Rangda is the kind of group that clued-in music snobs can only dream of forming. At its core is the twin virtuoso guitar attack of Richard Bishop, of the sorely missed Sun City Girls and his own instructive solo recordings, and Ben Chasny, the man behind the Six Organs of Admittance moniker and a member of Comets on Fire and Current 93. The lineup is rounded out by Chris Corsano, one of the most in-demand drummers in the improvisation scene. He has worked with everyone from Björk to Jandek to legendary British free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, and he's also issued solo recordings under his own name. After circling the idea for years, the three -- each of whom lives in a different part of the country -- finally recorded their debut: False Flag is set for release at the end of the month via Drag City. Here, the musicians discuss their musical past and their ambitions with Rangda, and they break the news about Corsano's chronologically adventurous secret history with pre-war jazz pianist Fletcher Henderson.
How much of the material on False Flag was improvised versus structured or composed? Did you just let loose and let the material build from there, or was there a concrete songwriting process?
Richard Bishop: It’s evenly split between improvisation and composition, but even the composed pieces leave plenty of room to stretch out. This way, the same “songs” can be different every time we play them, which is usually how I like it to be. We had an hour and a half to prepare for our first live performance, and each of us brought a few ideas to the table. These ideas were loose at first, but we were able to develop them a bit during the live show and in the studio two days later.
Ben Chasny: There was a writing process for some of the songs. Some songs were more improvisational, but then some songs were more conceptual. Chris had some ideas and wrote some of the music in his brain and told us his ideas to help us along the path as well. We tried everything. There was no formula for the record.
Can you tell us a bit about how you came to the title False Flag? The term refers to military operations planned to look like they were carried out by other entities. How does this relate to the material on the record and the story behind Rangda's formation?
RB: It doesn’t have anything to do with the material itself or the formation of the band. It’s just a name we came up with that we all liked. No big mystery or military agenda at work here. Not yet, anyway.
BC: Rick came up with that. We were originally thinking of calling the band that. But then it was taken. MySpace has thankfully helped many bands from embarrassing moments of mistakenly stealing other band's names.
Chris Corsano: Yeah, I think it was already taken by an Australian live drum 'n' bass group or something. I guess in the spirit of false-flag operations, we could have released a record as them. Or sunk a U.S. warship in the name of Australia.
All three of you have participated in a wide variety of groups, as well as many one-off collaborations and groups throughout your careers. Can you give a bit of background on how Rangda came to be and why it felt right to launch a new collaborative effort at this time?
BC: We've all been talking about it for years. I've wanted to start a band with both those dudes and have jammed separately with each. Just seemed natural. It's great to be in a band with guys that can not only hold their own end but yours too. It's a martini band, basically. I can just make myself a martini and let them go to town. Easy street, baby.
RB: Did you not get the press release? It was an idea that Ben and I had been discussing since the late 1940s, back when the girls were going crazy over this skinny character named Frank something. We wanted a piece of the action but didn’t realize that we would have to wait 60 years for the right drummer to come along. But as time went by we heard of this cat called Corsano, who had worked with all the greats: Bing Crosby, Frankie Lane, Buddy DeFranco, not to mention his historic stint with Fletcher Henderson’s Big Band back in ‘51. He remained under contract until just last year, so when we found out that he was available, we had our people talk to his people and everybody came to the conclusion that we could do this thing. I’m sure I am leaving out a few details, but that’s how I remember it.
CC: Always read the fine print on your contracts, folks. Signing a six-decade exclusive deal with a pianist who'd had a career-ending stroke the year before kept me from joining these two whippersnappers until 2009. But I wouldn't trade my 58 years with Mr. Henderson for the world, even though he was only alive for one of them.
Richard, for a few years you were playing primarily solo, but recently you have begun playing in groups again. Messenger Girls Trio recently released a new record, and on the tour for The Freak of Araby you recruited Oaxacan as your backing band. Is Rangda an extension of this renewed interest in group playing? Do you think you will return to focusing on solo playing at some point?
RB: I recently did a solo tour in Europe, and I intend to tour more this year as a solo act, but right now Rangda is my top priority. It was nice to step away from group playing for a while, but the desire is always there. It’s just that I am very picky about those I want to share the stage with, and Ben and Chris are high on the list, just as Alan Bishop and Charles Gocher were.
Your last solo LP, The Freak of Araby, was a cohesive Eastern-tinged effort, whereas False Flag has more of a generally improvised feel. After The Freak of Araby did you want to consciously do something more grounded in improvisation?
RB: Not consciously. I knew we were all capable of improvising, but I had no idea going in just how it would turn out. I don’t think any of us did. I did, however, know that playing with Ben and Chris could result in some great things whether they were improvised or not. I am quite pleased with the recorded results, but it will be our live shows that really take it into other territory, and I hope to continue doing that until the end of time.
Chris, compared to your other current ongoing collaborations, such as the Flower-Corsano Duo and your long-running relationship with Paul Flaherty, how does your playing style adapt to the Rangda group? My first impressions of the record are that you are playing a bit more straight and less improvised or virtuosic, as if you're backing up Chasny and Bishop's guitar work. Was this a conscious effort, and how did you approach playing in this group?
CC: The general approach is the same as always: Play what you think sounds good at that moment. I guess the difference with Rangda from most of the other groups I'm in is that song structures sounded good to us as well as straight-up improvising. I think having two people in the group who really know how to write a good song helped sway things more toward composition than what I generally do elsewhere. It wasn't a conscious effort to approach things this way. It's more that we just fell right into what felt natural. So if all this means that at times it sounds like I'm backing up Ben and Rick, then good. I'm doing my part at making things into a unified theory of something or other. Hopefully there are also points on the record where we're all pushing each other around, too.
Your recorded discography and touring schedule are indicative of a voracious appetite for collaboration and performance across a wide variety of musical styles. Is that generally the result of a concerted effort to work with certain groups and players, or do these relationships come about in a more organic way? Has there every been a project or collaboration that didn't work out as much as you hoped? On the other hand, has an unexpected playing relationship borne very rewarding fruit?
CC: Lots of collaborations developed out of seeing people play live -- and to a lesser extent, hearing them on record -- and loving what they did so much that I wanted to get involved somehow. Sure, there have been some that didn't click like I hoped. Sometimes you're not as compatible as you think you'll be. I'd rather not be a dick here and list which ones I thought bombed, though. The fruit-bearers, well, those'd be the ones you try to turn into regular groups. Like the duo with Mick Flower, for instance. Not that I had low expectations, but our first gig together was probably the first time I'd ever heard a Japan banjo, never mind Mick playing one. He blew me away.
Another would be the trio with Evan Parker and John Edwards. Obviously, with those guys being two of the world's greatest living exponents of their instruments, it wasn't that I was worried they wouldn't hack it. I was more nervous about me holding my own and the group's chemistry (or lack of it) in general. Sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not no matter how great the individual players are. Actually, the first show I did with them, I felt I really was blowing it -- my reaction time felt slow as fuck. I remember thinking mid-gig something like, "Well, that's it. These guys aren't gonna want to play with me again, so I might as well go out blasting."
Ben, you last collaborated with Chris on record for School of the Flower. Was the inception of Rangda inspired by that work at all? Did you feel that you and Chris had work left to do?
BC: Chris and I have played a bit of music since that record. We sometimes end up playing shows together and improvise. We also had a great all day session with John Shaw and Dredd Foole last summer. So we've kept the musical ties. I don't know if I see it as "work" as much as it's just a pleasure and a great learning experience as a musician. The dude is an insane musician, you know? It's just a lot of fun.
A few years back you interviewed Sir Richard for Fretboard Journal. Your love of Bishop's work shines through clearly throughout the interview. Is the Rangda project a fulfillment of a dream or ambition of yours to record with Bishop? Did you have a set idea of what kind of material you would like to make with Bishop and Corsano, and how did the resulting record adhere to or differ from these preconceived notions?
BC: Rick has been one of my influences on guitar for a long time -- and just general attitude when it comes to shows and music. So, yeah, I guess it was sort of a dream, if you mean those sorts of dreams where you are walking down the hall back in high school and you suddenly realize you aren't wearing any pants. I didn't really have any preconceptions about the band except maybe something like Sonny Sharrock's Ask The Ages, which we don't sound anything like at all. I was really happy that we immediately seemed to have our own sound.