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Left Field: Pharmakon’s Self-Cannibalizing Noise, Plus Psychedelic Sitar, Piano Minimalism, and More

Margaret Chardiet’s harsh somatic noise has been a staple of the New York City underground music scene for the past ten years. As Pharmakon, she’s released three albums on Sacred Bones, each with its own extreme concept and distinctly unsettling artwork: a lapful of maggots on Abandon, a body turned inside-out on Bestial Burden, and a greasy lattice of face and fingers on Contact. It’s always her on the cover, and it’s always her in the music, personal and punishing. 

For her new album, Devour, Chardiet knew she had to eat her own face. Biting into a scarred, opaque mask cast directly from a mold of her own head in the album artwork, she captures the music’s conceptual backing with a visual gesture: this time, it’s all about self-destruction, the self-cannibalization an allegory for the world’s death-drive. “Not just on a personal level,” she tells me, “but as a species, as a culture, as a society.” She points to a cycle of suffering on the largest scale, and how tracks it with the body as a microcosm. That people feel pain, and often torment themselves because of it, is both her inspiration and her approach.

Chaos reigns, but there’s a lyricism in her screeches, and a vicious idea of order in the electronics that gnash alongside them. More than ever, the music carries a sense of immediacy and flow, borne from Chardiet’s conception and recording of Devour as two continuous album sides rather than a series of distinct tracks. She sought to mimic the energy of her concerts by recording a live set in the studio with a PA in the room, unleashing everything at once and challenging herself to execute transitions on the fly. As a result, her typically piercing vocal delivery feels more urgent than ever, and manages to amplify the primal, impulsive energy she’s been channeling for years.

More than anything, the album feels like a doubling down on the kind of ambiguous existential static that’s defined the Pharmakon project since its inception. “Pharmakon means poison, and means remedy,” says Chardiet. “This project has always been a survival technique, and a coping mechanism for me to process things, and turn negativity into something visceral and real, and a way to connect with other human beings.” Where others see only uncertainty, Chardiet finds catharsis. In the oppressive churn of the everyday, she’s found her muse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

I know the recording process was different this time around—how did the album come together in the studio, and how did it diverge from what you’d been doing before?

In the past, they were all recorded in studio, and usually each sound was recorded separately so that we could get the best mix and EQ and everything with each sound. But I got really sick of that process, because it felt really sterile, and I just wanted to try something new. I felt that it made the most sense to record it live, because the live aspect of Pharmakon has always been more satisfying to me than the recordings. I thought, why not just do the A side as though it was a live set, and do the B side as though it was a live set, and mimic the live experience by having a really loud PA, a subwoofer, in the room, and do the vocals live with the take, and just mic the amp, and stuff like that. And it worked out so well that I’m kicking myself for not doing it before. I can’t believe it took me three albums to do this. It seems so clear to me now that this is the way I should’ve been doing it all along. 

So it’s a different thing that you get out of live performance versus studio sessions—the live experience of Pharmakon being its own beast.

If you think about live performance as being a medium, there’s something very special about the energy exchange that happens between the audience and the performer, and the physicality of the amp in the room affecting people’s bodies, and that’s something that you can’t mimic on albums. In the past, my goal was always to do something special or different in the recording process for the album that was very separate from the live experience, to take full advantage of the fact that it was recorded and the fact that you could do certain things that you can’t do live, because you don’t have enough hands, or things like that.

And that’s a very valid way to look at it, but I think that for me, this process makes a lot more sense, because I had to basically just rehearse each side as though it was a live set, over and over and over again, and make demos, and listen to the sounds in the demos, and remix them and repatch the synths until everything was just right, and really rehearse the hell out of it, because I knew that if you mess up one little thing in the take, you can’t edit that out really, or change anything once it’s done. And I thrived on that pressure, and I think it gave the performance that same sense of danger and risk of failure that I have live, which really pushes me so hard into the performance.

I was able to not think as much. By the time the recording process was happening, I wasn’t really thinking about the technical aspects of it anymore. I was able to focus on the words and the emotional impact I was feeling. I did something sort of similar in the past. After I had finished the electronics, I had people come into the studio when I did the vocals, to do them kind of live. I think that was me attempting to figure out how to do what I did with this record, but, I think this worked out a lot better.

The vocals on this album have a more piercing quality to them. How did you approach them this time around?

I think it’s partially because I was in a room with this loud PA, and I was feeling the music physically, myself, as I was recording it, and I was running around the room like I do live. You capture all of the chaos that you miss if you record in a traditional way: a little bit of feedback as I run in front of a speaker, or the sound of my vocal chords giving out toward the end of the side because I’ve been screaming, and maybe this is the second or third take I’ve done in that day, of that whole 18 minutes for each side.

Was this way of recording particularly suited to the concept behind the new album? And was it conceived like that from the beginning, with the concept being tied to that live energy?

This album, at the end of the day, is about human propensity towards self-destruction. Not just on a personal level, but as a species, as a culture, as a society. I think I use my music to process things that happen in my personal life, and I turn it into a concept that is more universal, that other people can also relate to. This album was me creating an alternative to self-destructive behavior for myself. So, in a way, the way that I recorded this is tied into that, in the sense that I gave myself something to obsess over, basically. But it’s kind of always that way.

Would you say that process was therapeutic, in a way?

It’s a coping mechanism, for sure. It’s a survival technique.

Conceptualizing things in terms of an A and B side, rather than in terms of tracks, gives the album a very specific flow. Can you talk a little about that choice, and whether or not that ties into those ideas of destruction a human and societal level?

The allegory that I use, to talk about this human propensity towards self-destruction, is self-cannibalization. And it’s in the lyrics, it’s in the imagery, it’s in the video that I’m currently making. But it’s also in the sound, because I used a lot of the same found sound sources, and I re-cannibalized them several times over. I don’t think it’s something that you would notice right away, but if you pay careful attention knowing that, I think you can kind of hear which sounds I’m talking about. They’re manipulated so that they are very different.

But especially the way that the B side ends, in “Pristine Panic / Cheek By Jowl,” it’s two separate songs that are sort of eating each other and forming this one long suite. It starts with this melodic sound, and then it very drastically changes into this other song, but then it sort of falls apart and eats itself and crumbles, and it only returns to its previous state for a very brief time before it gets eaten up and dissolves back into the first sound that we heard in that composition.

So with the sounds and the compositions I was also following this theme of self-cannibalization, things eating themselves and dissolving and transforming into something else, only to repeat the same cycle. The A and B sides are sort of self-contained, but they also need each other to exist. That definitely ties into the conceptual themes of the album.

On “Self Regulating System,” there’s almost this groove to it, this chugging-along. Is that another kind of cyclical gesture, tying back to the concept?

Part of the album is the idea that if we can understand self-destruction as an effort of balancing feedback, in a system that has snowballed out of control with these positive feedback loops of cause and effect—where the cause makes the effect bigger and the effect makes the cause bigger, and it snowballs and snowballs. Self-destruction is a balancing feedback, it is a stop-gap, or interruption, a disruption to that disorder. It’s an attempt, however futile, at stopping those gears from turning, by turning it inward. There’s a lot about these loops, never-ending cycles that repeat themselves over and over again in our personal lives. If you think about all the different forms of self-destruction, a very common individual instance of this would be substance abuse, addiction. Or self-harm. It’s always cycles, and it’s always obsessive thoughts that repeat over and over again in your head. I’ve always worked with loops and this idea of these cycles repeating themselves, but I think that for this album it’s especially apt.

How did you get yourself in the right headspace to record music like this, that deals with these themes?

It was a long process. My albums are always inspired by personal experience first and foremost, and usually, unfortunately, some fairly traumatic experience, some level of pain. And it’s no different this time around. A lot of people I care about a lot suffered a lot, and some people passed away. I watched a lot of people go through these patterns and cycles of self-destruction, and I felt it rubbing off on me, and I felt myself getting set up to follow suit, basically, because it is contagious. And it was happening while fascism is rising globally, and a threat of a new nuclear arms race is happening, and global warming, and everything that’s going on a global, societal scale. The way that it affects people’s individual lives, but also just the backdrop that it sets up.

When you’re living directly in that, you’re still living through it, you haven’t processed it yet. You need some distance before it can be turned into anything. It’s like I said, it’s a coping mechanism, it’s a survival skill to say, OK, instead of falling down this hole, I’m going to stop and put myself outside the situation and look at it, and question why it’s happening. What does this mean? Why is this such a common theme in humanity, on an individual, societal, and species-wide level? Why is this happening in my life, and in the life of people I love? Why is this happening on a global scale? What is it about human beings that have this death wish, this overarching theme of self-destruction?

I write a lot. And a lot of times it’s just this long, rambling prose. In the past, I take these and I take the kernel, the most succinct parts of it, just take a few lines, and then I rewrite it and rewrite it until it’s more like poetry, like lyric. This time, there are so many lyrics on the record that I wouldn’t have been able to fit them all on the lyric sheet, and to be honest I basically abridged them for the lyric sheet.

A lot of them are actually things that I wrote in the midst of having a panic attack, while I was wondering if somebody that I knew was still alive. Calling them, not getting a response, wondering if they’re still alive. And in the middle of a panic attack, writing long rants. And a lot of it is—especially “Pristine Panic / Cheek By Jowl”—is a basically unedited version of something I wrote in the middle of that. But it takes time, then, to make that into something, and have a degree of separation to where you can make it into art. That’s why I think it took so long from the last record for this to happen, because I was still in the thick of it for most of that time. And then, as you’re writing this music, and listening to it, and writing these lyrics, and reliving these things, it’s very emotionally intense, and physically intense. Preparing for this record was this really extreme experience. But then it made recording it this extreme catharsis.

Where does Devour fit into the Pharmakon cosmos?

It definitely has a huge relation to my past work. In some way, this feels like a very transitional album, where I have all these thoughts and ideas for how to go forward, that I think are gonna be bigger leaps next time. But this feels like the thread that is gonna tie it together. All the other albums had little aspects of this in it, and it feels like this one really describes the project as a whole a lot better.

Even the name Pharmakon means poison and means remedy. This project has always been a survival technique, and a coping mechanism for me to process things, and turn negativity into something visceral and real, and a way to connect with other human beings. This album does that in a way that I’m really excited about, to the point where I kinda don’t even care if other people like it or care about it as much as I do. Because I think I understand something about my project now through this album.I think I understand where I need to go with it now, in the future. Which is cool.

I don’t necessarily agree with this, but there’s this Derrida thing where he talks about written language being a pharmakon, because it’s some all-original thought, and every time that you speak now, you’re referencing something. A lot of people are like, well, if you have all these conceptual ideas, why aren’t you just a writer? And it’s because I don’t think that that’s enough. I feel that there’s something alchemical that happens in music, that goes to something inside of people that is beyond intellectualizing.

The project has always been about viewing things as being at a point on a spectrum, and so there’s always the opposite side of the coin. For this record, it’s like, people think about self-destructive behavior on the individual level, and there’s a lot of shame and guilt and blame, but what people don’t realize is that it’s usually a symptom of something much bigger, and that if they take a step outside themselves and they look around… I would make the argument that anyone who, in this world, in this culture, is happy, sane, well-adjusted, and complacent, that they’re completely insane. That’s the person that you have to worry about—about who they are, and about their humanity. It’s natural to be struggling.

You’ve been in the New York experimental scene for a while, came up in it. Does this album feel tied to home, or to New York, or to the people who were around you at the time you were thinking about all this?

It’s more tied into what I was going through, and the people. It’s about home in certain ways, but it didn’t all happen in New York. And it’s about an issue that is not unique to the underground scene in New York—it’s something that’s happening all over the country, and not just in underground scenes. If you look at pop culture right now, all the songs are about just getting as fucked up as you can and forgetting everything. I think it’s something that’s really a national, generational issue, for most people my age.

I remember first thinking about that when “XO Tour Lif3” got really big, and the biggest song in the country was “All my friends are dead, push me to the edge.”

Yeah. Because
so many people could relate to it. Because so many people have felt that feeling of looking over the edge and wanting to jump.

New releases

Countless experimental releases arrive each month, on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, as self-released cassettes and LPs, and on any number of small labels. Here are a few of the most noteworthy and exciting from August.

Ami Dang – Parted Plains

Ami Dang, a sitarist, composer, and electronic musician with roots in South Asia and a current home base in Baltimore, has said that she envisions her latest album as the soundtrack to an unwritten folk tale—one that lies somewhere between the East of her heritage and the West of her current life, between the traditional music associated with her chosen instrument and the disembodied modern sounds of the synths with which she accompanies it. That description may bring to mind the uncanny “fourth world” music of legendary avant-gardist Jon Hassell, which is an apt point of comparison: the music of Parted Plains evokes a similar sense of historical, geographical, and sonic disorientation. Dang’s improvised-sounding sitar meanders through splattered and amorphous electronic soundscapes that have all the crisp definition and thunderous sub-bass of modern pop, but none of the regimented rhythm. She plays slowly and thoughtfully over long and deliberate chord changes, so that the instrument often functions more like a bit of tonal seasoning than as the main course per se. The most striking moment comes during “Make Enquiry,” when a steadily pulsing synth arpeggio suddenly takes on the timbral character of the sitar, and it becomes difficult to tell one from the other: what’s “real” and what’s electronic, which sounds are flowing through the air from Dang’s hands and which she is generating from somewhere deep inside a computer. One gets the sense that she likes it that way. —ANDY CUSH

Laura Luna Castillo – Folksonomies

The Mexico-based Laura Luna Castillo—who is an accomplished visual and multimedia artist in addition to her music—creates instrumental assemblages of lo-fi loops, glowing analog synth lines, emotionally charged string section work, ambient field recordings, and crunchy 8-bit sounds. Folksonomies is full of little symphonies to the night sky, using its disparate homespun sonics to channel an unabashed yearning for transcendence. This quality feels slightly out of time in 2019. Despite the music’s lack of vocals, it is strangely but distinctly reminiscent of a particular (and particularly Canadian, for some reason) strain of ‘00s indie: kitchen-sink orchestras like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Broken Social Scene, especially the latter’s more ambient- and post-rock-leaning instrumental work; but also yelpers like the Unicorns and Islands, who weren’t afraid to put a thrift-store keyboard next to a cello on a pop song about the immensity of death; and maybe even early Arcade Fire, back when their desire to change the world hadn’t yet so thoroughly eclipsed their love of making a big, messy racket. Those groups thrived on collective catharsis, but Castillo works alone. Accordingly, her music is internally focused even at its most outwardly accessible moments. There’s a steely reticence to most of these tracks, a willingness to explore long stretches of quiet and noise without obvious climaxes, that counterbalances the starry-eyed aspect, keeping the music from approaching the twee sentimentality that a few of the aforementioned bands indulged in from time to time. Folksonomies is gorgeous and quietly assured, aware of its own limits, full of feeling without ever telling you how to feel. —ANDY CUSH

Leo Svirsky – River Without Banks

Pianist-compser Leo Svirsky recorded this album with an ensemble including strings, trumpet, electronics, and a second piano, though you might not know it on first listen. These six patient pieces draw their power from the crystalline tones of Svirsky’s instrument, quietly spinning out waves of rippling consonant harmony, with only the occasional Romantic flourish to break the spell. When the other instruments make themselves known, appearing as far-off clouds on “Rain, Rivers, Forest, Corn, Wind, Sand” and “Trembling Instants,” they seem to emerge from within harmonic spectrum of the piano itself, appearing semi-distinctly for a few moments before disappearing again into Svirsky’s gentle chording. The effect is blissful, if not entirely unfamiliar, bringing to mind modern classical touchstones like Erik Satie, Morton Feldman, and John Luther Adams, as well as contemporaries like Kelly Moran. Press materials for the album mention Gas, Wolfgang Voigt’s long-running ambient techno project, a surprising but apt comparison, considering each artists’s subtly varying repetition and reverence for the mysteries of nature. At its best, River Without Banks channels the feeling of sitting in quiet solitude near a stream or in a meadow, certain that everything around you is somehow connected. —ANDY CUSH