Wild Mercury Sound
Interview: Six Organs Of Admittance
Been talking for a while now about how I think Six Organs Of Admittance’s “Ascent” is one of the best albums of 2012, and I’ve finally written about it at length in the new issue of Uncut. Anyhow, Ben Chasny responded to a bunch of questions I sent over with a characteristic diligence, and I figured it was worth posting the whole exchange here.
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Can you tell us how the reunion with Comets On Fire came about?
I should say that I've never really considered Comets to have broken up. We truly are just on a hiatus. We don't live close to each other any more and there are families and jobs and other projects to consider. It's more a matter of logistics. This record came about because we were supposed to have recorded an electric record under the Six Organs name ten years ago, but then I joined Comets instead, so the project fell by the wayside. It's been a bit of a thorn in my side that we never finished it. Another factor is that I just missed playing with those guys so much and missed recording with Tim at Louder Studios. Also, logistics finally lined up with Noel not being on tour with Sic Alps and Ethan had finally finished his “Russian Wilds” record so he could have some clear head space.
I know three of these songs were on the lost Six Organs/Comets album from 2002. Why now?
Two of those songs are electric versions of acoustic songs that are on older Holy Mountain records. I've actually performed them live and electric quite a bit over the years with various configurations of Six Organs, such as with Alex Neilson and Elisa Ambrogio, or John Moloney and Keith Wood. Once we even played “A Thousand Birds” with Elisa's dad on drums in Boston. That was pretty sick. “Even if You Knew” was a song that hadn't been played in ten years but it was always a favourite to play live. I refigured some of the lyrics to go with the theme of the record and bring it up to date with what we were feeling now.
Did you have any great plans/influences/aims when you embarked on the sessions this time?
The record has a vague storyline inspired by a dream that I had of a spacecraft being constructed by a moon. I realized that I keep doing these records that are influenced by ideas rather than stories, so I wanted to try my hand at something new. It doesn't have an explicit narrative that one could probably deduce from listening. My plan was to write the songs with the story as the backdrop. I won't give away the narrative behind it all, but it does have some themes that are pretty well spelled out by the record cover and the lyrics.
I guess part of the adventure of being a musician is the possibilities presented by different groups of collaborators. But it must have been emotional and satisfying on some level to return to this gang?
It was a blast to get together and make music again. The last time we were all in the same room was during the Sub Pop 20th anniversary festival in Seattle about five years ago. As soon as we all got together again and plugged in and just started riffing in the practice space it all came back as if no time had passed at all. I think when you are in a band that tours and plays together as much as Comets did it's natural that everyone respects each other's space, both musically and personally. I also feel that everyone plays a bit different in Six Organs than they would in Comets. For one, I do all the solos rather than Ethan and I trading off. Another thing is Noel plays guitar rather than manning a tower of noise. And of course I am doing the singing and writing of lyrics instead of Ethan. But besides all of that, the approach is a bit different. In Comets there was a thrust toward excess in all parts. In Six Organs there is an attempt to make a solid foundation on top of which to build that excess.
What was it like to be leading the Comets, and how did Ethan adjust to playing your songs?
When we got together for this project there was never a sense that we were Comets On Fire. We all played as Six Organs so it never felt as if I was leading Comets. I don't think Comets can be led. Comets is a 100 per cent democracy where any vote of negation from any one member can throw an entire idea out the window. Since this was Six Organs we just followed the lead of where the sound of Six Organs took us. Sometimes it feels as if Six Organs leads itself. I don't need to tell anyone what to do. I think Ethan brought a great sound to the record. His guitar is the one in the right channel and very reverbed out in a train-tunnel-doom-surf way. Since the songs were recorded live with all of in one room, sometimes we weren't even aware of how much we were playing off of each other at the time. When I listened back to the recording during mixing I definitely heard the subconscious connections that had been made over the years.
On his blog, Ethan tells a story about you burying the master tapes of a session to dig up and release at a much later date. Have you really done that?
I did that with one song a while ago. There was a song on “Luminous Night” that I recorded the basic tracks on a 4-track and then buried the cassette in the ground and dug it up a year later. Randall Dunn, who was recording the record at the time, had the idea to play it back on the 4-track running through a Sunn Model T at full volume and we recorded that, which became the song “Cover Your Wounds With The Sky”. I learned some things during the process that would make it much better the next time I do it, such as to not wind the tape up on the spools of the cassette so tight so next time I can get mould growing on the play-side of the tape.
And at the risk of using Ethan as the source of all my questions, he says of those 2002 sessions, “There is this incredible blend of spiritualism and nihilism. I guess to me that’s often been the complex, struggling and overwhelming element of Six Organs in any of its forms, but I feel like that battle is laid out in a very raw and explicit duel in these three songs.” Is that something you agree with, especially with these new sessions?
That's very nice of him to say and a bit curious. Ethan has that writer's way with descriptions that make things sound pretty glorious. That said, I wouldn't say I agree that spiritualism and nihilism are necessarily exclusive in the first place, but I guess that depends on how you define each of those terms. I don't equate dissonance, noise or non-melody to nihilism. Is Morton Feldman nihilistic? I'd say one of my goals in life is to fight nihilism and I see it in the hearts of more people than even know. But again, that’s my own definition. I find a lot of music to be truly nihilistic, even and especially when it is covered in a shiny and positive veneer.
I make this the 13th Six Organs album. Crude questions, but how do you look back on your work so far, and can you identify which records you’re proudest of?
Whoah. I had no idea I was working with such an unlucky number on this one. I don't think any one record jumps out ahead of the others for me. Mostly they just seem like placemarkers in time. I don't really hear them as things outside of when they were recorded. I guess it helps that I was living in a different city for each one, except for a small handful that were recorded in Santa Cruz.
How does it compare jamming with this band and with Rangda? And is there another Rangda album in the pipeline?
Rangda is a different beast entirely. For one, it's so new that it is still growing pretty fast, maybe comparable to what a child learns from the time it's born until four years old or so; it gets an identity, learns what is important, figures out how not to shit its pants, stuff like that. Actually, Rangda recorded our second record in February at Black Dirt Studios. It's called “Formerly Extinct” and is coming out in September on Drag City. I feel we made huge leaps in how we play together over the last couple years. I mean, that first record was recorded after we had only jammed once, which is what gives it so much energy but the new songs have a much more nasty vibe going on.
What’s next? Any chance of Six Organs/Comets dates?
Six Organs and Rangda will be touring separately in the UK and Europe in October. The Six Organs show will be with a small band made up of some of the Comets guys. As for Comets itself, that is really up in the air as far as what might happen. I definitely wouldn't rule anything out. We certainly had a great time recording “Ascent”.
And oh yeah, whatever happened to acid folk?
I think it's probably doing pretty well in the underground. As long as it doesn't poke its head above ground, it will be fine.