COMETS ON FIRE: HATCHED UPON THE AGE

 
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!"


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