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Body Invaders 

Sonic booms and Comets on Fire

Thursday, Nov 25 2004
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Photo by J. Bennett

"I think there’s something to be said for great volumes," says Ethan Miller. "When the volume is great enough, sound gets inside your body. There’s a connection there that goes a little bit beyond normal music appreciation, when we’re talking about invading the body. You don’t want air pollution getting in your body — if you see a sewer, you don’t want that getting inside your body. If you see rats, you don’t want that shit getting in there! But all kinds of music, all the time, is getting in and messing with your system, messing with your whole body. It’s kind of fucked up — but it can be beautiful in the right situation."

Few currently operational rock bands are as adept at the ol’ body invasion as Miller’s Comets on Fire, a troupe of Bay Area–based musicians whose epic multifrequency groove-riding super-rock has to be heard to be felt to be believed to be appreciated. It’s one thing when your ears are left ringing after a live show; it’s another when your body feels as though it’s been reassembled into some new fleshbuzzing configuration, as can happen at a Comets on Fire gig.

Experiencing this band last year in a nearly empty converted bank building in Pomona was like being confronted by the gale force of Grandmother Nature — like swimming in the surf, spotting a gigantic wave 100 feet out headed your way, realizing you may be in trouble, but then, at a deeper level, for a deep-time split second, being awestruck by the size and shape and scope, the sheer beauty-in-magnitude the wave represents. Comets on Fire have found a way to inhabit-embody-amplify that in-the-face-of-gorgeous-disaster moment: to stretch it out, to build in it, to find space within it to live. In Pomona last year, jaws dropped, legs jellied, minds blanked, beer steins rattled and fell off tables onto the floor. The band played on, marvelously oblivious.

Comets on Fire was formed by guitarist-vocalist and
UC Santa Cruz literature major Miller in the late ’90s. The band’s first album, recorded in 2000 and ’01, now available through Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, was raw, haywire post-hardcore rock with a scuzzed-up psychedelic trim, notable for its volume level, its mode of attack, and Noel Harmonson’s use of oscillators and vintage tape Echoplex. Usually you had to go to Japan to get this kind of mind-body pummeling, and Miller does cop to the influence of Tokyo’s High Rise as an inspiration.

"When you first heard a High Rise record, you heard them doing something that had always been totally wrong to do, which is to record the shit way too fuckin’ loud so that it totally blurred out, so that it sounds like your speakers have been destroyed when you listen to it. When you hear that, you’re like, Fuck! That is the sound of what hearing a rock band live is like. You can’t comprehend everything, you can’t hear all the details, it’s blown out, it’s too loud, you’ve got ears stuffed full of toilet paper and you’re not hearing a lot, but it’s just pounding your chest, and things seem like they’re gonna shake off the shelves. Every time I was recording something and it was blown out, I was like, Oh, that’s bad. But when you hear High Rise, it’s like, Fuck, man, that’s the ticket! Now we’re talkin’!"

Miller laughs, then continues, "It’s just another great moment for overcoming taboo and personal stupidity. Sometimes you realize how stupid you are, how quickly you’ll get in line when you see one, no matter what’s at the end of it."

With the band’s second album, 2002’s perfectly titled Field Recordings From the Sun (Ba Da Bing!), a more striking Comets sound emerged. Drummer Utrillo Belcher had joined the band, and feted Six Organs of Admittance psychedelic folk guitarist Ben Chasny appeared on several tracks, contributing both his customary quiet acoustic intricacy and some very un–Six Organs electric-guitar firebombs.

"I’ve always played rock music and folk music," says Chasny nonchalantly. "It’s just a balance — I have to do both of them. Folk music for me is a time to sit down and be quiet and listen; rock music should be loud, with a lot of things happening."

The band’s new lineup had a certain cosmic inevitability to it: Miller, Chasny and Belcher and bassist Ben Flashman all grew up in or around the Northern California forest town of Eureka. Flashman and Miller have been friends since childhood; Chasny and Belcher were a bit older, which, as Miller notes, "means decades" in a small-town high school. When Belcher was 18, he hightailed it out of Eureka, settling in the Bay Area and playing in band after band.

"It never really worked out," he chuckles. "Ruined a bunch of friendships. I like playing music, but I can’t really be in a band. So I stopped playing drums almost completely, just did some home recordings, got mellow, hung out with my wife."

In the meantime, Chasny had relocated to Santa Cruz and become friends with the Comets crew. With original drummer Chris Gonzales out of the picture, Belcher was lured back behind the drum kit for another go.

"I think Ben Flashman and Noel and I carried on our original intent, our particular sounds," says Miller, "but Chasny and Utrillo had a massive effect on changing the sound. Field Recordings was recorded four-five-six weeks after they joined the band, and although Chasny wasn’t a full-time member, he still had a big effect."

After Field Recordings’ release, the band toured across the continent with Massachusetts psychedelic-art-funk shamanists Sunburned Hand of the Man, and Chasny became a full-on member while continuing his Six Organs career. Miller joined Harmonson, Flashman, Belcher and Chasny up in the Bay Area, Comets signed to Sub Pop, and the band set about recording the astonishing Blue Cathedral, released this past summer. The multitextured monolithic-riff turbo-thruster numbers, acoustic-guitar interludes, oscillator sound-scramblage, Stooges’ Fun House–esque horn squawk and Miller’s echoed moonhowl are all still there, but so are weird piano-driven boogies (written by closet Procol Harum nut Belcher) and wide-vista, deep-horizon starcore jams.

"We left the gate open," says Miller. "We’d been together for a few years, we were homing in on a little broader, wilier artistic ambitions. For the first two records, I did most of the songwriting, riff writing, general shape of things. On Blue Cathedral, Chasny and Utrillo both had a seriously heavy hand in writing stuff from the ground up. We’ve managed to make real artistic progression. At least if people are like, ‘I don’t like them anymore,’ it’s because we’re too different from what they originally may have hoped for."

When Comets first started, their fans consisted largely of psych nerds, mostly dudes. "It’s rad that those kinds of bros fall in love with some sort of underground music they found," says Miller, "but you’re like, ‘Fuck, is this gonna be our only kind of audience?’ Our audiences have evened out now — a good mix of guys and girls. There may be a punk rocker over here, or a biker over there, or a librarian, hippies that come for the jam aspect. It’s not like playing in the Rollins Band and having to look at sweaty 17-year-old dudes every night, where you hate your audience, they sort of love and hate you. It’s just people trying to catch a good time, just getting off work, just like we are when we go to shows."

Does the volume really contribute to a good time for
librarians?

"Our volumes are cranked pretty high, but my Twin Reverb probably isn’t cranked up all that much more than some alt-country band. We just play loud. Utrillo’s blood is flying off his hands, beer’s flying around, Noel’s headbanging . . . It’s quite a racket. I can feel it — I can feel the low frequencies, and sometimes the high frequencies between my guitar and Noel’s oscillator, I can feel that rattling my teeth, too. It rattles your bones around, you can feel the kick drums altering the beat of your heart.

"There’s these beautiful drones that are getting inside, making vibrations inside your body. It’s this crazy unification process between the audience members and the music — or the music and the players, for that matter."

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