FIGHTING SHADOWS, FINDING LIGHT
A close encounter with enigmatic folk adventurer BEN CHASNY of Six Organs of Admittance
By Jay Babcock, with photography by Allison Watkins
Originally published in Arthur No. 15 (March 2005), available from The Arthur Store for $5
Last summer Ben Chasny told me about his plans for the next record he would be making under his Six Organs of Admittance monniker. The upcoming album would be a turning point for him: it’d be the first Six Organs recordings done in a studio and his first album for his new label (Chicago indie perennial Drag City), sure, but he also wanted the record to be a creative step forward.
“I told them I want to go in there and have some folky stuff, but I also want to attempt something more freaked-out and free,” he said.
School of the Flower, recorded during those August 2004 sessions with drummer Chris Corsano and released last month, is more freaked out and free than previous Six Organs albums. It’s a front-to-end lovely, beguiling work that alternates simple, emotionally reassuring campfire folk songs with expansive, occasionally ominous instrumental tracks: long, quickly fingerpicked acoustic guitar lines repeat and interlink into infinity, electric guitars toll and squall, drums skitter and bubble underneath. The record is like an owl—it sees and knows all, but is willing to communicate to others only some of what it knows. We are lucky—privileged, really–to hear its voice at all.
The following conversation was constructed from a long phone interview in early January and some follow-up elaboratory emails. Chasny and I had been in touch off and on for the previous year or so by email, mostly hipping each other to recent discoveries: books, records, films. To be honest, Chasny was doing most of the hipping, and I was struck by both his strong passion for other artists’ work and ideas, and the degree of erudition in his reading. His impulse may be towards hermithood and withdrawal, to living alone in the woods, but the reality of his life was more complex: he’s a part of a web of consciousness very much of his own making, one that stretches around the globe and involves many of the planet’s most idiosyncratic, hermetic artists. I soon realized that, just as Timothy Leary had instructed, Chasny had gone and found the others—the Japanese psych-folk group Ghost, the bizarre English goth-folk of Current 93’s David Tibet, the utterly indescribable Sun City Girls, and many more I’d never heard of. And then, in the past whirlwind year, he’d actually toured or recorded with many of them, while, at the same time, continuing to be a full-fledged member of Bay Area combo Comets On Fire, whose 2004 album Blue Cathedral was some kind of acid rock knockout masterpiece.
Here’s how it all happened, in Ben Chasny’s own voice.
Arthur: People often wonder if you’re a practicing Buddhist, because of your band’s name.
Ben Chasny: When I did the first record, I wrote “Six Organs of Admittance” on it because I had just read Road to Heaven by Bill Porter. He goes and explores a mountain range in China, encountering for Buddhist and Taoist hermits. One hermit was such a damn hermit that during the conversation with the author, he stopped and asked, Who’s this Chairman Mao you keep referring to? That’s amazing. And in that book I came across the “six organs” phrase—the five senses and the soul make up the six organs of admittance—and it struck me. I thought it’d look really good on the record cover. I put it out, without saying who was on the record or anything. Later, when I decided to put out more records, I figured I’d just take that name.
Talk a little about where you grew up.
I was born in L.A. My dad was sick of the city, so he moved us way up in the middle of nowhere with redwood trees and chickens and bunnies. It was me, my mom and my sister. I grew up in Elk River Valley, a little south of McKinleyville. My dad was always playing shit on the stereo, pretty good popular stuff from the ‘60s. A lot of good folk too, Nick Drake and stuff, and even some weird experimental records like Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. That was how I lived until I was 13 or 14. Then we moved into the city—well, Eureka’s not really a city, it’s just a little dirty town, or a dirty old town, to give it a Pogues description. After school, there was only ever one other kid around, and I had to hike over a hill and go find him to make tree forts. That’s probably why I’m interested in hermits, because I lived that way for a while. Hermits seem to appear in a lot of the literature that I read; when I come across them, it really sticks out in my head. Like Gaston Bachelard says: “The Hermit’s hut is a theme that needs no variation, for at the slightest mention of it, phenomenological reverberations obliterate all mediocre resonance.”
You talk a lot about writers, quoting them on CD sleeves and such. I know you dig the writing of Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.
Yeah. His ideas are not 100% original, but he makes such a beautiful synthesis out of anarchism, surrealism, chaos theory, Sufism and such. He has this essay about how in certain societies, musicians are the scum of the earth. They’re there to serve a purpose, to do music, to give that, sure, but they’re not elevated like stars. And when you think about it, in that situation, only somebody who really believes in the art itself–not about becoming cool or popular or making money–will actually want to make music. So he talks about the importance of art as art, not as buying, not as putting into museums—not that art can’t be sold, but that art in itself is very, very important, just on the basis of giving to somebody else as a gift. It’s not about selling your paintings for $300 at the coffeeshop: it’s for creating this subversive community – that is the way to start looking at this stuff, as subversion.
What did you study in college?
I didn’t go to college. I’m not really that well read or learned—certain books just really grab me, and I become obsessed with certain authors. I have a few people who I like to read who inform my world. And almost everything I listen to or read translates into music in some way, or a reason to not do music. When I play music, that’s just what comes out: it’s the shit of all the books that are the food.
So you’ve been playing acoustic guitar for a long time, since the mid-‘90s. Why not electric guitar? How did you get started down this acid-folk path?
The first three notes of the first Nick Drake record hit pretty heavy, and made me think I should really think about acoustic guitar and put down the electric bass guitar I’d been playing. That opened me up to Leo Kottke, and later, John Fahey. The music just meant more than getting up there and being silly. At the same time I started to get into Fushitusha and Rudolph Grey and KK Null: really noisy electric guitar bands.
Who’s Rudolph Grey?
Rudolph Grey developed action guitar, which is pure extreme playing. It’s not free jazz. I mean, he’s played with free jazz drummers before, and jazz musicians, but I think his music is more accurately described as action guitar. It stems from no-wave and free jazz. HE is the guy who blew my mind. I got this Rudolph Grey record called Mask of Light and I’m thinking I know stuff about music, I’ve heard experimental music, whatever, and I put that on and he just CLEANED the slate. Anything’s possible. It cleared my mind of everything. Then I could listen to folk music, NEW. Any kind of music. Suddenly, Keiji Haino made sense to me. And Leo Kottke as well. Rudolph Grey: no note is more important than any other note. It has a correlation with a lot of kinds of music, but it’s ACTION GUITAR. Now, Keiji Haino is one of my favorite musicans of all time. Pure sound. Pure emotion. Kan Mikami is an absolute hero of mine: he once said that the only true musician is the musician who has been forsaken by God.
Anyways, I didn’t really know how to put together the rock n roll aspect I liked with folk music. So I started listening to acid folk music, which melts the two together: Ghost were a really huge inspiration to me to start playing folk music, and there’s that one Amon Duul record that’s heavily acoustic. Through the Forced Exposure catalog, I found out that PSF [a Japanese record label] had these compilations called Tokyo Flashback, and on the third one, there’s a picture of the guy sitting in what I guessed were the PSF offices, and there’s records stacked to the ceiling, a total mess, with this box in the front that’s labelled “acid folk.” I remember thinking, I don’t know what’s in that box, and I don’t exactly know what it would sound like, but whatever it is, it’s probably really great. I want to make music that you could put in that box.
So I just made what I was looking for. I’m trying to shed it lately, though, trying to go for the folk thing, a more natural song thing. There’s too many traps in trying to do ‘acid folk.’
So it’s more about songwriting at this point?
Kind of. But I’m not even that good of a songwriter. I figure that I’m kind of good at a bunch of stuff. I’m not really that amazing at one thing. I’m kind of good. That’s enough for me. The first step in overcoming one’s mediocrity is to be aware of it. Hopefully at some point I can overcome it. Artists like Tomokawa Kazuki and Kan Mikami play folk music like it is a beautiful knife (and not coincidentally were part of their own political resistance!). I always return to those two when I am in doubt about music. They are fire and a thousand hurricanes and the beautiful mist and the blooming garden. Folk is not some trend for them, but then again, their brand of folk is more volatile than any rock band I can think of. That is something to aspire to: to find the dirt in a melody and a flower in the chaos. I think I am about a million miles away from that. But I hope I can get closer, everyday, to be that strong.
Judging from your facility with the acoustic guitar, I assume you practice a lot…
Not anymore. Ten years ago, when I started getting into acoustic guitar, I was really studying the guitar, learning things about it. I
was only working two days a week. That went on for like three years. Then I realized if I studied any more, this is gonna be bullshit. I’m going to make music that’s not interesting to anybody but guitarists. That’s when I realized I better start working on actually communicating—writing songs and all that. At that time I was playing with this violinist who’d been playing since she was four. We’d duet, that’s where I learned a lot of finger picking techniques. (Finger picking is using your right hand to play the strings and usually using your thumb to play the bass strings in different patterns.) But after that, it wasn’t very interesting to me at all. There are other people out there who are really good guitarists and are doing really good things with guitar, pushing it out. But it just doesn’t interest me. I’d rather become good at playing rocks. I’d like to be a fucking virtuoso of stone playing; knowing the right stones that resonate, how big, where to play them, things like that. That’s much more interesting than guitar. I don’t respect the guitar the way guitarists do. You can ask Ethan. [laughs] Even my new acoustic that I just bought now has a big crack in it from me putting my fist into it.
You know, I was talking with Stephen O’Malley [guitarist in SUNNO))) and Khanate] a few months ago about how there was a time when the acoustic guitar was an instrument of resistance. I don’t mean in the naive ‘60s, when to most people resistance meant putting up a picture of a Hindu god, smoking some grass and singing about getting it together. That wasn’t the real musical resistance of the ‘60s (though the folks singing about getting it together really were resistant to a fucked war. I’m talking about a resistance of culture rather than a resistance of political stupidity and death). The resistance was in feedback and a wall of destruction from rock ‘n’ roll, the very simulacrum of resistance today. But sometime in the late ‘90s, for me anyway, the acoustic guitar was a part of the culture of resistance, even against a resistant culture. Tomokawa Kazuki, Kan Mikami, and Ghost were right up there as my heroes. At the time, everyone was making noise records and noise from Masonna, Solmania, Hijokaidan ruled the underground. A lot of them were great, like the aforementioned and Michael Morley and Rudolph Grey and A.N.P. But like any trend, there became more and more derivative versions of it all. And so even though I loved Bob Banister and the Noggin records, I didn’t want to join the pack, and I knew that my version would just be a derivative of a copy of a notion of wanting acceptance. To resist, I picked up the acoustic guitar. And that’s it! That’s the origin of it all. Now, years later, everything is flowing the other way. It makes me want to make that noise guitar record I always wanted to make, and I will.
And that’s what I love about John Fahey. He was a man of resistance, even against himself. I could give a fuck about his finger picking or melody. I love his writing more than his playing. If you can’t understand that his world was one of absolute hurt and resistance you will never understand any part of how beautiful his music was. He would burn it all, in his memory, again and again. That is a personal resistance.
You seem simultaneously attracted to these resistant individuals, who are almost like modern hermits, and also to the idea of a community, which necessarily involves others.
I’d like to have a place to live where I lived all by myself somewhere, but…I’ve realized I need friends. Hanging out, community, is really good. I don’t think I couldn’t live all by myself, I’d get pretty depressed. All we have is our friends, and giving, and making things as our hope. I may be making records for a few people to listen to, but you better know that there are things going on that are much more important. Like dinners and gatherings against all the bullshit of the world. Like a letter for one. If it doesn’t hold a trace of possibility, it is worthless. That is how I judge what is made, whether for the public or private. Because it is all worthless when it comes down to it. There is only inspiration—which is our analogue for the WANT TO LIVE in Eastern thinking—and there is Nothing, which we will all be faced with at some point. So hold on to your friends and laughter and family and hope. Nothing else exists.
You’ve told me before that you considered your records to be dark records but that you always tried to put a hint of light in there. The new record, though, doesn’t seem as dark to me, overall.
The new one isn’t dark in that way, and that’s why—I think—I was able to explore musical ideas on School of the Flower that I wasn’t able to explore before. Because before I was dealing with emotional ideas and emotions, trying to wrestle with this or that.
When I did Dark Noontide, I was really inspired by Current 93. I was listening to Thunder Perfect Mind pretty religiously for a while. They’re always pegged as gothic, especially cuz [Current 93’s] David Tibet’s earlier life is influenced by Crowley, which he has totally renounced since then… Thunder Perfect Mind is the record where he started talking about more personal things. When I first heard it, I was really disappointed. His delivery was a little too dramatic for me at the time. I didn’t get into it for a full year. Then I went through a super bad space where I quit my job, because I really couldn’t communicate, I had this really bad bout of depression, and Thunder Perfect Mind was pretty much the only kind of music I could listen to for some reason…I kind of just suddenly got it. It was as if his vocals where a veil to keep the listener away, and once the veil was lifted, his vocals became AMAZING to me. To me, it’s not about magic or the gothic side or anything that a lot of people peg him as, but like, inside of all of that, inside of the darkest time, he’s always looking for some little fraction of light. So when I started listening to it I felt pretty close to that.
About the same time I started getting into Current 93, I made the pinnacle of the crazy, emotional records that I’ve done is Nightly Trembling. It’s called that because that’s what was happening. Originally it came out in an edition of 33, just on lathe cut. (It was recently reissued on Time-Lag Records. We only did 500 of them. Eventually it’ll be available.) The reasoning was… You know how when you have to take a piss really bad while driving a car, your consciousness focuses on one point, and you’re not aware of much else? It’s the same thing when you’re depressed: your consciousness focuses on one point and it becomes a feedback loop, and it’s really hard to get out of that. Which is really similar to what Bruce Kapferer talks about in Feast of the Sorcerer, which is about Sri Lankan Buddhist sorcery and anti-sorcery. When you’re under a sorcery attack, you get this feedback loop that you can’t get out of. So, they have these anti-sorcery rites that allow people to break out in certain ways. The ritual is called a Suniyama and it encompasses theater and music as well as the destruction and exhaustion of wealth, much like a potlatch. I thought that was what I needed to do. So I made this record. It was based on that book, and also on Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, which is about potlatches: you know how certain cultures in the South Pacific islands, instead of warring, they give gifts! That idea—the power of the gift—and Hakim Bey is always talking about that—this project was totally based on all that. I made 33 of these records and I handpainted all of them. I got this beautiful paper from China. Every one had handwritten liner notes. The same liner notes, but on a whole page. Wrote out all the liner notes, painted them, and then just gave every single one of them away to different points that I knew where people were: one in Australia, Germany, London, New Zealand. If I had had friends at the poles I would have sent them there! The idea was to set up this web of consciousness around the world in order to reverse my own consciousness loop. And that’s a kind of reverse—well, Anthony Braxton talks about creating webs of consciousness around the world. For good, not for your own personal bullshit like I was doing. He talks about doing particular concerts at particular places to create a web of consciousness. So I did sort of a reverse Anthony Braxton-style thing. But what happened was, it helped!
There’s a certain person that kind of triggered all of this. I wasn’t talking to them at the time—now we’re best friends—but years later, they told me that they’d figured out that at that exact same time that record was released, they’d actually suffered a pretty bad, pretty weird breakdown: they’d started suffering from all the same things I was suffering from—couldn’t go out of the house, couldn’t talk to anybody, bed-ridden, they had to go into therapy for a while. Maybe that’s coincidence, I don’t know. [laughs] It was pretty weird shit. I’m never gonna do that again. That’s one of the reasons I reissued it was to make those records a lot less powerful – reverse a lot of the power. That project was definitely the pinnacle of the depression.
But I’ve been feeling really good lately. Between that and going into a studio, I was able to do stuff that I’ve always wanted to do on the new album. Like that long song.
Still, some things stay the same for Six Organs, live: you always play solo acoustic guitar…
That’s going to change. The new record has more elecric guitar. Live, I want to loop the acoustic guitar and then pick up the electric guitar.
And you’ve always sat down.
That might change too! Cuz my girlfriend just got me a strap for my acoustic guitar…
Next thing you’ll have a harmonica set-up like Dylan…
The strap and the acoustic guitar is a tricky thing, because you could end up looking like Ani di Franco—or you could end up looking like Neil Young. It’s tricky. I usually prefer to sit so people can’t see me at all.
Live it seems like you’re on a tightrope… I can never tell what you’re going to do next.
I rarely go up with a setlist. I just don’t want it to get boring. I come up with setlists if I know there’s going to be a lot of people out there, and I want a safety net, you know? But I think things are gonna change a little bit. I want it to be interesting for me, too—I’ve always been looking at performance from an improvisor’s point of view. It could fail, but when it’s great, it’s amazing—you really break through something, you really feel something you wouldn’t’ve done if you knew exactly what was happening. Mark Twain, when he had to go out on the lecture circuit, he just hated it. He only did it to make money. He was still great, just because his natural stuff was good, but he wasn’t trying to improvise, to search inside of himself. The time for that was sitting at the table, writing something. I don’t know. I’m not the most emotionally stable person, so I can get really bummed out onstage. Somewhere down South I just broke down and had this attack. That was my most shameful show, ever. Sometimes weird things happen when I play. I stopped playing and I told the audience that what they’d heard was NOTHING, it was NO GOOD. Just preaching nihilism and death. It was just horrible. Sometimes things get ahold of me. This year I’ve realized that there are shadows. Sometimes the shadows are really intense, they can take up a lot of space. Sometimes I’m fighting shadows… Sometimes the room is filled with shadows. I can’t describe it, really. Once when I played in L.A., I don’t mean to be all hocus pocus, but really, I was playing and there was only a few people there and I swear to God there were weird shadow entities, non-friendly shadows there, and I started to get super-freaked out.
Are you able to meditate at all?
I don’t meditate — I drink. [laughs] But, by the time I was playing in San Francisco, on that tour last year with Ghost, I wasn’t agitated at all. Everything was so peaceful and quiet. I wasn’t stomping. Ghost have this internal peace within them. I would talk to Batoh after shows and he would ask me why I was so agitated on stage [laughs], he’d tell me that I should try and calm down. He taught me a lot about being peaceful onstage. Then of course a week after that I played with Sun City Girls and they just destroyed all of that. I’d see them just TAKE it. It was THEIR stage. You’re gonna have a good time, and if not, man, you’re gonna get fucked with. They taught me that it’s war on stage. Which I knew it was. [laughs] Once Ghost left the country, I felt like my parents had gone and I could party it up. But of course Sun City Girls have a kind of self-confidence that I’m lacking.
How’s it going playing with Comets On Fire? That allows you to do something different.
It’s hard to divide my time between Six Organs and Comets. If I had my way I’d just tour with both of them, non-stop. We’re all strong personalities, we don’t write a whole lot of music. We’d rather jam out bar band songs and drink beers.
You were working on a free-noise thing with Noel Harmonson thing the other day.
It’s fun to do that. It’s really important. It’s important to be aware of sound as music, rather than music as a nominal and deterministic exercise or science. For me anyway. All things must be possible, at all times. Otherwise, what magic could music even hold? If I want a bunch of laws and rules, I’ll go stand in line at the Oakland DMV! But…I think we should have some sort of disclaimer here to let the folks know that I don’t think anything I say has really much of an importance to anyone. It’s just bullshit. But at least I recognize that. During the day I like to listen to Sun Ra, drink coffee and read about chaos linguistics. And at night I get drunk, and start raging and getting pissed off. And listen to Tomokawa Kazuki or Townes Van Zandt. For the last couple of years, Townes Van Zandt, he’s just my buddy. He feels like my brother. I don’t have a brother, but… I mean, he got really depressed. You listen to his studio records—they’re super-happy! But he was dealing with a lot of stuff. On a music level I like him because, even today, I’ve listened to this one song for years, and just today I figured out these two lines and how fucking brilliant they were “mother was a golden girl, slit her throat just to get her pearls, cast myself into a world, before a bunch of swine” from “Dollar Bill Blues”—and they’d just passed me by because he speaks this language that isn’t flowery. He’s speaking everyday language but then a couple years later, you go, Holy fuck I get it, I can’t believe he put those two words together. He’s absolutely brilliant—anyone can listen to him and get more and more into him. Anytime I hear any music, I’m thinking about it in terms of, Oh that’s a good idea, that’s a bad idea, how does this relate to anything I do. Townes is the only person where I never, ever do that. He’s the only musician I just listen to.
It’s like listening to my brother talk.