It’s not a stretch to suggest that Ben Chasny is the greatest sonic chameleon of our time.
Whether it be through his main guise as Six Organs Of Admittance, or previous projects, the San Franciscan ear-splitting odyssey, Comets On Fire, or the underground ‘super group’ featuring Chasny, Chris Corsano and Sir. Richard Bishop in Rangda, each project has seen Chasny‘s creations shift in tone, unfurling into something completely different each time.
Combining protracted acoustic space-inspired compositions with a woodsy finesse (arguably, the height of this was 2005’s School of the Flower and 2006’s The Sun Awakens), Chasny has spent three decades on one of the most interesting artistic voyages in modern day music.
From the stripped-back acoustic splendour of Shelter from the Ash (2007) to the sonic absurdity of Dark Noontide (2002) and the Hexadic trilogy (2015, 2018), Chasny has expanded and blown minds at every turn in his hell-bent quest to move things forward. The limits are that there are no limits. If there were, then Six Organs Of Admittance wouldn’t be doing the job it was set out to do.
While he has gone to the ends of the earth in search of that weird zone, Chasny has often used the Six Organs cannon to channel some of his most accessible work, as well. While the aforementioned Shelter from the Ash and Burning the Threshold (2017) occupy that particular summit, Chasny has ensnared conventional songcraft with outer-limits experimentation on some of his finest records, including Luminous Night (2009), the underrated Asleep on the Floodplain (2011) and last year’s tremendous Companion Rises – the latter making our inaugural Top 50 Albums of 2020.
The common thread through Six Organs Of Admittance consists of those dark polluted waves of drone and psychedelia. Where the former is concerned, The Sun Awakens‘ final juncture, River of Transfiguration, contains some of the most purified representations of drone, going a long way to defining the genre. Perhaps even more so than the masters themselves, Sunn O))).
Contacting Chasny earlier this year, admittedly it was to talk about the New Bums – Chasny’s stripped-back collaboration with Donovan Quinn of the Sky Green Leopards. Or more specially, the pair’s sophomore album, Last Time I Saw Grace.
When Chasny told me he had a new Six Organs record coming out it surprised me. All told, I should have been more surprised if he hadn’t.
An artist dispensing vital artistic musings with blinding speed, while many have associated the punk troubadour with the freak-folk scene of the early ’00s, Chasny’s artistic deeds will never be tied down to any styles or scenes, as such. The only thing we can be sure of is that Six Organs Of Admittance will never write the same album twice.
And with that we arrive at The Veiled Sea. Chasny’s latest mind-bending conception.
While providing yet another new tone of outlier splendour, Chasny’s range continues to expand beyond those lonely orbits he so often references. The warped space punk jam that is lead single, Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn, providing a lovely juxtaposition to the atmospheric dirge of Old Dawn, which then bleeds into the gorgeously crafted highlight, Last Station, Veiled Sea.
Whilst flitting between the terrains of these innocuous sound worlds, it would be remiss not to mention Chasny’s voice. One of the most underrated in music today, reminding us of a bedraggled ’70s British folkster. His soft, campfire purr is responsible for some of the most beautiful folk laments committed to tape over the last 40 years, exuding a warmth that unshackles those ever-present existential burdens.
After several exchanges, at the beginning of May we spoke to Chasny from his home in Humboldt County, North California via Zoom.
Sun 13: You’re back in your home town now. How much of an influence has that and the lockdown had on your motivation to write?
Ben Chasny: “At the beginning I was really motivated and I charged into it. I thought, ‘This isn’t gonna slow me down and I’m gonna go full force.’ And then maybe I charged in too hard. I would say that I’m getting just as many ideas and I’m getting just as many sparks of inspiration, but they don’t last. Whereas before an idea lasted a day or a week, which allowed me to go and record it, now I’ll have an idea and then an hour later, after I’m done watering the plants or doing the dishes or whatever, I’ll think, ‘Ahh. It didn’t stick’ – that’s what I’ve noticed towards the end of this. I don’t have the ability to sustain inspiration long enough to get anything down.
“But it’s okay, because I ended up getting the new record done and finishing up the New Bums and some other things. So I’ve got all this work done and now that’s starting to come out, but I’m really slowing down for whatever is going to come later.”
S13: With the New Bums. How long had Donovan and yourself been working on Last Time I Saw Grace?
BC: “We’ve been recording it for about six years. We’d already tidied it up a bit before lockdown. We were going to do it ourselves and release it on cassette but then we asked Drag City if they might be interested and they said yes.”
S13: The humour from Voices in a Rented Rent continues here, with tracks like Cover Band, for instance. Do you see New Bums as the avenue to portray your sense of humour?
BC: “It’s funny. It’s a weird sort of humour. I don’t really like cute bands or bands that are winking at you and trying to be funny. That’s not really anything I’ve ever listened to.
“But I do listen to country music like Jerry Jeff Walker or something that might have a song that has humour to it. So I kind of think of New Bums along those lines of that sort of outlaw country humour that may throw a funny line in here and there. And mostly that’s Donovan because he’s such a good songwriter and he’s so good with words. I would not be able to pull that off in Six Organs even if I tried. But he’s so steeped in country music that’s he’s able to take that tone.”
S13: People see country music on a wider scope as being this conservative style but there are certain funny references that come and go. If you blink you miss it…
BC: “Yeah, totally.”
S13: In saying that, something like say Cool Daughter or Marlene Left California and Wild Dogs. There’s a seriousness with these songs. Aesthetically from your point of view and not necessarily Donovan’s, those kind of songs could have perhaps made it onto Luminous Night or Shelter from the Ash. Is it hard to differentiate between Six Organs and New Bums?
BC: “No, not really. I feel that New Bums is a little more straight-forward whereas Six Organs is more layered in symbolism. Of course New Bums still deals in symbolism, so maybe I mean that Six Organs just has more veiled references. Lyric-wise, anyway. Composing wise, New Bums is more strumming the guitar and standard tuning where Six Organs is alternative tuning and finger-picking, generally speaking. So they are definitely separate in my mind.
“Also, New Bums is basically… Donovan is such a prolific songwriter and he’s a close friend, so we talk all the time and share music back and forth. So a lot of how New Bums works is Donovan says, ‘I wrote a song.’ And I say, ‘That’ll be good for your next record.” Then he’ll play me the song and I’ll say, ‘Oh that’s really nice, let’s actually use that for New Bums.’ (laughs)
“So it’s me taking what I want. A lot of the New Bums material works that way.”
S13: Back to Luminous Night. With Six Organs, the ideas and concepts around your albums have been pretty clear, but with a song like Ursa Minor, that has the ability to morph into different meanings as you get older, it’s one of the saddest songs you’ve written, I think…
BC: “Yeah, it probably is.”
S13: Is that something you think about as an artist, or do you leave it up to your audience to interpret songs like that?
BC: “Yeah (pause). I think a lot my songs aren’t that straightforward in terms of subject matter – that song is more straightforward than usual, though, in terms of the scenario, I usually just try to leave it up to other people.
“For instance, there’s a song called Words For Two that I wrote and there’s been a few people who have told me, ‘We’ve used that at our wedding’. People find it this romantic song or something, but it was actually inspired by, well, the original version was written for my friend, Cam Archer, who’s a filmmaker and he had made a short film about two adolescent boys around 13 or 14 who fell in love with each other during high school and they ended up doing a suicide pact. So that’s what the song was inspired by.
“I guess because the song has lines like, ‘On Our Way to Heaven’, when people hear that they hear it as a romantic song. I guess that’s pretty common. Even Sting talks about his song, Every Breath You Take and how people interpret it and he thinks, ‘Goddamn, that’s a dark song, why do you want to use that at your wedding?’
“So me and Sting, you know, we got the same problems basically.”
S13: A lot of Six Organs fans would probably gravitate towards the sonic perspective rather than the lyrics, but from a general music listeners point of view, it’s good to let the music wash over for a good 10 years then start dissecting the lyrics. If you’ve got the time…
BC: (Laughs) “Right. That’s a good thought.”
S13: With the new Six Organs record. Themes of space, astrology and constellations have underpinned your songwriting for many years now. The Veiled Sea feels very different. What was the whole idea behind the album?
BC: “I kind of wanted to take the electronic aspects of the last record and move it forward a little bit, which is not something I usually do. Usually I don’t like to go forward from the sound of one record to another. I like to go across sonically then bounce back.
“I always try to explain it like when you’re putting a wheel back on your car, with the lug-nuts you’re not supposed to go around in a circle. What Six Organs does sonic wise is the same thing. I never try and go around as a flow. I try to go across the centre and then attach the next lug-nut. But with this one I did go around the circle.
“I wanted to expand from the last record with the themes of space and stellar object and electronics, harsh guitar solos and those sorts of things. I guess it’s too much fun to do only one record like that.”
S13: When we first spoke you mentioned that this record was like Ascent if the Comets On Fire were turned into robots…
BC: (Laughs) “That’s kind of my joke, yeah.”
S13: It’s funny because I listened to Ascent earlier and it definitely has that vibe, particularly on Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn. Sonically, this track also feels like the centre piece to the record. Would you agree?
BC: “I think so. That’s why we released it first [as the single].”
S13: All That They Left You has been described as extraterrestrial rock.
BC: (Laughs) “Yeah.”
S13: This isn’t offensive in any way, shape, or form, but the beginning kind of reminded me of some fucked up version of a U2 song…
BC: “I have been getting the funniest comments about that. Somebody else, maybe you might appreciate this, said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but it reminds me of INXS.”
S13: While Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn tells us a lot about the album, with Old Dawn leading into Last Station, Veiled Sea, these are some of the most tender songs you’ve ever written…
S13: What was the idea of forming those juxtapositions between something so outrageous early on and these songs?
BC: “The record was still kind of old school in that it’s constructed… well… I was thinking about the vinyl. So each side is three songs and so on each side the first song is abstract and mellower, the second song has the floating guitar solo and the third song on each side has a driving quality. So that’s how I did it. So you flip it over and you have the abstract mellow thing with Old Dawn.
“With that song I was trying to do something like the Sleep Tones record that I did because I still had some ideas that I wanted to put down. But it’s also a throwback to a song on Luminous Night that’s very drone-y and there’s this sparse piano part to it. So the piano part in the drone atmospheric thing in Old Dawn was a throwback to Luminous Night as well.”
S13: Was that Cover Your Wounds With the Sky?
BC: “Yeah. And I think Randall Dunn played the piano on the first one. He recorded Luminous Night. So it’s a little bit of a throwback to his work on that. That heavy reverb piano.”
S13: He’s such a good producer. One of the best in the business.
BC: “I agree. He’s great.”
S13: Then there’s J’ai Mal Aux Dents. You’ve produced some out there stuff over the years, and while this is a Faust cover, this could be up there with the most esoteric pieces of music you’ve done…
BC: It’s definitely audacious (laughs). I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna do it’. This record was a little bit more on the fun side, too. It’s not on Drag City, not that I couldn’t have done it with Drag City, but I decided to step out and have more fun than what I usually do with the Drag City records, so that was a ridiculous idea. I’m hoping to take this fun side to the next Drag City release.
“Everyone loves that Faust song, it’s one of my favourite songs ever, and really I started to record it just to see if I could do it, like, ‘Is this possible?’ And when I was done with it I decided to put it on the next record.”
S13: How did the collaboration with Éric Lapierre come about on this track?
BC: “I’ve known him for a bit. He invited Six Organs, Magik Markers, Lee Ranaldo, and some other folks to play this opening party for a building that he had designed in Paris. So I met and hung out with him then in 2017. We’ve just been friends ever since.
“We have some mutual interests. He really likes Gaston Bachelard, whom I also like. Bachelard was a writer and is popular with some architects because he wrote a book called Poetics of Space. Éric Lapierre‘s an architect so we kind of talked about Bachelard a little bit. He took me to go see Bachelard’s apartment in Paris when we met. He’s just a really fun guy. He actually came to visit me in California. He was on a trip and then we hung out. Plus, I wasn’t going to do those French vocals on the cover because I’d have to do them phonetically and it would have been a fucking disaster. (laughs)
S13: Gaston Bachelard. Is that the same person you referenced on a track on Burning the Threshold?
BC: “Yeah, it was. He’s one of my favourite writers.”
S13: Did he have much influence on the themes on Companion Rises?
BC: “A little bit. He seems to have been more influential in the second half of my work. He’s really interesting. He’s one of my favourite writers but I don’t necessarily agree with his philosophy exactly. So it’s kind of funny. He’s one of the most beautiful writers but when I get down to the nitty-gritty with his philosophy I think, ‘I don’t really agree with that’. But I love his writing.”
S13: Are you always thinking of the next album to write?
BC: “Yeah, I do try to look ahead. Right now I only have a slight idea of what to do for the next Six Organs record, but I’m focusing on collaborations right now, I have three that I’m working on at the moment so I’m hoping that may spark some ideas. Three pretty different types of musicians, so working long distance, sending files back and forth, but working in totally different ways with all three, so it’s pretty fun. So for this year I’m going to focus on that.”
S13: I remember early in the century when you were lumped in with that freak-folk movement with the likes of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Animal Collective. Creatively, you’ve always been different to those artists…
BC: “Those folks are all awesome in their own way and very creative. What’s funny is with all of those artists, maybe not Devendra, but if you take Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom, they would get lumped into that stuff, but then they reached a certain status and got so popular that they were really no longer… (pause) maybe Joanna a little bit, but definitely Animal Collective once they started going electronic it seems nobody really called them freak-folk. But yeah, that was a weird time…
S13: That was probably your golden period. Well, productive wise, it probably has been for 20 years, but in terms of you reaching that status and getting that exposure all over the world…
BC: “It definitely helped. I can’t really talk shit about it even if I didn’t personally feel a part of it because I did benefit from it. It’s weird because to me there’s a difference between a genre and a scene and a lot of times people seem to get them confused. You’ll have a name for a genre and have a name for a scene and they do overlap here and there but you know…
“Scene wise, I always felt that my scene… I think a scene is more about the people you actually play shows with and the people you are friends with. So scene wise, people I would play with didn’t necessarily sound like Six Organs or that genre – it was more just American underground stuff.
“At the beginning Comets On Fire would play with Six Organs and Six Organs might play a show with Hair Police or somebody who was a bit noisier. It was just underground people making music and that was the scene. I think that’s what David Keenan was trying to get across when he did his new weird America article. He was trying to describe a scene and not a genre, but then that got really confusing as people started superimposing that as a genre, as if new weird America was a genre and there was a steady sound, but there was never really a steady sound to that scene, it was just friends and people of like minds who played shows together. Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty, Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Jack Rose, Golden Calves, Major Stars, Charalambides, Joshua Burkett, MV & EE, there’s a great wide spectrum of sound there. None of us sound like each other at all, but we’d always play shows together because it was a scene, not a genre.
“Freak-folk was more of a genre and people would plaster that on everything and it wasn’t really a scene at all. Well, maybe it became a scene after someone in the media came up with that label, I don’t know. I didn’t really play shows with other people who were considered freak-folk, although I did go on tour with Devendra for a couple weeks because he was very supportive of Six Organs, which I am thankful for. He was very generous to Six Organs. Okay, I guess I did go on tour with Joanna, too, in Europe for about six weeks. So okay, I did have some crossover, so I can see why people get confused. But other than that, I didn’t really play shows with anybody else who was considered freak-folk. My scene was more the western Massachusetts scene as they were the ones who I was inspired by and they were the ones who first got in touch with me when I was in Northern California. I consider those people my musical family.”
S13: You’ve been around for a long time whereby you’ve seen the shift from records to streaming. How much does it impact an artist of your generation that has experienced both worlds?
BC: “It’s hard to say because I think that less and less people would be listening to my stuff anyway, so it’s really easy, as a band that’s been around a while, for me to say, ‘Oh it’s because of Spotify that I’m not selling records’, whereas I probably sell less records just because less people find the band interesting. That said, I think Spotify is pretty terrible, for a lot of reasons that people are talking about now.
“I just feel I need to also take responsibility for not selling a lot of records. You can’t have every record you do sound different and then complain that you can’t grow an audience. You can’t do a 10 minute free-rock guitar solo and then complain that you don’t sell as many records as an indie band that gets their sound from classic rock or indie rock of yore. So I’m just taking responsibility here. But also, there’s no doubt that musicians are getting absolutely fucked by the streaming businesses.
“If there was massive action and people said, ‘Let’s pull stuff from Spotify’. I would say, ‘Yeah! I’m in!’ There is an organisation that’s fighting against Spotify and demanding better rates and things like that which is great, but I’m ready if someone says, ‘Fuck it, let’s take everything off’. But I don’t know whether it would be possible to have a collective action like that take place. I hope so.
S13: Bandcamp has been a great thing.
BC: “They’ve really been a saviour for this last year. And I say that fully knowing that I’m not going to 100 percent get behind any business because, next thing you know, they’re going to fuck you over. I mean, Bandcamp probably won’t, they’ve been great, but it’s dangerous to get 100 percent behind any business that is ultimately making money off your work. That’s just my own personal opinion.”
Six Organs Of Admittance’s The Veiled Sea is out now via Three Lobed Recordings. Purchase from Bandcamp.
New Bums’ Last Tim I Saw Grace is out now via Drag City. Purchase from Bandcamp.