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A Quietus Interview

Apocalyptic Dreaming: Ben Chasny On Six Organs Of Admittance
Ned Raggett , February 14th, 2011 11:11

Ned Raggett asks Ben Chasny about the new Six Organs Of Admittance album Asleep On The Floodplain

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Ben Chasny seems to get busier with his music as the years go forward. The sole core figure in the ever evolving Six Organs Of Admittance project – band, solo identity or something more entirely – has just come off a notable partnership in the group Rangda, also featuring drummer Chris Corsano and Richard Bishop, formerly of the Sun City Girls. Meantime, he’s just recently recorded a collaborative album with his partner Elisa Ambrogio to be released later in the year under the name 200 Years. There’s doubtless a lot more to come in any number of different directions.

But Six Organs itself is back with a new album, Asleep On The Floodplain, a stepping away from the epic apocalypse-ridden feeling of recent releases like Shelter From The Ash for a quieter, slightly calmer feeling, though still one shot through with the mysterious drama mixed with meditation that helped make Chasny’s name in the late 90s. The Quietus caught up with Chasny to discuss his latest work, and a whole lot more...

Something about the title of Asleep On The Floodplain suggests an overt parallel to Shelter From The Ash... the idea of a calm point - or even stasis - in the middle of disaster. Was this a conscious choice, both as a title and as a theme for both albums?

Ben Chasny: Hmm. I hadn't even thought about that until just now. Maybe it's because both titles came from dreams. Shelter... came from a dream I had where sand and ash were being poured from the heavens in a stream like a horrible waterfall and it got closer and closer, covering up the world and when it got to me it poured over me and I woke up. I named Floodplain... after a dream I had of my childhood home, which used to come very near to flooding ever year in the winter because we had a river in our backyard. Actually, the year after my family moved out the river finally found it's way into the house. I dream about that quite often so I guess you could say it was an unconscious choice, actually!

Has the naming after dreams occurred with other works of yours in general - or inspired songs directly? Or would you say it's been more conscious, if perhaps sometimes completely unplanned?

BC: None that I can really think of right now. It's sort of an anomaly, but I think it would be interesting to try to explore that more. There is a certain decadence associated with dreams that is appealing. Most of my recorded work is usually half improvisation, I would say. The songs build up around a base track. I just layer and add parts to one section and different parts to another. Usually the original piece is fairly improvised. The first song on the new record is 80% composed though, which is sort of different than most of my solo acoustic pieces. I wanted to see if I could do it. I'll definitely do more again.

To my ear, there's now long been something clear and distinct about your performing - a few notes into 'Above a Desert I've Never Seen' and I think, "Yeah, that's Ben." What are you currently learning about your art - new styles to interpret, new approaches to songwriting - that marks its current path?

BC: Thanks so much. I'm actually falling in love with playing the acoustic guitar again. I had sort of fallen out with it for a while. There's always so much to learn. I don't even know where to start. Recently I've been going back to some of the acoustic guitar players I was really into when I first started learning how to fingerpick, like Martin Carthy and Martin Simpson. I've always been more drawn towards melody and phrasing then speed or the monotonous alternate thumb patterns of the American Primitives. That's why I love Leo Kottke's A Shout Toward Noon record, which is criminally ignored due to it's sort of new-agey production and airbrushed cover. But the melodies are really beautiful on there.

I'm trying to become more proficient in fingerpicking in standard tuning, actually. The last year I've also been really inspired by traditional Persian music as well, especially solo saz or solo tar jams. I'm not quite at the point of actually studying it with a teacher, but the music has been inspiring to me. Do you know this Persian radio online? Radio Darvish? It's been turning me on to some great musicians that I didn't know about before.

With the Kottke example in mind, what else is out there that might be lost due to the packaging? Not necessarily music - how an artistic product is sold (however you define the term) often relies on the packaging or presentation, and I'm interested in whatever other discoveries of yours fall into that category where something wonderful is hidden by a layer of something that's anything but...

BC: I guess it depends on fashion. Right now it is fashionable to release music on cassette tape and actually use new age imagery. 10 years ago that shit would not fly (all the more reason for people to rediscover that fine record). And I'd be will to bet it won't fly 10 years from now. But that is fashion. So I don't know. Is the packaging to get the art sold or is the art in integral part of the release? It's hard to imagine Caroliner releases being released like Francisco López CDs, with no cover in a slimline jewel case. I can't really think of anything right now where there was a hidden treasure underneath something else.

Moments like the descending chord string arrangements on 'Hold But Let Go' and the nervous electric shimmer introducing 'S/word and Leviathan' to name just two points on the album, underscore for me what are key elements in your work - that while there can be a 'central' song, it is often about the moments in each song which lends them a distinct character. It always feels less like 'production touches', or whatever phrase you'd care to name, and more a sense of absolute and intrinsic element. Is this how you see your work, whether in the writing or the recording?

BC: It's hard to tell if those are a style or crutches keeping me back from new things. I guess style is a crutch in a way. I have a hard time analyzing my own stuff. When I start to think about it, I guess it comes down to the fact that those are sounds that I just enjoy. I enjoy listening to them and I enjoy playing them. Maybe that is why I don't make huge leaps as far as the way things sound. The beginning of 'S/word and Leviathan' is a saz, actually - albeit one played in a very unorthodox manner.

Could you explain the difference in this case between unorthodox and not, and if that has applied to other instruments you've explored over time?

BC: Generally the saz is played with a big plectrum but on that song I fingerpick the three courses of strings rapidly and tune a couple of the courses to each other to make a sort of buzzing sound. I don't think I have a lot of unorthodox techniques in general. Maybe while recording at home. I like to drop a SM57 in the sound-hole of the guitar and mix that track with a track recorded outside with a nicer mic to make a unique sound of the acoustic. It's a very personal sound and you can really hear the creaks and cracks of the instrument that way.

There's been a constant sense of collaboration and seemingly unexpected detours throughout your recording and performing history, almost a sense of no one through line - last year saw the debut of Rangda, you've just been working with Elisa on 200 Years, recently there was the collaborative novel with Joseph Mattson and there's much more which could be named. Do you see Six Organs as the center of your work or, ultimately, one facet of many, if the one that is most centered on you?

BC: Yeah, definitely. That's another reason the sound of Six Organs stays pretty true to a certain path. If I want to play garage rock I will start a new band, you know? So that is also why I end up in all these other projects. But I like playing with different people. It's pretty much how I communicate with people, how good times are had. There's always a unique sound with each combo. I think of it in terms much more like a jazz musician. Why wouldn't I want to make music with different people in different settings? It creates different sounds. I mean, what if Lennon hadn't called up McCartney at midnight, where we we all be? We'd all be listening to the Dave Clark 5, right? Fuck that shit, let's jam.

Has there been anyone you'd like to work with but the opportunity hasn't arisen yet? And are there any regrets over missed chances?

BC: Yeah, there are a lot of people. I'd rather not mention them in public before I get a chance to ask in person. Mostly friends though. I don't really go out and try to collaborate with people that I don't already know. I guess there is something to be said for admiring someone's work and wanting to make music together and sometimes that does make great friendships, like when I did the August Born project with Hiroyuki Usui. Generally I only work with people I am friends with already, though.

Frank Kimenai wrote me about the Incubate project you participated in and its roots in the Glocal movement - if I can quote his note for a bit: "It is a project we put up together with the province of Noord Brabant, and has a few aims. The most important one is the gain awareness on the typical Brabant traditions and habits, that are pretty special, but most people that live in Brabant take for granted, or don’t even know. The Glocal project also tries to activate dynamics between urban and rural culture. We have a beautiful countryside here in Brabant, only 10 miles from most big city centres, but somehow, people that live in the city will easier travel to the other side of the world, instead of taking a bicycle and check out their own countryside." Had you participated or worked in any sort of organized effort along these lines before, either where you live or elsewhere?

BC: No, I hadn't. That was pretty exciting and I never really get invited to do anything like that so I wanted to make the most of it.

Frank went on to say: "The project of Ben focuses on the Roadside shrines for the holy virgin Mary, who is strongly present in the Catholic roots of Brabant. The roadside chapels (small shrines, like the ones on this site:) were built on places where for example small statues were found, or miracles happened. They were built often without consent of the church institute, and therefore symbolize the power of the people versus the institute." In a way this almost put me in mind of your collaborations with David Tibet of Current 93, given his own radical interpretations of Christianity as expressed through his art in a way that most organized churches, Catholic or otherwise, could not accept. Has this kind of spiritual or philosophical approach been something at the heart of your work as well as you see it, consciously or not?

BC: When I was working with Tibet I really wasn't thinking about Christianity at all. I was mostly just trying to write some guitar parts that would be suitable to Current 93. Being a fan of the band for long before that, I knew there was a certain tradition there. I would say that unorthodox or downright heretical interpretations and views inspire me. For instance, with this project, each of the shrines was actually a little monument to the individuality of each neighborhood were the shrines were built and they were also testaments to the anti-authoritarian spirituality of the people. This was appealing for it's egalitarian religious-mindset.

Did you notice much in the day to day surrounding the shrines aside from the presentation by the historian who went with you - were people regularly acknowledging them, leaving signs or tokens there, or something else?

BC: Oh yeah, they are still quite active. There was a 50 year wedding anniversary going on at one of them and there were a lot of fresh flowers at a lot of them. Many were kept up very well, with surrounding gardens. They were very much a part of the community.

Frank concluded by noting: "…we sent Ben on a journey with an historian from the province, alongside the shrines. The historian told Ben the stories, and Ben got influenced by these stories and the surroundings, and composed music on that inspiration!" How did the performance at Incubate turn out and what was the reaction from the audience or audience members? Are you planning on releasing a live document or a studio rerecording, or something else?

BC: For me, it wasn't such a linear method of inspiration. It wasn't so much about input/output. To think of it that way would sort of reduce my role to machine. There were a lot of things going on. One of the things I did was not think at all. If you are constantly so intent on every aspect of your surroundings you might not remember anything but raw data. What I was looking for was the immaterial and qualitative aspect of the whole trip (not just the spaces of the shrines) and not just the quantifiable relationships between people, myths and politics.

At the same time, I tried to engage in the project phenomenologically, without presuppositions, in order to explore a certain poetics. I think it turned out pretty well. I was happy with it all in the end and it seemed they were too, which was important to me. I plan on releasing the recording of the performance on vinyl by myself getting the old Pavilion records up and running again in the next few months.

Is this overall process you mention something you've explored before in any work, or is it something relatively new, for this specific context?

BC: It was completely new because I had never been in a situation where I was asked to make music based on something that was presented to me. It is sort of a strange thing and I didn't want to approach it like program music, where certain sounds had direct correlations to direct phenomenon - such as perhaps a lot of harmonics relating to church bells. That seemed a little cheesy to me. But it had to connect somehow. So approaching the space between the phenomenon and myself, in an intermediate area, seemed the best way. In that way it was more a matter of poetics, or at least I like to tell myself.

Our last formal conversation for the Quietus was memorable for your skeptical, very concerned thoughts on the impact of technology on not merely the role of music but the sense of community -- to quote some parts of it: "I do believe we are becoming addicted to information....the more people become addicted to information and the faster they can obtain that information, the less they will be able to contemplate that information, and it is the contemplation of the information which makes it art....As music began to be disseminated in a much less focused manner it began to lose its means as a way to strengthen communities, at least on a reproduced scale that was outside of a performance." Do you find that there is any potential improvement or response to this view two years on? Do you feel your own work, whether through collaboration, efforts like the Incubate festival or more, can be an active counterexample?

BC: That conversation was a lot of fun. I definitely threw the apocalyptic idea of the singularity in there for more fun than reality. It's always fun to use current eschatological concerns to spice up dialogue, if for no other reason than to sit in the seat of fiction. But the kooky idea of the singularity is different than the real idea of biomechanics and actually making bodies into machine, but that is a different matter. Anyway, I have an affinity with critics of modernity like Virilio and Illich but I don't think of what I do as any form of a counter-example or some sort of praxis. I just don't care that much anymore. Let everyone burn in their own way.

The breadth of interests suggested by your work over the years presumably isn't a complete portrait of what you enjoy or are inspired by. Is there something that you've always responded to - as a creator, an appreciator, a fan, and by no means necessarily musically -- that hasn't been touched on in your work, at least at this point in time?

BC: I love paper airplanes. That has never really worked itself into the music. Not so much the types that you fold and fly from a single piece of paper but more the type that was made popular with those "white wings" style kits you could buy at a hobby house. Anyone who saw those kits realized that they could design their own and use card stock. There is very something very peaceful about spending an hour or two designing and carefully putting together a paper plane. Again, I am talking more the types of planes that the Japanese swept the second international paper airplane contest in 1985 in Seattle with. That magazine Readymade put up a paper airplane blueprint of mine online a few years ago.

A band name, or a professional nom de plume, might be something that worked at one point that might not work later. Has Six Organs Of Admittance retained an essential spark or sense of identity for you after all this time, or do you ever feel it represents something potentially long passed?

BC: I think the band's name is probably not the best one for straight up commerce. I can imagine it keeping people from checking out the music. It seemed good for very obscure psych folk in an edition of 50 or something, like in the beginning. In that way sometimes it seems a bit obsolete. On a personal level, though, I actually relate to it more and more as the years go by. It was originally inspired by a Buddhist term that meant the five senses plus the soul. I am no Buddhist and it was definitely more the typical psychedelic imagery tied to eastern religion type-trope when I scrawled it across the first record.

However, before the Dark Noontide record I began to investigate the work of Henry Corbin. He definitely gave the name new meaning for me with his ideas about the active Imagination, which is an organ itself. Now, 10 years later, I feel I have gone from reading Corbin somewhat from a distance to being very close to him and his ideas, even moving past and doing investigations into worlds he pointed towards. So the name is definitely tied to me, which is why I don't mind people not liking it or understanding it, because I know its real reason and meaning.

Perhaps as a final question: what, if anything, is most intuitive or unexplainable even to yourself about your work in whatever guise? Is there something core that you always find is there, but which resists any attempt to easily understand why it might be there to begin with?

BC: I think at the heart of it I just love the sound of guitar. That sounds pretty simple and naive, but I always think about the time when I was about ten years old and dreaming of having a guitar and thinking if I had one I just wanted to make one note ring out. I just wanted to make a single note so badly. I can't explain it. Thinking back on it I can remember this feeling very strongly. Maybe that is still buried inside of me and I don't know if I've ever gotten the satisfaction of that one imaginary note. Perhaps it is what drives me. I don't know. It is a hard emotion to explain.