By Dennis Cook
"I worry about doing something brand new, where I incorporate things like psych rock and free jazz. That's fucking complicated, man! That's a lot of searching for the sound," says singer-guitarist Ethan Miller of Comets On Fire, one of the most inquisitive, pummeling rock dynamos of the past 20 years.
Comets On Fire by Jeremy Harris
If they are searching for a new sound, they do not go into that dark night alone. Put on their albums and a rough hand snatches you from your chair and plants your skull inside a sonic vise. Just as the pressure builds to ear-popping levels, they loosen the crank and a delirious release washes over you. The extremes of their music are intoxicating, if sometimes a tad frightening. There's no passive response to Comets On Fire, no middle ground for band or listener. But, ain't that always the way with any artist that travels their own path instead of walking the easy road?
Paths Across The Cosmos
Together since 1999, Comets truly gelled into the interstellar juggernaut they've become in 2004 when Ben Chasny, known to many underground dwellers for his thoughtful, expansive, often knotty work as Six Organs of Admittance, became a full-time member. Swapping his trademark acoustic for a battering electric guitar maelstrom, Chasny proved the final element needed to fully charge their vision. While their first two albums [2001's self-titled debut and 2002's Field Recordings from the Sun] went a long way towards redeeming psychedelic music, it was 2004's blistering Sub Pop release, Blue Cathedral, that revealed a band with the vision and reach of Pink Floyd or Can.
"I was always around in weird ways," explains Chasny. "Ethan said he was going to put out [the first Comets] record and I got really excited. We came from the same small [California] town of Eureka, and people don't really put out their own records. Then, I moved to Santa Cruz and saw them play. After a while I got super into them. We'd hang out and play records and jam all night. I made a list of great bands with two guitar players to work my way into the band."
Comets On Fire
"I decided to play electric and acoustic guitar at the exact same time but I studied completely different styles," continues Chasny. "With acoustic guitar, I immediately jumped into Bert Jansch (Pentangle) and Leo Kottke, trying to get finger-picking down. On the electric, I jumped into Rudolph Grey (Mars, The Blue Humans) and K.K. Null (Zeni Geva), total noise style guitar. It was this weird divergence of style that I never put together until much later in life. For me, they're always two separate instruments."
Chasny had already been a longtime influence on Comets drummer Utrillo Kushner. "I think I have pretty standard, straightforward taste in music. I don't get too experimental. I'm not a Cecil Taylor man. I'm more of a Bill Evans man," says Kushner. "I respect a musician that can put so much energy and power into music but I can't listen to it all the time. Almost all my education on out-there music came from Ben. I've been friends with him since I was 14, and he's always had way advanced taste in music. When I'd say, 'Check out this Green Day album,' he'd say, 'Have you ever checked out Leo Kottke?' He was one of the first guys I knew who had an email address. He would order things off Forced Exposure and other small distributors and make me cassettes of strange Japanese stuff. I was really into classic rock like Led Zeppelin and he'd give me Amon Düül."
Comets On Fire
Just in their sub-referencing one picks up on their voluminous musical knowledge. Collectively, I've never met five guys who know more about the entire spectrum of recorded sound. Conversations have a tendency to drift into the obscure, Swedish moog experimenters or pioneering folk originals long lost to time for most of humanity. And this drive to know, to discuss, to cradle and savor music never lets up.
At the album release show for 2006's critically hailed Avatar, I brought Chasny a copy of Billy Cobham's first solo album after Mahavishnu Orchestra, Spectrum, which features Tommy Bolin, a guitarist I'd been tipped off that Chasny admires. He'd never heard Bolin's jazz work and his reaction was what one expects of true music geeks – undisguised gleeful discovery. While everyone else in the dressing room drank whiskey and laughed loudly, Chasny put the disc in a boombox, closed his eyes, and stood in the middle of the soft chaos to drink in the music.
Ethan Miller - Comets On Fire
By Robert Loerzel
This calm in the eye-of-the-storm is a recurring trait in Comets On Fire. All of them do it at different times, this drawing back into themselves to listen and better serve the invisible forces behind the music. What they distill from this process is often felt before it's understood.
"I usually just say we play rock and blues [laughs]. I've kind of given up trying to over-poetisize my descriptions to people that probably aren't going to get what I'm saying anyway," says electronic sound manipulator Noel Von Harmonson. "Juxtapositions of wildly different things are a really important tool to wake us up and move us away from the blob of homogenous shit out there. It might not always come together but you don't get anywhere if you don't fuck up."
Ethan Miller adds, "To be honest, I gravitate towards classic rock. No offense to my buddies but I really do put a Crosby, Stills and Nash record on more often than I do a Wolf Eyes record. I don't have a total genetic understanding of noise. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older but I think, 'Let's put on this Paul Simon record. I just listened to it yesterday but it sounds so good!' As you go on the road, you throw wilder stuff on because your life is more chaotic. At home, at the job, you want the stuff that will help you navigate your daily stresses."