Music

Even If You Knew: An Interview with Six Organs of Admittance

Matt Spencer
Photo: Giorgia Mannavola

After bringing in some friends from his many other projects, Ben Chasny's Six Organs of Admittance has just put out their most thundering record ever, and sits down for his third go-round with PopMatters, telling us all about it ...


Ascent

Band: Six Organs of Admittance
Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2012-08-21

Recording under the name Six Organs of Admittance, Ben Chasny has made some of the most vital and hallucinatory music of the last decade and a half.

He began releasing records in the late 90s, often home recordings issued in minuscule editions. Since then, he has become a fixture in the avant-garde rock and folk music, from playing with David Tibet of Current 93 to becoming a regular member of the psychedelic juggernauts Comets on Fire. Recently he formed Rangda with Richard Bishop of Sun City Girls and the improvisational mastermind Chris Corsano, the trio getting its name from the demon queen of Balinese mythology.

Chasny's last few solo records have been relatively sedate affairs, focusing on long-form drones and acoustic ballads. Ascent, released this August, represents another change in direction for Six Organs of Admittance. Teaming up with his band mates from Comets on Fire, Chasny recorded one his most direct and powerful albums to date. In contrast to complex and often fiery guitar playing, Chasny is unassuming and perhaps bit reticent in conversation. We spoke about his new album, his collaborative projects, and the hazards of revealing too much about the music.

* * *

Was getting together with your old band-mates from Comets on Fire something that you had on your mind for awhile, or was it fortuitous circumstances that brought all you guys to record together?

A little of both. I realized that I wanted to have a group sound for the next record. We all started talking about it last summer, trying to figure out if there would be a time and it turned out that everyone was free in January, so I wrote some more songs. Ethan [Miller] was done with his Howling Rain record, Noel [von Harmonson] wasn't touring with Sic Alps and the other guys got some time off of work, and so it kind of worked really well.

What do they bring to your music as Six Organs? How was working on this album different than the work that you've done with them before? Was it different than, say, the work that you do with Comets on Fire? How is the dynamic different?

About ten years ago, before I joined Comets, they were the Six Organs backing band in San Francisco. We liked to play shows together but we were always playing really loud bars and it was impossible to play acoustic guitar, so I said, let's just turn Six Organs into a loud band so people could hear the songs. That's what we were doing ten years ago. When I joined Comets we dropped that project and I went back to playing acoustic guitar. It's not really that different from me cause we were picking up on something that we did a long time ago. Like, we were supposed to do this record ten years ago and things fell apart, so part of the idea with this record was to do this record that we never finish, so that's how it came about.

On Ascent, you played some songs like "Close to the Sky" and "A Thousand Birds" that you recorded ten years ago. What was it like playing those songs again? Was there anything about them that came to you in retrospect, things that you didn't notice when you were first playing them?

Not really. We ended up doing the songs the same way we did ten years ago. We worked a lot on the structure years ago, so we just remembered that. The original idea was to take songs that were just acoustic, from the Holy Mountain records and give them a little bit more of a swing. You know, with bass and drums. The idea was to give the them not a total swing rhythm but a little more groove, in order to extend out the guitar solos, not necessarily have white noise, the guitar solos were a lot more noisy ten years ago, so this time we reigned in the solos. That was the idea behind revisiting those songs.

Yeah, I do hear that swings on in the drums really does give some of the songs a vintage psych feel. Were there any particular artists that influenced that particular approach?

The main idea for the bass, drums, and guitar, the record that really influenced us, was a record by Jutok Kaneko, who was in this band Kousokuya. He died a couple of years ago but he released a really amazing record on the label PSF. We were taking from really kind of more obscure references. Another band we were listening to was Les Rallizes Dénudés. We were taking an idea of theirs, which is to take one riff or one bass-line or one drum rhythm and then doing extended solos over that. At the time there wasn't this huge surge in popularity that these bands have now. You couldn't find Rallizes' records in stores on vinyl; the bootlegs on vinyl were just starting to come out. Anyway, that was the influence for having the swing rhythms over noise guitar solos.

Those Japanese hard-psych records have survived through word of mouth of 40 odd years. Before the internet you had a really dedicated group of people working to keep that music alive. Why do you think it has survived for so long?

Well, really, because it's just good music. I have a kind of perenialist attitude when it comes to those things. But when I was young there was still a really strong network of people who were into that kind of thing. I grew up in Northern California and I would go down to the Bay Area and see a lot of shows there. There was an internet when I was growing up, but the music network was really through catalogs. I also read about a lot of things through Forced Exposure, they were always really on the spot about what the good records were.

I actually remember you playing a show with Sun City Girls in Portland, OR around 2004. Did you listen to those Sun City Girls records when you were younger? When did you first hear about the band and when did you first get to know Richard and Alan Bishop and when did you start collaborating with them?

I was listening to their records way before I ever met them, ordering their records from catalogs. Of course, Torch of the Mystics was the first one, and then, going from there, ordering their records on Majora, when they were coming out. It was eight about years later I ended up playing a couple of shows with them. I had never met them before. They didn't play very often. But they were on tour and I was on tour as well and we met in Boston. A couple of years later we ended up doing a few shows on the West Coast and that's when I really met those guys. That was the tour where I really met them.

I'm interested in the group dynamic you have with Rangda. You have two other really strong players that can both play improvised music or play more composed pieces. How do you approach working with them and how is that different, say, from playing in Six Organs of Admittance?

The new Rangda record [Formerly Extinct] is really composed. The time signatures change from 9/4 to 12/4. We trade riffs back and forth. It's not that proggy. You know, in prog music they're always changing time signatures, but with the Rangda record it's a lot smoother. It was definitely lot more difficult to play than the last record [2010's False Flag], so it took a little bit more precision. With Six Organs, when I'm playing with the Comets guys, we have been playing for just so many years, everything just clicks in. With Rangda, everything clicks in but it's a process of always listening to each other all the time. It's way more of a conscious process. With the Comets guys its way more of a subconscious process. Listening back to the new record there's all this interplay with Ethan that I wasn't even aware of. I heard these guitars going back and forth. At time I didn't even notice what we were doing.

I read that Ascent has a bit of science fiction theme, at least in the artwork and imagery. Could you elaborate on that?

Well, a lot my early records are center around ideas or general imagery or a certain memory. And then I realized that I've never really written a record based around a story so I came up with a loose idea for different narratives I could write songs about. There is definitely a kind of narrative to it, but I don't want to give it away. I didn't what to make was going on too apparent, that would have turned it into a rock-opera [laughs]. I didn't want to the lyrics to refer to anything specifically identifiable like a plot or story.

On the other hand, there are some spiritual undercurrents in you music as well, am I right? You reference Sufi poetry, for example. And the name Six Organs of Admittance is a term from Buddhist philosophy. Do you have some kind of religious or spiritual belief system?

Yeah, but it's really difficult to describe. Honestly I think those things are private, that they're nobody's business but my own.

Alright.

No, I don't mean you. [laughs] What I mean is that I don't want to be preachy. I just have no interest in forcing my beliefs on others. Everyone has their own kind of orientation and I don't want to impose on what's going on there. The older I get the more I realize I need to keep my mouth shut. I realize that I don't know anything. When I was younger I used to go off on this or that. So if I talk about a spiritual orientation I am really conscious of the need to really be careful about what I say. That isn't to say that this is not important, it's just that it's a private thing

But also to avoid seeming New Age?

Yeah, New Age is definitely a problem. You know that Rumi is the number two best selling poet in America? But it's through these awful translations that really distort what the message is. New Age is really part of our binge-and-purge culture, where someone can work their Bank of America job but that's okay because, you know, they read Rumi.

But even if those sources are mistranslated or misappropriated there is still something of the original message inside those works?

Sure, there is definitely still something in, say, Rumi, but people don't work to get there. A lot of the ideas that are part of New Age are originally very difficult. You have to stretch yourself; you work really hard to put them into practice. But people don't want to do that.

Sure. You have to take chances. On that subject, it seems like you work consciously to make each album different. Is that right?

Yeah, to a certain degree. I definitely don't want to be making the same album over and over again, but at the same time I don't want to want make a complete break. The music of Six Organs is ingrained in what I do. If I want to do something completely different, I'll just start a new project.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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