"AGALLOCH Is The Closest Thing I Have To Religion" - An Interview With Don Anderson
It's rare that you get to spend an afternoon with one of your favorite musicians. Much less one who had such a foundational influence on how you view the world. Yet, that was exactly what I had the chance to do with the legendary Don Anderson of Agalloch, Sculptured, and now Khorada. Over the course of a five hour hangout, where we talked about everything from our favorite local beers to the European educational system I had a chance to see into what has always made this band such a vital part of the metal scene. Don Anderson is a metalheads intellectual, a young professor on his way to tenure who happens to tour the world between semesters. What more could you want?
Somewhere in the midst of our shooting the shit we actually recorded some of our ramblings for an interview jam packed with exclusive insights into what the band was always about. After the fact, Anderson told me that talking about all of these things had been cathartic for him – perhaps the greatest compliment that a music nerd could receive from one of his favorite ever performers. Suffice to say, I kind of freaked out as he took me on a walk through Central Park and described his occasionally 'bougie' lifestyle.
What I found instead though was that Don Anderson is no bourgeois scumbag. Rather he is a dude who has found the meaning of Thoreau in the midst of Manhattan. Whereas I am a staunch Brooklynite – unwilling to leave me quiet Williamsburgh townhouses and wild Greenpoint bars, Anderson is in love with the madness of Manhattan since – in his words – it makes him feel safe. Anderson is the rock and roll hero that we have always needed and listening to his wisdom has left me in awe.
What's it been like with Agalloch ending the way it did?
It's been a mix of emotions. I'm feeling like “Wow, I can do anything!” I don't have to maintain a connection with Agalloch anymore and that's very exciting. Things had begun to sour over the years between John and the rest of us. It's a relief to not have that tension anymore. There were tensions over management that we regularly felt the repercussions of. It's like when you break up with a significant other and you romanticize a lot of it. It's hard to witness something that you've built for twenty odd years be over in terms of your existential experience. I partly defined myself as the guitarist for Agalloch. It was as much of my identity as anything else and I don't have that part of my identity anymore. We didn't want the breakup to be dramatic.
Agalloch had gotten to a point were there was a lot of money and songwriting credits to deal with. It's a cliché. You think it will never happen to you since you're friends, then suddenly these things start to matter. You're the first journalist I've told this to, but it feels like the band was stolen from us. John had gone behind our backs and trademarked the name in February. We didn't know about that. He copywrote live performances too so we can't play Agalloch songs live. I don't have to see money from the royalties either as far as I understand it. Then two days before [the breakup] happened he kicked us off the Facebook page as admins.
I'm not here to shit talk John, because these are all facts. It's like watching someone have an egomaniacal breakdown. The band was started by John, most bands start with one person. Within a year it was a proper band, writing and working together. John was totally responsible for the lyrics, image and artwork. The rest of us, not to sound cliched, were not interested in any of that. We just cared about the music. We enjoyed writing together.
John has claimed recently that he wrote 80% of the music. That's an arbitrary lie. How do you calculate that? No one writes that way. Anyone in a band knows that's not how it works .We all contributed a lot of material. We were a collaborative musical outfit. John did it full time. He was home 24/7 doing Agalloch and doing a lot of work the rest of us didn't have to do. We encourage him to take more money but he always kind of refused and kept it in the band fund. So we really felt betrayed.
The second post he made on the Facebook page where he referred to himself as a visionary… he showed it to me before posting it and I told him it wasn't a good idea and that it would be messy. Within minutes I saw that he had done it and I called him up and was like “See this is exactly what I said would happen” People took him to task. What pains me is that the whole time I was trying to save his back, he was stabbing my back. It's almost Shakespearian!
Something that confused me… I was the first one to tell your booking agent that you broke up and I only knew from the Facebook post. How far in advance did you know Agalloch was done?
I would say 2-3 weeks before the announcement we had broached the topic. The topic was presented to me as John saying, “If we can't do it full time I don't want to do it at all” I said “I don't understand that” We were in a position where we made good money when we wanted to tour. When we got off tour the three of us were limited by jobs and families. I have an academic calendar too – which is actually the ideal for touring. He felt that when he as off tour he had nothing to do. I said we should model ourselves off of Neurosis. That is to say we tour sporadically and put out a great record every few years. So that way it would always feel like an event. We could keep supporting ourselves and funding records. One thing John didn't like was that I didn't want to tour this summer – I wanted to write this summer. I wanted to do a small tour in January and then do a big tour in the summer as a 20 year thing. Technically the band started in '96 but the demo came out in '97 so that would have been the twenty year anniversary. What triggered it was me saying that I didn't want to do anything this summer but write, which you have to do in order to tour. He took some time to think about it and came back and said he was still settled on the idea.
We have pretty solid suspicions that he was starting a new Agalloch without me or the other guys. I don't have concrete evidence but it's a small scene. If you are playing a niche-y form of metal, shit gets out. If he hadn't been shamed by the internet it's my prediction that he would have rapidly had a new lineup of young dudes playing Agalloch riffs.
I know tons of people who would want to do Agalloch full time. Why didn't you want to do it full time?
That's a very good question. I think people in our position and with the kind of money we were able to make – not just personal money – a lot of our friends told us to go be rock stars. Here's the thing about Agalloch… every band is different. When you're in your early 20s no one will tell you to bank on your band paying out. I chose grad school, Jason and Aesop have families. In 2010 I turned around and realized how much the beast had grown. I did all I could to feed it with our respective schedules. I think part of what made Agalloch successful was that we didn't play live much. We did a lot of special releases.
What a lot of people do not know is that John's girlfriend was our manager and toured with us. He could take his family on tour with us. Meanwhile my wife has to run the house while I'm gone. Jason's wife has to worry about kids! The other reason I don't do it full time is that I think it's better to be a more complex person and do multiple things that you find rewarding. I teach, I'm a musician and a husband. Those are my three things. I try to do those as best as I can. That makes my life very rich. John doesn't have that. That's not a bad thing by default, but in a band where not everyone is a full time artist, that can breed bitterness and resentment. And again – his domestic partner was on tour with us!
There's a lot to pick apart there… I don't want to directly ask about your finances so I'm just spitballing here… but were you trying to bring your families out? I know some bands on a similar level do bring their families out… Did John bend to make it work?
My wife never tried because she had a full time job. I broached the topic with my wife multiple times. But that sort of stuff requires a lot of calendars lining up. I remember we played Montana once and Jason's family is out there so we had a barbecue and could include them, but nothing compares. We weren't quite there yet. But you look at the Cavalera's for example, they are all in the business. Meanwhile, my wife is a therapist!
What is the legacy of Agalloch to you?
A couple weekends ago I was at Migration Fest and got to see Panopticon. We've been friends with Austin for a while. I could hear on the record that he was influenced by us. But seeing them live made me go “Jesus Christ!” It's so rewarding and satisfying to hear that influence. I know we rip off a ton of bands but it's cool to see a band like that carrying the torch. I helped pass on Ulver, Fields of Nephilim and all that stuff. To see that realized is awesome, and they stole that fest! We were mediating some exchange and I could hear my music in their work. The legacy is in what people do with what you give them. I like to think that Agalloch developed black metal a bit further and other people took it from there.
I think for Black Metal History Month I credited you with revolutionizing black metal. I think to a large extent all black metal today owes something to the first few Agalloch records. They expanded the lens of black metal
You're making me blush! I think we were conscious of that. We were expanding our own minds. In 2001-2002 metal sucked. We still didn't have the underground recovering from the nu metal thing. It felt like nothing was moving me. We started listening to post rock and singer songwriters like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. We got way into contemporary classical too. All this music was super dark and technique wise had a lot of similarities to black metal – like Godspeed You! Black Emperor's fast guitar parts. So we thought – why not just bring this all back in? When we made The Mantle I thought it was a super confused record. We were just dumping all of our influences in it. One of the piano parts is almost honky tonk and we have a few almost blues solos. At the time even John felt a little bit weird about it. Bending a note like that almost crossed a line back then, now everyone does it! There's black metal records that sound like Pink Floyd half the time now!
I feel like Agalloch expanded what black metal can be – but the flip side of the coin is that, in my opinion there have been some negative effects. It feels like everything can be black metal at this point…
I hadn't thought of it that way but I see what you are saying. I don't have a lot of sympathy for boundaries and borders either national or musical. There's a bit of provocational or prankster element in my own personality. I like it when things don't match up how people expect. We're seeing it all over the culture. “Oh you're not straight or completely gay, you're not totally male or female” Anything I can do to destroy the illusion of compartmentability is a good thing. On a mature level it's fundamentally good and on an immature level it's the joy of blowing things up!
Why do you feel that need to decompartmentalize?
A lot of my interest in philosophy comes from being an angst ridden teenager. I think part of why I was so interested in queer theory and postmodernism in academia is that I thought of it as confrontational. I loved seeing major theoretical paradigms being taken apart. I loved exposing the inner invisible workings of it. I like it when power is taken away and shown as corrupt. That's part of why I'm happy that there is a Trump exposing the base of the Republican party. I'm anti-Trump of course, but it's good to see the proof that the Republican platform has been based on racism for so long. I'm a leftist, a radical leftist, I mean of course I am, I'm an English professor. I feel like when things are deconstructed you can see the world differently and build something new. That's why we talk about black lives matter or bathroom rights. It's because we've taken away these boundaries. I feel the same about musical boundaries. On some level I'm happy that everything can be black metal but at the same time I grew up as a black metal elitist!
I mean it's not even elitism…
For sure. It's uncomfortable though. I make my students uncomfortable. That's what English professors do, Math professors can't really do that – or maybe they can! I wouldn't know.
Are you an anarchist?
No. I recognize governments and the state as social constructs. We made that stuff and we need that stuff to have what we think of as an ideal civil society. I view them as eminent. I don't believe in God, but we made them. I'm a nihilist in the most traditional way – for me there is no center or core. There is nothing the world is constructed upon but us. So you have to deconstruct and pull back the layers. It happens to me all the time – for example I had a black student recently ask me in class, “What is it like to be white?” I had never thought about it that way. I had thought about it theoretically but… That's what I'm interested in though. I want deconstruction in a positive way! I recognize a lot of problems with the state but I wouldn't describe myself as an anarchist.
I would say that I'm more of a Marxist inasmuch as I'm always interested in critiques of capitalism. I don't want to join the communist party but Marx is someone I consistently re-read when I'm trying to understand capitalism.
Early on in this interview you said you were excited about other projects. So what's going on with Sculptured?
This is new information for the world – we were going to do the announcement eventually but here we go… Sculptured and Agalloch started at the same time but Sculptured was always on the backburner since Agalloch's schedule has always been more demanding. So I've always had stuff, but now with he breakup my demo period is open. The fourth record is going to be entitled The Liminal Phase. It will have Jason Walton (ex-Agalloch, Self Spiller, Especially Likely Sloth), and returning keyboardist Andy Winter (Age Of Silence, Winds). Joining the band for the first time are Martti Hill (Barrowlands) on drums, and Marius Sjøli (Self Spiller, Blekspetl, Formloff). We're about ready to start recording and it will come out on The End Records.
The three of us from Agalloch are also starting up a new band, Khorada with the singer and guitarist from Giant Squid, Aaron Gregory. We've already demoed material though. Our riffs work well together. The name and music will be different. But fingerprints will be there.
What do you love so much about music?
I don't know what got me into it. On a very simple level I remember being twelve and playing with a four track. You would record a guitar on a fucking tape and then do another guitar on top of it. Hearing two notes played together like that blew my mind at twelve years old. I've said it before – Agalloch is the closest thing I have to religion. I feel us making something bigger than us. It's not linguistic, it's another form of communication. That's what keeps life interesting and magic and why it speaks to me the way it does. I don't know why it's music and not dance. My wife is into dance but I can't get into it. Music has been the one constant in my life as long as I can remember.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for me?
It's a cliché but it's so true and something I always deal with when people ask me why I became an English professor. I would totally do it all over again because I'm happy. I only went to Migration because my buddy flew me out because he makes way more than me. It's important to do what you love to do. This is what was true for Agalloch. There was a lot of money going on with that band but what was better was us as friends. Do what makes you happy – it's a cliché but it's really fucking true.