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Ben Chisholm: Ghosts in the Attic

10 February 2024

Photo by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

The weather is shifting, moving darkness and winter across the landscape. The rains hit hard, the snow drifts, and Chelsea Wolfe hits with a new album. She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She has burst into the world.
It all fits, and I hide from unexpected storms wrapped in sound and melody. The lights dim, the coffee is hot, and producer, multi-instrumentalist, sonic confidante, bandmate Ben Chisholm talks about where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing, and where it’s going to go.

After the release of Birth of Violence in 2019, Ben and Chelsea had to maneuver a variety of twists and turns before entering into the world of She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She. Life interrupts life, sometimes, and here there was a slightly longer lapse between releases, altering the run of an album every two years. It wasn’t all pandemic related, but Ben informs me the shutdown did play a role in the personal transformations the band went through.

“That down time also led to us having time to collaborate and work on projects outside of the band. There were a lot of big changes on both the business and personal sides of our work. All these factors coalesced and played their part in the time it took to get this record released,” he explains. “We finished tracking and mixing a first pass of the album in early 2022. Then we had a year of behind-the-scenes turmoil which held us up a bit, and finally we re-mixed and finished it in early 2023. In the end it seems like it was all meant to be, and the album is finally coming out at a time that feels right.”

It’s evident that down time for Chelsea Wolfe and the band does not necessarily mean down time for all musical endeavors. Moving lightly between Birth of Violence and the latest release, it almost feels like the separation and collaboration managed to refresh and re-energize the music and sounds appearing now.

There was the release of Bloodmoon: I with Converge in 2021, which might not have happened without the pandemic.
“We were just about to start a European tour in March of 2020 when everything shut down,” Chisholm affirms. “We had to fly home without playing a single show. Within a few weeks of that we began file swapping and writing new music with our friends in Converge. We had played in this same configuration for a special live presentation with Converge at the Roadburn Festival in 2016. There was a lot of chemistry while we worked on that set, which evolved into the Bloodmoon album.”

Asking if the album title hints at the possibility of a Bloodmoon: II, Chisholm tells me there were still quite a few songs in the works, so yes … “The sequel will eventually see the light of day in some form or another, although I would speculate that it could be a long while.”

I bring up another 2021 release, this one on Sargent House. An album titled Self-Surgery by a band known only as Mrs. Piss. It turns out this is a joint effort between Chelsea Wolfe and Jess Gowrie. It hits harder than expected, screaming angst thrash poetics into sludge drum chaos and riot-esque glory. Beautiful stoner grunge noise and heavy mellow moods that break into punked out slivers of sound.

“I didn’t play any part in the writing of the Mrs. Piss record,” Chisholm offers. “That’s all Chelsea and Jess. I’m just a cheerleader behind the board for those two rippers.”

Chisholm continues the earlier thought on how the break might have affected the new album, “I would say both the Bloodmoon and Mrs. Piss albums did inform the writing process of She Reaches Out…. Both of those efforts scratched that itch of heavier music, leaving us ready to try new things.”

New things like the soundtrack for X, Ti West’s film from 2022. Chelsea and Ben moved into the world of soundtracking and film scoring on this project with Tyler Bates, who is an impressive composer to suddenly be working alongside of. I ask how it was to be working with him, and I’m immediately assured it was amazing and a privilege.

“We’ve wanted to work on film music for a long time,” Chisholm acknowledges. “It was really eye opening to watch a film come together from reading to script, to receiving dailies, to scoring to a rough edit, to seeing the final piece up on the screen. It was a real education from a master in the world of film scoring. The X film series has grown a bit of a cult following and I am super grateful to have played a part in it.”

It seems moving into horror soundtracks is a natural progression for these two, but possibly their atmospheric and moody movements could work other styles as well. Perhaps not for a comedy, but one can hear sounds that would resonate alongside the visuals of a Sci-Fi flick or a Crime/Noir film.

“Oh yeah, I’d be interested to score all sorts of films. Maybe not an upbeat comedy, but a black comedy for sure,” Chisholm volunteers. “It’s probably obvious my sensibilities skew towards the darker side, mining for the beauty in the sad-bastard melancholic side of the coin. X was a stretch in certain parts, like making that late 70’s style ‘porno music’ for example. Tyler did the heavy lifting in those sessions, but I was putting down sleazy organ solos to the best of my ability.”

He also mentions working with The Armed, a punk band from Detroit, “I did some scoring on a concert film for The Armed. ULTRAPOP: Live at the Masonic, writing the interstitial music for the non-performance sections of that film and trailer, which I really enjoyed.”

Speaking of films, I notice that thanks to the work Ben and Chelsea did for the Dark Nights: Death Metal Soundtrack it seems like they are now part of the DC Universe. It was the song “Diana”, and it turns out that was also their first collaboration with Tyler Bates.

“He was working as the lead producer on that companion soundtrack for the Dark Nights: Death Metal graphic novel, and through some auspicious coincidences he got in touch with us and asked us to contribute a song, which led to him eventually tapping us to work with him on the X soundtrack.” Chisholm reveals, adding it was also the first time they released music on Loma Vista.

“Diana” is dark and heavy, melodic and cinematic, and while Ben tells me if you throw in the right search terms you can find video trailers for Dark Nights where Chelsea voiced Wonder Woman, I actually think Chelsea would make an amazing Super-Villain.

“I am not actually well versed in the graphic novel/comic book world,” concedes Chisholm, “but I agree Chelsea would make an incredible super-villain character.”

This leads to talk of other songs, like the cover of “If You Have Ghosts” on Light In The Attic’s May The Circle Remain Unbroken. It’s a Roky Erickson tribute, and it’s amazing.

Chisholm agrees, “Chelsea had been covering Roky’s song ‘Night of The Vampire’ in our live sets for a while, and when Light in the Attic approached us, that song was already being covered for the tribute album. I’m glad it was because I really love how ‘If You Have Ghosts’ turned out. It’s one of my favorite vocal performances by Chelsea.”

This leads to asking about other songs that Ben think the band might get a kick out of covering. There are so many songs that would be perfect for putting that Chelsea Wolfe spin on, and not just the obvious. Jump out from under that darkwave and dive into different genres.

“Another one of my favorite covers we’ve recorded is The Cramps ‘Sheena’s In A Goth Gang’ for a Three One G Cramps tribute album. It turned out mean,” Chisholm beams. “As far as other covers, I go through phases of listening to older music and thinking about what could work as a cover for us. I feel like every time I listen to Depeche Mode I start to wonder about covering different songs.”

I imagine a Chelsea Wolfe version of “Stripped” or “Walking in My Shoes” or … or so many choices!

“Covers can be dangerous though,” he interjects. “When you love a song enough to cover it, you want to pay homage, but creatively reinterpret it and change it enough to justify your version’s existence. Certain songs are just sacred and are better left untouched. There seems to be a trend of doing spooky cinematic renditions of older hit songs for TV and movie trailers lately, and a lot of them are crap.”

Photo by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

Aside from working with Chelsea in the past five years, Ben Chisholm has been keeping busy with other projects. His name pops up on Hyacinth, the recent solo LP from David Eugene Edwards (Sixteen Horsepower) as an Engineer and Producer. I’ve been a fan of Edwards since the mid-90’s and that connection gives me a little starlight gleam in my eyes. I remember doing an interview with 16 Horsepower when they played Seattle in 1998, and I also remember being intimidated and awed by Edwards. I ask Ben how his experience was, and how that collaboration came about.

“I first became aware of David about 20 years ago, by his performance in the Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus film, which I really loved,” Chisholm recounts. “Several years later I saw him play in Wovenhand for the first time in Los Angeles, around 2014. Towards the end of their set the power went out in the venue, he barely missed a beat, picking up that ancient banjo-like instrument he has and finished out the set in the dark with no PA, and it was just an amazing set of closing songs he played like that. Then in 2015 we were fortunate enough to have Wovenhand out on a tour of North America. That’s where I first got to know David. For the first couple weeks I thought he just didn’t like the look of me, as he was completely silent, and as you mentioned, I too was intimidated and awed. Then one night he quietly explained that he tries hard not to speak much, especially before shows, to save his voice.”

Then after that initial meeting they kept in touch and got to know each other better, which led to the eventual, and what feels like inevitable, invitation to work on Hyacinth, Edwards’ first proper solo record.

“He sent me over a dozen instrumentals of acoustic guitars with some synth drones.” Chisholm recalls. “I asked him what kind of production he was interested in, and he said his biggest inspiration at that moment was the late great hip hop artist Pop Smoke. He really loved that drill style production, the way vocals sit between the smooth rising and falling bass lines and high-end clatter. Obviously, we had no business making a drill album, and we didn’t, but that reference made for a really cool jumping off point. I am very proud of the record and honored to play a small role in David’s incredible body of work.”

And then Chisholm did some work with Jaye Jayle. The nom de plume of Louisville’s Evan Patterson, who is also the front man of the melodic noise rock outfit Young Widows. This is almost a different side of the same coin, flipping between Edwards’ Hyacinth and Jay Jayle’s Don’t Let Your Love Life Get You Down released last year on . It has a very distinct, familiar, yet original, sound. There’s a dark Americana that seems to flow through a lot of the music that Chisholm is involved in creating, as well as in the sounds of the musicians he is involved with (Chelsea Wolfe, David Eugene Edwards, Jaye Jayle, King Dude). There must be something in that sound that draws him into it.

“Evan Patterson is one of the greatest songwriters I know, and I’m always grateful to be able to collaborate with him.” Chisholm remarks. “I’ve become a bit of an auxiliary member of Jaye Jayle, and I think we have a long road of work ahead of us. Don’t Let Your Love Life Get You Down is my second production with Evan. We also released an album called Prisyn in 2020. Prisyn was more of an electronic duo collaboration between the two of us. All those songs started as sketches he created in the back of a van while on tour in Europe, with music software on his phone. I expanded upon those sketches and arranged them to a finished piece. DLYLLGYD was recorded by the full band in Louisville and then bounced over to me to do post-production and mixing. I worked on both remotely, from my home studio, which is the most common way I go about working. DLYLLGYD is a very special record. It’s heartbroken yet hopeful, which is my sweet spot.”

Chisholm, pauses momentarily, then continues, “I think this is what draws me to that vein of dark Americana you asked about. I’m a sucker for the healing power you can mine in bleak hopelessness. There’s something that happens in the depressed arts where it can wash over you, resonating in harmony with your own sadness, and soothe it away for a while.”

Sliding from the gloomy recuperation of Jaye Jayle and that production, Chelsea and her bandmates went in a new direction for She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She. Working with Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio) as a producer for the first time, they managed to draw some new movements out of the moods being created and shaped.

“We hadn’t worked with Sitek before,” Chisholm reiterated. “But I’ve been a big fan of his work for about two decades now. Sitek had been popping up on various recording nerd podcasts that I listen to and we became intrigued about working with him. We were introduced by our mutual friend, artist Ioanna Gika, and it seemed like it would be a really interesting blend for us to work with him.”

Listening to the final product, it sounds like it was a good collaboration.
“It was an awesome and challenging collaboration.” Chisholm emphasizes. “Dave operates on a level where he deconstructs songs down to find their core elements. He’ll find one little phrase and loop it over and over and over … having us add new ideas, or taking things away, morphing little pieces, jamming along on fucked up drum machines, or modular synthesizers. He pushes you deeper and deeper into the waters until you can’t even see the shoreline of what you had been working with in the first place. It’s in those moments of feeling lost and untethered when you suddenly stumble into something that just feels right. It all clicks into place. When you had just been on that edge of asking ‘what the fuck are we doing here?’, and then it all comes into focus in this hallelujah moment. As Sitek puts it, he’s ‘a master of boredom’. He pushes you and pushes your boundaries. It’s not always fun, but it all pays off. I really love him. We loved working with that mad genius.”

The mad genius has definitely left his mark on the album, but one that’s been amplified and deepened by the work of Ben and Chelsea, and their bandmates Bryan Tulao (guitar) and Jess Gowrie (drums). The band moves with each other, for each other, and then the songs are all warped through Sitek’s wild sound world and brought back around again.
I let the album flow through speakers and headphones, and I’m hit by a couple of songs. On “Everything Turns Blue” there’s definitely a little TV On The Radio vibe, but mixed with a little Earthling era David Bowie buzz.

Then on “Tunnel Lights” the piece moves with a cool deep trip-hop Portishead blue that crashes into a Halou velvet red. Like a slow dance in a David Lynch lounge.
“Whispers In The Echo Chamber” is a growling beauty. Simultaneously ethereal and heavy. That dark Americana is there but mixed with a moody electronic nightmare.

Chisolm goes over the tracks I mentioned, adding that “Everything Turns Blue” originally went into the studio as piano, guitar, and shuffling double time drums, and then was taken apart and reassembled to its current form. Then “Tunnel Lights” stayed truer to the original demo.

“But” Chisholm points out, “it was given a new pulse by Dave’s heavy 808 drops, and those wild little electronic tom fills which I love so much. I don’t play any bass on this record, but on the chorus of ‘Tunnel Lights’, we plugged a bass guitar through a fuzz pedal into an MPC sampler and chopped up the notes to be played by hand. This was the same technique, and same MPC, which Sitek had used on the TV On The Radio bassline in the song “Staring at the Sun”. It matched perfectly.”

Studio talk stirs up another memory, and another favorite factoid is related, “For some reason one of Elliott Smith’s old nylon string guitars was in Sitek’s studio. We didn’t play it as a normal guitar, but I had Jess play hand percussion on the back of its body, which you can hear towards the end of the song ‘Place in the Sun’.”
And that brings him to “Whispers In The Echo Chamber”.
“It’s the first and only song that I’ve created in a phone app,” Chisholm states. “I used a tool called Endlesss and made the main loops which make up the drums and bass of the verses.”

After the sessions with Sitek, a year passed before the record went in to be mixed. “A year of figuring shit out,” muses Chisolm. “In the spring of 2023 Chelsea and I met with the brilliant mixer and producer Shawn Everett (SZA, Alvvays) at his studio in LA to mix the record. After sitting with the songs for a year, we were more than ready to put the final touches on the record, and thankfully that process flowed very naturally, with great ease. It was the perfect ending to the long process of creating She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She.”

I learn that the writing process changes from album to album. The previous album, Birth of Violence, was written solely by Wolfe, and Chisholm just helped with production. Some earlier albums were written just between the two of them. Then She Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She is an album full of shadows, but still it shines. It pulsates with hope, light, and beauty. These things that hit hardest when they are tempered with a knowledge of despair and darkness. And Chelsea and Ben, along with their band, have delved into both sides here. The sparkle and the gloom. A perfect release to introduce their new label, Loma Vista. Their new home for the foreseeable future.

Chisholm agrees on the label and the album, “It has felt great to work with a new team, forging fresh relationships with expanded horizons. This new record was a collaboration between the entire band. We all brought instrumentals to the table, and Chelsea added her vocals to those ideas over time. We mostly wrote remotely through the pandemic. Bryan, Jess, and Chelsea would send me parts, and I would experiment with them and piece them together. We started meeting in person towards the end of 2021 to connect the dots and sift through what seemed to be working. Then Sitek exploded our shit, and to be honest I’ve never been more happy with any of our records.”

Chelsea Wolfe Bandcamp

And recommended listening:
Jaye Jayle
David Eugene Edwards

Chelsea Wolfe Instagram