The Agony and Empathy of Pharmakon
Over coffee on a chilly Queens afternoon, the composer explains how panic attacks and a cruel world informed her new album, 'Contact.'
Photo by Caroline Schub
Margaret Chardiet is just starting to describe the recording process of her new album when she's interrupted by the roar of aftermarket engine parts from a dark sedan that squeals past us outside a coffee shop and bookstore in Ridgewood, Queens. Its occupants let out a shriek that sounds like the gleeful, taunting laughter of a cartoon witch. Chardiet seems amused, and briefly abandons her train of thought. "Those were some banshee cackles," she observes. "That's a good omen."
For Chardiet, the cacophony is relevant. 2017 marks ten years of her making screeching industrial music under the moniker of Pharmakon. Her efforts have taken many forms over that decade, but the project's long been defined by a loop-based approach. She takes clipped vocals, hair-raising snippets of feedback, and the odd piece of rattling sheet metal and draws them into dangerously swirling, stomach-turning masses.
Live, Chardiet storms into the crowd, stalks audience members, and screams into their faces. Her performances are deliberately confrontational, and she relishes the occasions when audiences confront her back, challenging her ideas and pushing her to get better. "I want to engage with people in that way," she says, with some hesitation. "But I don't want that to be some open call to come and punish me after shows or punch me in the face while I'm playing...which has happened before." She proffers a broken front tooth as evidence. On the right side of her well-worn black leather jacket, she wears a pin that offers an unwitting mission statement for her project: "Noise hurts."
Many musicians approach sound similarly, but over the latter half of her decade in action, Chardiet's compositions have become more psyche-shattering than just about anyone else's in the noise world. Across a trio of records for Brooklyn label Sacred Bones—2013's Abandon, 2014's Bestial Burden, and Contact, released on March 31—she's used scrapes of static to confront the existential anxieties that linger in the background behind our day-to-day concerns, the questions that keep her up at night. Who am I? What is my relationship to this body I'm in? What is my role in society? What does it mean to transcend all of this? Some of that interrogation happens in her lyrics—most of which end up garbled by distortion and the belt-sander quality of her screaming—but there's something about noise as a vessel for these ideas that just feels right.
"I remember sitting [in a planetarium], having a horrible existential crisis, facing for the first time as a child that I was going to die."—Pharmakon
In the same way that a near-death experience can lend you a sort of psychic clarity, the brick-wall sonics of Chardiet's records can make you more open to probing these enigmas. Never has that been more apparent than on Contact, which she says was in part a response to the complicated mind-body questions she started mulling on Bestial Burden. That record—recorded in the aftermath of a surgery—mused on the impermanence and fragility of the human body, but this one considers the flipside: the ways in which we're able to move outside of our physical forms. Physically and emotionally draining though it may be, it seems that noise can sorta be healing, too.
It always has been for Chardiet at least. The 26-year-old composer was born in New York to two parents that she describes as "punk," and who exposed her to weird art and heavy music like Cro-Mags from an early age. "My dad's side of the family is all artists and maniacs," she explains. "Brilliant but conflicted individuals."
Around the same time that Chardiet was getting exposed to punk, she started grappling with the questions that still stalk her this day. After a sip from her coffee mug, she recalls how she suffered her first panic attack on an early elementary school field trip to a planetarium. "I think [a show] was possibly narrated by Whoopi Goldberg," she says "She was talking and I remember sitting there having a horrible existential crisis, facing for the first time as a child that I was going to die. And also realizing that humanity is so young in the universe—that we're just going to be like a little blip in something that was before us, and that will continue after us. I will never forget that."
The feelings she turned over that day never really subsided. Since then, she's periodically confronted what she described in a recent interview with The Quietus as "death attacks"—the crushing and present realization that this all ends, for all of us. These feelings, she says, were part of what first drew her to noise as a kid. When she was 16, in 2007, her sister's boyfriend gave her a mix of "the most extreme versions of noise." Some of the acts had such upsetting subject matter that she hesitates to repeat their names now, but nevertheless, she was hooked. "[My sister's boyfriend] was like, 'You're miserable. You're a freak. You might like this kind of music," she says. "I was like a fly to shit."
Almost immediately, she found a haven of sorts in the Hospital Productions store, a since-shuttered specialty shop in the basement of a reggae store in the East Village. The place was run by Dominick Fernow, who still runs the Hospital Productions label and, most infamously, performs his own brand of oozy, unsettling music as Prurient. Over the course of her trips to the shop, the pair struck up a friendship. "She showed a keen interest in the history of noise and industrial music, but never got bogged down in nostalgia and retro obsession," Fernow told THUMP in an email. She delivered a spoken word bit on a 2007 Prurient 7-inch called "Worm in the Apple"—billed then as "Miss Chardiet"—and soon took to making her own attempts at the music she was devouring.
She started toying around with borrowed a microphone, cymbal, and distortion pedal, attempting to make what she describes as "sheet metal noise" ("That didn't go so well," she says, dryly.) Soon after, while living with her dad in Far Rockaway—a Queens neighborhood at the far end of the A train now most famous as New York's surfer refuge—she began recording her debut EP as Pharmakon with a friend. As much as noise suited her disposition as a misfit kid, she says it took her a while to get comfortable with the idea of performing music herself. "I was really, really nervous about [recording] the vocals, so I made [my friend] leave the house and walk down the street," she says. "He said he could hear it from down the block."
It'd take another year before she was playing live or sharing the music with people she didn't already know, but once she did, she immediately found her scene. "People were very supportive," she says. "Noise is punk in the sense that it always [welcomes] the freaks that don't fit in in other places—people whose personalities or ideas are just too far out of the scope of social norms to exist in other social spaces."
Her output was initially explosive. She released a flurry of splits, tapes, and live recordings—each of which, if you listen back, demonstrates her knack for conveying existential terror in blasts of feedback. But it wasn't until 2013—when she signed with Sacred Bones—that she attempted to distill those sounds into an LP-length statement. Abandon—a steel-wool-scoured collection of surreal synth work and pained screams encased in artwork that depicted her covered in maggots—vaulted her out of New York's noise underground. Mainstream publications and fans who otherwise didn't pay much attention to noise gravitated toward the composerly qualities of her music.
Chardiet says that both that record and Bestial Burden were essentially studio-recorded documents of the live shows she was playing at the time, but they're nevertheless structured immaculately. Like the best musicians in this realm, she understands that rests for breath can be just as unsettling as the outright assaults, and choreographs those moments in a dangerous sort of ballet: pause, pounce, repeat. "She pays careful attention to the album format," Fernow says. "That separates her from the pseudo-culture of "jam dudes" that continues to plague noise."
Modeled after her fascination with trance states, each side of Contact of is structured after the four stages of trance: preparation, onset, climax, and resolution. When it ends, the cycle begins again, making the record itself its own unsettling loop. Per Chardiet, the record centers on the idea that as we go through our day-to-day lives, we humans have a tendency to act selfishly. Or, as she put it in an artist's statement—"Snarling and clawing over each other we aim to reach a higher ground to claim as our own. There are those who will attempt to exert power over others to attain it."
She says wasn't envisioning our current political state when she recorded the album a couple of months before last year's election—though she does laugh and suggest that she might have been tapping into some "Jungian collective unconscious." Still, something about the picture it paints of the world feels appropriately apocalyptic. On album opener "Nakedness of Need," she screams about a "deep, serrated nausea" inherent to humanity over distorted synthetics, bombed out percussive thuds, and a particularly pukey drone that sounds something like the flutter of hummingbird wings, amplified to a painful extreme. The peaks—like the nail-gun-through-a-chalkboard opening of "Transmission"—almost feel cathartic in their hideousness.
It doesn't feel like there's a lot of room for hope on Contact—not in the vacant clangs of its sonics, certainly, and not in its lyrics, which seem to reflect humanity's worst qualities: emptiness, enmity, greed. But in the final moments of the record, Chardiet offers something of a solution in the form of a scream: "Empathy, untamed."
As a chill comes over the fenced-in patio where we're sitting, she explains that relating to people—expressing and sharing difficult experiences and ideas—is one of the ways we can push on in a world as harsh and upsetting as the one in which we live. She describes such moments with nothing short of awe.
"Empathy is when part of someone else's sentience is understood and absorbed into our own vessel," she says, eyes-widening. "Our minds, our feelings, our thoughts are given home in another body." She says its why she does what she does, touring the world, presenting confrontational ideas to strangers night after night. "It's always about contact."