Friends Among Destruction

Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny says he's not a good songwriter; we respectfully disagree

To prepare for my conversation with Ben Chasny, the mastermind behind experimental folk/rock project Six Organs of Admittance, my plan was to listen closely to Shelter From the Ash (Drag City, 2007), his most recent record, and keep track of all the strange sounds I heard so I could ask Chasny how he created them.

Six Organs of Admittance records are usually filled with fascinating combinations of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as strange sounds and textures, and I thought that talking about how the sounds were created would provide a good explanation of how original and complex Six Organs of Admittance's music is. But after the second song, I forgot my initial plan and became completely absorbed in the music.

So it surprised me when Chasny told me that he doesn't consider himself to be a very good songwriter.

"I like songs--I listen to Kris Kristofferson, and Townes Van Zandt is one of my favorite musicians," said Chasny.

If you're defining a song as something with a clever, concise, Kris Kristofferson-style narrative and that good ol' verse-chorus-verse structure, then Chasny is right--he's not very good at that traditional kind of songwriting. But if you're defining a song as a stretch of music that can create its own world with words and instruments, then Chasny may be one of the best.

Chasny's songs may defy traditional structures, but they bring in recognizable influences: Leo Kottke-style acoustic guitar techniques, Zen-like meditations of sustained chords and notes, improvisational jazz percussion and tripped-out guitar solos. The result is music that riffs on a certain emotional timbre or tone for a few minutes, builds it up, spins it around, breaks it apart, puts it back together and then brings it down--the essence of a song.

For Shelter From the Ash, Chasny's fourth album for Drag City (but his ninth full-length release under the moniker Six Organs of Admittance), the idea was to strip things down. "I always wanted it to be more concise," Chasny said of his music. "To me, that was experimentation. To realize, whoa, there are three chords in that song--that's totally new for me."

"Strangled Road," the second song on Shelter From the Ash, has a chorus composed of just three chords strummed on an acoustic guitar as Chasny and vocalist/guitarist Elisa Ambrogio (also of Magik Markers) harmonize. But the rest of the song has Chasny finding every note within those chords and stretching them out to their fullest melodic potential. Likewise, "Coming to Get You" begins with a straightforward electric guitar melody that turns into a one-chord rock riff that stays in the background as more guitars--acoustic and electric both--build up around it. The drums don't come in until about minute four, and when they do, the song only gets scarier.

The intro guitar work on "Goddess Atonement" is awe-inspiring, and the wall of noise on the title track manages to sound both electrified and raw at the same time. Chasny may be making things more concise and straightforward--he's using standard tuning, and not a single song breaks the nine-minute mark (listen to the 24-minute-long "River of Transfiguration" on 2006's The Sun Awakens for comparison)--but nothing on Shelter From the Ash is simplistic.

Part of what makes Shelter From the Ash sound deceptively sparse is the natural give-and-take of the musicians who contributed to the album, all of whom are close friends and neighbors of Chasny's. There is a familial, close and comforting feeling, even in songs where the lyrics are dark and ominous. The album title evokes this same kind of comfort amid destruction--to take shelter from ash is to get away from it, to find somewhere safe. Living in San Francisco, Chasny said, may have had something to do with that idea: Always having the prospect of an earthquake in the back of your mind forces you to be prepared, yet you go on with your life. There's a certain comfort in knowing what you'd do and where you'd go.

"You have to get ready for shit when it comes down," said Chasny. "No matter where you are, you have a sense of impending doom."

But the impending doom on Shelter From the Ash seems more thunderstorm-like than apocalyptic. It's the kind of doom that seems natural, the kind of doom that inspires good songs.

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