Ben Chisholm, Chelsea Wolfe’s Secret Weapon

Photo by Chelsea Wolfe

Ben Chisholm has played on critically acclaimed albums, toured the world and played Roadburn festival. He’s visible in a music video which was uploaded to YouTube over a month ago and has been viewed almost two hundred thousand times. Still, many fans of his work don’t really know him.

The multi-instrumentalist has been playing with Chelsea Wolfe since 2010. His instrumental contributions and sound collages count as indispensable parts of the band’s macabre atmosphere live and in studio.

Chisholm’s fourth album with Chelsea Wolfe, Hiss Spun, will be released this Friday, September 22 on Sargent House Records. Together with Chisholm, we unravel his history with the band, his contributions to Hiss Spun, and recount how he and Wolfe came to join Converge for their ‘Blood Moon’ shows in 2016.

I think we ought to get some background details. What’s the story of your pre-Wolfe work?

Growing up, I played in various punk, grindcore and noise bands around Northern California. Then I started focusing on solo recording projects. There isn’t a lot of past music available. My project White Horse had a boxset released by Weyrd Son in Europe, and another solo project called Revelator has a split 7” released with Wear Your Wounds which is Jacob [Bannon]from Converge’s project. Other than that, my early output is buried on scratched CD-Rs.

And how did you and Chelsea meet and begin collaborating?

I was playing guitar in a different band which happened to play some shows around Los Angeles with Chelsea Wolfe and her band in 2009. I was really into what they were doing and happened to be hanging around the Sacramento area often, so I started playing and recording with them.

You’ve been playing with Chelsea Wolfe for a good deal of time—the official Hiss Spun info sheet calls you a “longtime collaborator.” When exactly did your collaboration with Chelsea begin?

I played piano on a song from The Grime and the Glow, but didn’t join the band until early 2010. Shortly after that, we began recording the songs that would become Ἀποκάλυψις. That was my first real collaboration with the band.

In your own words, what exactly is your role in the band, as a composer but also in live performance?

I try to remain fluid as a collaborator. I help flesh out Chelsea’s demos and contribute extra progressions and sketches here and there. We send song files back and forth, and chip away at them like that. While we’re in the studio, I play a little bit of whatever instrument is needed. For the live show, I usually play bass and keys, and manage any tape tracks or interludes that are being run. For this upcoming tour, I’ll be filling in on guitar for the first time in the band, as our guitarist Bryan takes paternity leave, and I played a lot of guitar on the new album as well.

In Wolfe you perform synthesizers and bass, but you also used sound collages on this album and others. Do you think more in terms of theory and notes, or do you approach music from another angle?

Most of my ideas come in bursts, usually while playing piano or acoustic guitar, and usually in a kind of stoned nighttime “flow state.” I process those ideas later and find the tones and textures that feel right for them. The sound collages and ‘cut-up’ production techniques all happen in that space too. Chelsea is a great editor, she’ll hear one small section, or one element of something I’m working on and find the perfect place for it in a larger piece. Theory kind of comes in after that, adding melody lines or modulating entire sections to fit in different songs. I have a basic education in music theory, but I don’t usually think in those terms while composing.

What’s your approach for collecting sound samples?

I always carry a handheld field recorder with me. I’ve recently started using a smaller version that just plugs right into my phone, and sometimes even a regular phone mic voice memo will do the trick. Chelsea also collects sound samples from out in the world and sends them to me. It’s similar to taking a picture, the quality isn’t always as important as the content.

I know that you recorded a coyote howl in California and put that somewhere on the record.

The coyote’s howl, and a passing motorcycle, is heard during the heavy synth and bass breakdown in “The Culling.” I captured that on my field recorder and ran it through various guitar pedals and cut up the pieces from there.

What was the story behind working with Troy Van Leeuwen in the studio? I’m a big fan of his work in Queens of the Stone Age and Failure, and he did a very good job of integrating his own style into the Chelsea Wolfe sound.

The songs with Troy were originally meant for a side project we were working on. Chelsea sent him demos of “Vex” and “Spun” in early 2015. He tracked his parts at his home studio, some of which ended up on the final mixes. The other parts he played were written and recorded on the spot over a weekend at GodCity Studio towards the end of the sessions. I learned a lot from just watching him play. He’s a cool motherfucker.

You also helped on the Converge ‘Blood Moon’ shows. What was the story behind that collaboration, and what was the biggest challenge in making those album-only tracks come to life?

I’ve been a Converge fan for almost two decades. I had released that split with Jacob a few years prior, and had introduced myself to the band over the years whenever our paths crossed. We hung out with Kurt around Boston and Salem on the first Abyss tour and a couple of weeks later, he called to ask if I’d be interested in playing keyboard with them at Roadburn Festival the following spring. I jumped at the chance, and eventually the project grew to involve Chelsea on guitar and vocals as well. Building out that set was a pretty big undertaking. Kurt sent me some of the original stems from certain tracks so I could recreate those sounds, and organize the backing tracks for what couldn’t be played live. There are lots of hidden gems buried in the songs they chose. Those four shows were very special. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to bring ‘Blood Moon’ together again in the future.

Hiss Spun is the most overtly hard rocking record in the Chelsea Wolfe discography. Most bands get more accessible as they age but your work seems to get angrier and more abrasive. How do you think the album compares with your previous work?

Hiss Spun is heavier as a result of a couple things. One being that we worked on the songs as a band a lot with drummer Jess Gowrie, Chelsea and myself in a room together, playing way too loud. On prior albums, there was a lot more isolation involved in the creative process. The second reason this album is louder is, as I already brought up, some of these songs were intended for a side project, which was going in a pretty heavy direction. The songs from that project felt right in the context of the band, so we harvested a few.

Is there a particular song on Hiss Spun that you’re proud of or feel is a great example of your work?

I’m very pleased with Hiss Spun, I’ve never been as happy with one of our albums right out the gate. It was quite a task to get everything to sit together properly, especially when we came into the studio with upwards of 30 tracks of pre-production stems for some songs, but Kurt did a great job. The way he recorded the drums and guitars is pretty much exactly how I’d hoped he would.

If I had to pick a favorite song from the album right now, it would be “Scrape.” This was the first song we collaborated on with Jess, and it’s built primarily from a sample of a tractor bucket scraping on a concrete floor. My friend Travis actually recorded the original sample on his phone, and sent it to me. I manipulated it from there and built chords, which sound like a fucked up brass section to me. All of this combined with Chelsea’s intense, frenetic vocal performance makes this song feel like a very different approach for us.