Awake on the Floodplain: An Interview with Six Organs of Admittance
One of the busiest men in indie folk opens up about Kurosawa, Terry Riley, and procrastination.
Since 1998, Ben Chasny has been a machine.
A music-making machine that shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. Chasny has been making psychedelic-tinged folk music under his Six Organs of Admittance moniker for record labels like Holy Mountain and Drag City for years. Throughout those releases, he has also performed in Comets On Fire and has working relationships with artists as diverse as Current 93 and Devendra Banhart.
It has been Six Organs of Admittance, however, that has captured the most media attention for Chasny's unique blend of so-called "new folk", psychedelia, and postminimal compositions. Generally sparse with strategically-placed vocals, the Six Organs of Admittance albums ring out with poignant understatement.
That is not to say, however, that Chasny is content to rest on his acoustic laurels. In 2005, Six Organs of Admittance released School of the Flower, a deliriously complex affair enlisting a full-studio setup to make for a fuller sound than his earlier work. That was followed up by 2009's Luminous Night, an album surprising many long-time Six Organs of Admittance fans with its experimental diversity.
Now Chasny has returned to his home studio and acoustic roots with Asleep On the Floodplain, a soothing acoustic affair that meanders across the river of his youth while maintaining a lovely coherence united by his deft guitar work and soft vocals.
On the heels of Asleep On the Floodplain, Chasny speaks to PopMatters from his home in Holyoke, MA.
How did you come up with the album title?
I was trying to come up with a title for a while. It was one of the last things to come for the record. Where I grew up, there was a river, and I used to flood every winter, and I was dreaming about that and woke up and thought, "Maybe I should title it something after that." I think [the river] is kind of a theme that runs through it.
I was really interested in the cover artwork.
My friend Steve did that. He's done the artwork on almost all of the Six Organs of Admittance albums. I don't know if the artwork ties in directly with the songs. We were just brainstorming one night, and we came up with this concept where we thought it'd be cool if Steve drew these things that looked like they were from a bestiary in Babylon, so we just went with that.
Your last record was more busy and less acoustic than this one. How was it returning to something so sparse?
It was nice because I did a lot of it at home, so I had a lot of time to find out what works sounded good with the spaciousness of it. For me, it takes longer to have a record with space because it takes a long time to listen to it and figure out where to put all the spaces. It was nice in that way. I took a few years to get all the songs together for this recording.
Is the writing the hardest part for you?
The hardest part for me is just getting going. A lot of times, I'll have ideas but I just don't want to set up recording time in a studio or get studio equipment set up. I'm definitely a procrastinator.
It's funny to hear you say that, because one of my questions for you was where your amazing work ethic comes from.
In the scheme of what other musicians do, I think that there's been this mis-setup by the industry where you're only allowed a record every two years, or else you're not inspired. It was necessary for the industry timing and pacing so they could have timing and promotion and the band had to go on tour for a year and a half. Actually, I don't feel that I do that much at all; I feel that most of my days are spent wasted when I should be working.
Do you write every day?
No, I play guitar every day. I've tried to get myself into the rhythm of [writing every day], but that doesn't work for me. I have to be inspired to get up and do something.
I read that you wrote "Hold But Let Go" for a film, but that song didn't make it. How did writing for a film influence it?
I didn't see the film. I had just heard that they might want to use some Six Organs of Admittance music on some film that was happening, and I wasn't doing anything that day. That's a good example of getting inspired and doing something. I wrote and recorded the song in one afternoon, just like "Here's a song!" and I sent it off and never heard back from them. So I thought, "Fuck them, I'm just going to put it on the record." But it was good because it prodded me to say, "Well, I'm going to put it on my record, and they'll see it's a good song, it's a good record." But I never saw the film or anything like that.
On the album, I heard a lot of postminimalism, especially on "S/Word and Leviathan"; then I read an interview where you mentioned Terry Riley.
That piece, definitely. That piece took the longest to record because I kept doing different versions of it. At first, it was 20 minutes, and it was very minimal, and there were none of those bass notes or vocals or whatever; it was just that jazz stuff. It was very inspired by Terry Riley. But then, eventually, I thought, "Maybe I should put another chord progression in here," so it turned into more of a song.
Are there other composers that inspired you?
The reason why Terry Riley was such an influence was I took different tracks -- I didn't use a physical machine -- but I took different tracks and started lagging them on that. As the song goes on, there's weird space cancellations that happen. I don't listen to a whole lot.
Are you familiar with Charlemagne Palestine? I detected some of his influence on the album.
Actually, I saw him in Glasgow. It was amazing.
Did he have stuffed animals everywhere? I've heard he does that.
He'd spent the whole day just going out, trying to find stuffed animals everywhere. They were all from Glasgow, all over his piano and everything. It was definitely a really, really good concert, one of my favorites.
Listening to your album, I definitely thought of Palestine's Strumming Music.
It's really beautiful, the overtones that just accumulate on those pieces he does. I really like his music a lot too.
I read that you get visuals in your head when you're writing songs. What sort of visuals did you get for the songs on this album?
When I was trying to do the last record, I was definitely influenced by film soundtracks, which definitely have images tied to them.
None, really, for this album. For previous albums, after so long, I was finally getting into Kurosawa films, and the music in those films blew me away. For this record, it wasn't so much visuals or films; most of this record is just about my childhood at home. So it's about a sense of place.
When you're recording, do you listen to other albums, or do you keep your palate clean?
On this, especially since it was recorded over so long, I'm always listening to stuff. I think the last record, the Luminous Night record, was influenced a little too much by the Cosmos soundtrack. I always have my standards that I listen to.
What are your standards?
Loren Connors, some of the long acoustic guitar pieces. Things like that.
You were friends with Jack Rose? Do you think his passing influenced this album?
No, this record was done by the time he passed. He influenced it as much as we were friends and talked about music sometimes.
Were there any writers that influenced this album?
There are some of my favorites that influence everything I do. Sometimes, like for the "S/Word and Leviathan", there was this author, Catherine Keller, who I just started reading a year and a half ago. She wrote this really great book about the Book of Revelation, and it's a really awesome book about how society is already pre-written because of the book and how some people take an anti- stance against it, but she takes an approach of a third way. It's called Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World.
When you compose, can you tell what project a song will be for?
Immediately. As soon as an idea comes, I think, "This would be good for this band," or "This would be good for that band."
I read in an interview that you felt like the audience might be bored by acoustic shows.
I was touring around the U.S. and playing a lot of bars. I'm not an extremely popular artist where people go [to see me]; it's more like, "Oh, somebody's playing. Let's go." When you're playing acoustic guitar, you get drowned out a lot. So that's what happened to me a lot. That's what happened to me a lot, which is why I switched to electric guitar for a while. Sometimes then you can't even hear what you're doing, so you have a crisis on stage, like "What the fuck am I doing up here?"
What does the live show for this album look like?
I thought I'd be a bit masochistic and go back out with an acoustic guitar again. I haven't done that in a while. I didn't realize how terrifying that was until you asked the question before that.
Do you tend to stick to the same setlist every night, or do you switch it up?
I always switch it up. There are some songs that I always play that I've been playing for years, but it's always different.
What kinds of things do you do on tour?
There's not a lot of down-time. Usually I'm just driving, sound-checking, or sleeping.
Do you drive yourself to all your shows?
In the United States, I do. In Europe, I might have a driver with me because I don't do so well with driving on the other side of the road.
Finally, another thing I read is that you said if you'd give advice to your younger self, you'd say to study math instead. Are you interested in math?
I am interested in it. That quote came from thinking at the time how little I remembered, even from high school. You have Algebra II, and I don't think I could even do the first chapter of that. That quote was when I was thinking about how my brain was disintegrating.