Above: the cover to Arthur No. 7 (Nov 2003)—artwork by John Coulthart, design by W.T. Nelson
Dark Funk, Gardenfolk and the Almighty Zaps
This summer, underground psych bands SUNBURNED HAND OF THE MAN, COMETS ON FIRE and SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE ventured across the continent in a traveling caravan of mindblowers. Tony Rettman reports live from the scene.
Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (November 2003)
“Jazz doesn’t have to swing and rock doesn’t have to rock and religion has next to nothing to do with God.” —Richard Meltzer
Yes. Meltzer’s testimonial riff is the kind that can really get you going going gone. Strip music of any elements that seem banal, pretentious or overly cerebral. Twist the sound into something of your own. Create a primal celebration of boundary-less independence. Join the others who’ve walked through the door marked “Free”—and emerge with a blown mind full of free jazz, psychedelia, proto-metal, oddball folk, prog rock, blues, English country rock, funk, mind-numbing drones, electronic music, non-genre improvisation.
In the past few years, a seemingly ever-growing number of underground American artists have been making that trek Beyond, collecting elements from these sounds and shooting them through a post-punk perspective, laying the results down on self-pressed vinyl and home-burned CD-Rs, sold through homegrown distribution networks like Brooklyn’s Fusetron, Arizona’s Eclipse Records, and Massachusetts’ Forced Exposure and Ecstatic Yod.
But a funny thing is happening. Through next to no effort of their own, these freaks are now attracting the attention of curious folk from outside the esoteric, near-hermetic circles that their music was necessarily born from and sustained by. Indeed, the very definition of this genre-obscuring cult movin’ on up happened this July when three of the finest units out of this quote scene unquote descended on Pianos in NYC to strut their stuff: San Francisco’s’ loud-as-hell psychedelic four-piece Comets On Fire, Boston’s 15-member sound collective The Sunburned Hand of the Man and the author of the new chapter of gypsy folk meanings from Santa Cruz, Six Organs of Admittance. This show—the conclusion of a three-week tour—brought together three groups who are aesthetically linked in approach, intensity and a loosely limbed philosophy: Here’s how the whole enchilada—the show, the tour, the bands themselves—came together and got down to getting Free.
* * *
Ben Chasny is Six Organs of Admittance–he is the sole soul responsible for the unearthly and solemn sounds created under this moniker, with others occasionally sitting in on recordings and live sets. Tonight at Pianos in he first and he plays alone, acoustic guitar in his lap, head down and hair in face, with only his black jackbooted heel to keep the beat. “Transcendent” is the bang-on word to describe what Chasny lays out. His music conjures up foggy, half-remembered memories of drunken nights in overlit fluorescent rooms that pulse. Strange feelings that mix danger with joy. And then he busts out with a cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.”
Visiting with Chasny later in the evening over a beer at the bar, I get some background. Chasny grew up in the woods bordering the northern California town of Eureka, 300 miles north of San Francisco. His musical upbringing was positive hardcore punk, until one day when his hippie father laid dark folk troubadour Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree box set on him. In it laid all the keys needed to open Chasny’s doors wide open. A second turning point came when a friend returned from a journey to San Francisco with a copy of the underground psych magazine Forced Exposure in hand. “That magazine was filled with exactly what I knew was out there but couldn’t find,” says Chasny. “I went crazy and started absorbing all the new sounds they were championing.”
After said absorption, Chasny started his first band with a couple of pals. “The Plague Lounge was our attempt to rock as hard as the bands we loved.” The Lounge’s lone piece of vinyl output—1996’s The Wicker Image—showcases some harder rocking than that of their free-noise rock heroes. (Think English cacophony legends Skullflower gone rockist, or desert rockers Kyuss recording in a bomb shelter with a sillier vocalist.)
Soon after the album’s release, the band fell apart and Chasny turned to himself—the only fucker you can truly trust—to start a new project, which he called Six Organs of Admittance. The new recordings were a weird conglomerate of blazing, eloquent acoustic guitar improvisations (much in the vein of the ’60s six-string virtuoso Robbie Basho), skull-sawing electronic feedback drones and Chasny’s haunting vocals. Chasny’s stratagem—link the experimental folk sound of ’60s guitar giant John Fahey to more abstract psychedelia—was not novel; other artists had tried this out in the mid-’90s with not much to show for it. But Chasny hit the mark. Six Organs’ self-titled debut LP and its follow-up Dust and Chimes were gobbled down fervently by the psychedelic underground.
Given the mysterious look of the Six Organs releases and their pastoral, evocative sounds, it’s little surprise that listeners began to project ever more colorful images onto the music’s creator. Ben Chasny had become a semi-legendary figure—an intense young man holed up in the Californian redwoods, writing songs at fireside, wearing a mushroom cap and communing with forest spirits.
Chasny bristles at the idea. “I never thought of myself fitting into that whole wooded creature thing that was thrown on me,” says Chasny, slamming his fist down on the bar. “But I guess I nailed my own coffin shut with some of the things on Dust and Chimes… I was always into the wilderness as a space of the unknown. I find it to be a place of the unexplainable, and that’s what I was trying to convey. I guess that was lost someplace with some people. The images people cast upon you as an artist should be treated like sand castles. Bust them down and start over again.”
Both the sleeve photos and the new suite of songs presented on the new Six Organs album Compathia (Holy Mountain) crush those sandcastles real good. There’s still plenty of self-absorbed musing and disorienting electronic disruption, but the album’s concision and pacing makes it Chasny’s most straightforwardly ‘rock’ release yet.
“I listen to more straightforward rock and folk-blues these days than I do psychedelia and I think this record shows that,” he explains. Just the look of the thing will also have plenty of Six Organs fans scratching their heads until they’re bloody and raw. Gone are the hazy images of wilderness of previous releases, replaced here by actual photos of Chasny, sitting on the end of a bed with a beer in his hand. Sprawled behind him is an unidentified female compatriot.
“I just wanted to try something different and not quite what people think of me,” explains Chasny. “If it turns some people off, than maybe they need to be turned off. Ben Goldberg [proprietor of BaDaBing!, one of the labels that’s released Six Organs albums] called the photos both classy and classless. I think that’s what I was shooting for.”
If Compathia doesn’t shake people out of their tree, than Chasny’s live performances—rare as they are—will. Tonight’s 30-minute set is bereft of innocence but stuffed with a cockeyed optimism, the kind that can only be found in the most drunken and beautiful losers of the world. It’s potent stuff.
Chasny obviously knows how to play a crowd, even one that includes his rather cynical, seen-it-all-heard-it-all tourmates. But he still plays innocent when I grill him again.
“Nah, I’ve got no image I’m trying to uphold. If anything, I would like to cultivate an image known as ‘gardenfolkcore.’ Maybe I’ll start playing with a rake beside me or something…”
* * *
Next up are Sunburned Hand of the Man. With a line-up that can shrink or expand at the drop of a tab, Sunburned can be a whole different affair from show to show. Last night in Brooklyn, they played as a five-piece. Tonight they’re playing with seven. Once I saw them with their solid 11-man line-up. I saw one show where guitarist Marc Orleans showed up late and, amp and axe in tow, kicked his way through the Indian-seated throngs to join the band mid-set.
“I like that we can keep people on their toes,” laughs Sunburned frontman John Maloney. “I like the fact someone can come see us one week when we have two drummers and two guitarists and see us the next week when we have a completely different line-up. It keeps them saying ‘What the fuck?'”
Sunburned is one of the greatest, most confusing ensembles to come down the pike in many a corndog. They confound and even frighten most people; a short write-up in a local paper about this particular show worried about the possible “influence” Sunburned might have on their tourmates in Comets on Fire. Like stoners pushing sanctuary in front of the local arcade, Sunburned are misunderstood and happy for it.
The core members of the unit are Bobby Thomas, John Maloney and Rich Pontius who played together in The Shit Spangled Banner, a trio dissolved in 1995, memorialized by a single (posthumous) release, No Dolby No DBX [Ecstatic Yod], a brilliant, bewildering statement of nonfigurative Psych riffing with plenty of unexpected yucks thrown in to boot. Over the course of Clinton’s second term, Sunburned started to coagulate by taking up members and landing a loft space in the Charlestown area of Boston. One of their early recruits was guitarist Marc Orleans, who had done time in a number of Boston-based rock units before meeting Pontius.
“Rich had seen this improv group I was in at the time and he liked it, so he gave me a tape of Shit Spangled Banner stuff and I loved it,” recalls Orleans. “Through Rich I met Bobby and we [Orleans and Thomas] started doing these guitar duets. Bobby kept telling me about this new band he was doing and how Chad [Cooper, electronics/keyboard player] was a vision seeker. He invited me up to play with them and I just kept showing up.”
As the months and jams rolled on, the line-up of the band started to swell to proportions that were uncommon for a normally functioning band. Word trickled down from the Boston area about a new group featuring members of The Shit Spangled Banner. My dorky ass was tickled pink at this news, considering their LP had found much time on my turntable and I had missed seeing the live. I immediately got cracking on seeing every Sunburned show within driving distance.
Early Sunburned sets came off like these tunnels of abstruse dialogue. Mind Of A Brother (Thrown To The Wind, 1998), the one release that documents this period, is filled with dense, often beatless meanderings—the perfect soundtrack to a late-evening meditation on walls and ceiling. But soon, somewhere around the close of the century, in-the-pocket rhythms, searing lead guitar work and the crucial sound of the cowbell began to seep into the group’s abstractions. It’s a combination the band jokingly refers to as ‘Dark Funk.’
“We play music that’s alive but we understand the humor that comes along with it,” says Orleans. “If anyone doesn’t understand it, and wants to ignore us or call us full of shit, it doesn’t matter, we’re still going to play it. I just hope it inspires others to buck the system and maybe make some music of their own.”
The live vibe started to change too. Sunburned shows had been the place to go if you wanted to sit cross-legged and contemplate your naval lint. But by 2001 it had become nigh-impossible for even the crackerest cracker to not shake a tail feather to the Sunburned sounds. A clutch of limited edition CD-Rs and 2002’s Headdress LP were released to pretty favorable response to anyone who kept their ear to the ground and their lips on the pipe. It was time to take the Sunburned show on the road again—the band had done some touring before—and see how the new sound would roll.
But let’s back up a little bit. On their first tour to the West Coast in 1999, Sunburned had played on a bill in Oakland with John Fahey, the No Neck Blues Band and Six Organs of Admittance. It was Chasny’s first-ever gig.
“I remember standing outside the club feeling quite nervous when a rickety van painted with golden birds and black crows came puttering around the corner, purple and orange smoke trailed behind it,” says Chasny. “When it stopped in front of me and the doors slowly opened, I was hit with this aroma and music that instantly transported me to a Persian orgy in the twelfth century. When I awoke, Bobby Thomas was standing in front of me waving a palm leaf across my face. He introduced himself as the bass player for Sunburned Hand of the Man. After that, beads were cast, incense was burned and games were played.”
Bobby Thomas recalls the encounter somewhat differently. “We ended up playing with Chasny at Eli’s Mile High Club, a legitimate blues ballroom in a shitty part of Oakland. Ben told us he was a huge Shit Spangled Banner fan so after the show we traded addresses and stayed in touch.”
Two years later Chasny came out to Boston to play Terrastock, the three-day music festival named for the English underground rock magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope. Ben had just joined a new band, the Santa Cruz-based Comets On Fire, a few months prior, and he brought along his new bandmate Ethan Miller to play along with him in the Six Organs set he was doing for the festival. When Sunburned’s Maloney met Miller at the bands’ loft space that weekend, he sensed a kindred spirit: someone who did time on the same slowly hovering astral plane as he and his band.
“I looked him in the eye and knew he was a guy that was on my level and that I could get along with,” says Maloney. Comets On Fire’s records were subsequently consumed by the Sunburned crew. Listening to the platters made Bobby Thomas nostalgic for the loud, fuzz-fueled sounds of Japan’s High Rise and Seattle’s big-muffin’ gods Mudhoney. Plans for this summer’s three-week-long joint trek were duly made.
(Six Organs Of Admittance and Comets On Fire’s connections are of course a little less complicated due to having a member in common. Chasny and Comets drummer Utrillo Kushner have been friends since high school. Miller met Chasny three years ago when Chasny came down to Santa Cruz to visit a roommate of Miller’s. Chasny ended up hanging out all night with Miller instead, getting drunk and blasting Motley Crue and Kris Kristofferson.)
“Sunburned Hand Of The Man, Six Organs Of Admittance and us are all groups that deliver our thing with total conviction,” explains Miller, who plays guitar and handles lead vocals in Comets On Fire. “But we understand great art doesn’t have to be a cardiac arrest and a stroke all at once. Basically, we’re just a bunch of drunken apes spraying sweat and drool everywhere in a vaudeville show that’s mostly for kicks but also possesses the inherent possibility of a brief connection to a little insight and momentary transcendence that you can take away some resonance from.”
The tour’s farpoint was a gig at a wedding band for some friends of Sunburned in Alaska. Thomas likens the journey to Alaska to author/poet Rene Daumaul’s unfinished epic Mount Analogue, the text that filmmaker Alexandro Jodorowsky supposedly based Holy Mountain on. In the story, twelve individuals hunt for enlightenment by seeking a mythic mountain peak on a hidden continent. (Thomas: “In the end though, most of our trip borrowed more heavily from Daumal’s only completed work of fiction, A Night Of Serious Drinking.”)
During the trek, Sunburned recorded an amazing radio session at the University of Davis in California. “Ironically, in the midst of all the kind smoke, Cali sunshine and mellow yellow student body, we pumped out what was the darkest, most aggressive and neurotic set of the whole tour,” says Thomas. (The session will be featured on the forthcoming Sunburned album ‘are Wood, to be released via Sunburned member Ron Schneiderman’s Spirit Of Orr label.)
But back to tonight’s gig. As usual, there’s some confusion on the Sunburned front as the stage lights dim. From an outsider/audience member point of view, it’s not clear what the problem is. Are there too few people on stage? Too many? Tonight it’s the former. Drummer Phil Franklin is nowhere to be found.
“Man—someone go out there and see if he’s lying in a gutter or something’ says John Maloney with a furrowed brow. Bobby Thomas unstraps his bass and goes outside the club in search of the beat creator. For the next few minutes, there’s a bewildering fog that hangs over the awaiting hordes as Maloney explains to the audience that this the show brings a conclusion to their cross country adventures with Comets and Chasny. Suddenly Bobby returns empty handed. As Maloney asks where Phil is. “He’s dead,” deadpans Thomas. Then Franklin comes barreling through the door, wearing a shit-eating grin. As he reaches the stage, the band launches into their first jam. Maloney immediately hurls himself off the stage and works the crowd in his M. C. mode, the rest of the band building up a dirty freak-funk groove. (Think Hapshash and the Colored Coat mixing it up with early Funkadelic.) Marc Orleans and Rich Pontius’ guitars feed and battle off one another like cobras let out of a wicker basket. Ron Schneiderman sits in a small corner of the stage sawing out shimmering drones on his violin while Bobby plays bass like Jack Bruce trapped in a echo chamber. Some of the hipper-than-thou NYC audience are actually moving around to these sounds.
Out of nowhere comes Ben Chasny to challenge Mahoney to a friendly game of mid-set wrastlin’. The two dudes tangle around the dance floor as the band behind them cook up to a perplexing and tasty brew, a sound naturally emanating from the unspoken philosophy of freeing your mind so your ass will follow. Chaos and beauty seem to be crashing and clashing everywhere; this is the sound of life being celebrated. Chasny and Maloney finally break it up and the set eventually winds down to a somewhat smooth ending. Something had been shared through the music Sunburned played tonight. Let’s just hope we don’t catch anything from it. But then again—
* * *
Comets On Fire are the monsters of this rock tour: loud as fuck, dirty as shit and on target like a cannon aimed at your fat ass. They’ve been that way from their start, back in ’99, when they were formed by longtime pals Ethan Miller and Ben Flashman.
“We were partying a lot together and doing a lot of deep listening to new kinds of music that was cracking our minds open,” says Miller. Early ’80s punk brutality, sounds that were made on their home turf in the ’60s, present-day heavy hitting Psych combos coming out of Japan: it was all charged stuff that made them grab a drummer, go down to their current band’s practice space and just let loose.
“It was apparent to me about 25 seconds into playing together that we had just formed a band with a natural groove and an incredible power,” says Miller.
Flashman and Miller exited their existing band to go full-on with Comets. The crucialest piece of the puzzle fell into place when they asked Flashman’s pal Noel Harmonson to bring his Echoplex down to the practice space. The Echoplex is a recording device dating back to the ’60s that causes ear piercing howls and shrieks through the use of boundless tape loops and adjustable recording heads. Harmonson’s work with this ancient contraption gives Comets a burly, corrosive sound that would make Hawkwind’s electro-gizmo wizard Dik Mik weep many tears into his pill bowl.
The band soon cobbled together a self-titled limited vinyl release (recently reissued by Alternative Tentacles on CD) that melted the mind of every collector dork it docked with. One such dork-victim was Ben Goldberg of BaDaBing!, who ended up releasing the band’s second album, 2002’s Field Recordings From the Sun. It’s a more realized effort than their debut, balancing full-on bludgeoning force with Chasny’s quieter, more meditative fingerpicking work.
Without warning the band rages into its first number. The wall of roar coming from the stage is rib-cracking and deafening beyond belief: Miller’s guitar sound is drenched in wah-wah and brown sounding distortion, Utrillo Kutchner’s drumming undulates all around the hefty sound (making the choice of screening old surfing films behind the band a bit more clearer), and Harmonson’s Echoplex is squealing like Ned Beaty over the whole din. This is the sound of all things loud and heavy/dirty and furry from the past 30 years unyieldingly merging into one another to create a barrage of pure sonic glory.
Before the gig, Miller had told me what to expect. Now I understood.
“Most groups get at least a few moments of really inspired juice where they aren’t throwing around any bullshit,” he said. “They don’t care if they look or sound stupid and they just do their thing as hard as they can and it just zaps you. We deal in zaps and creating and channeling as many of them as we possibly can. There is not thought as far as pacing goes. Just a total push to spill right then and there. Totally direct.”
Our sweaty heaps of flesh are thrown onto the pavement of Pianos to make room for ‘Martian assholes’ as Bobby Thomas so affectionately calls them. The three bands and their hangers-on mill around outside the club. This is the Comets’ first time in the big city and Ethan Miller is charged up.
“It feels like you don’t really have to do anything in this city,” he says. “You can just stand still and let the overflow of energy from all the motion and action run over you.”
The overflow of motion and energy is so much that the group splits in two. One opts to go to a bar in the East Village while the rest of us (including the Sunburned crew) go up to Harlem to hang at The Hint House, the dwelling occupied by those so-outside-they’re-inside geniuses, The No Neck Blues Band. This place holds a special place in the collective heart of Sunburned, as it was the first place they ever played in NYC and started a bond between them and No Neck. As we sit out on the roof of the building and see if we can see anything resembling a star in the Harlem night, Marc Orleans sounds relaxed but still pumped up from the nights events.
“I’m glad we ended up here. It’s like a home away from home for all of us,” he says with a smile so big it almost shines.
As the night rolls on, the conversation takes up the speed of a doughy eyed locomotive cavorting off it’s tracks. Subjects drop and fall like cinderblocks, but are always picked up five or ten minutes later as the beer and what-have-you flows. John Maloney seems to be the king of this act, rabitting around talking about the tour, his band, wrestling, and whatever else might come to his head. In one such moment of fevered jaw-moving, he expels the real meaning behind Sunburned, the tour and sound in general.
“What we do and all these bands do should create some spark. The music we play speaks so many different languages and if it speaks to someone in such a way to rethink the way they live their lives, then our job is done. If it inspires someone to make some music, even better. I mean—look at us! Anyone can do it!”
Bobby Thomas turns and squints at Maloney, “Yeah, but not everyone has a cowbell.”
Maloney’s face takes a concerned turn.
“Shit, that is true.”