By Ian S. Port
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Ben Chasny is feeling a bit giddy these days. This past month, the 26-year-old musician's home-studio project, Six Organs of Admittance, went from having a small cult following to being the toast of the slightly larger international psychedelic underground. The outfit with the odd moniker -- which refers to the Buddhist definition of the five senses plus the soul -- gave what many considered to be the highlight performance at the fourth annual Terrastock Festival in Seattle during the first weekend in November.
Sample of Six Organs of Admittance's "Hollow Light Severed Sun," from the CD Dust & Chimes. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.
"It's been pretty weird post-Terrastock," Chasny says from his Eureka home. "People have been mentioning the Six Organs name [online], and that's really nice. I didn't know what was going to happen -- I had no idea. It's a strange thing, living up here; it's so isolated from anything."
At the Terrastock show, Chasny began by playing his signature hypnotically droning riffs on solo acoustic guitar, then was joined by a second guitarist for some intricate duets. Over the course of the set, five more individuals jumped onstage, adding to the frenzied jamming. Afterward, many in attendance raved about the performance, calling it the big surprise of the weekend; even those familiar with Chasny's far more subdued albums expressed amazement at the show's almost violent energy.
"It's pretty funny, actually," Chasny says of the positive feedback he received at the three-day shindig, which revolves around the English psychedelia journal Ptolemaic Terrascope. "Two of the people onstage had never played in front of an audience in their entire lives. I mean, they're not musicians; they're just my close friends. We practiced for two days before the show, and then we just all got up onstage and made a racket."
Chasny played acoustic guitar for most of the set, with the aforementioned gaggle of friends helping out on guitars, percussion, miscellaneous noisemakers, and a rickety organ. "I was kind of worried," he says. "Our equipment was totally on the brink. Just that day, we had taken an electric guitar apart, and done all this duct tape work on the inside. The organ -- you had to lift it up and smash it back down on the ground to get the sound going. The bands playing before us had hundreds of dollars' worth of equipment, and we just felt like some kind of heathens, crawling out of the mountains or something. That's why I brought plenty of bells and things to bang on, because those couldn't break. If it got down to it, everyone was just going to bang on something."
The more meditative recordings of Six Organs of Admittance, with their haunting minor-key guitar passages, muted percussion, inscrutable vocals, and Indian raga flavor, have inspired the occasional hyperbolic reviewer to reference Eastern religions. While Chasny readily admits his recordings take vague inspiration from whatever books of arcane philosophical theory he's reading at the time, he denies his music is a deliberate attempt to take listeners down some mystical path to enlightenment. "Someone forwarded me an e-mail list calling us shamans, and I just laughed," he explains. "In today's day and age, I think everyone's just searching for some kind of spiritual experience, so that a group of drunk people with bells and drums will work as shamanistic. ... It certainly wasn't meant to be anything more spiritual than just having a lot of fun with my friends."
Historically, Six Organs of Admittance performances have been rare animals indeed. A month before Terrastock, Chasny embarked on a small solo tour of the East Coast, playing spaces like the Cooler in New York and the Twisted Village record store in Boston. The outfit's only Bay Area appearance so far has been at Eli's in Oakland, on a bill with steel string legend John Fahey and Harlem-based free-noise squadron the No Neck Blues Band. "That was kind of a fiasco," Chasny recalls, "but that was our first Six Organs show ever. We thought we just couldn't hear ourselves through the monitors, but apparently nobody could hear us except for the people in the very front row."
Not that Chasny hasn't had experience playing live. As a teenager, he performed in several Humboldt County garage bands, and later joined an obstreperous trio called Plague Lounge, which released an album, Wicker Image, on San Francisco's Holy Mountain label in 1996. At the same time, he was experimenting with home-recording, eventually releasing the results as the self-titled Six Organs of Admittance debut on his own Pavilion label. "I've just always put out my own stuff," Chasny says of his almost mythical back catalog, which contains such rarities as a run of 50 lathe-cut 8-inch records. "I used to do reallylimited-edition things; I used to do stuff and just give them out to my friends. I'm not gonna do that anymore because it's a big pain in the ass."
Currently, Chasny's most widely available release is a CD titled Dust & Chimes. Originally released in an all-black package on Pavilion, the disc has been reissued in a more conventional jewel case by Holy Mountain. Ensconced in an understated green-and-white cover listing song titles and little else, the album is the perfect late-night candle-staring soundtrack, a brilliant, 11-track testament to what one guy in the hinterlands can accomplish with a Tascam four-track recorder. Gorgeously exotic guitar lines, shimmering bells, subtle sound effects, and incantationlike vocals combine to create a work invoking everyone from American folk radicals and British pagan-folksters to early Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Sun City Girls at their quietest. Taking inspiration from images conjured by Peter Lamborn Wilson's book Sacred Drift (Essays on the Margins of Islam), the sublimely austere Dust & Chimesis surely the ultimate contemplation on Sufism and anarchism ever assembled in a house by the highway in Arcata.
Chasny's musical journey from garage noise to trip folk began with a Nick Drake box set his dad brought home one day. From one listen to the British folkie's sad music, young Chasny was hooked; soon he felt compelled to investigate other guitarists he'd ignored in the past. "Suddenly stuff like Leo Kottke and John Fahey made more sense -- especially Kottke. The record My Feet Are Smiling-- his early live record -- is just fucking phenomenal. He was definitely the one who told me to just go, just drink coffee, and rip into it, and if it sounds like noise, that's fine." Chasny's influences extend outside the folk realm as well. Both Plague Lounge and his later group, Tonal Shrine, were a result of his love for the unhinged sonic overload of Japanese cacophony-mongers like Mainliner and Fushitsusha, and "stuff that doesn't give a fuck." Tonal Shrine disbanded after a 1999 Halloween show at Kimo's on Polk Street, when the other members became fed up with Chasny's chronic equipment meltdown: "Every time we played, my guitar would just die, or the pedals would die."
The admittedly anti-tech Chasny still plays the acoustic he was given on his 16th birthday, despite its less-than-perfect intonation. He also has a 12-string acoustic and an electric. He'll tell you they're all Fenders, but that's about all the detail he'll readily provide. "I purposely don't know anything about guitars; I don't care. When somebody asks what kind of guitar I play, I say, "A crappy guitar.' And a lot of my tunings, only very recently have I tried to figure out what the actual notes are. I just start fooling around until I get a sound for a particular song that I want, and then I just start recording. Which makes it really difficult to play the song over again; I have to go back to the recording and try to figure out how it was tuned. It's total exploration, it's a lot of fun, and you don't really know what exactly it's going to sound like."
Chasny has no shortage of plans for Six Organs of Admittance. In February, he's flying to Portugal to open for Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo. He's got two recording projects going simultaneously and some unusual collaborations lined up, including one with a dour German artist who records under the nom de doom the Black Vial. He's hoping to rerelease some of his more unavailable material, like that lathe-cut edition of 50 he handed out to friends. There should be more live performances on the horizon, including a 10-person assemblage at a KFJC-sponsored festival next summer. Chasny's even thinking of moving his base of operations to someplace like Oakland. In the meantime, he'll continue to toil in the relative obscurity of Eureka. "What's funny is that I have so many friends who are in bands around here, and I go and I see their bands and hang out and party with everybody, and I appreciate what they do. I just don't think they really get what I'm doing. It gets a little frustrating every once in a while. But my mischievous side finds it kind of funny to tour the East Coast, then come back and not have a single person ask you about it."
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