COMETS ON FIRE: HATCHED UPON THE AGE

By Dennis Cook


Comets On Fire by Jeremy Harris
"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.

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.


Comets On Fire
"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."

"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."


Comets On Fire
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."

No Limits

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.


Ethan Miller - Comets On Fire
By Robert Loerzel
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.

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."

 
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.
-Noel Von Harmonson
 

Avatar

One can hear all these disparate currents flowing together on last year's phenomenal Avatar. Despite hailing from the San Francisco region, Comets has rarely echoed any of their exploratory rock ancestors but on their fourth album they allowed in a few gentle reverberations from the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape. Something like the perception shifting mojo of the late '60s infuses things, especially the slower cuts which they all refer to as "piano jams." While one hesitates to call anything less than a year old a classic, Avatar has all the makings of a record that'll be well regarded for decades to come.

"We dedicated ourselves to the process of refining our music this time," says Miller. "The first album had no refinement. We literally put those riffs together in one day and by the end of the afternoon we were drunk, sittin' there with a tape in our hand. With Field Recordings, we got the stuff together with little time before the studio. In fact, a lot of those songs have become more refined, even if the jams are actually longer and more open-ended live. For Avatar, we basically stopped playing live last year and just worked on refining the new songs. We've always tried to do something different for each record and this was a technique we hadn't tried yet – nailing the songs before we went into the studio."

Chasny continues, "We definitely spent more time on this record than any in the past. We were writing for months, meticulously taking parts out and putting them in. It was pretty ridiculous really. The recording process itself was much longer than before. We took our time with it, and I'm glad we did. It's an internal process. You're looking inside yourself. [Studio work] is an extremely abstract concept. That's why it's important to concentrate on the music. I never really think about people listening to it. It's just important to make a good record."


Comets On Fire
Opener "Dogwood Rust" is like something hurtled from space that lands smack dab on your head. Like "The Bee and The Cracking Egg," which starts the previous album, you're immersed in their world before you can even take a breath. Miller says, "I have a natural instinct to put an intro or warm-up but I think that's a bad instinct. I like the way Blue Cathedral and Avatar open up. You drop the needle and here we go!"

However, the abrupt start to "Dogwood Rust" was an accident. "Everyone thought it sounded like it began in the middle of the song. It really wasn't meant to," explains Miller. "We talked about doing a quick fade-up or something to ease it but in mixing we just forgot. It's a happy accident, a rough edge that ends up being a defining moment. Nine out of ten of the best moments on any great record are happy accidents. In the digital age, I think a lot of musicians don't let this stuff happen. It's easier to get the perfect take with digital tools. With tape rolling you keep more of what happens. You don't strive for perfection so much as the essence of what you had in mind."

On the "piano jams," Kushner comments, "Blue Cathedral was the first time I had a couple keyboard songs. I think we might have even been hard up for material or something [laughs]. It was a little scary. I'm always at home making up little songs, and some of its best that it doesn't get out in the world." Bassist Ben Flashman says, "Utrillo wrote those songs and presented them to us. He asked us to participate in honing them into Comets songs. I think we treaded a bit more lightly than we would on a raging guitar song, but just because we thought it was appropriate."


Noel Von Harmonson - Comets On Fire
The most striking of these piano-oriented pieces is "Lucifer's Memory," which comes off like some lost, extra golden Procol Harum masterpiece. Miller says, "[Utrillo] certainly qualifies as obsessed with Procol Harum. His favorite everything is in Procol Harum – favorite drummer, favorite lyricist, etc. When Utrillo came into the band during Field Recordings he was already obsessed with Procol Harum. We'd heard a little bit but no one else really understood it. Now, here we are recording Avatar and everybody is into Procol Harum. You start investigating after you have that bond and trust. When you know somebody's mind and respect the way it works, you start seeing this band makes great jams that feel loose and freewheeling but everything is so architecturally perfect and beautiful. Just the most majestic songs."

It wasn't until after they'd settled on the album's title that they became aware that the word "avatar" was associated with online gaming and social activities. "None of us are ever in chat rooms or any of that bullshit. Then someone brought it up and we found out it has modern Internet connotations," says a disdainful Chasny. "We were thinking more of the Hindu gods but that's cool. I've been joking that our next record should be called Emoticon. We're really not that much of a throwback but it just never occurred to us."

A reoccurring theme in reviews for Avatar is how the band has mellowed. Critics cite the increased clarity of the vocals this time around as well as the piano material. To a one, Comets reject this idea completely. Flashman barks, "Whoever writes the one-sheet says it's more accessible and everyone runs with that [laughs]. I have the feeling that half the people who review it never even listen to the record." Von Harmonson adds, "It's a pretty linear path. Record to record we've always tried to do something different. If you were paying attention you would have seen this record coming."

"No matter how well you can hear the vocals, even on the piano jams, Comets is not really sing-a-long music," says Miller. "Utrillo and I write the lyrics in a fairly abstract, esoteric way. Also, when I sing, I don't often do straight, repeating vocal melodies. I do a more free-form thing. The places we draw inspiration from often come out sounding nothing like the inspiration. Like, I got a lot of vocal ideas on Avatar from Steely Dan and CSN. What I produced harmony-wise is nothing like them because those guys are geniuses. I was just trying to get the harmonies into the proper pitch. The more I try to do with my singing the more I learn of the millions of ways there are to fuck it up [laughs]."

 
The places we draw inspiration from often come out sounding nothing like the inspiration. Like, I got a lot of vocal ideas on Avatar from Steely Dan and CSN.

-Ethan Miller

 

The Noel Factor

One of the most distinctive parts of Comets is Von Harmonson's inspired twisting of their music. The first time you see them play you can't help but wonder about the long haired madman behind an ever growing stack of vintage metal and dials that look like no instruments you've ever seen before. Inspired by classical music maverick Terry Riley's Time Lag Accumulator, Von Harmonson named his rig Echo Electronics, which involves several oscillators and echoplex units where three or four things are happening in any given moment.


Noel Von Harmonson - Comets On Fire
"A lot of people assume that I have everybody in the band plugged through my rig – which I've thought about and would be amazing – but it's not practical to set up another sound guy in the middle of the stage," explains Von Harmonson. "I am capturing sounds from the band through the microphone on stage the vocals go through, so there is an aspect of filtering or dissembling going on."

He manages to do all this without headphones, his whole body casting a free form spell over the music. "I wouldn't enjoy [headphones] from an aesthetic standpoint. And, you'd have to tape the headphones onto my head 'cause I'm losing it up there all the time, almost knocking my own stuff over. At gigs there are times I can't hear myself too well but that has more to do with no one else wanting to hear the shit I do in their monitors. It's disorienting. You hear weird phantom sounds that sound like another guitar or a ghostly kick drum. I do have to keep myself a little isolated for the continuity of the group."

Perhaps because of the tools he's chosen or his freewheeling approach to sound, Von Harmonson may not be seen as a musician in the traditional sense but his approach makes an archetype for the changing nature of noisemakers in the 21st Century.

"Noel really gives himself over to the music," offers Miller. "He can be as cynical as the rest of us but never a pessimist. He's always up for a challenge, even seemingly impossible challenges. Those are the kind of people you want to gravitate towards in musical collaboration. Noel's right there when we're working on stuff. He hangs back with the echo electronics so we can work out the basic ideas but when we stop he jumps into where it goes next. A lot of the time he'll grab a guitar and riff with us. Sometimes I do take it for granted that he plays weird stuff instead of the usual gear. It's like when you get a tattoo and after a few months you don't even see it when you're naked in front of a mirror. It's just part of who you are. Noel's done so much with his end of things, not just making noise but always pushing things with every album. It's very difficult to refine things and go in with a magnifying glass and he really does that in incredible ways."

Live And Dangerous


Comets On Fire By Robert Loerzel

At an in-store performance at SF's famous Amoeba Music on Haight Street, Miller leans into Flashman just before they start, exchanging a few conspiratorial words before all hell breaks loose. While most bands might be inclined to phone it in for a short record store set, Comets On Fire bang it out like a pagan offering to the rock gods. As possessed as their records sound, in concert Comets is even more massive, a growling, billowing force barring down on you. The presence of witnesses - frequently open-mouthed, dazed looking witnesses – splashes kerosene on their pyre. "A band is the music and the records that get made. But the life fire of that band is also the people that are engaging with them," says Miller.

Stateside, they have dedicated pockets of fans in just about every major city but their acclaim is growing even faster outside America. Just this month, Comets toured Australia for the first time, and have been to Europe several times in the past year. When asked if this means European audiences are more sophisticated, Flashman replies, "Either that or we want another rock 'n' roll vacation! It's probably a little of both. We don't really tour that much so we better make it extravagant when we do."


Comets On Fire By Robert Loerzel
Of all them, Chasny spends the most time on the road, touring as Six Organs and with cult faves Current 93. He says, "I don't have a big comfy couch to come home to. So, for me, I love it. I don't have a wife at home waiting for me. You have to give a lot of stuff up, accept that life is going to be kind of random. But, I also have a lot of friends all over the world. I have friends in places like Belgium that I get to see sometimes more than once in a year. That's something pretty cool."

In the middle of their multi-armed live melee is Kushner, a steady place behind his drum kit for the others to grab onto. "I feel like what I'm playing is appropriate to the music. It just so happens that the music is often total chaos," laughs Kushner. "A lot of times, say when we're mixing, I want to turn the drums down a bit. I like having them be not so upfront. When we play live there's no choice. I love great cocky drummers, the ones way out there making a spectacle of themselves, but I admire more a guy who pays attention to what's going on. They're not so much holding themselves down as being respectful to the music. I started playing drums around 14 and didn't figure out until my late twenties that a great drummer doesn't have to be a virtuoso or play great solos. My favorite drummers are ones who adapt to their surroundings and are appropriate to the music. There's nothing worse than watching a drummer overplay."


Ethan Miller - Comets On Fire By Robert Loerzel
During the "piano jams," Von Harmonson takes over percussion duties while Kushner mans the keyboards. Von Harmonson says, "I played drums in this Santa Cruz band, The Lowdowns, for a long time. That was a way more trashy, No-Wave kind of thing, way more aggressive on the kit and playing things backwards on purpose, playing against the predictable. I'd never played mellow and in the pocket, like I do with Comets, before. It's really fucking difficult for me because I'm a more expressive, free player. It's weird to force myself into the dichotomy of playing the electronics - being free and open and going with the moment - and then the next song, sitting behind the drums and keeping control, being specific, cautious. It's not how I am as person or musician. It's enjoyable but also nerve-racking."

As far out as their music gets it's easy to assume Comets indulge in all manner of drugs. Virtually every bit of press they've gotten has made some reference to acid or pot but in all the hours I've spent with them I've never seen them so much as touch a pipe, cocaine lined mirror, or anything else besides a bit of booze. Miller says, "It's difficult to play music when you're really intoxicated. I like to drink beer or a shot of whiskey while we're playing because that allows me to feel less physical pain. I can get a little looser, rock out a little harder. It can be a little abusive sometimes. What's more helpful than alcohol is daily exercise but it's a busy world so it'll probably remain beer and a shot of whiskey!"

 
I'm losing it up there all the time, almost knocking my own stuff over. At gigs there are times I can't hear myself too well but that has more to do with no one else wanting to hear the shit I do in their monitors. It's disorienting. You hear weird phantom sounds that sound like another guitar or a ghostly kick drum. I do have to keep myself a little isolated for the continuity of the group.

-Noel Von Harmonson

 

Other Music

Most of the band has other projects that shine further light on their varied musical personalities. Besides Chasny's previously mentioned outlets and Kushner's spectacular soft rockers Colossal Yes, the most well known is Miller's mutated '70s Camaro rock franchise, Howlin' Rain, whose self-titled debut last year ended up on almost as many Best of 2006 lists as Avatar.


Howlin' Rain
"In Comets I'm a fifth of the writing and I'm trying to seek the abnormal or maybe the perfect heavy riff. Both of those are harder than writing good time tunes," observes Miller. "It's fun to attempt a folk-jazz-soft rock record. That's not something Comets is going to do. Nor should we! We came as close to that as we should come [on Avatar]. The next thing is going to be a brutal holocaust [laughs]. Actually, there's no way to know what the next chapter will be with Comets. It's all down to different methodology each time."

The 2007 edition of Howlin' Rain is guitarist Mike Jackson, bassist Ian Gradek, drummer Garrett Goddard (Colossal Yes, The Cuts), keyboardist Joel Robinow (Drunk Horse), and occasionally Eli Eckert (Drunk Horse), who Miller says is joining the new sessions "as a super human guitar dude to lay down some sweet solos."

Miller is attempting to build their sophomore release around "a loose literary theme of outlaw-ism." He explains, "There's one song about this guy with sadistic tendencies who goes to fight in Iraq and becomes involved in the torture scene there. He finds it's the ultimate realization of his abilities and desires, but when he comes back there's no place for a torturer at home. He ends up in El Rey, the mythical place in crime fiction where once you pull off your perfect heist you can pay to live in this crook's paradise in Mexico. There's another song about some riverboat people after the Apocalypse. It's got some dark spots but this [album] will be folkier, jazzier."


Ben Chasny
Six Organs of Admittance
"I like classic albums. You throw on a Clapton record, a Crosby-Nash record, and they're not trying to pull one over on you. Some of the hooks are almost embarrassingly fun, like the 'doo doo doo' part at the end of 'Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.' Come on! I think there's just as much a place for that kind of stuff. I don't believe that low art and high art are separate," continues Miller. "I know a lot of people who think the Allman Brothers or The Dead are too soft or grooving. They're not trying to beat you over the head. They're on a different trip. People these days like to be attacked a bit more, but that kind of stuff sure moves me."

Unquestionably, the biggest freak bomb in the solo stuff is Von Harmonson's one-man mind-fuck, Born On The 4th Of July. "I always laugh when I listen to it. It's inhuman to a level that it seems like it couldn't be born of a human mind," remarks Von Harmonson. "It's only mixer feedback. There's no input, no sound going in. There's no first sound. I turn the gear on and it makes this feedback and I constantly play catch-up with it. I got into this after hanging out with the Wolf Eyes dudes. [John] Olson asked me about my Comets rig, 'So, those two PA heads you have, do you just plug them into each other and make a bunch of noise?' I told him no, and asked what's up with that? He told me if you plug the output into the input it will start doing stuff. It's what his whole rig is about. I went home and did it and was instantly elated at how I could make sounds that reminded me of '60s electronic records like [Morton] Subotnik. That stuff blows my fucking mind. Have you heard The Andromeda Strain soundtrack? That's sort of what I'm going for, that no holds barred, spontaneous, linear composition. I turn the rig on and it's like getting on the saddle of a wild horse and riding it until it stops."

Chasny and Von Harmonson also have a duo record in the wings. "We went into our practice space about a year ago with a four-track to record live - me with electronics and Ben doing total Keiji Heino guitar stuff, punching his guitar, us jamming long and hard," enthuses Von Harmonson. "It's got eight-minute tracks and it's fucking brutal! It's gonna be a monster. Chasny's playing on it is so great that if I played it for you and didn't tell you who the other player was or even what instrument he's playing you wouldn't even think it was guitar."

Lucky Enough


Comets On Fire
Their success, critically and otherwise, sort of baffles them. On the surface, they make some of the most non-commercial music anyone has ever conceived. Yet, the truth and power of the Comets reaches folks if they've got the right ears. Kushner says, "We've had a lot of luck. It's unbelievable that we've done such little touring and had day jobs and our own lives. I'm surprised we've gotten away with what we have. I think we're lucky Sub Pop realized we're really weekend warrior guys [laughs]."

Miller reflects, "I was talking to Utrillo the other day on the way home from practice about this. There was a time we worked really hard for everything we got. We still do [work hard] but there was a moment where we had to work extra hard for every thing we got. I kind of have this perspective that we've worked so fucking hard for this that we're now getting what we deserve for that hard work AND we're fuckin' lucky, too! I took that for granted but luck is a part of reality – in life, in this band, for anyone. You can work your ass off and still not have these kinds of crazy breaks."

JamBase | California
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Comments

PattyK starstarstarstarstar Thu 3/15/2007 10:54AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

PattyK

Love it!

kyuss1313 starstarstarstarstar Thu 3/15/2007 07:40PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

kyuss1313

these guys are fucking amazing. kudos jambase for having the balls to mention this band. they are truly innovative and mind-blowing and anyone who has an ear for truly progressive sounding rock/folk/whatever you want to call it should give 'em a whirl. avatar is one of this decades finest releases...

mcmanust Fri 3/16/2007 07:50AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

this is one the craziest bands out there, I love Howlin' Rain too

Tan starstarstarstarstar Fri 3/16/2007 12:04PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Tan

Band rocks. Straight up.

jimsan Sat 3/17/2007 06:19AM
Show -4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
snappy Sat 3/17/2007 06:41AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

snappy

Why is it that a LOT of people think one thing can't rock if another one does? Clearly, someone who thinks Papa Roach rocks but Comets doesn't has vastly different tastes than Tanner or myself (the writer of this piece). But, I rarely feel the need to piss on someone else's parade. Sometimes, for musical reasons, I can be critical but I try to allow for the love others have for an artist.

You'd have to put a fisherman's hook in my head to get me inside a Dave Matthews gig but I fully respect how someone might dig him. Respect is easier to give than enthusiasm but maybe that's not true for everyone.

jimsan Sat 3/17/2007 08:08AM
Show -3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
deftone984 Mon 3/19/2007 08:35AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

deftone984

dude, shut up.

All Loving Liberal White Guy Mon 3/19/2007 03:31PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

All Loving Liberal White Guy

this is a righetous band. rock on jambase!!! keep the hard heavy music for the mind a comin.

mreezal Tue 3/20/2007 06:13PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

mreezal

hey man, are you really down with papa roach and fall out boy?? you, jimsan, are the phoniest baller around

All Loving Liberal White Guy Wed 3/21/2007 05:13PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

All Loving Liberal White Guy

papa roach? whatever happened to them? boy, did they suck. didn't they do that "losin my strength, losin my mind song" with that video with all the emo kids who cut themselves? either way, this comets on fire piece is the real shiznit, go get their new album. it'll blow you away. while thier album avatar is mezmerizing, the one before it (blue cathedral) takes 30 years of psych rock to the level of DEFCON 1.

recked Wed 3/28/2007 08:23PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Anyone heard Noel's solo cd "Born on the 4th of July"?

kdringg starstarstarstarstar Tue 4/3/2007 11:00AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Very well written piece about a great underground band who everyone should check out.

JamMasterJizzle Sun 4/8/2007 01:54PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

JamMasterJizzle

Six Organs on Fire!!!