Wide-Eyed Wonder

An Interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance

by Ron Hart

31 August 2009

Six Organs of Admittance/Comets on Fire frontman Ben Chasny has a lot on his mind. Sitting down with PopMatters, he lets it all out, spilling a couple unique secrets in the process ...

Ben Chasny has had a busy decade, fronting both the celebrated acid-AOR revivalists Comets on Fire and the inimitable indie-rock legends Six Organs of Admittance. Just recently, he formed another band called Basalt Fingers. Now, Chasny can make a very unique claim: that he’s been recording under the name Six Organs of Admittance for a full decade as of this year.

So in celebration of his 10th anniversary as one of the true innovators of the American guitar in the context of experimental underground music, his longtime label, Drag City, has commemorated his accomplishments with the release of a two-disc, triple-vinyl rarities package called RTZ. The collection features a treasure trove of SOOA nuggets that have been long out of print and impossible to come by for several years, including “Ressurection” (half of a split 12” with free-psych greats Charlambides), the epic “Warm Earth, Which I’ve Been Told” (which was half of a 2003 split CD on the Mental Telemetry label with the groups Vibracatherdral Orchestra and Magic Carpithans), the track “You Can Always See The Sun” (part of a subscription CD compilation for Three Lobed Recordings), and 1999’s “Nightly Trembling”, a song that originally recorded in a limited run of 33 copies given away for free and contains some of the most bugged out music of Chasny’s career. 

Chasny also has a brand new SOOA album in the hopper as well, a beautiful work entitled Luminous Night that was just released in August and plays to the guitarist’s affinities for acoustic-based British folk music (albeit unknowingly according to Ben), old film soundtracks, and Greek mythology.

Ben took the time out to speak with PopMatters about the concept of his Six Organs project, Guitar Hero and its effect on the youth of today, his favorite record shops, the future of Comets on Fire, and revisiting his old material for the RTZ compilation ...

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Did you always intend to compile these non-album tracks into a full-length compilation?  If not, were you surprised by how well they all gel together into a cohesive whole, in spite of the fact they were all recorded for separate purposes?
Some of these tracks were originally recorded to be together originally, so I knew they would have some sort of cohesion. [“Warm Earth, Which I’ve Been Told”] and [“You Can Always See the Sun”] were originally going to be the A- and B-side to a record that was supposed to follow [2002’s] Dark Noontide, but I got asked by two different people for EPs, so I split them up.  It’s all from about the same period, so I figured it would all sounds good together.  I hoped.

What is the significance of calling this collection RTZ, or “Returns to Zero” after the button on the Tascam 424?  Is that model Tascam your weapon of choice for recording?  Have you always recorded with the Tascam?  If yes, ever thought of going digital?  Why or why not?
Yeah, I recorded with the 424, sometimes the Mk III but mostly the Mk II. I do record digitally as well. I’ve got some nice mics and preamps here at home for my mac, but that is only in the last few years. Ten years ago home recording wasn’t as easy as it is now, at least digitally. I am not dogmatic about anything. Whatever seems like the best thing at the time is the way to go.

How did you come up with the concept of Six Organs?  What initially inspired you to create the compositions you create under the Six Organs name?
One night I stayed up until dawn playing three records in a cycle: The Dead C’s Harsh 70’s Reality, Bob Bannister’s 8 Day Clock and Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece. The original inspiration came from that night.

What was it about those three records, specifically?
Well, I think it was the general de-constructiveness of the Dead C. Plus, Robbie Yeat’s drumming is just so primal and brutal and essential with a few whacks on the snare. And of course they have a big drone element, but mostly it was how they just seemed like they came from another planet. The Bob Bannister record was like a whole new language with guitar. Every song on that record is like a little way to play guitar and say something—and it all sounds so folky, to me anyway. It’s very lyrical. I really love that record. As for Veedon Fleece, that record has always been my favorite. It has a great rural vibe to it. I had read that Van recorded it while driving though the Irish countryside after a divorce.

How did Veedon Fleece come into play?  How do you rank Veedon in the Van catalog?
That record and Astral Weeks often trade places in my mind as favorites. Side Two of Saint Dominic’s Preview is right up there as well. There’s also a part on the live record, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, where someone in the audience calls out “Turn it on!” and Van replies, without hesitation, “It’s turned on already.” That might be my favorite moment on any live rock record. It’s a moment that can’t really be explained. You just have to hear it. Tougher than the Cro-Mags!  Well, not really ...

The term, “Six Organs of Admittance”, from what I understand, means the “five senses plus the soul” in Buddhist terms.  Are you a follower of the Buddhist philosophy?  If so, how does it influence your art and your well-being?
No, I am not, so it doesn’t influence me in the least. I got the name from a book on Chinese hermits.

I hear a lot of Bert Jansch, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho and John Fahey in your music. When did you discover their type of guitar playing and what was it that appealed to you as a guitarist yourself?
Bert and Leo, it’s a yes. Not so much Fahey and Basho for myself. It’s all about the left hand on the guitar for me, not so much the right. Maybe that is because I am more of an electric guitar player than an acoustic. That’s the difference between the English and the American players, generally. Except maybe Peter Walker. I got into it about 15 years ago. Back then when everyone was dropping solo noise guitar records, doing an acoustic record was a bit contrary. Nowadays if seems a bit opposite of that.

Luminous Night definitely has a British folk feel to it. To whom can you attribute inspirational energy in regards to this direction for this album?
You know, I didn’t mean to have it sound British at all, but I have heard people say that it sounds that way. I guess maybe it is because on this record I wrote counter melodies to be played by other instruments, so perhaps when you do that with folk based music or more acoustic based music it sounds British. I don’t really know!

What do you think is the most significant difference in the sound of a lefty guitarist vs. a righty guitarist?
Let’s understand that I don’t mean the people who are left-handed or right-handed. I mean the hand that each style seems to favor. The British guys favored their left hand on the neck of the guitar (if they are right handed in the first place and play the guitar “normally”) with a lot of hammer-ons and trills and slides and runs up and down scales. They also seem to be more aware of counterpoint, or, if not counterpoint, at least some sort of bass line on the lower strings. The American (Primitive) style is/was generally content with Travis-style picking, the old ‘dum dum dum’ with the thumb and the alternating picking pattern. That is extremely reductive but that is a good general dividing point. But only between the ‘60s guitarists within that particular dichotomy—American Primitive and English “Folk Baroque”. This has nothing to do with John Mclaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Peter Walker (who is a bit of an anomaly for his time) or all those folks. We’re just talking folk acoustic guitarists that were jammin’ around the same time. Lord knows the Irish know some goddamn drones and the Appalachian guitarists had some chord progressions that could make your hand cramp.

Who are some of your other favorite guitar heroes?
Rudolph Grey, Loren Connors, Keiji Haino, Richard Thompson, Rick Bishop, Wayne Rogers, Marty Friedman, Mick Barr, Billy TK, Munehiro Narita, Muira Maki; I don’t know, how many do you want?

How do you feel each of these guitarists you mentioned factor into your sound?
I would say that any of these guitarist could be placed on a chart that measured Freedom, Language, Communion, Lyricism, Dedication, Destruction, Beauty, Rock N Roll, Slaying, Modality, Nihilism or Absolute Creation From Nothing (Nihilo Ex Nihilo). And I would say that each of these guitarists has a particular mix of any of these. For me, it’s a good model to follow. I can’t really get there and I never feel like I have, but these are some of the guitarist that I aspire to match.

What is your favorite Marty Friedman solo?
I guess “Dragon’s Kiss” was my favorite when I was a kid, though I have to admit I haven’t listened to it in forever. I have been jamming Jason Becker’s Perpetual Burn record lately, though.

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