Getting School-ed

Pub date August 1, 2006

SONIC REDUCER OK, I’ll fess up: one of my favorite 2005 musical moments revolved around an acoustic solo Six Organs of Admittance performance, some frozen fungal artifacts harvested from a local park, and Big Sur’s big, fat, chocolaty-looking redwoods. So gotta thank Six Organs’ Ben Chasny for providing the perfect score to my hallucinatory little escapade at Fernwood lodge, though I don’t think you can simply slot the Comets on Fire guitarist, Badgerlore founder, and Current 93 collaborator’s dirgy matter into the “sounds great when you’re stoned but it’s a lame excuse for rock-out tunes when stone-cold sober” file.
That year’s School of the Flower (Drag City) was one of the loveliest, most underrated recordings to come out of this area’s cross-disciplinary school of meditative guitar drone and freed-up textural percussion — and this year’s The Sun Awakens is its worthy evolutionary follow-up, scurrying out of the clearer jazz-psych waters of School, spouting legs, clambering out into dusty, soulful desert expanses of electric guitar and bass, tone generator, ney, and organ, and finding some sort of apotheosis in the ghostly reverberations of “River of Transfiguration.”
So why does a guy who makes such sublime, high-minded sounds have to give me such a hard time? How many Buddhist cycles of suffering must I enter to get a straight answer about Sun? “It sounds a lot like New Order. I don’t know if you caught that,” deadpans Chasny from the very start, yakking in the car making its way toward Mount Shasta through the forest on the way to Portland. “We were going for New Order without the ’80s or the drum beat.”
Ah yes, and my toilet is full of gold bullion. A Comets on Fire bandmate recently told me that Chasny claimed that a sense of threat made all the difference in the music he makes — and lo, the song titles (“Torn by Wolves,” “Bless Your Blood”) do lend a sense of menace to Sun. And there’s a simple explanation for that, Chasny says. “I don’t listen to folk music. Y’know, I don’t go in my room and turn on fucking Incredible String Band or some bullshit. I listen to other stuff.”
That includes the Melvins, who inspired Chasny’s current lyrical approach, just as the Talking Heads’ layered jams on Remain in Light informed his music. “You know, it’s gibberish,” he clarifies. “I’m actually telling the truth. Lyrically, I really liked the way [Melvins vocalist Buzz Osbourne] constructs the words on a phonetic basis. ‘Bless Your Blood’ — it’s not goth or Christian. Actually it’s a fairly personal song.”
About your vampirism?
“Uh, no. But the rest of the record is,” says Chasny. “That’s the one reversal. But I’m glad you got that. I’m glad that someone finally got that.”
But seriously, folks — or rather, out-folk, a genre that Chasny seems to be distancing himself from with the current Six Organs touring transfiguration. Live, he currently plays Telecaster, with Comets kin Noel Von Harmonson on drums and Six Organs cover artist Steve Quenell on second guitar. “It’s a lot more noisy and, yeah, less tranquil,” says Chasny, eager to fall out of the “wispy” pretty-guitar lockstep. “That’s why I did that Compathia cover of that dumb picture of me on the bed. Just to destroy the myth of this forest folk bullshit — like ‘Mr. Mystical’ and stuff. It’s, like, no! That’s not it at all. I just want stuff to be taken on its own terms.”
The terms this time around included recording in Frisky with Fucking Champs’ Tim Green and lassoing in guests like Om’s Al Cisneros and Yellow Swans’ Pete Swanson. “I’m not exactly breaking new ground with every single record. I kind of have my style, and as other people have noted, probably, uh, have played out all of my cards,” Chasny declares loud enough for that “other” person, driver and bandmate Von Harmonson, to hear. “So it’s good to have friends come in and spice things up a little bit.”
Like Pharrell Williams tapping Kanye and Snoop?
“Yeah, definitely. But more Wu-Tang, really.”
Shasta comes around the bend — a dead ringer of sorts for the cover of Sun. “This was something I didn’t think about till today because we were going by Mount Shasta,” explains Chasny, at last finding a new anecdote that is safe to divulge. “Last time I saw Mount Shasta, I was driving Ghost back from Portland to play a show, and we stopped to get gas right in the shadow of Mount Shasta and the sun was just coming up behind it and all of Ghost were groggy and got out of the van and I was, like, “Look, look,” and they were, like, “Oh yeah, ‘Mountain God Te Deum’ [one of their early songs]. I think part of that day burned into my brain for the record cover.
“That’s a juicy bit of information for you.”
So now that I have something to chew on, I wonder about the insider dope on the new Comets on Fire album, Avatar (Sub Pop). “That title came because more than half the band members have been frequenting chat rooms for the last year and half,” Chasny says, gaining steam. “And I got so mad I called up Sub Pop and told them that’s the name of the album. By the time everyone found out, it was too late. That’s why I’m not allowed to do Comets on Fire interviews.”
Should Chasny be allowed to do any interviews? Sure, he’s far from being an airy-headed cutesy-folk elf — just don’t promise him complete admittance.
“Yeah,” he says, before hanging up. “I look forward to reading your article before you submit it and doing some editing. I think we can really come up with something good here.” SFBG
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