Priya Ragu’s post-genre sound champions her Tamil heritage
When transcribing this interview, I was in a really bad place. Psychically destroyed, the slow creep of depression and a sense of mental paralysis imprisoned my impotent rage at an intangible enemy. Then I listened to Pharmakon’s ‘Abandon’ again, and it all made sense. Here, I found expression in the crushing pitch of EP opener Milkweed/ It Hangs Heavy, chilling screams drowning in an endless high-frequency pitch, a throbbing ebb pushing against the ear drums, while a distant hysteria bled from behind a wall of pulsating repetition, Margaret Chardiet shrieking viciously “IIIIII’M DYIIIIING!” Strangely, I felt better. “There’s this sort of sterilised, plastic outlook, that a lot of Western culture has, where you’re not supposed talk about certain things,” says Chardiet over Skype from her base and her birthplace in New York. “You’re not supposed to engage in negative thought. Everything’s supposed to be copacetic all the time, you’re supposed to ignore the fact that you die in the end, or you’re supposed to ignore the darker side of the human experience and I think that’s really detrimental for human life. I don’t think that’s healthy.”
“Healthy”, then, must mean to Chardiet the emotional detox of expelling all the fear, the anger, the bile within you when creating so you can be impeccably courteous, if not laconic, over the phone. The 22-year-old noise artist isn’t easy to get hold of. Three attempts on Sacred Bones co-founder Taylor Brode’s Skype account comes after weeks of chasing and rescheduling, Chardiet now moving around an apartment looking for privacy and a decent reception, while typing out, “I’m trying to call again, I couldn’t hear a word you were saying :(”. As sparing with giving interviews as she is with her very articulate answers, Chardiet prefers to keep a personal distance between herself and her project, which might strike you as odd when considering the entirely visceral, exposing nature of her work. But the self-professed bookworm – equally as fascinated by dry Russian literature as “a lot of really perverse French stuff” – thrives on that sense of surface duality that informs her life view. “I’m mostly interested in [Georges] Batailles’ other works like Story of the Eye or My Mother. His fiction works, I think, are the most impressive; the most human and beautiful and disgusting.” Not everyone can equate “beauty” with “disgust”, but then not everyone can hear the relentless crush of Crawling on Bruised Knees, with its motoring assault of what sounds like bombs dropping, above the psychotic hiss of Chardiet’s heavily distorted vocals, and find comfort. But it’s in that pervasive sense of life’s inherent contradictions, its tensions embodied in her very alias, that Pharmakon’s oeuvre rests.
“Sometimes the most intense or poignant reactions that I’ve gotten are from people that have never heard noise music before. They have this very guttural human response to it.” – Pharmako
Pharmakon, after all, is a Greek-derived term that can mean both poison and antidote and you could read the ‘Abandon’ LP title – with its artwork of flowers and a maggot-filled lap – in one of two ways: the total freedom of letting loose, releasing that explicit rage against implicit oppression, or the feeling of alienation that that oppression generates; each interpretation, the cyclic cause and effect of the other, two sides of the same coin.
A native to New York and one of two daughters of life-long punks and artists, Chardiet’s is a humble life view when it comes to her hopes and desires, in both music and her future generally. With no intention of ever leaving the city where she was raised (“if your net is in the place that you would want to be anyway, then it just seems impossible”) and no middle-class affectations to speak of, the performer is content subsisting from her “random bar tending shifts” and the odd babysitting gig for like-minded punk families: “they’ve listened to my record and they know the whole deal, they’re cool with it. It is kind of a bizarre profession for me, admittedly,” she says chuckling. Because, for Chardiet, nothing is worth compromising your art, “even for survival” and she’s grateful for the upbringing that avoided the kind of programming that carries on the myth of “financial security”, a collective delusion that unbelievably survived the economic implosion of 2008. “You can take all these measures and give away parts of your youth, going to college and doing all this stuff… setting up a 401(k). And then your company gets shut down, everyone gets fired and there’s an economic collapse, or your entire industry fails, or whatever it is, and then you have no security, in America anyway. Financially, there’s no set terms for success, so why should I adhere to something that I don’t believe in, for something that’s probably not secure anyway? …As long as you have your passion and you have people around you that you care about, and who care about you, that’s all that really matters. That’s how I was raised.”
“It’s not some absurdist, combative thing that I’m doing. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and if someone finds it offensive, that’s in their mind, not in mine.” – Pharmakon
It’s a refreshing outlook from an artist who’s been surrounded by art and music all her life, living and working at DIY experimental music venue, Red Light District, an hour and a half train ride outside of the city in the Queens neighbourhood of Far Rockaway, with her older sister since she was 17. She’s since moved to Brooklyn’s Bushwick area after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the train line, and while distance no longer serves as a safeguard against the scourge of disinterested “cultural tourism”, Chardiet is actually excited about attracting a fresh audience. “Sometimes the most intense or poignant reactions that I’ve gotten are from people that have never heard noise music before. They’re hearing it with new ears, for the first time, and they have this very guttural human response to it, as opposed to, like, an aficionado’s response to it. That’s always very intriguing to me, to see what someone who is not initiated into the experimental, noise scene, what they hear from it. Because I do believe that when you make something, whether it be visual art or music, whatever it may be, it should stand on its own. It shouldn’t have to be explained, it should be strong enough that someone experiencing it can get the point, they get the message, they get what you wanted them to or they can appreciate it on a level that is real and not just ‘oh, that was cool’.”
It goes without saying that, by volume levels alone, Chardiet thrives on pushing boundaries, even if they are, as she points out, entirely arbitrary. “When people start doing something that some people deem as being offensive,” says Chardiet about the role of subjectivity in her work, “that’s something that an outside source is pushing on to it. But it’s not some absurdist, combative thing that I’m doing. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and if someone finds it offensive, that’s in their mind, not in mine.”
As an artist, she’s unafraid to explore these emotions from the so-called negative, or worse, “radical”, side of the overly simplistic “good/bad” dichotomy that so many people still function on. Because there’s a particular cultural lexicon or social schema some regard as “the norm” and, for people like Chardiet, that comes in direct opposition with her own impulses, that might very well be, not so much internal, as a reaction to external social conditions that have been misidentified as personal defects. “You’re being told that there’s something wrong with you because of the way that you’re thinking, rather than ‘yes, that is true and maybe these are some way to deal with it’, or to make something happen,” Chardiet says about the possible political implications of so-called “medicalisation” of disaffection. Of course, there’s nothing consciously revolutionary about what she’s doing and Chardiet has no delusions about her influence and reach. But in inciting those feelings so often suppressed, through her music, she at least hopes to draw her audience out of their idle malaise. “The purpose wasn’t to set out to be like, ‘oh I’m going to have a revolution and wake people up.’ I think it’s just my compulsion to reach people, in that way, and it’s just something that I have to do, or that I feel is what I’m supposed to be doing, but it was never intentional,” she says, while conceding that there is certainly an element of pathos that produces this kind of creative intensity. “Sometimes I feel that I feel things more or that my heart is more open, or active; that my mind is always racing but I have also experienced more intense things maybe. I think it’s a combination.”
“That’s kind of how I feel about the project. It’s not necessarily something that is good for me, in that way that it’s so tied in to my mental and emotional health and my ideas about the world. When it’s not going well, nothing’s going well, and those anxieties are definitely tied into it. You get this sense that it’s never good enough, you’re never finished but that drive is what makes you push yourself and experiment more, and further,” Chardiet says about her heightened sensitivity and its angst-ridden by-product she channels into Pharmakon, before qualifiying, “But I don’t think that humans would be very interesting creatures if they didn’t have to struggle at all, or have something to combat against.”
Sacred Bones released ‘Abandon’ in June 2013.