No Belief In No System

Named after a Balinese witch goddess, Rangda is three-headed beast of a band. Ben Chasny, Sir Richard Bishop, and jazz/noise/whatever genius drummer Chris Corsano have teamed up to blow minds with their debut album, False Flag. As Chasny says, koan-like: “No belief. No system. Not even the belief that there is no belief.” The Witch-Queen speaks. Hark.

Rangda1 Body

Photo by Joe Mabel

Named after a Balinese witch goddess, Rangda is three-headed beast of a band. Sir Richard Bishop (of the late, great, mighty Sun City Girls as well as innumerable solo works) and Ben Chasny (he of the Six Organs of Admittance and Comets on Fire) have teamed up with all-pro jazz/noise/whatever genius drummer Chris Corsano to blow minds with their new album, False Flag, out now on Drag City. Their unique sounds weave together seamlessly, each member supporting the cause while maintaining a white-hot tension that patiently scrapes away at the ears of the listener until it reaches the brain and detonates a payload of psychic C4. The album’s epic closer, “Plain of Jars,” is a slow-burner that will convert any holdouts to whatever religion Rangda promulgates. BOMB communicated via email with all three members of the band, who begin their European tour this week. As Chasny says, koan-like: “No belief. No system. Not even the belief that there is no belief.” The Witch-Queen speaks. Hark.

Clinton Krute How did you get together? You all live in different parts of the country if I’m not mistaken. Lay out, if you will, the genesis of Rangda.

Ben Chasny Over the years I’ve had the extremely good fortune of playing live with both Chris and Rick when we’d cross paths here or there, but we had never all been in the same place. Knowing what I know about how each of them play I just had this feeling that if we could all play at the same time it would be a lot of fun. I knew the hooks and barbs in each of their playing would lock together very well—like sonic Velcro, if you will. So yeah, after a while it all just came together.

Chris Corsano I met Ben when he was out in Massachusetts playing some shows. That was, I dunno, in 2001 maybe? First time I met Rick would’ve been in 2004 when Flaherty [Paul Flaherty, saxophone player and frequent Corsano collaborator] and I opened for Sun City Girls in Montreal. I did a recording with Ben in 2004 and then we toured together in 2005. Before Randga, though, I’d never had the pleasure of playing with Rick. Ben rode herd on getting the three of us together, which took a while ’cause I was living in the UK from 2005 until the beginning of last year.

Sir Richard Bishop It was Ben who had mentioned the idea to me a few years back of a project that he thought we should pursue and he was quite determined to get Chris to do the stick-work. The idea seemed too good to be true, and the fact that we were all spread out over this vast terrain of whatever country we live in, seemed to put a damper on plans for a while, not to mention that each of us were quite busy with other projects. It was a waiting game, a lesson in patience. Eventually, we decided that we had to make this happen right away by any means necessary. And then last September things started to fall into place. Chris headed out west on one of those flying machines. We rehearsed for 90 minutes, did a live show the next day and then went into Colburn’s studio and let it fly. I haven’t seen those guys since.

CK What’s the significance of the band name? Is Rangda destructive or productive? What belief systems, religious or otherwise, underlie the music?

SRB There are no belief systems when it comes to Rangda. Anybody familiar with the concept of the Witch-Queen that is Rangda will know that it represents a particular energy that can be both productive and destructive. It’s a powerful name for a band in my opinion and why no other band has grabbed the name in the past is a mystery to me.

BC No belief, no system. Not even a belief that there is no belief.

CK Was there a concept in place before you began playing? Did you set out to achieve a certain sound or does the process of playing with one another dictate the direction and sound of the music?

CC Since the band was Ben’s original idea, I wondered whether he had anything specific in mind for the music. “White suits” is all he told me before we got together, a vague and possibly tongue-in-cheek Love, Devotion, Surrender reference. Speaking of which, have you checked out the new Bill Orcutt LP? And looked closely at the cover? Awesome. Anyway, I thought I knew what Ben meant, but when I showed up I felt overdressed. So we scrapped any dress codes, and the music wrote itself. We just let it develop as it came along without shooting to reference one thing or another while at the same time not consciously trying to avoid anything either. Except for one bit which got scrapped as too-Sabbath-y. I think a lot of supposed references are in the ear of the behearer.

BC There wasn’t really a concept. It was just about playing. It was about turning the chaos into a little cosmos. I think we’ve got some galaxies now. We might try to concentrate on some nebulas or star systems later.

CK “Bull Lore” has an absolutely mind-shredding finale. Were the songs improvised in the studio or worked out beforehand? If it was written, how much did you rehearse before recording?

SRB We had 90 minutes to rehearse before we did our first show and the recording session. Of all the songs, “Bull Lore” was probably the most structured but the guitar parts that Ben and I did were improvised on the spot. Ben’s guitar work towards the end just blows my mind every time I hear it. He was using some top-secret device to get those sounds and he still won’t tell me what it is! For the remaining songs, we had some skeletal ideas that we simply talked about for a minute or two before we hit the record button. They were fleshed out from there.

BC Ha! The secret weapon that Rick is talking about was given to me by one Mick Turner of the Dirty Three, so I guess it has a fair amount of mojo inside it. It’s tough playing with Rick and a good challenge. I love the duel guitar attack in any band. There’s a funny faux gunfighter thing but in this band we know that Rick is the Sheriff. I guess that makes Chris the preacher!

CC Some things were improvised and some written out. “Bull Lore” was more or less structured, but the guitar solos at the end were done on the spot. I like that even the things we wrote left a lot of room for people to get loose. That was equally by design as by default. We met up just a few days before recording, jammed a bit, played one show and then rolled tape. So we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal on the things that were written.

CK What’s your live performance like? Will you be playing the structures of the songs or freely improvising?

BC Our one show so far was great and wild. It sort of became the blueprint for the record. We had ideas but after playing we realized what sort of energy should go into what pocket. It will be exciting to see how things happen, where this music goes and how it morphs or if it sticks to its origins.

CC I imagine we’ll use the songs for the basis of improvisations. And maybe some themes from improvisations will turn into songs by the end of the tour.

CK Can you talk about the attraction of the electric guitar and the rock band set-up, as opposed to playing acoustically, solo? What aspects of your playing does being in a band allow you to access?

BC With electric there is a far greater range for dynamics. We can still play so softly that the chatter at the bar can drown us out. But we can also pull the feedback out to deafening levels. I think when you are playing with two other people with such hyper-conscious musicality it creates a whole new dimension.

SRB It’s all about volume and mayhem with the electric guitars and plugging in has always provided a larger palette for me to work with. And with Ben and Chris blazing away as well, it turns into a three-headed monster that I would never want to meet in a dark alley. But we can also play quietly if we choose and it can be just as stunning. It’s pretty unlimited as to what we can do with this outfit!

CK False Flag seems like a compromise or meeting point between the meditative sound of your solo work, and the intensity and confrontational approach of Sun City Girls, Comets on Fire and Chris’ various collaborative projects. Can you talk a little about how these two aspects of your musical selves came together on this record?

BC I’ve really missed being in a band where all the players where equally able to grab the reigns and pull the whole beast somewhere unexpected. To be honest, Rick has always had a bit of an influence on my playing for the last 15 years, so it’s sort of like coming full circle for me. A lot of things I’ve done in the past almost seem like boot camp for this band too in a way.

I tend to think of it less in terms of confrontation and precision and more in terms of action and repose—movement and rest. I think one can meditate equally on both action and repose. Each one feeds each other, and informs each other. Each is needed to create a dynamic and fully lived piece. Or rather, maybe I should say the meditation on the dynamics of each is needed to create a piece that can be fully lived and lived in.

SRB For me, Rangda seems to be a natural extension of my previous work with Sun City Girls, at least in the instrumental improvisational realm. I didn’t think that was possible at first but it is very close in spirit and in the way the three of us interact with each other when we’re playing. It’s a pretty amazing feeling to be able to experience that again. It all seemed to happen in a natural way. I didn’t have any concrete expectations on what the final result would be but I wanted to use the whole idea of this as a starting point, a springboard, and not consciously think of using any of our other projects as reference points even though there may be similarities to some of our previous projects present on the record.

CK What are you guys playing during the live shows? Richard, I read in an interview you did with Ben that you only use giant, $100 picks. Will we see those on with Rangda?

SRB With the global economy as it is, I can no longer afford those picks, and besides, they work much better with acoustic guitars. So I will be using slightly thinner picks. I will be wielding my good guitar, the old red Gibson ES 330, which I have brought out of retirement for Rangda.

BC I still play my Tele custom reissue. It seems like every other guitarist in a band plays one. I really should get a new guitar. I want to get a Gibson hollow body but Rick already has one! I need to keep the tonal quality separate.

CC Here seems as good a place as any to publicly announce that I’ve scrapped all my “edible drumsticks” prototypes.

CK What music are you bringing with on tour?

CC I think I’m going to bring a bunch of John Lee Hooker and Fall CDs.

BC Ah man, everything. You have to keep it changed up! Except if you are driving it’s not good to listen to minimal music ’cause that shit will put you to sleep behind the wheel. I was talking once with Tom Carter and he said he likes to listen to Scelsi and La Monte Young when he drives. I said, “Are you fucking crazy?” That sounds horrible, but then again, I have a real problem keeping awake behind the wheel. I need bands like Slayer or Goblin or Sun Ra. That said, if I am not driving, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been super into this Music of Islam box set lately, so that will be on deck, along with some country music and stuff like that.

SRB Once the tour gets going I will have so much music to listen to it will be mind-boggling. Everything from Indonesian instrumentals from the 1960s, to obscure Italian film freak-outs, Albert Ayler, endless hours of soul music from the ‘70s, and a whole bunch more.

CK So is Rangda a one-time deal or are there plans to keep doing more together in the future?

BC It’s just starting. This thing is going to grow many faces.

Rangda’s False Flag is available now from Drag City. The band is on tour now in Europe through July and will be touring the US this Fall.