Headbanging Academic: Metal Guitarist & Literature Professor Don Anderson's 'Split Personality'

Don Anderson
Courtesy Photo

Don Anderson

Many people -- auto mechanics, bartenders, bankers and lawyers -- daydream about being a rock star when the daily grind is wearing them down. It’s an escapist fantasy with understandable appeal, which contributes to why American Idol, The Voice and similar series are so popular: Once upon a time, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood were regular folk who beat the odds to become superstars.

Don Anderson, an English instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., has an advantage over those professionals who long to rock out onstage. From 2003 until this past May, he has juggled his teaching duties with playing guitar in experimental black metal band Agalloch. The band’s sudden split shocked the metal community, but Anderson will continue to make music with two other ex-Agalloch bandmates.

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The dichotomy of being a metal musician and an academic is not lost on Anderson.

“I think they see me as having kind of a split personality,” he says of how his teaching colleagues view his musical extra-curricular activities. They initially find it strange -- he says his wife gets asked, “How old is he? He’s not grown up? What’s wrong with your husband?” -- but once they learn that he has toured and recorded albums, “they respect it and [find it] interesting.”

Metal and literature have never been an either/or proposition for Anderson, who holds a PhD in literature. That’s because he credits the origins of his love of the written word to hearing Iron Maiden’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in grade school while growing up outside of Portland, Ore. Intrigued by the story, Anderson went to the library to study the original prose by the poem’s author, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

To Anderson, metal is “a very intellectual and traditional of philosophy.” “Most people who are intellectual are drawn to uncomfortable and complex topics, and we’re drawn to questions that are unanswered,” he says. “These have to do with death and the lack of presence of God, of meaning, and I think heavy metal deals with that without shying away from it.”

Anderson also points out that metal fans are “research scholars” because, especially during the pre-Internet days of the genre’s existence, they have to dedicate significant time to evaluating resources like liner notes to learn more about their favorite bands. He says some of his best students are metalheads, and Agalloch fans have taken his courses. “They’re interested in thinking about uncomfortable topics, and not just thinking about them but thinking through them and asking questions about them.”

While his academic schedule dictates how much time he can spend on music (which was a contributing factor in Agalloch’s split), Anderson is as passionate about that creative outlet as he is about literature. But he never thought that when he joined the band 20-some years ago that it would achieve international renown. “When I pursued higher education, I had no idea that the band would get any bigger than it was,” he says of the group that he played in with John Haughm, Jason Walton and Aesop Dekker. “No one expects this when they’re in the midst of doing it, and I never wanted to stop doing music, but I can remember around 2009 I looked behind me and I’m like, ‘My God, this beast has grown, and I have to keep feeding it.' I was happy to do so.”

In what is now an ironic twist in the wake of Agalloch’s disbandment, the End Records will be releasing the group’s first three full-length albums -- Pale Folklore, The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain -- as deluxe reissues in July on limited-edition vinyl, CD and digitally. Anderson is still coming to terms with the act’s demise, but he is proud of what it accomplished.

“What’s very nice about these three records is they constitute what I think is the most important releases of our career, which is our debut, and has sort of become -- I hate to sound self-congratulatory -- it’s seen as our best,” he says. “Ashes was our breakthrough into a more mainstream, wider audience. So they’re records that made us who we are. They built our reputation, so they’re very important to us for those reasons.”

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the name of the school where Anderson teaches.]