"When you're a human facing the human condition... that is terrifying." Holly Dicker talks to an artist exploring the extremes of sound and consciousness.
Contact is the New York artist's third album for Sacred Bones, and it's as lethal as ever. It's also deeply philosophical and poetic. She writes evocative metaphysical lyrics, but the words are nearly always choked out of recognition. It's strange because words are so crucial to Chardiet's practice—her music often begins with reams of text—but in the end, it's how she delivers those words that really matter.
Where did Contact come from? Did it evolve from a life experience, like Bestial Burden?
The short answer is no. Basically the last two records were these very acute responses to situations that were occurring in my personal life that led me to explore these larger ideas about the human condition, and about what it means to live as a human. I think it's a lot easier for people to talk about real life actions or occurrences or situations, or trauma, than it is for people to talk about more conceptual ideas. So I think people really focused in on my personal story.
With this record, there are certain personal elements, but I'm choosing not to really focus on them. Mainly, this record came from looking back at this project—because it's turning ten this year—and all of the small ideas that I've been talking about, and realising that there's this common thread through all of them. It's also directly in relation to the last record. It's sort of like a sister record, with the same concept, but on the opposite side of the spectrum.
Can you elaborate?
So the last record, Bestial Burden, is all about the mind being separated from the body and being trapped inside of the body, almost as if the body is this imprisonment or vessel that holds your sentience, which you can't escape from. Ultimately, the human life span is only so long. The body starts to decay and age and deteriorate and get ill. The mind could go on forever, but you're stuck inside of this failing system.
If the mind is stuck inside a vessel, on one end of that spectrum that means imprisonment. But if that's true, then it must also be true that on the other end of the spectrum the mind can transcend the body. With Contact I wanted to look at instances when that's possible, and think about why that would be important, and what that meant.
What led you to researching trance states for the record?
I was looking back at all of the music that I've made over the past ten years, all the lyrics that I've written, and the same sort of tools keep coming up. One of those being loop-based music, always taking small bits of a synth sound and looping it over and over, and the songs are often composed in this repetitious manner.
A trance state is essentially when, through music or repetition or or prayer, or some kind of physical endurance, someone is transformed into another state of mind. This record isn't about trance states at all, it was just that when thinking about trance states I started to think about why I use loops all the time, and thinking about live performance and how all the other records didn't feel as satisfying as playing live did.
Why is that?
When playing live, there's an exchange of energy. Even before you start playing there's a bunch of people standing in a room, all creating this energy towards the stage. Everyone's waiting for the show to happen, there's all of this tension, so there's this immediate charged feeling. And then when you start performing, you're placing that energy out towards other people in the room, and then they're placing it back to you based on your body movements and it's like this exchange, you know, it's a conversation.
When you make a record, you're alone in a booth. And when people listen to it they're often alone. They're on headphones, or it's just playing in your room. It's a whole different experience, it's more of a statement than a conversation. I wanted to give the record a life outside of the album. I wanted it to sound like it was creating a space that different people would hear and step into, creating this sort of proxy environment.
So the record is about connectivity then? But how do you connect with people by being confrontational? Are you not pushing people away with your music?
I don't think it is pushing them away. I think that the aggressiveness of the music comes from the subject matter. The subject matter is very much about the perils of being a sentient being—that's a weird sentence. When you're talking about the human condition, obviously that subject matter is very inclusive. I don't think that that's pushing people away, it's literally the opposite. However, when you're a human facing the human condition—facing your own mortality, facing the realities of being stuck inside of a body, facing the realities of powers that are larger than you—that is terrifying. It's that feeling of panic when you realise how small we are in the universe, how short our time here is. When you realise, you know, that almost everything you've ever said or done has been said or done before, when you realise how small it is to be human, that is a terrifying feeling, but it's something that all of us have felt. So yes, it's aggressive, it's mournful, it's ecstatic in a scary way. But that's not pushing anyone away.
Like a shock, or a waking up?
I would say a shock is the wrong term, just because of that whole genre of shock music.
How would you describe it?
Being extreme. I think waking up is the thing.
The press release mentions Contact being composed around the four stages of trance. Can you explain what those four stages are?
So the first stage is preparation, which would be the repetition, the music. Preparation is the ritual aspect of it, essentially. Onset is the moment in which it starts to overtake you. Climax is what they call the sublime, reaching the sublime. It's the ecstatic state. Resolution is the coming back to reality, re-entering your body. And for me, the climax—the sublime—is that moment of clarity that I was just describing. Sadly, for me, resolution or coming back to "reality" is actually going back into this sleepwalking state, where we forget about the big things and focus on the little things—day-to-day consciousness, basically.
But surely living in a perpetual state of climax would just be excruciating?
Exactly. That's why the music sounds like it does, because it is a reflection of an excruciating reality. I think it's an important thing for people to confront every once in a while.
How did you apply your research to the album writing process?
For instance, in this book, Music and Trance, I was reading about how there's one tribe in Northern Africa who, before the preparation stage, would hit a drum three times. Then during the onset stage they'd hit the same drum three times and they would hold it up as if they were ascending to heaven, and hold it down if they were going to hell. There's this whole bizarre, beautiful account of this ritual.
So I decided the preparation has to start with these three hits, and in that same way the record has to end with these three hits. I started with the arc of each side of the record, and then went into how that would be broken down song by song. Then I would write the song I hear in my head. I'd write it all out using words, just describing what it would sound like.
Is this how you usually write music?
There's a general methodology, it changes slightly each time, but usually something sparks an interest in an idea, and I just start writing. So basically it starts with big blocks of prose—just general ideas about the record—and then it keeps getting refined down to where this stream of consciousness is turned into lyrics, and the arcs of each side of the record are turned into compositions, and then the compositions are turned into actual songs.
It's an interesting methodology. Are you really a writer who makes music?
I think the thing that draws me to noise and to experimental music in particular is that I don't consider myself a writer or a musician or an artist—I'm something in between. I've always been really attracted to multimedia art, like video work and installation and performance. Having an experimental project is a lot like being an intermedia artist where I have this idea that I want to express, and instead of being confined to one thing, I can express it in the album artwork, I can express it in the lyrics, I can express it in the sounds of the music, I can express it in my bodily performance when it's live, I can express it in my voice. It's down to every last detail. It gives a life to the concepts and to the album that's outside of just the songs.
Speaking of artwork, your record covers are particularly striking. Is that you posing in all of them?
Is there reason for that?
The imagery is extremely important to me, and part of the reason it's me on those covers is because they were such personal records. But also part of it was that I just didn't wanna put somebody else through that. I'm not gonna find someone and pour a bunch of maggots on them. Or put a bunch of raw and rotting meat from organs that smell like formaldehyde on someone.
Did you need to have a figure on the cover every time?
The artwork is kind of seeking to do what happens live. It got closer to the live experience than the music did, in the sense that there's this cathartic sort of visceral reality to the music that I don't think you can get with a still life. The only way I can describe it is to describe what Pharmakon means.
Basically the word means both poison and remedy. It comes from pharmakos. [In Ancient Greek religion] a priestess would choose a scapegoat, a pharmakos, and that person would be exiled, or stoned to death, somehow cast out of the community to cleanse it of whatever their ailments were. And in a way, this person was the epitome of the blight of that community, but then also the martyr. That idea of the human vessel being a representation of the gross and nasty and sad and upsetting parts of this larger community is what the project is about: confronting these ideas, living in that ugliness almost as a scapegoat. So having the physical body present in the artwork reflects this one symbol, this one scapegoat, this one person as a cathartic release.
How does Contact's cover evoke transcendence?
It was really hard to come up with an image of the mind escaping the body, or transcending the body. How do you do that? In what way can you use physical imagery to describe basically transcending the physical? I decided to use bodies in this incredibly visceral way to describe the overwhelmingness of that moment, the moment of contact as being at once beautiful, terrible, terrifying and disgusting—an overwhelming force.
I thought about the word "contact" and how you can illustrate this, and I thought it has to be about touching, right? That makes the most sense. I was looking at all these images of churches that do laying of the hands. And they were always kind of sweaty. I wanted to create this moment where there was this film over everyone that was turning everything into uniform flesh—where you couldn't tell which hand was coming from where. I hoped the face wouldn't be too obvious, that you had to really look to realise there was a face amongst this tangled web of skin.
What's your studio setup like?
I just moved into a new place. It's a basement and a first floor. My bed is in the basement, inside this studio where I have my monitors set up, and my table with all my electronics. I also have a big bookshelf.
As far as gear goes, every five years I get something which I use until I've done every single thing possible with it, or it breaks—whichever comes first. I'm not a gear head because I think of sound as a tool. I have this little prefab modular synth, but I'm not gonna become one of these modular synth hobbyists. Basically, I don't think it takes a lot of money to make interesting music. I don't think gear is really that important.
What were you making music with in the very beginning?
When I started, I inherited from my stepdad an old Casio SK-5, which is this little toy miniature keyboard—and it is a toy. It has straight-up lion samples on it. There's a roar, there's a laser sound. But you can sample things with it. You can only take 1.5 seconds of sample, and when you turn the sampler off you lose it, but all the early Pharmakon stuff was just me making different vocal sounds into that, looping it and playing it on a keyboard, looping that and making a new sample, and then doing stuff over the top of it and adding vocals. So literally every sound was from the voice. I had some distortion pedals and a tape player. I would mess around with the speed on the tape player and put it through different pedals, and then have the Casio and the voice, and I had that setup for like five years before I upgraded to the Korg Microsampler, which is basically a grown up version of the Casio SK-5—without the lion and lasers sounds.
I never had enough money to buy my own synths, so I'd always just sample my friends' synthesisers, or guitar, or take field recordings of a piece of metal falling in an alley or me kicking a dumpster or something, and then I would turn them into rhythms. But finally, from this last bought of touring the last record, I've saved up and got a modular synth and an MS-20.
You have a ton of kit on stage as well. Can you tell us about your current live show? Is there anything different about it? I read somewhere that you never improvise when performing. Is that still the case?
In the past I've always written the songs, played them live and then recorded them. This time around I took a break from playing live when I made this record, so now I have this record and it's kind of the opposite way for the first time. I had my journal with a year and a half's worth of synth settings and lyrics and everything stolen at a show—or something weird happened, it's a long story. But they were on stage with me and then suddenly they weren't, and I went back the next day and tried to find them and they were gone. So I actually lost all of the synth settings and all of the composition notes and everything for all the songs on this record.
I'm experimenting with changing up the way that I approach live shows. I'm not an improviser. I don't like accidental music. But I do like experimental music, so I'm gonna try to approach this record a bit more intuitively. I would like to have a setup that, depending on what was going on, I could change the course of the set with it, so that the set is not the same every time, it's not the same songs every time.
Your shows are quite confrontational, physical. What kind of reactions are you aiming for?
I don't necessarily hope for a specific reaction, I just hope that people are open to it and that they allow themselves to feel whatever they instinctually feel. Whatever their response is, it's probably appropriate. I just want people to feel something.