Interview

Q&A: Aaron Gregory On Khôrada — The New Band He’s Formed With 3/4 Of Agalloch

When bands last for a long time, it’s easy to forget how delicate they are as social units. In order to work together successfully, bands have to do more than just tolerate each other and sound good onstage. They must maintain a precise interpersonal stasis that exists independently of musical chemistry — a balance in which every member feels that they’re getting more out of the project than they’re putting into it, and that their personal reasons for getting involved are being satisfied. This balancing act gets more and more difficult over the years, which have a way of changing people and their priorities. If the equilibrium that holds a band together tilts out of true, the whole edifice can crumble without warning to outsiders.

The metal world suffered two notable disbandments of this sort within the past year. In May, the Portland, OR-based folk/black metal band Agalloch — who had long been one of the American underground’s most adored bands — dissolved in a grisly public fashion that involved contradictory Facebook posts and intimations on the part of frontman John Haughm that he might continue the band with an entirely new lineup. The dust settled within a few weeks, and a Billboard interview with Haughm and longtime guitarist Don Anderson clarified the reasons for the breakup. In Anderson’s words:

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.

The same interview noted that Anderson and fellow Agalloch veterans Jason Walton and Aesop Dekker were planning to move forward as a new band, with an additional member to be announced shortly. (For his part, Haughm has announced that he’s starting a new band called Pillorian, featuring members from Maestus and Uada.)

In October of 2015, several months before Agalloch’s tumultuous breakup, the Bay Area sludge/prog-metal unit Giant Squid also called it quits. Though Giant Squid were never as well known as Agalloch, they were no less potent as a musical force, delivering three deeply original LPs and a clutch of notable EPs and splits over their decade-plus run. Like Agalloch, Giant Squid succumbed to logistical pressures. In a lengthy statement, frontman and guitarist Aaron Gregory explained that the band had become an unsustainable financial and temporal commitment for him and his partner, Giant Squid cellist/vocalist Jackie Perez Gratz — the band’s activities mostly lost money, and sapped both time and resources that the couple might have otherwise spent on their young daughter.

These two stories are frustrating from a fan’s perspective, but they have a silver lining. At the end of August, Anderson, Walton, and Dekker announced their new band: Khôrada, which will feature Gregory on guitar and vocals. Agalloch and Giant Squid were very different bands, but their shared musical patience, understanding of texture, and incredible expressiveness make the prospects for Khôrada very exciting indeed.

I talked to Gregory by about Khôrada’s creative direction, the band’s recording and touring plans, and the balancing act that all four members face as they work to reconcile their busy personal lives with their bone-deep attachment to making music.

STEREOGUM: At about this time last year, your long-time band Giant Squid called it quits after roughly 15 years of activity. What led to that decision?

GREGORY: It became so difficult for Jackie and I to be in the same band. We had a child together then, and now we have two. For the last few years of being in that band, it was hard to pull off even the smallest stuff. We were doing just about anything to keep the band going for a while, playing the smallest shows just to keep it alive. The crowds weren’t there all the time, and it became increasingly expensive, and not a whole lot of fun to be out on the road, away from the kids. Any musician would start to question at that point: “How much fun is touring, really? What am I getting out of this?” Because there’s always the kid back at home, and there’s nothing better than being at home with your kid.

So that hit both Jackie and I. The sheer logistics of both mom and dad being in a band together, and going off to do band stuff, away from Pearl, wasn’t fun anymore and wasn’t fair to Pearl. So we decided that while we can definitely both be in bands, it couldn’t really be her and I together, unless it were something so mellow and easy that the kids could come along.

STEREOGUM: Did you consider turning Giant Squid into a studio project to cope with these concerns?

GREGORY: Yeah, I have thought about that. The problem is with that is that it’s almost as much of a time suck, because of all the rehearsal, and the writing, and the pressure. And designing the album cover, and whatever. And interviews! There’s still so much stuff that eats up time, other than physically performing the music. So that’s not gonna happen any time soon, because the kids are so young and we’re busy with so many other things in life right now.

STEREOGUM: Did you think you’d be joining another serious band so shortly after shelving Giant Squid?

GREGORY: No, dude. Honestly, as soon as I wrapped Giant Squid up, I switched full-on into dad mode. I wanted to focus on the family, and the house, and on making my visual art into more of a career, and figured I would never be in another band that people would give that much of a shit about [laughs]. So it’s a little bit of a startling change for me to come to terms with that, and then suddenly say, “Welp, fuck it! I’m doing this again, probably on a far bigger scale, with more attention on it than Squid ever had.” It’s exciting, and a little nerve-wracking, but I’m ready for it.

STEREOGUM: How did you meet the Agalloch guys originally?

GREGORY: Well, Agalloch was on The End Records for a while, and we were too for a few years, starting in 2006. They used to give us piles of promos to listen to, just so we could check out what our labelmates were like. Agalloch were one of the few bands that really stood out to me from that pile.

So I told the label that I liked the band, which led to us hopping on one of their CD release shows while we were on tour. So we got to meet the guys, and it turned out that they were into Giant Squid too, so we kept in touch. I never knew John Haughm very well — I’m not sure I ever said more than a few sentences to him at a time. But Don, Jason, and I shared our musical projects with each other and became friends over the years, and I’ve been buds with Aesop since Giant Squid and Ludicra toured in 2007, and after seeing him around at shows and parties in the area. I’m pretty ecstatic to be working these guys. I look up to them all and have been taken in like family.

STEREOGUM: Whose idea was it to start a new project?

GREGORY: I’d give them credit for it. I had talked to them about their whole ordeal with Agalloch breaking up, and I had kind of had their backs in that situation and spoke out a little about it after John made that Facebook statement about being the band’s “visionary” — how there’s so much more to Agalloch than just one guy’s vision from 20-odd years ago. It had become the life’s work of three other people who had contributed greatly to it. And to describe it otherwise was terribly unfair to the fans, and unfair to the other guys in the band. It disrespected their hard work and support over many years.

So the guys had seen that and appreciated it. And so while we were talking about it, I had kind of jokingly said, “Well, if you ever want to do a new band, consider my résumé in the pile.” And it had turned out that they were already thinking about that very scenario, so they were a little taken aback. So a couple of weeks later, I got the call, and they said, “Hey, we like this idea a lot. We think it could be really special.”

STEREOGUM: It’s fitting that you bring up Haughm’s “visionary” comment — Agalloch was an important band to a lot of people, and as much flak as he caught for that statement, a lot of people really do think of him that way. You’re essentially stepping into his former frontman role. Do you feel nervous about the expectations that will be placed on you as a result?

GREGORY: Absolutely not. It’s such a different band. We want the project to be as powerful and as special in spirit as both the prior bands, but this isn’t Agalloch version II any more than it’s Giant Squid version II. Already the songwriting process is producing stuff that’s way different from what Agalloch was. It’s very even-Steven — we’re all throwing our ideas in the pot. There’s not a lot of debating or trying to control the outcome. It’s a much more spontaneous thing. We joke that we’re Fugazi-ing it: Everyone throw your ideas in there, and let’s find a common ground where they work together, which is not how Agalloch worked.

STEREOGUM: The new band is called Khôrada. What’s the origin of the band name?

GREGORY: The root word “khôra” is an ancient Greek term for an empty space, or place of reflection outside the main city. In the same way that an acropolis is at the edge of a city or at its highest point, a khôra is a space of convenience outside of the city. It’s typically used in a more philosophical context though — originally by Plato, signifying sort of a place, or a space of emptiness, that is neither being or nonbeing, but the state that exists in between those two concepts, like the combination of those two concepts in a third state of existence. Super heady shit. But man, is that relevant or what for this band? Considering the attachments of our prior musical histories, and how Khôrada will be neither of those bands, but of course will be directly and unavoidably composed of both those musical identities to various degrees.

STEREOGUM: You were kind enough to send me a guitar-only demo of one of the songs you’ve been working on. It bore clear hallmarks of both your and Don’s playing styles, but didn’t sound much like either of your past bands. Can you describe the songwriting process that produced it?

GREGORY: So that song started with Don just sending me two riffs, which I wrote riffs on top of. Then he wrote a few more, and I added my own parts, and so forth. After we’d turned out a lot of ideas that way, I went back and started splicing stuff together, trying to create a flowing song that feels natural out of the stuff we’d generated.

It’s a little difficult since we’re super long-distance. We’re always emailing stuff back and forth, instead of sitting in a room together working on ideas. I haven’t worked like that before, and it can be very challenging. It’s easy to want to keep tweaking and changing things, cause there’s no one there saying, “Nah, that’s great, let’s move on,” ya know? But these guys are really used to it, because they’ve been spread out for a pretty long time. Next week I’m meeting up with Aesop to start tracking drums, so we can have some really solid demos to build off of.

So once we have these skeletons in place, we’re all going to get together to set up Camp Khôrada for a week or two, and really hammer the songs together — see what comes of it when we’re all in the same room. That’s where the real special stuff happens. For now, we’re doing it from afar, but it’s working.

STEREOGUM: If you had to sum up Khôrada’s approach in one sentence, what would you say?

GREGORY: Powerful, beautiful, crushing, relevant, heavy music. I dunno! That’s pretty much it. It needs to be powerful and it needs to be fucking beautiful. That’s the main thing for me. No matter how heavy and crazy it gets, it needs to be epic and beautiful.

STEREOGUM: You have a unique singing style; I’ve come to associate your voice so closely with Giant Squid that it’s hard to imagine in any other context. Do you expect to change your delivery in Khôrada at all?

GREGORY: I’m going to consciously hold back in places and push harder in other ways. The way I sing in Giant Squid is basically my natural, nasally voice, without a lot of thought put into it. I like it for what it is. I’m my own harshest critic, but I do feel that I have a range that I can tap into as long as I can do so without feeling like I’m trying too hard. It needs to be a natural, emotive explosion of energy and feeling. But I’m not planning on singing the way I did in Giant Squid. I might do moments of that, but I’ve got other tricks up my sleeve. I’m excited to experiment and try to challenge myself.

STEREOGUM: Along the same lines: Giant Squid’s lyrics dealt with themes that represented specific personal fascinations for you. Now you’re working with a new band, composed of guys who’ve been playing together for a long time and who’ve built up their own set of aesthetics and imagery over the years. How will that affect your lyrical approach?

GREGORY: Don and I had a big talk about this, addressing these concerns. Obviously Giant Squid had a nautical theme throughout most of the band. Not all of it, but most of it. The common ground between Agalloch and Squid was looking towards the natural world for peace or understanding. But what a lot of people missed about the Giant Squid lyrics was that it wasn’t literally a band about sharks and starfish. There’s not a lot of rock ‘n’ roll to really be had in singing about marine invertebrates and whatnot [laughs]. I used my passion for the ocean and marine biology metaphorically in Squid, usually to communicate something much more personal.

A really good example of that was the song “Neonate” off our first album. I became accustomed to saying “THIS SONG IS ABOUT SHARKS” before playing it at shows, because, well, it literally fucking is. But metaphorically, it’s describing my relationship with my parents, and my father in particular — how he influenced me, for better and for worse, and my own struggle to find a working relationship with him back then. That connection became more potent because he was killed in a motorcycle accident while we were recording the album. As a result, there was a lot more for me to deal with through that recording, because a lot of things between us would have to remain unsaid. So the song ultimately became very cathartic, and very angry.

STEREOGUM: I like the idea of using a narrow metaphorical framework to explore a broader set of ideas. Another Bay Area band that strikes me as a really good example of that is Exhumed — Matt Harvey’s lyrics are overtly about gore and murder and other conventionally death metal subjects, but he uses them to address a lot of aspects of human nature that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a straight-ahead death metal band.

GREGORY: Yeah, and there’s a lot for me to discuss in that way. Environmental consciousness is going to be a subtext for Khôrada in that sense. A lot of what mankind is going through, both in terms of recognizing our place in the universe and in what we’re doing to the planet — there’s a lot of transitions going on in the way that humanity thinks about itself. We’re not gonna be addressing these issues in a “Biotech Is Godzilla!” Sepultura kind of way, you know? But there’s going to be a more metaphorical and abstract examination of why the fuck we matter at all.

STEREOGUM: Those environmental concerns must be especially pronounced for you, given not only your marine biology interests but also because you see the consequences of climate change on a day-to-day basis as a California resident.

GREGORY: Oh yeah. In California right now, there are major devastating wildfires burning hundreds and hundreds of miles from where we live, but we can smell them at our house. I live less than two blocks from the ocean, which is eating away at the sidewalk there. Homes have fallen into the sea just a couple blocks from where I live. The entire state is in a massive drought that scientists are predicting is only going to become more devastating. So I’ve got plenty to pull from in that regard.

So, talking to Don and the other guys in Khôrada about this — I feel like the lyrics won’t be a problem for me. I consider them one of my strong suits. And I can just take away the oceanic imagery and be left with a very human, personal approach. This band isn’t necessarily gonna have a theme. We’re not just gonna be about woodland spirits and shit any more than we’re going to be about whales and ancient oceanic civilizations. It’s gonna be a much more human-focused band, which works really well for all of us. Those guys are kinda coming out of hard times with the loss of their former band, and I’m going through a lot of changes in my life as well — becoming a parent, moving on from Giant Squid, becoming a professional artist, and everything else. There’s a lot of personal stuff we can tap into that’s more human in nature.

STEREOGUM: You and Jackie had a second child together just a couple of weeks ago. How do you plan to balance the time demands of fatherhood and business ownership with Khôrada?

GREGORY: It’s gonna be a struggle. It always is. I tend to take on a lot of things and challenge myself to pull them off to the best of my ability, but it’s stressful. The great thing about Khôrada is that all four of us have a real common understanding — the lack of which was what John Haughm says broke up Agalloch. Jason has two girls and a lovely family, and that’s the most important thing to him. Aesop’s got a wonderful boy and like 20 bands, so he’s super busy too. Don lives with his wife in Manhattan, and he’s a Ph.D. English professor at SUNY Westchester, so he’s teaching for two semesters a year and is only available during the summer. So we all have limited time, and we all have things that are absolutely more important than being in a band. And because we have that understanding and respect for each other’s schedules, there’s not gonna be undue pressure from band members or labels or anything else to do stuff that isn’t feasible. We’re not gonna go live in a van for six months out of the year. It’s just not gonna happen. Even six weeks will be tough.

STEREOGUM: Maybe you should’ve summed up Khôrada as “reasonable dad metal.”

GREGORY: Yeah! Well-organized and well-scheduled dadcore! Nobody in this band is the token single dude who’s raging 24/7. There’s nobody in this band who’s like, “I was born to be a rock star, so we have to tour eight months out of the year, and I don’t give a fuck about your kids,” to the great relief of all of us.

So yeah, it’s gonna work out in that regard, and I’m pretty good with time management. I’ll be keeping my summers open for Khôrada-related stuff. It’ll work out great for everyone, but still, it’s a good question. I certainly sometimes shoot myself in the foot by taking on too much. I’m throwing a fucking music festival in a few weeks, at the venue across the street from my house. I’m probably crazy for doing that right now, but it’s gonna be a lot of fun.

STEREOGUM: So you guys do have plans to tour at some point.

GREGORY: Yep, absolutely. That’s always gonna be a part of this band. We’ll want to tour, but in limited amounts. So we’ll make the tours count — playing the places we really wanna play, with the bands we really wanna play with. Agalloch didn’t get a chance to touch a lot of different corners of the world, and there are a lot of fans who’d like to see whatever those guys end up doing together. So hopefully Khôrada will make it to Japan and Mexico, and places like that. And for me, Squid never got to tour Europe. I’ll be fucking thrilled to finally get over there. That’s gonna be the main focus. We’ll do our regional shows on the U.S. coasts, and we’ll do shows in other parts of the country if and when we can, but we’re very focused on doing international shows in places we haven’t gotten to before.

STEREOGUM: When can we expect to hear some finished new music?

GREGORY: Hopefully early 2017 — January or February. The guys are being really understanding about the new baby; I’m getting a lot of bonding time and downtime with her right now. But I was up late last night recording riffs and sending them to the dudes, so we’re not slowing down too much.