Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August, 2006)
How Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain singer-guitarist Ethan Miller got his cosmic Californian yawp
Text: Trinie Dalton
Photos: Eden Batki
Design: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington
My adoration for Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance, Howlin’ Rain and The Colossal Yes — all bands that either include or are tangentially related to cover boy Ethan Miller — stems from my love of music that reminds me of the Pot Growing Capital of America, Humboldt County. As a native Californian, any music that conjures up the Redwood forest—its clean, pine-scented air, abundance of ferns and fungi, and a high tree canopy providing year-round shelter from the elements—causes me to pause as I grind through traffic in Los Angeles and wonder: Why do I live in such a hellhole? (This doesn’t mean I’m moving up north to chain myself to a tree or that I bust out bootlegs from cheesy Phish wannabes, however.)
Ethan Miller’s music in his bands Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain does yeoman’s work by evoking his native Humboldt region. His guitar playing and vocals attest to a magical and ancient ability to conjure up place, recalling that golden hour in American rock history: San Francisco in the late ‘60s, the heyday of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. On the other hand, Miller is audibly influenced by Japanese freak-out messiahs like High Rise, Ghost, White Heaven, Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino. Those inspirations supply the proverbial fireworks inside Miller’s balmy, casual Northern California sound. Consider it a Pacific Rim/Ring of Fire kind of thing.
Comets on Fire have built their sound upon the excitement and uncertainty of impending disaster. Their fourth studio album, Avatar (Sub Pop), sounds, at first, less chaotically punky than their previous records (2001’s Comets on Fire; 2002’s Field Recordings of the Sun; 2004’s Blue Cathedral), but close listening reveals its deeper strangeness. The new album has a more professional studio sound, yet Avatar also features powerful ballads whose lyrics has the power to hypnotize much like magic spells. In “Swallow’s Eye,” Miller sings: “Eye of the moon will turn the tides/Leaves of the orchard beckon the blight/Spite of our circle, ever on/Only a river can carry a song.”
While Comets’ awkward-but-beautiful tendency towards demolishing harmonic riffs and jams with screeching, scary guitar solos still reigns, Avatar has clearer piano, more bass, and, most notably, Miller singing sans effects. His earthy rasp is reminiscent of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and Ozzy. But when Comets played ArthurFest in 2005, Ethan was singing at maximum capacity, and it was impossible to understand one word he was saying through the distortion of the Echoplex. Now, the ability to understand Ethan Miller’s lyrics is a breakthrough, adding poetic and political significance to an already heavy experience.
Miller’s lyrics come through even clearer on Howlin’ Rain’s self-titled debut on Birdman Records. Howlin’ Rain is an Ethan-fronted revolving posse including old buddies Ian Gradek, Mike Jackson, Tim Daley and Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney. They have a real California-country feel, part Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, part original Charlatans, with the feel-good vibe of the Doobie Brothers. I sampled the Howlin’ Rain LP while crossing over mountainous Route 299, through Weaverville, deep in the Shasta-Trinity wilderness famous for its thriving Bigfoot population. With the trees rolling past, a river to stop at and dip into, and some beer and trail mix for nourishment, the tunes sounded pretty idyllic. Howlin’ Rain’s lyrics are another matter: doomsday vibes, as in “Calling Lightning With A Scythe,” set far off from pastoral troubadour musings: “We are only slaves/To our ghostly arms and legs/Got us dancing in our graves/And then lay around in the wreckage/Of this pitiful little world.” Bluesy murder ballads and songs about the apocalypse are further disturbed by Miller’s guitar solos that wreck the Neil Young-ian peace and harmony that the songs present on the surface.
Ethan grew up in Eureka, the Humboldt County seat, but now lives in Oakland. I had a fantasy of driving up to some remote redwood cabin to drink gin with him for the interview, but since he’s busy enjoying Bay Area city life with his wife and working a day job, we enjoyed a long, fun phone conversation. Ethan Miller’s lucidity, in his interview as well as in his music, reassures me that there are good things happening, in an age that can sometimes feel overwhelmed by corporate dread.
It’s been a while. Almost 5 years since our last gig to be more precise. In the meantime our membership has made other kinds of records and toured with other bands, drifted apart geographically to reside in new regions and a few of our members have been blessed with children. We are all still alive and relatively well!
In January of 2012 Ben Chasny invited the semi-estranged COF membership to join him as his backing band in rehearsal and recording for the Six Organs of Admittance album “Ascent”. It had been almost 4 years since we stepped off the stage after our last performance at the Sub Pop 20 anniversary festival up in Seattle in the summer of 2008. Rehearsing and recording the Six Organs record was a blast for all of us and we quickly found out that even though we weren’t doing a COF project specifically that the Comets spirit was clearly alive and well in the heart of our playing together as a band again.
After completion of “Ascent” some of the COF members accompanied Chasny as the Six Organs backing band on subsequent tours throughout 2012. When touring cooled down for various members in 2013 Comets began to reconvene as a group in jam sessions in Oakland to make some music, some noise, thrash out and just see what happened. From our first weekend playing music together we were thrilled and surprised by the quality and quantity of material that we were coming up with and again thrilled and reassured that the old sights, sounds and feel of the group was lifting off on command. What began as a jam session to see if the band still had a spiritual and social center most likely has become the beginning of a very leisurely paced construction on a new record. But that’s another story and there is little more to tell of it at this point other than we are being creative and creating new music as a group at a pace that is totally absent of coaxing and time pressures.
The real story here is that Comets On Fire will be performing live at the end of this year in London and at the final ATP in Camber Sands, UK. We feel that Barry Hogan and the ATP co. have played a great part in the success and general “fun” of Comets on Fire and we want to ride that holiday camp train one more time. We have great Technicolor memories of the holiday camp festivals put on by ATP and not just the moments on stage or palling around with other artists in a drunken haze but also Utrillo swinging from the chandelier in our chalet until it dislodges from the ceiling and sends him flying down on the glass table top, kids we’ve never seen before storming our trailer apartment at 3am and then kicking the bathroom door open because they couldn’t figure out how to open it (yes, it was locked, someone was inside (multiple people actually, passed out), spending long days off laying around on the picnic benches in the courtyard drinking wine and eating English cheese fresh off the southern farms and of course seeing some of the most astounding band lineups in the history of rock music crammed into one weekend on 3 different stages. I believe in the day and a half we were at the last ATP Comets attended I saw the Stooges, Sonic Youth, The Melvins, Peter Brotzmann, Flipper, Sun City Girls, Dinosaur Jr—and that’s with falling asleep early the first night due to drunkenness and jet lag and leaving at dawn Sunday morning…the shit that a fan can see with a 3 day pass and a blood transfusion on the morning of the 3rd day is absolutely mind boggling.
So anyhow, we’re doing it again. Fuck it!!! ATP is a blast, see you there.
Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire onstage at ArthurFest, 2005 (photo by Jeremiah Garcia/IceCreamMan.com)
C and D: Two fellas reason together about some new records
C: We resume not far from where we left off last issue. Only without D, our lovable excitable German, who has vacated the rumble seat to return to Der Fatherland to observe the World Cup. In his place, quaffing D’s beers for this issue only, ladies and gentlemen of the court, may I present to you: F. F: Happy to be here, C. Those are big shoes to fill. C: Relax. After three beers and the proper auditory stimulation, your feet will swell to fit.
Comets on Fire Avatar (Sub Pop) F: After five seconds of this record, I can confidently say: Comets on Fire, you made an excitable German out of me. Pummely stuff. C: This blasts off from where their last record left off: frequent flyer acid rock mentality, virtuous verses and choruses, oodles of audible poem lyrics, spry jams, and serious assblasting. A couple songs are slow burners… F: …that put the power back in balladry. C: The album-opening epic “Dogwood Rust” slithers into a Hawkwind-Ash Ra Tempel-Stereolab-Oneida locked groove around the six minute mark, then ignite into dueling guitar spirals, then some Von Harmonson echotronix. Plus the kind of casual avant garde move that’s so natural you almost don’t notice it: the electric birdsong at end of “Jaybird,” a nice fresh-air breather. F: A muscle-relaxer for the brain. C: For me, this album plugs back into what their labelmates Sleater-Kinney did on their most recent album: laying sweet waste to the center of Ted Nugent’s mind by power tripping from the top of the randiest redwoods. This is the Comets’ answer record, at least in my personal universe. F: I grok that. Fight fire with Fire! Those dark noontide chimes at the beginning of “The Swallow’s Eye,” and the chorus guitars on “Lucifer’s Memory”…it’s crystal clear: Cosmic soul rock kills pain dead. C: And it arrives just two months after the Howlin’ Rain album. Howlin’ Rain, of course, is the new band spotlighting Comets on Fire singer-guitarist Ethan Miller’s songwriterly aspect, which leans to the Allmans/Dead/Faces side of the highway. And just a few months after Comets guitarist Ben Chasny’s latest Six Organs of Admittance pan-cultural acid-folk stunner, The Sun Awakens. F: Not to mention Comets pianist/drummer Utrillo’s nuevo Elton John/Bill Fay song project, The Colossal Yes. C: That one 11-minute song on the Colossal Yes album? Wow… [listening to “Holy Teeth”] But back to the album at hand. This is total High Rise/Acid Mothers Temple/Kiss destruction boogie. F: A strange thing about “boogie” is it’s been Not Cool for a period about ten times longer than it was Cool. [standing up from the couch] But it never left my behind! C: [averting eyes, mumbling] Christ, F. Boogie if you must but please do it where I don’t have to see it. This one [“Sour Smoke”] is like keyboard-driven Fela Kuti meets Television. Can a band be this good? F: Felavision: I wish they had that on the Dish. C: Call your cosmic cable company… F: To paraphrase Foster’s: Comets on Fire—it’s American for rock.
Vetiver To Find Me Gone (diCristina) F: The second album from San Francisco’s haziest, gentlest canyon-folk drifters, Vetiver. C: There’s a bucolic feel to this I love. F: True, but what’s up with the word “bucolic”? The sound of words should correlate to their meaning, and there’s something about “bucolic” that always makes me think of a baby with a wet, hacking cough. C: Whereas this music would more likely cure a baby of such a cough. F: Readers with babies might let us know how it works… C: Vetiver’s music evokes all those little phases or episodes along a dayhike in the country: the initial entry into the wilderness…the part where you’re making serious headway, alone with your thoughts…the moment when the senses are overwhelmed by the nature stimuli, the dew and the sap, the sun’s heat and the insects’ hum…when you finally you stop for water by a brook, and take a nap in the shade. When Andy Cabic sings, “I climbed so high/the sky dropped down to teach me,” he’s tapping into the naturalist in all of us. F: I heard somebody say you could call this kind of music ‘naturalismo.’ C: I also heard somebody say that the real reason music originating from the West Coast underground—all the aforementioned bands, Brightblack Morning Light, etc etc etc—is so beautifully gone right now is because of the high potency of the marijuana out here. C: While I am not stoned at this time, I swear I just looked out the window and saw a burrito fly past. F: Yeah, that’s Vetiver, working the California tradition: Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young, the Mac of course, the original Charlatans from San Francisco… C: And of course the late under-lamented Beachwood Sparks, whose final EP had some of this same swooshy nature euphoria and next-afternoon melancholia. Not that this is mimicry. Cabic’s songwriting here goes beyond recidivist texture gesture. It’s a very subtle, tricky thing Vetiver does, mellowing the harsh but resisting the corn. They use violins instead of fiddles. F: Whoa, this song [“Red Lantern Girls”] is amazing! It’s like a horse just trotting along, and then alluvasudden, this squalling and sustained one-note electric guitar solo [courtesy of guest Brad Laner (Medicine/Electric Company guitarist-composer)] kicks in and the band breaks into a gallop. C: Vetiver: cures coughs, cleanses palates. Use hourly.
Awesome Color Awesome Color (Ecstatic Peace/Universal) C: Whoa! F: Yowza! C: These guys get on that train and ride it back to Cincinnati 1969! Total Stooges in Iggy’s-Got-the-Peanut-Butter-Again mode… F: Yeah, but even more than that— Sound of Confusion-era Spacemen 3, especially on this track “Dinosaur”: that’s the sound of a band refusing to learn more chords or grooves because they already found the best ones. C: Concentrating on tone and psychotic drive, like all the greats, like our national treasures The Cramps and Tav Falco and of course the 13th Floor Elevators…Awesome Color are…uh…awesome. C: I’ve got to admit that my inner adolescent thinks this is the coolest shit possible. F: I hope they’re all under 18, and there better be some brothers in this band. C: This song [“It’s Your Time”] features some actual choogle. C: Which brings us to the question that has haunted many a rock fan: what, exactly, is the difference between the boogie and the choogle? F: Would that be choogie or boogle?
Zizek! dvd (Zeitgeist) C: Dude, I’m trying to play this DVD, but you totally messed up my system while reconnecting the TV to the stereo so you could watch the World Cup in surround-sound. F: I think that D, absent as he is, would’ve approved. Anyways, it was worth it to hear the Mexican TV commentators hollering so sonorously. C: Okay, here we go… This is a documentary about Slavoj Zizek, the Solvenian philosopher who’s known as “a one-person culture-muncher” and “the Elvis of critical theory.” F: He looks more like Klaus Kinski. Or Yakoff Smirnoff. C: Blame it on the beard. Zizek’s basically this super erudite dude who is also a willfully contrary polemicist commentating on everything under the sun as he goes. As he says, “The duty of philosophy is to redefine problems, not to solve them.” Here he is on a tour of colleges…he sees a girl carrying some Evian and remarks, “Water in a bottle —it reminds me of socialism.” F: This guy’s great! Reminds me of the biting, death-obsessed comedy of the late great Brother Theodore. I believe Zizek speaks as a friend although he expounds with fiendish fervor. C: Fiendish fervor is right. Zizek is a pre-postmodern man. He was raised in Communist Yugoslavia, but when that all went to bloody hell, he became a Christian atheist. F: I knew I dug this guy. He’s got some zingers, like when he talks about being “up to your shit in ideology.” C: Zizek cuts through the tripe. Here he is watching an old televised broadcast of Lacan giving a lecture. Lacan is one of Zizek’s primary influences, but he is not in awe of Lacan: “I find his emphasis and gestures ridiculous…. I’m a total enlightenment person, I believe in clear statements.” F: Like Zizek says: “I always tell the truth. Not the whole truth, because one can’t.” C: My favorite part about this film is where Zizek proudly shows us that he keeps his clean laundry in the kitchen cupboard. F: You’ve got that much in common…
Beavis and Butthead: The Mike Judge Collection, Volume 2 DVD (Paramount) C: Meanwhile, at the other end of the philosophical spectrum… F: Beer me! C: Y’know, there’s so much product that comes out these days, so many records, DVDs and CDs, but I still feel like there’s a void Beavis & Butthead left that remains unfulfilled. F: Hey, Zizek’s doing his best. C: Hard to imagine Zizek calling Lacan a “dillhole” though. It would be so cool if they made a new Beavis & Butthead movie, like, checking in with them ten years later… F: In the meantime, creator Mike Judge is putting out these super-packed DVDs, and it’s amazing to watch the classic cartoons uninterrupted by erase-your-blemish commercials. C: The titles alone are remarkable: “Wet Behind The Rears” — “Premature Evacuation”—”Here Comes The Bride’s Butt.” F: “Bang The Drum Slowly, Dumbass.” C: I love when the screen goes dark, right before the show starts, and you can only hear their immortal “hunh-huh-unh” laughter. Ohmigod, I love this one, where they go in to the plastic surgeon to get their “thingies” made bigger, but [uncontrollable laughter] instead the doctor gives them boobs! [falls off the couch] F: Settle down, C. How many brownies did you eat? C: I dunno. Is the baggie half full or half-empty, buttmunch?
Phi Ta Khon: Ghosts of Isan dvd Directed by Robert Millis (Sublime Frequencies) F: Feature-length film about a weird three-day street festival in Thailand, sometimes referred to as “Mardi Gras from Hell.” Whoa. Talk about awesome colors. C: You see, this is what America should have learned from pre-Katrina New Orleans. All this industrial technology and computer whatsits and the Intervoid is so much unnecessary fuzz. To coin a paraphrase, what the world needs now is less competitive work-laboring and more communal partying. F: Preferably in blazing demon masks made from cocount husks. C: Yes, decadence on the cheap. Whiskey drinking at dawn and total second-line parades featuring guitar-and-flute ragas on flatbed trucks, amps powered by car batteries, people waving hand-painted papier mache phalluses with strange tips. When the grid crashes, this is how I hope we’ll party. Of course we’ll probably have to wait til then. You’d never be able to get a permit for something like this in public in America, home of the so-called free. F: I like the Sublime Frequencies approach. They stand in awe of this planet’s inhabitants’ strange beauty: they bear witness. They just say LOOK, they don’t even try to explain—well, not much—what’s going on. Their approach is, This shit is so deep you don’t even have to know anything about what it is you’re seeing to receive some its power. It’s that rich. They’re busy grokking. They’re feeling fascination. F: They are the real human league.
Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade) D: [extremely puzzled] Is this the Residents?!? C: It’s Fiery Furnaces. Second album in one year. Usually when you say “difficult second album,” you mean it was hard for the artist. But this is actually hard on the audience! D: [grimacing] I am not sure if I like this much. C: It’s… it’s… it’s completely nuts. But: interesting nuts. D: I remember them now! They were interviewed in Arthur. Brother and sister. But I thought they were blues-rocking New York people? What is all this synthesizer-ragtime stuff?!? C: It’s like low-key prog. [looking at CD player] We’re in the ninth minute of the first song here… 13 songs, 75 minutes… The whole thing is a wigged-out concept album, man. I dig it. D: [irritated] I do not have time for concepts! I am a ramblin’ man, that’s what I am. C: Don’t spill your Dr. Pepper, Popeye. There’s a lot of good stuff on here, it’s just sorta tucked away in pockets within pockets in a large spangled coat of many prog colors. D: This is too wacky and too wordy. [Brightens, listening to riff midway through second song] I like that, though. I think these guys may be too smart for their own good. C: A singles-only edit of this album would be nice for the Short Attention Spanners out there…
Comets On Fire Blue Cathedral (Sub Pop) C: The new one from Comets On Fire, full-on super-rock five-piece from the Bay Area. They keep the demons at bay. D: Yes! Big super-blaster balls-nailed-to-the-wall heavy power rock from a space cannon! C: Amazing, visionary wizardstuff. And they give you a break in the middle of songs—there’s these lighter sections, they’re even choogling here and there, mellowing the crunchy harsh. D: [listening to keyboard-heavy “Pussy Footin’ the Duke.”] There is a taste of the prog here, too! But I don’t mind because the riffs are deep canyons and the singer is a yowler and the drums are mighty! C: It’s like the best of Japanese power-rock plus Quicksilver Messenger Serivce or Meddle-era Pink Floyd plus Kiss. Album-of-the-year contender. D: I am going to make a pilgrimage to this Blue Cathedral. C: Which is right next door to the Acid Mothers Temple, no doubt.
The Reigning Sound Too Much Guitar! (In the Red) D: The Reigning Sound! Mister Greg Cartwright! Long may he reign. I doff my beer in his general direction. Heartfelt thrashing songs with a zest for life! C: [nodding head] The is one of those records that gives garage rock a good name. Which is pretty hard, considering there’s like 45,000 bands out there who are trying to do the same thing over the last three decades. D: I am getting old. But I will get out my leather jacket for these guys. And stitch their name on it, as is my duty. C: They’ve got actual songs, it’s not just the two-chord mono-grind smear. And listen to this ballad [“Funny Thing”]. If you’re not a connoiseur of this sort of stuff, it sound like something between the Stones and the Hives. And the Hives are taking them on the tour, so there you go. D: Giving them that big Swedish stamp of approval!
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.
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.”
“What I can remember about this session is that it was recorded during the daytime at our practice space on 3rd st. in San Francisco most likely between September 1st and the 3rd of 2005. Comets and Growing had toured the Midwest and Eastern U.S. together in June and July of that same year. This is just a few months later and Growing was out on the West Coast to play the first Arthurfest in Los Angeles which Comets also played…”
MAJOR WAREHOUSE FIND: We’ve got 80 copies left of this beautiful sucker—this is the last of the 500-copy jewel case run—and then they’re gone forever. Orders will start shipping June 1, 2010.
Thirteen gnarly tunes gathered from high and low by ETHAN MILLER of COMETS ON FIRE and HOWLIN RAIN back in 2006. “For lovers of bloody nose street folk, dangerous shit rock, drunken cosmic slop and those wandering down the outer and under paths alone.”
1. Albert Ayler – Truth Is Marching In
2 Monoshock – Crypto-Zoological Disaster
3 The Colossal Yes – The Honey Creeper Smiles
4 Ghost – Piper
5 Electric Six Organs Of Admittance – Close To The Sky
6 Michael Yonkers – Swamp Of Love
7 Shit Spangled Banner – Cuntshine
8 Brother JT – Country Blues/Be With Us (live)
9 Joshua – Look Floating
10 7 Year Rabbit Cycle – Meditation
11 August Born [Six Organs and L collaboration] – Providence
12 Dark Inside The Sun – Truly Cursed
13 Comets On Fire – Death Squad