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Ben Chasny interview: “this might be a new branch of the tree”

The Six Organs Of Admittance driving force sheds a new skin with his latest release.

While new music is the primary force day in day out, there remains some wiggle room to delve back into the world of nostalgia. A balancing act, no doubt, but this facet for consuming art is vital.

Over the course of a year there will be one or two artists of the past which command attention, and 2021 has been a year where Six Organs Of Admittance has eclipsed all others.

Delving into the weird and wonderful world of Ben Chasny’s symbolic compositions has been the perfect remedy for these strange times. From the cultish fever of Dark Noontide (2002) and School of the Flower (2005), to the criminally underrated Luminous Night (2009), backtracking through Chasny’s discography has been something akin to an electric dream. It’s further solidified the view that Chasny has carved out a music career that can be defined as brave and original.

And that’s continued during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s astonishing Companion Rises is up there with some of Chasny’s finest work committed to tape and what followed earlier this year, The Veiled Sea, is held in the same esteem.

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While Companion Rises felt like a traipse through a lonely orbit deep in contemplation, The Veiled Sea is every bit its roguish sibling, exploring the secluded corners of that same orbit. If anything, The Veiled Sea is sonic a blowout. While the two albums are connected, as Chasny confirmed during our conversation earlier this year, there’s no doubt that the esoteric songsmith is having a whale of a time throughout parts of ‘Veiled  (Somewhere in the Hexagon of Saturn and Faust’s cover of J’ai Mal Aux Dents). 

The pair are perfect additions to the Six Organs cannon, adding more weight to Chasny’s intellectual operations, and while etched in symbolism, Chasny’s unmoored acoustic compositions and wild-eyed guitar excursions are a new form of escapism.

Whether people agree with this or not, ironically, with his latest release, The Intimate Landscape, Chasny has gone and produced a full-on escapism record and one that caps off the year perfectly.

Billed as a library album, The Intimate Landscape is Chasny’s first instrumental record since the lauded For Octavio Paz (2004). British library music company KPM released a version of The Intimate Landscape in November 2019, however it now has a vinyl release via the great Chicago label, Drag City.

“Back in 2018 a fellow named Paul Sandell and I had a conversation. Paul worked at KPM at the time and he asked if I might be interested in recording a record for them so I guess that was about the time I started thinking about the record,” says Chasny, answering a string of questions via email back in September.

The Intimate Landscape is different from anything that currently occupies Chasny’s frantic sound world. Filled with luscious arrangements (Last Night to Use the Telescope, Crossed Winged Formations, Second Moon) and luminous earworms (The Many Faces of Stone, Six Diamonds), The Intimate Landscape brims with tender songcraft, adding yet another dimension to the electric subtleties of Chasny’s past recordings.

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“Basically I wanted to record a record that left behind the harsher elements of Six Organs and I wanted to concentrate on melody and how to make songs that were simple but had a lasting power. I wanted to do something stripped down and just record for the joy of playing the acoustic guitar,” says Chasny.

It’s the simplicity of these songs that makes The Intimate Landscape so striking. Having spent most of this century warping and bending minds (the Hexadic series), it feels like The Intimate Landscape is a result of Chasny exploring the early origins of his days as a songwriter. “In a way,” he says. “It was a way for me to just try to make music with an acoustic guitar again and not worry about other sounds. That is what I would do when I first picked up the guitar, so in a way it is going back even further to before I ever recorded anything.”

Ben Chasny - The Intimate Landscape

Not only is it the first instrumental recording since ’Paz, but it’s the first release under Chasny’s own name, too. “The idea was always to release it under my own name,” says Chasny. “Six Organs has already taken on its own thing now and is heading in a certain direction, so with this record being so stripped down and acoustic it felt like starting from the beginning, so I thought it’d be nice to do something I’ve never done before, such as use my own name on the release.”

During our talk earlier this year prior to the release of The Veiled Sea, we spoke about Words For Two from the aforementioned School of the Flower. Couples would often write to Chasny saying they used it as their wedding song, and hearing the likes of the abovementioned Where Have All the Summers Gone, oddly, it contains a similar quality. “I have no problem with people wanting to play my songs at weddings. I think it’s sweet. I’ve performed at a few myself and actually officiated the wedding for my friend Steve [Quenell].

“That song started as a progression that I would play whenever I sat down with the guitar and then eventually formed into a song. All of the titles came after the music, though. I wasn’t specifically thinking of summer when I recorded the song. I often listen to instrumentals after they are done and then think what they remind me of or what feeling they give me, then I frame the music with the title.”

Ben Chasny

The beautiful artwork accompanying The Intimate Landscape (and in some ways defining it) is courtesy of Quenell. Having designed artwork in the past for the likes of The Warlocks, Sleepy Sun, and Survival Knife, Quenell has been a constant collaborator with Chasny; his artwork featuring on School of The Flower, The Sun Awakens, Shelter from the Ash, Asleep on the Floodplain, and the Hexadic playing card art. Here, Quenell merges staple Six Organs themes of atmosphere, space and constellations.

“He is also something of a library music aficionado,” says Chasny. “It was actually Paul at KPM who asked me if I would like to have Steve do the artwork because he liked Steve’s art on other records. He didn’t even know Steve was well aquatinted with the KPM label. I’m not exactly sure what Steve’s inspiration was for the cover but he really nailed that library music vibe.”

Making a record like The Intimate Landscape, and it sparks the question of songwriting challenges and whether they have changed over time for an artist as prolific as Chasny. “They’ve changed quite a bit,” he admits. “When I first started it was more of a challenge to think of an idea or get inspired to do something that I felt was worthwhile, but I had a lot of time to work on things. Nowadays I have notebooks full of ideas, but no time to try anything out or explore any of them. So it’s a total flip flop.”

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The stripped back, plaintive nature of these songs bodes well for Six Organs’ electric volts and wild sonic explorations that, from a listener’s point of view, would be a fine addition to Chasny’s live performance. “I could definitely play some of these live and I am sure I will,” says Chasny. “I often do solo acoustic Six Organs tours so these would fit really nicely into those.”

And with this in mind, it could well be the start of a new thread through the Ben Chasny patchwork, with the songwriter not ruling out more records in this vein, both as instrumental and under his own name.

“I think that is sort of the idea, that this might be a new branch of the tree. If that were to happen, then Six Organs would probably veer away from the solo acoustic stuff and focus on the more ‘out’ elements, which is sort of what has been happening recently anyway, so it all sort of lines up.”

The Intimate Landscape is out now via Drag City. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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