Ben Chasny Can’t Shake His Golden State Roots

But he’s still happy to call Seattle home.

Ben Chasny is thrilled about the artwork for his new album. Over beers and whiskey at Ballard's Viking Tavern, his boyish face beams as he thumbs through the CD booklet for RTZ, his latest solo album, released last week under his familiar moniker Six Organs of Admittance. The inside artwork—a collage by Ballard resident Steve Quenell, whom Chasny has known since high school—is an arrangement of spirit animals, tree roots, cross-legged shamans, and other emblems of earthy mysticism. The LP version, Chasny says, spreads out as a trifold; the effect is like watching a spiritual ascension unfold.Given his history as a sort of psychedelic savant, none of that should be surprising. Chasny, who relocated to Seattle from the Bay Area last September, was freak folk before it was a term. In addition to playing unhinged psych-guitar for Comets on Fire, the 34-year-old has released 10 proper albums as Six Organs, all of which run the gamut from Japanese folk, Middle Eastern drones, British folk guitar, and West Coast naturalism to the spiritual avant-jazz of the '70s. Though his music is informed by these sounds, he doesn't follow or buck trends; he's a rare genuine specimen in a market choked with one-dimensional sponges.RTZ is an archival collection, pulling together five lengthy tracks that were previously released in limited quantities. In that sense, the new album compiling these songs allows listeners to reflect on the past decade, during which Chasny became one of the most solid and universally admired folk musicians of our time.RTZ stands for "return to zero"—a function on Tascam four-track recorders. To Chasny, this is musician-speak for "back to beginnings," which for him means Eureka, Calif., where he first developed the Six Organs sound.Chasny's Northern California upbringing feeds into his music through an eerie naturalism saturating every note. Acoustic guitars hum and chimes clang—the kind of music associated with peyote visions and deep meditation. Listen to 1999's Dust & Chimes or 2002's Dark Noontide and you'd think Six Organs was the music of some young monk whose only companions were guitars, notebooks, and poetry.Chasny laughs at this notion. "I was born in Los Angeles. My dad was drafted into the service, and when he came back from Vietnam he was basically like, 'Fuck this, fuck society, fuck everything,' and moved us up to the country...which is why I have no social skills whatsoever, because I grew up like a wolf-child by myself in Eureka!" he says. "Thanks, Dad!"Though he spent his teenage years in punk bands around Eureka, Chasny's musical identity was formed by the Forced Exposure mail-order catalog and his father's record collection. "I remember my dad sitting me down one day and putting on a Nick Drake record, and being like, 'OK, now you're going to listen to this.'" The Forced Exposure catalog turned Chasny on to groups like the Sun City Girls and fellow freak-out bands, but his father's Nick Drake lesson was proof that acoustic music could pack an emotionally devastating punch. He eventually discovered how to incorporate both into his repertoire.Chasny began teaching himself guitar at 18. He turned hermetic and devoted himself to the instrument. "I didn't see him much until he resurfaced and started frequenting the Mexican restaurant I worked at," says Quenell of the five years Chasny spent practicing. By the time he released Six Organs' debut,his style was fully formed. The music was out of step with everything but the rotation of the earth. Built of chimes, acoustic guitar, bells, and organic drones, it was brooding and pensive. The album's back cover featured a moody black-and-white photo of the Northern California woods. And, like a monk in a sumi-e brush painting, there's Chasny, in the bottom-left corner of the photo, practically eclipsed by his natural surroundings.The Zen-monk business, he admits, added allure. But it was also bullshit. "People like mystery," he says. "And I knew what I was bringing on to myself." As his notoriety grew, he dispelled myths about his spirituality in interviews.But one wouldn't make spiritual assumptions if he played angular post-punk or watery electronica. Fact is, Buddhist or not, Six Organs' compositions can be described as "heart music"—sublime, mystical, contemplative. Even as his albums became more song-oriented (2005's School of the Flower) or electric guitar–based (2007's Shelter From the Ash), they maintained a meditative quality, easing listeners into states of self-reflection.What makes Six Organs' music all the more intriguing is that it is made by a thinker. Aside from being well-spoken and culturally aware, Chasny name-drops bands with the ease of a Wall of Sound clerk. Drawing on a world of influences suits him well, but doesn't corrupt the singularity of his music. No matter whether he's dabbling in Alice Coltrane–esque temple jazz ("Eighth Cognition") or doomy mudslides of drone ("River of Transfiguration"), he always manages to sound like Six Organs of Admittance."It boils down to his genuineness as an artist and a person," says Quenell. "With Ben, there's no separation [between the two]."To Chasny, his consistency is a sign that he needs to practice guitar and learn something new, which he has started doing since moving to Seattle (if partially to cope with the gloomy winter). "I haven't practiced guitar for about 10 years," he says. Lately, though, he's been studying Leo Kottke songs, learning to play licks at faster speeds, as well as writing material for his next album, for which he's enlisted Randall Dunn as producer. The two will hole up next month to begin recording at Aleph, Dunn's West Seattle studio, where he also recorded doom-metal legends Earth and their progeny, Sunn O))).It's hard to say how, or even if, revisiting the past with RTZ will affect future Six Organs recordings, since Chasny's approach has always been nonlinear. For those seeking folk structure, RTZ may test attention spans—it isn't for the Twitter generation. "You Can Always See the Sun," from 2002, begins with a torrent of wonky guitar plucking that sounds like a Southeast Asian ceremony interpreted by Appalachian banjoist Roscoe Holcomb. On "Warm Earth, Which I've Been Told," from 2003, wordless lyrics make for one of Chasny's most arresting vocal performances. On "Resurrection," from 2000, he repeats "Everything has burned/Everything is resurrected" in a vocal style that sounds like T. Rex whispering a mantra in an Indonesian temple. Here, lyrics and melodies are fox-like; when the elusive riffs emerge from the drone, they echo traces of the melodies on his proper albums, like a glimpse into his subconscious songwriting process.So where to next? Given that artist and producer are both fans of Turkish culture and music, it's possible the record could contain flavors of Istanbul. Chasny is understandably reluctant to reveal details, but not because of an inflated sense of self-importance. Instead, he knows the answer is more obvious than most people realize."With each record," he says, "I get into the studio and I always say, 'Oh, this one's gonna be my metal record,' or 'This one's gonna sound like Alice Coltrane.' But in the end, I'm always like, 'Eh, just sounds like Six Organs.'"And when has that ever been a bad thing?music@seattleweekly.com

 
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