Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny Talks Tonal Fields and His New Album, 'Hexadic'
The psychedelic explorer gets technical on his latest opus.
All photos courtesy of Drag City
Ben Chasny, founder and sole continuing member of modern psychedelic legends Six Organs of Admittance, never puts on the same show twice. His performances range from five-person complete percussion heavy freakouts to solo, spare performances. It’s the same on the recorded front, covering a range from delicate acoustic constructions to electric-heavy riff monsters, not to mention his wide range of collaborations.
The electric extreme is in evidence throughout his newest album, and first in a few years under the Six Organs name, Hexadic. Taking sonic cues in part from Japanese legends like High Rise in terms of wailing, crushing feedback extremity in a power-trio setting, Hexadic also debuts a self-devised musical system of that name invented by Chasny, centered around six ‘tonal fields,’ to use his own terminology, as a basis for songwriting and creation. Interviewed in mid-January while preparing to tour for Hexadic, Chasny was in his enthusiastic and thoughtful element, down to a digression about Frank Herbert’s Dune books that would be a story in its own right.
Noisey: The thing that most strikes me about the album is, it's incredibly accessible. Have you been getting that type of reaction from people?
Ben Chasny: It's been pretty limited for me; it's not really out for many people. It seems like it's a bit varied in the response. When you talk about systems and those sort of things, you tend to think of something a little more oblique or whatever. But what happened with these songs on this record, I did a lot of different compositions and these are the ones that I picked out for the record because of their immediacy, because they lent themselves toward more of a rock 'n' roll format. So there was a conscious decision with using those pieces.
Has there ever been anything in the past that you've done as straight up as Six Organs that has had so formal a means of creation?
Well, I think that perhaps there were formal constraints but they weren't as conscious. There's always the constraint of tuning, things like that, and there's always the constraint of whatever particular genre you're working in at the time. In that way, I think those things lend themselves toward almost a false notion of freedom, when you actually have these very heavy constraints on the work that you're doing.
The relative brevity of the album’s pieces struck me since there could be a perception that if a formal system is applied, you can't demonstrate it in the course of something two or three minutes.
I think that the way it works is that it's almost more accurate to call it a method than a system. because it's very open and you can change it around and you can move it. It's malleable, and that's what I did; I changed things around and moved them. But at the same time, the particular ways in which I worked some of the methods of this system created music that existed immediately as a plateau. There was no building, and there's no ascension or descension as far as tension or things that you normally hear in a rock song. It really presents a plateau that you can work with dynamics within to carve out something, but the actual progressions themselves are just—you're in them and you're out of them. So. the lengths aren't totally arbitrary as far as how long each song goes for, but some of them you can kind of get the picture sooner.
Based on some comments I’ve seen from you elsewhere, I got a feeling that the system has a sense of applicability across different media. Is this an accurate perception?
It basically centers around the way different segments of information can interact with each other, in terms of one of the main methods of composition. The main method of composition that I use, which I call the Hexadic figure, it's basically just thirty-six different pieces of information that interact with each other in different ways. I align those pieces of information to notes within three octaves, so you have thirty-six notes. But you could align those to colors. And also by aligning notes to letters and the number one through ten, that's where you can start developing language that also corresponds to those pieces of information. Generally, I did it for music, but somebody could use it for something else if they wanted to.
What's the story behind the cover art?
I drew that. It's basically a diagram of a Hexadic figure, which is the way that most of the record was composed. So it's sort of a code, in a way—if you look at it, that's the figure that you use and the way in which the cards and the figure interact with each other. It's actually a blueprint for the system, for the record, that's just right on the front cover.
Is there ever a thought where you'd want to do a Six Organs album without a guitar of any sort, just to see what would happen?
I think about it all the time. That's one of the reasons why I try to keep Six Organs more of an expansive universe than just solely focused on guitar, because if that ever happens, I don't want the transition to be that jarring. I want it to be able to work within the world. I actually had a tendonitis scare last month and I thought, "Oh my god, is this it? Is this going to be—do I have carpal tunnel or something? What am I going to do?" Yeah, I think about it on a pessimistic level—what if I just lose my hands? How will I create? Will I still be able to create with Six Organs? But even if a drastic accident does not happen, then still perhaps I think it is conceivable that there would be a Six Organs record that would happen without the guitar. I mean, there have been some records that definitely weren't as guitar-heavy. Luminous Night I feel like was not very guitar-heavy; it was very production-heavy, with Eyvind Kang on violin. So it's definitely conceivable.
Hexadic is out 2/17 via Drag City Records.
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