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Birthed From “Salt”: A Conversation With Khôrada

Photographer: Cody Keto
Photographer: Cody Keto

The time is finally here. Two years after their birth by fire, the phoenix Khôrada emerges glistening and new, rising from the ashes of Agalloch and Giant Squid. This comes with a lot of baggage, the expectation of continuation poisoning what could very well be the start of a new, mammoth career. It is expected, especially taking the influential status of both bands into consideration, but it doesn’t seem fair to solely critique a completely new band — one which exists in an entirely different stylistic world — within the vacuum of its predecessors. Thus emerges the fallacy of artistic lineage: creators will always exist within the shadow of their older work, even if they are given a chance to successfully surpass it. The public has subjective power, and can completely alter the context of a body of work to a place entirely outside intent. To the artist, this is unfortunate, but to the listener, this is second nature.

However, to Khôrada, this poses as an exciting challenge. This new band, boasting the talents of Aaron John Gregory, Don Anderson, Jason William Walton, and Aesop Dekker, is a new opportunity, a tabula rasa meant to entirely redefine careers left within the shade of so many monoliths. However separate from their prior projects it may be, Salt, the band’s debut, flows naturally, each member bringing their own unique perspective to the table and compressing them into a cohesive artistic unit. Within a vacuum, this album may be seen as ambitious, something cerebral and progressive, but there is so much more at work once the listener breaks that element of poisonous expectation. Salt is… fun, almost unexpectedly for something so varied and complex, but it exudes a mammoth emotional energy. Something infectious and effusive.

“How can I describe it?” poses frontman Aaron John Gregory. “It’s beautiful, it’s really expansive, it’s very heavy, it’s very emotional.” Salt is a roller coaster of feelings, sounds, whipping through its 52 minutes with poise and grace. It’s easy to lose oneself in this unique work, but in a gloriously visceral way. In the case of “Ossify”, Khôrada’s first public statement, a bouncing, almost poppy groove belies a deep meditation on human failure and existential angst. “Seasons of Salt”‘s psychedelic, crushing sludge opening gives way to pure, expressionist black metal. “Wave State” finds itself posed between post-punk drive and gothic gloom. Salt, itself, is so wild, new, and ornamented, it captures the listener instantly, but refuses to fully blossom until each individual petal’s coloration fully evinces its kaleidoscopic palette.

The long-awaited Salt is out July 20th on Prophecy Productions. Read an interview with Aaron John Gregory below.

The most burning question which has to do with Khôrada obviously has to do with its impetus. It followed a lot of controversy. I was wondering how the band came to be, since people assume it has to come directly from the Agalloch breakup.

I mean, inherently it is because they broke up, so they needed a new band. They had decided they wanted to keep playing music together and had already been talking about it. Shortly after all that happened, I kind of spoke up for them online when no one really was yet, you know? We’re old friends. We were on labels together and played plenty of shows together as Giant Squid and Agalloch. My wife, Jackie Gratz [of Grayceon], has worked with them a bunch. We all know each other — Aesop I’ve known for a long time. So I spoke up for them, they thanked me for that, and I was, like, “Hey man, I don’t know what you guys are gonna end up doing, but if you start a new project and need people, I’d be super into it.”

Within a few days, I got this letter, like a super ‘Don Anderson: English Teacher” letter [motions like holding a length of paper]. It was like: “Listen: so we really like that idea. Let’s try and do something.”

And that’s all it was, like, “let’s start a new band and make it completely different than anything before.” That was one of the initial parameters that we all agreed to; let’s make this a completely new band and see what fucking happens. That’s literally it, there’s no real other motive for it, at least for me. They obviously had a very different personal experience, with their life experiences and whatnot and Agalloch splitting and all that, but I know when we get together we just get really excited and stoked to play music together. We’re stoked on our record! It is what it is: it’s a fucking new band.

You bring up playing something different, but I hear a lot of the inherent qualities from each band member. I hear a lot of Giant Squid from you, just as much as I hear a lot of Sculptured from Don and Jason and Aesop’s very aggressively punk approach. It all kind of comes together in this… thing. Aside from trying to be different and new, what was it like to meld all these styles together?

Naturally, and I think this is why we got so excited about it early on, we started demoing within a week of saying “Hey, let’s do this!” Don had a couple riffs in the inbox for me like that [snaps]. Then, I wrote a bunch of shit, too, so it was back and forth and it happened really naturally, which made us all think “cool!” Obviously there is a way where Don and I really gel nicely together where we can really support and reinforce each other musically. So that was just a really natural part, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. And Aesop is just so fucking good; I’d go to Oakland and we’d jam some of these parts out. He’d add his influence and his ideas and things would just constantly be changing and moulding.

It’s a way I’d never written songs before. Giant Squid would get in a room together and literally be like “Who’s got a riff?” And then we’d all jump on that riff together spontaneously and all start jamming on it. Then someone else would say “Well, this could be riff B” and jump on that, whereas Khôrada is more like “Here’s a riff for you. Sit with for two, two and a half weeks and send me back what you got!”

It’s much more of a slow burn, which can be dangerous because you could overcook shit that way. If you’re not in the room with each other and putting each other in check, you can go pretty far down one way and then everyone’s like “I don’t know man, maybe back up to this point.”

The thing is, and I’ve already seen a bunch of fan responses to “Ossify”, some people are like well there are some Agallochy parts in there!, and it’s not that there are Agallochy parts, there are Don Anderson parts. And there aren’t Giant Squid parts, there are just me parts. I’m not a session guitarist, I can’t go into the studio and say “Well we’re gonna play a New Jack Swing Blues riff!” and just pull that out of my ass. Most everything I do has some sort of weird, Giant Squid-y vibe and that’s just how I play music. It’s just a natural thing, it’s not something I set out and aim for. No matter what, you’re going to hear us in those songs. I think by default, since the position I’ve been put in is singer and (I don’t want to say predominant songwriter, but) I wrote a bunch of stuff, so maybe there will be a little more of a lean of Giant Squid. I mean, any time you have someone from a band singing, it’s going to have a stronger vibe in that direction. It’s definitely us just writing — we started with “Anything goes… except for this. And no that. And no black metal parts. We can’t write any more riffs in 3/4!” We kept chiseling ourselves down in this way that I think we were finding, almost unconsciously, what we knew we needed to sound like and what we ultimately did want to sound like, even though we went into it with zero expectations of capturing our old bands and integrating them. There was zero pressure to sound like any of our old bands… Or desire, really.

I think there was a lot of expectation from the public, especially from the cult surrounding of so much of the band. I think people forget about the musical and musician identity that goes into these things. Backpedaling to you talking about going back and forth over a long period of time, sending each other riffs. That is something I know the Agalloch guys had done a lot given how far apart they were, but what was it specifically like for you, jumping out of your box and into a not so jammy situation?

It was hard, man! It was really hard! And I’d tell them as much, sometimes, you know? I would feel that, again, without being in the same room, you’re not keeping each other in check and you’re also not spontaneously feeding off each other. You’re taking one person’s idea and sitting in a room with it for two weeks. Don and I are both very capable of writing twenty different guitar riffs to go to one song — he especially loves to do that — so there was always this massive amount of music that I’d be chiseling through, trying to create songs out of. If there is a role I have, it’s being the puzzlemaster and trying to find how all these parts and different identities can work together to make a cohesive song, something which really sounds like music — like a fucking band and not just a “Hey, they’re a new band and they’re trying to find their way!” No! We pretty much know what we want to do, and this is it! So it’s going to be fresh and new. A band’s first record is going to be really hungry and brave. Fuck it, anything goes!

It was challenging for me, mostly because it involved so much self-editing on everyone’s part when you’re that distant from each other. It blows me away, man, that they wrote every record, or at least damn near every one of their records that way. I hear how they wrote Marrow of the Spirit and how they practically learned the songs practically on tour — it blows my mind, an approach like that seems insane, but they did it! They pulled it off! And in front of thousands of people! Yeah, it was definitely a new thing for me, though.

Back to self-editing, I did notice there was this cohesion, at least just going off the one song (“Ossify”), but there was a great cohesion which followed the track with that bouncing, pop-riff. Aside from some parts of Sculptured for the other guys, I never really heard that kind of pop in their music. Did you spring that on them?

It’s funny — obviously, I’m playing the seven string guitar and Don is playing the standard, so if you’re hearing any low, kind of farty shit, that’s me! That song is actually one of Don’s, I think it might have been an old Sculptured song.

Wow, really?

Yeah! So, that’s one of these songs where he pretty much had it written: beginning, middle, and end. I added some chunks, this and that. There were these open riffs, so I go in and interject some weird ass shit or some groovy stuff. I remember Don being like “Fuck, dude. We would have never allowed that groovy riff in Agalloch!” You know, that [mimics “Ossify” verse riff], something like a bass line, and all swung and super low, down tuned. It’s catchy — dare I say poppy! He said it was refreshing to play shit like that without restrictions and not trying to be dark and mysterious and worry about fans. There’s plenty of harsh and metallic elements in there, it’s a nice aggressive song about the fucking end of everything. It’s certainly not a hopeful song, even though it contrasts musically, a bit.

You tell me about the end of everything, and, of course, the word “Ossify” obviously means “turn to bone,” so I’m curious if you could go further into that imagery.

It’s a bit of an apocalyptic record, but more from the sense of viewing it as parent, watching things fall apart, and what that means to be now since I have two kids. There is a progression through the album of recognizing the problem, ignoring the problem, what the problem is going to lead to, when it leads to that, how it’s made worse instead of attempting to fixing it. “Ossify” is like, “Well, it’s done, so what are whoever finds us later going to think? What are they going to learn from our bullshit?” Probably not much. There is so much of what I feel from mankind which won’t ossify, won’t fossilize. Egos and spite don’t fossilize. It’s weird, since we unveiled the end of the movie, but I like flash forwards since you have to go through the crazy dream to get there.

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An eleven minute single is pretty ambitious, especially if it’s the end of the story. I actually was unaware of the conceptual element at this point in time. What made you choose to show this very ending as your first statement? I mean, this is the first time anyone’s heard anything by Khôrada after a few years of hype!

It’s interesting, man, because it wasn’t our first pick at all! There’s a couple other songs from the record which we really wanted to premiere. These represented what the band does, they’re a good statement, they were more from the middle of the record… it was a better representation, if there is a song or songs on the album which could represent us. So we mention that. All the feedback we got from the label and our PR people were like “Well here are the songs which really stand out to us!” and we were all “No shit! That’s interesting!”

We kind of stood our ground, and, again, they bring it up. I finally realized “Ossify” was on that list every time. Every fucking time! I realized I’d only listened to “Ossify” after the forty minutes of music before it, so I took it out of context and listened to the song by itself. It hit me like “yeah, this is really quite the statement by itself, and it would be rather shocking!” I’d rather come out shocking people, I mean here’s this weird, dare I say upbeat, keyboard heavy song with layered vocals and huge movements. I think that was kind of a brave move on our part. We’re not paying lip service to anyone.

So “Ossify” is now one of our favorite songs on the record, just because it’s so unique. Each song is so different, and that one more so than any of them. It’s kind of a bold move on our part to be like “Fuck it, here you go.” It’s eleven minutes, sure. What I love is it doesn’t feel like it. It moves by really quick, and I kind of want to roll over it again. We all love it, but we weren’t all in agreement at first. There was a lot of back and forth like “[cartoonishly groans] No!” But we made it happen!

When you say you think of songs toward the middle as more representative of the Khôrada sound, how would you describe the Khôrada sound overall?

It’s kind of a perfect culmination of what we all do musically at the extent of our music careers. We’re not trying to come out the gates just fucking blazing fast and pissed off anymore, we’ve got nothing to prove anymore. We’ve all made records like that. I think Aesop is releasing a new Extremity record on the same day as Khôrada. You want blazing fast, classic death metal? There. Don’s working on a Sculptured record. You want technical, progressive death metal? It’s on its way. This is just all of us being inspired by the spontaneous. We can overcook it by the way we made the record, but it still has a natural feel to it. How can I describe it? It’s beautiful, it’s really expansive, it’s very heavy, it’s very emotional. There are songs on here which are really fucking emotional, and will probably make some people tear up because they might relate their own personal experiences to it. There are some songs which are bare, open-hearted, and emotional that… it’s a pretty fucking brave move on our end, which you’ll hear when you listen to the record. But man.. The record is hungry as fuck, and you can tell when you listen to it.

I’ve seen the word “prog”/”progressive” thrown around a lot when people talk about Khôrada. I know that word is a point of contention for a lot of artists who see their music described as such. I know that’s a word your bandmates use when describing music they enjoy, and certainly is something which is ascribed to all the music that you’ve made. I wonder how do you feel about that?

It’s funny, man, that always comes up. I don’t think I listen to anything that could be considered “progressive”: rock, metal, anything. Most of the stuff that’s classically considered that, I’m not into at all. I find it too technical, too stiff, too sterile, lacking emotion. When shit is too good, I tend to get turned off, you know? A lot of people love that, that kind of perfection, you know? I love way rawer music. So I don’t listen to progressive metal, and most bands who are progressive metal… I can’t do it.

I understand I’ve basically made progressive metal records my entire career [laughs], and I’m okay with that, I’m not ashamed of the term. I think it’s misleading — I think if you call Giant Squid progressive rock [or] progressive metal, you’re setting someone up for expectations that aren’t necessarily going to be met. But I don’t know what else to call that band.

Truth of the matter, there are trumpets for the first ten seconds of the Khôrada record. You’re going to hear trumpet. You’re going to hear cello. You’re going to hear keyboards throughout. You’re going to hear songs which have twelve parts that go from straight up garage rocking type movements to exotic, weird shit. What I always liked to do with Giant Squid was mix those parts together — it never feels like “Hey, here’s the token exotic part. Here’s where we’re going to switch straight into blasting.” Bands like Mr Bungle or Secret Chiefs, they thrive off that ability… Estradasphere, too. Those kind of bands. I’d say Secret Chiefs is probably the only weird, progressive, weird band which I really listen to, but what they do sometimes is jarring and I can’t always listen to it. I don’t want Blue Note style jazz in the middle of a grindcore song. Uh uh! You can play a grindcore riff over a jazz, Blue Note type swung drum beat and you might get something completely insane, magical. Something that hasn’t been done before. That’s kind of how I’ve always approached music. Just because we have trumpet doesn’t mean we have to make it sound like an old west, Ennio Morricone song or some shit. It’s a trumpet, it’s another instrument! Just play it! Progressive rock is a weird term — it is icky — but I know we’re going to get it and that’s okay.

Is it just about what comes natural to you guys, then?

Yeah, it’s about what comes natural. If it’s forced — if you’re forcing shit in there just to show you can turn on a dime in the middle of a song and do something different — you’re doing it just to show you can do it. It generally doesn’t serve a musical purpose, and we’re making really emotional music. To be that jarring and that all over the place is going to pull you out of the story, out of the movie. I like to think of things in terms of movies more.

If the album was a movie or if each movement was its own movie, how would you describe it in terms of cinema genre?

This would be some OG Mad Max meets Jurassic Park! [laughs] You know, maybe meets The Road. Moments of hopefulness, moments of, dare I say, adventure parts where you may want to clench your fists and run up the deserted hills down to the coast to get away from it all.

It’s definitely an apocalyptic movie in that sense, but I’m thinking of the point of view of a dad. There’s a song where I’m singing more or less about how I’m going to take care of my girls once the shit hits the fan. Where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do. In California, I live two blocks from the coast. My city is debating what we’re going to do with the houses between me and the coast — literally two blocks — because the ocean is taking out the houses. So we’re dealing with that shit, and in the meantime my state is constantly in an end of the world drought or getting flooded. The emotional tug, pull, and push of that… I don’t know what the fuck to think. There is so much of that in this record — that’s my point of view. It’s not so literal in the sense of “The end is here and we’re all gonna fucking die!” kind of cheesy grindcore lyrics.

I hope that, lyrically, even though these are the driving themes, there is a lot for people to identify. That’s what makes the best and most relevant music, because people can identify with the message.

The way you were describing the current state of where you live, it seemed very emotional and personal, but also elemental. Does that play into the album?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, the name of the album is Salt. What does that mean? What does that tie into? It’s a very powerful element. I’ve got salt water bashing at my doorstep, more or less. Everything in my neighborhood rusts because the ocean is coming. It’s rising and it’s getting bigger. Salt in the wounds, right? Everyone in this band has their wounds and, very much, this band is a healing process for a lot of us. There are parts of the album which talk about what mankind will resort to if the droughts keep up, if the water runs out, if corporations are fucking putting pipelines through lakes and poisoning wells in communities just to make a buck. The water is gone, what’s fucking left, right?

There’s a song on there called “Seasons of Salt” which dives pretty heavily into that. One of the lines is “One of the most valuable minerals: sodium chloride.” What do we do, basically, you know? There’s a bit of a science aspect that all my music has, a metaphoric science aspect. But you’re right, it’s elemental. Water, salt, earth: it’s all in there.

It also seems very political, too. You’re making some statements about the current state of the earth, the political state, the business rule, the oligarchy. I don’t know if people would expect that, even though it is something very pertinent. Would you describe Salt as a political album?

Absolutely. My favorite band in the whole world is The Subhumans and all the offshoots like Citizen Fish and Culture Shock, which are as unmetal as can be. I grew up with that anarcho-socio-peace punk sort of style. Crass and that stuff. Aesop absolutely did, too, since he’s an old school punk, too. I think Jason and Don kind of got into that stuff later on since they were from a more metal childhood. A lot of the music I listened to and wrote pre-Giant Squid was very much in that vibe, and that’s what I wanted to bring to this. Funny enough, because Don told me “Alright, listen. This record can’t be about the ocean and sharks and shit.” I had to explain, “Don, you understand Giant Squid wasn’t necessarily about ‘the oceans and sharks.’ It was all a metaphor for the human experience!” I didn’t have a rock band about sea stars, it was all a metaphor for other shit! [laughs] But with that restriction, that challenge, what do I talk about, where do I come from?

Well, I’m a dad and I’m in a world where Donald Trump is the fucking president of the United States and he’s threatening to send the National Guard into California to enforce ICE… and the fucking wall! He wants to open up the coast here to more oil drilling! If you drive down the California coast, man… when you get to central California you start to see the oil rigs out there, they’re like islands, and he wants to put way more of those fucking things! And again: I have the ocean at my doorstep, my friends’ neighborhoods are burning to the ground, and we’re in such a severe drought, yet no one believes it because we’re having a sporadic El Niño season so the whole state is flooding. The push and pull is crazy. It’s emotionally taxing.

And you definitely put that into your art. There is definitely that emotional weight which goes into it, which is the case for good art! Are there any final thoughts you would like to add?

I would say… remember that this is four guys starting a brand new band. Don’t get us wrong, we have talked about people’s expectations, our own expectations, and where the middle ground is. We certainly didn’t make this record to piss anybody off — we made this record so we can enjoy it, the four of us, and that comes first. That being said, it’s not a self-serving record. We aren’t all just getting each other off musically. We made a record with the idea that people would be able to relate to it. Probably a lot more people will be able to relate to this record than anything Giant Squid or Agalloch has done before, to be honest. And that is a bold statement, but it’s true. It’s accessible in a way which a lot of the followers aren’t happy with. And we understand that Ironically, the challenge to overcome is the cult followings of both bands.

If you want Agalloch, go listen to some Agalloch records. If you want to get mad that Agalloch isn’t around anymore, you know who to talk to. Ask anyone in this fucking band.

If you want Giant Squid, give us five or six years and we’ll probably make another record. But for now, this is my new band and it’s a lot of fun. We really enjoy it and it means a lot to us.

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