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A Pharmakon for Our Sins

In Ancient Greece, the "pharmakos" was known as a sorcerer, magician or poisoner, and the "pharmakon," his remedying poison. Both the music and performances of Margaret Chardiet live up to the name.
September 11, 2013, 5:45pm

A really long time ago in Greece, when a community fell on hard times, they would band together and take it out on a poor bastard known as the "pharmakos." Through a ritual of abuse and condemnation, society's suffering could be transferred onto such a scapegoat, and by eventually casting him out, their suffering would vanish with him. Pharmakos was the solution to society's ills—a purifier by way of debasement.

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It was quite a process. Hipponax, a poet from the 6th Century, authored some of the most well-known descriptions of the pharmakos ritual. He also was known to be kind of a dick and a misogynist, boldly dropping lines like "Two days are sweetest for a woman; the day a man marries her and the day he carries her out dead." His questionable wit aside, Hipponax offered some colorful accounts of the scapegoat ritual and the character of pharmakos. There is some scholarly debate as to whether or not these texts can be attributed precisely to his description of the pharmakos ritual, but for the moment, let's side with those who say they do.

These translations of Hipponax collected by Todd Compton are a pretty perfect segue to the music of Margaret Chardiet, AKA Pharmakon:

"Must cleanse the city, and with twigs pelted.
Pelting him in the meadow and beating with
Twigs and squills like a scapegoat (pharmakon).
He must be chosen from among you [ekpoiēsasthai] as a scapegoat.
And in his grip take barley-cakes, dried figs
And cheese, such cheese as scapegoats may feed on…
That he be parched with famine and, led out
A scapegoat, seven times on his piece beaten.

Compton offers another quote, this time describing what could be assumed to be the pharmakos ritual in the city of Abdera on the Thracian coast…

"…let 'well‑meaning'
top‑knot Thracians
seize his naked body (he can get his fill of evil
eating slavish bread)
rigid from cold!
Let seaweed
rise from scum and bind him!
Let him grind his teeth, lying
spent and muzzle down,
dog‑fashion in the surf . . . !

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In all his elaborate and transformative forms of self-sacrifice, the pharmakos was known as a sorcerer, magician or poisoner, and the pharmakon, his remedying poison. Both the music and performances of Margaret Chardiet live up to the name. Hipponax would be moved.

Earlier this month I saw her perform on a rainy Friday to a packed and humid 285 Kent. She killed it, a lot like this:

I spoke with Margaret recently about her early musical years in NYC, life in the Rockaways in the noise house known as the Red Light District, and the roots of her vesuvian power vocals.

When did Pharmakon properly begin, as far as playing shows and recording goes, and what were you doing musically before then?
My first recording was a self-titled EP that I recorded and self-released on CD-r in 2007. The first "proper" Pharmakon set was in 2008. Prior to discovering noise, I played guitar alone in my room.

What was the music scene you were exposed to like growing up in NYC?
I grew up going to punk shows in DIY venues like C Squat and ABC No Rio and apartment/house shows. There was a show to see every week, and something for everyone. To this day, I've never been to a stadium or "major" concert, so I grew up with this concept that if you had a vision, you just had to find your own way to do it.

What bands or records first turned you on to noise music?
I dove straight in to the more extreme side of things, sonically and content-wise, because it was the most exciting/new, and furthest from anything I had heard before. So bands like Whitehouse, Macronympha, Anenzephalia, Con-Dom, Atrax Morgue, and Haus Arafna.

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Did you have an "I like the Beatles and Nirvana" stage or was it straight to more experimental music?
I grew up listening to 70s punk rock (The Stooges, The Dead Boys, Johnny Thunders et cetera), but as I struck out on my own and started buying my own records, I definitely listened to a lot of Nirvana and some embarrassing 90s street punk bands… but I got into noise music at 16 years old, when I was first really coming into my own, so it was pretty much straight to experimental.

You were one of the founders of [DIY space] The Red Light District, which seems to have informed your music and general ethos. Who would you say were the original or core bands/musicians to come out of The Red Light District and how did you all originally meet?
Halflings, Yellow Tears, Cathode Terror Secretion, Diaphragm, and I were the core/original bands of the RLD, but we had many other projects, like Throat, Teeny Bopper, Hollow Seed, Tension Fields, and tons more. There were seven people who among us had/have at least 15 bands. The rest of the crew grew up on Long Island and knew each other either from the LI punk scene or from college and got into noise music together for the most part. I discovered it separately and met them from going to noise shows in NYC. When they all graduated, we decided we wanted to have a house where we could live together, practice together, and host shows.

How has the noise scene changed since then?
From about 2006 to 2008, there was a really active noise scene in NYC. There were plenty of all-experimental shows; there was No Fun Fest, Hospital Productions record store, and plenty of new and active bands/projects. It died down sometime after that, with less bands, less shows, no record store, and no fest. But the American/national scene was still thriving, and so we had plenty of shows at RLD from our friends' touring bands and all of our projects, which were still very active. More and more people came to our shows, probably because it was one of the only places to see that kind of thing. A community built around it, not only locally, but regionally, too. Now RLD is inactive for the time being, and the rest of the NY noise scene is still in a lull. So there's not a ton going on locally, but the national and international noise/industrial community is still thriving.

Photo by Jane Chardiet

In the early days of noise music, it wasn't that separate from the experimental rock and punk scene, and people with a generally similar mindset stuck together, from The Haters to Merzbow to M.B. et cetera. Do you feel like that melding of scenes exists today, or are things more strictly defined?
At least in NYC, it seems like things are less compartmentalized recently. You'll find a hardcore band, a black metal band, and a death rock band on the same gig, and noise bands playing on a bill with punk bands. I like the idea of people whose musical crossover has more to do with ideas, mindset, personal connection, and quality than strictly defined genre norms. I'd rather see a scene built around music that is good/interesting, and people that are good/interesting, than around music that all sounds the same.

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Your new record, Abandon, recently came out on Sacred Bones. What is your writing and recording process like?
For Abandon, I recorded in a studio for the first time. It was amazing, because I was able to focus entirely on playing the music and getting the best performance, rather than the technical/logistic portions of recording. My pieces are always composed, practiced, and typically played live before they are recorded. I don't "jam" or record improvisations.

Are there any songwriters you like, and do you think of song structure at all when you're making your compositions?
A musical composition is a structure of sounds, so yes, I think of song structure when I write my compositions, but I'm not thinking in the pop standard of verses, choruses, and bridges, nor in the terms of music theory like classical music. It is a more organic, gut-based form of composition, creating an arc or movement that best expresses the ideas, carries the mood and sounds.

What are your influences as a singer?
I don't like the term influences, because when I use my voice, I am not trying to imitate anyone else, and don't want to compare myself with others. The voice is such a personal and intimate instrument. It is the outward projection and extension of the self, the most individualistic sound. That being said, I admire artists who utilize their voices in powerful and experimental/strange ways like Diamanda Galas. Some of my favorite voices have nothing to do with what I do musically, like Klaus Nomi, Roy Orbison and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

Pharmakon's fall tour kicks off tonight at Mercury Lounge. Tour dates below:

Sep 11, 2013: New York, NY, Mercury Lounge (w/ Destruction Unit, Ukiah Drag)
Sep 13, 2013: Hudson, NY, Basilica Soundscape (w/ Evian Christ, Pig Destroyer)
Sep 24, 2013: San Diego, CA, The Void
Sep 26, 2013: Los Angeles, CA, Dilettante
Sep 27, 2013: San Francisco, CA, Elbo Room
Sep 28, 2013: Seattle, WA, Decibel Festival
Sep 29, 2013: Vancouver, BC, Electric Owl
Oct 19, 2013: Krakow, Poland, Unsound Festival
Oct 20, 2013: Porto, Portugal, Amplifest
Oct 22, 2013: Lisbon, Portugal, ZDB
Oct 24, 2013: Brussels, Belgium, AB
Oct 25, 2013: Paris, France, Le Trabendo
Oct 26, 2013: Graz, Austria, Elevate Festival
Oct 30, 2013: Amsterdam, Netherlands, OT301
Oct 31, 2013: Tilburg, Netherlands, Incubate Special
Nov 2, 2013: Stockholm, Sweden, RBMA Weekender Festival
Nov 3, 2013: Copenhagen, Denmark, CPH: DOX Festival
Nov 5, 2013: Copenhagen, Denmark, Mayhem
Nov 6, 2013: Hamburg, Germany, Hafenklang
Nov 7, 2013: Strasbourg, France, Museum of Contemporary Art
Nov 8, 2013: Lausanne, Switzerland, Luff Festival Closing Party
Nov 9, 2013: Ravenna, Italy, Bronson
Nov 12, 2013: Milan, Italy, Rocket
Nov 13, 2013: Padova, Italy, (w/ Lust For Youth, Destruction Unit)
Nov 14, 2013: Madrid, Spain, The Space Cadet
Nov 15, 2013: Barcelona, Spain, Mira Festival
Nov 18, 2013: London, UK, ATP Secret Location
Nov 19, 2013: Manchester, UK, Islington Mill
Nov 20, 2013: Bristol, UK, The Old Coroners Court & Morgue
Nov 21, 2013: London, UK, Brixton Academy
Nov 24, 2013: Camber Sands, UK, ATP Festival
Nov 26, 2013: Moscow, Russia, 16 Tons
Nov 27, 2013: St Petersberg, Russia, Secret Location
Nov 28, 2013: Helsinki, Finland, Aaniwalli
Nov 29, 2013: Berlin, Germany, Berghain
Nov 30, 2013: Utrecht, Netherlands, Le Guess Who Festival
Dec 1, 2013: Kortrijk, Belgium, Sonic City Festival
Dec 7, 2013: Madeira, Portugal, MadeiraDig Festival