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Exploring the Brains behind the Noise

Since their 1997 demo From Which of This Oak to next month’s full-length The Serpent & The Sphere (Profound Lore), Agalloch have spent almost twenty years carving their own singular space into the realm of heavy metal. Without regard for trends or passing nuances in form, the band’s creative trajectory has seen them draw from the well of everything from black metal to post-rock to doom and more, never letting the space of the sound settle too comfortably for too long. SfB spoke to the band in 2012 about that year’s Faustian Echoes - a masterful achievement for Agalloch with its nearly twenty-two minute opus dedicated to a retelling of the classic Faust story. The EP further cemented the long held notion by fans and critics alike that Agalloch’s ambitions have continually been invariably rewarding, with each release offering a new glimpse into their compositional vision. For The Serpent & The Sphere, the band retains their characteristic ethereal strength through songs that display a sense of aural contrasts, with the music just as given to vapored atmospherics as it is firmly rooted in what’s easily the heaviest the band has ever sounded. For this special interview feature, SfB reached out to vocalist/guitarist John Haughm to discuss the new album, the band’s history, and what’s brought him to where he is now. 

Next year will see the 20th anniversary of Agalloch’s existence as a band.  From that very first demo, From Which of This Oak, to the upcoming The Serpent & The Sphere, the band’s fifth full-length, how have you seen the band evolve and grow in that timeframe? 

JH: I think above all, we are better songwriters now. That just comes naturally when a band has been around awhile and has always tried to make each album different. Our general attitude and actual approach to creating music has remained relatively the same.

Was there a different approach with The Serpent & The Sphere as opposed to the previous full-length releases?  What does the musical compositional process for Agalloch look like from that original conception to the actual finished song?

JH: We wipe the slate clean after every release so we can start from a completely fresh perspective.

I’m always fascinated by that initial creative catalyst for an artist/musician, and so I’m curious to know what that moment was for you when you felt that first desire to create.  In addition, how have you seen yourself evolve as an artist/musician from the moment you penned that first lyric or wrote that first note to where you are now?  

JH: I have always felt a need to create, even as a child. I used to draw and paint and that eventually evolved into design. I didn’t really take on music as a creative option until I was 13 or 14 years old. I started with drums but eventually decided that I wanted to write music so I picked up a guitar. That was convenient because I could totally create the basis of a song by myself. In high school I befriended another musician who also had a 4-track recorder so we had several (terrible) thrash/death/noise projects together.

None of it was serious by any means, but through that I got more involved with the death metal underground in the early 90s. I didn’t really seriously focus on creating deep, inspired music until I got involved with Aeolachrymae in ‘95, which of course, evolved into Agalloch. Everything I did before that was immature teenage garbage that was just a way to pass the time and amuse myself in a boring small town. In hindesight, that is kind of a shame.

What’s that journey taught you, and is that creative desire just as insatiable now as it was then?

JH: Obviously I am a very different person now than who I was when I was 15-16 years old. I’m even quite a bit different now than when I was 20, when Agalloch started. One thing that hasn’t changed is my neurotic dissatisfaction with everything I do. Even when I feel that something is perfect fresh out of the studio, give me a year and I’ll probably hate it. So I guess that dissatisfaction keeps me motivated to keep going, even though I’ll never catch the dragon if you know what I mean…

The last Agalloch music we heard was 2012’s Faustian Echoes.  We talked previously about the inception for that particular song, but I wanted to delve a bit deeper into those thematic concepts of nature and decay that are such common threads in Agalloch’s music.  From a lyrical perspective, what things do you see constantly compelling you to write?  Is that process one you find based more in the conscious or unconscious, and have you seen that evolve in some way since you first began writing lyrics?

JH: The whole man/nature thing was kind of a spent topic by the time we made “Ashes Against The Grain”. I had to move on and get away from mundane subjects like that. So there’s literature, there’s science and these things are very interesting to me. I think Agalloch will always be rooted in a natural atmosphere but we’ve always been much more than some “nature core” band thematically. 

What is it specifically about heavy or dark music that makes it the perfect conduit for what you feel compelled to say and write and create as an artist?

JH: For me it was just a natural attraction. Ever since I was a child, I liked darker and powerful music. Even the radio stuff in the 80’s like “Red Rain” by Peter Gabriel really moved me, and still does. I remember being obsessed with Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bare Mountain” when I was, like, 7 years old. Eventually when I got into rock music and metal, I wanted the heaviest and darkest stuff I could find so you can imagine by the time I was 13 years old, discovering stuff like Slayer, Dark Angel and Possessed was just godly.

I have also always been very open-minded to other styles as long as there is the special feeling in it that moves me in some way. As a teenager, I loved stuff like Rush, Loreena Mckennitt, and Coil just as much as stuff like Blasphemy, Suffocation, and Dismember because the feeling was there. I can’t describe what it is or why it affects me. It just does.

Heavy music and the heavy music “scene” in particular have both always been notoriously divisive both with fans and critics who are oftentimes averse to change or what they perceive as the mainstream.  As a fan of heavy music (and obviously many other types as well) and as someone wholly invested in creating heavy music yourself, how have you seen the art form change or evolve just in the time since you’ve been listening and creating?

JH: I think that divisiveness is often a product of youthful impetuousness and immaturity. I know when I was teenager, I was a bit more sensitive about how much a band would change or what career paths they would take (like when bands like Carcass and Entombed were aquired by Columbia in the early 90s and then made much more commercial albums). As an adult, I don’t care. If I like it, I’ll listen to it. If I don’t, I won’t. I don’t give a shit if it is regarded as a “sellout” or “hipster” or whatever rubbish is fashionable to think these days. This is nothing new though.

I remember when “Blessed Are The Sick” came out, there was a furor over the slick production, the acoustic passages, etc but it didn’t really affect Morbid Angel the same way the negative furor over “Illud” did when it came out. As far as I’m concerned, Morbid Angel was just being as experimental and weird as they’ve always been but there is a different generation and a different critical climate now. The criticism nowadays can be fierce and instant everywhere and written by anyone with an opinion whereas back in ‘91 it was limited to journalist reviews in print mags and the opinions of immediate friends.

The music scene has certainly changed. Hell, the underground I knew and loved in the late ’80s/early 90’s is dead and buried. No one will ever tape trade again or communicate through hand-written letters, you know? Maybe some retro kids will do it now that tapes are “cool” again but it will never be the driving force of an underground scene like it was. That whole thing is long gone thanks to the internet. But on the other hand, the internet has helped the modern scene in ways I would have never imagined in ‘92…..

Is the growing number of avenues for a band to take in exposing their music to an audience (i.e. Bandcamp, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) something you see as opening the door for an audience more conducive to and accepting of experimentation in art due to the fact that the listener now has more variables to differentiate between, or is it simply a matter of oversaturation now?

JH: It’s nice that there are many options for people to find our work. It’s our job to harness these avenues rather than play the “kvlt card” and hide from them. Whether a band likes it or not, their stuff is going to end up on Youtube or some free filesharing site eventually so why not just utilize it officially and control the quality? I used to be annoyed by the social media element and digital formats until I realized that they can really be used to our advantage.

If we have a tour or a show coming up, we can spend 5 minutes and post about it on our Facebook page and 50,000 people will instantly see it. That’s the difference between having a 100 people show up or 800 people, you know? There are people who prefer downloading a file than buying a physical LP or CD. As much as I personally don’t understand this mentality, it is what it is, so we’ll give that option to them.

What lies ahead for Agalloch once The Serpent & The Sphere is released?  Are there any touring plans beyond the band’s appearance at Maryland Deathfest this year?

JH: Yes, we will be doing some touring in May/June/July.

Thanks to John for his time. Agalloch’s Serpens In Culmination tour dates are below.

                                             SfB is on: Facebook - Twitter - Instagram 

                            SERPENS IN CULMINATION 2014 TOUR

5/16 – Portland, OR – Star Theater (w/ Lasher Keen & Sedan)

5/17 – Seattle, WA – Highline (w/ YOB & Wounded Giant)

5/23 – Baltimore, MD (Maryland Death Fest)

6/18 - Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock (w/ Obsidian Tongue & Blood and Sun)

6/19 - Madison, WI – High Noon (w/ Obsidian Tongue)

6/20 - Chicago, IL – Reggies (w/ Obsidian Tongue)

6/21 - Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom (w/ Obsidian Tongue)

6/22 - Newport, KY - Southgate House Revival (w/ Obsidian Tongue)

6/23 - Birmingham, AL – Bottletree (w/ Vex)

6/24 - Atlanta, GA – The Earl (w/ Vex)

6/25 - Tampa, FL – The Orpheum (w/ Vex)

6/26 - Savannah, GA – Jinx (w/ Vex & Blackrune)

6/27 - Raleigh, NC – Kings Barcade (w/ Vex)

6/28 - Springfield, VA – Empire (w/ Vex)

6/29 - Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts (w/ Jex Thoth)

6/30 - New York City, NY – Irvine Plaza (w/ Jex Thoth)

7/01 - Boston, MA – The Brighton (w/ Jex Thoth & Obsidian Tongue)

7/02 - Montreal, QBC - La Salla Rosa (w/ Jex Thoth)

7/03 - Ottawa City, OTW - Mavericks  (w/ Jex Thoth & Musk Ox)

7/04 - Toronto, ONT – The Opera House (w/ Jex Thoth)

7/05 - Detroit, MI – Majestic Theater (w/ Jex Thoth)


7/08 - Denver, CO – Gothic Theater

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