Six Organs of Admittance

Text by Mila Zuo
Photograph by Alissa Anderson

­While Ben Chasny may consider himself more of a music fan than a musician, his impact on underground music is undeniable. In this year alone, the busy songwriter tours with psych-prog dragons Comets on Fire, experimental masters Current 93, and Chasny’s most intimate project Six Organs of Admittance.

I met Chasny at a trendy coffeeshop on one of the first warm days of the year. Wincing at the millennial mating rituals and vintage threads that surrounded us, we opted for a more modest cafe. Enveloped in a self-effacing black hoodie, Chasny spoke bashfully and was equally interested in asking questions as he was in answering them.
Thanks to his dad’s vast record collection and heavy tastes, Black Sabbath and Hawkwind provided the soundtrack to Chasny’s boyhood in Eureka, a quaint redwood town in California. A good diet of classic stuff like Neil Young, T. Rex and Van Morrison supplemented Chasny’s musical education, and soon, playing music simply felt natural. While working at various “shitty behind-the-counter” jobs, Chasny decided to record an album, just to “have this mystery item out there.”

The name Six Organs of Admittance – a Buddhist reference – stuck when he read it in a book about Chinese hermits. Chasny used it as his moniker for his eponymous debut, which was distributed in limited release. “I just wanted to contribute to that culture through the mail,” he says. “Back when records used to be mysterious, you could get some really bizarre records.”

Eight years and dozens of collaborations later, Drag City just released Six Organs of Admittance’s eighth full-length album The Sun Awakens in June. While the new album’s sound is more polished than his earlier work, Chasny’s songwriting remains magnificently ephemeral and triumphantly melancholic. His guitar wields infinite power, one minute splitting the air like a Frippian chainsaw, and the next, gently caressing with the soft curves of his signature finger-picking. Influences from the Fahey school abound, but drone-psych references like Skullflower are ever-present in his work, infusing otherwise heartbreaking melody with a healthy dose of moody atmosphere.

Not one to be passively appropriated into a trendy movement, Chasny resists media currents, a passionate aversion which has kept his music avant and interesting. “What I do is not directly affected by the way that [journalists] think, but I am aware of the way that the media thinks and sometimes I am reactionary to it. But that’s probably my biggest fault,” which sometimes leads to a subversive recording process. “Oh, you thought that the last record was nice and pretty,” he says to an imaginary detractor. “Well, here you go fuckers. You know, I’m going to give you a 20-minute-long song. There, take that.” The 20-minute-long here-you-go-fuckers track on the latest album is certainly “River of Transformation,” a dark odyssey of sound and voluminous cave space that could easily be paired with harrowing Japanese New Wave imagery a la Double Suicide. In a moment of self-reflection, Chasny adds, “So that’s probably one of my biggest faults is that I’m aware and I’m always trying to wiggle out of the way of whatever anyone thinks is happening.”

As for wiggle-room, “usually what I do is just set up a recording time and in that time, I start writing a few weeks before and it’s just a snapshot of what I’m thinking at that time.” But he prefers not to literalize his snapshot of thoughts; instead, Chasney’s lyrics paint abstract visions of apocalypse, redemption and sentiment. “There are certain things that I would never write lyrically so that it was very obvious what I was talking about. Like I probably wouldn’t sing a direct song about, ‘Oh, you broke up with me baby,’ although I’ve come close in certain songs. Or about my parents – I would never write about them. But it all goes through the filter.” While many find a spiritual undercurrent in the transcendent sound of Six Organs, Chasny is skeptical about New Age ideology, saying it’s “like making a potato chip out of a potato.”

Chasny’s live performances have been described as intensely personal, as though he imparts a cryptic message from his soul onto the audience. When asked to describe his own performance, Chasny referred again to his reactionary tendencies. “My biggest fault as a musician and a performer has been to be reactionary against stuff, and it’s ruined a lot of shows,” he admits. “I’m never really aware of everybody at once, but sometimes there will be one person and I’ll be really aware that they’re there, whether it’s someone I really admire or someone I totally hate.
“But I generally don’t like to look at the audience or know they’re there. I’m still really, really shy.” But being really shy doesn’t hold Chasny back from allowing the audience to feel intimate with him or his music, whether that may involve turning his amp up to ten and creating tons of feedback or “punch[ing] somebody in the face,” he jokes.
Humble about where he’s been and noncommittal about where he’s going, hopefully Chasny will continue to create innovative music. But who knows, the Voltarian music man says he would be perfectly happy tending to his Zen garden, or being “a rally race car driver, professional chef, archeologist, and a bunch of other things.”