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Direct Link To This Post Topic: Don Anderson (Sculptured) interview, February 2008
    Posted: February 23 2008 at 20:27
I did an interview with Don Anderson, the man behind Sculptured and Agalloch in light of the new Sculptured album, Embodiment.
The interview is published in the Sonic Frontiers Webstie:
 
 
 
 
 
SCULPTURED
Anatomy of a prog-metal mastermind
by Assaf Vestin

Labeled by Don Anderson himself as his most personal project, Sculptured is an outlet for the musician to express his most complex, experimental and adventurous musical endeavors. With two previous studio efforts that were well received by the metal community (and affiliated progressive- and avant-metal fans), the new album Embodiment is yet another splendid manifestation of the talent of this musician and composer.

Sculptured began in 1996 when the band released a demo entitled Fulfillment in Tragedy. Two years later, their first full length The Spear of the Lily is Aureoled was released through The End Records, the experimental/avant-metal label to which they are signed to this day. That release was in a more death-metal vein than their sound on the following albums; truly enough, Apollo Ends released in 2000 showed a shift in sound which as Don puts it “took a more harmonically complex approach to songwriting.” Now, 2008 has brought the release of their newest release Embodiment.

The mastermind of Sculptured himself, Don Anderson, was kind enough to answer some of our questions recently. Read on as he reveals how Embodiment was created, along with some thoughts about the current state of the music industry as he sees it, and finally some news about his future projects with Agalloch and Sculptured.


Your new album has an unmistakable “Prog” sound to it, as can be clearly heard in the use of the keyboards (among other aspects). What made you go even further in this direction than in previous albums?

The use of keyboards was not at all planned. I had thought of asking Andy Winter to do a solo since we are good friends and he used to live close to me. We’d visit off and on. So, the thought of including him seemed natural. But, I only anticipated asking for a solo since he seemed so busy. But, when he sent back the song, he had recorded keys for the whole song and not the solo! Nonetheless, I loved what he did and he was very into the material and wanted to be included. I was very excited to have him add keys to the rest of the songs. The keys weren’t even thought of until a couple of months before the album was finished. It just happened to be the right time.

In terms of the music; I just wanted to continue pushing on the harmonic vocabulary I had going on in Apollo Ends. I wanted to continue expanding the use of matrix systems and serialism as well as developing ways of using patterns and shapes to compose music. Most of Taking My Body Apart is built around a triangle.

What specific influences came to you as you wrote Embodiment?

I listen to a lot of different styles of music. The foundation for Sculptured has always been the whole jazz-death scene in Florida with bands like Atheist, Cynic, and Death. So, those are always present. I think when people hear remnants of traditional metal in my music it’s because I grew up on Iron Maiden and that style has become ingrained in my playing and songwriting. I can’t help it. But, I also take a lot of inspiration from the early 20th century composer Charles Ives; at least in terms of being a kind of “musical prankster.” I love dissonance and I love juxtaposing opposite sounding themes, keys, or whatever. I like wit in music. I love the sound of notes stacked upon one another; things going slowly out of tune. I like it when I hear two songs at once and begin to notice moments of synthesis between them. However, I would say entropy, as a fundamental law, is a prominent fixture in both my music and overall outlook on the world.

The lyrics on Embodiment are no less important than the music; what ideas or messages are you conveying through the songs?

I don’t really know for sure. I mean I follow my instinct when it comes to lyrics, and of course the music. I was interested in trying to be as straight and concrete as possible—I didn’t want any metaphors or figurative language. I just wanted to say, “Here’s how I feel.” So, when I write a lyric like “sometime ago when I was sick I would vomit so much I would want to sew my mouth completely shut,”—I really just want to express a feeling as bluntly as possible without any supplemental metaphor or image. I was sick, throwing up is a terrible experience, and this was, at least at the time, the most extreme response for me.

I don’t think there is a single message or unifying meaning in the lyrics. The themes for me were the body, sickness, death, and God. I think these are all deeply related—the body as a sign of God’s work, the gradual breakdown of that sign, its organ-ization, and it’s meaning; if there even is one. I don’t believe in God, but I am interested in God as an idea, a universal idea, as something that stands outside the world. If such a thing, concept, or whatever exists, I think it has a great deal of important questions to answer. I’m interested in the possibility of a meaning for the world—although I have no belief in one. But, the idea is romantic for me; desperate perhaps. Again, to be as blunt as possible, I don’t understand why we die the way we do, why the body breaks down in terrible, terrible ways, and I think whoever or whatever is responsible for this should be put on trial.

The lineup on this album is impressive and delivers superb musicianship. How did it come about? How was the work recording the album? Was there an exchange of ideas or did you know exactly what you’re going to record and were set on it?

I often hear people refer to the studio as an instrument, saying things like “we were really using the studio as an instrument itself.” Well, for me, the unacknowledged instrument used to compose Embodiment was my purposeful lack of participation in a large part of it. I didn’t hear the drums until they were done. I didn’t hear the bass until Jason was recording it in front of me. I gave Andy full freedom to do what he wanted. I told myself that, as a rule, as a composition rule, I would accept whatever I got back in terms of drums—that whatever Dave did, I would force myself to adapt, rearrange, or some way or another deal with it. Same with the bass. Although, with the bass I was forced to accept it the way it was since it was almost the last thing recorded and I challenged myself to appreciate whatever the end result was. So, the indeterminacy of it all, the possible “happy accidents” that were unplanned, the surprises, were all compositional strategies. The more the work can escape the people who create it, the better. I don’t believe in the artist or songwriter in the traditional sense. I prefer to think that I orchestrated a space of possibility from which this album might emerge. If you ask me “what is Embodiment?”—I don’t know. In a way, my participation and songwriting is an effect of Embodiment, not the other way around.

The art work is spectacular; who designed and created it? How does it relate to the album (if at all)?

John Haughm designed the cover and the overall layout and I think it’s easily some of his best work so far. Veleda Thorsson, who does photography for Agalloch, included the Czach ossuary photo. The actual images were used with permission from W.K. Kellogg Health Sciences Library and the National Library of Medicine. I wanted images that would demystify the human body. I wasn’t looking for gore or shocking imagery because I really wanted to remove the body from any kind of context that would suggest gore. Of course, this is hard to do. But I wanted artwork that would say, “here, this is your body, all these things are what’s inside of you. But, isn’t it strange you have no idea what any of it does or means?”

I personally think Embodiment, aside from its more attractive and “catchy” sides is a special album that is complex and rich in sound; as such it demands from the listener a good amount of concentration or focus to keep track of the songs, in particular their structure. How do you write this kind of music? Do you first have a theme or an idea that you simply develop as you go, or are you a more systemic composer, meticulously working on every aspect of the song until you feel it’s done?

It depends. Sometimes it’s a basic riff that I then unpack and develop. Sometimes, as with the song “The Shape of Rage,” it’s a matrix, for example I used the four-tone row C# A G# E to develop a matrix and then wrote the main chorus and bridge parts from this particular matrix. I like this one because it is a kind of homage to John Cage and is built around two minor 6ths (my favorite interval) separated by a major 7th. So it’s soft because of the minor 6ths, but kind of unstable due to the major 7th. For “Bodies without Organs,” it was D E A F—which also has a very nice sound to it when played as a chord and a matrix. And sometimes, it’s a shape. As I said, “Taking My Body Apart” was built around the triangle shape starting at the 3rd fret on the 6th string and then going to the 4th fret/5th string, 3rd fret/4th string, etc, and then back up the neck in the same pattern from the high E string. So if you drew a line across the fret board (in terms of the fingering position) you’d have an upside down triangle. So, I might mix this upside down triangle with a right side up one and juxtapose them between both guitars.

I know this might all sound systematic, soulless, or even, pretentious. But, to people who say that, I say this is just a way out of the common patterns every musician unconsciously does whenever they pick up an instrument. If I grab a guitar, my hands are going to do things on the fret board they’ve been doing for years. I needed to break myself of these habits if I was going to grow. Of course all these habits are based on traditional harmony, so I needed a system of organizing notes that wasn’t based on harmony. So, I would employ these techniques, write them out, and force myself to learn them. It got me out of the rut and I was forced to see and play my guitar differently. That is all that matters—not the system, not the way you compose, but the fact that the guitar opened itself up to me when I tried to think and look at it differently.

You probably have answered this before, but why did you choose the name Sculptured for the band?

I like to imagine music as a single, monolithic block of sound that I slowly chip away at and form into something I might call a “song.”

How do you separate the work in this band from your work in other bands/projects? Are there some things that manage to diffuse through here and vice versa; or do you keep a strict separation between the projects you are working on?

Sculptured is a very limited project. We don’t play live and I only work on it when I have time away from Agalloch and my professional life. Most of the time I am working on Agalloch whether in a live setting or on an album. Both bands are very separate entities, but despite this, I feel very close to both and regard them as equally important. There are moods that I can only tap into through Agalloch and vice versa through Sculptured. Agalloch has more of the folk and black metal sound that I wouldn’t necessarily do with Sculptured. Whereas, with the latter, I can indulge in much, much, more experimentation than I would with Agalloch. In terms of goals—I would say that both Agalloch and Sculptured have, aside from writing quality music, completely different goals. Agalloch has no aspirations for experimenting with harmony; we’re pretty traditional when it comes to harmony, whereas Sculptured is very invested in pushing on the harmonic possibilities in metal.

With regards to illegal downloading spreading further as time goes; how have you been effected by that? Do you believe claims that illegal file sharing can actually better promote an artist’s music?

I think this is truly a historical and cultural situation rather than a musical one. Once sound quality, the integrity of the album as a complete work, and the material package are no longer valued by people—once these three things are forgotten and it becomes more normal to listen to music completely digitally as mp3s, to listen to songs as autonomous singles separate from a larger, cohesive album, the music industry as it is will be in serious trouble. Yes, sales are down on CDs. I am a university instructor and my 18-year-old students don’t buy CDs. This is not because they want to get “free music”—it’s because they are growing up in a media environment where it is more and more normal to listen to mp3s rather than real, material full length albums. They don’t have the same appreciation for the album experience that someone might have with something like The Wall, to take an extreme example.

Labels and stores need to continue recognizing what is a huge cultural shift in values with regards to how music is listened to in the 21st century. Bottom line is: if people don’t buy CDs, Agalloch and Sculptured can’t record albums. We need profits to put back into the music in order to keep the music going. CDs might be free as illegal downloads, but unfortunately, studio time still costs money.

To continue on that issue: With the spreading of the iPod culture and mentality, do you still believe in the concept of making albums and not simply offering some tracks for downloads? Would you ever compromise your artistic intentions and aspirations to gain more financial success? Can the music of Sculptured adapt to such a culture?

Sculptured might be able to adapt better than Agalloch. My albums are thematic, but I see my songs as separate entities. However, in regards to what I said above, I myself still value the album as a unique experience. I still love packaging and listening to an album from beginning to end. I know that Agalloch would never be interested in this; of course, having your songs on iTunes is a label decision and not the band’s decision.

I would never compromise my music; but, I don’t think having single Sculptured songs available as downloads is a problem. Your question seems to suggest that offering tracks for download will result in financial success, but I’m not so sure about that yet. As long as the music is always the same, I don’t see any compromise being made. Besides, Sculptured will never give me financial success, and I think I speak for the label as well on that note.

I myself am a long-time metal-head (among other styles of music I like) and so the growling vocals in your albums are to me as natural as it comes. To new listeners, however, this may serve as a detraction from your music. Do you feel the vocal style is an integral part of Sculptured?

Yes. I don’t mind regarding Sculptured as a death metal band. But, I realize that the vocals and down-tuned guitars are the only real “signs” of death metal. I growl because I can’t sing, and I wanted to do vocals since this project is so personal to me. But, I also like vocal melodies, which is why I get other people to do the clean vocals. I don’t want to be limited by the growl vocals, which obviously can’t perform a melody. But, I like the contrast they offer with one another. I haven’t really thought about it too much. I mean I listen to Italian progressive rock as much as I listen to death metal. So, it seems natural to me too.

How do you feel your previous releases compare with Embodiment? Are you still satisfied with them retrospectively?

I like Apollo Ends a lot still. I think the production could have been better. But, many of those songs are still close to me in terms of feeling. I think Embodiment is what I might have been trying to do with Apollo Ends. The debut is much, much further from me. I don’t want to denounce it, but it’s not where my head is at anymore. It’s melodic death metal with really terrible tragic romantic lyrics. I was listening to a lot of Morrissey and The Cure while writing that album. And, I was only 16 or 17 when I wrote those songs. So, just chalk it up to a lovesick teenager. Musically, its cool, but I can’t stand the imagery or lyrics of the debut anymore.

What are other current active bands (metal or not) you think highly of? Is there any band(s) or musician(s) that you’re interested in collaborating with?

I can’t say enough good things about Grayceon from San Francisco. This is band I feel a strong companionship with in terms of what we are both doing with the metal genre and with harmony and arrangements. They are by far one of the best and most original bands in America right now. I am also a fan of Genghis Tron. If I were to collaborate with anyone it would be with Hamilton of Genghis Tron. I think our guitar styles would be very complementary.

What are the future plans for Sculptured? Will there be another several years hiatus until the next release?

Probably. This is because it’s time for a new Agalloch album, which we are going to begin writing soon. But, I am confident that I’ll attempt another album after that. So, yeah, it’ll be a while, but I already have ideas.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In addition, you can read my review of Embodiment here:
 
Sculptured Myspace:
 
Order the album from The End Records label:
 
 


Edited by avestin - March 01 2008 at 12:46
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 23 2008 at 23:31
Thanks for this Assaf, a very interesting read. I've followed Agalloch and its side project for several years now, so it was great to read words from Don. I'm planning on snapping up both Embodiment and The White once the latter hits the stores.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 24 2008 at 11:40
Great interview fitting to usher in the mindblowing album he just released.
"One had to be a Newton to notice that the moon is falling, when everyone sees that it doesn't fall. "
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