Just Don’t Call Them a Super-Group: The Rangda Interview
Richard Bishop, Ben Chasny and Chris Corsano chat about improvisation, working without a bassist, and how they keep things democratic.
All three members of Rangda -- that’s Sun City Girls’ Richard Bishop, Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny and free-jazz drumming legend Chris Corsano -- have their own claims to “super-ness", at least in pure musical ability. Just check out Bishop’s blur-speed, ethnically-tuned bouts of picking, Chasny’s hallucinatory arcs of psychedelic folk, or Corsano’s manic, chaotic yet totally-in-control percussive wizardry. Still all three palpably bristle when you bring up the term “super group".
“It’s pretty ridiculous," says Chasny, when asked about a phrase usually associated with unit shifters like Asia, Chickenfoot and the Travelling Wilburies. “That is a term generally given to bloated rock stars. You never hear that with jazz -- ‘Oh! That was Miles Davis's super group!’ No, you just note the people playing."
“Super groups are always kind of less than the sum of their parts," says Corsano, noting that these ensembles are often put together with more of an eye towards commercial impact than artistry. “Rangda totally wasn’t that," he adds. “It was Ben saying 'I’ve played with Chris, and I’d like to play with him more. And I’ve played with Rick and I want to play with him more.' I think that’s how every band should get together."
Yet while Rangda may have started as the casual confluence of three major talents, it has evolved through touring and a second album. Formerly Extinct, released in September 2012 on Drag City, shows the threesome evolving from a fearsomely talented pick-up band into a living, breathing, continuing entity. We spoke to all three members about Rangda’s beginnings, their egalitarian approach to sharing leads, and their emergence as one of the most interesting part-time gigs in indie rock.
Bringing the band together
All three principals agree that Chasny was the instigator for Rangda, the bridge between the West Coast-based, free ethnic experiments of Richard Bishop and the wild noise improvisations of Chris Corsano. Chasny met Corsano in 1999 in Western Massachusetts where the drummer was playing regularly with Paul Flaherty. (Corsano played on Six Organ’s School of the Flower in 2008.) He hooked upwith Bishop several years later, catching an early aughts' Sun City Girls show. The two hit it off, and Chasny toured the West Coast with Sun City Girls in 2004.
“I’ll never forget the first time I met Ben, when he opened up for Sun City Girls at some show in the Northwest," says Bishop. “He was quite entertaining and maybe a little drunk. Once we started talking, we just hit it off and entered a mutual admiration society. He just seemed like a good guy, regardless of how great a guitar player he is. So we exchanged records and kind of kept in touch and tried to do some shows every now and then."
Chasny began talking about collaborating with Bishop and Corsano as early as 2007. “Even back then, he was thinking two guitars and a drummer with no bass," says Bishop. “We were all busy at that time, but I liked the idea, but I think he had even mentioned the idea of having Chris Corsano involved. That sealed the deal for me, since I think that he’s one of the best drummers in the world."
Corsano was working with Björk at the time and couldn’t commit to another project. So for a couple of years, Rangda was a bit of a pipe dream. Then, in early 2010, all three schedules lined up, and Chasny, Bishop, and Corsano seized a narrow window of opportunity.
A fast start
“We went out to Seattle, which is where Ben was living at the time. Rick was in Portland," remembers Corsano. “We rehearsed for one night in the old Sun City Girls loft, and then we had a show the next night."
Chasny remembers that first session as “sort of eerie”. He says, “We just started playing and then some ideas formed and that's how it happened. All of the songs from False Flag came from that and actually, the main riff to ‘Night Porter’ on Formerly Extinct also came from that session."
The three played in Seattle the next night and, very soon after, recorded False Flag, the first Rangda album. “We went into the studio one or two days after the first time playing together ever," says Bishop. “And so we didn’t have much going in. We just had a few ideas. We made that first record relying a lot on improvisation and the energy interchanged between us."
In False Flag, you can hear the three members of Rangda working out the egalitarian dynamic that has come to define this band, where primacy shifts from one guitar to another fluidly and where the drums are as important as the melodic line. They also began exploring the possibilities of their unusual two-guitar-one-drummer line-up, a new thing for everyone involved.
For one thing, it meant that there was no bass. “Usually, if I’m in a group situation, there’s always been a bass player to hold the low end," says Bishop. “But a competent drummer can take care of that as well. Chris can do that easily, and he does. But I also have played the role on many occasions within the Rangda fold to help with that low end when necessary."
Corsano says that he spent some time early on thinking about the role of the drums in a bass-less ensemble. “Things would run through my head, like ‘Does that mean the drums have to pick up a little bit more on the melodic low end?’ or ‘Do I tune differently?’” he says, adding that the theory was quickly over-run by experience. “As soon as somebody starts playing, it becomes more of a situation where you’re reacting faster than you can think."
The dual guitar structure also meant that Rangda had to balance two very good, very different lead guitarists. “Yeah, [Rick’s] style is a lot different than mine," says Chasny. “He does a lot of staccato picking on the strings with precise up and down strokes while playing a lead. I've never really done that before. When I do leads it is more pull-offs and hammer-ons. So it takes a lot of practice for me to break out of my standard way of doing things."
“[Ben is] a finger picker, a very good one, and I’ve always used a pick. I can’t do the finger picking at all," says Bishop. “By using his fingers, he can get a much more delicate sound if he wants, but at the same time, with his fingers he can get a real aggressive sound that I can get with a pick, but I can’t always get those more subtle sounds." Also, all those years in Comets on Fire have left their mark. “When it comes to the rip-roaring, balls-out playing, especially in a solo context, I just kind of bow down and give [Ben] that," says Bishop. “He gets a certain tone and a certain aggression with his playing that I could probably get if I tried to, but why ruin a good thing?”
Still, both guitar players say that while their technique may be different, their overall philosophy aligns closely. “I think we have similar ideas as far as guitar improvisation. There’s an openness, a lot of space in our playing," says Bishop. “I think we complement each other really well and it’s great that Chris is there to pull the puppet strings and keep us in check when necessary."
And that’s another element that’s very different about Rangda. The drummer in the band plays in a tonal, textural way that is just as integral to the songs as either guitar. Chasny says that Corsano takes a very cerebral approach to his work. “Chris spends a surprising amount of time thinking about what he is going to play. More time than I do. I usually jut start to play and work it out as I go," he explains. “But Chris will sit there and think and think and then start working on things." He adds, “He's really attentive all the time. If you take a sudden right turn he'll be right there. And more often than not he'll take the next turn, and you better be right there."
Bishop says that he’s a long-time fan of Corsano’s, but that the drummer continues to surprise him. “Chris is a master of improvisation, which I always knew, but especially with this last Rangda record, his sense of composition is pretty mind-boggling," he says. “He has very good ideas, as opposed to just free playing."
Less improv, more composition
That sense of improvisation came in handy during the Formerly Extinct sessions this February at Jason Meagher’s Black Dirt Studios in upstate New York. The three members of Rangda had decided to take a much more deliberate approach to their second album, working out songs as formal compositions, rather than jamming them out together. The band met at Corsano’s house for a few days to work on songs. (“Manjun” and “Plugged Nickel” were roughed out during these sessions.) Then, they left for a short East Coast tour to try the new material out and get used to playing together again. Shortly afterward, the musicians reconvened at the studio, living onsite for several days as they worked out the contents of Formerly Extinct.
“Once we got into the studio we realized that, okay, we’ve really only got two songs. We have to get to work here,” says Bishop. “So we all just butted heads and exchanged ideas. Ben would disappear upstairs and come down with something and we’d hash it out. At the same time, Chris was working on something in one room and I was working on something in another room. It was a much more collaborative effort than the first one, and it was much more compositionally oriented."
Bishop says he came downstairs one day to find Corsano hunched over a guitar, picking out the main riff to “Tres Hambres”. “It took me forever to figure out what the hell he was doing," says Bishop. “So Ben and I kind of got the idea down, and then we were taking it in one direction and then once Chris got on the drums to work with this thing, he was very good about it. Instead of doing this, let’s do that. We were almost composing it live. But it was the kind of idea that I wouldn’t have even thought of."
Bishop says that Corsano also got him to change one of the riffs in his own song, “Idol’s Eye” from a major to minor key, vastly improving it, but also making it much harder to play. “I had the riff, and I knew it was good, but it was very hard for me to play”, says Bishop. “I spent half a day figuring it out and I was playing in a major key, and I was real proud of myself and I took it to Ben, and I played it for Chris and he was like, ‘That’s great, now shift it to a minor key."
“I had spent a whole day and I was so proud of myself, you know. Especially because of the place I was playing it on guitar, the position, it wasn’t easy to switch it to a minor key, so I had to tuck my tail between my legs and go figure it out," he continues. “But once I figured it out, it was just like, ‘God, it’s obvious. That’s how it’s supposed to be.'"
But that, says Bishop, is the beauty of Rangda. “Chris isn’t afraid to tell us what he thinks. I don’t think any of us are. I think that’s why we work well together. There’s no bullshit. There’s no dictator. Whoever has the best idea, we’ll go with that, and if one out of the three disagrees, we’ll change it."
A second album, especially one as good as Formerly Extinct, goes a long way towards establishing Rangda as a permanent entity, but both Corsano and Bishop say that they never saw the band as a one-off. Corsano, who juggles lots of different projects, explains that, “For me, everything is potentially an ongoing thing, until it stops being fun or good or both. So it seemed like, as long as the music doesn’t suck, this could be a lot of fun."
The story continues
“I think the three of us always knew that this was not a one-trick pony," says Bishop. “We knew we would do a second album. It just might take a while. And it ended up taking over two years. I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be doing a next one and one after that. We’ve already discussed it and we will be touring quite a bit for the remainder of this year and early next year. I think it’s just going to get better and better as long as everyone has the time to do it."
That said, it’s not easy coordinating three busy schedules to make time for Rangda, either in the studio or on the road. Yet all three members seem happy with the band as a sporadic part of their lives. “If Rangda was the only band each of us were in, and we were behind it 100% and nothing else could get in the way, I’m sure it would be great," says Bishop. “It would probably be a lot better, but it would probably be a lot more short-lived. Because, you know, a band is like a relationship. The more a band is just crazy together all the time, the less likely you can get a lot done. In a similar way to, if you kind of step away from it from time to time, it’s probably more organic and probably… if you’re not always doing it, you’ll have better ideas during the time you’re away."
“I think the time we spend together is perfect," says Chasny. “It's just enough to really appreciate it and not enough to drive each other nuts. The limited time means we know we can't mess around."