Six Organs of Admittance 2024
Photo: Kami Chasny / Pitch Perfect PR

Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny Chats About How ‘Time Is Glass’

Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny discusses late 1990s folk, music journalism, his independent publication, and new record Time Is Glass.

Time Is Glass
Six Organs of Admittance
Drag City
26 April 2024

For a little over 25 years, Ben Chasny has been creating spellbinding, captivating works for guitar as Six Organs of Admittance, both by himself and with a rotating cadre of some of underground music’s brightest, most imaginative players. Getting his start in the late 1990s in Northern California, several hours north of San Francisco, he would help take both psychedelic and folk music to unprecedented levels of popularity not seen since the 1960s, first as part of the cohort of beyond obscure psych musicians written about in independent musician magazines like Ptolemaic Terrascope and, later, as part of the New Weird America movement when he was name-checked in David Keenan’s article for The Wire in 2003, that coined the term.

When Chasny began making music as Six Organs of Admittance, barely anyone knew who John Fahey was, let alone lesser-known guitarists like Robbie Basho. Chasny himself didn’t even know Basho, at that time, which we uncovered over the course of a lovely hour-long chat from his Humboldt County headquarters. “I just wanted to play fast, like Leo Kottke,” he jokes when discussing Six Organ’s origin story, with his standard openness, honesty, and warmth.

Throughout a little more than a quarter-century and nearly 40 releases, Chasney has taken inspiration from everything from Mexican poet Octavio Paz to his self-created system of limitations, the Hexadic System, to the singular Northern California landscape. 

For a little under an hour, we talked about the origin of Six Organs of Admittance, what it was like playing folk music in the late 1990s, the difference between genre and a scene, music journalism, and helping to put out his independent publication, Head Voice, and, most importantly, all about his new record Time Is Glass, which is releasing via Drag City on 26th April.

To start, I believe I read you’d recently returned to your home in Humboldt County before making your new record, Time Is Glass. Is that right?

Well, a little bit. I’ve been here since 2019, but this is the first full-length I’ve recorded with Drag City here. Some of (2003’s) Compathia was recorded here but not the whole record. I did a record with Three Lobed Records called Unveiled a few years ago that was recorded here, but that was during the pandemic, so things didn’t really feel normal.

I didn’t see anything listed on the credits. Was anybody else involved in making this record?

No, no, I did. I recorded it, and all the instruments are me. It was mostly recorded at my house, but some of it was up at my friend Donovan (Quinn)’s house, who lives pretty close. I do a band with him called New Bums. He lives pretty close by. He moved here during the pandemic. He’s got a nice house about 15 minutes away from me that’s really quiet, so I went up there to record some of the quieter songs. Other than that, I engineered it, mixed it, recorded it. It’s kind of a return to the earlier Six Organs’ stuff where I would do everything.

You tend to work with many different people. Is there much difference between collaboration and working completely solo?

Not really. When I work with people, I tend to work with friends. It’s not very scripted. I tend to play them the material and then trust them to come up with the right parts.

Do you feel like there’s much of a difference in how that material is received, especially live?

To tell you the truth, I’ve never really played a lot of out and improvised stuff live. Maybe early on, like at the Terrastock Festival in Seattle, where we did some long improvisations. Mostly, I tend towards songs, though, just because it’s easier to write out a setlist. If I leave it up to my brain to come up with something, I won’t. I’ll just go blank. It’s like when you walk into Amoeba Records. If you don’t have a list, you’ll forget every band that you like. It’s like, “What am I looking for? I have no idea.” It’s the same thing on-stage.

It’s the same thing when I improvise, where I forget how to play music. I can’t figure it out on the spot. If I have to think on the spot, I’m no good. It’s just how my brain works.

I wanted to ask you some questions about the new record. I saw a quote about the album opener and lead single, “The Mission”, that said something about it being inspired by a friend getting into a new relationship with someone from a different culture, which he described as both “terrifying and sublime.” Can you tell us a little bit more about “The Mission?”

I don’t know about a new culture. He just moved to a different country. It wasn’t like it was a whole new thing, as he was Irish. But he was in a new country, and it was a different thing. He would tell me about it, which inspired some of the imagery of the song. He would have a fire in the background sometimes. That’s where some of the fire imagery in that song comes from. Sometimes, I just like to write songs for friends. It feels like a nice thing to do.

How do you tend to take an abstract feeling, theme, or idea and spin it into a song? What does that process tend to look like?

That’s a pretty abstract thing. I don’t really have a formula. That song started as a guitar line. I had this idea for a double-stop melody. It’s less of a linear process; it starts very nebulous, with all sorts of ideas and imagery, and it becomes more crystalline as the song progresses. It’s less of “I’m in this place, and I want to get to this other place” and more like there are all these thoughts and ideas floating around, and they congeal more and more into a solid body.

How do you tend to decide what to get rid of?

Trial and error, and it’s got to present itself in music as music, as well. There might be ideas that are good ideas but that don’t come across musically. If it’s a thought, a line, or an image, maybe it doesn’t match up. If you can’t sing it—or you can sing it—but the consonants don’t match up well together, they get jettisoned.

If a song is working, it will have a certain gravity, a certain force that will bring it all together. That’s what you hope for, anyway.

I find that so fascinating, too; that no matter how experienced you get with these things, there’s always some aspect of that – it almost feels mystical to me, like there’s this ineffable feeling. The feeling aspect of it has always been intriguing to me.

That’s the great thing about songwriting. It’s still a mystery. You have different songwriters who say, “It’s this” or “it’s that”. They may have their process, but, in general, if you take thousands and thousands of different songwriters, it is still a mystery how these things get done.

You named the second track “Hephaestus”, the Greek God of craftsmanship. What brought Hephaestus to mind when you named that track?

That’s one of the very few tracks that I tried to do almost in a programmatic way, having the music actually sound like the title. I don’t usually do that. I usually have a title that can go along with the music. On “Hephaestus”, I was trying to make music that sounded like it was inside of a primordial workshop, with anvils and lava and all that good stuff. That’s how it got its title.

How did you evoke that primordial feeling in the song?

One of the things was the bass. I wanted a really heavy bass that represented that spirit of creation – a really heavy, deep bass. That song is a good example of taking stuff out. You have to leave something for the listener to do. 

Speaking of textures, later on in the album, on “Summer’s Last Rays”, that sounds like it has a harmonium. Is that right? If so, is that your first time using harmonium on a Six Organs Of Admittance album?

Yeah, that’s harmonium. There’s a little harmonium on Asleep on the Floor Plain on the last song. I bought that harmonium for my partner, Eliza, but then I ended up using it all the time. There’s a bunch of harmonium on a split I did for Three Lobed Records with William Tyler (2015’s Parallelogram). My side has a bunch of harmonium on it. I love the sound of blasted harmonium – you know, a harmonium that’s really distorted and overblown. It’s one of my favorite sounds. So I’ve been doing that a lot lately. There’s one sound that’s actually a harmonium, but I knocked it down a couple of octaves and put a phaser on it. There’s a sound that comes in that almost sounds like an organ, like a low organ kind of wheezing. That is also a harmonium, but it’s also processed. It’s too low of an octave for a natural harmonium.

Do you do that all on the computer? What do you tend to record on?

Lately, I’ve been doing everything in the box. I do have a four-track that I’ll use to bounce things back and forth. It’s funny; there are all these tape plugins and everything, but I just use a four-track if I want things to sound a little degraded. As far as recording setup, I have a little studio, some preamps, and mics that I’ve collected over the yeartoto capture my own sounds. That’s the nice thing when it’s just one person. It’s easy for me to have enough, a little inexpensive gear to record just me.

As far as software goes, I record with Cubase. I’ve been using Cubase for a long, long time. I think Cubase LE came free with Firestudio; I used to use a Firestudio Audio Interface. I used to use it for all my early Drag City demos, like The Sun Awakens and Shelter from the Ash.

Speaking of harmoniums, many of your albums, especially the earliest ones, remind me of Indian classical music. Is Indian classical music an influence on Six Organs of Admittance at all?

It was never really an inspiration. It’s not that I didn’t or never tried to – it’s weird. I used to do a lot more modal playing, which I think is where it starts to sound in that camp because I wasn’t interested in chords. I don’t know where some of the weird stuff I was into came from. I was really into live Leo Kottke records. I was just trying to play fast like Leo Kottke, but more and more modal and less chordal.

Six Organs of Admittance 2024
Photo: Kami Chasny / Pitch Perfect PR

Speaking of influences, listening to your discography, I’m reminded of a lot of folk guitarists like Robbie Basho and Leo Kottke, as you mentioned. That kind of stuff was not nearly as well-known when you were first starting out as it is today. How did you come across this world of music at that time, and why did it speak to you?

I think it was not as popular as in that major independent labels are now releasing people who play that kind of music, and that definitely wasn’t happening. There was a pretty good scene of people who were into that, though, but it just wasn’t popular. It just wasn’t a popular thing at the time.

I was playing acoustic guitar at the time. I didn’t even hear Basho until I’d already released two albums, when someone in Germany said, “You have to listen to Basho,” and made me a tape—the 12-string stuff. It was pretty fun, but I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t do this.” But I had heard Kottke and just wanted to play that material as fast as possible.

Had you been playing guitar for a while when you started working on that material?

What happened was I was kind of in punk bands playing bass and electric guitar. I was kind of in the local punk scene but then I just dropped out. I had very low overhead at the time. This was back in the days when you could work very part-time and sustain yourself. I spent the rest of my time teaching myself guitar. So I spent about two years just working and playing guitar every day. That’s when I started working on the Six Organs records.

Was that in Northern California, also?

Yeah, that was in Humboldt County, where I am now.

Who were some of the punk bands around at that time? Do you remember?

When I was in high school, I was in different bands. I played in a trio with the drummer I would later play with in Comets on Fire. I’m still friends with some of the people I was playing music with back then, the trio being one of them. 

We’re in Northern California, about six hours north of San Francisco, so we’d have a lot of East Bay bands coming up at the time. I’d say Humboldt County is about 60% influenced by the East Bay scene that was going on, like the Gilman Street scene. Those were the bands that would get in the van and come up because it’s so far. My band opened for Green Day a couple of times before they were signed to a label.

All those Lookout (Records) bands used to come up and play all the time, too. That was the scene.

Were there others who would end up getting into the free folk stuff, as well?

No, not the free folk stuff. That’s part of why I dropped out of that scene: I started getting into acoustic guitar, and nobody cared at all. So there was no place to play.

There were no friends who were into it. I tried to turn a few friends onto it, but no one cared. So I became kind of a hermit, getting into psych-folk stuff like the Incredible String Band and Comus and Ghost. Like I said, it was very East Bay-influenced stuff. And when I recorded my first Six Organs record, I gave a few copies to people from the scene. But no one really cared. And I get it, I understand. It’s like, “What’s this weird guy doing? I don’t give a shit about this music!” That’s why I became a hermit; it wasn’t really happening. But later on, when I moved to Santa Cruz, a bunch of cool stuff started happening, and you started having cool bands like Starving Weirdos. So it’s really cool to go back and hang with the Starving Weirdos guys – like Merrick owns the best club in the area. Then the band White Manna started playing. They were putting out records on Holy Mountain. It just wasn’t very popular in 1999 and 2000.

That’s part of why I phrased it like I did. Shoot, a lot of what we now consider the classic psychedelic folk records were probably recorded in the 1990s, but it was all seemingly isolated. There was a cool record store here called People’s Records, though. The owner had a great collection of folk records that nobody was buying. So I was getting John Fahey albums for $3.00, and you’d have a copy of John Martin’s Solid Air for $3.00 in perfect condition. So I was able to get all this great folk, British folk stuff because the owner of People’s Records knew what I liked. He’d be like, “You like Nick Drake? You should check out John Martin!” 

This was before you could look stuff up on the Internet. I didn’t know anything. I was just a kid. So he helped me get into all kinds of good stuff, stuff like Fairport Convention. There may not have been many people my age who were into folk music, but there were a lot of really good used folk records here. It was a fantastic time to be a record collector. God, I miss that! Good days for vinyl foraging.

How did people first hear your stuff? You mentioned the Terrastock Festival being your second show.

Back then, there were enough people collecting records – and collecting weird records – that you could sell out a printing of 500 records just by being a weird band. That doesn’t happen now. There was a whole network of ‘zines and underground catalogs that were carrying this stuff. So you would write to one of those underground catalogs and be like, “Do you want to carry this record?” And they might pick up 25 or 50 copies. So between that and great ‘zines – Phil McMullen of Ptolemaic Terrascope, Phil still does that. He was writing about it.

Then there was a really great ‘zine called 200 Pound Underground, which is my friend Tony Rettmann. Now there’s No Idols, it’s a newsletter that Tony writes. He wrote a great book on Straight Edge. He writes a lot about punk and hardcore, now. So you had catalogs and you had ‘zines like First Exposure, Ajax; you had catalogs like Road Cone Catalog, Blackjack Catalog, and if you had a weird record, they would pick it up. So that’s how it all started.

Were there any connections that would turn out to be especially important?

Ptolemaic Terrascope was definitely important, as they ran a big article on my work. And then he used to invite us to play at his festival, Terrastock. We did five of them, and I played two. I played the one in Seattle, and then I played the one in Boston. Those were sort-of the first things. Then I just made friends through the ‘zine. There’s a fellow named John Allen who used to be a DJ on WFMU. He ran a label called New World of Sound. He did a lot of No Neck Blues Band and stuff like that. The first Six Organs of Admittance show was opening for John Fahey, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and No Neck Blues Band. It was all because of WFMU DJs, just because you were doing weird music.

I was reading the New Weird America article written by David Keenan in The Wire in 2003. He commented that a lot of this music came about because of the need to forge “alternative networks of communication.” How important are those alternative networks of communication in the age of the Internet?

Any time I’m asked about something like this, people seem to keep forgetting, or need to be reminded, that there’s a difference between genre and a scene. A lot of people mix up genre and scene, which is why they have a hard time describing what’s going on. People use the term New Weird America like it’s interchangeable with other things, but it’s really not. When Keenan wrote that article, he was talking specifically about people who knew each other because of a scene, and scenes have to do with communication and communication between people. Whereas genre describes what the music sounds like. Genre describes the horizon of expectation. A genre lets people know what the music might sound like. With New Weird America, you can’t use that as a genre because Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano don’t sound anything like Joshua Burkett, who plays very quiet acoustic guitar. But it’s a scene. They know each other very well.

Now, everybody communicates with everybody. So, I don’t know what a scene would be right now. You have friends. You have localized scenes, but everything’s so instantaneously set up in this world. Other people have talked about how hard it is to have local scenes these days, but there are definitely still local scenes.

Do you still do ‘zine interviews these days?

I started a ‘zine with some of my buddies, Head Voice, so I’m usually where you are now. We felt it needed to exist, as it’s most talking to people about the production side of things. It’s like Tape Op, but Tape Op was 20 years ago. We wanted to start a ‘zine and talk to people about recording but also speak to people who never get asked about recording. You always need to be at a certain level before you get asked about recording.

For instance, in our first issue, we talked to Naomi Yang from Galaxie 500 about her bass tone. She should have probably done that interview a long time ago with Bass Guitar Magazine or something. That’s why we started it: so that we can ask people we really enjoy, people whose music we really enjoy listening to, how they made that music.

Have you learned any particularly interesting revelations, or have you talked to any particular favorite? 

We’ve got some cool ones coming up, and we’ve only put out one issue now, and then our next issue is coming out in May. The first issue had a really big interview with Matt Valentine, which was very, very fun to talk to him about. We try to do it in a way that is also inspiring, in a way that we hope when people read that other people recording their music are inspired. Our motto is “You’re doing nothing wrong” because there’s such a YouTube cottage industry of people telling you how you’re recording wrong. You’re doing nothing wrong.

That’s our thing. Just make music. It doesn’t matter how you do it or whatever.

Absolutely. I come from a recording background, too. I absolutely feel you.

That makes more sense why you’re asking what I record on then. I mean, when I did For Octavio Paz, I recorded with the SM57 in the sound hole of the guitar. You know, that’s “incorrect”. Plus, my intonation was so off that anything past the full fret sounded massively out of tune. But I put out the record, and I think that record is okay. It stands for what it is. And I would have hated not to record that record because my guitar wasn’t perfect. So that’s sort of what I go back to.

What’s next? What do you have planned for the future?

I’m going to do a West Coast tour in late May. Then, I think the Midwest will be like September, and then DC and the East Coast. I haven’t actually been out on the road and touring a record since 2017. So, yeah, I’ll be doing some touring, and I have some stuff coming out. There’s some fun stuff coming out this year that I’ll be announcing shortly.