Ben Chasny, who founded Six Organs of Admittance and is a member of Comets on Fire and Current 93 and others, has been among the leaders of the outsider-folk movement for almost a decade now. Six Organs’ Shelter from the Ash, released via Drag City in November, is an exploration of less-improvised song structure and pushing the boundaries of current song form. The guitarist talks about that album, the current state of the long-playing record, the hodgepodge of artists he’s had the pleasure of working with, and his girlfriend’s love for The Simpsons.
How was the process of making Shelter from the Ash different from any of your previous Six Organs records?
A little bit less improvisation in the studio. A lot of stuff was already written out on four-track demo tapes that I did in my room. That’s probably the biggest thing.
You seem to care a lot about the logical flow of records. Where do you think the art of placing of tracks on a record is going now that people can just rearrange them the way they want to?
Ultimately with the way that people think about records now, the consensus is that it doesn’t matter. But it depends on who you think will be listening to the record — somebody is going to listen to it, otherwise you wouldn’t be making it. If you are thinking about people who pick track by track, then it doesn’t really matter, but I always think in terms of vinyl. I’m not trying to be Mr. Caveman, but I listen to more vinyl than anything. I’m always thinking, "Where’s the point when I’m going to turn the record over?" For people who aren’t interested in listening to records, that’s probably not important.
Does it bother you that somebody puts it on iPod and shuffles it around and never gets to hear it in its full context?
I’m aware that’s happening. I don’t listen to every record from beginning to end. I’ll put on a record and listen to a few songs and then take it off, so it’s kind of the same. I was less concerned with Shelter from the Ash being heard from beginning to end, so maybe I’m getting caught up in it too. There’s more diversity in the tracks, and I’m trying to pay attention to individual songs. Sometimes I’ll have a huge long piece to connect songs, and I didn’t really have that on this record. So, no, it doesn’t make me mad.
Do you think that depreciates the way we listen to music?
I couldn’t really make a value judgment like that because I just feel like an old guy screaming, “Back in my day we didn’t have TVs!” I don’t think people are reflecting on music as much as they are just reacting to it. It’s easy to have heard every single genre and get a general overview of what all music is like and then listen to a track and be like, “Oh, I got it. Next thing.” It’s hard to say. I don’t listen to radio shows, because I grew up with TV, so is my imagination less than the person that grew up with radio? So I have a hard time making that value judgment, but I know that I appreciate records more.
You release so much material with so many different people. Do you ever worry that the creative juices will just stop flowing?
Oh, yeah. It could happen any day. Whenever I’m right at the end of a record, something else is popping in my head. It’s kind of a bummer: You make a record, then it’s done and it comes out a few months later, and then you go on the road and play shows with it. But sometimes my brain is immediately on the next thing, and I end up playing those things on the road. If it does, it does. I’ll just do something else.
When working on a Six Organs project, or any other project, is it hard to remove yourself from other things you have going on musically?
No, just usually those other things aren’t happening. I set things to the side in specific blocks. I’ll work on one project for a few months, then I’ll switch gears and work on another project. Usually, things don’t overlap.
How is your live approach changing with the Six Organs material? It’s kind of always changing. At first I was always doing solo acoustic, then I started playing with bigger bands. I’m starting to play acoustic guitar more on this tour. I’m doing this West Coast thing, and I’ve been pulling out the acoustic guitar, so it’s always kind of changing. I just try and keep it interesting for me. If it’s not interesting for me, you can’t expect it to be interesting for anybody else.
That’s great to hear you are playing the acoustic. I know you haven’t played acoustic since that show with Sir Richard Bishop in Portland.
Yeah, that was one of the last times I played it. It’s funny you say that, because today I’m going back up to Portland where that whole fiasco happened. So we’ll see if I can shake off the cobwebs and get back on the horse.
Do you think acoustic-guitar based music works better on record than in a live atmosphere?
I don’t know. Another reason I started playing electric was that I was playing these shows and it was so loud that I could hardly hear myself . My friend Jack Rose travels with his own microphones, so he can properly mike his acoustic guitar, so he’s not going to ever plug in an acoustic guitar. But then you watch some live show with John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, and those guys are just miking their acoustic guitars and there are just thousands of people in the audience who are absolutely quiet and then break into some ecstatic applause. I guess it depends on where you are playing and who’s listening to you.
Have you had the experience of seeing people who just captivated you with just an acoustic guitar?
As far as acoustic guitar goes, Jack Rose and Sir Richard Bishop. Those guys rule. You see them live, and it’s fucking phenomenal.
You worked with a few different people on this record. What does Tim Green bring to the mix in terms of production?
It’s his studio and since he’s such a rock guy with his band, he just has tons of guitars and tons of great amplifiers and knows guitar sounds. I was just like, “Yeah, man, how do we make it sound like this?” And he was like, “Let’s hook this amp to this amp through this, and put it in the corner and we’ll mike it like this.” He’s really smart and he’s got really good pitch too. I’m kind of tone deaf.
You worked with Matt Sweeney on this record right?
He swung by for like one hour because he was in town for a wedding. I just told him we were recording this thing and asked him if he wanted to swing by and lay down a guitar solo. I think he was in the studio for less than forty-five minutes. It was pretty funny, because we just had him do a whole bunch of different takes and just picked the one we liked.
What’s it like working with David Tibet in Current 93?
It’s really easy. That guy’s really funny. Not a lot of people know that he’s always ready to tell jokes. Everyone thinks he’s serious, sitting around contemplating death and stuff. I think he does that on his off time, but he’s really social and super funny.
Do you think that covering a Gary Higgins song a few years back had something to do with Drag City uncovering Red Hash, his 1973 album, and releasing it to the world?
Yeah, because part of the whole plan was to find Gary Higgins. That was part of the plan with Drag City, and that’s kind of why I put the record on there. There used to be a guy working at Drag City named Zach, and he’s the dude who went on a full-on search for Gary and eventually found him. I think Zach was looking for him even before he was working for Drag City, so it was pretty awesome when he found him.
What are some of the outside sources that influenced this record. I know “Alone with the Alone” was inspired by the book by Henry Corbin.
Yeah. He’s always been there a little bit. I was listening to a lot of John McLaughlin before the record, so musically he was the biggest for me. It’s hard to say, really. I was feeling pretty good — that was a pretty big outside influence. This year has been pretty good to me.
That never hurts.
Yeah, it means you can actually sit down and concentrate on things instead of having your head in all different other sorts of places. I feel like I was able to concentrate on this record more than any other record, because I was less distracted.
Doubtful that you get much of it, but what do you do in your off time?
Sleep in, watch movies. I really enjoy my off time. If I’m not on tour or doing something, that’s usually absolute downtime. I rarely even leave the house. I’m always off in some city or something, so during downtime it’s pretty mellow.
Watch any good movies lately?
Not really. I’m actually not a big movie watcher. My girlfriend is making me watch every episode of The Simpsons. There are Simpsons fanatics, and she’s one of them. I’ve seen more Simpsons in the past month than I have in my entire life.
What current projects are you working on?
My friend Joseph is writing a novel. He called me up and was like, “Everyone always makes soundtracks to movies. Why don’t you write this soundtrack for my book?” So I think we’re going to go down in March to do a mostly guitar-oriented soundtrack to his book.