How Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance Made His ‘Chicago Record’
Over a slew of records that have run the gamut from freak-folk and psych-rock to noise, the finger-plucking wizardry that Ben Chasny has sculpted over his two-decade-long arc as Six Organs of Admittance has been one of brilliant mind-fuckery amid perennial reinvention. While Chasny has been neatly slotted as the torchbearer of John Fahey and his American Primitive Guitar style, the former Comets on Fire and current Rangda member has deftly played the role of genre-deconstructing tunesmith, never staying in one particular niche long enough to be pigeonholed.
That tweaking of myriad soundscapes has been Chasny’s M.O., and since 2011, he’s been on a near-yearly streak of stylistic juggling. First, he twanged out homegrown cosmic Americana on that year’s Asleep on the Floodplain, then stoked raging, guitar-heavy, stoner-rock fire on 2012’s Ascent before delving into his most experimental stabs yet, 2015’s Hexadic I and its companion piece, Hexadic II, which found Chasny hatching a chance-based compositional technique using a deck of cards, assigning the numbers on the cards to the fretboard's notes and rolling the dice.
Now Chasny has put the complexities of Hexadic on hold, at least for a bit (more on that later), and on the just-released and mostly unplugged Burning the Threshold (Drag City), he’s made a sequel of sorts to the subdued psych-folk meditations and occasional guitar-shredding outbursts he explored on Floodplain. Chasny is calling it his “Chicago record” (members of Bitchin Bajas and Circuit des Yeux pitched in, as well as guitarist Ryley Walker, amongst other underground all-stars), but he also shacked up in a remote Vermont shed to capture the bucolic, folky vibes and sublime crooning found on Threshold.
CLRVYNT phoned up Chasny to talk about the new record, how he avoids being boxed into particular scenes and movements, the next step for Hexadic and if he’ll ever record under his own name.
After the last two Hexadic records, you’ve changed it up sound-wise on Burning the Threshold. It’s been touted as your “return to form.”
There’s this band from Boston called Major Stars. They did a record called Return to Form a few years ago, but it’s classic because they never changed. Like, every record is just extreme-rock, so I love that they did a record called Return to Form. What I do is always cyclical. I always, every five or six years, do an acoustic record, kind of go out and come back to acoustic music. It’s just that time of the cycle right now.
It wasn’t like you thought, “This Hexadic stuff is too complex — let’s go back to more song-oriented material”?
[Laughs] These songs — as I was doing the [Hexadic] system — I was still writing songs, so this is a sort of collection of songs that had been accumulating since I’d done my last acoustic record in 2011; I had a good six or seven other songs. I wanted to get them out, so I added a few extra and made an acoustic record. Doing Hexadic is almost like a different world in a way, and I’m still always doing, quote unquote “normal music,” so I had enough songs to do that. Six Organs has always been pretty schizophrenic, but now it’s truly split because I’m still doing Hexadic stuff. I’m almost wondering if I should have a different name for it. There’s always Hexadic stuff, but I’m just wanting to get out there and do a record with these songs.
So, you had a handful of “normal music”-type songs in your stash and decided it’d be your new record.
Basically, yeah. There were enough of them that I was like, “Well, maybe it’s time to do an acoustic record now.” Another thing that happened was that Hexadic II was an acoustic record, so I went out and did some shows for that, and I just really enjoyed playing acoustic guitar again. I hadn’t done that in Hexadic I, so I thought, “It’s time to do an acoustic record, kind of old-school style.”
The two Hexadic records are very different. The first one was electric guitar-based and super-noisy, while the second was all-acoustic. Was that an intentional thing?
Yeah, because they were working off the same charts. What I was trying to do was show how much interpretation you could do on a chart and how there’s a bit of misinterpretation of what that system was — like maybe it tells you exactly what to do and play. But really, since it's set-up charts and parameters, it’s like — so “Song 1” on Hexadic I was reading off the same chart as “Song 1” on Hexadic II. They’re just interpreted differently and they’re produced differently. I wanted to show that playing the songs back to back, you can hear how they’re the same tones and same timing. But I just wanted to show how much variation you can put into it.
Did you play any differently on Burning the Threshold than your other acoustic-based records?
I tried to change it up with this record, so I played in a whole new tuning than I usually play. I still challenge myself. When I play in the normal Six Organs tuning, which I’ve played in from the beginning, I usually do variations off of that tuning, but it’s kind of always around the same. I changed it to make sure that the songs sounded different, and even to give it a little more of a major key bend on this record — usually I play a lot of minor keys. I tried to throw a few challenges in there for myself.
There have been some comparisons of Burning the Threshold to Asleep on the Floodplain.
Well, for me, that goes back into the cycles. I don’t know if anyone will pick this up, but for me, it was this evolutionary cycle: If you started with that record and then the next record was electric and it was Ascent; and then the next record was electric, but it was Hexadic electric; and then the next record was Hexadic, but acoustic; and now this record is back to acoustic. So, for me, since 2011, it kind of completes this cycle.
Are you getting vibes from people who are into you doing more of the songwriting that’s on the new record?
I think whenever I steer away from the more dissonant stuff, there is always at least a subtle sigh of relief from most people. [Laughs] That just comes with, “Yes, it’s just easier to listen to than a very dissonant interval and strange time signature.” I think that seems to be the kind of thing.
I saw you’re doing a primarily acoustic show on your current tour in support of Threshold.
It’s three guitars, and I’m trying to structure it. It will be me, and Elisa Ambrogio will be on electric guitar, and Donovan Quinn will be on guitar. I think that this one is going to be more electro-acoustic than I’ve ever done, so we’ll be running through amps and we should have some sort of new sounds for Six Organs to keep every song different. It’s kind of an experiment for me to do. It should be a totally new type of sound live.
Do you see doing electric versions of some of the Threshold songs live?
Yeah, I don’t want to give away too much. But there’s some organ on the record that’s played by Cooper Crain. He did a lot of shredding organ and keyboard stuff. But I think I’m going to attempt to do that shit on my guitar. So, stuff like that: have a guitar, kinda have an organ sound and do organ parts while other people hold up the acoustic riffs.
Besides drummer Chris Corsano, Damon and Naomi, and Ryley Walker, Cooper [Bitchin Bajas] and Haley Fohr [Circuit Des Yeux, Jackie Lynn] play on the new record, too.
Three of those people — like Haley and Cooper and Ryley — they’re all Chicago people, and I recorded in Chicago. They were around, and I talked to them a little bit before that. In a way, this is my “Chicago record.” Of the people who ended up on the record. I really like all the music and they were around, so I just kind of asked them. I did the acoustic tracks by myself in Vermont, and then I took all the acoustic tracks to Chicago and recorded with Cooper for a week. I just feel like this is my first Chicago record.
Your time in Vermont was spent recording in a shed. How did that happen?
I was just housesitting on my friend’s farm. He has like 80 acres, and he built this really nice shed for music that has like two stories. I camped out up there and took all my equipment every day and just recorded all day long. It was really peaceful. I wanted to get really good takes on all the acoustic tracks, so I wanted to take my time — that’s why I recorded them all by myself. If it took me all day to do one or two tracks on acoustic guitar, that was fine. I wasn’t fucking around in the studio.
Did the surroundings help give the sound of the record a certain vibe that you may have been looking for?
It definitely was peaceful, so I wasn’t all stressed out. I would just wake up and go in the studio at 9 in the morning with coffee. I actually had to end because the frogs were so loud, so at dusk, at 6, I’d be like, “Alright, can’t record because these frogs are insane.” It was crazy.
How did that compare to recording other Six Organs records?
Well, in a way, if you go back to 2011, I recorded all [of Asleep on the Floodplain] at my house in Seattle when I was living in Seattle, and a lot of the Six Organs stuff was always recorded at my house. The acoustic-sounding Six Organs records on Drag City were usually in a studio, so I never really did a lot of intricate guitar work on those records with acoustic guitar, because it’s just — there wasn’t enough time to make sure you got it right. I always wanted just the right kind of take.
You’re working on music for a play on poet Wallace Stevens written by David Todd, and the first song on Threshold [“Things as They Are”] was inspired by that play. It seems like when you’re writing, you’re under the influence of certain writers and poets. Are the songs on the new record slanted towards that kind of mindset where you're reading a certain poet or author?
Yeah, I’d say a little bit. That Wallace Stevens song, I’m kind of just referencing Wallace Stevens’ writing on a lot of those lines or his life. He always wanted to go to Paris, but he never could and things like that. So, that one’s heavily influenced by Wallace, and the second one’s heavily influenced by Gaston Bachelard. He’s had a huge influence on all my work for the last 15 years. I suppose, each song, I’d say it always kind of works in there. Mostly the song titles for instrumental stuff, I’ll pull stuff from books I’m reading at the time.
Are you doing a live music score for that play?
Yeah. I’ve been writing it since last year. We’ve been working on the play for a couple years. David Todd used to do plays in New York, and he teaches in Cleveland. He’s the writer of the play. He’s done some pretty cool stuff. He just did a pretty serious play on Tamir Rice in Cleveland that was pretty heavy, and it had a lot of writing done about it. It’s good to work with him. He’s a good writer. We’ve been talking about the play for a long time. It will be live, all the music live. We’re getting some people in on it. Right now, it looks like John Elliott from Emeralds is gonna play as well. It should be pretty cool. I’ve never done anything like this before. I did it because it’s a challenge.
There’s a vibrant all-acoustic movement happening right now with the advent of the VDSQ label and many guitarists doing interesting things. You’ve been lumped into that scene. Do you see yourself as part of that?
I guess I don’t really see myself as part of that movement just because maybe other people don’t see me as part of that movement? It seems like those guys just kind of get their own space out there. But there’s some amazing players. Sarah Louise on the VDSQ label — she’s one of my favorite guitar players right now; and obviously Tashi Dorji, who I put a record out by. He’s an incredible player. I love William Tyler’s playing; there’s some really, really good players out. I invited Ryley on the record because I saw him live before I ever heard his music. It was just him solo with an acoustic guitar, and I was like, “Goddamn. This kid, he has a lot of left-hand technique.” Really like English-style, which I really like, I always consider myself more an English-style player than American Primitive-style. I kind of wrote that song with Riley in mind, kind of a Bert Jansch kind of song for him to be on. I think there’s so many great players right now; it’s pretty awesome.
You fit into that kind of niche when you’re actually doing the all-acoustic stuff.
Well, you know, I kind of get in there with doing an acoustic record, and then I get the hell out with a Hexadic record. I don’t think I’ve ever been considered part of that.
You don’t do the acoustic stuff long enough to be part of that scene.
Yeah! In and out. Somebody’s like, “Oh, I hear the Six Organs guy’s acoustic guitar,” and then they put on a record and it’s like [a] vocal-drone-with-electronics thing and they’re like, “What the fuck?!” Nobody wants to put me in that scene to piss people off.
You recorded Threshold in Vermont and Chicago. Where are you now?
I was living in Western Massachusetts for five years, so a lot of the stuff was written [there]. That’s a great scene. There are a lot of amazing players up there, like Bill Nace. That’s a really good scene — Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield. Byron Coley has a store there, and that’s sort of a center for really good events, and he’s just really encouraging with Feeding Tube Records that he runs with this guy Ted [Lee]. It’s a great scene. Western Mass. is great.
Did you ever consider recording under your own name?
Kind of. I’ve kind of been thinking about it, maybe in the future. It’s definitely a possibility.
Have you ever released anything under Ben Chasny?
No, I haven’t. I think I’ve released like a song or maybe a 7". I remember I released a 7" under just Ben Chasny, but I’ve never done a record. If only for going through Immigration and Customs and them asking what’s the name of your band, and me having to say the name of my band, and they’re like, “What the hell kind of name is that?! You dumb American!” I’m like, “No, my name is Ben Chasny. I play music — let me into your country, please.”
You throw out Six Organs of Admittance and they get all weirded out, huh?
Yeah, yeah. They’re like, “What?!”
You said earlier that that you may split up the Hexadic stuff and non-Hexadic stuff. How do you plan on swinging that?
Yeah, I don’t really know. The next Hexadic record is almost done — it’ll be called Hexadic III. It’s not gonna be me, so that’s all I can say. It’s gonna be a surprise, but it’s been in the works for about a year now. It will be other people doing the work.
So, other musicians playing Hexadic material?
Pretty much, yeah. I’m pretty excited about it.
Burning the Threshold just came out, but it seems like you're always looking ahead. When you say that what you do is cyclical, what do you think will be next?
It’s weird. The cycle is maybe — I think of more like spirals. It’s like returning to the same place, but you’re out a little farther, so you don’t get stuck in the same eternal return over and over again. So, you know, that’s weird. I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t think it will be Hexadic stuff, but that’s always good to get the brain going. I think it might be more another sort of acoustic thing because I’ve been enjoying playing that so much. I don’t think it’s going to be such a crazy shift of sound as I usually do.
SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE on TOUR
Mar. 23 — Knoxville, TN @ Big Ears Festival
Mar. 28 — Atlanta, GA @ the Earl
Mar. 29 — Asheville, NC @ the Mothlight
Mar. 30 — Raleigh, NC @ Kings Barcade
Mar. 31 — Washington, DC @ DC9
Apr. 1 — Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool
Apr. 2 — Allston, MA @ Great Scott
Apr. 3 — Portland, ME @ Space
Apr. 5 — Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda's
Apr. 6 — Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
Apr. 7 — Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern
Apr. 8 — Detroit, MI @ Third Man Records Cass Corridor
Apr. 9 — Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle
Apr. 10 — Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
Apr. 12 — Milwaukee, WI @ Colectivo Coffee
Apr. 14 — St. Louis, MO @ Duck Room at Blueberry Hill
Apr. 15 — Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar