Interview: Agalloch Talks About ‘The Serpent & The Sphere’

Interview with vocalist/guitarist John Haughm | By Brandon Ringo

For almost 20 years now, Portland, Ore.’s Agalloch has been cranking out some of the most fascinating, enjoyable, and creative black metal in North America. Though most of the praise goes to their hall of fame worthy album The Mantle, it’s hard to deny the incredible talent at work on both their previous full-length Marrow of the Spirit, as well as their recent 21 minute concept EP Faustian Echoes. With their new full-length The Serpent & The Sphere ready to drop this year, it’s obvious that they are once again at the top of their game.

It’s been just over three years since Marrow of the Spirit came out. What’s been going on since its release and when did you begin the songwriting process for TheSerpent & The Sphere?

We did a lot of touring in the U.S. and in Europe since Marrow was released, and we also released a conceptual EP called Faustian Echoes. The actual writing process for The Serpent & The Sphere didn’t begin until Sept. 2012 and lasted until Nov. 2013.

Was your songwriting process for Serpent the same as for past releases?

It was the same as it has always been – wipe away the past, don’t think about it, and just start from a clean slate and fresh perspective.

Based on the album and song titles, it would appear that this record is about the constellation Serpens. If so, what inspired this concept?

Honestly, it came about from the artwork. We had been searching for a title and even decided on a couple tentative ones. When I initially sat down with [artist] Markus [Wolff] and looked over some sketches, I noticed a serpent theme. Apparently it was something he culled from the few lyrics I had given him. One image in particular was a serpent about to strike a sphere and I was completely obsessed with it to the point that I wanted that for the album cover. I think the title came out accidently when I asked him, “Let me see the one with the serpent and the sphere again.” It just stuck and I went back and started studying ways to tie the metaphysical themes together. We had already had the song “Birth and Death of the Pillars of Creation” written and, of course, the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle nebula exist within the Serpens constellation. Once we decided on the serpent theme, everything just fell into place naturally. It was almost as if the title and the concepts were just waiting for us to unlock them.

Does writing new songs happen gradually? Are there records, movies, books, or other things that inspire you?

I write a lot of riffs, archive them, and then come back to them when I actually sit down to put a song together. A lot of stuff gets changed or scrapped entirely. It also evolves once I give the initial material to [guitarist] Don [Anderson] and [bassist] Jason [Walton]. On this album we actually did a great deal of rehearsing and tweaked the material as a band. “Dark Matter Gods” was originally over nine minutes long and we trimmed the fat in the rehearsal room, which I think resulted in a stronger song. On the other hand, “Plateau of the Ages” was completely written in finite detail. I instructed the rhythm section what to do, and I ended up recording most of the guitars on that song. As for inspiration, I really try not to let myself be too affected by other music – at least bands who are similar to us. While writing this album, I listened to a lot of stuff like Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Emeralds, Klaus Schulze, Taj Mahal Travelers, as well as old ’90s death metal which I think still crept into the material on a subconscious level. Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” had a bit of an effect on me as well.

How do you promote such continued progression in your songwriting after so many years?

We never want to make the same album twice, and we are always striving to make each album better than the last. Looking back, there were certainly some failed experiments, but overall, I think we have a decent discography with albums that are very individual but still sound like Agalloch. I have also always viewed Agalloch as an artistic entity, not just some band playing music. So there is a certain artistic standard that we have to live up to and we are always trying to find feasible ways to maintain this.

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