Words by Andrew Lampela
It is incredibly difficult to pigeonhole Ben Chasny. For over two decades now, he has been defying genres under Six Organs Of Admittance, not to mention ripping things up with Comets On Fire, Magik Markers, and the almighty Rangda, as well as numerous guest spots. From the smotheringly awesome self-recorded folk odyssey goodness of Dust And Chimes and Dark Noontide, to the layered maturity of School Of The Flower, through the wildly glacial slabs of The Sun Awakens and Shelter From The Ash, Chasny has always prized forward momentum. That’s just the linear shit. Let’s not forget, this is the same man that put out a book on improvisational method, with an absolutely beautiful deck of cards, and three blazing albums of Hexadic music that certainly left many a casual fan bewildered in the dust (Hexadic II is fucking amazing, man…give it another go).
A fully stacked discography is not the only reason Chasny in a difficult person to pin down. Full disclosure, I’m on my fourth interview, and also full disclosure, it has never stopped being a wonderfully unpredictable affair. Chasny is the perfect subject. He has something new out. He knows he has to promote it. He also, in the best possible way, is awkwardly weird about it. He is, also in the best possible way, just a dude. A really, really talented dude.
Companion Rises (Drag City) almost brings Six Organs full circle. After forays into wild rock and huge glacial drones featuring guests, Chasny has brought things back to writing and recording an album by himself.
However, there is a newfound embrace of technology on Companion Rises that allows Chasny to stretch out and utilize two decades worth of recording on the fringes to both return to his roots and take Six Organs into new territory. He’s also not afraid to bring Yngwie into the conversation…
Ben Chasny: This is one of the first interviews, so there are no stock answers. This may be the one where I create the stock answers…
Off Shelf: Oh, man, the pressure is on.
BC: [laughs] This’ll be cool.
OS: The more I listen to the new record, it reminds me of your earliest material, yet it has quite a few new textures. Right off the bat, “Pacific” is very disorienting, with a lot of tones I wasn’t expecting. As a Six Organs fan, I should completely expect the unexpected, but you got me with with first two minutes.
BC: It’s funny… a lot of that is guitar. I sent it to friends and they’re all like ‘you’re really getting into synths!” It’s a lot of processed guitars. I mean, there are a lot more synths on the record than usual, but I just started processing and processing electric guitar. I’ll send you a file of one of the tracks, you can hear the different stages. [he does, and they most certainly are]
OS: Oh yeah, I’m way nerdy about that stuff.
BC: You are? With making music and stuff? Do you use Reaktor? I’m using a lot of granular synthesis in Reaktor. All the beats were made with Reaktor. That was weapon. That was my sauce? No, that doesn’t work [laughs]. I’ll have to come up with some gardening terminology for the interviews. I was just gardening, so… that was the soil… [laughs]. That was terrible, I can’t use any of those analogies. Anyway, I used Reaktor a lot on the record.
OS: There are quite a few unexpected beats on this album, and that is really what caught me off guard. What drew you to using these textures?
BC: Well, Six Organs has always been about independence, and it’s supposed to be a project I can do by myself and not rely on other people. The last record, I had so many friends on it. It made the record better than if it was just me, but this one was a reminder to me that I don’t necessarily need other people. It’s my pleasure to have other people, but I just wanted to re-establish that I could do it, that Six Organs is just me. But then, I really enjoyed certain aspects of the last record that had beats and Chris Corsano, and I enjoy doing that stuff. I mean, I have files and files of music that I will never let anybody listen to, but it’s just fun for me to do, to sit down and work off of something, so I thought it would be fun to do on this record.
OS: You’re friends with Corsano, and you’re doing your own beats… that’s a career choice, right?
BC: I’ve been trying to convince him to do his own sample library! I think it would be amazing. I’m always like ‘Chris, you could make a lot of money off of this’ and he always says ‘nah, I don’t wanna do it’.
It’s funny, when I was going back over the drum beats…Basically, every song started with a rhythm, I used Reaktor to trigger acoustic drum samples from something else, I was using an algorithmic ensemble to create different rhythms, and then I took acoustic guitar over those, which created new rhythms for me to try to play along with. After the songs were being constructed, I would go back in and program stuff, maybe a cymbal hit or change the velocities, but who I had in mind was the trio from Comets on Fire, like what would Utrillo [Kushner] do? Oh, he’d probably do a ride cymbal thing, even if he was doing it as a joke. So Utrillo was my model.
OS: There’s a lot to unpack here as far as the organic combining with the technology, but the fact that you have a sample library of Comets on Fire in your brain is quite the technology itself, right? That’s nuts.
BC: Yeah, that’s pretty funny. I’ve been playing with Utrillo since I was 16. When Comets were looking for a drummer I suggested Utrillo and he joined right before me. I kind of pushed my way into the band as well…
OS: So you are your own weird library that technology can’t replicate.
BC: Well, hopefully every musician is like that, they just get imprinted from a lifetime of music, you know?
OS: The last couple things have been pretty wild, with the Hexadic albums and the Rangda albums. This one feels a lot like your older albums, and it feels very upbeat to me. There are some definite vibes with “Haunted & Known” and “Mark Yourself”, but it feels a little lighter to me.
BC: I don’t know, I think the upbeat thing…
OS: Well, the one track that gets me is “The 101”, it hits in the middle of the record and takes me to a different place, as well as shading the rest of the album in a good way.
BC: That song was almost an instrumental, and almost left off of the record. I think we’re going to release that as a single. My partner Elisa [Ambrogio] and I made a video for it. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I couldn’t figure out what to sing, I didn’t know anything.
Most of the record was recorded really early in the morning, like four to seven am, but that one came really late at night. I had taken a really early morning trip, I dropped Elisa at the Oakland Airport and drove up to Humboldt County in Northern California, like a six hour drive, and I just started singing about it and thought, “maybe this will be the song.” I was just making stuff up as I went along, like these will be a scratch track just to get the idea down. But the next day I couldn’t do anything that sounded better, so that ended up being the vocal take, beginning to end and I shaped the song around that.
OS: That song really sticks out to me in the catalog, as maybe a little happier than usual.
BC: Yeah, the drums are a little more uptempo, I think that’s why I didn’t know what to do with it. It was the last song to take shape, I couldn’t figure out what to sing about or a melody and then, I don’t know, it just hit me. I just started singing for the fun of it, kind of these ridiculous lyrics too. I agree that maybe it’s a little different for the Six Organs catalog.
OS: Yeah, like I said, it kind of shades the album for me. The first half reminds me of Compathia and School Of The Flower, where there are these direct songs, while the last half, particularly “Haunted & Known” into “Mark Yourself” into “Worn Down To The Light” really hit me like Dark Noontide, only with an updated vocabulary. Did you go into this record intending to reach back? I gotta say, the Hexadic records really weeded some people out, no lie.
BC: [laughs] Yeah. I wasn’t trying to go back to anything sonically. Again, those records are all me, so it was a conscious effort to re-establish myself. Also, I realized that a lot of the stuff I used to do was more in the sound design department, except that was fifteen years ago and my sound design was an electric guitar with a couple delay pedals and a drum stick or something like that. I have more tools to be able to do strange sounds and drones now, so I was trying to put the new tools to use.
OS: I mean, ‘mature’ is such a weird word, I don’t want to imply that you’re suddenly doing ‘dad rock’…
BC: No no, I think it’s more mature. More mature lyrically. That is what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to capture the sounds or anything, but I did start to make the connections. The stuff I was doing back then… what if I try something like that now with these new tools.
OS: One of my favorite things about interviewing you, I learn so much about the album and both music and literature that I’ve never heard of just by asking what your influences were?
BC: That’s funny, because being a kid, being a teenager and getting some records, like metal bands would always do that.
OS: The ‘thank you’ list? I lived for those.
BC: Hah. Yeah, that reminds me of the most ridiculous… probably the most ridiculous thank you list has to be Yngwei Malmsteen’s. I pulled a Yngwei album out with a friend, it was amazing! He thanks Johann Sebastian Bach. That’s not necessarily pointing in the right direction as much as… I mean, the audacity! “Oh yeah, I just want to give a shout out to my man Bach.” So ridiculous.
OS: It’s interesting to me, besides what I read and the horrible music I make, how much even my friends influence that.
BC: What kind of music do you make?
OS: I make droney guitar music that doesn’t go many places, very slowly.
BC: What do you usually record on, may I ask?
OS: Well, I used to use the blue Tascam 8 track, the 424 cassette one, until it died. Man, those things are big money now, apparently.
BC: Dude, it’s crazy. You know why? It’s because of these damn Instagram dudes that are hooking their 4 tracks up to their iPad, and everyone’s like ‘oh, 4 tracks are cool’ and now there’s all these plug-ins, like cassette 4 track plug-ins. I used the 424 MKII forever, and I went back to buy one to transfer all the old Six Organs stuff, and it’s like, four hundred bucks!
OS: Yeah, it’s like a car payment for obsolete equipment nobody really wanted back then. Anyway, I finally realized as a 45 year old dude in the year 2020 that…
BC: Wait, you’re 45? Weird, I am also 45 in the year 2020…
OS: Congratulations, we made it!
BC: Congratulations to you, my friend.
OS: Anyway, I came to the realization that I just don’t like standard tuning anymore. It does me no good. I’ve made it this far, I’ve just given up.
BC: That’s how I feel about the movie Gremlins. I haven’t seen it yet, I’m not going to start at the age of 45. I’m pretty sure I know everything that goes on, but I’m not gonna watch it.
OS: I mean, why start now? [laughs] So I have to ask, what are some of your favorite open tunings?
BC: Well, it’s funny. This record? I can’t remember the tunings and I have to start practicing it to go out live. I’m going to have to go back to the recordings and figure them out, because on this record, they were all different, I thought fuck live recording, I’m just going to try something new on every song. So, it’s going to be interesting to take these songs out. But, in general, the Six Organs tuning is DGDDAD. It’s what most of the tuning has been. I think of it as the treble strings of DADGAD but the three bass strings of an open G. It’s like open G but you aren’t stuck in a major all the time. With the second string down a whole step, it’s easy to modulate between minors and majors. That’s ended up being the Six Organs tuning for a long time.
OS: I’d just like to go back and say how awesome it is you don’t remember the tunings on your new album.
BC: [laughs] Yeah. I’ve got to go back and figure that out. I did it by ear, because I was playing to beats, you know, what sounds good? I’d just tune a guitar, put a capo on, and that was it, whatever sounded best at the time.
OS: That’s some fearless shit. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into band practice and been “well fuck…I’m in the wrong tuning.”
BC: That is the danger. I have been there. Generally, when I’m on electric guitar, I’m in standard. For solos, electric solos, I play in standard, like with Comets.
OS: That’s my golden trick, I’m not good enough to solo…
BC: [laughs] Yeah. What does that even mean to solo? You can play a couple notes, you can solo. In Comets, my thing was I didn’t care. If you play fast enough, nobody notices the wrong notes, everyone will forget the parts that were wrong.
OS: I can attest, I was in the crowd for a few shows, and nobody noticed anything wrong.
BC: [laughs] Thanks. You do the trick where you play a wrong note and either you move on real quick, or you keep hammering that wrong note until its right.
OS: You have also ramped up your own label, right? Hermit Hut has allowed a nerd like me to fill in some holes in the Six Organs catalog recently.
BC: You know, I started Hermit Hut a few years ago with the Tashi [Dorji] record, because I had sent it out to a bunch of friends who did own labels, like, “Jeez, this guy is amazing and you should put him out” kind of stuff. I think he was a little to instrumental for people, and really, it’s harder and harder to sell records these days, and I understand. But when so many people didn’t want to do it, I said, “fuck this, I’ll do it’ because that record is really, really good. And of course, now he has records on a bajillion different labels and every one loves him, as they should, but at the time, that’s what started the label. I had told Vampire Belt, you know, Corsano and Bill Nace, that if they had a record, I would put it out. I don’t think they believed me ten years ago. Then I got the rights back to the first three Holy Mountain albums, and I’d been trying to get him to do Octavio Paz on vinyl for years and it never worked out, so that was one of the first things I did recently.
OS: I’m super glad you did. It’s not easy to put out records, especially in the weird niche you are in, but I’ve already seen some ravingly positive press on your album, and a real mind-blower in the half page review in the New York Times on the new Bill Fay. It made me stop for a second and think, “holy shit, weird music is cool.”
BC: I think it’s awesome. It’s funny, when I started doing stuff, it was in a bubble of psych-folky stuff, and people were saying nice stuff, and then I went through a phase where people weren’t maybe as into it, which is totally cool, and I’m glad because it’s good to be beaten down like that, critically. Now, I’m just doing a record because I want to do a record, and when people don’t like it… [laughs] Let’s put it this way, if I thought everyone was going to like my record, I would think I would sell more. I’m well aware of how few people dig the jams, that’s totally okay. All my heroes, they never sold anything, like Nikki Sudden. I can’t have a long list of my heroes that didn’t sell… I’m well aware of the world I live in. I never expect anything. That’s not to say, nice reviews are very pleasing, interest in my albums is pretty cool.
OS: Can you imagine, when you were younger, that “Hey, I’m gonna use this thing in my pocket to blow through the entire Wolf Eyes discography in a weekend” instead of just imagining what they sound like until you finally tracked it down?
BC: I think it’s cool. It’s interesting that… you’ll have somebody that knows every Dead C record, but maybe hasn’t heard any Velvet Underground. That’s what I like. I have friends that will speak in terms like “Pffft, you can’t like the Misfits if you don’t like the Damned” and, I mean, yeah I can. I don’t care about the trajectory of who influenced who. To get rid of the gatekeepers, I think, is pretty cool. It becomes less about being a dick and more about the music. I think it works in reverse, though, as well. I think there are people so into the underground who now can explore popular music, very easily. Whether that re-enforces what they already think or exposes them to stuff they actually enjoy, they can explore the history, as well.