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

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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Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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