“Sometimes you have to become an animal to feel human.”
Abandon is one of the most unapologetically fierce and deeply personal albums of recent years. Its raw and instinctual roots spawn from a wonderfully gifted, honest, and creative musician who has just returned from a States-spanning tour with Swans (and is about to set on a European tour) and whose debut album has seen her rise to acclaim.
It was in this context that I approached Margaret Chardiet with questions about Pharmakon, a project so personal she considers it wholly an extension of her darkest experiences.
Pharmakon has been active for more than half a decade now. How has the project progressed sonically since you first started recording?
The earliest material was sonically brasher, but flatter. It was compositionally simpler, shorter, and more repetitive. Then I got more patient, and experimented with including more rhythmic elements, and using sounds that, while on their own may not be as “harsh,” are more dimensional, and ultimately created something that is emotionally and viscerally much harsher.
You have spoken about how important it is to make your audience feel something, and that desire seems to stem from living in a city environment wherein people are forced to live in very close proximity. Other than looking at people directly in the eyes during your performances, how do you find that your recordings and your live shows interfere with that personal space?
As an audience member, you are an observer watching a spectacle, isolated and separate from the actions taking place on stage. I want to interfere with that. I want to play to people, not at them. To reach the individual humans that make up the “audience;” to interact and engage with other people, not just perform an act in front of a group of people. It is different for every show, because the people are different and the energy is different. It isn’t planned, it’s a reaction to the specific environment.
Before shows I am a raw mess of nerves, and I always think, ‘Why do I do this to myself?’ But as soon as I’m done playing I realize, ‘Oh yeah, that’s why.’
Red Light District was located way outside of the city, and because of the distance, you have mentioned that cultural tourists would not be interested in making a 90-minute subway trip to see a show. How interested are you in sharing your sound with people who might not otherwise be interested in noise?
Playing to, or being heard by, people who are not “initiated” into the insular scene of experimental music is exhilarating. With this record, it became important to me to truly experiment and step outside of my comfort zone by sharing it with people who would’ve never heard it previously — to test whether the content could speak for itself. To see if my work was capable of standing on its own artistically, without resting on the backbone of reference or the familiarity of a controlled group of listeners.
From what I gather, you were approached by plenty of labels who wanted to put out your material. What made you choose Sacred Bones?
It happened very naturally and serendipitously. Caleb and Taylor had been to many of my shows, and we kept finding ourselves in the same place at the same time due to various mutual friends. When I found myself alone, in despair, and without a home, I made the spontaneous choice to go on a monthlong tour that I was originally only supposed to be on the first four days of, with Cult Of Youth, another band on the label. That choice saved me in many ways and it is during this time that I wrote the bulk of material on Abandon, and decided to record it with Sean Ragon (of Cult Of Youth) upon returning home. Sacred Bones offered to put it out, and it was the perfect home for it. It just belongs there.
The label blurb quotes you as saying Abandon is about, “Blind leaps of faith into the fire, and walking out unscathed.” From a listener’s perspective one has to have faith that this project is true and meaningful to its creator, and that’s what makes it so captivating. However, I also come away feeling somewhat impaired after each listen, because of the album’s abrasive nature. I realize that your comment is ‘about’ Abandon and not about its impact, but could you unpack the metaphor a little?
It is a lot to ask of a listener to enter the space that Abandon occupies. It does impair you, because it is the sonic and lyrical manifestation of a lot of dark experience. The reason the label blurb is more poetic and metaphoric than literal regarding the content of the record is because it IS so incredibly personal and meaningful to me.
The live performance, from what I have seen online, is distinctly raw and emotional. How do you feel physically after a show?
Relieved. At peace. Before shows I am a raw mess of nerves, and I always think, “Why do I do this to myself?” But as soon as I’m done playing I realize, “Oh yeah, that’s why. I feel like a human again.” Sometimes you have to become an animal to feel human.
As an audience member, you are an observer watching a spectacle, isolated and separate from the actions taking place on stage. I want to interfere with that. I want to play to people, not at them.
I have never seen you live, and won’t get the chance to until you play in the UK. What are your thoughts on bringing the project to an international audience?
I am so lucky to have the opportunity to play overseas. European/UK noise, power electronics, and industrial music have always been distinctly different from their American counterparts in aesthetic, mood, and form. To simplify it, the European contributions to these genres tend to be colder, bleaker, and more patient, while the American contributions tend to be hotter, more violent (as opposed to depressive), and quicker. I think that possibly my music is very American in this sense, and I am interested to see how it fills the space of a different cultural landscape, and how it is interpreted by an international audience.
Does your lack of online presence come purely from the repercussions of instant online gratification and the attachment people have to their cellphones and instant image/video sharing?
Most social media is so much about selling yourself — presenting a consumable version of your self to appeal to others. I am not interested in this consumeristic view of the human experience or the people around me, and don’t wish to participate. It is a personal choice relevant to this specific project… it just doesn’t fit with the content and purpose of the music.
Generally speaking, live performance is changing just as much as music consumption. Experiencing a performance in-the-moment is becoming somewhat of a rarity, as even at the smallest shows people won’t switch off their cellphones. How do you combat that distraction when taking into account the larger audiences you are now playing for?
If you take out your heart and place it in the palm of someone’s hand, there is no space there for a phone.