Wide-Eyed Wonder: An Interview with Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance

[31 August 2009]

By Ron Hart

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.

What are your thoughts on the 'Guitar Hero' phenomenon?

Speaking of shredders, as a guitarist, what are your thoughts on the Guitar Hero phenomenon for the Wii/XBox? Do you find it inspiring in the case that it is turning young kids onto playing guitar or contrived in the case that it’s teaching kids that the guitar is five colored buttons you push instead of six strings?
I think it is interesting that it has made a band like Dragonforce so popular. People used to make fun of shredders and now they don’t so much anymore. I mean, I still hear some shit being talked about Vai and such, but the only person I have met who really digs the Shrapnel Records roster (Jason Becker, etc), was Brian Sullivan from Mouthus. Our mutual love of shredders is actually how we came to form Basalt Fingers. I hear people say that the guitar and that game are totally separate beasts. Well, that may be so, but I can fuckin’ slay on that game. At least the few times I played it.  The only problem I see with that game is it is impossible to play the “guitar” behind your head. They really need to fix that.

Why do you feel shredding has gotten such a bad rap?
It’s sort of like seeing the kid in math class get all the answers right every day: who wants to experience that?  Also, I don’t feel like that camp has attempted to connect with anyone outside their scene, so it’s pretty insular. They also don’t spend much time on lyricism. And the tone is generally fucking awful, as far as my tastes go, but that sort of depends on my mood. I mean, I admire them because generally they are outsiders even if they don’t know it. But when it comes down to it, I can really only listen to about 20 minutes of that music now and then I say, “OK OK!  I get it!  JESUS!”  Whereas someone like Mick Turner, he just plays and it is a direct line and nails your fucking heart to the wall and leaves you bleeding and crying for your mama. I guess somewhere along the way I realized that that is what it is about. And that is when I stopped practicing!  But I still do have a soft spot for the shredders (Shrapnel Records style). I guess it’s sort of like the family thing: I feel I can talk shit all I want about them, but if anyone else ever does I’m like, “hey, wait a minute there ...” The last Comets on Fire record was recorded at the same studio that Tony McAlpine recorded his first record at, though. That’s a pretty funny fact that nobody knows.

Do you have any favorite effects pedals?
Well, since you asked, I happen to have a very special pedal that Bill Skibbe made for me that is sort of my baby. Bill is a bad-ass who does sound for Shellac and recorded the School of the Flower record with the venerable Jessica Ruffins at their studio in Michigan. I can’t even explain what the pedal does but here is a picture of it:


I haven’t recorded with it yet, but hopefully soon. It’s a monster. The only other piece of equipment out of the norm was this very beautiful pedal made by Last Gasp Industries that was a favorite until this guy who was in a bad mood stomped on it at a show last January and broke it. Still need to get that fixed!  But Last Gasp Industries is amazing.

Are there any other instruments you play besides the guitar?
A little sax here and there.

Of all the compositions featured on RTZ, which one was your favorite to revisit and why?
The only time I revisited the music was to put the comp together and check the mastering. None of that was very much fun, actually.

Sub Pop recently celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2008. As a key member of its current roster with Comets on Fire, what does being on Sub Pop mean to you and what would you consider to be your favorite Sub Pop album?
Sub Pop is a wonderful label. Really nice folks there. They’ve been super supportive of Comets. I don’t think I could pick my favorites out. Superfuzz Bigmuff still has a special place in my heart, though. Also, those new Blues Control and Om seven-inches.

Can we expect a new Comets album in the near future?
Nope!

Everything cool?
Oh yeah, we just all live in different places now. When you get older that happens.

Well, you do have a new group with Elisa Ambrogio of Magik Markers and Brian Sullivan from Mouthus called Basalt Fingers. Could you tell us a little more about that?
It was snowing a lot. NYC. Me and Elisa had no home. Hanging with Brian Sullivan and going to the Mouthus practice space. Brian got on guitar and played Megadeth’s Holy War. Our “shredder”-inspired record with Elisa would piss off all shredders if they ever heard it, I am sure, but whatever. Intent!  What can I say?  I love that record because it reminds me of a wonderful time. Brian produced it so it has that Mouthus molten lava sound to it.

Is your favorite record shop still open?  How often do you go there?  what are your thoughts on the state of the American record shop?  How important are these stores to you in 2009?
In Arcata, California, there is a shop called People’s Records. Back in the day all the Fahey and Bert Jansch was about three dollars a piece. Nobody gave a fuck. This fellow named Ron owns it and he turned me on to a lot of music, like John Martyn. It’s still around. I went there a couple of weeks ago, actually. I think music stores are very important. The idea of actually talking to someone, face to face, and discussing music, that is disappearing. I mean this fellow, Ron, I remember him coming out from behind the counter and walking over and pulling out John Martyn’s Solid Air and telling me about it, telling me how HE first heard about it, why it mattered, why I needed to hear it if I loved Bert Jansch and Nick Drake so much. And I took it home and only loved a couple of songs on it!  But I kept going back because I had a human connection to it, and eventually I understood the whole record.  It took about seven years from the time that he put it in my hands, but then I got every single song. And that is just something that is missing now.  If I had downloaded that shit because it was some half-assed recommendation and I could press a button to do it, do you think I would have spent so much time with it?  No way. Record stores allow us to be human and talk to other people who want to be human and love music as well (though I can understand how people who are shy might prefer to just get things without human interaction). When all the record stores are gone, when all human interaction is done with talking about music face to face, whether with someone who works at the store or a costumer next to you as you shop, then we are just that much closer to being separated, mediated by means beyond our control and ready to rely on ones & zeroes for life and happiness. It’s going to happen one day but let’s try to stave it off for as log as possible. That is how I feel.

Speaking about talking records, I really liked your piece on Nikki Sudden on the Six Organs website. What Nikki would you recommend to a Comets or Six Organs fan?
Good question!  My friend Utrillo (drummer for Comets and leader of Colossal Yes) introduced me to Nikki so many years ago and I have been pretty obsessive ever since. I think the best would be to just get a greatest hits record. There’s no shame in that!  That would be a great place to start. There are a few. One really great one is called The Last Bandit and it is a double CD with tons of electric jams on the first disc and a few acoustic on another. It really goes through a lot of everything. Lost In A Sea of Scarves is another cool comp on LP.  But both of those are a little hard to find, I think, so Ragged School is a good collection of a couple records that Secretly Canadian made available (along with a whole lot of other records!).

Actually, I think Secretly Canadian should have been given some sort of award for making most of the Nikki Sudden catalogue available to everyone, but that is another story. I would say if anyone is just starting, start with basically anything by the Jacobites, which was Nikki and Dave Kusworth. The record that Nikki did with Rowland Howard (The Birthday Party) is also an absolute masterpiece. All that shit. But you know, if you are going to go there, you better know Johnny Thunders, especially the Hurt Me record. And you better know the Faces. Nikki was just the kindest person. That is what everyone who ever met him says and I can say it too. I only met him once, but I was in awe. I pretty much think that he was the last in a line of heroes. I mean, sure, Keith Richards is still alive, but only through money and blood transfusions and such. Nikki was the common man who preached immortality through rock ‘n roll (or was it rock ‘n’ roll through immortality?) and died old enough to know better but too old for kids to give a shit until THEY know better. He’s my hero, really. I could go on forever. Nikki Sudden. RIP.

What was it about the story of Acateon that prompted you to write “Actaeon’s Fall (Against the Hounds)” on Luminous Night?
It sort of reminded me of my life. I could relate to it.
What are some of your other favorite stories from Greek Mythology?
I’m a sort of partial to the myth of Erysichthon cutting down the tree and Demeter getting pissed so she has Famine infect him and he ends up eating his own limbs. Pretty brutal.
You also pay homage to Charley Harper on this album. What is it about his paintings that inspire you and do you have a particular favorite?
I think his lines and simple order really appeal to my Virgo nature. I enjoy his wide eyed wonder at the simple things in life and the way he could dream up beautiful but simple arrangements. Some of his paintings could be quite brutal as well, like the one with the piranhas devouring the cow in water red with blood.
You greatly expand your base SOOA sound on Luminous Night to include strings and woodwinds. What steered you in that direction?
It was from listening to soundtracks from westerns and samurai movies basically. I also wanted some new textures on there to add more dimensions to the sound and to get away from the full-on guitar records that I had made in the past.

Ron Hart is currently enjoying his 11th year as a professional music journalist. In addition to PopMatters, he has also written for such publications as CMJ, Billboard.com, SPIN.com, The Village Voice, Gear, Paper, SHOUT NY, Paperthinwalls.com, Blender, Yellow Rat Bastard, Good Times, Paste, and Barnesandnoble.com among others. He is also the editor and publisher of the Interboro Rock Tribune, a free NYC music zine now in its 6th year in print. Please give us traffic on our website at http://www.irtmag.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/110153-wide-eyed-wonder-an-interview-with-ben-chasny/