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A Quietus Interview

Hazy Debauchery: Comets On Fire Interviewed
Colm McAuliffe , November 28th, 2013 09:21

Ahead of their set at the final ATP holiday camp festival this weekend, Californian noise rockers Comets On Fire tell Colm McAuliffe about reuniting, psychedelic "secret handshakes" and memories (or what's left them) of holiday camp weekenders past

Ben Chasny is sat down with a pen and paper, writing some new Six Organs Of Admittance material, when I call to discuss the Comets On Fire reunion. I mention to him that I spoke to his bandmates, Ethan Miller and Noel von Harmonson, over the course of the previous few days to chat about the band’s sudden reappearance into the spotlight, courtesy of their slot at the final ATP. 

“Those fuckin’ assholes!”, interrupts Chasny. “Oh wait… they said nice things about me? Shit man.”

Over the course of four albums, innumerable eps, handmades and collaborations and seemingly endless touring, the hirsute Santa Cruz psych rock quintet maintained a relentless, galloping momentum, centred upon their live shows, an incandescent conflagration of bewailing guitars and seventies rock incineration. As dubious as that may sound, it often worked magnificently, requiring a re-calibration of one’s biorhythms after every show. But after 2006’s comparatively mid-tempo Avatar, Chasny focused on his Six Organs Of Admittance and Miller embraced his inner Eagle with Howlin’ Rain, the fire seemed to burn out. So what exactly happened? 

“Well, I don’t really wanna sell those guys [Miller and Harmonson] out! It's funny that you've already talked to them, I didn't ask them what they said!”, laughs Chasny. “I know those two characters very well! I can imagine how both told you stories. Ethan is a storyteller at heart, he could tell you a story that just happened of something you were a part of and you would be like, 'Woah! I didn't realise it was so exciting! That was one exciting trip to the store we just did!”

This is true. Miller is staggeringly loquacious, his recollections teeming with wide-eyed wonder and awe. “We were pushing hard,” he says of the band’s shutting down. “We started to put pressure on ourselves, we sold some records, there were certain successes, they weren't huge by the great scheme of things but, by our standards, we were surprised by some of those successes. We pushed ourselves hard to make different records from record to record, to make big artistic statements that moved forward, like the great filmmakers do. You don't just look at the next Fellini movie and say, 'Oh! Same as the last one! There you go!', we were trying to surprise, shock and challenge our fans in a good way and I think that's hard for bands like that because you're really pushing your comfort zone, enhancing and destroying the things you do best each time and all that stuff is complicated artistically. As Miles Davis said in the mid-1970s after his fifteen year-run or whatever, 'I was spent! Maybe the last one was pretty good but I don't have much more there to do for a while' and I think we kind of needed to go off and do our own things and figure out some of that.”

The band operated as a democracy but surely this must have resulted in some pretty intense clashes? “Where there's five of us in Comets, we've always tried to operate as democratically as possible, for better or for worse”, reflects von Harmonson, the band’s Echoplex manipulator and also guitarist on this tour. “On the one hand, when we would play shows, we were pretty convinced that we had tried and tested those songs and we were 100% signed off [on them]. But it took forever, we were such a slow working band and getting things together, there would always be one or two guys who would be like 'I don't know about this bit, I don't know about this song, this show, this cover artwork'. We always wanted everyone to be totally on board with everything we did. So that was great at times and excruciating at others. So, with everyone keeps busy with creative stuff, mostly music. We all just splintered off and did whatever was right in front of us.”

“Being democratic was initially the best way to go and as time went on, we realised a lot of other bands don't operate that way. Or maybe there's a benefit of having someone in the band who says, 'I’m just excited to play music. I don't care what we play!'. Everyone was very opinionated, we tried to be very careful with what we put out there and how we presented it. On the one hand we were pretty wild to see live but we were also extremely thoughtful, mulling over all the different angles of the aesthetic we put out there.”

“When you have a democratic band and you have five dominant personalities,” confirms Miller, “you got a fuckin' pretty electrical environment. That tension, that electricity between the personalities, sometimes it’s like a huge energy source, a huge power when everyone is working together and other times it's really toxic and difficult to be in the middle. After being in a van together for eight, nine years and gunning pretty hard, we felt like we were living in the middle of everyone else's electrical storm so, on a personal and artistic level, we had to take some time to detoxify that creative environment and personal environment between us. I think we had faith that hopefully taking a break would allow the creative juices to rejuvenate and to allow that environment to cool and maybe get perspective on how to harness our energies in creative ways without creating a dangerous place for us to be socially with each other. But this high energy is positive for the music. If everyone mellowed out, we may as well be golfing instead of playing music, that's the heart of the energy of Comets On Fire”.

The trajectory of the band is concomitant with a massive upsurge in everything psych-related, as tenuous as this link may often be. “When we were starting Comets, it was pre-internet, or it was slow and dial-up,” reflects Miller. “Sixties psychedelic music - even if you're talking beyond Surrealistic Pillow and a couple of Hendrix records - was really underground. It was rare and expensive to get those records, nothing had been digitised yet [maybe just] Akarma and some of those Italian bootleg vinyl labels had issued really underground cultish psych. At the same time, we were getting CD-Rs of Les Rallizes Dénudés which no-one had ever heard before and some super limited edition Japanese psych shit from the 1980s and early 1990s. And you had to write to somebody with a letter saying, 'Hey can you send me this?', paying big sums to some guy and you play that record and it was like, 'Psychedelic! Fuck! Listen to this!'! And all that stuff was, just for a brief moment, a secret handshake. And it was influencing us and we had the enviable position of knowing something, quickly becoming experts on this underground music that the five of us were really into that the rest of the world didn't know about. When we included elements of blown out Japanese psych stuff, the rest of the world was like, 'Woooah!'. Let's give the world a taste of this through our vision. It's a lucky moment to be able to have lived before the internet. There's no more secret handshakes except for some violent terrorist factions! It kinda takes the fun out of secret societies. But that's kind of shitty thing to say too when you keep secrets from the rest of the world. That's kind of a fucked up attitude. The best case scenario is to keep secrets from the rest of the world, portray elements of them in your own music and sell records to the rest of the world so they can enjoy them strictly through your shit!”

“[In the early days], if somebody wrote a review in a magazine, it blew us away,” says Harmonson. “Chasny was bringing a lot of Keiji Haino to the table and Ethan and I were moving away from our Blue Cheer records into deeper, more obscure British and American and world psych. The free jazz stuff comes from me, ten years ago we'd be driving through Maryland on tour blasting Peter Brötzmann or live John Coltrane while everyone else was sitting there with headaches! We wanted to mix things up and try different ideas out and not become too complacent, and this 'psych rock' scene wasn't really around when we started and it started to become detectable and we started looking for ideas to give our presentation more of a unique slant.”

Photograph courtesy of Mathieu Betard

The band’s reconvening came about when Chasny recruited Comets as his backing band for his most recent Six Organs album, Ascent. “Utri [Kushner, drums] and I live in the Bay Area,” declares Miller, “but that was literally the first time all five of us had been in a room together since we walked off stage at Sub Pop's 20th anniversary. So, at the time, it had been five years. That was a really fun weekend, it wasn’t like, 'Fuck you, good riddance assholes!', it probably was like, 'Hey, let's do this again' but people fade into their lives. The Six Organs session didn't have that Comets tension. Musically, it had the fun electricity, we were doing a Comets-esque thing but it wasn't a democracy. Chasny was running it, we were doing it for him, he was the musical director, we didn't have to do any of the decision making. So, actually, having a leader like that takes a lot of tension out of the group.”

“The ATP shows have set us back a little bit,” reveals Chasny. “At the beginning of the year, we were just getting back together, we weren't gonna tell anybody, we were gonna make a record and probably release it ourselves. It was gonna be a surprise: 'Hey! Here's a new Comets record'. And then ATP asked to do this thing and we had been already practising and playing and we had such a good time with ATP, they've been so nice to us, so we said, ‘Yes.’ We ended up practicing and rehearsing a bunch of old songs. So it set us back a bit in terms of doing new stuff but the original plan was to try and do new stuff.”

Comets On Fire are very much part of the ATP lineage and credit the festival with playing a significant part in their success. I asked Harmonson, Miller and Chasny for their most debauched memories of ATP’s past and got some wildly varying answers…

“No. I don't think anything bizarre or exciting ever happened,” asserts von Harmonson.

“He’s lying through his teeth!”, gasps Miller. “Because every time we've been there we've caused some kind of havoc! I'm the worst because I'm the first to bed - whereas some of the other cats are like, ‘No way man, three days, I'm not going to bed - I'm tearing this place apart!’ So, for the first couple of years that we went there, our chalet became the party chalet. Bands turn those chalets into a rage factory, ‘You can come in here, every motherfucker right in here!.’ The first couple of years and it went off and then the next time, I was like ‘We can't have like 400 people in here!’, so I was like everyone out. Utrillo loves the partying the most and back then Noel did too, and they were like, 'Fuck! Is this a place to sleep now?' So the year after I kicked everybody out… the guys from TV On The Radio brought in a PA [to their chalet], the place was raging and Noel and Utrillo looked in with these sad dog faces saying, 'No! They took the crown!’ So, the final year, ATP gave us a trailer thing, a brand new trailer - I don't even know what Barry [Hogan, ATP founder] and those guys know about this - and Utrillo and Noel had been so stung by seeing TV On the Radio take the crown the previous year, they were like, 'There's no stopping us'.

“Basically, at 5:45 am the cab pulls up to take us to Heathrow. You can imagine the vision of the guys staying up all night. I think Thurston Moore had been playing and it was his birthday. And while Sonic Youth was on stage, he said, 'Hey everybody, the after party is at 314, Comets On Fire's house!' So, all these kids came back and some other band members came in, Buzz from the Melvins came in the front door and saw all these sixteen year old kids swinging from the light fixtures and he was like 'Naaah… see ya!' At one point, someone kicked in the door of my room, people were passed out in the bathroom, people were in the tub, hazy debauchery and I'm like the square. So then, Ben Flashman [bassist] and I got up early and got the others and hauled them back to the airport but Chasny stayed on… and the Magic Markers came to check out what happened the night before. I think Utrillo was swinging from the chandeliers, maybe clothed, maybe not. Noel probably doesn't remember much about these things. In those days, he was definitely the Joe Walsh [of the band], him and Utrillo would take turns in chainsawing the furniture, they'd have epic times in the morning!”

“Oh yeah,” reflects Chasny on this epic night of partying. “I had a friend with me and by the time they were gone, they had the chalet sectioned off with yellow crime tape, people were measuring the door ways to make sure it wasn't collapsing…I'm hoping ATP doesn't remember that. We felt maybe this was a ruse to get us over there, put us in the same room and slap a lawsuit on us. Or put us in jail! That was the last one with Comets, I think that was pretty big… it was insane. That show, we had people like [Chris] Corsano play drums with us, the show also was very much fun. All of us have a little pang of sadness that this is the last ATP - we're really happy to be playing it.”

“Hopefully I won't grouch out and make everyone go home at 4am!” surmises a breathless Miller. “Everything surrounding the ATP gigs is super fun, it can be a bit of a blur.” 
 Comets On Fire play ATP - End Of An Era Part Two at Camber Sands this weekend, November 29 - December 1