Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance on Drag City’s Radness, Comets On Fire, and Greek Music Theory
Ben Chasny’s latest album as Six Organs of Admittance takes on both rock ‘n’ roll and the rocks in the sky. Chasny reunited with his bandmates in Comets on Fire to make Ascent, a hard-rock odyssey that occurs in the loneliest place known to human life.
If you can make out Chasny’s vocals and piece together the plot, you learn that the album's narrative follows events in outer space (check the cover art for more info). As Chasny sings on the track "Your Ghost": “When you arrived from deep space/they gave hellos from a sick world/living as a ghost.”
If the record’s sci-fi theme doesn’t come across clearly, the guitar solos tell another great story. Rocking much harder than the usual acoustic guitar work of the Six Organs catalog, Ascent is a happy reunion between old friends. Though Comets isn’t on the road with Six Organs, Chasny is recreating the record’s face-melting riffs and heavy sound with his touring band, which he brings to DC9 tonight.
When he’s not on the road, Chasny lives in Western Massachusetts. He’s been living in the town of Holyoke for the past two years, and he enjoys the area's calm vibe. “It’s so mellow up here. It’s super relaxed,” he says. “It kind of reminds me of Northern California, where I’m from, so it’s not too drastic of a change for me.” Before he left for tour, I spoke with Chasny about regrouping with Comets on Fire, accusations of being a workaholic, and Pythagoras' theory of harmony.
Washington City Paper: Who did you record Ascent with and who among them plays in Comets on Fire?
Ben Chasny: Well, all of the Comets guys actually play on the record. We don’t play anymore, mostly because it’s too hard for all of us to find time where we’re not—I mean, full-time dads, full-time jobs for a lot of people. But, there were a couple weeks last January when we realized we were all gonna have some time off, so we all got together with Tim Green, at Tim Green’s studio, where the last couple Comets records were recorded. And yeah, just got everybody together and did it.
WCP: What was the initial spark for this record? You just wanted to record a full, rock band album with Comets on Fire?
BC: Yeah. A long time ago, before I joined Comets—Six Organs, it was kind of like that was the formation of Six Organs ‘cause I used to tour with Comets before I was in the band and we used to always play these loud bars, so I couldn’t really play acoustic. So I kind of reconfigured the band so we could play bars that were loud and stuff. And when I joined Comets, we just dropped that side of Six Organs and I continued Six Organs as an acoustic band. So, y’know, I hadn’t seen those guys in a long time and I called them up and said, “You guys want to do that electric record we never did?” And everyone was into it, so that was kind of how it came together.
WCP: That’s interesting talking about the old days, where you had to be a loud band to even be heard. Where the environment was affecting the actual sound you made.
BC: Yeah. The environment definitely did. ‘Cause it was sort of before people got a little more hip to folk music, I guess, in sort of the underground. But honestly, it does get kind of obnoxious, too, if you’re at a bar and someone’s playing an acoustic guitar and you’re trying to have a good time and somebody hushes you or something, y’know? [Laughs] I don’t necessarily think everything should be super quiet—it depends on where you’re playing. But for the bars that Comets was playing at at the time, which were pretty lowdown, dive-style—Comets didn’t really have a record out at the time, just going up and down the west coast—yeah, the bars were pretty loud.
WCP: What period of time was that?
BC: That’d be like 2001, I think. Yeah, around 2001, 2002.
WCP: Since you and the players on this record share another band, how did you distinguish this as a Six Organs of Admittance record and not a Comets on Fire release?
BC: With Comets, when we work on Comets stuff, all five guys get an equal say. They all come in and pick over riffs and if someone has a song, somebody else can be like, “That sucks, dude.” [Laughs] Riffs have to go through a hazing, songs have to go through a hazing where it’s thrown in the middle of five dudes and everyone attacks it, and if it still survives, then the song would survive with Comets. But with this, there was none of that because we just didn’t have the time and they were just Six Organs songs, so everyone was really cool about everything and there’s no real criticisms, or everyone’s just doing what they want and no one felt like it was a life-or-death experience just for a song, everyone just had a good time, so that was the main thing. And I did all the guitar solos on the record, with Comets, usually it’s me and Ethan [Miller] trading off, back and forth, so that was another thing. And also, I sang. In Comets, Ethan does all the singing.
WCP: You mentioned having a good time and there’s definitely an exuberance to some of these songs. Did you feel like it was thrilling to make and play with those guys again?
BC: Yeah, I think that we just really appreciated playing with each other. I mean, when you’re in a band and you tour all the time and you always see each other and stuff, you kind of forget how kind of special things can be, you take things for granted. Since we hadn’t played together for so long, I think that everyone really appreciated playing with each other. Everyone had a great time doing it, so yeah, it was a lot of fun.
WCP: Can you talk about how you and the band put these songs together? I know a few have been around for awhile, so what was the process like?
BC: Let’s see. Well, some of the songs that we’d done before, we just basically did them like we used to do, so those were already set. The newer songs I wrote on acoustic guitar and sent them out as demos to the guys a few months before we got together just with the idea of, y’know, “OK, well, here’s some new songs, but we’ll do them in the style of the old,” and everyone just kind of picked up on that.
WCP: It seems like you are always busy with some musical endeavor. If it’s not Six Organs of Admittance, you’re playing with someone else. What is it about you and music? You seem to have an incredible relationship with the art.
BC: I just always have ideas in my brain to do stuff. And eventually, I’ll take a project as far as I can take it for the year, or two years or whatever and then I might get bored on that project, but then I’ll have new ideas for new projects. I dunno, it’s all I really do. It’s not too much of an effort, I just really enjoy doing it.
WCP: Do you ever rest and focus on things outside of music?
BC: I mean, I don’t do a lot—I mean, I rest [laughs]. Pretty much my main focus is working on that sort of stuff. Maybe I do stuff outside of music that I’m not conscious of, but in between tours or records or something. Some people think I’m a workaholic or something, like I’ve heard that. But it’s really not true. I have a lot of downtime where I pretty much just read. Stay up late, listen to records, or read all day long, or just general everyday stuff.
WCP: Have you read everything especially good lately?
BC: I’m reading this really crazy book about sort of the alternate theory of Greek music as far as like—well it’s like another side, because all I’ve ever read about early Greek music was sort of Pythagoras and his ideas of harmonies and I picked up this book that talks about totally alternate sort of theory that everyone smashed all throughout the ages and it’s basically how to conceive harmonies instead of through mathematic ratios like Pythagoras, but thinking of harmonies in terms of just relationships between the notes, which actually is more how we play guitar. So I’ve been reading that, that’s what I’ve been reading.
WCP: What’s that called? How would one find that?
BC: It’s called Greek Reflections on the Nature of Music. It’s pretty cool. I don’t dive into music theory too much, but whenever I do read about—like microtonal stuff or when you get into Harry Partch or any of that stuff—talk about microtonal works and exact ratios and everyone always just talks about Pythagoras, “Oh, it all goes back to Pythagoras,” but there was this whole other thing happening that I had no idea until I started reading about this, which is a lot more natural and a lot more, almost poetic, less scientific than what Pythagoras, his theories. It’s cool.
WCP: It’s funny: I’m asking you what you do outside of music and yet you’re reading a book about this—
BC: [Laughs] That’s true. Usually, it doesn’t happen. Usually, wintertime, I usually just end up reading Wallace Stevens in the north if I’m here. I live in Massachusetts now, so I have a new appreciation for Wallace Stevens. I’m not always reading about music, but that is pretty funny.
WCP: [Your label, Drag City, has] a pretty well-defined character or personality and it sounds like it’s a pretty decent community. Do you feel that way about interacting with the label and other artists on the label?
BC: Yeah, I’ve felt that from the beginning. I can’t say enough about Drag City as far as how they’ve been encouraging. It’s the way that they do things. Speaking as someone who releases records on their label, I don’t know how they deal with other things in the music world, but as an artist on a label, I couldn’t ask for anything more. They’re super, super cool. They never question anything. Most times, like, they don’t even want to hear the record until it’s mastered. They don’t care, they just totally trust you. They’re like, “Ah, we don’t wanna hear it, master it first.” You know? “We’ll listen to it when it’s done.” Total trust. It’s rad.
WCP: You’ve been playing music for a long time and it looks like you still typically play some smaller venues. Have you been able to make music work out as your main source of support?
BC: Yeah. I’ve been doing that the last few years maybe. I just stay busy, you know. I live a really frugal life. I don’t have a lot of expenses or anything, I’m kind of lucky. Like I said, we live in Holyoke, where it’s pretty cheap. Like, I don’t think I could do this and live in New York City or anything. But, yeah, I’ve just adjusted my life. I have been able to do that. You just gotta stay on the road a lot, basically. You stay on the road, you do lots of different projects. It seems like every time I think, “this just can’t work financially, I just can’t pay rent,” or something, something weird happens, y’know. Some bird drops a fucking check in my hands, a little golden egg or something, says, “Now you can do it for two more months!” “All right. Let’s do it.” Yeah, it’s kind of weird.
Six Organs of Admittance performs with Blues Control and East Ghost Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. at DC9, 1940 9th St. NW. $10 in advance, $12 at the door.