When not playing delicate fingerstyle acoustic, Ben Chasny wreaks sonic havoc on an inexpensive Mexican Strat.
Photo by Chris Altenburg.
Ben Chasny is a musical polyglot. His solo projects, released under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance, range from homespun solo acoustic guitar to blistering sonic mayhem. His diverse and prodigious output includes moody introspective atmospherics, American Primitive-style fingerpicking, innovative atonal madness, and 21st-century folk. He’s a member of the free jazz, noise-based power trio Rangda (along with guitarist Richard Bishop and drummer Chris Corsano), and he also plays with the somewhat psychedelic Comets on Fire. And he is on the shortlist of those considered the vanguard of freak folk.
Needless to say, Chasny is an enigma.
He spent the last year developing the “Hexadic System,” an open-ended tonal organization scheme. Incorporating chance, games, and graphs, the system was born from Chasny’s desire to break musical habits. His new Six Organs release, Hexadic, was—as the title implies—composed using the new method. “I called it ‘hexadic’ because it sounds like ‘ecstatic,’” he says. “The word means, ‘of the nature of six.’”
For Chasny, developing an entirely new musical system is par for the course. He always seems to be up to something. In 2005 he recorded August Born, a trans-Pacific collaboration with a musical pen pal, Japanese musician Hiroyuki Usui. “We did it by mail,” says Chasny. “No files attached to emails. Everything was physical. He would send a CDR with a drum track, and I would record something directly on top, send it to him, and then he would directly record something on top of that.”
In 2010, the Incubate Festival—as a part of their Glocal Project—invited Chasny to the Netherlands’ Brabant region to tour shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary. “Every shrine is different, and there are hundreds of them,” he says. “I had a guide who drove me around to these places, and I kept thinking, ‘This guy looks like David Crosby.’ I wrote music inspired by these places and the feelings and vibes.”
Chasny plays fingerstyle in a variety of tunings on an Alvarez-Yairi acoustic/electric. “It has a really fast fretboard, which I like,” he says, “though my friends who play Americana and American Primitive hate it. They’re like, ‘What are you doing?’” His electric guitar is a Mexican-made Strat that cost about $300. “I travel so much with my guitars and I think, ‘This airline is fucking me.’ But then I remember, ‘Oh, it’s a $300 guitar—I’ll just get another one.’ A repair on an expensive guitar would cost even more than that.”
We spoke with Chasny about his eclectic output, creating the massive tones for the new Six Organs album, discovering alternate tunings, the pleasure of recording on 4-track cassette, and the intricacies of his Hexadic System.
Is there a common thread that connects your disparate projects?
That’s a good question. I think the differences are mostly in production values, honestly. In the actual playing, the projects aren’t that different. If you reduce all of the playing throughout to just acoustic guitar and nothing else, they probably sound fairly similar. Not all the time—maybe Rangda is more free jazz or noise-oriented. But I always feel, “Oh, I did that fucking hammer-on again, same thing I always do.” [Laughs.] Which is almost why I started this system: to get out of that.
“Nick Drake was one of the most underrated guitar players ever … It’s as if the thumb and fingers on his fingerpicking hand were never connected. He plays the most crazy, syncopated shit.”
Photo by Nicole Poppi.
How do you use drones and ostinato phrases to create texture and mood?
When you start changing up the chords, you can have such a drastic change of mood immediately, though after you hear the chord changes for a while, then that becomes the dominant mood. I like the idea of keeping one mood throughout the whole song. That was a big part of using a lot of drones. Also, from listening to a lot of American Primitive music and things like that, I like to just hit the drone and play modes or whatever. It might just be laziness. [Laughs.]
Have you experimented with looper pedals or other electronic means for generating these phrases?
I did at the very beginning when I did the School of the Flower record. I didn’t know how I was going to do some of those things, so I had a [looper] pedal for a while. There are so many one-man bands with [looper] pedals, which I understand. But there’s something to be said for playing with other people, so I stopped doing that after a while. I almost felt like the blank space in the performance was better than trying to fill it up with a repetitive part. Now I just use it as a kind of sample machine.
What looper do you use?
The Boss Loop Station, the one with two pedals. I have some preset stuff. I do some tape collages and throw them in there. They’re especially good for when you’re retuning—you just hit it.
Your song “School of the Flower” reminds me of a folk version of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”
Oh thanks, man. One of the greatest songs in the world.
How did you create some of the massive tones on the new album?
That was a big part of trying to figure out what the record was going to sound like. I wanted to have the most extreme distortion possible and mix it up high. I had the Devi Ever Destructo Noctavia pedal going into that silver Boss Fuzz [the FZ-5]. The combination of those two was just fucking insane-sounding. The engineer, Eric Bauer, had a lot to do with figuring out a good combination, mixing it, and getting the right microphone placement. I owe him a lot on the record.
Some of the reverb sounds are enormous as well, especially on “Sphere Path Code C.”
Eric has a gigantic plate reverb—it’s 20 feet or something. Some of it was mixed through that, and some of it is just off of the amp. When we mixed, we ended up throwing a lot of stuff through the gigantic reverb.