For better or worse, supergroups have long been a part of rock music, from Cream to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, from the Traveling Wilburys to ... Audioslave? The recently formed Rangda could be considered an "underground supergroup" of sorts, with all the promise (and potential pitfalls) that tag might suggest. The trio's members—guitarists Richard Bishop and Ben Chasny and drummer Chris Corsano—sport resumes that would make them celebrities in a world where defunct rags like Arthur and Forced Exposure swapped places with Spin and Rolling Stone atop magazine racks.
Bishop is best known for his role in the Sun City Girls, who predated the recent "New Weird America" craze by a good 20 years with their blend of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian influences, psyche-damaged rock, free improv and god knows what else. (He has also released a handful of guitar-based solo albums under the moniker of Sir Richard Bishop.) Chasny's main outfit, Six Organs of Admittance, has been concocting folk-ish, drone-heavy psychedelia since the late '90s, and he also spent several years with Bay Area acid-rockers Comets on Fire. And Corsano is a virtuosic drummer who has collaborated with everyone from Bjork to Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke to improv saxophone legend Evan Parker.
Collectively, Rangda's members have mined a vast musical terrain, spanning the outer reaches of improv, noise, folk, free jazz — you name it. This range is reflected on their debut album, False Flag, released by Drag City this May. False Flag's six tracks run the gamut from "free rock" onslaughts ("Serrated Edges," the latter which recalls the late, great Harry Pussy) to gentler, more spacious pieces (the raga-like "Sarcophagi" and the 15-minute finale, "Plain of Jars"). "Bull Lore," meanwhile, echoes Ennio Morricone's menacing "Man with a Harmonica," only minus the harmonica and plus a couple of paint-peeling guitar solos.
Yet for all this diversity, the music on False Flag is based on spontaneous interplay between the musicians; the "songs" are really more like sketches. As Bishop explains, the process of putting the album together was as spontaneous as the music itself.
"It all happened within just a few days," Bishop said during a recent telephone interview. "We set up a show in Seattle last September, and we had never played together before. The day before the show, we rehearsed [and] developed some of the core ideas of what eventually became the songs on the record. We played the show, and then a day later, we went into the studio and made the record. So it was pretty quick."
This off-the-cuff, without-a-net approach is not unheard of when it comes to improv-based music, where one-off groupings are fairly common. That said, Bishop insists that Rangda is a genuine band, not just a one-and-done side project: "We had to discuss that at first, because I wasn't sure how they thought about it. Because I know Chris has so many different projects, and Ben now has more than just Six Organs.... So it's difficult to find the time to get together and really hash it out or think about it."
Complicating matters is the fact that the group's members are spread out across the country, with Bishop in the midst of relocating from Oakland to Portland and Chasny to the East Coast from Seattle. (Corsano also spent time in Iceland a few years ago while working with Bjork.)
Getting used to new bandmates is not something Bishop has done a whole lot of, relatively speaking. The Sun City Girls maintained the same three-piece lineup for 25 years before disbanding in 2007, following the death of drummer Charles Gocher. Over time, Sun City Girls developed a near-telepathic level of interplay.
"After the first few years," Bishop says, "we became so comfortable with each other [that] we kind of knew how [each other] would react to certain ideas as they were thrown out. And I think eventually that will be the same thing with Chris and Ben. It's just gonna take a tiny bit of time."