Dancing With The Noise: A Conversation with Ben Chasny

(photo by Elisa Ambrogio)

On June 25th, Three Lobed Recordings will release what is the twentieth full-length album by Six Organs of Admittance, The Veiled Sea. With acerbic electric guitar attacks, industrial dance beats and a total cacophony of punchy in-your-face sounds and effects, this might be the most striking and singular album within the dense Six Organs discography yet. Back in April, I chatted with the man behind SOOA, Ben Chasny, about what inspired the particular sound and vibe on this utterly peerless record, the story behind the album’s climatic Faust cover and more. Check it out:

RCU: What helped to influence the particular sound and the perhaps inorganic feel of this record?

BC: The inorganic feel…I’m probably a bit of a contrarian in a way. So I see a lot of music in more of the guitar-oriented indie stuff going, more and more organic. So naturally I had to sort of head in the opposite direction, I think.

RCU: Understandable. I feel like a lot of people today that I’m listening to may have been inspired by your early work. So it’s interesting that now you’re wheeling in the opposite direction. 

BC: I don’t know if anyone was inspired by it, but I bet they were inspired by people who I was also inspired by. That sort of…I mean, I was really into the organic acid folk sound, at the beginning of Six Organs, you know. I still am. I still do stuff like that.

RCU:  Right, yeah. Good point. So there seems to be a particularly strong focus on harsh and distorted sounds on this record. Yet, you’ve appeared to find or create harmony in that dissonance, which is something that I think is a bit of a hallmark of Six Organs. So I’ve been wondering what leads you to fill your palette with these harsher sounds when playing and recording?

BC: You know, from the very beginning, Six Organs always tried to meld those two worlds together. The very first record, I remember the idea for it was that I was listening to a lot of noisier stuff. Back then I was very into, like, KK Null. Even then, more of that avant-underground Carolina Rainbow, those sorts of things, but then I was also very into Bert Jansch and I was into Leo Kottke. So the first record I just was trying to combine those ideas. It came out more acid folk, than a noise sort of thing because I didn’t really know how to do it well. It’s very hard to put those things together. You can do the cliche of like, oh, I have a very mellow song and then a very noisy guitar solo comes in very jarring. Some people can do that really well, but it’s harder sometimes. So I think I’ve always kind of had that a little bit. It’s just each record kind of veers more towards one side or the other.

RCU: Do you feel as though the roughened metallic sounds on this record might be a reflection of how you, and perhaps the world around you, might have felt as the current social and political climate became increasingly more chaotic and intense in the last couple of years or so?

BC: Half of the record was recorded even before lockdown. So I was originally going to release it as the next record on Drag City, but my whole schedule got messed up with them a bit. I thought Companion Rises, the last Drag City record, was supposed to come out in November 2019, but they had a very full schedule. They said that it would be released in 2020 in February. So everything got pushed back a little bit. So then I had all this music that I thought was going to come out on Drag City, maybe later 2020, and then Cory [Rayborn, of Three Lobed Recordings] said he had something going. So I said, oh, I already have half of a whole record recorded. So I’m just going to finish recording this for you. So in that way, no. There’s probably a bit of claustrophobia to the record that was maybe just my state of mind, that probably is representative of the time, but, but so yes and no, I guess.

RCU: This is sort of an abstract question, but do you have a philosophy towards noise?

BC: Hmm, that’s a great question. Do I have a philosophy towards noise? I like this, I like where you’re going, but can you narrow it down a little bit?

RCU: I suppose with the likes of Sun Ra and other artists in the free avant-garde jazz world, there’s sort of this freeing notion of just going as far away from form and tonal sounds as possible. That is the moment that the artist is truly free. So I was wondering if there’s any sort of feeling like that for you when you play more noise-leaning music? For you, is it at all a way to escape or feel truly free while playing?

BC: Hmm, that’s a great question. I’ve only felt truly free while playing music twice in my life. Two specific instances that I can think of. I don’t generally think in those terms anyway, but, Sun Ra has that great quote, “Why don’t you play something right for a change and play something wrong.”

RCU: [laughs] Right. I love that.

BC: You know, later he brought it back around because he thought that everyone was just a little too free and they didn’t really know even why they were being free or what they were doing. I am not a fan of the idea, that cliche of that you need to know the rules before you can break them. I kind of think that’s garbage. I throw that in the same garbage can that I throw in ‘you have to pay your dues, to do that’. These are all tired old cliches, I don’t believe in that sort of stuff. I think of it more in terms of texture and tension, especially tension if you’re thinking tonally, between octaves. Within one octave thinking of the tension—this is just compositionally—between notes and your more consonant notes, like a fifth and stuff. Then, when you think on a production level of pushing what’s acceptable to the ear, I think of that as more fucking with social aspects. It’s a little less metaphysical and more just trying to create textures within the record. I don’t think I would not say that that’s a philosophy, but it is an approach to the way I kind of think about whether something is on this end of noisy or that end of noisy. 

I did the record Companion Rises and I specifically—and purposefully—mixed the acoustic guitar so that it had an edge to it, and it was actually a little bit hard to listen to. Again, coming from that bit of a contrarian side, because people think of acoustic guitar, it’s the cliche of, oh, it’s mellow and you’re sitting around a campfire and it’s folky. So I thought, well, wouldn’t it be great on this record to have that guitar be kind of a harsh-sounding guitar? Like kind of push the upper mids and make it like, “Hey, it kind of hurts a little bit!” And that was purposeful. So there are different ways that you could take that noisy kind of thing and even push it to how you want the instrument to sound of it.

RCU: You know, just putting it out there, I think you have mastered the artistry of textural music in a way that I think is pretty unparalleled. When I hear somebody else utilizing a great deal of texture in their sound, you’re the person who I typically compare or rate them by.

BC: Thank you. Yeah. I probably compare my stuff to—I don’t listen to them all the time—but, Spiritualized. In terms of texture, and that’s not even in terms of noise. Although he does get kind of noisy. But in terms of pure texture and layering, some of those records…I don’t understand how he mixed them. I don’t understand how you can hear everything in the mix. It’s incredible just on a pure sonic level. So he’s kinda my texture guy. I’m like, “How did he do that?

RCU: I’ve always been bewildered by the mixing in those records. So the track “All That They Left You” has a thumping, retro electro-dance beat with a synth backing. You can dance to this song, which is awesome, but it’s kind of a rarity though, for your material. So are you a big fan of electronic music and is this a direction that you want to take a deeper dive into at some point?

BC: Well, I do like it, I do, but I don’t know if, I don’t know if that’s really a place Six Organs really needs to go or that I would even get any respect for trying. I don’t know if that’s something I need, but the idea of doing music that maybe somebody could dance to first entered my brain years ago when I was on tour and I think I was playing in Belgium and it was a Six Organs show. After the show, the DJ, the first song he put on was a Comets on Fire song. That was from a record that kind of has, I forget the name of the song, but it was a little more dancey and I never thought of it as a dance song. Then everyone was dancing on the dance floor and I thought, this is really fun. I never thought I would enjoy the idea of people dancing to my music, but this is amazing. So probably the seed was kind of planted way back then in 2012, I think.

RCU: Wow, sounds like my kind of club! That’s awesome. The track does have a strong eighties sort of vibe to it. Was there a particular vibe you were going for there, or did it just turn out that way? Was there an artist that you might’ve had in mind when you were crafting that song?

BC: Well, the electric guitar, not the solo, but the rhythm guitar, that more funk guitar, that was really inspired by Alex Weir. who did a lot of stuff, but people probably most know of him as the rhythm guitarist of the Talking Heads, on the live record that they did. Actually in the solo, I quote one of his solos a little bit, but that song is actually heavily inspired by another song. I was kind of doing my version of another song, but I don’t know if I could tell people because then they’ll just…so I can’t tell you what song, but I’ll give you a hint. It’s by an artist who is not generally known as any sort of dance artist whatsoever, but he has this one song that kind of has a beat like that and a [similar] structure with that pretty fast guitar solo, and then singing, and then another really fast guitar solo over a beat. That fully comes from this other artist.

RCU: Oh interesting! Hm. I’ll take it, but I will have to think about that one.

BC: He’s normally known as a much more of an avant-garde vocalist.

RCU: This will keep us wondering for a bit. I love that. So this is your twentieth proper full-length Six Organs album. Looking back on this deep discography, do you find that there’s anything that inspires you now that didn’t when you first started?

BC: These are great questions. Hmm. I think that in terms of subject matter—and I don’t think this is unique with me—I think this happens with a lot of people, but as I’ve gotten older, I probably write a lot less about just me and start paying attention to what’s around me more. Just in terms of subject matter. In terms of listening, I probably do listen to more electronic music now than I did when I was younger.

RCU: That’s cool. How do you feel now looking back on your early work?

BC: Oh, I don’t know. I would like to answer this question, but what do you mean?

RCU: There’s that cliche that every artist wants to burn their early work, but some people look back on it on their early material and find some sort of inspiration from something that they see in it now [in retrospect]. So I’m just curious if you look back on certain albums of yours and you feel very strongly about them one way or the other.

BC: Well, I don’t have a lot of photographs. All my life, I never really took a lot of photographs. So then the records end up being the sort of photographs of those times. So if I want to revisit a time, I could say that, but I don’t really do that. I just think of them out there as sort of records of the time.  I definitely don’t have the thing, like I would want to burn all of my older recordings, I don’t really have that. I have often thought that it would be cool if the moment that I passed away, all of my recordings disappeared throughout the entire world. Just disappeared from everybody’s record collection and disappeared from…I mean, you could probably set it up so you can do it online, but nowadays there’s so much…you can’t do that. It is more of a thought experiment that pleases me.

RCU: Back to the new album: so covers are few and far between on Six Organs albums, but the Faust cover, “J’ai Mal Aux Dents,” fits in so well with the tone and the vibe of the other songs that led you to want to adapt this classic cosmic track?

BC: It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s a lot of people’s favorite.

RCU: I was going to say apart from the fact that it’s a banger, but…

BC: Yeah. I mean, it’s so good. Technically it’s a cover of the one from 71 Minutes Of, not Tapes. Actually, the vocals are different. He kind of says a couple of different things. And then it has a little bit different vibe and I always like the one from 71 Minutes. It was kind of an experiment just to see if I could do it right. And by the end, I thought it was okay enough to put on a record. It’s actually the only cover song I’ve ever put on an official Six Organs full-length.

RCU: Okay. That’s what I was thinking. I remember a few on singles, “Dead Flowers,” but I wasn’t totally sure

BC:  I did “Dead Flowers,” and yeah, I definitely do covers live, like an Epic Soundtracks song. I always cover Epic Soundtracks. So I’ve done them here and there, but I’ve never on a full-length.

RCU: Okay. Yeah. I’m trying to remember, but I think there was a Gary Higgins cover on School of the Flower?

BC: Oh you’re right! Oh my god. Busted! [laughs] I totally covered Gary Higgins. It’s funny, I don’t think of that one because I always think of that song [“Thicker than Smokey”] as it was like, I was trying to find Gary Higgins. So I was thinking of that as like, oh, I’m going to put this song on this record as a way to send out a message.

RCU: It’s like an open letter.

BC: Yeah, exactly. So I never think of it in terms of a cover song. Like, “Oh, I like the song and I want to change it up or do my own version.” But yeah, you are absolutely correct.

RCU: Did you find while covering it, that you gained a whole new appreciation at all of the composition and Faust’s original sonic craftsmanship of the tune?

BC: A little bit, because I listened to it so much…Speaking of texture, you know, sometimes there’s these songs, you don’t hear something in it until, you know, 10 years later, 15. So I just listened to it so much to hear if there was anything in there that I didn’t notice, maybe there was some percussion or something, some sound that was integral to the song. And I had heard, but I never realized that I heard. So I ended up listening to it a lot. And the only thing I really figured it out is on 71 Minutes, I think that the drums are a loop, but they’re a long loop. I don’t know if they had tape going around because, again, I was listening to it so much, maybe I was just [thinking I was] hearing it, but I started to be able to hear what I thought was a splice in the rhythm section, which I’d never heard before. Maybe I have to go back and listen to it. I remember at one point I was like, oh, this is a loop. They did a loop. And I had never heard that before. So that was kind of exciting.

RCU: The album is a part of Three Lobed Records’ 20th anniversary series. And you’ve had releases on the label here and there practically since it started. So what has Three Lobed meant to you over the years?

BC:  Oh, well, Cory is the best. If Cory says, ‘hey, I got something going on, do you want to be a part of it?” If he asks me, then I just do it. That’s why I tried to give him a real full-length record that I would still release on Drag City or whatever. I didn’t want to give him outtakes or, “Oh, Cory, I got something laying around.” When he asked, I was like, :I’ll make you a record. Just like that would be my next Drag City record or whatever.” He’s done a lot for a lot of people in the scene as well. Well, I won’t mention a lot of stuff, but he’s helped a lot of people with a lot of different things. Friends of mine, people I don’t know, and I hear the stories about him just offering to help out. I mean, he’s always the best. So yeah, whenever he asks me to do something, I just do it.

RCU: Right on. Cory is definitely the best. How did you first start releasing records through the label? Did you know Cory beforehand?

BC: I think Cory called me up one day. He got my phone number from our mutual friend, Ben Goldberg at Ba Da Bing! Records, and I had done an EP with Ben and then Cory just called up and we came up with this idea and it sounded cool. It was kind of a subscription thing. So we just start talking and then, being on tour, I see him every time I’m on the East Coast and in North Carolina.I stayed at his house one time. Six Organs had,like, I think three days off, and we just stayed with Cory and his wife and it was great.

RCU: Oh wow. Yeah, Cory is just the nicest dude.

BC: Yeah. He’s great. Not many people know this, but I think this was right before I met him, he used to just sail the oceans. He had this boat that he was on and maybe it was after high school, and he would just sail around in the Pacific, kind of from island to island and just set up camp for a little bit and do a little trading out there in the Pacific. That’s for maybe two to three years . [Then] he kind of came back and kind of started putting stuff together. Not many people know that about Cory.

-KH

Huge thanks to Ben Chasny for taking the time to speak with me. Click here to preorder The Veiled Sea ahead of its June 25th release date. If you missed Six Organs of Admittance’s streaming performance from the latest dose of the 6th Million Tongues Festival stream a few days ago, check it out here and please consider leaving a donation to the artists.


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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