Words by Andrew Lampela
Ben Chasny has been putting out records under Six Organs Of Admittance for nearly two and a half decades now, and has taken a much different path than many. While most settle into a style, Chasny’s albums defy expectations with a broadened sonic palette and a restless pursuit of new directions. His new album is no exception. The Veiled Sea bristles with new textures and some of his finest, most fried-out blow speaker soloing to date and, along with the excellent New Bums album, display Chasny in top form. It is always an absolute pleasure talking to him about music, so without further ado…
Off Shelf: Before I even heard a note, I was excited by the Steve Stevens reference in the one sheet for this album. He doesn’t get enough love, and just for the Black Light Syndrome album alone.
Ben Chasny: I know, he can really fusion it up. He’s one of those guys. It’s funny, in the ‘underground’ or whatever you want to call it, you have guys that don’t like the shredder kind of stuff, and then I noticed talking to friends, the secret shredders, these people you wouldn’t expect to be into that. I mentioned him online and Alan Licht was like “I love Steve Stevens”. I liked Billy Idol when I was younger and kept up with the Stevens stuff.
OS: No shame in that, for sure. It didn’t really hit me until the last solo on All That They Left You, which is screamingly Steve Stevens and it’s awesome.
BC: [laughs] Yes. That’s funny, there’s a part in that where, I’m not specifically quoting him, but there’s a part where I do a palm mute… my friends in Comets and stuff make fun of me. It wasn’t their thing and they just didn’t get it. He’s so lyrical though. When he does a solo, it doesn’t sound like he’s taking a lot of time to write it out, but it’s so lyrical and well put together, even on the Billy Idol stuff like Blue Highway, the solo on that is just incredible, you don’t get tired of it. He’s not just sewing together a bunch of licks, he’s really creative.
OS: And extremely tasteful for the genre.
BC: Yeah. Another thing, you know, you get into Youtube rabbit holes and I started watching this interview where he was talking about his influences, and the intro to the song Rebel Yell, and he was like, “Yeah, I got that through this guitar player named Leo Kottke.” I was like, what the fuck? It blew my mind, but it all made sense. He was talking about that ray gun sound he had, and he said he got that from the Billy Cobham record Spectrum, and the guitar player on that is this guy Tommy Bolin, one of my favorites. He got that sound through Tommy Bolin’s playing through an Echoplex, and again, what the fuck? I was even into those Atomic Playboy records when I was a kid, you heard those? It’s not exactly… I wouldn’t say they hold up, but the solos are cool. [laughs] He was like “fuck Billy Idol, I’m gonna make it with my own glam band” and… I think you should probably go back to Billy.
OS: [laughs] Billy is the safe bet.
BC: Utrillo, who played drums in Comets, went to see Billy Idol play around 2006, and he said one of the songs Steve Stevens just disappeared off stage and it was like, what’s going on? Then for the solo, he came running out, he swapped his electric guitar for a flamenco guitar, and he comes running out and he slid across the stage on his knees ripping a flamenco guitar solo. [laughs]
OS: That would blow my mind.
BC: That’s the thing, nobody is referencing Stevens on a one sheet. It’s all ‘I like Television and the Grateful Dead’ and it’s like, everybody does, I like Steve Stevens!
OS: It worked on me, so you’ve got a small sliver of the middle-aged crowd amped. So, I suppose we should talk about your record. I’ve been a fan for a long time now, and as such, I try to have no expectations in regards to what the album will sound like. Still, this one was even more left field than I could have predicted. There are some new percussive details, like All That They Left You could just as easily been from the early 80s New York weird scene. What influenced the feel of this album?
BC: I’ve been using Reactor, for the sequencing and beats. Basically I’ll build some sort of sequencer and build the progressions. Local Clocks was more of a cut and paste, musique concrète piece.
OS: Since the solos on this album are so prominent, do you have the solo in mind before you construct these backing tracks?
BC: Usually I just create a bed of stuff and then listen to it a lot. All the music came first. I had an idea of how to construct All That They Left You, like straight forward beat and then solo singing guitar solo, so I knew how I wanted that one, but most of them just evolved. The solos are mostly first or second takes. That was the idea. With COVID, I’ve been at home and probably practicing guitar more, so it was like ‘yeah, I’ve been practicing, I should have more guitar solos on this record’, you know what I mean? It’s what I was doing. [laughs]
OS: There are plenty of moments on this album that are great, but the juxtaposition between the fried out solo on Last Station, Veiled Sea and the incredibly chill background floors me. How do you approach that, did you go into it with the attitude of ‘I’m gonna melt these synth pads down’?
BC: For that song, yeah, I knew what I was going for. That solo is a little more percussive, there’s a lot of hitting the strings with the fist as you hit the note, then pushing it so hard into the amp that it breaks up on the attack, sometimes you get only attack, not so much sustain before it goes into noisier stuff. That was the idea. Set up an ethereal type song and attack it that way.
OS: Another great off-guard moment is the Faust cover, J’ai Mal Aux Dents. I had to look up Eric Lapierre, and wow, what an interesting guy. How did this collab come about?
BC: Yeah, he’s rad. He’s a friend of mine, and he loves music, but he doesn’t do music because he’s obviously busy with his architecture. He loves music though, and that’s how I know him, from Six Organs playing in Paris. I really wanted to do that song and it’s really fun bringing in people that don’t normally do this sort of stuff, to participate and be a part. It was a lot of fun.
OS: I bet he had a blast.
BC: Yeah, it was fun for both of us. This is a guy who, he was telling me, he developed a type of concrete based on the band the Dead C, for this building he was doing, and he said when the crew had mixed his concoction, they all thought they had fucked it up, that he was going to come look at the building and be like, “you fucked up my building” but it was exactly what he wanted, because it was off of the Dead C, it was supposed to be rough and whatever his idea was was perfect. The crew was all like ‘oh shit, here comes Eric, we fucked it all up’ and he thought it was perfect. Now that is a guy you’ve got to have on your record.
OS: Another track, Old Dawn, reminds me of your Sleep Tones release, which I have listened to about as much as anything over the last ten months. I found myself listening to quite a bit to this sort of open-ended music as a way to calm myself. There’s been quite a resurgence in this sort of minimal, droney style, not to mention the friends I have raving about New Age albums. Why do you think that is?
BC: Everyone wants to mellow out and not think about stuff. The world’s so harsh right now. I put out that Sleep Tones record and it was a weird thing. I didn’t think it was the type of music that…I wasn’t planning ahead like ‘you know what? People are gonna be into this.’ It was just that I had a record lying around that I should just put out. To tell you the truth, I don’t listen to a lot of New Age. I listen to droney stuff, I guess, but maybe not on the New Age tip. I was always into that band Organa, and Andrew Chalk, things that were a little more drone. I always had a hard time with Windham Hill stuff. When I first got into acoustic guitar, I used to buy everything. So I didn’t know the difference, kind of before Fahey was cool, before anyone said ‘this is cool, this is not cool’ or whatever, I just bought everything and weeded out stuff that didn’t really do it for me. I had a few of those Windham Hill records, and they never really landed with me. There wasn’t really enough melody to grab onto, which is funny considering I just said I like drone music, but… maybe there was too much reverb or something? I just didn’t get into much New Age.
OS: Me neither, really, at least none that has stuck with me. It’s just very strange that that is where we’re at, like the whole synth scene that sounds like one big 80s commercial.
BC: I think people really know their modulars. That’s very arpeggiated, which is weird because the definition of ambient music has sort of changed a bit. I feel like the original Brian Eno ambient thing was something that blended into the environment, where they became one. Now ambient music can mean an arpeggiated electronic sequence with a slow tempo and lots of reverb. Which is cool, it’s all fine, it’s just interesting how the definition has changed over time, as more people started doing that sort of thing I guess.
OS: You put Sleep Tones out on Hermit Hut, your own label. What’s it like running a label these days? The labels I follow all seem to being doing well, because hey, I get high before bed and order records, but with pressing plants backed up, the mail in a perpetual state of fucked, and just the world, it seems like an agonizing layer of stress that I certainly couldn’t pull off right now.
BC: I haven’t pressed a record for myself or the label in a year or so. I know people who have and pressing plants are a nine month wait now, or something like that. Drag City won’t announce a record now until they have a test pressing, because it’s taking longer and longer to get the test pressing to okay things. There have been a few announcements, I think it might have happened with the Superwolf record, they’re just like “fuck, we can’t even say when a record is coming out.” It’s really crazy now. Unless you do digital or Bandcamp. I have a friend that runs a label, and they underestimated how well a record was going to do, and they pressed a couple hundred because you don’t know, right? Then it just blew up and he’s like, I’m screwed, I can’t get a repress on it for six months after doing his fourth order on represses and hasn’t even gotten the second order yet. It seems pretty hard for people doing that right now.
OS: The way people consume music has changed so drastically in even the last five years.
BC: I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians are just starting their own labels, like ‘I can just do this myself’, friends that have been on indie and small labels just doing it themselves now. You see it just as much as when they were on an indie label. It’s interesting that people are taking matters into their own hands.
OS: The way algorithms work these days, I get weird records all day in whatever feed I’m staring at, and it’s literally just Ethan putting out a small hand-screened Howlin’ Rain record. Who needs advertising departments?
BC: [Laughs] Ethan was one of my friends I was thinking of, and Riley Walker too, right? He was like, fuck it, I’m doing my new record by myself. He’s exploding, doing better than he ever has, Ethan too. It’s exciting to see people do that.
OS: I love it. You don’t get your record right away, because Ethan is literally hand-screening it. Fantastic.
BC: He actually just moved up here to Humbolt, so I’ve been seeing him a lot more these days than I had been, it’s been cool.
OS: Oh, that’s great. Hopefully that leads to, you know, fifteen more records from you guys, right? Right?
BC: [Laughs] Well… we’re just hanging.
OS: That was definitely an adjustment, going from regular touring to a year that was completely shut down. What do you think it’ll be like going back to being able to collaborate and tour and be in rooms of people.
BC: I don’t know. I have a bit more of a positive outlook because in November of 2019, I did a living room tour and it was one of the most fun tours I’d done. Totally outside of the normal thing and it was great to be in such a personal space. I mean, I don’t know how many people are going to be opening up their living rooms, but it’s fun even if there are only ten people there. So the doom and gloom…let me just say, there have been some great, great venues that have closed down, that totally sucks, but the people that are all ‘there will never be live music ever again’ or super negative, I don’t know. I feel like there will always be somebody doing stuff somewhere. As far as people opening up their houses or how much fun it’ll be, I don’t know. I see these articles about people not wanting to go back to work, people want to work from home and don’t want to commute to work, and I… I kind of feel that way about touring [laughs]. I kind of enjoyed not being on the road. I like touring, but that six months, I enjoyed working from home myself! laughs
OS: I’ve been pretty anxious about crows for years now, even more so now, so I am all for things going the route of living room shows, not being surrounded by crazy people you don’t know.
BC: That’s right, people you don’t know, maybe having a small community with. I think that people always want to have shows, how we’ll make all that work is a good question. Speaking of Ethan, he had a joke like “oh yeah, can’t wait to be on tour at the mercy table with somebody spitting on me asking how much my record is while the other band is playing” and that’s not going to be very much fun.
OS: How does it feel to put out a record that you probably have no plans to tour behind?
BC: I haven’t done any of that streaming stuff or anything, not because I’m aesthetically against it, I’m just pretty lazy. I keep thinking I’ll do it every couple months and then I never do it. In that sense, this is kind of the perfect record for Cory and Three Lobed. He’s not going to be pushing me to get out there on the road. He knew.
OS: What I love about Three Lobed is the same feeling I got from labels like Combat or Metal Blade as a kid, his releases might not be my thing every time, but they’re not going to suck, they’ll do something to my brain. It must be cool to have expectations set at handing a friend an album and having him put it out into the world.
BC: I mean, I don’t want Cory to lose a shit-ton of money or anything [laughs]. I’ll be doing some promotion, he’s got some ideas, and I mean, he did put up the money for a fucking record. I was like, hey Cory, this thing is going to be pretty nice, I probably pushed it a little harder than I would’ve with Drag City, like ‘it’s a single record, but how about a gatefold? Yeah? How about a gatefold with metallic print!” I do owe him, for sure.
OS: When you do play out, this is the second album in a row that you’ve done on your own.
BC: Yeah, it’s great. Now I don’t have to figure out how to play my last record, because I don’t have to promote it! Thank god, right? Don’t know how I was going to do those songs and now I don’t have to. By the time I play live, I’ll more than likely have something else out to. The only song I was really planning to do on this one was Somewhere In The Hexagon Of Saturn, just setting up some sequencers and soloing over it.
OS: Man, All That They Left You with a full band would be insane!
BC: Yeah, you’re right, if I do another Six Organs tour with a band, you’re right.
OS: That song is one of my favorites, it came so out of left field, I never thought I would dance to one of your records.
BC: [Laughs] Thanks. I was on tour in Belgium in 2012, I was touring off of the Ascent record, and a couple of the Comets On Fire guys were with me, Utrillo and Ben. After we played, I don’t know if he was trying to be cute or funny, but the D.J. put on a Comets song when we were done and everyone started dancing and I really enjoyed that feeling, I’d never seen anyone dance to any of my music, so I’ve always had that in the back of my head, how fun it would be to make some music that people could dance to. It’s not really something that I do.
OS: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to it now, but it always makes me smile.
BC: [Laughs] That’s the best compliment that… there are just those songs that make you kind of chuckle to yourself, those are my favorites, so thank you.