“Party bands haters” – interview with John Haughm of Agalloch.

Melancholic, ethereal, dangerous and mysterious. Those words perfectly describe Agalloch’s music. Music which contains elements of black metal, folk, and very sophisticated post rock, to name a few. In May the band will hit Poland for the first time in its almost 20 years career.

There is no word like “compromise” in Agalloch members’ vocabulary. If they want to please anybody it is themselves only. The band values its independence above all. Media exposure is not something that interest the musicians based in Portland. Despite that, by doing what they do and how they do it, Agalloch was capable of building a huge fan following around the world and achieve cult status. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible without good music. Maybe Agalloch is not the most active band in the world, but within several years of existence they delivered such masterpieces as “The Mantle”, “The Marrow Of The Spirit”, and the magnificent EP “Faustian Echoes” released in 2012. We are happy that the band agreed to come to Poland for the first time and play Asymmetry Festival. Our happiness is increased, because John Haughm, mainman of Agalloch, was kind enough to spare some time answering our questions. Very diverse ones, regarding music, nature, influences, films and even wine.

John, I know that Agalloch is very picky and choosy as far as playing festival goes. In this context could you please tell me why you’ve decided to accept an offer to perform on Asymmetry Festival in Wroclaw? What convinced you to come to Poland?

We have never played in Poland and this festival looked like an interesting and artistic one. We especially enjoy the kind of festivals where we can see bands as different as Mayhem, Melvins, and The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble on the same day.

Agalloch’s performance on Asymmetry Festival is going to take place in quite big Centennial Hall. Since the stage is going to be quite big can we expect that Agalloch is going to prepare anything special? Constructions, visuals or imagery to make your show  a unique experience for the fans?

Festivals are difficult as it seems everything is very rushed so aesthetic details are often sacrificed. We certainly plan to bring some interesting things for our stage on this tour as always. I’m not sure what to expect from the organization of the Asymmetry Fest so I guess we will see what we will do once we are there.

The last Agalloch’s release so far is the magnificent one-song EP “Faustian Echoes” from 2012. A very epic, organic sounding piece based on classical black metal with slight elements of folk, post rock. Of course I know that the band do not rush things and you prepare new music when you all feel it is the right time to do that, but is there any chance that your fans in Wroclaw are going to hear any new stuff? Newer than “Faustian Echoes”?

We plan to play “Faustian Echoes” of course, since this tour is in direct support of it. This will most likely be the only tour we do that will feature the entire song in the setlist. We won’t be playing anything from the next album though, no. We have 3 new songs which we might jam on during soundchecks but we don’t like debuting new material live unless it is 100% complete.

The above-mentioned “Faustian Echoes” EP is of course based on J.W. Goethe’s classic drama “Faust”. This drama was also presented in form of an opera, ballet, film, by some remarkable composers, like Schumann, List, Berlioz, Mahler, Wagner. Knowing that your musical taste is vast I wanted to ask if you were inspired only by Goethe’s book or maybe you had also tried to draw inspiration from other works based on “Faust”?

Our primary sources of inspiration for this EP were the original Goethe “Faust” book; which I have a few different copies of, the Svankmajer film, and the Murnau film.

When asked about Agalloch’s inspirations, you always mention a lot of bands, including Swans, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Katatonia, Darkthrone to name a few. As it happens, all of mentioned artists are active and have released new albums in the last several months or will in the nearest future. Have you heard the last releases of Swans, GYBE, Katatonia, new song by Darkthrone? Do they still make impression on you or you’d rather focus on their past albums?

The only one of those bands listed that I still remotely find interesting is GYBE. I hated the latest Swans and Darkthrone albums and Katatonia lost my interest about 7 years ago. The latest GYBE album was decent but still nothing I would consider comparable to their past work.

You are a musician, graphic designer, nature lover, you like reading books and watching movies by selected artists. Speaking to numerous American musicians I’ve found out that as kids 90 percent of them wanted to become baseball players or American football players. How was it in your case? Was it similar to those 90 per cent or you knew from the early age that music and art is what you wanted to be involved with for the rest of your life?

I raced motocross for a couple years in the 80s when I was in grade school. I guess that was the closest I got to being a “jock”. I have been interested in art and music since I was probably 4 or 5 years old so that was really the most sensible and feasible career path I could pursue.

I know that you are very critical and skeptical about humans’ relationship with nature and you don’t think we are heading for anything good in this context. Once you have even said in interview that our collapse is inevitable. However in America, and not only there, there are lots of organizations fighting for safe environment, protection of animals, forests, water, etc. Don’t you believe that those people can make any change or because most people are not interested in world around them until something dangerous is really close on the horizon?

At the end of the day, the planet will take care of itself. We are really only capable of destroying ourselves. Mankind is certainly arrogant enough to think that he has control over the planet’s destiny but it is simply not true.

You belong to those people who are eager to see new countries, experience new cultures. I read impressions from your visit in Finland, from your experience in Germany with Externsteine. Would you like to explore Poland as well? Its culture, customs, art?

Absolutely. One of the reasons I like touring is to be able to see new places and experience different cultures. A music tour isn’t the best way to dig deep into a culture since we are only there for a night or two but it still gives some opportunity to try the local cuisine, see the landscapes and architecture, maybe visit an art gallery or cathedral or a historic landmark. Agalloch is not a party band. In fact, we HATE party bands. We are far more interested in food, wine, books, and quiet places.
Poland, yes I’d like to see as much as I can. Have some local food, see some sights, maybe visit a museum if there is time. I’m already a fan of Polish porter and mead and I have been wanting to see some of the historical places in Poland, for sure.

I’ve never met anyone from the States who would be so deeply into movies by Jodorowsky, Bergman, Svankmajer, Russian directors and also foreign writers. It’s really impressive. But I was wondering how did you discover those foreign artists? Was it by recommendation, careful studies? Is there a chance that you know works of filmmakers from Poland? There are a few that had left their mark in America. Apart from Polanski also for example Wojciech Jerzy Has, who directed “The Saragossa Manuscript” and “The Hour-Glass Sanatorium”. Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead was huge fan of “The Saragossa Manuscript”…

I don’t know what a typical American is and I don’t feel too special in my interests. All of the people I associate with have similar tastes in art, film, music, culture so it is nothing new or unique to me. The Polish directors that I’m most familiar with are Krzysztof Kieślowski and Agnieszka Holland. I have not seen “The Saragossa Manuscript” but I’ll make it a point to check it out.

“I always try to create a visual soundtrack with the albums”, you said once. And without a doubt Agalloch did it with each album. But I was wondering how would you imagine a movie with Agalloch’s music? What genre would it be, who should direct it and who should play in it? Have you ever tried to visualize it? Or maybe there is already a movie in which, you think, Agalloch’s music would fit perfectly?

It is a nice idea and I would like to make soundtracks for films someday. Maybe something like “Begotten” or some sort of artistic noir film would be suitable for our sounds. However, we have had probably the absolute worst experiences and luck with videographers. I won’t say we’ll never make another video or live DVD again but certainly the thought of working with another film school asshole does not inspire me to pursue this media any further. Maybe by some miracle we will meet a reasonable human who also happens to make great videos with a visual aesthetic we agree with. An impossible dream perhaps?

Apart from beautiful music that you’ve created within almost 20 years now, Agalloch’s huge accomplishment is artistic independence. When I listened to any of your releases I don’t, for even the slightest moment, have the feeling that there is tailor made, forced, insincere. Everything is art-driven, not commercially-driven. You have dug yourself a pretty comfortable niche and achieved worldwide admiration. However music business seems to not to learn a lesson from what’s been happening for the last decade. I realize that you don’t really care about mainstream music business (you even declined offers from major labels), but do you think anything is gonna change for the better in it or they, so-called huge players, are gonna disappear pretty soon?

I think they will just find a different way to screw artists. They already try to take merchandise and digital sales away from the bands. Or maybe you are right and they will disappear completely. Who knows. As long as we can stay independent and do our thing on our terms while maintaining a strong cult fan-base then I think we will be ok. When the day comes when can’t, we will simply split up.

Years ago you left Montana for Portland. I’ve never been there, however I did some research about Portland. Lots of karaoke bars, opera, ballet, symphony orchestra, theatres, H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, some famous bands from there (Dandy Warhols, The Decemberists, Elliott Smith, The Kingsmen), directors (Matt Groening, Gus Van Sant), novelists (Ursula Le Guinn, Chuck Palahniuk), plenty of roses, parks, Portland Trail Blazers. Is there anything more you would like to recommend in Portland? What do you like most about this city? At this stage of your life, could you imagine living anywhere else than Portland?

It sounds like you read a Wikipedia page about the most common aspects of the city. Portland is a unique place, especially compared to Seattle, Vancouver BC, and San Francisco. I really love that Portland seems to have started the theater pub trend (normal movie theaters that show old/new films and serve cooked food, wine and beer), and the fact that the city is located directly in the middle of 4 completely different options for epic nature. In one direction there are the mountains, another the ocean, another has waterfalls and epic cliffside vistas, etc. Socially, however, I think this place sucks. The people here are really fucking annoying but I guess that is the case everywhere. If I could live anywhere in the USA it would be the Pacific Northwest, Montana, or Vermont.

Do you feel better, more inspired when you are in town or when you are wandering through forest or camping in it?

It depends on my mood. I really enjoy hiking in the Mt Hood forest, visiting the epic vistas of the Columbia River Gorge, and the forested black sand beaches of the Washington coast. But I also enjoy visiting record shops, restaurants, concerts, galleries, and theaters in the city. The city feeds the desire for convenience and consumerism, the nature feeds the inspired mind and soul. It is a balance.

As I was able to find out you also like to take pictures of the nature, interesting places. How big is your portfolio and have you thought of preparing exhibition of your pictures?

Nah, not really anymore. My girlfriend is much more gifted in that area of expertise.

Once again about Portland. As far as I know there are lots of breweries and vineries over there. In recent years merchandise of numerous bands has been broadened by beers, wines, vodkas even. If I’m not wrong you have interest in wine making and also some skills to do it. Do you think about Agalloch’s signature wine or you’d prefer to make it for personal use only?

I dabble around with old folk recipes but I haven’t made any wine in probably 4 years. I do have some bottles of my creations from 2004 that are still aging; some strange dessert wines and ports that I think turned out quite well. Our guitarist, Don brews his own beer and we have discussed making a very limited smoked Porter for an Agalloch release or gig sometime in the future. Time will tell.

At the end John since I know that you listen to lots of new underground bands and your taste is very broad, I’d like you to recommend me artists that in your opinion are worth paying attention to.

Author & Punisher is certainly one of the most unique artists I’ve heard in years. True industrial music! Other recent discoveries that I have been enjoying include; Arktau Eos, Lasher Keen, Murkrat, Ash Borer, Greg Haines, Obsidian Tongue, Magenta Skycode, Todesstoss, Celephais, Rhinocervs, Hildur Guðnadóttir, The Alvaret Ensemble, Juv, Marcus Fjellström, etc.

Thank you very much for your time and see you in Wroclaw in May!