- Ben Chasny hasn't lost his mind, just the hook that holds his head up.
But at that point, it was an unexpected career move: Chicago's Drag City Records had just released his School of the Flower, Chasny's most accessible album to date, marrying his elegant acoustic understatement to hyperbolic electric revelry. It exposed Chasny to new audiences, and this follow-up, also set for Drag City release, had the potential to tap the main vein of indie-rock popularity. But like Chasny's entire career, the new disc, The Sun Awakens, was about creative and collaborative -- not commercial -- exploration.
"I am aware that people will think things will be a certain way on each record, and I try not to give them that," says Chasny from his home in San Francisco. "There are a lot of people who don't like that song. I'm just like, 'Well, cool, man. Don't listen to it.' I did it because I knew someone would like it. I like it."
Weeks into the recording, Chasny decided to cut the drone, named "River of Transfiguration, " in half, opting instead to put six songs he had just written on side A while reserving the last 24 minutes for the monolith. Like School of the Flower, the album's first half displayed Chasny's more melodic side: Complex guitar themes wrapped around his affected voice, when it appears, ethereal greetings to the rising sun and hymns to the sweaty march of the day.
He built the drone's foundation, recording each layer according to a loose script he had designed on graph paper: The gongs would come in here, one tone generator would rise in the mix there, only sustained voices would remain at the end. On the last day of recording, a few instruments still had to be added and only the last five minutes lacked completion. So Chasny scheduled something of a listening party, inviting two Comets on Fire, one Yellow Swan, and OM/Sleep bassist Al Cisneros, among others, to spend the day playing and singing, finishing the track.
"He's not rocking this totally thunderous bass on 'River,' like most people would want or expect, but it's a friendship thing with everyone on it. It was more important for me to get a community thing," says Chasny of Cisneros, a longtime hero who had agreed to contribute after they met through Chasny's former label, Holy Mountain. "They knew what the song sounded like, so we just went for it." More and more, American artists are going for it with the help of one another.
For the first half of this decade, most Amer-indie bands not already fastened to a rich, interactive scene like that of Wilco and Tortoise in Chicago seemed largely pedestrian, afraid to risk their audience by experimenting. Collaboration and the opportunities it offers suddenly seemed like a Canadian concept. The Arcade Fire worked with Islands while forming experimental instrumental groups of their own like Bell Orchestre, and the massive Godspeed You! Black Emperor borrowed from bands like A Silver Mt. Zion and Black Ox Orkestar, all part of the Constellation Records family. Montreal's Broken Social Scene, one of the most critically acclaimed bands of this decade, is hardly more than a pool of talent gathered from other Toronto bands.
In Canada, such outbound cooperation is more easily afforded: While American arts funding looks ever more grim, Canadian musicians draw a livable wage from their government, earn grants for ideas, and receive free health insurance.
But America's isolationism is changing. A new cadre of experimenters with alternative tentacles extending from San Francisco to Brooklyn is making unexpected moves, testing the waters and steadily gaining a growing and reverent audience through the sheer power of its music.
Chasny is at the fore of this collaborative tide, riding into the indie consciousness on his own terms. Songwriter Devendra Banhart is the figurehead of a slightly intersecting group of pals who record together, but Chasny's circle of friends is more expansive musically and less afraid of improvisation that might alienate financial support.
"Right now in my life, it just blows me away that I'm friends with all of these people whose music I like so much. I know I'm a really lucky person to be able to meet people like this. Really, it's why I do it, " Chasny says.
Consider some of his current bandmates: Six Organs currently tours as a trio, with Sunburned Hand of the Man's John Moloney on drums and Hush Arbor's Keith Wood on bass. Moloney also plays in the new band Howlin' Rain, along with Ethan Miller, who grew up with Chasny in Eureka, California, and now plays with him in Comets on Fire. Wood also plays with Wooden Wand, a prolific New York songwriter and improviser, releasing half a dozen albums a year, almost always with a new band.
These are neither degree-of-separation relationships nor isolated incidents, but links laid by committed musicians. When Chasny began collaborating with one of his experimental heroes, David Tibet, the English songwriter who has led Current 93 for two decades, he introduced Tibet to OM's first album, Variations on a Theme.
"I was talking to Ben about the music that I like, and I said I didn't like death metal because I can't get on with the vocals. I really like it when it's long and it builds up and is hypnotic and fantastical. He said, 'Have you heard OM?'" recalls Tibet, at home in England. "I put it on, and after one minute, I turned the CD over to see how long the first track was. It was 21 minutes long, and I remember being incredibly pissed off because I wanted it to be 70 minutes long."
Chasny later introduced Tibet to Cisneros, who contributed to Black Ships Ate the Sky, a 21-track epic involving Will Oldham, Antony, Shirley Collins, William Basinski, and Nurse With Wound's Steven Stapleton. The next Current 93 album will feature Chasny, Cisneros, and Chris Hakius, OM's other half.
Current 93's ever-amorphous lineup has served as an apt guide for Chasny, who mailed one of a dozen copies of his first album on acetate pressing to Tibet as a thank-you for his influence. Chasny's musical purpose has been steadfast, though the players he has pursued have always shaped the presentation. If ever there was a Tibet edict -- or just a postulate for long-term creative output -- that's it.
"What I'm interested in is people who believe profoundly in their way of seeing the world. It's the vision of the person creating the music, and if it comes out of folk or hard rock or classical, I don't care. OM and Current 93 and Six Organs -- all these people show that similarity," says Tibet. "The music that they all do is very different in external form, but internally, I think what they do is all the same."