Ben Chasny might be the busiest man in indie-poppin’ly interstellar super-buzzing folk-tinged acid-fried rock and roll right now. That, or he’s just your everyday musician with a lot on each of his many plates...
DiS meets the guitarist – although that’s selling his talents a little short – prior to the release of his latest record under the Six Organs Of Admittance guise, The Sun Awakens. Chasny’s second ‘solo’ effort (he’s aided by a handful of other musicians) for Drag City following School Of The Flower, it’s a twin-headed beast and no mistake. When experienced on vinyl, the album’s a-side is filled by six of the seven songs; its flipside is consumed wholly by ‘River Of Transfiguration’, 23 minutes of rattling hums and pulsating pockets of eerie atmospherics. It’s less a song and more an album unto itself, a continuous stream of acidic folkisms and undulating moans and tones; it’s the middle ground of a triangular face-off between Espers, Keith Fullerton Whitman and one of Chasny’s other concerns, Comets On Fire.
It’s the latter act that will soon come under the critical spotlight, as the quintet’s second release for Sub Pop, Avatar, is released at the start of August. Chasny’s postal project (yes, a la The Postal Service) with Japanese musician Hiroyuki Usui, August Born (click for link), also have a record out. The self-titled affair – all guitars that you’d swear were talking in a foreign tongue, so alien are certain arrangements to anyone charmed by either Comets or Six Organs – is out though Drag City. And then there’s Current 93, who Chasny has started playing guitar for. This man, it seems, rarely sleeps.
In a bar at London’s Scala venue, DiS sits with Chasny a few hours before he’ll take to the stage as support for Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid.
School Of The Flower was a critical success over here; has that led to you having any particular expectations, similar or otherwise, for the release of The Sun Awakens?
I’m kind of expecting people not to like this one as much, as that’s kind of the nature of things. I didn’t set out to make a record that was more listenable, so whatever happens, happens… I have no expectations at all.
So did the reaction to School… come as a surprise?
Oh, of course! Yeah, I was very surprised… it was very nice! I was really shocked that anyone would like it at all, so that was cool.
Do you consider the new record to continue any themes, compositionally or lyrically, from the last album? Listening to it, it seems to possess a greater variety, compositionally…
Yeah, I think that too. I liked School Of The Flower, but I felt that it was just… um… it wasn’t as ‘thick’ as I was hoping it was going to be. So it was nice to do what I’ve been able to do on the new record.
Do you think you’ve rectified, in some way, the recording quality that dogged the last album a little…
A little bit, yeah, especially… yeah, I’m getting a little noisier, and just doing things like that…
There is certainly more in the way of contrast on The Sun Awakens. There aren’t too many ‘folk’ records, if you want to call it one, that end with a 23-minute epic of big-sounding guitars…
It’s my Meddle, that… my Pink Floyd’s Meddle, you know what I mean? That’s such a great record – you’ve all your songs on one side, and a jam on the other. I used to play electric guitar, when I was a kid, along to The Melvins, and to Echoes, so… So, I wanted to make a side-long song, a side-long track, for side b, and put all the songs on side a.
So was the last track, ‘River Of Transfiguration’, a particularly structured piece, or was it more of an in-the-studio improvisation?
Oh, I had a diagram, showing people what they were gonna do, and I e-mailed it to everybody and they thought I was crazy. I mean, it wasn’t notation or anything, but I had lines, and notes saying ‘You’re coming in here’, and then here there’d be a melody… So it was all written out. The core drone, at the base of it all, was already recorded, and then people kept coming in to add bits… it has a lot of extensions.
And had you worked like that before, writing the core to a song and then allowing other musicians to come in, as if they’re painting on a canvas you’ve prepared?
I have, but just with myself. I’d never done it with other people before, saying what we’re gonna do. They could do literally whatever they wanted; I just gave them a melody, and set down a bit of a structure. It was quite organic: people just came in and did whatever they wanted to do. It was nice.
And how do you get these musicians in? I guess they’re friends of yours?
All the people on the record are from San Francisco, which is where I wanted to record it, so I could have all my friends on it. I loved their music and wanted it to be part of this record.
People will categorise the album, and your music, however they feel, but it must be nice, whatever pigeonhole people push you into, to come and play a show with musicians doing something entirely different…
Oh, it’s nice! You know it’s nice. It’s easy to call it folk, though.
But you must get some people coming to shows expecting a folk performance, but then you play a rocking set (as he does on the night in question)...
There’s probably a lot of bummed-out people that leave my shows going, ‘Oh, no no no…’, but when I play nice shows like this there are no complaints at all. When I tour the States, or play shows in my home, people know that they don’t know what’s going to happen, but when I come over here, it’s usually easiest to just bring an acoustic guitar. That’s all they know, but it happened to be that some of my friends were over here, so we can do this sort of show. I honestly haven’t played an acoustic guitar for a long time.
Does that have anything to do with you being a part, a full-time member, of Comets On Fire now?
You know, I played electric guitar way before I ever joined those guys, and actually since joining those guys I’ve played electric guitar a lot less. Crazy… but when I joined that band I was just feedbacking, so they taught me how to tone it down, and that’s nice. But yeah, I’ve always played electric guitar. I haven’t played solo in a while, either. I don’t mind playing solo, but…
I guess playing here, solo, might be a little daunting…
Maybe. If I’m opening up for people, with an acoustic guitar, who cares? I mean, I doubt people would be interested anyway, although I have had really nice shows. I just prefer playing loud music. It’s just what I do.
And it’s at this point that somebody, somewhere in the building sees fit to turn on the bar’s stereo; actually, the music starts just as Chasny says “loud music”, as if this was meant to be the moment his time with DiS was up. As it happens, it’s not: we talk more about Comets On Fire, the tape recorder just about picking up his gentle voice. “We’re a total democracy,” he says of the five-piece. “Everyone writes in the band, and everyone vetoes stuff. There’s no… y’know… everyone has pretty much an equal amount of input.”
You’re quite the man in demand. Don’t you ever feel too busy?
No, I like being busy. It’s a good problem to have, to not have time to not be playing music. I’m still shocked that I’m able to do this: I just live, and then I go on tour; I write right before I record. I’d like to say it’s a natural thing, but basically it stems from school, when I wouldn’t study for the test until the night before, until the very last moment. So basically I’m lazy, but that’s how I work.