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Six Organs of Admittance: Folk minus the freak

Six Organs of Admittance is the moniker of California-based folk musician Ben Chasny, who releases with Holy Mountain and Drag City. He was lumped in with the 'freak folk' label a few years ago, mostly because he featured on a compilation put together by Devendra Banhart, but look past the pigeon-holing and you'll find an incredibly prolific artist with a stunning guitar technique and a distinctive approach to composition, encompassing folk, drone and psychedelic rock. Particularly recommended is Compathia, released in 2003. His newest LP, Asleep On The Floodplain, is out this month, so I spoke to Ben about the history of the Six Organs project and humoured him as he ranted about Alice Coltrane and the Apocalypse... Have you visited or played a gig in Sheffield before? Ah no! I'd like to, but nobody ever asked. You've done a lot of collaborations and band projects in the past few years. Was it important for you to make Asleep On The Floodplain on your own? Yeah, it was. I really wanted to get back to that space where it's just me and the recording machine. Mano y Máquina. Just let things go as long as they need to. It was cool to get back to that. What were your surroundings while recording it? I recorded some of it in my bedroom when I was living in San Francisco. Other parts were recorded in a little space in Seattle. My girlfriend and I lived in 400 square feet, so it was a little tight. I carved out some space and set up some recording gear. Some of it was done on a Tascam 424 [four-track tape machine] and the rest was just recorded onto computer with a really nice preamp. The harmonium was on the kitchen table. Did you try out the new tracks in a live setting beforehand? No, I've never really done that. Sometimes I will improvise live and then that might work itself into a more structured song later down the line, but usually I write the music as I record it. In the liner notes, you say 'S/word and Leviathan' was inspired by the writings of theologian Catherine Keller. Which of her books resonated most with you? That particular song was inspired by her book 'Apocalypse Now And Then' and her discussion of chaos as a serpent. I loved the way she discussed a third way to approach eschatological turmoil which neither throws yourself into the doomsday stream nor fights against it, which would still be recognizing it. I just discovered her last year because of a great collection of essays that she edited called 'Apophatic Bodies'. I read that you wrote out a sort of diagram for 'River of Transfiguration' from The Sun Awakens, to direct the improv. Did you approach 'S/word..' in a similar way, since it's a similarly extended track? That song was the first one that I started recording and also the last to be worked on. I didn't draw up a diagram like 'River of Transfiguration', but I kept adding and subtracting parts over the course of about three years. It went through a lot of changes. Some people think it is based on a loop, but really it is a take of me fingerpicking a saz. Do any other tracks on the album have specific influences? 'River Of My Youth' is about the river that ran through my back yard that I used to use as a path to meet my friends on its banks. That's about all I can reveal at this time. What other artforms inspire you to create? I really don't know anything about art at all. Maybe one day... Did you just let Steve Quenell work his magic again for this album's artwork, or is there much interaction between the music and art in the production stage? We usually work together on an idea. I don't want to say what our idea was because I don't want to give anyone any preconceived notions before hearing the record, but we talked about what the beasts should look like and inspirations and all of that. Then he just went to town. I am very happy with it. You've spoken before about how you think freely accessible music can cause people to simply react, rather than to properly digest what they are hearing and try to understand it fully over time. Do you still think this will have an impact on the future of music? Isn't it possible for downloaders to do it sensibly and still get more or less the same experience as a vinyl junky? Of course, downloading is going to have an effect on things, and of course there are great advantages to things moving in that direction. There is no doubt that having a great library of music to listen to is wonderful in a lot of ways. I've downloaded records and received great enjoyment from them. One example is just last week I downloaded this amazing Alice Coltrane cassette tape from the Root Strata Blog (one of my favourite places online), and for days I was listening to it at dawn as the sun rose. It was one of my favourite musical experiences. So I don't think that it is necessarily the material aspect of listening to the music that makes a difference - it is more about carving out a space that is proper to the music. I think that vinyl will always be around, simply because it is a beautiful medium. It makes sense (in the fullest meaning of the word - it is something that you can experience with all of your senses. Shit - you could even taste it.) Do you enjoy doing interviews? Or do you just accept them as being a good way for your music to reach more people? Or neither..? Ha. Sometimes! It very much depends on the questions. I don't really do that many compared to other musicians, so it's no skin, you know? I like having a good discussion. Sometimes it is a drag if it is just the same old questions, like people asking about the band name all the time. I think it's ridiculous for someone to think another person knows anything about life just because they know how to put a few notes together, which is why I often give ridiculous answers in interviews. I don't know anything, you know? In that way, I will defer to the infamous quote by Robert Anton Wilson: "If you think you know what the hell is going on, you're probably full of shit." Give us one record that is floating your boat right now. Well, currently, that Alice Coltrane record I mentioned above has been floating the hell out of my boat. I have to say that my most played records of 2010 were Wooden Wand's Death Seat and Donovan Quinn & The 13th Month's Your Wicked Man - two records swimming directly against the flow of popular culture with lyrics that actually mean something. Can you see an end to your prolific output? I can't see an end to me ever making music, not until those pearly gates need a shining. Not only is it all I know how to do, but it is also all I want to do. When it comes to output, I guess that depends on how taxing on the soul it becomes. If it gets to the point where you can only listen to music as a free giveaway with a full tank of gas, or by signing up of for a year of cell phone time, then yeah. But I think that there will always be some undercurrent that flows beneath ground. And there will always be live music. But who knows? I can't predict the future. Maybe next year I'll give it all up and move to the Arctic with a poncho and drink J&B all day playing computer chess, learn to fly a helicopter and change my name to MacReady. Anything is possible. )

Next article in issue 35

Filmreel Disowning your own.

Not long ago, in philosophical conversation with a certain someone, I asked: "Would you ever disown your child?" To which she replied, "Only…

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