Finger-Picked Blues and Never-Ending Sine Waves

by Jennifer Kelly

Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny talks about the acoustic blues, raw psyche, and transfiguring rivers that shaped his new album The Sun Awakens.

Inspired by Leo Kottke, Bert Jansch, and 1960s raga-master Peter Walker, Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny finds the elusive link between acoustic guitar blues and psychedelic rock. His latest album, The Sun Awakens at first seems bipolar, one side of short and haunting tradition-shaded blues songs, one side comprised of a 24-minute freak-out called “River of Transfiguration”. Yet the more you listen, the more otherworldly the first side sounds, the more blues and raga-influenced the second one begins to be. The two elements of Chasny’s sonic approach may not have quite melted into one another, but they are clearly part of one continuum.

“For a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to put the two things together,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I was doing the finger-picked music, but I was also listening to a lot of noise, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it ... Then when I started to do the first recordings for Six Organs they started to fit together in a way that made sense.”

Ben Chasny grew up in Northern California and joined a punk band in his mid-teens. (“Isn’t that what everybody says?” he asks when I inquire how he got started in music.) Although he’d had an acoustic guitar for years, it wasn’t until his late teens that he began to pick it up and play it. “I started to get into Leo Kottke and Bert Jansch and started to make the connection that, you know, just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re not cool,” he remembers. “Then I just really started obsessing over it. I locked myself in my house until I learned to finger pick things on the guitar.”

Like many self-taught musicians, Chasny developed his own playing style. “A lot of finger pickers actually use three fingers and I only use two. I can’t get that third finger to work, so I’m not as fast as a lot of other finger pickers,” he admits. “I also kind of tried to fuse the American styles and the British styles. The British style does a lot of stuff on the left hand, pull-offs and slides and stuff. I try to fuse the two.”

Chasny started Six Organs of Admittance in 1998, releasing a self-titled, home-recorded album that year. Three records on the revered psyche-drone label Holy Mountain followed: Dust and Chimes in 2000, Dark Noontide in 2002 and Compathia in 2003. Still it was Chasny’s all-nylon-string guitar reverie, For Octavio Paz in 2003 which first captured people’s attention with its mysteriously lovely vibe. This was about the same time that Chasny began playing with the much louder, echoplex-happy Comets on Fire, whose albums nearly always contain at least one pastoral guitar blues cut attributed to Chasny.

School of the Flower, which came out on Drag City in 2005, continued in the Chasny’s dark-folk, acid psychedelia vein, with free jazz drummer Chris Corsano adding percussive mayhem. That album included a cover of Gary Higgins’s “Thicker than a Smokey” accompanied by a plea for the missing artist to please get in touch. (He did and opened for Chasny with his first show in more than 20 years at NYC’s Tonic that year.) The Sun Awakens followed a year later, with Noel Harmonson of Comets picking up drumming duties, and assorted Bay Area musicians making cameo appearances.

Chasny says that The Sun Awakens represents a real departure for him, particularly in its long, hallucinatory “River of Transfiguration” track that closes out the album. “I was thinking that a lot of my other records were a little too light, a little too whimsical or folky or something,” he said. “My original idea for this record was to have that last song be the whole thing and have it be 50 minutes long. I started with the idea that, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if people bought a record and it was just a sine wave for the entire time?’”

Writing the song, Chasny explains that he had a clear image in his head of a muddy, extremely violent river. Although the image originally came to him in a dream, he later saw it echoed in films like Werner Hertzog’s Aguirre and Coppola’s Apocalpyse Now. Chasny had been listening to a lot of Popol Vuh—the German psyche/kraut/experimental band that had scored Aguirre and other Hertzog films—further reinforcing the connection. The idea of violence, murkiness, danger and transformation became inextricably linked as Chasny plotted out the melody.

“It was a song before I even went into the studio,” he said. “I had it all mapped out on a piece of paper as far as when drums would come in and lines and certain tones ... but I don’t write music so it’s all in colors and drawings and scribbled sound objectives.”

From this plan, Chasny recorded the main elements on four-track and passed the tape to other players—Harmonson, Al Cisneros of Om on bass, Peter Swanson from the Yellow Swans, Liz Harris from Grouper, John Connell on Persian ney, and producer Tim Green. “The melody was there. We knew what it was supposed to sound like and we knew it was going to go over drums, so we just went for it,” said Chasny.

The result is a powerful spiritual statement, beginning in a primordial drone and gradually building until the sounds cascade in waves over a hypnotic, repetitive foundation. It’s the sort of song that evokes strong mystical feelings, but when asked about the spiritual elements of this or other work, he says they’re wholly unintentional. “I don’t really think of it in those terms at all,” he said. “This is just music that’s in my head because ... it’s just what I’m thinking and because it all comes from a base of music that I listen to. So that’s what I know, and that’s how I put it down on the record.”

“River of Transfiguration” is the centerpiece of this album, and it was originally intended to take up the whole CD. However, Chasny said that as he thought about the new CD, other songs occurred to him or resurfaced, and it seemed wasteful not to use them. As a result, The Sun Awakens is sharply divided, its first six songs relatively self-contained and lyrical, its final opus massive and sprawling and grand.

The disc’s initial half includes two linked “wolf”-themed songs “Torn By Wolves” and “Wolf’s Pup”, both solo guitar pieces so lingering and lovely that the notes seem to hang floating on the air after they’re played. “That might be because I’m not really playing with any meter. There’s no beat,” he ventured. “It’s all very free and there’s no time signature. I just played the notes when I felt like playing them. There was no beat tying me to one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.” Both songs, he said, were inspired by Richard Thompson’s Grizzly Man soundtrack, one of his favorite albums of last year.

A few songs, including the dark, driving “Black Wall,” include singing, Chasny’s high haunting voice somewhat more prominent in the mix than in previous albums. Asked if someone had turned the knobs a little more aggressively, Chasny admits, “Yeah, that was Tim Green was kind of pushing to pump the vocals up a little bit. I was pretty shy about it. When we were mixing, Tim would kind of push them up and when he wasn’t looking, I would kind of take them down a little. And he’d push them up.”

Chasny says that he typically likes vocals as an element of the overall sound, not a distinct overlay. “The way my ear works is that I’m usually trying to end up trying to mix the vocals into a sort of a cohesive blob in the music ... Or maybe it’s just being nervous about it,” he said. “But it turned out great. Tim was definitely right for this record.”

Cuts like “Attar” as well as the final “River of Transfiguration” also incorporate an unusual wind instrument, a Persian ney played by John Connell. Connell is a long-time friend, Chasny explained, who plays the ney with some Bay area traditional Persian ensembles. “You have to kind of lodge it in your teeth in a weird way to play it,” Chasny explains, demurring that Connell could probably do a better job describing the instrument. “It’s really a kind of an intense instrument and amazing to John.”

“Attar”, he said, was the most improvised song on the new album, written with Connell in the studio to use up extra time. “A week later when Noel came in on drums, we just kind of fashioned it into a song with cross-fading of the drums and guitars and stuff. It was kind of neat how it came out,” he said.

The oldest song on the disc is “Desert Is a Circle”, a Spanish-flavored, Ennio Morricone-influenced, Western romp that would sound perfectly at home on a Calexico record. “That’s actually the one song that I’ve had for years and years,” he said. “I was going to make a whole record that sounded like that, that had that kind of feel, and then I realized that I would probably never get around to it.”

Makes sense because Chasny is a busy guy. The guitarist was mid-tour when I spoke with him, taking his surprisingly rocking show through the East, Midwest, and West Coast. Earlier this spring he had been doing some European shows with David Tibet’s Current 93 (Chasny plays on the excellent Black Ships Ate the Sky as well). Other projects include soon-to-be-released split with Om on Holy Mountain, and Avatar, the new Comets on Fire album, due out in August.

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