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Inherited Lore: An In-Depth Conversation with Alda's Michael Korchonnoff

The first of a two-part focus on the deeproot Cascadian pioneers.

alda interview.
Photo by Jake Sanders

For many, the sounds synonymous with lush boreal forests, and the Pacific Northwest spirit have been housed in a collection of groups, from the indomitable Agalloch, to Wolves in the Throne Room, Fauna, and Leech, among others. Distinguished from their peers, these sound pioneers cultivated a fresh face for the American audience in search of substance from their sliver of Black Metal, and added an edge of atavism that keeps the soul of the subgenre alive to this day.

One of those pioneers are the legendary Alda, a group of mysterious individuals so reclusively removed from the scene that often they do just disappear into the woods until their next creative congregation is recorded. For years, I've held this group as not just the truest inheritor of Agalloch's sound legacy — to me, Alda has become the standardbearer for what Cascadian Black Metal was always meant to be — wild, free, and primordial in their creative development.

That's why, when I was once again drawn to the Pacific Northwest, I felt compelled to reach out to Michael Korchonnoff, the public face of the group, and a digital pen-pal that I've felt the need to pester from time, to time. Having just witnessed the revival of Agalloch, and simultaneously gotten engaged four days prior, emotions were high, and I wanted to ride that wave straight to Tacoma, the nesting grounds of the group's members in their earliest stage.

Battling the tail end of illnesses and personal tragedies, Michael was kind enough to sit in for one staggeringly long chat with Heaviest of Art regarding the group, their past, influences, their drive to sustain a vessel of extreme, and traditional sounds, and the themes that have haunted their discography since its inception. What followed was a journey that took me from a humble table of the Antique Sandwich Co. in old Tacoma, to the depths of the Point Defiance woods, dense and resilient, despite the shrinking Cascadian wilderness that recedes with each passing day.


Jake Sanders: Alda's sound has always had a foot on either side of the sound spectrum. One foot in Black Metal, another squarely in the folk category. From the moment ‘Scattered on the Wind’ starts, listeners are given refuge in an ambient tribal circle that you literally give a heartbeat to. Why speak in quiet tongues? And how did soft introductions become a part of your sound signature?

Michael Korchonnoff: I have to give a two part answer to that question; Folk music, and the Bodhran acoustic, and Celtic music was an environment I grew up in. That's how I learned to play — the Celtic frame drum, the Bodhran, which I play on Alda recordings, and in other bands I've played in. That was my first percussion instrument, so playing that comes naturally to me. When Alda would do a lot of the riffs, or sequences that we write, we'll start out on the acoustic guitar, actually, even if they morph into a metal manifestation. When we would work through an idea, I would bring that drum to the sessions to provide rhythmic backing, so that's one side of things.

With regards to the band as a whole — we were strongly influenced and always loved bands that blended acoustic and metal elements. So bands like Ulver, and Agalloch, and other bands were seminal influences on us. I think we're kind of apeing that form, a little bit, in including the soft in the hard. It felt natural to do, because those were our primary influences.

It still feels natural, too. As you move through your discography, I look forward to the Bodhran's natural little heartbeat that's in there. I take it for granted, because I hear it every time. But when I hear Alda, I can't not hear it now. It's forever a staple, and a big part of that. When you show people Alda for the first time, the first thing I personally got was ‘Scattered on the Wind’, and ‘Fimbulwinter’ leading me into that. I was asking "is this the intro, or is this the real thing?!" and the answer I got was "this is track one. The start of it." Seamless endings, and beginnings.

Did Liefsen Allen have some pretty good personal feelings about the 2009 self-titled album that he helped make in the beginning? Do they still keep up with the group? Or was he a one-off? I know sometimes you don't meet all of the staff, all of the time.

You know, that's kind of an interesting story. Liefsen was actually living in Tacoma when we were recording that album. I don't remember exactly how we met. He either reached out to us online, or maybe he came to one of our first shows and he had our demo, but he was coming over to the Alda house — we all lived in a house together on the north end, not too far from here — he would come visit and hang out.

When we recorded that first self-titled album some months after we recorded the demo, we were just burning them onto CDs at home, and then printing a cover on some cardstock paper, and then folding it and making a kind of origami paper case. I think Liefsen liked the album, and he asked to release it on his tape label, which I think was called Singularity Publishing?

Matt Godsey, (Tacoma, Washington, 2010)

That's the one.

MK: He moved away from Tacoma eventually, and I kind of lost contact with him. I haven't spoken to him in a very long time.

Fair enough — you always hear how people get involved in the album process, and it's sort of an ‘easy come, easy go’ experience. Even Agalloch's The Mantle has no studio photos behind it. All we got were their frustrations of everyone wondering why they ‘kept putting weird shit in it’.

So I just kind of wondered, is this an easy come, easy go, or do they have [their own] place in it?

Yeah, that's that story. Do you know him?

I don't, I've heard just a little. When I read up on it, he's got some credits behind the name, and a few different albums, but none of them are very Alda-adjacent. He just came in, then immediately ran out and said "I wanna play some tribalistic black metal now."

Yeah, I know he liked it, but it was kind of us just being around each other. Him being at this place, at this time. I don't even remember why he came out here. He came from Las Vegas — that's where he's from, and where he grew up — with his partner at the time, and it didn't work out, and she left. He was living in University Place, I think, out there.

This is a nice freakin' area! I get it — you ALL lived in a house probably out here, but it couldn't have been cheap to live there, even with the four of y'all.

You know, It was, actually!

Was it really?

[Center photo, left to right] Shawn Peters, Tanith Skyler, Sam Pickel, Dylan Bloom at the Alda House (Tacoma, Washington 2010)

We rented a four-bedroom house that had a nice backyard — fruit trees, and everything. It was an old house, a really old house. Built turn of the century. We rented it for twelve-hundred dollars.

Holy shit, that's unheard of nowadays. Crazy.

Especially in Tacoma's north end, yeah.

Half of these feel like they're easily half a million dollar homes, and scaling.

See, not that long ago, it didn't used to be like that. Tacoma was not a place people really wanted to live. It was cheap, run-down, grimy, a very violent town. Highest crime-rates in Washington state when I was first living here, as well.

The industry and smelter that was down at what is now the Tacoma waterfront — during the 1970's and 80's — the fumes poisoned the topsoil of all of Tacoma with arsenic, so it's still, even in these neighborhoods with these fancy houses coming out, it's potentially dangerous to grow vegetables in those because of the arsenic from that smelter that's been in the soil for forty years.

That would even out the price nicely, wouldn't it?

Yeah, except it hasn't. Heh. People are still paying half a million dollars or more, for it.

It's unbelievable. This area feels like it's for my benefit, that it sprouted up. There's so much of this that feels artificial, and the smaller businesses are like this [restaurant]. They're trapped in time. The rest is modernizing and you're trapped in between there.

... Arsenic. REALLY?!

Yeah, from the Asarco smelter — which was burned down by an arsonist! That's a little side piece of history that I think is interesting. The ruins of it, are, I think, still down on the waterfront if they haven't obliterated it. Jace [Bruton] and I, when we were teenagers, we used to roam all over the city at night. We would crawl down into the ruins of the smelter, and hang out there, and drink beers. We saw an orca one time in the Sound when I was sitting in the ruins of the Asarco smelter, at like two in the morning.

That's pretty cool.

I have those little heathen years, where I was like "I need to get some out there, and see some shit." In high school, a couple friends and I climbed down into this long-ass sewer main. I was like, "we're going to the bottom — we're going to the cistern, and we're gonna write our names in there." Of course, I chose the day right before Christmas Eve, and shit flooded. We got into the base of the tunnel, and as the water is coming down, you can actually feel it rising around our legs, and I was like "I'm gonna write something first, but we've gotta get out of here." It was so bad, too.

When you think about it, the cistern is both the beginning and the end of it from all the draining. It's pooling down to one end, and flooding from above. By the time it got up to near my knees I said, "I already have to explain throwing away these shoes and these pants — what comes next?"

It was gnarly.

So — your lyrics have always been a beacon for environmental activists, but when bellowed they're deeply rooted (get it? Heh heh) in a Tolkien archetype of the vengeful forest coming to wreak havoc. What makes the tale of the Ents war on Isengard such a powerful allegory for atavism, and for Alda itself?

The Ents are one of many personifications of the natural world, in Tolkien's books. That's kind of a difficult question to answer. I see some of the big things that happen in nature. The balances that are out of whack come back like karma and bite us, are kind of like the wrath of the Ents. But unfortunately the living beings themselves, the old trees of the world we live in, they don't really have ways to defend themselves like the trees of Tolkien.

They had their own voice, but we have to be a voice for them here.

Yeah, exactly. They're not, that I'm aware of, going to wake up and start ripping the world out from its roots.

You've always gotta cheer for it, though. I'd love for this natural order to hold us accountable, but it's our fault that it's going away in the first place.

‘Alda Altar’, by Kevin Alexandrowicz

Unfortunately, the way that I see it, that feedback loop — the wrath of nature — sure, it might take our civilization with it, but it'll take a lot of other things. The living world, as we know it. It's cataclysmic, or apocalyptic, really. But very slow moving, like the Ents!

Very much so. We don't quite get it. Every time you see a stupid congressman go, "look here's a snowball! How can climate change be real?" It's like — you're trying so hard not to see it, dude. Surely there's no shame behind your actions, but shouldn't you feel some, when you get out there and see these ravages of wildfire that could've been stopped? The best time would've been to stop it thirty years ago. The next best time is right now. Hurry up.

They truly don't get it, and when you look from the perspective of a state that sort of tries hard to protect some of it, as opposed to Texas where they let it all burn and die, and become private land, it's a night and day difference on how hard we push back. This place pushes back. Where I come from, they don't give a shit. They are just fine with letting the wilderness turn to rot.

It's too bad. I don't know what the land is like in Dallas/Fort Worth, but the desert is full of life, and it's treated like a wasteland, but it really isn't.

They call it ‘undeveloped land’. Heh. Such a terrible moniker for something that is already fully alive without us. You get out into the salt flats, and there's creatures alive out there, and they've turned it into a parking lot for a gas station for trucks that come all the way out there. Nobody is seeing it, because nobody is here to police it. Do we have to police ourselves? Obviously.

Tahoma was the first album after The Mantle that I really felt... got it. But what does Agalloch, and The Mantle mean to you — and have any elements of it, spiritually or otherwise, made their way into what you do now?

‘Tahoma’ cover art, by Naomi Korchonnoff

MK: The spirit of the music, in that album, in particular, has impacted the members of Alda so thoroughly that I think there's probably always going to be a little piece of it in everything that we do. We don't set out to write music to sound like Agalloch, for example. We've never had that intention, and I... don't think we're good enough musicians to actually do that, to be honest with you! *chuckles*

When something has had that big of an impact, that album, and other albums like Bergtatt by Ulver, or even some of the early Darkthrone albums, there's just gonna be some of that in everything that we do. I think, The Mantle — I know that it isn't — sounds almost like it's 50/50 acoustic and metal, and sometime a synthesis of the two. That kind of resonance, that that album has, I think that is something we've strived to produce in our music. Not to sound just like Agalloch, but to maybe capture a piece of that spirit.

As far as the conceptual, or the thematic influences of Agalloch, and of The Mantle — that's a harder thing to explain and suss out. I think that when we were young, we had an interpretation of what we thought the music was about, and later on — getting to know the members of Agalloch, in particular, Don Anderson, and hanging out with him, and hearing stories about the creation of the album, and the inspirations for some of the songs — we came to the realization that the impression we were getting, and the actual inspiration for them were maybe two different things.

It's funny; I can say that we're spiritually influenced by what we interpreted to be the intent of Agalloch's being, but that not really being there, their "intent", you've gotta ask where is that inspiration actually coming from? It's a funny thing. I think, maybe for some members of Alda, that was kind of a slightly shocking experience. An ontological upheaval, to meet one of your musical heroes, and then realize that you maybe misunderstood what they were getting at!

It's funny you should mention that. Everyone seems to have that — even Austin Lunn. When I did the [Agalloch] interview, I asked who they believed their spiritual successor was. Who got the closest? I listed off a bunch of different options, but I deliberately withheld you; I felt that [Alda] was mine, and I sort of kept it. They said, "Honestly, we think Austin Lunn sort of nailed it. Panopticon's about as close as you can get to that sort of influence marker that is still consistent."

‘The Mantle’ promo sheet, courtesy of Agalloch

I had to be like, "I... don't think you're right here. I don't wanna be a dick because I'm asking *you* questions here, but you've heard "Tahoma" and the spirit of that is kept — *I* still feel ‘In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion’ when I listen to In the Wake of an Iron Wind. Scars of Man comes close, Autumn Eternal, Roads to the North; I know he's a big Mantle fan, but I don't think he came quite as close as you did. Especially not after Passage. Passage felt like y'all hit The Mantle's progressive stride. There's still an effort to be weird, and enjoy it. Nobody would dare write Tahoma now, and feel like they have not done something original, because they weren't looking your direction when they did it.

I wouldn't say that Tahoma is a particularly original piece of work, sonically, ya know?

I'm not so sure. There's so many elements there that feel accurate to what you'd imagine this bastardized word of "Cascadian" is. There's these little tree branches that keep going different directions, and there's still a tree root in the middle. That's what Passage nailed that I was waiting for — and then even further — A Distant Fire has it written all over it. The first time I heard ‘Drawn Astray’ I was like, "holy shit — they nailed river rapids."

This is what it sounds like to be in a clean forest, for once. This is what it sounds like to see branches bending to the wind. You just get that, and that's weird! Because that's something that only people who are synesthetically listening are coming to you for.


Tahoma and Passage share an artist in Naomi, your sister — I've enjoyed her art as a connection factor visually, since we unconsciously ascribe value to the places, people, and images that comprise our favorite albums. It's half the reason I wanted to come up here, was to see the lands below Tahoma. It feels like a sacred setting. Does she still possess the cover art for both albums? How was it drawn/painted?

So, we contracted her to make those, and paid her for them. Jace and Stephanie (who are married) have both of those. Actually — I think Passage might still be at Tim Brown's house, and Tahoma is still up on the wall at Jace's house. Those are oil paintings, on large canvasses.

They're so pretty. You've seen it. The salmon coloring, color variation on the pebbles that are peppered below the fish. And — they're all facing the viewer. Very unique. The fish face you.

With the cover paintings for Tahoma, Passage, and A Distant Fire — the concept for each of those images were dreamed up by Jace, and he was real specific about the perspective. He wanted the fish coming at you, and to be half underwater, and half up the stream to the mountain. So, everything you see in that painting, all those concepts come from Jace originally, and were discussed collectively with the band before we had a sit-down with the artist, and worked that through. It was the same for Tahoma, and Passage with my sister painting those, and then Craig Strother, for A Distant Fire.

Y'all have these motifs, you've talked about. The skull under the water, the skeleton laying in the crook of the tree roots. The one up on the mountain for A Distant Fire, and I know you said that's "speaking into the Memento Mori of it all."

‘Passage’, by Naomi Korchonnoff

Memento Mori imagery and how it circles back to what you are creating. That feeling is a constant existential dread and motivation that moves you to act, but what moved you to create A Distant Fire after such a long gap? How does that pressure to prove one's existence force you to create, if at all?

It's not the reason we're creating anything. We've always been a band that does things on our own time, and when we're able to do things in a particular way. A particular kind of process ... I woud say it's actually impossible for us to create the music that we do without respecting the process that enables that inspiration to bubble up and take the form of music.

The long hiatus between Passage and a Distant Fire was circumstantial. When Tahoma, and Passage were written and recorded, we were living together while both those albums were being made. When A Distant Fire was written, we ended up moving pretty far away from each other. We had to figure out where we were going to rehearse. It's the same thing now. We're on another hiatus, kind of. I believe that we'll have another album in the works, but when is it going to all come together? That's hard to say. We've just had so many things going on in our personal lives that make it hard to figure it all out.

Tim, Jace, and Steph — they live out near where we all met, in Eatonville. They're out there, you know?

They're on the fringe of where I wanna get to, right now.

The mountain?


It's on the way to the mountain.

Speaking of Tahoma, ‘Tearing of the Weave’ is clearly a benchmark on this album that goes in movements, featuring a string overture and accordian feature brought to life by Asia Moore. With two distinct fades in pacing that work as a pick-up, was this track uniquely fun to record? And did getting to show off some of your drumming chops feel as good as it sounded?

To be honest, I don't really remember. *laughs*

Writing and recording that album was a total whirlwind, and we did almost all of it in the basement of our house, where we lived in the north end.

How big is that basement?


I brought some photos. Some 35mm photos. I've never showed any of these photos off to anybody who has ever interviewed me, or anything. But, I brought some. The only photos ever taken from that time — the only photos taken of the recording of Tahoma, at all.

I'd love to see them.

Nate Myers at the Alda House, Tahoma recording sessions, (Tacoma, Washington, 2010)

That was the summer of 2010, when we recorded that. It was crazy. In just a few months, we wrote all those songs, and recorded them. Well, that's not entirely true. Tearing of the Weave, we were performing... *trails off*

Sorry to go off on a tangent here; the thing with Alda is, the way out writing process goes — when we've finished enough songs to record an album — there's always stuff we're not completely comfortable with recording yet, or it's somewhat unfinished. So when one album is coming out, we're already performing stuff that will end up on the next album.

Tearing of the Weave is one of those "oldest" songs. The first version of it was written during the sessions for our selt-titled album, and we were performing it in 2009. Out of all the songs that were on Tahoma, that was the earliest one. It just didn't quite make the cut to go on our self-titled album. But, when we were playing shows after that was released in late 2009, we were performing that song live.

It feels different! That's why I call it out. It's the one song on the album that doesn't thematically feel like it belongs to the A, or B column. It's deliberately between. Somewhere, historically that you've already tread. Maybe that's why I cling to it so hard. That fade that builds so gradually in there,  it's just furious arms and legs.

Yeah! Funny thing about that song, too — I hadn't realized it until I started thinking about it just now — but, we were performing that song in 2009, and as recently as 2018, when we toured in Europe. That song was part of the set. So, I think that is the only song that has been consistently, maybe not every live performance, but part of our set since '09. Which, I can't think of any other songs that have been around with us for that long.

It's a clinger. Something that feels good to listen to. I bought specific headphones to hear your albums a certain way. Just to find the right balance. Your cymbals have a geometry to them. When you're listening, it's not just left and right balance. There's a Michael back-right hand, and back-left. The place on the floor, Jake (Superchi) described the setup of microphones to capture Michael Korchonnoff's drumming. It kept sounding different, so he had to keep moving it. He said "I've never done drums like that."

I'm glad he has that memory of it. In the experience, he was incredibly patient. But I think recording us was a pretty frustrating experience for him. It's amazing, just his composure and dedication in recording that album. I never saw him lose his cool, ever. But, I saw things really running against the grain of what felt intuitive for him to do, and him just being like "I guess I've just gotta roll with it!" He's been very kind in his reflections of recording that album, but I don't think he was having a great time when it was happening. *laughs*

Jake Superchi, photo by Peter Beste

Moving on from there to Passage, The Clearcut is a weird track with a dichotomy, opening with that melancholy hook that fades into the folk song intro. It was different tonally from what we had heard from you thus far, and gives Alda's previously tribal quiet side a new personality, giving it new life from 2015. What started the change? Was it Scots-Irish upbringing?

In that song, specifically?


That song was written at the second Alda house, which was on some land out in the direction of Mt. Rainier. We all lived together for about four years. We lived at the house here in Tacoma for a year and a half, two years maybe? Separated for a bit, then we moved into another place together, which was where Passage was recorded.

We jammed a lot together when we lived in that house, and that acoustic part at the beginning of ‘The Clearcut’ — I think we had written that piece just sitting and jamming together on the front porch at that house. All of it, the singing, the cello, the acoustic guitar was a mini song on its own right, the way we had written it. But we didn't want the album to start with that piece; we wanted a suppressed introduction, but we felt intuitively, that it had to exist on the recording the way that we had jammed it all out together, and recorded it live.

We had made, probably, an hour or more worth of live recordings of just all these little pieces of acoustic music, and we trimmed pieces of all those sessions, and inserted them into the songs that we were writing in our rehearsal space, of electrified songs. That's kind of a long-winded answer to that question.

That gives it stems. You always wonder. You hear it with electronic, highly-overproduced sound where they take these stems, and say, "that doesn't sound right there, let's put it further down." It's weird to think that y'all were just sitting out there on a front porch, essentially strumming it away, and going, "not there," and moving onto the next one. There's gotta be some shoehorning that takes place that we'll never know, because that's the process of "I don't like that, there."

We weren't doing that in the mixing process, or something, like in electronic music. We were mapping everything out, and doing it mentally, I guess. When it came to recording, we would tell Nate Myers, who recorded that album. We would say, "we know how this whole song is gonna go."

Actually, in the case of Passage, we totally mapped out that album from start to finish. Where the samples were going to go, everything. The whole thing was crafted to flow together on a loop, kind of. It would end where it started.

Let me abuse that; it's The Mantle charm, again. LIke "Great Cold Death of the Earth", where it has the loop. I like full circle albums, which is why Passage works so well.

MK: Yeah, yeah, in reflection... in some ways, Passage kind of sounds over-composed. It's almost conceptual, sort of.

It was actually already a question of mine, there. There's that sample from Jeremiah Johnson on ‘Weathering’, the ‘can't cheat the mountain, pilgrim,’ line. Yeah, it feels produced, but accurately produced. It's a little bookmark, like a little sliver in there, before it picks up to that second sad build of the mid part of weathering.

I'm not so sure it is over-produced. I kind of feel that y'all were just coming into your own sort of sound, there. That things sticks around, but not for all of A Distant Fire. It's very much its own animal. You did what you were looking to do, and left it behind, and that's fair to do.

There's a part I really like about Passage; There's the ending, with Animis. as a soft, euphoric close. It's the only thing on the album that sounds so joyously happy Alda has always had a bookended approach to writing, but why does Animis fit like a happy little tree at the end of desolate, furious panorama?

Well, some background on Animis: that's another one of those songs that came out of earlier sessions. We wrote that around the time that we had written and recorded Tahoma. It didn't make it onto that.

Interior of Passage, ‘Animis imagery’, by Kevin Alexandrowicz

The writing process for Animis was super spontaneous. We actually wrote the song entirely in a single night session, when we had all eaten psychedelic mushrooms, specifically Azurescen mushrooms, which are depicted in the art inside of Passage. There are illustrations, and each of those illustrations are keyed to the songs. There's one of a snake moving through grass with mushrooms coming out, and those mushrooms are the ones we ate. It's a mycological representation of that. That's just a super personal detail of that.

Which, by the way, that was not a regular practice for us. It's just that song. That's the only time it happened.

I guess I'm saying the reason Animis sounds the way it does — I don't have a great explanation for it. It just came together the way it did, and felt right, and complete. Almost like the song had written itself. Because of that big triumphant, bombastic ending, we'd frequently end our sets with that.

When we opened for Agalloch in 2010, which was just before Tahoma was released, we actually closed the set with ‘Wandering Spirit’, from Tahoma, a song we only played live a couple of times. However — we closed with Animis pretty much every show after that. So, it was naturally going to be part of what would become Passage, and it was written before any of the other songs on Passage were written. Where else were we going to put it?

It's like a Tootsie Roll formula. You always get a little bit of the flavor of the last one, on a string.

It's interesting; I've never heard anyone describe that song at the end of the album as being joyous. Everybody's got a different interpretation. It doesn't feel particularly joyous to me, when I play it. I mean, it's fun to play.

Compared to the rest of the album, though, you can feel the downer in Adrift. The lighting crashes from your splash 'n' crash. When you get through Weathering and you feel this constant struggle, with the Jeremiah Johnson quote, it's such a desolate crawl.  *hums the melody at 6:01 of the song*

So when I get to Animis, and I've reached the end of this album, if I'm actively listening, I get up and do something. Now that I know that it's a mycological discovery! You can't really be told how to feel when you're on shrooms..

You just do.

The song too, is about death.

It feels like it. From the moment you look at the covered, unfolded like that... I'll come back to that.

Steph Bruton at the Alda House, (Tacoma Washington, 2010)

So, y'all had your formation in high school,  as a meeting of similar minds and hearts. Has it been a significant challenge to keep creation at the forefront of your mind since you've split apart? How do you find your way back to one another? Is there a Bat Signal that you turn on, and Jace, Steph, and Tim just show up?

It is a challenge. I think it's slowed down our creative output. Here's the thing — our music would not exist the way that it does, in the form that it has, without the loyalty that we have to each other in that process, but it has also at times obstructed our music. It's kind of a catch-22. I think the way maybe some other bands that were socially structured in a different way would handle this, would be like, if so many years passed by, and you don't have the time to make the music, or can't tour, they'd find somebody to replace that member.

Alda can't do that. Alda only exists in a particular form. We have had live members, friends who have been with us to tour, when one of our members couldn't. But as far as full-time, writing, collaborative members — it has to exist in this form.

A friend of mine said this interesting thing to me recently, when we were discussing Alda in this situation. He described Alda as a ‘Ka-Tet’, which is a term from Stephen King's Dark Tower novels, which means ‘a group of people bound by fate’, where whatever happens is going to involve those people, and they can't escape it, like destiny. The way he described that to me, I was like "yeah, that's kind of what we're like."

Photo by Dallas Bolen

I think Led Zeppelin shared similar feelings. The only reason they felt right in continuing was when Jason [Bonham] came on board. There are too many groups that latch onto this idea that, "we've gotta keep making money, right?"

Sometimes they probably shouldn't.

Alda's never made any money, really. We paid our gas bills on tour, been able to make a run of tee shirts here, and there. But it's never been a living for us.

The only album we've ever recorded in a studio was our self-titled album. That's the only one. Everything else was recorded in our houses. I guess A Distant Fire was kind of recorded in a studio. That was recorded in Johnny Delacy's studio space that he built to record all the Fauna stuff in, on his land. But it doesn't have any record equipment in there.

Jake [Superchi] had to bring his equipment to put in there. It's just the building, really just an outside structure, insulated to be a recording studio. And it's also rehearsal space. It's where Fauna rehearses, and has done all their most recent recordings.

Is it local?

It's in Olympia.

I don't know why I assumed there was a studio presence there. That should tell you how technically obscure all of this is to me.

[Upper left photo] Hall of the Woods, (Olympia Washington, 2010)

With Alda, we've often been really tight on resources. Haven't had a lot of money. There was only one period of time when we actually rented a rehearsal space. Every other time, we've either been rehearsing, and recording where we live, or it was in a friend's space. Whether that's at Oneira, Johnny Delacy's space. In the rehearsals, it happened at the property of an old friend of ours. He had a music room set up in there, and we did all of our rehearsals, and writing for A Distant Fire, in that.

It's gotta be easier when you live in the same place. If you're always there, and around, there's ideas free-flowing at dinner time. There's never a quiet point. It's so much different. You see some of these bands investing tens of thousands of dollars to work in a certain studio, and they've become the conglomeration of, "let's get together, record something, and disappear until it comes time to tour." There's so many people who don't know what they [bandmates] are thinking.

Noooo, and we've never had a budget to do it.

You've mentioned your healthy education early on for Scots/Irish traditional instruments, and music, and that it came from your father's appreciation. Are there groups out there that you grew up with that deserve their day in the sun with the extreme music scene? Has the scene tapped into enough folk appreciation?

Oh, I don't know if they should, necessarily. If that's something individual musicians feel drawn to, then yeah — there's a ton of music out there. I think a lot of the music I grew up with were groups, for example, that would've been really famous in Ireland. You talk to — damn, I wish I could just conjure him right here and have him sit at the table — James, who played in Altar of Plagues. Irish band. They stayed at the Alda house on tour one time, and me and the drummer got a little tipsy, and put on The Pogues, and they were all laughing. They're a super famous group that everybody has listened to, and a lot of the groups that I grew up listening to as a child, just because it was on in my house, like, let's say The Chieftains, Ossian, or The Bothy Band, or whatever.

Those are stuff that, maybe any of the members of Altar of Plagues would've also heard in their homes growing up, because they would've been very famous. But those aren't household names for most people, even if you grew up listening to folk music.

Exactly — I've heard of the Chieftains, but the rest of that, I'm immediately in obscure territories. What is that?

Eric Netto [left] and James Kelly [right] at the Alda House, (Tacoma, Washington, 2010)

They're other Irish-Folk revival groups. In the 1970's, especially in the British Isles, and France, this big folk revival that kind of came on the heels of the popularity of people like Bob Dylan, and what-not, and younger people having a renewed interest in folk music. In places like Ireland, Scotland, and the British Isles, people were looking around and they already had this really old, rich tradition to draw upon.

You had bands that kind of synthesized some elements of rock music with it, during that time, and that's not stuff I grew up listening to so much. Some of that, I got into later on, like Steeleye Span. The first couple of Steeleye Span albums, I really like.

JS: Even that's in my wheelhouse! There's some of this, there's an overlap for. But part of it is the underground that we don't really get to hear from.

I kind of got lucky in a way, I think. Those were my musical origins. My father actually grew up in France. He's a French national, but he originally got into the Celtic music of Brittany — what's called ’Breton music’ when he was living in France. Exploring that lead him to Irish, and Scottish music, and all of that. When he moved to the States after marrying my mom, there was already a community of musicians here in the U.S. that were really into that music. Probably because of the quite substantial Irish diaspora, you know? That music has always been here.

I had that background, and then I got into heavy music when I was thirteen. First it was punk and hardcore, for me. I went through, in Tacoma, the all-ages hardcore and punk scene, and was introduced to Metal. Like black metal, and other things. Then in my later teen years, that became more interesting, and more compelling to me than my punk background. I also became more isolated, and introspective.

For me, punk was a very social experience. Going to punk shows was what was especially fun. If I was just sitting with the music by myself, I think, black metal especially, appealed to me more. So, then I get into bands like Agalloch, which we've talked about to some length. Also listening to Ulver, and others, I hear these metal bands who are really interested in the dark acoustic music, and synthesizing that, and there was something about that just intuitively made sense to me, because of that background. It turns out, living in this area, and kind of getting in the mix of the scene, which people know as ‘Cascadian Black Metal’ — everybody had those same interests — but I had some of that music background, whereas a lot of them didn't.

So my background in that music made me, I guess, a little sought after by my friends in metal bands who wanted to start acoustic projects! *laughs*

You feel like the natural way to go forward with that. It's weird, regionally, especially in the PNW, there's a Portland crew. There's a Salem crew, for death metal. There's an Olympia, and Tacoma scene, dominated by groups like Christian Mistress.

Nate Myers at the Burial Grounds, (Salem, Oregon, 2010)

Yeah, the Salem scene has its roots in a spot called ‘The Burial Grounds’, where I used to spend a lot of time. At the time, they hadn't quite shifted into the Death Metal direction. They were all doing Doom, and Black Metal at the time. This was like 2009, 2010? That's where Tahoma was mixed. Nate Myers did all the mixing for Tahoma, but it was mastered by Mell Dettmer in Seattle. Tahoma was mixed at the Burial Grounds, though.

So you've got a foothold there, too?

Yeah, and we played there too. We were close with that scene, at the time.

Did you ever have a small overlap where you got to meet Paul Reidl, or Liam from Mizmor?

Oh yeah, Mizmor wasn't around at that time, and I didn't know Liam, but Paul lived at the Burial Grounds. He was in Leech, which we loved. We played shows with Leech, and we knew them. Nate Myers was also in Leech! So yeah — they were in the mix. And Paul and Nate would come up to the Alda house too, at the time. Now, Paul is on a totally different journey! I haven't spoken to him in a while, but with Blood Incantation, and touring all over the place... dude is making some pretty cool music.

Paul and I, actually, even before I started going down to the Burial Grounds — we were pen-pals! We wrote letters back and forth to each other.

Metal people are big on letter writing. I wish we had more of that. There aren't very heartfelt communities where we can feel free to reach out, but Metal feels like one of them.

With the formation of Stonebreaker media, you now have a distro that is dedicated to your group, and those adjacent to it. Has the leap to further independence been easy and seamless? Or was there a gradual learning curve to get to the point where the band is a growing small business?

So, Stonebreaker Media is actually a collaboration between my partner Taylore and I. Part of the impetus for putting together Stonebreaker media was to sell a big pile of merch from the various bands that I've been in. After the pandemic, I hadn't played shows in years, I'd moved to southern Oregon, was outside of my old networks. I was like, "well, I'm just carting this stuff around. Somebody out there might want it — I should probably put it out there."

‘In Fornas’ cover art, by Fiona Barnacle

So, I play in a band with my partner; it's a folk project called Byssus. We were working on an album at the time, and we had this idea to self-publish it, and we needed an outlet for that. Stonebreaker Media is also kind of a label. We have one release, a tape release, which is the Byssus album In Foras, which was collaboratively released with the Dungeon Synth label called Fableglade. Dylan [Rupe] who was in Fogweaver, runs that project. They're an old bud of mine, and has been an Alda fan for a really long time, and used to write me years ago! This is long before Fogweaver, and Fableglade, and all that, over ten years ago. When I toured, I'd stayed with Dylan in Durango, Colorado.

There's some other intention that's wrapped up with Stonebreaker, and that is that I'd also like to publish print media through it. I had been working on a piece, an essay, actually. Kind of tangentially about Alda, but also Black Metal, and mythology, and fantasy literature, like Tolkien, and environmentalism. Just how I had seen all of those things weave together in my life. I was working on it, and unfortunately because of a family tragedy, I had to set it aside. I was hoping to have it published through Stonebreaker by now, but it just hasn't happened.

So, yeah — Stonebreaker could become a business at some point, but right now it's just a distro. It breaks even. I took money I made from selling records, and tapes on that to fund a run of tee shirts for Alda! I'm still trying to pay off that bill. It's in the red right now, ya know?

If you're in a band, I just assume you're in the red. *laughs*

Yeah. Hopefully we'll do other things with it. Put out more recordings, some print media, sell cool art, shirts, and what-not.

Did you see what Liam from Mizmor did recently? That black, hardcover book? An itty-bitty book, glossy pages. But it has hand-written lyrics on the inside, with hand-drawn art. I thought it was so cool, and bought it straightaway. I've thought about that for Alda. Just a skinny book.

Yeah, yeah, maybe. Some day, something like that. I would love to produce things like that related to Alda. That's more kind of my angle. I'm much more of a writer. I've written most of Alda's lyrics. Anytime you read an interview, or statement, or anything — even if it's collaboratively answered, to some degree — I'm filtering it. It's coming through me. That's my strength, I guess. The rest of the band leans on me to do that. Anything written, or a scrapbook like that, I'd have to be the one to put it together. My bandmates would think it to be cool, but they're not gonna initiate that themselves.

Alda merchandise for A Distant Fire (2021)

Do you have like a retail, or a customer facing background?

I do have that, but I don't know that it plays into what I do with Alda. I don't know. I think other things about my background, probably, play more into that. A history of having to be a diplomat in a lot of situations, and being a writer, as well. Academically-inclined.

There's this sound of a raging fire building in the title track of A Distant Fire, featuring the anthemic opening of a solemn chant that builds to a Stravinsky-like flourish that works as a stark contrast to The Rite of Spring, and The Firebird Suite. What comes back to listeners is this feeling of doom, a sense of surrounding collapse and finality after the 11 minute marker that grows tremendously. It's a powerful piece that is a whirlwind of fire, and raining ash, falling trees, and sunless skies. It ends on a drone with whispers in the background, birds chirping, fire crackling, and a soft strum.

Where does this ending leave us? What lies next?

Well, that ending and the story written into that song is intentionally ambiguous. I hope the future of Alda as a band is not ambiguous, but as far as the song goes — what the ‘distant fire’ is, is a glow, an outcome that one can see on the horizon. Where you're not sure whether it's a conflagration, if it's total annihilation, complete doom, or if it's a new dawn. The rays of the sun piercing through the smoke. It's the only light that is orienting you in your world, at all. You can't do anything but move towards that, but what if what it is... is unknown? It's about ecological collapse, the uncertainty of facing the future, and knowing how long human beings are gonna be able to do their thing in the way they've been doing it so far on the planet.

Also, it's about that uncertainty in your own life. Not knowing if you're moving towards something meaningful, or if everything is just going to fall apart in the future. That's what's going on in that song.

With Alda, A Distant Fire is... I don't know. That works with a fan theory, I've had.

I think your discography is backwards.

I feel like A Distant Fire is the end of humanity, and collapse, in an allegory. At the end of it, we've essentially suffocated ourselves. The first view of the distant fire is the cover of Passage. The light and darkness between the treeline. Passage is telling those first terrible, raining days after humanity is gone. You've moved on, and the only story left to tell is that of dead woods, and charred remains, and the return to primordial form.

With Tahoma, the skies have cleared, the micro-nuclear winter is done. All of these animals are realizing it's safe to come out again — the humans are gone. So, Tahoma is retaking this sort of wilderness that we've encroached upon, and it's learning how to be itself again, without us around.

By the time you reach your self-titled album, all that's left is the primordial forests. These rainforests that have no more interruptions from us. No more development taking place. No more us to get in the way.

I almost feel like Alda works smarter backwards, because you can see where you're going, and return to a purer form than just listening forward to A Distant Fire. We are left with uncertainty, but when you listen to it backwards, Alda makes sense more, to me. As a story for Earth redemption. It's your own form of the Ents coming back, and saying, "the humans killed themselves. Where do we go, and how do we do it?" Nature doesn't require us to be there for it to survive. It's gonna be there long after we're gone. I don't know. That's my prevailing theory, is that you've accidentally written yourself a story In media res.

Huh. Yeah. Accidental would be the keyword there, because that wasn't our intent. But that theory, that way of interpreting those albums as a story is very cool, so I'd encourage that. I don't know, maybe! If I were to run with that, maybe the cover of the next Alda albums would just have concrete on them. *laughs*

Thanks for sharing that. It wasn't our intent, but I don't discourage that kind of meaning-making. It's all a big Rorschach inkblot test, anyways. We're all making our own meaning out of what we listen to. People are doing that with our music, and they want to hear what we have to say about it, they can go to this article you're writing, to other interviews we've done. But, I'm okay with people interpreting it as they will.

I had been waiting years after Passage to hear the next step, and to get A Distant Fire made it feel like you had come full circle. My musicians had grown with me, and it hasn't just been me isolated, you getting stuck like a Nu Metal artist, trying to come up with the next hit single.

You have full compositions, and as fans, we seldom take your tracks one at a time. We take the whole piece, inhale that art, and come back with our own interpretations, which is what works when you're not a commercial bukkake nightmare. We don't have the grace to be able to be like, "that's a good song, but the rest of filler."

It's not always clear, to me, who y'all are trying to get closer to, and if it's nobody — that's a huge respect threshold. You found the sound that people wanted to hear, after Agalloch bit the dust. People were concerned there wouldn't be a ‘true’ Cascadian sound. You've got unsung heroes, and talent in this lineup, and it's kind of weird for me to think that people did not catch on faster to you. They should've.

Well, we haven't done a lot to promote ourselves, either. We hardly ever play shows, we've only toured a couple of times. Labels will probably say we're a frustrating band to work with. *laughs*

On that subject, I will say no more. We're also not trying to be anybody. We have our influences, we have the music that we listen to that inspired us to pick up our instruments, and do things in a particular way, but we're not trying to be the next anything.

It is what it is, you can take it or leave it.


It was here that our meal ended, but our chat wasn't over. Michael, being a native to the area, knew a spot we could go to surround ourselves with the nature that brought their discography to life.

We descended into the woods of Point Defiance, only to lose the path, and wander about in a biosphere that would take us the long way back home. In part two of this series, we'll discuss the world at-large, the scars left in the wilderness, and the road through the industry — its quirks, twists, and turns.

Immerse yourself in the world of Alda today, check out their Eisenwald collection and visit Stonebreaker Media for a glimpse at the future of the band, and brand.

Self-titled covert art (2009), redone by David Csicsely


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