Pharmakon’s New Record Is A Panic Attack – AdHoc

Pharmakon’s New Record Is A Panic Attack

Margaret Chardiet describes the theories of humanity and community underpinning Contact.

This article originally appeared in AdHoc Issue 19.

There are many kinds of fear, but few as fathomless as the one that can sneak up on you when you’re lying in bed at night, thinking about nothing in particular. Suddenly it dawns on you: you are just a collection of atoms, puttering around on a larger mass of atoms that people call Earth, floating around inside a dark expanse of atoms and dead air that just goes on and on forever. Hopefully—for the sake of a good night’s sleep—you’re able to blot out the terror that comes from the recognition of your own smallness, but it’ll probably completely overpower you the next time Pharmakon, aka Margaret Chardiet, walks up to you at a show and screams in your face.

You don’t really need to understand the lyrics to catch her drift, but in the below interview, our medium was words, and the Brooklyn-based power electronics artist had a lot of them when describing the theories of humanity and community underpinning her bracing new album, Contact. The one caveat being that, as Margaret reminded me repeatedly during our chat, an interview was unlikely to do her ideas justice: “I really want people to read the freaking lyrics for this record,” she said. “I laid them out like really blatantly in the liner notes, because they’re the most important thing about it.”

AdHoc: What was on your mind when you went in to record the new album?

Margaret Chardiet: I guess what was on my mind was the fact that the project was 10 years old—feeling like I needed to grow and move in a new direction, and thinking about what that was going to be. The last two records—[2013’s Abandonand 2014’s Bestial Burden]—were immediate, short-term responses to specific events [in my life], whereas with this one, I had a couple years to think about what I wanted to say and do.

What are some ways you’d say the project has changed over the years?

I think I’ve found myself focusing more on experimental thinking and philosophical ideas, as opposed to personal ones. I’m still exploring the concepts of duality and human nature, but I think I’ve allowed myself to get broader, which is a really scary thing to do. If something is very acute and small, it’s easier to explain and converse about with other people.

Were there any books you read that inspired the thinking on Contact?

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. All of the short stories in that book take place in totally different, hypothetical realities, but once you’ve read the entire collection, you realize that there’s this broader thing he’s talking about. That kind of structure was important to me when writing this album. I also read a couple of books by Clarice Lispector. There’s this one—The Passion According to G.H.—where she talks for the entire novel about killing a cockroach, using this very minute event to describe this wildly radical system of thoughts. I was really inspired by that approach, because I feel like that’s what I’ve always been trying to do.

What sort of metaphysical ideas were you processing?

Keeping it short and broad, this record is about man’s desire to place himself at the center of the universe—like when humans thought that the sun was orbiting around the Earth. A lot of lyrics came from reading some hyper-conservative, Christian family values newsletter about how the universe was created for us, and how God gave us these gifts. I think that’s super toxic thinking—if you were in outer space looking at the Earth, you’d realize that we’re just one of several species giving life to Earth, and that Earth in itself is kind of a living system.

When I was younger, and we would take school field trips to the planetarium, I would just have crazy panic attacks thinking about how small and insignificant I was. Watching movies about outer space always freaked me out—it was worse than horror movies. When we consider how small we are in our brief existence on Earth, and also the brief existence of humanity as a whole, and then we consider how much damage we’ve done in such a small period of time—I think that a lot of people don’t want to think about that.

We want to give meaning to our lives—and that’s why we form meaningful relationships and make art and build buildings. But the problem with that instinct is that it leads people to assume that their existence means more than someone else’s, or that humanity is somehow more significant than other species of animals and plants. It’s selfish, and I think that if people could accept their insignificance, we’d ironically have a better chance of surviving as a species. Because it’s that thinking that makes people do terrible things to each other.

Your artist statement for the record includes the sentence, “All people are only human, and humans are only animals.” Can you explain that thought?

If you imagine an animal, and its liver is failing and it’s rotting away from the inside, but it still has beautiful fur and its teeth are still working and its eyes are still working—that’s kind of how I see us as a species. Honestly, I don’t think that’s a nihilistic idea at all. I think it’s a really hippie idea, because if humans were able to accept their place in the universe—to accept their own mortality—the things that make us destroy the world around us and each other would start to seem so unimportant. I think it would put things in context in a way where people might actually be able to enjoy life.

The statement made me think about how the desire to dominate is itself an animal impulse.

Exactly. And my point in making that statement is that these instincts [that] we think are so special to us, that we think give us this control, actually exist across all animal species. We think that technology is unique to humans— that our creation of technology is what makes us superior—where in reality, a lot of species have different technologies that they use.

I heard that you were thinking a lot about trance states while recording this album. What drew you to that subject?

I think part of it is the idea that we are this sentience—this mind— trapped inside of this body. So that made me wonder, “Well, what are some examples of the mind being able to transcend and escape the body?” And for me, oftentimes, performing live felt like that.

I’d always felt that there was this special thing that happened in a live setting—this exchange of energy between audience and performer—that I wasn’t getting from putting out records. Still, I’m a firm believer that if you put intention into something, people will understand it. When I play shows, people can’t understand what I’m saying half the time, because I’m screaming the lyrics. But then they’ll come up to me after the show and talk to me about it, and they’re very perceptive—they know what I was talking about. There’s this exchange of empathies that happens; you’re exchanging these ideas without using language.

The record is not about trance states, but I decided to study trance states in order to understand how to put that intention into the composition of the record. A lot of the sounds I use in Pharmakon are loops, so I asked myself, “Okay, why are you always doing this?” That got me thinking about the power of repetition and the state of mind it puts you in. Then it became, “Okay, each side of the record is gonna be composed after the four states of trance.” So there’s loops within the songs, there’s loops of the loops, and then each side is going through the same arc, so that the entire record—in itself—is a loop.

Walk me through how the four stages of the trance—preparation, onset, climax, and resolution—play out on the record.

So there’s six songs on it, and the first song on the a-side and the first song on the b-side—they focus on when you’re still sort of stuck, when you’re still in your body, you’re preparing. And then onset is when the realization becomes physical—this moment where you’re leaving your normal state. And then climax and resolution both happen within one song. On the b-side, there’s these three loud hits at the end, and that’s like you snapping back into yourself. And then if you start the record over, you’re back in that static state, and it happens again. The idea was that you would be stuck in this cycle of renewing it.

Do these trance states result in a kind of realization?

The first song on the b-side is “Sleepwalking Form,” which is about this static state where most of us exist 99% of our lives, where we find these ways to keep ourselves in this sort of continuing concussion where we can be comfortable and happy.

And then there’s the onset, where you feel this realization creeping up on you. The lyrics on the b-side are all about this concept of the insignificance of humankind. It’s that moment when you’re sitting in the planetarium and your heart is beating fast because you’re realizing how small you are. When I say “trance state,” I’m not talking about a religious experience. I’m talking about the moment when you viscerally feel the reality of the human condition.

How would you say this record compares to your last one, mood-wise?

Bestial Burden was all about how your mind is stuck inside the body, and I wanted it to feel very close. It feels like you’re in a small space, like there’s something happening right in front of you. This record, if we did it right, will bring people into a space. That’s part of this idea of, how do you have this exchange of energy? How do you recreate that feeling that you have live on a record? I wanted to put you into this new environment, [but also for my voice] to become the room around you. I wanted it to be bigger, but also to take a step back.

Years ago, you told me that you’d get really nervous in the lead-up to a performance, and that all that energy would come pouring out once you started playing. Has the anxiety lessened at all with time?

No. I haven’t been playing live as much, and now I’m in this weird in-between state where I’ve poured all this energy into this thing, but no one’s really heard it yet. I think it takes a lot more from me now to be like, “That was a good show.” My expectations are super high—I’m way more critical than I’ve ever been of myself and of my live sets. I want to say that it gets better with time, but I think it’s maybe getting worse.

Still, that emotional catharsis is part of what makes your live set so engaging. Would you say that you need other people around you to access that state?

This album was recorded in a real recording studio, where I did the vocals in a booth, completely by myself. Live, there’s a huge force of energy that comes from a bunch of people in a room standing around, all waiting for the same thing to happen. Everyone is setting this crazy intention, and it creates this hyperbolic feeling. But when you’re alone in the booth, with every repetition, it’s like another body in the room. If you’re putting [something] into the room over and over again, eventually you hit that one where you feel like it’s coming back to you.

[When I was recording the last song for Bestial Burden,] I ended up packing out the room with five or six people. No one could really move; I was rolling all over them and stuff. I was thinking about doing that for all of the vocals on this record, but this was such a different experience recording start-to-finish. Because I wanted it to be this bigger space that people entered into, the vocals needed to exist in a room, too. Not even conceptually—just like, physically, sonically.

Do you have to lunge around the space, like you do live?

Traditionally, if you’re recording vocals, you’re supposed to have a microphone stationary set-up with a windscreen, and you’re standing and you’re projecting. But for the kind of vocals I do, it doesn’t really work. I have to retch my body to get the sounds out; I have to be able to control how far my mouth is from the mic at different times. It’s almost like that’s an instrument in and of itself—using the mic in different ways.

When we were recording this record, I made Ben [Greenberg] and Kyle [Keays-Hagerman] turn off any air and turn on the heat, too. I’d do two takes, and by the end, I’d be just sweating buckets and exhausted. A lot of the sound of my voice for this project is it failing, being pushed to its limit.

What is the story behind the album artwork?

The cover is me giving a physical form to the idea of escaping physical form. When I was looking into trance, I ended up collecting a bunch of images of this thing called “the laying of the hands,” which is when people are miraculously healed from their wheelchair and get up and start walking around. There are all of these images of people in these trance states, and they always have this glisten to them—this kind of ectoplasm made of perspiration and tears and snot. I wanted [to use that viscous substance to convey] this connection between the fingers and the body, so that you could physically see the transference of energy. It’s supposed to feel overwhelming, because it’s that moment when you’re not in your sleepwalking form anymore. It’s the moment of onset. The moment of contact.

Download a PDF of AdHoc Issue 19 at this link, and look out for physical copies both at our shows and at record stores, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers throughout the city. (Those of you outside New York City can order a copy as well.)