go to work, and they're off work, then it’s television and thinking about work. I don't have to do that because early on I took interest in art and music and. But, I probably live less comfortably than a lot of them.
JASON: It’s a sacrifice. It’s been beneficial and it has caused problems for me, in relationships, in…. It’s a constant pressure on me and those around me. And it's something you can negotiate. It's all consuming, I think about it all day, every day, it's something I can't escape. But it's also something I don't want to escape. Which is a blessing and a curse at the same time and that's how I've gotten through crappy jobs – all day I'll be doing this crappy job and I'll be thinking: “OK, I want to make this record and I want to do something like this or I want to perform here,” or something like that. So, I would never describe it as a trap.
I didn’t mean that the art is a trap, but maybe more the idea that you have to do it full time or not at all. This perception that the very fact that you even have a day job is some kind of artistic failure, that that way of thinking is a trap.
AESOP: Yeah, that’s not true at all.
JASON: Personally, even if I could make tons of money off of music and live comfortably, I'm not sure I'd want to. I really appreciate having other things going on and other things to talk about and think about. And I find that the structure provided by other outlets really helps me focus when I am actually working on music. So I'm not even sure I’d want to. I know I've never tried it. For a few months or something, yeah, sounds awesome. But for any length of time, I'm not sure I'd want to. I don't want to feel obligated to make my art.
Was Marrow indeed the album that forced the outside world, and outside world problems, on the band? And if so do you see those outside problems – being a band, touring, money, as having to do with how the band ended?
JASON: It definitely was but it wasn’t the first time. The three of us were really – this is kind of like a storybook – the tree of us were best friends forever, just sitting in a room writing music together not expecting anything. I mean, it just sounds like a fairy tale, and it was. And then we released Pale Folklore to critical acclaim and blah, blah, then The Mantle, of course, and The Mantle blew up, and it wasn't until after The Mantle where we're like: “This could be bigger than just the three of us sitting in John’s bedroom.” So we definitely got some of that on The Mantle and Ashes brought us to Europe, and it was really bringing us out of our shell. And we always considered ourselves an island, we didn't really care what was happening in our town or in our scene or anything like that. We didn't even intend to play live, for years, we're just an island. And then we started to be open to more experiences and more things, and so there's a trajectory. From The Mantle to Marrow, where I think Marrow was the final statement where: “Hey, now we're actually a band.” And that was a weird adjustment for us because it wasn't so long ago that we were just…. I've been making music with John on and off since I was 14. So it was just a weird adjustment to be like: “OK, we're not an island, we don't want to be an island anymore, we want to know other bands, we want to play shows.” But it was hard. Like, the first tour we played, we hated it. Afterwards, Don and I were like: “We're never touring again, that was awful, we're never doing it again.” So it was definitely an adjustment for us. But yeah, Marrow definitely was the final statement in “Now we’re a band, let’s see where this takes us.”
And did money begin to become an issue after that album because the album was very popular and you were on a solid label, and it seems like a lot of exposure was coming your way along with the intensified touring, I guess, so was also the point where money became an issue?
AESOP: We did not make any money from albums. I mean, not any significant money.
JASON: No. But around Marrow money started to become a problem but it also was a huge benefit too, because Marrow was the first time that we got off The End [Records], we started doing things independently, we started licensing our records, we started to make enough money from shows that we could be more independent, which we couldn't do in the past. So it was a blessing for us because we had more control. And because of that we ended up making more money. But yeah, that's definitely also where we went: “Oh, now we have to deal with money,” which is, you know, the root of so many issues.
Aesop you said you never made significant money off the records, but you did through touring, right?
AESOP: Touring and merch was where we made money, the records didn't generate enough income. I guess the nice thing was because we were in this position that we sold records we were able to get money up front to make records, but any kind of profit or whatever, that was all from touring and merch. I think Jason is absolutely correct, it enabled us to do a lot of things that other bands couldn't do, pay for things up front and so on. But I don't remember money being an issue until very close to the end of the band. But I've always just personally tried to keep out of those things. I'm notoriously flaky, I don't do well with business and numbers, so I don't pay attention to those things. But, toward the end, definitely, yes there was an issue.
JASON: When I say “issue” I don’t mean necessarily a problem, I just mean it was a factor. For the first three records there was no money, ever, nor from shows, not anything – our first tour, we never saw a dime, playing Europe, we never saw a dime. We never had any money coming in, at all until after Marrow. And even then, it wasn't much. Then after that we started touring more, then we got more money coming in, and then it became a problem. But it was problematic because people have different views on what should be done, you know, things like that.
Different views on, say, how much you should tour?
AESOP: Yeah, that was part of it.
JASON: That was definitely an issue. I don’t know if it was necessarily how much we should tour it was more how much we can or are willing to tour.
AESOP: The bigger picture for me was, I feel like one of the allures of Agalloch was an element of mystery and the fact that we were kind of inaccessible. And I felt that we were ruining that by constantly touring, we were cheapening – I don’t want to say “market value” – our clout, I guess, by being so accessible. It’s weird becauseI feel like John would probably even agree with me to some extent, but he was also someone that was really interested in living that life and touring constantly. But I felt like it was destroying our lore. And we were I think we were starting to see numbers kind of dwindle.
JASON: We were, for sure. It was more special when we came around every two years, or once a year rather than twice, you know?
AESOP: I just think that's the problem with playing live. It's the duality of it, you do it too much and you kind of ruin your band.
John, would you agree that a major part of the rift that eventually led to the band’s dissolution was that while others were happy with a part-time setup you may have wanted more out of the band? And, looking back, do you still believe the band should have become more of a full-time affair?
JOHN: Yes, that's true. I was tired of saying "no" to amazing opportunities we were getting for tours and festivals. I admit that I allowed my emotions to make that decision and it was a bad way to end things with people who were/are old friends. Nevertheless, I don't regret ending the band nor do I miss it. I think the band would've been better off if it was a full time endeavor from the beginning and not an established artistic studio project that only played special gigs, like we were when we started playing live midway into our career. But who knows what could've been.
I spoke to Don about this as well, but I’ve always had an inclination toward American metal and American black metal and one of the bands, obviously besides Agalloch, that seems to be very influential is Neurosis. And one of the reasons they are interesting to me is because they are one of those bands where it seems like it was obvious that the music had to be an event. And they had their daily lives, their day jobs, and they take their time between recording, but when they come out on tour everyone wants to see them because it's Neurosis on tour. And I and to an extent Agalloch was in that tier for a while, and to some extent share an audience with them. So when say “Neurosis” would say that that is a band that got what Aesop is describing, right? The pacing of what they were doing?
AESOP: Yeah, absolutely. I think as a business model they are there. I’m lucky to know some of them and be friends with them. I live in the same town as many of them, and I've traveled with them, and sold merch for them on some short trips here and there. And just watching how they handle their business has been really, really interesting. And I had kind of had this hope for Agalloch, this day dream that we would move into putting out our own records and putting out bands that we thought were like minded or related to us, and kind of just keeping things more in-house and doing that, I just I thought that's what we should have been doing is following their their lead, because what they do totally works, and they’ve had this they have this longevity that I've haven't seen in most bands.
JASON: Because they're not burning themselves out. Don and I we always talk about the “Neurosis model,” even back when Agalloch was around, that's what we would say like, we need to take a page out of their book because, as Aesop said, they’ve had that longevity and and their shows are event, like we used to have. We used to have that and then we played too much. It’s unfortunate. But, yeah, Neurosis has it nailed, they know exactly what they’re doing.
With the years that have passed and obviously with a band gone, and the ability to perhaps reevaluate your work, is there something about Marrow that you find that you are especially proud of today? It could be either like a song, or whatever. We just went through the production that you like it now more than you may have at the time, there was something about that album that you think of that was a successful execution that still holds up?
DON: Yeah, I think it's very coherent. And the two things I love the most about that record is one, the album cover, and two would be “Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires.” That song to me is one of the most emblematic Agalloch songs. If anyone wanted to know what Agalloch sounded like that’s a song I would point to. I would say those two things, the album cover and that particular song. And just looking at it and listening to music at the same time, everything seems to work really well together. I think it's nice as a dark album because it follows what was a much brighter record in Ashes.
Can you point to why you became as successful as you did following that album, or was it just the cumulative effect of your work until that point?
DON: Right place, right time. I think 2006 is when we started seeing more success, but by 2006 you had ISIS, you had a Jesu, and you had all these bands we mentioned before. Metal was kind of making a comeback, in a really strong, really great way and we happened to kind of ride that wave. And I think we started getting promoted in more mainstream press, Pitchfork or whatever. And all of a sudden people started hearing more about us. So it was just the right place at the right time. I don’t know why, exactly, but the music has always had an emotional appeal for people, but it always had. I remember a lot of times we would meet people after shows and there was a lot of: “Your music helped me through difficult times,” people would ask for a hug, some would cry. You know, no one's crying at a Cannibal Corpse show. I think Agalloch has a kind of emotional resonance with people because of those existentialist themes of life and death and God and nature. So I think that stuff sticks really well.
AESOP: I think for me, overall, my favorite thing about Marrow is it does have this sort of atmosphere. It's this murkiness and darkness that I actually think is perfectly reflected in the cover. I like the overall just sort of darkness of it and especially in contrast to something like Ashes, which was very bright. I don't know, I use colors to describe music and I think, visually, that Ashes looks like the cover, Marrow looks like the cover. I feel like it just has a great atmosphere. My criticisms of it are mainly the performances, but the arrangements, the songs themselves are some of my favorites. They were some of my favorites to play live – the ones that we did do, when we did do them. But yeah, there's just an overall encompassing sort of suffocating darkness to the production that I do really appreciate really like.
JASON: I was gonna say “suffocating,” I think that's a really good adjective for it. I mean, you can call it bad production, you can hyperbolize and call that “atmosphere.” I guess they kind of go hand in hand, and I think it kind of works here at times. I do like the atmosphere of this record. I think that “Ghosts of Midwinter Fires” was kind of that perfect song that could have been on Pale Folklore, but we made a song that was possibly too good for Pale Folklore, just kind of expanded on that formula. But I'm really happy with that song. It was also odd, and it has a weird swing part in it, and I was really happy with that. I think “Black Lake,” we really pushed some boundaries on that. I'm really proud of that one. And “Into the Painted Grey” was one of my favorite songs to play live, I thought that was really well done. Overall, I'm very proud of the record. So, aside from all the criticisms, it’s up there as one of my favorite Agalloch records.
I have to say that as a person whose favorite Megadeth record is Peace Sells, I'm a big fan of horrible production. There’s something about a “bad production,” the kind that musician seems to want to repair later, that has that kind of unstable, human flawed quality to it that metal sometimes kind of thrives on it makes it more sinister, right?
JASON: Oh yeah, for sure.
AESOP: I think there’s something to be said for metal that… I mean, I’ve been on a stretch of brutal death metal, and it appeals to me because It's cruel and cold in this other way that it sounds so mechanical and inhuman. But I totally hear what you're saying. Some of my favorite albums of all time are crappily recorded. I wouldn't want to hear the Stooges’ Raw Power remixed or remastered, that would be silly.
JASON: Or some of the early Norwegian black metal stuff, most of that stuff sounds like ass, but it works so perfectly.
That may be different because they wanted it to sound like ass.
JASON: You’re right, that’s a good distinction.
Whereas I don’t think Dave Mustaine wanted Peace Sells to sound like ass.
AESOP: I don’t think it sounds like ass!
I don’t think it sounds like ass either! It’s my favorite production and my favorite guitar tone, along with Samael’s Ceremony of Opposites…
AESOP: That’s a crazy-great record.
…but I'm just saying that in Dave Mustaine his mind he probably went: “No, this needs to be better.” And I'm like: “No, no, it doesn't. It doesn't need to be better. It's perfect the way it is.” right so it's that kind of thing. So I don't think it's ass, I think it's perfect.
AESOP: Yeah, but your listening experience with it is going to be very different than the person who made it. That's the tragedy I think of making records is that it can sometimes take years before I just go: “Oh I’m going listen to this record I played on,” and don't feel weird about it and can listen to it from the top down like somebody who wasn't involved in making it. By the time the record’s out you're pretty sick of hearing those songs.
I guess your job was to make them, not listen to them.
AESOP: It’s a shame, because being in Agalloch sort of ruined listening to Agalloch for me.
JASON: It sure did it for me, I can't even tell you the last time I listen to Marrow, it's probably been since it came out. I mean, I never sit around and listen to Agalloch, that would be really strange for me to do.
AESOP: I listened to it a couple weeks ago and, yeah, it’s good. It’s better than I thought it would be. J1:08:29
JASON: I just thought of this, but my favorite story about Marrow was, I was actually living in Wisconsin when we recorded this, and I was on my way back to move back to Portland, but I was still in Wisconsin. So I flew in and Lobdell gave us a discount if I recorded my own bass parts, so I recorded all my own stuff. Which was really great because it was just, I think the entire time we tracked bass it was just Don and I, and so it was a really fun, really easy kind of bonding experience between Don and I, and nobody else was in there, which turned out to be a really good thing because Lobdell’s crazy [laughs]. I recall him throwing a chair at John once.
AESOP: He did throw a chair at John, yeah. He fell asleep at the board when we were tracking drums, a lot [laughs].
JASON: Yeah, he’d fall asleep all the time. And he told me, Aesop, that you were unwilling to do any of your parts.
AESOP: Yeah, I know. He was…. He was difficult.
And John, what is that one thing that, looking back, is a source of pride in Marrow?
JOHN: I think it was a miracle that it came together so well despite the problems we had in the recording and mixing stages. It has, by far, my favorite artwork and design in Agalloch's discography. Again, I regret that it didn't get a proper remix when all else failed initially, but perhaps the charm and response would've been completely different if it had a better production. Things seem to unfold in certain ways for a reason.
Great interview Ron, nice to read their different perspectives