John, Don, and Jason talk 'The Mantle' (2002), Portland, and a strange legacy.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
Additional words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly)
In constructing a retrospective that focused on one of the finest examples of extreme music, it occurred to me that there were only so many things that could be said about the album in my words. I have endless amounts to say about The Mantle.
There are constant reminders of why it's important, but I'm only a fan, and with the history of its construction being so limited, the realization that the story was left incomplete struck me with a grim reality. There were gaps in the sequence — holes, that without the proper context behind them, would be lost to obscurity. So it fell to me to do the only responsible thing a fan, and scholar could hope for:
I had to talk to Agalloch.
What followed were nearly two hours of Zoom calls, all made possible by John Haughm, Don Anderson, and Jason William Walton.
The three permanent fixtures of the Agalloch formula sat down for an evening of revelry, and enlightening folklore, that would slake my thirst for the unattainable knowledge I so desired. I had heard the tales; These guys are way ahead of you. They're not interested in journalism drivel. They don't want to re-hash anything that has already been brought to them. It had to be done right, and the following transcript proves only the obvious — that they are simply three friends with a long history of creation. The three gentlemen I met were precisely who I hoped to engage with; three music die-hards who have seen it all, done it all, and are just turning the page to something new and exciting.
With my pretentious, over-the-top questions in hand, and armed with a set of Tyson Tillotson's finest to supplement my own, I discovered the wit, the candor, and the inspiration of the legends who I could finally take off their pedestals I had built for them, and meet them eye-to-eye, in the field of inquiry. What I received, was so much more than I could've ever hoped for. Dive in:
Jake: Gentlemen! On behalf of Heaviest of Art, thank you so much! We are die-hards, and academic about it, for the most part, but we can't help but gush a little, some days. Our first set of questions are from Tyson (Tillotson). We're gonna go round-robin — if anybody knows the answer, and the person receiving the question would like to pass it off, I see nothing wrong with that.
Tyson: Even though you guys had acknowledged that Ulver, and Empyrium did beat you to the punch in combining Black Metal, with folk music a little bit before hand, what was it about what you guys had in mind, that you felt so strongly to push the folk elements further than what was presented on Pale Folklore?
John: I think we just didn't care about adhering to the sort of scene norms, or expectations that we had. After Pale Folkore, I think we felt like we wanted to do something drastically different — for our own sake, really — and we were kind of taking a break from metal, at the time.
So, we were diving into a lot of uncharted territories as listeners, as well as musicians, and creators. That's really where that came from. Don — do you remember us having a distinct plan to make it more ‘folk-y’? I don't think so.
Don: Only in a technical sense, in that, we were all fans of Empyrium, and Ulver. Technique-wise it's a very classical guitar finger-picking style, which was always sort of traditional, in Heavy Metal, and Black Metal. But it wasn't until I heard Death In June's But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?, that I heard open-strumming folk guitar, which I've always associated with camping, and ‘Kum ba ya’.
I didn't think of it as ‘dark’, and I heard that record, and it's one of the darkest records ever released, in my opinion. That changed everything, so the acoustic guitars on The Mantle, and obviously the Sol Invictus cover that came before it, showcases that kind of acoustic guitar approach.
I didn't really hear bands strumming like they're playing dark country music, in Heavy Metal. It was always classical finger-picking stuff, like Yngwie Malmsteen in the eighties, Mercyful Fate, even Metallica's opening to ‘Fight Fire With Fire’.
It was very common to do that style. So, there was that conscious effort, that once we heard Death In June, and Sol Invictus, we were like, "Can we do that? And combine that with Black Metal?" That was the only kind of conscious thing, just the technique was different.
John: I think I heard that style of strumming on the first Pyogenesis E.P. (Waves of Erotasia, 1994), on the third song.
Jason: I think you're right, John.
John: In the chorus of the first song! It's kind of got that same sort of setup. But I mean — they didn't make it their style. It was just a flourish, for them.
Jason: It's just like a little section.
Jake (Tyson): As an addendum on that, Ty wanted me to hit whoever brought up Death in June first; even though you guys had done a cover of ‘Kneel to the Cross’, did the thought of potentially covering a Death In June song cross your minds, seeing as how ‘A Celebration for the Death of Man’ has a similar opening chord structure to DIJ's ‘Fall Apart’?
Don: It *does* have a similar chord progression.
The reason we did the Sol Invictus was — I don't
remember the specifics — but we were going to be on a Sol Invictus tribute album. So that cover originally appears on a tribute record to Sol Invictus. It wasn't even a specific choice for us. It was for a compilation, and that's how it came about.
Jake: That makes so much more sense. Although I guarantee if you had done Death In June, you probably would've wiped the floor with that one. There's so many covers that I hear and go, "They Black Sabbath'd it. They did ‘Warning’ [originally by Aynsley Dunbar] and now we've forgotten about the original, almost."
John: There's a band called Ikon — a gothic rock band. They did a cover of ‘Fall Apart’, and it's fantastic!
Don: It's really fantastic.
John: I like it better than the original.
Jake (Tyson): So... Jason. What was the then-current dissatisfaction with what was going on in the metal scene, in 2001, and 2002?
Jason: *laughs* Oh geez. Well, I think at that point I'd been listening to extreme metal for quite a long time, and I would even extend it back to the mid to late 90's; It seemed like bands were really losing inspiration. Long running Death Metal, and Black Metal bands were losing inspiration, and the newer bands weren't as interesting.
Things were getting a little bit more polished. It's really hard to pinpoint one point in time, but for me — it felt like a real lull, in creativity, inspiration, and productions were just really becoming gutless. For maybe a good ten years or so, I just wasn't finding anything, metal-wise, that I was really enjoying. Now I'm finding a lot more bands that I like, but back then, for whatever reason, it just was not a good time for extreme metal.
I remember one of the first records I heard that I was just really disappointed with, was In Flames' ‘Clayman’.
*Amusement from John, and Don, shock from Jake*
John: Why did you even bother?! *laughs*
Don: What about Whoracle? I gave up on Whoracle!
Jason: Oh yeah — WHORACLE! That's what I meant! I forgot Whoracle.
John: Oh, okay. It makes sense now! *laughs*
Jason: I was thinking, *tracks IF catalogue* Jester Race? Whoracle? Clayman? Naw. Whoracle was one of the first things I remember being excited about, and being completely crestfallen by it.
John: *rhyming* Whoracle is horrible!
Jason: It's horrible, yeah.
Jake: If you guys were anybody else, I would pull out the In Flames thesis I have written over here, where it's the degradation of all their sound as the years go on. And I'm forced to defend Whoracle, based on [figurative] religious purposes for me — In Flames, once upon a time, was the gate for me to get back into all this [extreme metal]. You're not wrong.
Jason: They weren't the only one, of course, but they were one of the first ones I remember thinking, "this is total garbage." It even showed in a lot of the album covers.
Things would be these computer generated, bullshit covers. So many things before that were beautiful paintings, or interesting photographs, and just seemed like everything was cookie-cutter, and mass-produced. I feel like, maybe, in the mid-2000's we started getting out of that a little bit, but I feel like it lasted for a long time.
Jake: *sarcastically* Are you telling me you did NOT love Iron Maiden's ‘Dance of Death’?
Jason: *grins* That's not a question for me; that's a question for Don, or John.
John: Let's be fair — the cover to Pale Folklore is not really that interesting.
Jason: Well, no — but it sets a nice tone. It's not like some demon flying out of hell, with some... *trails off, laughs*
Jake: *points at Wooden Box* It's this. Right here. You're looking at the wood knots on aged furniture. Who doesn't like that? I'm biased, though.
Jason: Well, that's actual wood, too. Heh.
Jake: Yeah, I cheated. I bought her. I just about had to strangle someone to get that damn thing. If it catches fire in here tomorrow, this thing comes out first.
Next up — Don: as a guitarist who played a mostly metal style on Pale Folklore, was there any bit of a challenge changing over to playing more of these sweeping post-rock types of suites, as well as playing the now-infamous Blues solo [The Hawthorne Passage]. In other words, did it seem like there was a lot of recontextualization when it came to recording your parts of the album?
Don: Certainly, to a degree. I started playing guitar around nine, and I was very fortunate to have supportive, encouraging parents who put me into guitar lessons. So, I studied learning blues licks, and studied with a Jazz guy.
I cut my teeth with your standard sort of blues licks, and things like this. I learned a little bit of everything classical, but the whole time I was learning classical, blues, and jazz stuff, I was always playing along to Metallica records, as well. Trying to shred like Malmsteen, and Steve Vai. It wasn't hard to turn that over, cause that's my background in a lot of ways, but, I remember it was one of those moments where it felt like we were really push things too far, and people were going to recoil in horror.
It was the blues solo in Hawthorne. It was also the piano in Hawthorne... which verges on Honky-Tonk.
*John and Jason laugh*
Jake: Nothing wrong with that, by the way!
Don: I'm also a huge Pink Floyd fan, so anytime I do a reverse bend on a guitar, that's a Gilmour nod. I can't speak for Jason, but John and I were spending a lot of time together, because we were doing all of the guitars, listening to a lot of singer/songwriters. Nick Cave, the Neil Young soundtrack to Dead Man was a huge influence, and I totally lifted it for the lick in Hawthorne.
That's from the soundtrack. So, I wasn't nervous, but I was excited that maybe it was a little provocative to start playing that way. In fact, when I started teaching guitar lessons, most of my students were Agalloch fans, but all of 'em wanted to learn guitar solos like ‘Into the Painted Grey’. And I had a couple students who were super shred-holics, and all they cared about was shredding. I forced both of them to learn the solo to Hawthorne, and this is a lesson I learned — it's that "you play too many notes. You've gotta learn to play less notes. See how that is," and they just struggle.
It's harder to play less, and restrained, to get the most out of each note. Some of the most brilliant guitar players are the ones who play the least, and get the most out of each note, and just shape it with their fingers. That's really hard. If I try to do the Hawthorne solo, and really try to put 100% effort in each note, that's a lot of work.
When you're doing a run, or a shred solo like ‘Painted Grey’, not every note matters, ultimately. They go by too quick, so that's the challenge, I think.
Jake: It's the Jimi appeal. When you start hearing Hendrix play the national anthem, it doesn't matter which note he was on, the sustain is what people are clapping for. They wanna hear him bend it a bit.
Jake (Tyson): And as a last question from Ty, here: Despite his departure from the band, what was Shane Breyer's first impression when he heard the record?
John: He thought we were pretentious assholes!
John: He was pissed off that we used the Spanish sample, and the Swedish samples. He was just like, "what the fuck are you guys thinking?" He thought that was the most pretentious thing that he's ever heard of. I think to this day he probably still thinks that, too.
Jake: That's incredible.
Jason: Yeah, he wasn't into the film samples. He thought they were super pretentious, and that we were trying to do too much stuff at once. He thought the extra instruments, like the accordion, and things like that, were superfluous — didn't matter. He thought were trying to bite off more than we could chew.
Jake: I would say, I think he bet on the wrong pony on that.
Don: The dubbed voices from Max Von Sydow are pretty terrible, right? I remember when we lifted that sample we did listen to the English dub version, he's like, *mocking monotone* "I am Death. Who are you?" *laughs*
John: In our early shows, we used that as an intro, but we used the English version.
Don: That's right, we did.
Jake: When you transfer that language from the German [sic], to the English, Von Sydow has a distinct voice, and after hearing both, I'd rather hear it in German, every time. I get excited. You've biased me, because when I hear that at the Hawthorne kick — I call that the ‘Cascadian Ode to Joy’ — that German quote is what sets that off.
John: That's Swedish, actually.
Jake: *scribbling* Swedish! I'm sorry, Swedish. But it just perfectly bookends that after the end of the bridge rattling sample. I tried to get that too, on my tour of Portland. I tried to get the right part on the bridge to hear the cable rattling. I missed that! I'm not sure how I did!
John: You have to stand *underneath* the Hawthorne Bridge. I captured that sample literally underneath the Hawthorne Bridge, with a video camera. That's how I got that sample.
Jake: I think I just hit it at the wrong time.
John: The sounds are just cars going over the sections of the bridge. It raises up, so it's in different sections — you hear the cars going over the thresholds. *mimics the sound of cars hitting segmented concrete partitions*
Jake: Exactly. I hit at a Sunday night, around one A.M., and I think I just missed the rush of cars giving that, because there was nobody there.
John: Gotta do it around rush hour!
Jake: Yes. I appreciate y'all answering Ty's stuff. If he could've been here to bug you about it, he would've loved it. Mine are individualized, so let's play with it, shall we?
Starting off here, for Jason: For years you've been cultivating your art as an electronic artist and your success has grown. It would seem that the coalescence of that, with your Agalloch works have gained a lot of steam since their initial release. Works that were once dismissed by critics as ‘unnecessary remakes’ of existing tracks are now seeing that fans have found a lot of value out of The Grey, The White, and electronic elements introduced in the subsequent albums in your discography.
With metal artists now embracing the independence of electronic music in this scene (Joel Grind, Teloch from Mayhem, Brett and Joe from Pallbearer, and especially the technical death metal community — they're eating it up right now), do you feel vindicated for your experimental efforts early on? Were there any other tracks/albums that you felt deserved their own "remix/re-build?"
Jason: ... Okay. That's a pretty long question. Number one: my ‘electronic input’ into Agalloch was extremely small. I can think of just the Odal remix, and that's it.
John: Odal! On The Mantle, you did the transition piece for Odal!
Jason: Did I? I don't remember that.
John: That noise that connects the two songs at the end.
Jason: Oh yeah! Okay. But still, very, very minor in the grand scheme of things. Chris Greene did way more electronic stuff than I did, as well as Shane. As far as vindication — that's not really how my mind works. I don't really think about that.
I've been doing forms of experimental electronic music for almost thirty years, or so. I am seeing a little bit of those type of things getting more popularity, but I feel like the stuff that I'm seeing become popular, is so vastly different from what I do, and what I'm into, I don't think it's really the same. I think it's comparing apples, and oranges.
I see a lot of bands like Carpenter Brut, and Perturbator, and bands like that getting a lot of popularity, but again — that's completely different than what I'm doing. Even calling what I do ‘electronic’, I have problems with.
It evokes things like techno, or dance, or bands like ADULT. It's completely different than what I do. I work with tape manipulation. I work with oscillators. Most of my stuff is improv. I'm coming way more from the noise scene, than any kind of electronic scene. I think that my stuff has been fairly popular the last couple of years, but I think it's also because I've been putting a lot more of myself into it, and taking it a lot more seriously.
My last record, MoonBladder, did extremely well, and I'm really proud of it. But still, it's not something that's gonna be as popular as Timewave Zero. I just feel like I'm still very separate from all those things you're mentioning, so it's hard for me to comment on that.
Jake: In fairness, too, I think Blood Incantation is getting a little bit of a battering about that right now, too.
Jake: People were happy to get more material, but they got slaughtered by reviews. People were like, "What IS this? This isn't Blood incantation!" But I think years from now they'll realize it didn't really need to be. It needed to be the essence of who they were, with the essence of the electronic they were trying to embrace. Which is why that works for Agalloch.
Jason: Yeah — maybe. I like the record. I guess, at this point in time, I care so little about what people think about stuff. I wanna release records, and I want people to like 'em, but I also don't really think about it that much. Like I said, MoonBladder did well. I hope my next record does well. But I don't like to compare myself to others. A lot of people I didn't even know. I had no idea Pallbearer were doing electronic music! But I just don't give a shit!
John: *laughs* Classic Agalloch attitude!
Jake: True. That's why I've always liked your interviews, dude. You've been hilariously blunt in interviews, and so many interviewers are intimidated by that. But I love that — it means you're gonna tell me the truth for once, and not jerk me off over it.
Jason: Well, part of it too is that I come from a noise background. I feel like it's completely separate than a lot of that stuff. So if you're gonna talk to me about Brighter Death Now, or Slogun, or even like Clipping, I'm all over it. This other stuff, I just don't know anything about.
Jake: That's fair.
So Don, you've stated in the past that it's “impossible to step outside oneself and be objective about one's art.” But, having been a younger man when you were quoted as saying that, has your opinion changed at all? Can you be objective looking back two decades? Can you now retroactively see the academic worth of your own discography?
Don: I do think many, many years make a big difference. There's times when I can't remember if I played a particular part on a certain record, or not. Things do start to sort of recede from my memory.
When I finished ‘Liminal Phase’, I did go back and listen to the first Sculptured records, which I did when I was like fifteen, or sixteen. So they are very, very old to me. I don't think I can ever achieve pure objectivity. I'm the type of person that when I finish a record, I just wanna start the next one. I'm a workaholic. I like doing the work.
I've been thinking about this interview, and thinking about The Mantle, and what it means to me. I have to be honest — I mean, we did it. But I'm always thinking about the next record. I think that's probably how the other guys might work too. When a record comes out, I listen to it a lot, and I'm proud of it. It's a great experience, but then I'm already writing for the next one. I don't spend a lot of time on whatever recent work I may have been fortunate enough to complete.
But I think after many, many, many, years. The first Sculptured record came out in '98, or so. The demo came out in '96, so it's a long time ago. So, there's some objectivity there, but I still feel pretty close to it.
Jake: Fair enough. Not to mention, you guys are catching fire again with new Sculptured work, so thank you for that, by the way.
Don: Yeah, the next one is already done. I just can't wait.
Jake: John — In the ‘Silence of Forgotten Landscapes’ — you state The Mantle represents as an album, the sound to a journey that begins at Crown Point, and travels down the road towards Mt. Hood. With that in mind, does that mean that the various tracks represent real-life landmarks that are directly, or indirectly themed and are chronologically discoverable on a single A to Z point route?
John: *thinks carefully for a significant amount of time* ... Yeah.
Jason: Good answer!!
Jake: Well... shit. Now you're fuckin' with my head, because if I have to go back to Portland to go re-drive that to figure out what that is, it's gonna hurt me and my wallet.
John: Yeah, it was a route that I'd always take, for fun. Go to Mt. Hood, go to Timberline Lodge, have some beers, have some food, and take in some nature. I would do that on a Saturday, or whatever, and I guess there's a lot of memories that came from that. I'd think about music a lot on those trips. I'd come up with riffs in my head.
There are certain places that remind me of certain riffs on The Mantle. The Lodge was literally written the day after 9/11! To get away from the news, and everything, I just left for the day on the twelfth, and went up to Timberline Lodge just to chill out, and of course they had a big TV with the news on up there!
Jake: Of course.
John: I just went for a hike, and I thought of that riff. Later that night, I went home and wrote that song, that night. It wasn't something that was planned to be on the album. It was a spontaneous thing that came from that trip, that day.
So yeah — it definitely has some personal meaning, for sure. That's why that band photo was taken at Crown Point, why the Hawthorne Bridge is part of the album; it's all tied in. The Elk statue used to be, when you go across the Hawthorne Bridge, you'd keep going straight, you would come up to the Elk statue, as you probably know. You came to Portland, right? Yeah.
Jake: The first time we crossed the bridge, after we left the airport, we're going through Portland, and my girlfriend is pissed. I'm pissed, because our GPS is failing, and right when we get across, I'm like "STOP!" and she says "There's traffic behind us — that's not happening."
John: It's good that you got to see it.
Jake: I was so happy about that. I'm glad I got that, and took the photos. Because now it's in what, storage behind the police department, or city hall?
Jason: Yeah, it's in storage. They said they're gonna put it back next year! In a different location, though.
Jason: They said they're gonna put it in a different location, though, instead of there.
John: I didn't know that. I think if they put it back where it was, it's just gonna get vandalized again.
Jake: I wouldn't doubt it. Not to mention, I would really like them to try and update the fountain, because it's just in disarray. There's chips on it, and nicks everywhere.
John: It's a mound of dirt now, in the middle of the road. *laughs*
Jake: Useful! Next section here.
Jason: Near the end of ‘The Hawthorne Passage,’ the climax to the song at 7:49, is bookended by two samples. One from ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957), and the second from Jodorowsky's ‘Fando y Lis’ (1968). It starts directly atop its own [provided] sample, of wind, and the rattling of metal beneath the bridge itself.
This section, which I've always felt is the Cascadian Ode to Joy, feels like a rushing stream, and the last winds of autumn turning to bitter cold. How did it come about? How does it work so well, at the end of a song that just does not have the same pace? Where did it develop?
Jason: Well, that's more of a question for John!
John: Yeah, I made that!
Jason: That's part of the whole journey, and John definitely designed that journey.
John: A little history about that song. That song was actually written in 1998. It was something that I wrote for Pale Folklore. When we were going through our goth-y, experimentation phase, with songs like Hallways of Enchanted Ebony, and songs like that. I had written this piece that was another goth-y experiment, and that was the first part of The Hawthorne Passage.