Ben Chasny and I have known each other since before time began. Even back then, he never stayed put—he’s always on the move. Time eventually copied him. I have always been an ancient and ardent admirer of his six-string sorcery and his ability to shape-shift. I’ve followed him closely over the years but there are those instances in which his tracks vanish unexpectedly, leaving me to wonder where he will pop up next.
His main vehicle since 1998 is called Six Organs of Admittance, a moniker that most often represents him as a solo performer but can also involve any number of other musicians who happen to be in his live or studio orbit. The Drag City label in Chicago has just issued two new Six Organs releases, and this time around Ben is getting a little help from some old friends. But Six Organs of Admittance is just one ingredient in this potent Chasny cocktail. In 2003, he officially joined forces with psychedelic rockers Comets on Fire and a few years later he was writing guitar parts for and performing live with one of David Tibet’s Current 93 incarnations. Add in equal parts Badgerlore, August Born, and some unusual soundtrack projects, and you start to realize that this concoction is barely half full.
One of his recent non–Six Organs projects is Rangda, a little three-piece combo which I am fortunate enough to be involved with, sharing guitar duties with Ben while legendary percussionist Chris Corsano pounds us in and out of time. Rangda’s second full-length record, entitled Formerly Extinct, has also just hit the streets. If that wasn’t enough, Ben has also been shacking up with Elisa Ambrogio, southpaw guitar slinger from the noisy rock outfit Magik Markers, for a slightly quieter project they are calling 200 Years.
All of this has been giving Chasny’s fingers quite a workout over the last several years, and I have been applying all of my orienteering skills with the hopes of keeping him in my sights. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with his numerous LP releases, whom he is working with at any given time, and what odd project he was asked to get involved with when I wasn’t looking. I was warned long ago to keep a safe distance due to the fact that he is armed, dangerous, and cultured. I knew that he could and would attack from any angle, but it’s that cultured bit that scared me. He once titled an album For Octavio Paz, dedicated to the Nobel Prize–winning Mexican poet, and then had the balls to make it an instrumental record. Frightening.
— Sir Richard Bishop
Richard Bishop Where in California did you grow up?
Ben Chasny I grew up in a small community called Elk River, which is outside of Eureka. It’s in Northern California, close to the Oregon border. It was an extremely rural area, with a redwood forest at our backdoor.
RB Did either of your parents play a musical instrument?
BC No, but my dad has always been into stereos. He loved his JBL speakers and used to crank them really loud. I think that was one of the reasons he wanted to live in the sticks.
RB What kind of music did he like?
BC He jammed a lot of Neil Young and Band of Gypsys.
RB Were your parents hippies? Did you ever live in a commune?
BC They were more hippie than square but I never lived in a commune. My dad is a Vietnam vet. He just wanted to get away from society, move to the country, and have a few chickens.
RB Seems like he could have stayed in Vietnam and had all of that at a fraction of the cost.
BC I should mention that he was drafted and was definitely not into the war, or any war whatsoever. In that way he was definitely a hippie.
RB What does he think of your music?
BC He’s a fan. He likes Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Leo Kottke, and similar stuff, so it’s not too far of a stretch. He wasn’t in favor of me starting to play the guitar, though. He thought I’d end up a bum with no money or future. Looks like he was right.
RB When did you first start playing the guitar?
BC I started on the bass guitar when I was 14. I was trying to learn Dirty Rotten Imbeciles bass solos and stuff like that. Then came acoustic guitar at age 18 and then electric after that.
RB You played bass? How come you never told me that? You know, Rangda could really use a bass player. Would you ever consider that? Come on, take one for the team. That way, I could have all the guitar glory to myself. Then you could stop making me look so bad.
BC Well, the only way I know how to play the bass is by slapping it. Do you think you guys would be into me slapping the shit out of the bass on our tunes? You want some funk or what? You ever hear of Jaco Pastorius?
RB Funny you should ask. Jaco, along with the Brecker Brothers, came over to my brother Alan’s house in Tempe, Arizona, in 1982. He said they were all pompous pricks. They were playing a gig that night down the street and my brother’s roommate, who worked at the jazz club, brought them all by to show them her house. My brother hated Jaco and his music and didn’t care that he was a legend. When they were leaving Alan yelled, “There are three bass players in this town who blow your shit away.” Jaco flipped my brother off and they all walked away.
BC Killer. That’s so funny. I wish I could have seen that.
RB So what songs did you slap away at on the bass?
BC I was just fronting. My slapping skills are pretty lame. It sounds sort of like I am whacking the strings with a salmon. The first songs I learned were more finger-groove style, like the theme to Peter Gunn, Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” and Black Uhuru’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All of these songs have killer bass lines.
RB Your first album as Six Organs of Admittance came out in 1998. Were you in any bands before then?
BC I was in a few bands here and there. One was called Plague Lounge and we released a record on Holy Mountain/New World Of Sound. That was my first glimpse into a world that I felt comfortable in musically. It was a pretty heavy psych-noise type of band. I played through two distortion pedals at the same time.
RB That’s just wrong! Your latest full-length album, Ascent, was just released by Drag City. Your former band mates from Comets on Fire are backing you up on this one. What made you want to incorporate them here?
BC Part of it was that I moved to the East Coast, so I started to have romantic memories of California and how we all used to play together. About ten years ago this was the lineup for Six Organs before I joined Comets. We would tour together, but playing an acoustic guitar with just an SM57 microphone on it was pretty futile in the rock clubs that Comets would play in, so the band formed mostly for volume’s sake. We always had plans to do this record but it kind of got benched when I joined Comets. Since Comets aren’t really active right now, I thought it was the perfect time to get it together.
RB Do you think that having your old band mates on this record will do anything to get Comets on Fire back into the studio?
BC They’re probably closer to getting back together now than they were a few years ago, but who knows? It’s really up to whether the rest of the guys feel that it would be something they would like to do.
RB With Comets were you and Ethan [Miller] the main songwriters or was there a more diplomatic approach to the process, with everybody offering up ideas and suggestions?
BC It has always been pretty diplomatic. Everyone contributes ideas and we would all come to an agreement about what sounded best and what to leave out or keep in.
RB Since Ascent is a Six Organs release, were the songs fully written before going into the studio?
BC I wrote all of the songs; all of the riffs are mine. Everyone added ideas on top, though. Ethan had some great ideas for guitar parts and Utrillo [Kushner] added some piano chords. Everybody contributed and was creative. I didn’t say no to anyone’s ideas.
RB So you didn’t find yourself in the role of dictator at all?
BC It wasn’t so much being a dictator as just trying to stay focused and keeping everyone busy. I hate telling people what to do. I always think the biggest hurdle is finding people you trust. After that you don’t have to worry about anything. Don’t you agree?
RB I do. Once you have that trust and confidence in each other, all sorts of possibilities arise. That’s how it was with Sun City Girls and I feel the same playing with you and Chris [Corsano] in Rangda. I wouldn’t want it any other way. There are some screaming guitar solos on the record. Are you playing all of them?
BC All of the main guitar solos are mine. Ethan adds some fills and little solos here and there. It’s easy to tell us apart because Ethan is panned pretty hard to the right on the recording and I’m in the center. In Comets, Ethan and I usually trade solos.
RB Did you work again with Tim Green as engineer on this one?
BC Yeah. Tim built a new studio in a barn out in Grass Valley, California. It was insane. It sounded really good. I can’t imagine recording with all of the Comets guys without Tim.
RB The sequencing on the record is perfect.
BC Thanks. I think it worked out.
RB It flows very naturally. Were you thinking about any particular order when writing the songs or did you wait until all of the songs were recorded?
BC All of the sequencing was done after the recordings and a lot of hard decisions had to be made. Tim and I played around quite a bit with it. There had to be some editing of songs here and there so the thing would fit on a single piece of vinyl. In the end, I think it’s best to keep it short and sweet.
RB Along with the new full-length LP you also released a 7-inch entitled Parsons’ Blues. Were these songs originally intended for the album?
BC Sort of. As we were recording, it became obvious that they were misfits that needed their own space. They demanded to be by themselves. The rest of the songs were happy to get rid of them.
RB The cover of Parsons’ Blues has an image of Jack Parsons, famed rocket scientist and devotee of Aleister Crowley. He wrote a few essays on magic based on Crowley’s mystical system.
BC I don’t know as much about his magical work. That’s your territory!
RB Back in the ’40s he did a series of rituals in the California desert with L. Ron Hubbard. The purpose was to call forth an elemental mate who would engage in sexual rites in order to incarnate a “moonchild” in the form of Babalon, an archetype of feminine energy that Crowley referred to as the Scarlet Woman in his Book of the Law. Parsons found her in the form of the artist Marjorie Cameron, whom he married.
BC Sure, he tried to summon a homunculus. Who hasn’t? Give the guy a break. I wanted to honor him because I find him to be as American as it gets. He worked hard and accomplished a lot. He seems to be a target for some conspiracy folks, like Richard Hoagland, because of his ties to magic and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA. It’s shocking that there isn’t a movie about him yet. Also, he and Hubbard had a harsh falling out, and that’s always a mark of good character. I should probably read the books you mention, though, if I am going to put him on a 7-inch cover. I just thought, Well now, there’s a guy whom I like. He was a man with a mission.
RB He blew himself to bits when he dropped a vial of mercury in his laboratory. Mission accomplished!
BC Do you think there was foul play from the FBI or maybe Hubbard’s henchmen?
RB It wouldn’t surprise me. It’s too bad Hubbard didn’t play with mercury more often. At least Parsons got a crater on the moon named after him, but it’s on the dark side.
BC Just goes to show, don’t mess with that magic stuff, man!
RB You did a soundtrack for a gay porn film called The Drifter. How did that come about?
BC After a show in Germany, this handsome and well-built man started talking to me; after a half an hour of conversation I asked him what he did for a living. He told me he was a gay porn actor. He then asked if I’d like to do some music for one of his films. Of course I said yes. It was such a unique project. It just sounded like fun. Plus, it seemed like a good stance against homophobia, though I don’t think porn is necessarily the best example of general sexuality. I just thought it would be a good story.
RB How did you come up with the music for it?
BC I wrote all of it before the film was shot. They wrote out descriptions of different scenes. They wanted solo acoustic guitar music.
RB Yeah, when I think of gay porn, acoustic guitar music is the first thing that comes to mind.
BC I just played what I thought would go along. I remember one particular sunny afternoon in San Francisco when I was lying on the bed trying to come up with stuff, I asked Elisa [Ambrogio], “Does this sound like two guys fucking?” She said yes. I’m not sure what that says about my general playing.
RB I’m not sure what it says about Elisa!
BC The descriptions of the scenes made it sound like it wasn’t hard-core at all. When it was released I looked it up online and saw the pictures and said to myself, That’s not soft-core! It’s pretty mind-boggling what three men and a stack of tires can do. But the film won the award for best screenplay and maybe even best sex scene of that year at a gay porn awards event called the Hard Choice Awards.
RB Sounds rock solid. You should have gotten an award! Have you seen the finished film?
BC I actually have because I played live to it in Turin, Italy. It was a special show set up by my friend Fabrizio Palumbo.
RB Was this actually advertised as a Six Organs gig?
BC In the Turin newspaper there was an article with the headline “Six Organs Goes Porn.” In the middle of the article was a picture of my face and under that it said, “Ben Chasny, star of the film.”
RB That’s hilarious. If I saw that article I would have rushed to the theater immediately.
BC If ever there was a time I wished an editor had done their homework it was then.
RB So how did it go?
BC It was totally crazy. The movie was two hours long. Some of the sex scenes lasted 45 minutes. I played over the whole film except for the dialogue parts, so that ended up being about an hour and 45 minutes’ worth of music. The main actor and writer of the movie, Logan McCree, was the DJ for the event. It was a good party. We really wanted to see who the hell would show up to something like that. There were all sorts of people: older gentlemen dressed up, straight couples, and gay couples. It was pretty cool. It made me think the world isn’t as lame as it seems sometimes.
RB And since it was a great screenplay I guess people really followed the dialogue.
BC With the guitar turned down and no sex sounds the whole thing was absolutely recontextualized. By the end everyone on the screen looked like flesh robots. A film like that isn’t meant to be watched from beginning to end. It was a real endurance test. When it was over, everyone let out a huge sigh of relief and clapped. It was great. Another cool thing is that Logan made a Six Organs T-shirt that he wears in the movie, albeit not for very long. There is also a quick shot of a Six Organs CD in the film. Finally, appreciation in this world!
RB Well deserved, of course. There are at least six naked dudes on the cover of the DVD. I’m surprised they didn’t just call the film Six Organs. Any more porno music, gay or otherwise on the horizon?
BC Logan said he would write a straight porno for me to do the soundtrack to but it’s too sleazy and too easy—no excitement. I liked doing it one time but I don’t want to become the gay porn soundtrack guy. Then again, it’s hard to turn down an offer if someone is generally into your music. It doesn’t happen to me very often.
RB Is there any way for me to get in on that action?
BC I’m sure you could easily get into that scene. No problem.
RB Cool, send me his email address. You also did a soundtrack for a novel by Joseph Matson called Empty the Sun. It’s not an audio book, but the music was included with the book, on CD and vinyl. Whose idea was that?
BC Joseph came up with the idea.
RB Has anyone done this before that you know of?
BC Others have done it since but I haven’t heard of anyone having done it before us. It was a fun project. After the book was written I got together with Joseph and my friend Steve Ruecker in San Diego for sort of a lost weekend and we just recorded for hours to make up the soundtrack. We were pulling from the imagery in the book. It was a blast.
RB So you’ve done soundtracks for a gay porn film and a novel. What’s next?
BC I would love to do more soundtrack work. I love it. You’ve done some, haven’t you?
RB Some of my solo music has been used in short films and videos but they were just songs taken from albums. Nothing was written specifically.
BC I know Sun City Girls did some. Is it true that some of those movies didn’t exist? Like Piasa . . . Devourer of Men? Or is that a real movie? It’s a great soundtrack.
RB It was supposed to be a real movie but the film was never finished. The same goes for Dulce. So we released the music on our own. We did one for a film called Juggernaut, by Mark Roman Bodnar and Kyrill Kazemirovitch Protsenko, which was released only on video. We also composed some of the music for Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely.
BC I didn’t realize that Juggernaut had actually been released in any form. I’d like to see that. I thought you guys were pulling a fast one on everyone.
RB We would never do such a thing. In 2011 you released a limited LP called Maria Kapel. I remember you mentioning you were going to do a residency where you planned on visiting a number of chapels in the Netherlands? Is this the result of that?
BC Yes. The record is a document of a live performance that I did as the pinnacle of the residency. I stayed in the Brabant region of the southern Netherlands for a few weeks and traveled around to various chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Each chapel was different and had a connection to the immediate village or area that it was in.
RB Are these places of pilgrimage?
BC They aren’t so much places of pilgrimage as they are centers for the community. There are hundreds of them. In some instances they take the place of a church, with people getting married there so they have sort of a subversive religious element to them. My guide looked exactly like David Crosby and he drove us around. He was amazing. So I wrote music based on these chapels. The idea was to consciously engage with the chapels using Gaston Bachelard’s concept of reverie, which not only valorizes reverie but somewhat systematizes it. On the trip I took in as much information as I could in regard to the specific locations—the texture of the stone, scents, the light between the leaves of trees, and so on—and tried to engage with the chapels by merely being there as much as I could. Then I let months pass, after which I tried to reengage in the scenes using more than memory. Bachelard’s concept of reverie is within the realm of oneiric consciousness, which differs from the unconscious where one has no control. Anyway, I spent some time trying to inhabit those places again in that way, and imagined a soundtrack for them.
RB Last year Drag City released the self-titled album 200 Years, which features you and Elisa. She did some vocal work on your 2007 album Shelter from the Ash, but have the two of you worked together before other than that?
BC We did a project called Basalt Fingers with Brian Sullivan who plays guitar in Mouthus. That was pretty much straight-up guitar-skree improvisation. Elisa sometimes plays with Six Organs on tour and does the guitar solos and sings a bit.
RB I love her guitar playing. The songs on 200 Years are a little quieter than what one might expect from a Six Organs or Magik Markers record. Elisa’s voice is hauntingly beautiful and there is a delicate simplicity to each piece. Was this the intention from the start?
BC Yeah, it was. We wanted to do something that was the opposite of what people would expect. But a big reason for the sound is so that you can make out Elisa’s lyrics. There’s a heavy emphasis on the words in that band. That’s the main reason everything is so clear, at least on the first record. As for future records, who knows?
RB So we can expect a second 200 Years album someday?
BC We’re not working on anything right now, but there are a lot of ideas floating around. I think it will be a little more abstract than the first record.
RB Did the process of writing material for this differ from how you approach writing music for a Six Organs record?
BC It was pretty difficult, actually. We had a hard time trying to figure out how to work together. She likes to “jam.” I hate to “jam.” I like the riffs made up and done by the time the song is supposed to be constructed. So it took a while.
RB Whenever I’ve seen you play live, you’ve used an acoustic guitar. Does this seem to be a better fit for you when playing solo? I don’t think I’ve seen you with an electric guitar.
BC I have played solo electric before. I don’t know; it seems like my mood changes all the time. I like them both. I get bored with one thing. I imagine it’s the same for you. How much do you play at home? I never practice.
RB I play every day at home but I don’t practice anything. I just pick up the guitar and let it fly. I’ve always done that. That way, things are always changing. It gets stagnant otherwise.
Are you particular about guitar strings? I believe that as guitar players we should be able to pick up any guitar at any time, no matter what kind of strings it has, and still be capable of entertaining an audience.
BC You would think that, but I had to put on 12-gauge strings recently and, man, did I suck. I use 10s, same as Angus Young. He plays guitar in a band called AC/DC.
RB Never heard of him! I bet he dresses funny.
BC With the lighter gauge I can get the strings really buzzing when I detune. Sometimes a sound person will inform me that I have some buzz. Hey! Thanks! I never noticed that in all the years I have been playing. Good ear.
RB You mentioned about 150 years ago that you were working on a book of guitar tablature for some of your songs. I’m not sure if people really want to know where your fingers have been but where’s the damn book?
BC I’m probably the world’s biggest procrastinator. I really need to get on that. I think I’ll be making it myself. I would like to add some essays but then I think, Who am I to tell people what to do? Did you know there are some Six Organs songs on those tab websites? Of course they are never how I actually play the songs and are rarely even in the same tuning. To me that is totally crazy. I did use one of the tabs for a T-shirt collaboration with an Italian fashion designer. Maybe I’ll just release all the tabs on T-shirts. That would be new, huh?
RB I think it’s a great idea. I’d shoplift as many as I could.
BC What about you? Where is that guitar book you were going to put out? Maybe we should start some sort of guitar book press. What do you think of that? That’s our ticket right there, my friend.
RB It’s not such a bad idea. I’m still working on my book. I may just throw it up online in segments. It’s not going to be very user friendly, but that’s the whole idea behind it. You see, I will tell people what to do!
When we did a recent concert together in Belgium you mentioned you were using the “Six Organs” tuning. What is it? Or is that a secret?
BC It’s Gsus4 tuning. That’s what someone told me it was when I told them the notes. So there, I gave you the name, yet it’s just as cryptic, isn’t it?
RB I wouldn’t know where to begin with that one. I have a new “Axis of Evil” tuning. It’s B-A-G-D-A-D. What other tunings do you use?
BC Mostly I use Gsus4 but sometimes I will tune to D-F-D-F-A-D. That has a real minor sounding feel to it. I used to use that one a lot more. I’m not sure what the other tunings I use are called. I just know them by the sound. I like the idea of the B-A-G-D-A-D tuning. I’m going to have to try that one.
RB It will turn you into an enemy of the state in no time! We’ve often discussed the two of us having some sort of guitar duel on stage. Are you still up to the challenge?
BC We should do a show where we tune each other’s guitar for each song, trade back and forth, and don’t tell each other what the hell the tuning is. Then the audience can judge us on our ability to improvise in a nonknown tuning.
RB Sounds good to me.
BC The punishment for failure would have to be pretty severe. What do you think it should be?
RB It should involve losing some fingers. We should have whiskey, a cigar cutter, and maybe a blender on stage, and we’ll get a surgeon to run the sound that night. If I come out at the end with more fingers than you, would we still be on speaking terms?
BC Only if you end up with more by sewing my severed fingers on to your hand. That’s something I really don’t want to experience or look at. I’m sure you would gloat on tour too. “Hey Ben, look at these extra fingers I got.” I don’t need that. As for the rest, yeah, I’m all for it. But I didn’t know you play everyday so I’ll have to play more before we try something like that. But let’s set a date. 2015? The big showdown!
RB 2015 sounds good. I should be able to sew by then.