Agalloch's Breakup: John Haughm, Don Anderson Discuss the Split & What's Next for Them

Veleda Thorsson
Agalloch

On May 13, the metal community was left lamenting the sudden split of experimental black metal band Agalloch after 20-plus years. Surprise over the group’s disbandment was fueled by the knowledge that Agalloch was preparing to release deluxe reissues of its albums Pale Folklore, The Mantle and Ashes Against the Grain in July on the End Records.

Confusion also reigned because of two posts made on Agalloch’s Facebook page on May 13 and subsequently deleted, according to MetalInjection.net. The first one stated the band was finished, and a second one made later in the day gave the impression that Agalloch may carry on as a solo project for founder and singer/guitarist John Haughm. Those posts were followed by one on May 18 on the band’s official website that stated Haughm “parted ways with” guitarist Don Anderson, bassist Jason Walton and drummer Aesop Dekker, and had “permanently put the band to rest.” A May 19 Facebook post echoed that Agalloch was no more.

During a conversation with Billboard on June 15 at a downtown Manhattan restaurant, Anderson stated that he, Walton and Dekker were moving forward as a new band, with a fourth member soon to be announced. A name and a label have not been chosen yet.

“We’re very excited about it,” says Anderson. “We’re currently demoing new material, and we hope to play live and tour ... We’re definitely going to try to do something different, [but] we don’t want to soil the Agalloch name. We don’t want to recall it too easily.”

Agalloch’s highest-charting album on Billboard’s charts is The Serpent & the Sphere, which reached No. 16 on Hard Rock Albums and No. 6 on Heatseekers Albums in May 2014 with 2,000 copies.

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

Haughm, who agreed to be interviewed via email, says that his immediate post-Agalloch plans are more solo gigs since he started doing solo shows in 2015. “I love this conceptual, dark ambient project and enjoy playing experimental art shows and festivals,” he says. “However, it can’t replace the feeling of playing in a metal band with other driven musicians, so I hope that I can start something new with the right people.”

Haughm’s and Anderson’s comments are published as individual Q&As below:

Don Anderson

How are you emotionally?

It’s much like when there’s a death very close to you. I’m 37. Agalloch went on for 20 years. That’s more than half my life. I haven’t [ever] watched something begin and end. This is the first thing. So there’s already a very existential marker for mortality that I’m very aware of. It’s also the end of a friendship that meant a great deal to me and that was very fertile. Me and John worked very well together. We had our differences but we got together and wrote music. It was beautiful. And I miss that. I will always miss that. So it’s very hard. I don’t know what it’s like not to be in Agalloch.

What happened?

I think the simplest answer is one guy, being John, out of the four of us wanted and was able to do the band full time, and when I say “full time,” [I mean] touring very regularly. It was a substantial income for him, relied on it to pay the bills. The rest of us, we have family, kids, careers. We were all happy and also limited, but we were happy to keep it a part-time thing. It was an amazing experience to just get off spring semester [at SUNY Westchester Community College, where Anderson teaches literature] and be like, “OK, I’m no longer a professor. I’m going to be a rock star.” That was great.

John wanted more, and the three of us feel like it was a very business-based decision. He first told us, “If I can’t do it all the time, I don’t want to do it at all.” But I think it had become clear and it seemed that he would have continued on without us if that was possible. Of course, he’s free to do that. We weren’t going to stop him. But I think he saw when he left that door open on Facebook that people reacted very hostilely.

When he made the first post?

When he made the second one suggesting that he may continue, people were very upset.

There was confusion where people thought it meant the band might live on.

He told me personally, “I may end it, or I might continue it.” And he played down the continuing. So I think that’s what he wanted to do. So there very well could have been an Agalloch still today, it would just be with completely different people. And that’s his right, and we weren’t going to stop him …

He wanted a band that could rehearse all the time. I understand his position. He’s getting tour offers from all over the world, South America, Australia, places we’ve never been, and he had to turn ’em down. That must be very difficult. But the fact is from the very beginning, and John knows that I’ve said this, [when I’ve been asked], “What do you attribute your longevity to?,” I said, “We’re friends first, a band second.” The only critical thing I’ll say about John is I think that changed. I don’t blame him, but it was a business, professional decision, and I think as best friends who go way back we were hurt by that.

When were the three of you told?

That first week of May we were talking, deliberating, thinking about what things might mean if we were to end … He took some time off to think about it, but nothing seemed to change with him … so I said, “OK, it looks like I’m not involved and neither are the rest of the guys. We would like to have a statement so we can move on. It feels like purgatory and kind of held hostage by this.”

I wrote the first statement, I passed it to John, we both OK’d it, John was very happy about it, so he posted it because I have no admin privileges. And then right away he was concerned that it was being misinterpreted and therefore went off and did his second post, which has since been criticized and deleted. I’d warned him, I said, “Don’t do it. It’s going to muddle the waters, it’s going to look awkward, just don’t do it,” but he insisted, so he did it and I think that’s when everything turned against him.

Did anyone see signs before this where he started to seem he wanted to do this full time, or is that something where it was always understood that he would like to do that?

The latter. I always felt bad because I knew that we had limitations, but I knew that the academic calendar was a pretty strong one. And I’ve always harbored guilt because this is one of my best friends and I want him to be happy. I think we always assumed he would never not work with us. We never assumed or imagined there would be a day he would chose that over playing with his best friends that he’s been playing with forever … but I think when the band becomes the business, and when some members depend on it for their livelihood and you start playing gigs to pay rent, that is the beginning of the end because you’re not playing music just to play music. So you have three members who played music purely for the love of it -- we made good money, I’m not going to lie … but I never relied on it solely.

What was the band working on when this happened?

I had told the band after we did six weeks of touring last summer that I’d like to take this summer off because I wanted to do some writing of my own, I wanted to play my own music and do my own stuff. I needed a break, and I thought it was time to start demoing for the sixth record. So the funny thing that happened before we broke up is I kept asking him and the rest of the guys, “Let’s go on tour in the beginning of January and the beginning of summer, get some tours going.” I wanted to play songs we never played live, and I said, “I have new Agalloch material on my computer” … I had every intention of continuing to work on a sixth record and touring again.

Anything else about the split you’d like to say?

It’s important to me and the other two guys, especially as we continue to move on, that I think it should be tasteful. We don’t want to incite John. We don’t want to air dirty laundry…

What’s been really moving, and one of the hardest parts of the breakup, is I knew that Agalloch meant a lot to a lot of people. People registered [with it] very emotionally. I cried, I hugged so many people. It was warm, it was a beautiful thing to meet the fans, and when we broke up I got a lot of emails from people I met as fans talking about Agalloch helped them through a death of their parents, illness, some sort of tragedy, and that’s incredibly humbling. I want fans to know that I understand and I appreciate how much it meant to them, and I’m also very sad. But I’m also very thankful that our music played some kind of meaningful role to people in times of need.

John Haughm

Why did the band break up?

That is a complex story, but the short answer is that the band became a classic case of one member having totally different ambitions and goals than the other members and it eventually couldn’t work anymore. The band hit a wall.

How long had this been brewing?

There had been some internal things that go back as far as 2005 but it started to really take a downturn in 2014 when Don moved to New York to be a full-time professor. That was his life’s ambition, and I can’t fault him for it. I think everyone should pursue their passions in life. However, it created a huge roadblock for band activity.

Anderson says you are the one person who can do Agalloch full time since the rest of the band was happy doing it part time. He says the impetus behind the breakup was, “John wanted more. The three of us feel like it was a business-based decision. He told us, ‘If I can’t do it all the time, I don’t want to do it at all,’ but it seems he would have continued on without us if that was possible.” Is that correct?

Yes, absolutely. I have worked for two decades to be a full-time musician, and it was the path I chose for my life. Sure, I am also a freelance designer, I run an art-house label, and I have other small projects, but everything in my life revolves around music and Agalloch was at the forefront of importance.

I had grown incredibly tired of waiting around for them to be available to record or tour, and they recently told me that they wanted to slow things down even more. They didn’t even want to do anything for the 20th anniversary of the band! That was a huge disappointment. Not many bands last even 10 years, so to ignore a milestone like a 20th anniversary was particularly upsetting. I had an idea for a special summer tour where we would play The Mantle in its entirety as well as a couple rare songs from our first demo. It would’ve been a great treat for the fans and a nice way to toast 20 years as a band. Don and Jason both voiced their disinterest and wanted to take this year off. That was the final straw for me.

Have you had to turn down touring offers because the other members’ schedules wouldn’t allow for it?

Constantly. You have no idea. It got much worse the more popular we became and I had to turn down amazing offers every month; offers most bands would kill for. That, of course, really ate at me because I wanted to play more often and see more of the world, but Don’s academic schedule and scarce availability made it impossible, outside of the summer or during his winter break. We had multiple offers in the last couple years to play South America, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and China, but Don’s schedule was always an issue and the reason why we had to decline. A couple of those recent offers were even during Don’s winter break when he was not teaching. He still said, “No.” This was the brick wall the band was up against. 

When did things come to a head and a discussion was had about disbanding?

In late April after I got back from a solo tour I did in Europe, I called Don and talked at length about how I felt about everything in the band. I was fed up with it, and I told him that things needed to change. It snowballed quickly from there.

Metal blogs reported that Agalloch issued a statement on Facebook on May 13 that it was disbanding. This was the first statement that was posted on the Agalloch page and has since been deleted. Anderson states that he wrote this first statement and you approved it and posted it since he does not have the password to the Facebook page. Is that correct?

Yes, that is correct to an extent. I thought his statement was a good start, but I felt that it was still too vague and I wanted to give it a day or two to make it a bit more detailed and perfect. He thought it was fine as it was and really wanted me to post it that day, so I did. I regret giving in to that pressure.

A second statement posted on the Agalloch page later that day that was attributed to you has also been deleted. Metal blogs reported that you stated the group had not necessarily broken up, but you were now the sole remaining member and may continue as a one-man solo project. Is that correct?

I never had any intention to continue the band as a one-man project. Never. If the band were to continue, I would’ve had to find replacements, which obviously would’ve been an uncomfortable and unpopular transition. Had this happened 10 years ago, maybe it would’ve worked, but not now. The roots were simply too deep. On the other hand, had Don quit or decided to step aside, the band might still be around right now. Though I don’t want to blame him entirely because there were still a lot more internal issues to iron out. I had started to really hate what the band was becoming, and my chemistry with the other guys had already almost completely faded away.

Anderson states that you were concerned readers might misinterpret the first statement, so you posted the second statement, and that he advised you not to post the second statement because it would confuse fans. Is that correct?

Yes, and in hindsight he was right. I made a huge mistake with that clarification, which was written and posted in haste under a massive amount of stress. My use of the word “visionary” was completely taken out of context and I realized later that it probably would be, so I edited it out the following morning.

All I was trying to point out was that Agalloch was based on my vision. In the beginning, Don, Jason and I each had our main personal projects that we were in charge of … but Agalloch was the one that got popular and eventually took the majority of our attention. That never changed my role as the main creative force, however. I wrote all of the lyrics, designed all of the albums, wrote 80 percent of the music and later took on a lot of the business management roles as well. The band was my vision through and through.

With that said, I cannot disregard their roles in making my initial vision come alive. Especially after Pale Folklore, I welcomed a bit more of a collaborative effort, and I think it made the music stronger even if it created more internal artistic conflicts along the way. I agree that the misinterpretation of my statement made me sound like a pompous, egomaniac who trivialized the other members’ input. That was not my intention, and I apologize to them and to anyone who was put off by that.  

There are fans who were angered by the second statement that you might continue Agalloch as a one-man solo project. What is your response to this backlash?

Like Don said, it did create unwanted confusion. I made that clarification mainly because of twisted media reports that stated I had been fired from the band, which was, of course, not the case. Had we waited and made a better initial announcement, that clarification would not have been necessary. As for the backlash, I haven’t really paid much attention to it aside from some articles that were brought to my attention. In the immediate days following the announcement, I completely disconnected myself from the Internet and social media activity and chose to spend my time on more constructive things.

What led to the May 19 post on Agalloch’s Facebook that Agalloch “has been permanently laid to rest”?

After a few days of isolated reflection, I finally decided that it was better to lay it to rest. It had become a massive source of stress in my life, so why the hell would I want to continue under that name, especially after this drama! Yes, I started the band. Yes, I had every right to continue what I started. However, I decided it was just better to let it go, be proud of what I accomplished with those guys and maybe start again fresh with something new.  

Anderson says your friendship with him is over. Is that correct?

That is really unfortunate, but if this is how he feels then so be it. I hope that maybe in time he will change his mind. I feel absolutely no ill will toward him, I respect him as a talented guitarist, and I wish him the best in whatever he decides to do. I simply didn’t want to work with him anymore. We had taken different paths in our lives and in many ways grew apart artistically, but I don’t hate him. If he was in town tomorrow and invited me to have a beer or three and talk about the good times or whatever I would be happy to join him.

A band that you have invested roughly 20 years of your life in is now gone. What kind of headspace are you in right now?

I am 110 percent happy with my decision. I don’t regret it for a second. Just because Agalloch is done doesn’t mean my life as a musician or artist is over. I have a lot of ideas, a lot of material that I have written for a variety of projects and plenty of motivation.

Agalloch has been special to a lot of people. What do you think of the fans who reacted with sorrow that the band has ended?

It means a lot that so many people were passionate about this band. We had a massive cult following, and it was great to meet so many interesting fans around the world. I am glad this band ended before we tried making another album though, so our legacy is intact. I am proud of most of what we achieved; we made some decent albums, got to play over 200 shows in roughly 30 countries and had some great times. I wish we would’ve done a lot more…but we had a good run nevertheless.

Metal Injection and MetalSucks are hosting a Heavy Metal Happy Hour on June 24 at the Kimoto Rooftop in Brooklyn to celebrate Agalloch’s album reissues. Anderson and Walton will attend and do a live-streamed Q&A session through the End’s Facebook page.

[Editor's note: This article contains a correction. The original version incorrectly stated that Anderson teaches at Westminster Community College.]