Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Organs of Admittance: The Search for Lost Sound

Ben Chasny, a.k.a. Six Organs of Admittance, has been roving the pacific hillsides of psychedelic folk and the vertiginous valleys of noise rock for over ten years. His work might be described as ongoing quest for the perfect sound, at once reminiscence and recreation of the long-lost "mystery records” that he has been trying to track down since his teens. As enigmatic as his music itself, Chasny indulged our request for an interview but denied us any straight answers. Perhaps his upcoming performances in Europe this month will allow us to peel away some more layers of the onion.

Interview with Ben Chasny, October 2008

Six Organs of Admittance recently turned 10 years old. Looking back over a decade of activity, would you say that your project has evolved significantly from what is was at the beginning? How did the project begin, and how has it changed over the years?

I think it probably has changed a bit in some ways and in others it has stayed the same. I am much more at ease with using a studio now, where as before I only recorded on a 4 track at home. I’ve also traveled quite a bit more, met more people. I started just wanting to release sort of mystery records from Northern California. As the years passed, the mystery began to dissolve but my sense of the greater world took over, so it was a fair trade.

How would you categorize your music in terms of genre (or combinations of genres), and why?

That is hard to say. Sometimes the band will be solo acoustic guitar, sometimes it will be an all-out noise assault, and sometimes it will be between the two. That is the problem with people who try to categorize the music. They sometimes set up expectations that are off. Sometimes people will come to the shows expecting a mellow hippie affair because that is what they read from some misinformed source and then be disgusted when they hear so much feedback. Or sometimes people will expect all noise and then be bummed because it is a very quiet show. So I don’t know.

You have played with musicians from a broad range of musical backgrounds, and your sound is often talked about in terms of its fusion of noise and folk. Do you consider yourself more on the noise side of things or the folk side of things? How would you describe the compatibility, if any, between these two traditions?

I don’t recognize a distinction between the two. What is noise anyway? Didn’t Cage kind of re-arrange that paradigm? There are a lot of solo acoustic guitar players that I would consider noise, simply because I don’t want to hear it! I don’t think it should be considered in terms related to “noise.” I would rather use the word “intensity.” Or “texture.”

What are your biggest “influences” at this very moment?. How have these changed (if at all) since the beginning of the project?

My influences right now are the same as they have been since the beginning, and although I have mentioned them in the past, nobody remembers, because they either don’t believe me or they are too busy listening to what other people say about my project than what I say! Everyone seems to say Fahey. Wrong. More like Organum, Nurse With Wound, Talking Heads, This Heat, and Sun City Girls. I would say if there is any new influence, it would probably be David Allen Coe.

You are often considered a forerunner of the psychedelic revival that has been taking place in American music over the last decade, which also goes hand in hand with a resurgence of interest in non-Western musical traditions. How would you explain the attraction that these musics have for you? In a broader sense, how would you explain the attraction that they seem to be exerting over our generation at large?

I don’t know why people find it attractive now. I suppose probably because some tastemaker said it was cool, then people followed. Tomorrow the tastemaker will create a backlash, nobody will care, and things will carry on. I don’t concern myself with it. As far as psychedelic music goes, I think it comes down more to collecting records. The best records, the most prized grails, so to say, are usually the psychedelic ones, especially private press. So when me and my friends were younger, listening to some treasure that we had just found, it was cool to think, “let’s start a band like this!” Nowadays, though, any record can be found on the internet with no searching at all, thereby annihilating that idea of the "treasured" record. So I really have no idea at all why someone would want to start a psych band now! It seems pretty retrograde to me.

What kind of line-up can we expect to see for your performance in Nantes?

This time around it will be Elisa Ambrogio on lead guitar and Alex Neilson on Drums. The last time I played Nantes I was solo, so I am looking forward to playing with this line-up. I had such a good time last time I was there. I am looking forward to this very much.

Interview with Ben Chasny, Sophie Pécaud and Emilie Friedlander, October 2008

Words: Sophie Pécaud and Emilie Friedlander
Photo: Delilah Winter

Tour dates 10.24.08 - Diksmuide, Belgium - 4AD
10.26.08 - Copenhagen, Denmark - Venue KIB
10.27.08 - Arhus, Denmark - Musikcafeen
10.28.08 - Stockholm, Sweden - Debaser
10.31.08 - Istanbul, Turkey - Babylon
11.02.08 - Nantes, France - Yamoy Festival
11.03.08 - Rouen, France - Emporium Galorium
11.04.08 - Bordeaux, France - CAPC
11.05.08 - Gijon, Spain - Savoy Club
11.06.08 - Madrid, Spain - Caracol
11.07.08 - Lisbon, Portugal - Caiaxa Economica Operaria
11.08.08 - Porto, Portugal - Maus Habitos

Six Organs of Admittance Website
Six Organs of Admittance MySpace page

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link here

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Capillary Action’s sadistic avant-pop: Between economic innovation and commercial suicide

Jonathan Pfeffer, the man behind Capillary Action, a “sadistic avant-pop” group freshly relocated to Seattle, likes thinking that his music “treads [a] fine line between economic innovation and commercial suicide.” To mark the release of his third opus, So Embarrassing, he does us the honor of telling us why.

Jonathan Pfeffer is only 22 years old, but he already composes some of the most stimulating music in contemporary experimental rock. His new album So Embarassing crosses cerebral and neurotic mathrock stereotypes with those of the suavest smooth jazz, the furor of an electric guitar with the melodic expressivity of a Fender Rhodes. His sound evinces a broad-ranging musical heritage (Jonathan cites Varèse, as well Don Cherry and his friends from Talibam! among his influences) as well as a schizophrenic desire to juxtapose seemingly incompatible textures and atmospheres.

The result is hard not to compare with the anarchic and jubilatory experimentations of a John Zorn or a Mike Patton. Asked about this likeness, Jonathan Pfeffer bristles. “As much as I respect John Zorn and Mike Patton and as much as I can understand the resemblance, neither is an influence of mine. And neither is Zappa for that matter. I think what people may be hearing are some shared influences (60’s free jazz, 20th century classical music) or some superficial stylistic similarities (the use of different genres, people who can actually play their instruments, etc.).” And, upon further rumination: “The comparisons wouldn’t bug me so much if I felt like Zappa, Zorn, and Patton’s aesthetics were rooted in the same emotions I’m trying to convey. The Zappa/Zorn/Patton records I’ve heard, though undeniably well thought-out and executed, always struck me as sort of humorous. While there is definitely humor in the music I write, I feel like the subject matter I’m writing about is much more personal and intense than anything I’ve heard from Zappa, Zorn, or Patton.”

While Capillary Action’s preceding records, Fragments (2004) and Cannibal Impulses (2006), were entirely instrumental, So Embarassing is constructed around the voice, and, especially, texts. “I feel like the human voice connects with people—myself included-- in a way other instruments don’t and putting it upfront and center in an avant-rock context gives the music much more warmth than the music of instrumental bands treading similar territory. Capillary Action’s music does take precedence over the lyrics but I think the vocals/lyrics provide a certain gravity to everything else going on that keeps the crazier elements from getting too out of control.”

Jonathan Pfeffer’s lyrics, as fragmented and unpredictable as his music, revolve around complex and intimate subjects: familial and romantic relationships, the hunger for recognition, paranoia. A complexity that discovers its musical echo in the record’s rich orchestration (strings and brass, in addition to guitar and drums), an attention to density and timbre carried over from Cannibal Impulses, and an intricate mosaic of riffs, melodies and chord progressions that tangle and untangle themselves at will. A working process requiring a great deal of trial and error, says Jonathan, who confesses to spending “hours, days, weeks, or sometimes months trying to jam square pegs into round holes—adjusting, deleting, replacing, and modifying each last detail.”

Jonathan is adamant about surprising his listeners. “I like setting up traps for the listener so when they think a part is coming back again, they’re pushed in a completely different direction. I also like keeping songs short and efficient so that people can be encouraged to listen over and over again to pick up little things here and there. People who are patient enough to deal with all the traps and brevity will discover that there’s actually a method to the madness.” This desire to keep his listeners on their toes translates into a sound at once exuberant and challenging, one that takes up residence at the antipodes of a consensual and comfortable pop. “I like to call it economic, sadistic avant-pop music. I take immense pleasure in seeing people writhe with discomfort when we play a part they love only twice in a song and then never return to it.”

The mastermind behind Capillary action--or “musical director,” as he likes to describe himself-- Jonathan Pfeffer frequently enlists the aid of other artists, whom he deems instrumental in forging the project’s signature sound. “Everyone involved in Capillary Action is also involved with other projects so the revolving line-up works both ways, giving me the freedom to do as I please without regard to anyone else’s schedule, as well as permitting individual members to participate when they want.” Live appearances often feature Jonathan on guitar and vocals, with Sam Krulewitch on keys and Bryan Cook on drums. “We’ve been performing as a trio (keyboard/guitar/drums) for the last year or so, mostly for economic reasons, but also because it’s a challenge to take these complex arrangements and simplify them for a small ensemble. The trio line-up emphasizes a more blitzkrieg all-guns-blazing rock show, which I think works quite nicely when you’ve only got 30 minutes to make your mark.”

When Jonathan says “blitzkrieg rock”, what he really means is that he and his co-conspirators like to declare war on their listener’s emotions. “A Capillary Action concert tends to be precise, intense, and overwhelming for both the performer and audience. I’ve seen people laugh hysterically, cry, and become so angry they throw bottles at us, sometimes all at the same performance.” This emotional closeness between the musicians and their public is a source of great personal satisfaction for Jonathan Pfeffer. “The reason I chose music as a career path because, unlike displaying your work in a gallery, as a musician you get to watch your art unfold in real time and witness the audience’s reaction right there on the spot.” Ever hungry for confrontation, the trio seizes the opportunity to play in as many different types of venues as possible: rock clubs and alternative art spaces, lofts and basements, elementary schools and universities, and even the occasional Chinese restaurant. Each venue, each audience, opens up a new dimension of the music, claims Jonathan, waxing nostalgic about a particularly intense concert before a floor of “slack-jawed 5-8 year olds.” “I think the stranger the venue, the more rewarding the show; let it be known that we will play anywhere.”

As far as plans for the near future are concerned, Jonathan Pfeffer looks forward to hitting the road again, this time with a new line-up. “The next phase of the band, which I’m working on right now, will feature all acoustic instruments (classical guitar, upright bass, trumpet, percussion, accordion, and vocals) and showcase the more melodic side of Capillary Action.” This acoustic ensemble will be on tour throughout Europe and the United States in 2009. An occasion to for us to experience the effects of this thing called capillary action in person.

Interview with Jonathan Pfeffer, Sophie Pecaud, October 2008

Words: Sophie Pécaud
Translation: Emilie Friedlander

, Cannibal Impulses and So Embarassing are distributed by Natural Selection in the United States and by Distile Records in Europe. Records can also be procured directly from the group.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Rhys Chatham at the Soy Festival (Nantes): “Nothing but a party… and nothing but rock!”

In 2004, Rhys Chatham was at le lieu unique, Nantes, with An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Last October 29th, the New York composer was back in Nantes to headline the Soy Festival with his very first electric guitar piece, Guitar Trio. After the majesty of a 100-guitar symphony, the fury of six punk guitars.

Rhys Chatham’s music has two origins. On the one hand, it comes from the minimalist avant-garde, the composer being a part of a hallowed tradition which goes from La Monte Young to Tony Conrad and from Terry Riley to Charlemagne Palestine, and also including the better known Philip Glass and Steve Reich. On the other hand, it comes from the rock of the Ramones: it was a Ramones concert at CBGB’s that allowed Rhys Chatham, who was 25 at the time and more familiar with French composer Pierre Boulez than the effervescent rock scene of his hometown, to “find his own voice”, the voice of a pionneer now known as the initiator of the noise rock movement, and a major influence of many experimental rock groups, such as Band of Susans or Sonic Youth.

“I was composing minimalist music in the vein of La Monte Young at that time. And then, I went to a concert of the Ramones at CBGB’s, and it changed my life. I felt a link with the music. At that precise moment, I borrowed a friend’s Fender electric guitar, and this is how I went into rock. Essentially I thought that if Steve [Reich] could work with african music, and Phil [Glass] could work with jazz, I could work with rock. Why not?”

The result of that research was Guitar Trio, the very first piece to combine the principles of minimalism with those of rock. At first, Rhys Chatham experimented with various configurations– one of them, Tone Death, including a saxophone. After 1977, the piece was standardized as a trio for three eletric guitars, electric bass and drums. Its current instrumentation consists of two to ten electric guitars, electric bass and drums – Rhys Chatham being rather undecided as far as his definition of a “trio” is concerned.

Guitar Trio is based on a very simple principle, whose effects are extremely rich: repetition. Guitarists exert themselves at persistently repeating the same note, and then the same basic chord, for close to 20 minutes. Their aim: to extract all their harmonic substance. As Rhys Chatham reminds us, a note is never “pure” but contains, besides its fundamental frequency, an infinite number of other frequencies, some of them being more audible than others, depending on the instrument and the way it is being played.

From unity may thus arise diversity. From unison, melody. Recalling one of the first performances of Guitar Trio at Max’s Kansas City, Rhys Chatham remembers: “People would come back to the sound board to ask our engineer where we were hiding the singers. The overtones and harmonics we were playing rang out with such clarity that the audiences actually thought they were hearing vocalists.” (1)

Harmonic deployment is the main effect of the use of repetition. It’s not the only one. For Rhys Chatham, repeating the same chord ceaselessly at an obscenely loud volume, with the support of a single drummer who penetrates and structures the general waveform of the sound from the inside, is also a means of creating among his audience – and incidentally, among his musicians – a kind of shamanic state of trance.

The originality of Guitar Trio rests upon the transposition of strictly minimalist principles – repetition, playing with the overtones – into the field of rock, and their subordination to its instrumentation, playing techniques and gesture. Guitar Trio isn’t therefore one of those pieces that only hardened fans of contemporary music can appreciate. It does not rest so much upon a theoretical interrest as it does upon the visceral impact produced by a group of genuine rockers playing very, very loud and very, very fast – the performance ends up with an orgy of tremolos, as well as a certain amount of broken guitar strings…

The impact is all the stronger as Rhys Chatham always works with luminaries of the local rock scene: three quarters of Sonic Youth in Brooklyn, members of Tortoise in Chicago, of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Montreal. The composer could in no way content himself with a musical joke such as the ventures into rock of Tod Machover when he was at IRCAM (Vatican City of contemporary music in France), or even those of Pierre Henry – the model of the genre being the incredible Messe pour le temps présent of 1967. For it is a matter of respect for the genre.

“When I composed Guitar Trio, it was very important for me not to be an “infiltrator” on the rock scene. It’s very easy for a classical composer – Tod Machover, for example – to write a piece for quote and quote rock and to play in in a classical context. It was very important for me that I play this music – that I gave everything to, my background as a classical composer as well as my background as a rock musician – for a rock audiece, in a rock context, with rock musicians.”

Since 1977, Rhys Chatham cheerfully jumped from three guitars to six (Die Donnergötter, 1984-85), and then to 100 (An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, 1989). His work for electric guitars culminated in Paris' butte Montmartre district with the 400 guitars of Crimson Grail, a monumental yet delicate piece commissioned by the City of Paris for the Nuit Blanche 2005 festival, and – almost – performed last August in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors series.

Last year, the composer had a new epiphany. This time, it wasn’t about the punk of The Ramones, but the drone doom metal of Sleep: “Quite recently, I was touring in a bus, and I heard this group called Sleep in an album called Dopesmoker, and it absolutely blew my mind. I said to myself: ‘Why, this is my music!’” As a result, Rhys Chatham went back to essentials – three guitars, bass and drums – and hit the road again with his new group, Essentialist. His project: to break down metal to its basics elements; to reconstruct it; to transcend its primitive signification. To be heard again soon in Europe and America.

Words: Sophie Pécaud, 2007.
Photo: Renaud Certin.

French version available on, a Nantes-based online culture magazine. Link to original article here.

Note :
(1) Rhys Chatham, Composer’s Notebook 1990. Toward A Musical Agenda For The 1990s, Table of the Elements, Atlanta, 1990.

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