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Somnambulant State: An Interview With Pharmakon
Karl Smith , March 22nd, 2017 12:02

Ahead of the release of her third album under the Pharmakon moniker (and appearance at the Rewire Festival), and a decade since she first began the project, Karl Smith speaks to Margaret Chardiet about the unique power of noise, the peculiar vulgarity of human existence and the meaning of contact

Photograph by Caroline Schub

In political theory the term “Pharmakon” is more or less a synonym for the more familiar concept of the scapegoat – of ascribing the sins of the many to a single fetish object - and subsequently with the need for collective catharsis. And, in this sense, while “abrasive” and “immersive” are words too often bandied around to describe anything outside of the traditional pop music spectrum, as elements of Margaret Chardiet's Pharmakon project they certainly hold true.

Over the course of three albums and ten years Chardiet has established Pharmakon, if not exactly as a force of nature, as one of the most powerful contemporary sonic expressions of human nature itself. From 2013’s Abandon, through Bestial Burden the following year, to this month’s imminent release of Contact, the trilogy of records released under the Pharmakon alias have not so much held up a mirror to the psyche of the zeitgeist as plunged themselves, closed fisted, into the strange warmth of its darkest and most intimate areas and retracted guts in hand. Those three records are abrasive in the sense that, in listening, they systematically wear down our protective outer layers in order to expose what lies beneath, and they are immersive in the way of a reverse sensory deprivation: their aural totality is a forceful reminder that the bodily experience, while potent, is by no means the limit.

Where this differs from the accepted cliché, however, and where this aligns neatly with its etymology, is in their cathartic function as a means rather than an end – in its role both as proverbial Pharmakon and in forcing us as listeners to take up that role for ourselves.

Speaking to Chardiet over Skype, having just a few days earlier seen her performance at Berghain as part of Berlin's CTM Festival, it seems obvious to begin our conversation with the impeccable timing of Contact's release and what feels like our broad collective need for relief.

"Yeah, it’s really strange," she begins, acknowledging the alignment yet somewhat tentative of how it might then be interpreted. "When I was writing this record – writing the lyrics and the music, thinking of the concepts – I had no way of knowing that this is where we’d be right now. In a weird Jungian way it feels like it's tapping into some collective unconscious or something: it’s kind of eerie how much it relates to what’s going on at the moment in a political sense. But I don’t want to couch it in those terms, you know? Because that wasn’t the intention."

As caveats go, it's more than fair: by this point the infant presidency of Donald Trump has not only begun to feel ubiquitous within the rolling news cycle but also commonplace as a contextual yardstick by which to measure the potency of any cultural output. And while, on the one hand, it's hard to deny the effect (intended or otherwise) of our current political climate on interpreting any work of art, it's also unfair to date it so heavily within those parameters when there are clearly other concerns at work for the artist.

And this, too, is particularly true where Contact is concerned; the album is in a constant state of multifarious dialogue – with Chardiet, with the listener, with the two preceding Pharmakon albums, and with all the wider concerns attached – reaching both inward and outward simultaneously.

"This album is - in a large way - a sort of response, especially to the last one," Chardiet explains, "but it’s choosing to exist on the opposite side of the same spectrum. Instead of taking something that’s intimately personal and creating these concepts and ideas from and around that – of this idea of the body as a vessel that we’re stuck inside of and the times that it betrays the intentions of our mind; the disharmony between the two – I wanted to flip that over and look at the opposite.

"I wanted to look at the times when our minds can hijack our bodies in order to communicate its thoughts and its own needs – or when it can altogether transcend and exist outside of the limitations of the body. The whole record has a much more outward intention."

That theme – of mind-body connection and occasional dislocation, rather than straight-up disconnection – permeates Contact entirely. And while effectively it does so from Chardiet's own position within the world (it's her own face on the cover artwork positioned to "represent the mind," after all), as a form of expression it's not an album that can ever really be accused of straying into solipsistic territory across its six tracks.

"I do think that this idea of artists just talking about themselves, the idea of the personal as political, of personal as philosophical, is giving way to a more macro view – an interest in viewing things on a more universal level," she confirms when I ask if this outward swing in the Pharmakon output is indicative of something broader. "I think that the personal existential crisis has become a much larger-scale existential crisis – less concerned with the question of 'Why do I exist?' and more with questions like 'Why do humans exist?' or 'What are we doing here?', 'Do we have a right to be here?', and 'What is our purpose?'.

"Of course, these are questions that writers and thinkers and artists and regular people, who have no interest in art or literature or whatever, ask themselves at some point in their lives. But I think that right now there’s like a huge, communal, collective unconscious all asking very loudly at the same time because of where we’ve found ourselves."

Despite Chardiet's own reasonable protestations against locating Contact permanently at this fixed point in history, the notion of exactly "where we've found ourselves" does feel integral to the record. The idea of the trance state, for example, presented as a key album concept, naturally mirrors the announcement last year that Earth has officially entered the Anthropocene – a period in which the state of our environment is dominated by Human rather than natural, meteorological factors – and it's difficult not to link Contact with our own current sense of environmental sleepwalking on a global scale.

When I ask Chardiet how that idea of the trance, something people probably associate more with meditation or with quiet revelations in the sterile office of a NHS hypnotherapist, aligns itself conceptually with the gut wrenching forcefulness of Contact, it's clear straight away that she sees a distinction: "Whatever a trance state is," she begins "it’s not this kind of religious ideal of a trance state, you know? Have you ever watched footage of Appalachian snake handling churches or of people speaking in tongues? It’s a violent process: when they feel the hand of God or the hand of healing on them, it’s violent disgusting; they're in pain – in agony – their eyes are rolling into their heads, their bodies are shaking violently. It’s not always a pleasant thing."

In this sense, the sleepwalking comparison – the idea that Contact is an exploration of the Sleep/Wake divide as microcosm for split states of certainty and uncertainty in general – a term which has its own connotative roots in the violent history of the 20th Century, seems perhaps more potent.

"There’s a song on the record that I wrote about exactly what you’re talking about. It’s sort of about existing in a between state; about not knowing where the line is. There’s this kind of distinct idea of being awoken and being aware, but this is about being on the precipice of that – about feeling it somewhere in your vicinity but not being able to quite make out its form or to make out its meaning yet, but knowing that you’re striving towards it."

It's on this particular topic, too, that the idea of Chardiet's eschewing the "personal as political or philopshopical" is crystallised. Rather than an outright refusal, on Contact she has opted for a kind of stereocopic view that encompasses both the big and small pictures into a cogent whole. "Sometimes," she explains, "when you read a personal account of someone experiencing something, then it relates more specifically on a human level to your personal experience in a way that also makes it universal and makes it larger.

"I get these moments, I've had them ever since I was little – I used to call them 'death attacks.' All of a sudden I would just realise thatIi was going to die in a way that was not conceptual at all. I can say those words to you now and remain calm in my demeanour – we all know this, we know that we die, we figure this out by the time we’re four or five or something; we understand the concept and we think about it and we go to funerals and we lose friends. But then there’s these moments where that knowledge becomes real and it becomes a physical feeling. And even further than that, it becomes the understanding that not only will you die, but everyone that you know will die, and that humanity itself will die."

It's undoubtedly an enormous idea, difficult to get a firm hold on and possibly even the last insurmountable obstacle. And it's in this sense – perhaps because of its own peculiar enormity as a form – that Noise seems uniquely adept at broaching these questions. Though Chardiet is keen to note that a "noisy pop song" does not noise music make, the genre seems, as a result, to be on the rise. If not in actual prolificacy then in visibility.

"It’s important to note that as a genre, or a form of expression, or a community of artists – whatever the hell you want to call it – it’s existed since the late seventies or early eighties," she responds when I make note of this apparently new-found ubiquity. "You could even argue it’s existed since the early 1900s as music concrete on the more academic side. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for a very long time, and one that's been continually been morphing all the while. I think, if you’re referring to the fact that it may now be more visible in more mainstream culture, that the term noise has become kind of a buzzword, I think that the way in which people are using it is not always exactly aligned with what Noise means and has meant traditionally."

Skype, as it is seemingly wont to do, crackles out briefly into a static not-quite-silence and it crosses my mind that perhaps I've touched a nerve with this particular topic. Ultimately however, with sonic order restored, Chardiet continues unfazed: "But I also think that, on the other side, perhaps there is more of an interest in – or more of a conversation around – the actual concept of noise, the actual concept of experimental music and ideas. As with anything, though, there are bubbles where there is interest on a more mainstream level, and then the bubble bursts and it’s back down to being a small underground scene - one that has always existed, bubbling under the surface, no matter what journalists are talking about it, you know?"

But, while it may not have been her own overt intention, it's difficult once again not to agree that, rather than just the critical whims of music journalists, the correlation between Noise's increased prominence in contemporary culture and "where we've found ourselves" is more than just coincidence: "I think that, right now, just given the climate on a human scale - no matter where you are, no matter what your political leanings or ideas - there is this sort of intense energy happening. An energy that everyone is being completely crushed by, and I think that this could be a huge reason for the concept of noise coming up more and more and more in people’s minds, on a larger and larger scale. I think that could explain it; that could be exciting."

With all this in mind, there is a seemingly undeniable darkness – or bleakness – to the ideas which make up Contact's core: "There’s a certain nihilism to this record," Chardiet agrees, "It's really about our insignificance in the universe; about the fact that humanity doesn’t matter, but also abut the fact that if we realise this – ironically – we probably have a better chance of surviving as a species. The very things that drive us to our self-destruction, the most disgusting manifestations of our human nature, are a part of this need for the universe to revolve around us – to find place and meaning within the universe and to claim ownership over everything, even the idea of sentience. "We need to abandon that idea and focus on realising that we’re all the same animal, that we’re all cells living as part of a larger organism – to focus on our life isntead of our death."

It's particularly interesting that a part of our conversation which had begun with "a certain kind of nihilism," seems to have wandered at its end into more optimistic territory. "It’s nihilistically hippie optimism in a very wary way," she explains when I suggest that perhaps – for all its desolation – Contact may be the most positive of all the Pharmakon releases to date. "It’s not altogether more optimistic, but it’s asking questions about possible within all of that – it's asking whether you can value human experience and life when you don’t necessarily value the existence of humanity."

Collective unconscious, catharsis, the dichotomy of continued human existence, all of these questions – and these are questions Chardiet doesn't claim to resolve, "People should come to their own decisions," she explains, "I don’t have answers; that’s beyond any one individual's control or knowledge" – fittingly come back to the idea of contact.

"Contact in the way that I’m using it is sort of like a mirror of empathy – this idea that, yeah, you can make contact using the body or verbally - which again, really, is using the body - but there are forms of contact that exist completely outside of that. For instance, a record that you’re listening to – the sound and the words are completely separated from the person who made it. It’s not coming from a body, it’s coming from a machine, and yet it's something that was in someone’s mind, you’re just feeling it through a vessel that is not a body.

"There are things that are understood without being said, just with two people sitting next to each other in a room, with no visual cues and no body language. It’s empathy between you and somebody you’ve never met, just based on personal understanding, you know? All of these things. These are all different levels of contact. From the most banal, of the mind using the body to punch someone you’re angry at or kiss someone you love, to something as complicated as an almost psychic exchange of energy".

It's a description that is testament to the Pharmakon ethos as a whole – to the notion that to be human is to accept that there is a frequency beyond what we understand human to mean – where the counterpart to reaching inward is not to look passively outward, but to extend that reach as far as it possibly can.

Pharmakon plays as part of Rewire Festival in The Hague, running 31st March to 2nd April, with tickets here. Contact is release 31st March, via Sacred Bones

Follow @karlthomassmith on Twitter for more

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