ISSUE 14   WINTER 2002/2003
page 7 of 27



by Tony Rettman

The first time I read the words 'Comets on Fire' was when my main man Dolman reviewed their self-titled/self-released and now highly sought after LP (don't worry chimps, the thing'll be re-issued in the tinfoil format on Alternative Tentacles within the year) right here in the virtual pages of Blastitude. I recall his use of Foghat as a reference point as being intriguing and I made a mental note to check them out at a later date. Of course, I completely forgot about this and used up that part of my brain to store New Riders of The Purple Sage lyrics and filthy thoughts about my co-workers. Flash forward to a handsome summer evening in Brooklyn where Ben Chasny whispered in my ear not only sweet nothings, but that the aforementioned band was going to become his back-up band so he could break out of his hobbiton image. I figured at this point they had to be worth my time and waited eagerly for their more accessible CD (entitled Field Recordings From The Sun) to turn up at the end of the summer. When it finally did, I nearly soaked my rust-colored cords. It was about time a band came from the north of California flying the psychotic Psych flag. The last one to do this was of course the mighty Monoshock. The bands share similarities in their love for projecting larger than life sounds from tiny vessels. The reason for such actions is so the sonics shoot out with twice the force and man-goo than the usual Psych combo. But I feel this is where these two units' similarities end. Where Monoshock's attack was fed through a non-hippie/pro-Crime shit tube, C.O.F. seem to be into the idea of riding their beat-up electric guitars like water-skis between both the hippie and thug infested rivers, whilst the pickets from the fence that divides both the bodies of water hit them mercilessly in the crotch. And the thing is, THEY DIG IT. (They like that rough shit.) I've spent a lot of times in the past few months smoking cheap cigars, drinking gin and tonics, and listening to both C.O.F. full lengths, and they take me on wild journeys every time. The Allmans, The Misfits, Quicksilver, Kiss, Rubber Legged Stooges, Hawkwind, October Faction
. . . all these greats float around their music. (Critics are so lazy, no?) C.O.F. know how to rock (and possibly mosh) without a trace of crappy irony in the mix. To quote a smart man with nice hair and a weakness for whiskey who stands closely by the band, "They do not drink with the tongue of irony, they fuck with the dick of Rock 'N' Roll." Amen my brother, amen...
This interview was done with C.O.F.'s Ethan Miller via e-mail and instant message during November/
December of 2002.

How would you describe the sound of C.O.F.? Hmm, an impossible question, isn't it? I think we tried to have some description of the music when we named the group. The name kind of implies powerful blinding obscuring/abstraction of definitions and boundaries. Something out of control moving with great natural propulsion. So, that's one aspect. All bullshit aside, Comets on Fire is a Rock 'N' Roll band. The records can be taken as a Psychedelic experience and have a daydreaming abstract quality but at the heart of it all, they are just good time jams to drink beers to or jam in the boom box in the summer at the river with your friends while you jump off the rope swing or wrastle with your buddies or kiss your sweetie or whatever....

How did you stumble upon the sounds of C.O.F.? What in your listening world would you say goes into the C.O.F. stew? As far as influences go... All of us collect a lot of records and listen to music constantly so the influences are pretty wide. We are guilty as charged of being record collector scum. Not the kind that kills the Gold Visa Card at record conventions, but the kind that is sniffing out that four dollar copy of 'No New York' or the fifty cent copy of Silver Apples' 'Contact' in the back of the mom and pop bookstore. When we go over to Utrillo's house for beers and dinner, you might walk in and find him jamming anything from Don Cherry to Dr. John to Othar Turner to the 'Days of Our Lives' Soundtrack. He spans the spectrum from novelty thrift store unwanteds to audio 'high art' and feels totally passionate about all of it. That is a very good quality to have at the table when we're creating our tunes. I think it helps to make heavy jams that haven't lost their sense of humour and fun completely. Also, I consider Comets as thriving off a West Coast Rock and Roll history as well. Not just the late 60s'/early 70s' S.F. stuff but a continuing history that has spanned a lot of different movements and scenes in the Bay Area. The bands that we play with now and people that own and run clubs that invite us to play, they're an influence as well.

How did you get into Psychedelic music and what were some of your favorites at the start? I got into Psychedelic music when I was younger through Sgt. Pepper's and Jimi Hendrix Experience. After a certain point of exploration, my favorites have remained farily fixed -- 'Electric Ladyland', Coltranes 'Om', the first three or four Exuma LPs. Quicksilver is a very powerful group to me (especially Cippolina). Lots of Takoma stuff. I consider Psychedelic music that has that same particular power of abstract beauty and transportation, same with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. A lot of the PSF folks and bands have been important and influential. They are really heading up and defining contemporary Psychedelic Rock right now in a pretty big way.

Are there any bands that you or anyone else was in before C.O.F.? Any bands that exist now? What ever happened to Utrillo's excellent Captain Nemo project? We have all been in bands since early high school or so but most of them not worth talking about. They hold personal meaning and importance to us but maybe not to other people interested in what we're doing now. Noel is currently in the great band the LowDown. He is the drummer. They have a new record or two coming out presently. Ben Chasny and I have a really drunk acoustic collective called Montana Machine Gun with rotating members, kind of old timey and all improv, collective drunk blues based on Lightening Hopkins and Yo Ho Wa. Maybe someday that shit will be released. It's fucking good shit, just really drunk jams. They have a purity and stupidity that way that is pretty good!
I dont know about Utrillo's Nemo project. Are you talking about the Snooze project? The piano jams? Maybe something else. Utrillo is currently working on a solo album though and recording hasn't started yet but the songs are
fucking awesome.

Future plans and releases for C.O.F.? We have a reissue of the first album in the works. Also there is a split LP with Comets on Fire and Sunburned Hand of the Man in the works right now. This project is the brain child of Ben Chasny and he will play a pretty large role in the Comets' end of this particular album. We have a 7-inch coming out on the rock/garage label Estrus hopefully really soon. It has been way overdue. That will probably be one rock and roll jam that spans both sides of the 45. The seeds of our next proper album are beginning to take root as well. As soon as I get the ideal dates from Noel on when we should leave I am going to plan out a National tour for Comets that will concentrate heavily on the east coast. This will probably be in the July or August area of 2003, this year.

How did Ben Goldberg of BaDaBing find out about C.O.F.? What lead you to his lair? I think Goldberg found out about comets because I sent him an LP for review (the first album). He gave us a good review and we stayed in touch. (This is for the journal Badaboom Gramaphone). I think he got in touch with us right about the time that we were going in to record Field Recordings and offered to re-issue the first LP. But instead he wound up doing the new album. I think Ben Chasny was kind of emailing him dropping hints that he should put us out or something too. I dont know the behind the scenes. Ben Goldberg is a good guy and good friend. Everytime we talk on the phone and try to talk about some business shit we end up getting way off the subject into heated discussions about glam and heavy metal, U2 cover bands, the pros and cons of the Dead, shit like that for hours before we just have to get off the phone. Ben is a really good guy and fun and easy going to be around or talk to but there is this level of wicked humor that sometimes hides in seemingly innocent statements or passing comments. This is a great aspect of Ben Goldberg. Usually I'll catch on to the full meaning of some off hand comment an hour after we've been talking or something. He is a good guy.

When exactly did you put out the LP? Did you gig out at all before releasing the LP? The album was released in..... uh, I dont exactly remember but I think it says on the little xeroxed paper inside the LP 2000 or 2001. April of 2000 perhaps? We actually gigged around and toured the west coast once before the record came out.

What are the origins of C.O.F.? How did you all come did you know one another...etc...Why did you come together to rock...what inspired you to do this? Ben Flashman and I started with just the idea of doing a cassette recording project in 1999. He and I have been friends since we were about 5 or 6 years old and on and off have spent lots of time together. This was one of those time periods that we were inseparable. We were partying a lot
together doing a lot of deep listenings to new kinds of music for us that was cracking our minds open. We were in another band at the time that wasn't very functional and not getting along too well and I suggested that Ben and I just go to our practice space at the time (a garage on King and Hollywood in Santa Cruz), find a drummer, and just record high powered songs onto 4 track, all live, bring only one or two riffs with us, find a groove and then BAM! press record and give a performance of the song and done. I thought it would be therapeutic and help us release some of the more constrictive tensions of being in a rock and roll band. So I asked Chris Gonzales, who was an incredibly skilled and powerful drummer (but I thought never really got a chance to completely let go in his other punk and rock bands), so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity since the whole thing was supposed to function as an unbridled explosion of creativity to tape.
       Ben and I met Chris G. up at the practice space and had the first song finished and ready to be recorded after jamming it through about 3 times. This was the song "All I Need," the first song on the first album. We actually re-recorded it later but the structure is identical. It was only re-recorded to keep a consistency in sound as the record went on. I think we wrapped up another song that day too, finished and ready to go.
       It was apparent to me about 25 seconds into playing together that we had just formed a band with a natural groove and an incredible power. The whole first album was recorded very quickly like that. A few riffs, a ton of booze and cigarettes, an incredible buzz and passion between us. Recording the first album was always easy and there was no disappointing takes or problems to us.
      Quickly Ben and I let the other group we were in fall away and made plans to privately press this new album we were working on and tour in the winter with the songs. The Echoplex came about....basically I asked Noel Harmonson, another very good friend/drinking buddy of Ben, if he wanted to mess around with the vocals for this project through his echoplex, kind of freak them out, dandy them up a bit, and the effect of the echoplex, damaged, confusing, has a rhythmic flow and a real jagged implosive sound and in the capacity that we use it, no matter how in control Noel is of the machine it is always 60%-90% in control of itself. The same thing will never be repeated twice on that machine, even in its delay effect it is very erosive and quickly becomes a new sound. When it became clear that we would begin to play live and could carry over our power to live performance, perhaps even be more powerful because of the connection with the crowd, I think that is when we asked Noel to join the group as a permanent member and he began to come to the recording sessions and help conduct. Mostly he would just get wasted, smoke three packs of Marlboros and scream out suggestions between takes (wearing, of course, striped pants, pink ascot, dark shades, black boots and wild eyes
....or something to that effect).

        As the album went on and the band became more and more solidified the songs became a little more written out until the last song or two had been pretty extensively written before being brought into the garage but they still were rehearsed and recorded in the same flippant manner.
       Chris left the group after our second west coast tour and Noel, Ben and I just jammed around looking and asking for a drummer that would work and couldn't find one for quite a while. Noel sort of knew Utrillo through work and Utrillo had actually grown up in the same town as Ben and I but was older and in the punk (I'll use that word loosely) scene in his high school years and he was Ben Chasny's best friend. They had grown up musically and otherwise together. One day I think Utrillo jokingly said he wanted to try out for drummer. Noel and Ben hadn't really heard him play but I had bootlegged Chasny and Utrillo's short lived 'free stadium rock' group "Tonal Shrine" on my bootleg CDR label months before and knew that Utrillo was perfect. The same time that Utrillo joined the group Ben and Noel had just moved from Santa Cruz to SF and Chasny had just moved to Santa Cruz where I live, so at the moment in time when Utrillo joined, a family was really finally solidified between the entire group.

When did you you first become aware of music and what was the first stuff to grab your attention and make you want to make noise? What are some early musical memories? (First songs heard on the radio, etc.) I'm not sure when I first became aware of music. My memories before the age of 10 are quite scattered and I can't tell what order they came in. I think that all our parents were listening to music from the time we were born and that we always had it around even from the beginning. But that said the first record I owned was Thriller by Michael Jackson. A very powerful record. Ben Flashman and I both bought that record and listened to it quite a bit together when we were probably around 7 or 8 years old. I remember listening to it together on Ben's turntable in his room dancing around like savages and then staring at the white tiger on the gatefold.
      Some of my other earliest musical experiences were getting up before sunrise and riding with my father in his pickup out into the woods in eastern Humboldt County to cut firewood for the winter with him and listening to Kenny Rogers' 'The Gambler" and Crosby Stills and Nash and early rock and roll like Bill Haley and my Dad would beat on the steering wheel in time and sing the words to me while the smell of his coffee filled the cab and the sun would be breaking over the forest. The resonance from these memories, the mix of natural masculinity, the invigorating and inspiring power of music and family are ingrained in my musical subconscious. Personally these are important things for me. Also my mother would often sing to wake me up in the morning. Sometimes she would sing for a while and I would hear the singing in my dreams before becoming fully conscious. I still dream of music a lot. Music was always around in my life. Noel's folks told me the same thing, that they always had music on around him since he was a baby. Still when we stop in to his folks' house they always have multiple stereos on so you don't have to go into a room without music. Who knows how all this effects us? It probably does though. I know that some of Chasny's most profound musical experiences have been with his father too, so...

How did listening to Thriller lead you to making a racket like Comets on Fire? I don't know. But I was just listening to Les Rallizes and it kind of sounds like Michael Jackson at times. I mean without such intricately structured pop songs but there is a groove and a feel that is quite similar between the two. Just two very different methods. I think Comets tries to keep in mind when making records those aspects of conventional pop and rock music that were powerful to us and could be used in conjunction with more free and experimental methods to create something at once almost a guilty pleasure to the senses at its basic level and assaulting and foreign to them as well in its orchestration and lack of restraint. Michael Jackson's earlier jams were just one side of this. They were energized, orchestrated and powerfully invigorating. I have always wanted to play music with Michael Jackson. His jams have gotten so lackluster now but I think he has an incredible album in him still, he just seems pretty damaged.

What is the C.O.F. live experience like? What were some of your favorite C.O.F. shows? The Comets on Fire live show is usually a short burst of furious energy and pure attack. Our shows rarely last longer than 25 or 30 minutes
because we can't take much more than that and I don't think the audience could either. I think one aspect of our live show is to absolutely destroy the other bands that play with us so that they have to question their reason for performance. This is healthy for them too. Anytime that I've had my ass blown
off by another band at a show it's always strengthened my attack. That is the reward for the audience, they get to experience us exerting total energy while creating music for them. Our reward is to try and reach a moment of transcendence. The best thing that can happen is to completely lose ourelves in the energy that we're creating. To be completely driven by the momentum, transfer and impact of that energy between ourselves, the room and the audience. For me, personally the shows are hard to remember in regard to our performance, if I can get to the heat and step inside of it then I'll stay there and lose almost all of what's happening around us. Oh...that said a show
just popped into my mind: it was on the island of Naniamo, Canada, in this loungy/nightclub. They booked us because we were touring with Ben Chasny (who was touring as Six Organs) and they thought we would be another folk group
too. Well, not a lot of bands get out to Nanaimo and it sounds like even less rock bands so there was a great energy of surprise and unexpected delight between us and the audience that night. Afterward Ben Chasny got up and
played an acoustic Six Organs set that was incredible. Probably the best Six Organs I've ever seen. That was a good show.

What inspired you to cover 'Back in the USSR'? Any other crafty covers up your sleeves? I cant remember why exactly we did "Back in the USSR" now. It kind of sounded like one of our songs then. We just took it, it wasn't really a cover, more like an appropriation. Shit, the Beatles didn't need it anymore. Actually Paul probably still plays that song at his concerts but it probably isn't anywhere near as good as the way we played it. We'll never do another cover
song again. Actually I thought we had never done another but Ben Flashman reminded me last night at practice that we once performed the song "Circle Sky" by the Monkees live at a show. Joel Gion from the Brian Jonestown Massacre was in Comets for about 4 days and we performed that song on his fourth day. So now we'll probably never do another cover song. But if we did it would most likely be "Light My Fire" by the Doors because that is the most barbaric and savage rock song of all time. But we'll never do it.

Any plans of getting to the east coast to play? Yes we are coming to the east coast this summer. June or July.

Has there been any amusing things that have happened because of drugs/drink at a C.O.F. jam/ show? Well, a lot of "amusing" things happen when people get twisted on drugs or shit faced drunk because they often become very infantile and lose whatever underdeveloped social graces they had in the first place. That said, some of the "unamusing" aspects of getting wasted are overdoses, shitting your pants, puking on your own dick. By far the most amusing Comet on Fire to see wasted is Noel. Because when he's gone to the next level he does a funny little dance with his arms waving in the air and then runs around in
circles screaming. The last time this happened he took Utrillo's Cymbals and hurled them into the street out in front of the club and then fell down in front of the doorway of the club. Kind of a mix between Johnny thunders and a Haino percussion performance. That's pretty amusing right?

What kind of crowd do C.O.F. attract when they play? It's hard to tell who people really are by their role in a large crowd. I can't really say what pigeonhole the people in our crowds fit into because the way they appear doesn't seem to conform to one category. They just seem like folks. As far as the way people treat each other at our shows, whenever we draw the majority of the crowd people seem to mostly have a good time with each other. Before and after the show they talk, laugh, drink together. They've come to be inspired and entertained, by us and by the others who came for the same reason.

How did Chasny work his way into C.O.F.? Like I said before, Chasny and Utrillo have been friends for years and although we were not particularly friends there Chasny and I grew up in the same small town. Chasny and I started becoming really good friends in about '99 when my ex-roommate brought him down to visit with her. We hung out all night drinking whiskey and beer and blasting Motley Crue 'Dr. Feelgood' and Kris Kristofferson "Me and My Bobby Mcgee" LP while my neighbors in the apartment next door banged furiously on the walls. Now Ben lives here in Santa Cruz where I live, about 2 blocks up the street from me. So we listen to a lot of records, make a lot of music and drink
together. Ben plays a very important role in Comets because we do a lot of conceptualizing together and bullshitting about ideas for the band, and obviously on the "Field Recordings" album he plays a great part. He is a very good electric guitarist and with an acoustic he is an absolute gunslinger.
Live...Ben is a much more volatile character. When his energy can be briefly harnessed he can be a great addition to the Comets live sound and experience but often I think he is trying to destroy the audience AND us! But that's ok.
Comets on Fire live and Comets on album are two completely separate things by their approach, attack and delivery, so even if he feels like he has to jam some rednecks leaning on the bar in the back with the neck of my borrowed fender guitar over and over again while we're trying to play live and groove (like he did at a recent show with Brother JT), there are no rednecks in the studio to distract Ben and I have seen him become incredibly focused there, with awesome output, despite a nasty hangover and a rotten nihilistic attitude.
Ben is one of those rare musicians that is extremely naturally talented at his foundation, and on top of that works tirelessly in pursuit of excellence and honing his skill and creativity and he has a great musical vision that has simultaneously sharpened and expanded every time I see him. He is also a great friend and drinking buddy. These two things create the positive duality of his role in and relationship with Comets on Fire.

How did Tim Green work his way into the picture? Tim is a great producer of underground (and some more popular) music. We took the 4 track recordings for the first album to him to prepare it for its journey to record. He did a really good job and seemed to really like Comets on Fire. Tim is a good guy and we had some pretty good laughs in the studio
during the "Field Recordings." I mean shit, we mixed the first song on the album shit faced drunk on Scotch! Now that is a producer with style! Either he's really good or that song is still drunk.

What are some films that you've seen recently? I watched Heaven's Gate for the first time the other night. Pretty good. Kristofferson fucking incredible as usual. Takashi Miike films are always playing around my house. Dead or Alive, Audition, City of Lost Souls, Visitor Q, Ichi The Killer. Miike is one of the greatest living film makers and he is the current master of Japanese Cinema. He and the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (NOT the samurai film Kurosawa), especially the films "Cure and Charisma" had a major impact on some of the concepts for the Field Recordings From the Sun album. Also on the Kristofferson tip, Utrillo just lent me a great movie with Kris and Harry Dean Stanton and Karen Black called Cisco Pike. Two thumbs up! like a mix between Hollywood Blvd., Repo Man and Nashville. Kristofferson is just so fucking good!



NEXT: Canned Hamm: The New Dylans