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Conor Fynes View Drop Down
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Joined: February 11 2009
Location: Vancouver, CA
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    Posted: August 25 2012 at 19:03
Agalloch are not only one of the most popular bands to come out of the US black 
metal underground, they're also one of the best. Often, the two don't always go 
hand-in-hand, but in the case of this Portland-based ensemble, their penchant
for ambition, atmosphere, and progressive mindedness has served them well.
After seeing them live for the first time last month, paired with the release of a twenty
minute Extended Play, I had many questions for Agalloch in regards to their art and craft.
Don Anderson (guitarist and co-songwriter for the band) caught me up on the latest from
this intriguing act.

Just in case anyone reading might be oblivious to the music of Agalloch,
introduce yourselves!

DON: I am Don Anderson, guitarist for Agalloch.

Any highlights on this tour so far? If anything, it's marked by your first
Vancouver show!

DON: The Vancouver show was really great and the crowd in particular
was welcoming and very excited for the show. Other highlights were
Toronto, Brooklyn, LA, and SF. Although the shows are the main reason to
tour, we also took time to visit Walden Pond which was a personal highlight
for me as I am a devotee of Thoreau’s work and regularly teach Walden in
my courses. We also love trying the local food of the areas we visit. So,
there are lots of non-musical highlights on tour that help you stay sane.


I think I can speak for almost everyone at the Vancouver show when I say
that the setlist was superlative. Is it very difficult to make a list of songs, or
does everyone involved generally concur on what they want to perform?

DON: The setlist definitely evolves. A set can only be abstract until you’ve
performed it a number of times. We changed it regularly throughout
the tour, but we noticed a really strong list emerge about halfway
through the tour. This one seemed perfect and we mainly used it with
a few modifications. We agree on most songs, but there are some
disagreements here and there. It isn’t too hard to choose the songs.
Again, we kind of have a working primary list that is altered depending
on how close the previous city is to the one we are currently playing. We
realize a lot of fans travel to multiple shows. So, for example, Dallas and
Austin had really different setlists. But a list is also determined by curfews
and how many opening bands there are. Opening bands typically mean
that the headliner has to cut their set, so this is why we were careful in
selecting key openers. The one challenge is that our songs average ten
minutes, so a set list may look like there’s only a handful of songs, but it’s
still two hours long!

Travelling with you on this tour are Portland-based acts Eight Bells and
Taurus; both sonically interesting performers, although quite different from
Agalloch's core style. Much like the almighty GWAR, it is my understanding
that Agalloch maintain control over who tours with them. What was the
process behind getting these bands onboard; was there much competition?

DON: I think most hands have some say in who is the main support and
opener—those are two different things and can be controlled by different
sources. Main support can be label driven (which we don’t have to worry
about), or a negotiation between the label and the band, or just the band.
Of course the booking agent might have some say, but Agalloch is very
much in total control regarding main support. Local openers can be forced
on you by the club too. But, we try to control that since, again, the more
openers, the less time we have to play. Eight Bells was only on the first
four dates and are not only a great band but good friends. We do focus
on non-metal, or at least non-folkish/blackish metal bands when we can
for openers and main support. I’d rather have our fans hear Pinkish Black
or Eight Bells than another metal band that might sound too much like
Agalloch. We did have bands ask us to open, but again, we tried to keep
openers limited for time constraints.

When Agalloch first started playing live, you would often modify songs so
that they might better fit the live setting. On this tour however, it sounds like
you are more dedicated to recreating the studio experience in full. What
was the reasoning behind this, or am I off the mark completely?

DON: We still do some minor rearranging when necessary. For example,
if a song has a three part harmony I try to do something that incorporates
each harmony with one guitar. Also, songs keep evolving. There are
accents in Ghosts of the Midwinter Fires that do not occur on the record—
but I wish they did. So, when we perform the songs live, we do mess with
them a bit and let them breathe more. But, also, we are using a lot of the
same gear that we now use in the studio. So, something like Faustian
Echoes will sound almost exactly like the recording. We also recorded that
mostly live so that helps too. But, we even made minor adjustments to it as
well. Live is simply another environment from the studio so the songs need
to be almost reimagined for that environment.

Seeing Agalloch for the first time, I was expecting, yet taken aback by the
ritualistic atmosphere of the concert. Suffice to say, it's not a typical 'metal
show' experience; what was behind the decision to have incense, bones,
chopped logs as part of the Agalloch experience?

DON: Well, you said it yourself; an Agalloch show should be a full
experience. We don’t want to go all the way like King Diamond or early
Genesis or something like that, but we want to create the right mood and
atmosphere for our music. I feel what we do is subtle, but perfectly frames
the performance. I know for me I transform into a member of the band
as soon as I walk on stage amidst the fog and incense. Once my guitar
starts feeding back, all those things help me get in the right head space to
perform. I assume this is the same for the fans. Obviously the band name
is derived from a kind of incense and our nature imagery is expressed with
bones and animal parts like the deer legs.


This year Agalloch released "Faustian Echoes", a twenty minute epic
based on Goethe's telling of the age-old story of a man who vends his soul
to the devil for knowledge. I have only read Marlowe's dramatization; what
makes Goethe's version the most appealing to you?

DON: The English translation has some very “agallochian” like phrases
in it. I think people who don’t know that the lyrics are taken directly from
the English translation might even mistake some of them for John’s lyrics.
The futility of mankind, pursuit of knowledge, a bit of misanthropy—all
those things are there. For us, this Faust theme emerged naturally. We
are fans of Svankmajer’s film adaptation of Faust (which we sampled),
and we worked with Steven Lobdell who is a sometime-member of the
legendary German band Faust (who we are fans of) on Marrow. He did the
remixed “noise scapes” you hear on the EP. John had begun rereading
Goethe’s version and finally, we always had our European layovers
in the Frankfurt airport and would frequent the Goethe Café—where,
coincidentally, we began talking about this EP. It all just came together.

Agalloch is no stranger to the 'epic' format; "In the Shadow of Our Pale
Companion" is even being performed on this tour. However, "Faustian
Echoes" is the only one that's ever reached "A Change of Seasons"
territory in passing the twenty minute mark. This must be a much more
harrowing writing process than Agalloch is used to...

DON: Not really. Faustian is in two parts and we tend to think of a standard
song being around ten minutes. There is a cohesive structure, themes and
variations, and parts that return later on the EP, but we definitely thought
of it in two ten minute parts. It was the first time we really wrote as a three-
piece (John, Jason, and I). We would meet at the rehearsal space and
work out riffs and ideas and draft the overall arrangement on a black board.
This was very different than working via demos and mp3 files over email
which we used to do due to living apart. So, it was a very enjoyable and
rewarding experience. We hope to do the fifth album this way.


the Spirit", you mentioned that Agalloch was pursuing darker, 'bleaker'
depths than ever before. This was certainly true on "Black Lake Nidstang"
and "Into the Painted Grey", and perhaps even moreso now on "Faustian
Echoes". Is this a conscious decision to take Agalloch down a grittier
avenue, or a natural byproduct of age and maturity as a musician?

DON: Some of that came from our own hostile resistance to Ashes which
we all agree is too polished and have even regarded as our “pop” record.
Using analog and vintage gear without a lot of studio hocus-pocus was
mean to be confrontational—we don’t like the sound of modern Metal
or the sound we had on Ashes. So, that is one reason we’ve moved
in this direction. But, we’ve always been very morose and existential
songwriters. I really can’t do anything artistic if I am not, in some genuine
and meaningful way, confronting the reality of death. Art is to me, like
philosophy, a way of confronting difficult questions about our existence. I
prefer to engage films, music, and literature that approach these questions
and I prefer to write music that does as well—whether that’s Agalloch or
Sculptured. I have no interest in fun or happy music or art. That may be a
sign of maturity or just being an old curmudgeon. I’m not sure which one.

"Faustian Echoes" is complimented with audio samples for the English dub
of Jan Svankmeyer's brilliantly weird "Faust". This use of film dialogue in
Agalloch's music has some very memorable precedent, employing samples
from a couple of my favourite films among others; Bergman's "Det sjunde
inseglet" and "The Wicker Man" (the Cage-less original, thank science!).
Is this 'cinematic' element of Agalloch important to you; are there any film
scenes you may want to work into your music in the future?

DON: I think film is fundamentally almost more influential on our music
than music. Film is regularly a reference point for a type of feel or mood
when we are recording in the studio. John thinks about music in terms of
images—he’ll describe a riff using an image. I don’t usually do this, but
he and I are complete cinephiles, so it works. Image as a whole is very
important whether in terms of cinema or Veleda’s photography. Layout and
design is just as important as the music itself. It is something we take very
seriously.


Speaking of films, any you might recommend?

DON: There are always films to recommend. We all enjoyed Lars Von
Trier’s recent Melancholia. Tarkovsky’s work is really important to us such
as: Stalker, The Mirror, and Solaris. And some fans have probably heard
us mentioning the work of Bela Tarr whose Werkmeister Harmonies was
something we were all into during the writing and recording of Marrow.

At the show, I noticed some copies of Jason's long-awaited Self-Spiller
project on sale. In what little I've heard of it, I was reminded greatly of Ulver
and some of Tenhi's more ambient-leaning stuff. What's the story behind
Self-Spiller?

DON: It’s a long story. Jason has spent years on this project. It’s made
up of “pieces” of music—everything from a single riff, guitar lick, to longer
instrumental passages all composed by a diverse group of musicians from
around the world. Jason basically culled all this material together and
arranged it into songs. It was a laborious process, but I love the result.

What lies in the future of Agalloch? Any plans for an upcoming full-length?

DON: Yes, now that the Summer tour is over we are going to focus on new
material and hope to record within a year. We are also looking at Europe
again and will try to hit cities and countries we haven’t played before.

What have you been listening to lately? Anathema and Anglagard both
recently released incredible albums!

DON: I have yet to hear either, but while on tour I listened to our incredible
opening bands like: Pinkish Black (formerly The Great Tyrant, whose
record is amazing!), Author & Punisher, Pallbearer, Musk Ox, Velnias,
Eight Bells, and Oskoreien. I can’t recommend these bands enough!


To all of those young musicians (including myself) who may have not found
exposure or artistic inspiration yet, what advice or words of wisdom might
you give to them?

DON: How can you not find exposure these days? I think the problem with
music is overexposure. Sure, everyone is in a band, but back in the 90s
you didn’t hear about it. So, the challenge is how to stick out amidst the
endless deluge of projects and bands with a facebook/myspace page. I
have no experience with this specific problem. Agalloch began before the
Internet and did it the old fashioned way with demo tapes, tape trading, and
paper ‘zine interviews. I sound like a curmudgeon, I know. But, people
your age have it both easier and harder. You have more control, but
less control—it’s paradoxical. You can independently record and release
music, but then it gets passed around, written about, and promoted without
your participation. “Word of mouse” is a double edged sword. Agalloch
benefits from it, but we also see the negative side which is the mass of
misinformation about us, the members, and the music that gets treated as
truth. Word of mouse is helpful but not when every word is read as “truth”
on the Internet.

If I got four demo tapes in the mail, I spent quality time with each of
them. Now, I see links to 100s of new bands. So, the challenge is to
stick out and I really have no idea how to do that. You need to do music
for yourself first and foremost and I realize that is a cliché, but it remains
absolutely essential. What happens later is up to chance. We really had
no expectations for Agalloch back in 97. We just wanted to make the
music we wanted to hear. We’re lucky.

Any final words to any who might be reading: fans, friends, metalheads,
proggers, mankind in general?

DON: Thank you for listening to Agalloch. We appreciate everyone that
comes out to our shows, buys our merch directly from us, and helps spread

the word (whether by mouth or mouse). For information please visit official
Agalloch sites on the web:
www.agalloch.org
www.facebook.com/agallochofficial
http://agalloch.bandcamp.com/

Slainte, and cheers from Vancouver!
Conor Fynes
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