There is nothing new, weird, or American about the Dead C's Harsh '70s Reality. Released in 1992, it's too old for the first qualifier. Its feedback-drenched noise abstractions—spotted occasionally with unmusical deadpan vocals—render it too genuinely surreal to share an adjective with Al Yankovic. And the band comes from New Zealand, so it ain't American. Nonetheless, the album is one of three that Ben Chasny—who, as Six Organs of Admittance, has been filed under the recently coined indie-rock subgenre "New Weird America"—cites as an impetus for beginning his one-man-band project some five years ago.
Even if we use inspiration as a starting point and not a piece of tracing paper, you are what you eat, whether you're sitting down for dinner or devouring art, and it's interesting to note that a folk fingerpicker from Eureka, Calif., takes his lead from some down-under post-rock undergrounders. A rose by any other name would still sound like an awesomely unschooled blues guy covering the pants off of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." You don't have to buy into music magazine classification systems to get off on what Chasny does. What makes Chasny and his ilk so good is that their America is the same as it ever was.
"I think you can definitely draw a line between Vietnam and Bob Dylan and Joanna," says Chasny about his peer Joanna Newsom, the harp-playing singer-songwriter whose lovely, recent Milk-Eyed Mender made her the folk fairy du jour. While Chasny, Newsom, and folks like Devendra Banhart and the band Sunburned Hand of the Man aren't asking the lyrical question, "Where have all the flowers gone?" there is a palpable spirit of '60s politics in their ethos—and that doesn't necessarily make things any easier for them.
"IT'S NOT JUST WHAT you say but how it's heard," says Chasny, sidestepping just slightly when I ask if he feels that his music is politically inclined. "You don't want to always have to consider what people think of you, but if you want them to hear what you're saying, it's important to be aware of how you're being perceived."
And Chasny and his coterie are, for the most part, perceived as hippies. Admittedly, it's difficult to listen to any of these guys without craving some really good homemade bread, and not a few of them sport unkempt facial hair and unsocked feet. But as Chasny points out, hippies have long been portrayed as dippy stoners who can't complete a sentence, so any sort of "message" from any sort of "hippie" is likely going to be taken in kind. Better, he says, to let the medium be the message.
Chasny's most recent CD—which is actually a reissue; the original manifestation of The Manifestation was a limited pressing of 500 clear vinyl 12-inches featuring only an etching of the sun on side B—seems to carry this message: The melting pot has reached your Discman. Released by the Portland label Strange Attractors, The Manifestation is a psychedelic blur of antique acoustic styles, visceral hand percussion, and far-out space jams. To really blow your mind, Chasny also recorded the noise of his record player's needle navigating the original B-side etching, which was never really meant to be played. Remarkably, the interplanetary cracks and pops of the recording evoke nothing so much as old 78s. The "songs," though nonlinear and experimental, sound almost familiar. This is Chasny's dispatch: In his universe, there is no old, there is no new, and there really are no borders.
If you still want to believe that Chasny is a new, weird American, I've got a Comets on Fire album you should hear. On their new Sub Pop release, that's our fingerpicker on second guitar—plugged in and blazing through breakneck rock riffs designed to make Iron Butterfly and Motörhead sound like a bunch of ninnies. Not convinced yet? Flush that acid you've been saving down the toilet and catch the Japanese act that Chasny's currently opening for. He credits Ghost, whose latest, Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City), qualifies for its own class of hallucinogens, with showing him that you could pair "guitar freak-outs with Leonard Cohen."
A regular old newfangled "weirdo" would have just blamed Led Zeppelin.
Six Organs of Admittance, White Magic, and Ghost play Chop Suey at 9 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 30. $10.