Music

Pharmakon: The Noisy Sound of Empathy

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Margaret Chardiet, the 26-year-old who has performed under the name Pharmakon for the past decade, nurses a big cup of tea outside a bookstore café in Ridgewood, Queens, about a ten-minute walk from where she was born. She is talking animatedly about the nature of experimentation in music and art, its necessity and its risk. “When you’re truly being experimental, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” she says. A car alarm goes off for what feels like an eternity, but Chardiet — who creates much bigger noise and far more unnerving interruptions with her music — doesn’t skip a beat: “But you’re also hoping that when you do that experiment again, you’ll find a different outcome.”

Chardiet’s avant-garde compositions typically involve bloodcurdling screams, power electronics, and nightmarish soundscapes. She uses oozing synth tones, relentless drones, and corrosive mechanical textures to explore “philosophical, metaphysical ideas.” It’s industrial noise and electronics in the service of the premodern and primordial, and the sound does much of the philosophical exploration, as her abrasive vocals can only occasionally be deciphered as language. That’s one reason Chardiet values the opportunity to talk about her work, which she does with the same confidence she exudes onstage. “It’s really fricking important for me to use the other tools at my disposal to give the concepts and the record a voice outside itself,” she says.

In conversation, Chardiet is intense in her thoughtfulness and articulation, but approachable. Onstage, she is by turns frightening and vulnerable, as her music calls for, and her powerful live shows have helped build Pharmakon’s audience outside of the niche circle normally interested in noise music. Chardiet is wont to crawl offstage to directly confront audience members as she howls like a banshee, or she will warp the framework of an album track into something unrecognizable, finding new directions in the moment. After seeing her perform, “I knew that she was something special,” says Caleb Braaten, who runs Sacred Bones, which is about to release its third Pharmakon full-length, Contact. “That’s what we look for in an artist on our roster, not necessarily the style of music.” It’s not every electronic artist who tours with rock bands like Swans and Godflesh, both legendary outsider acts also known for their all-consuming sets, and whose performances, like hers, can leave attendees with tinnitus and heart palpitations.

“Noise is not music, it’s something else,” Chardiet says. “It’s another platform and it exists in the space in between words and in the space in between sounds, and in that space it leaves more of a possibility for larger thoughts, for bigger thinking, for larger ideas.” Chardiet hopes those larger ideas will attach themselves to Contact. Pharmakon’s previous album, 2014’s Bestial Burden, was made after she’d undergone emergency surgery to remove a fist-size cyst just days before her first European tour. The story provided an easy parallel to a record that depicted the body as an inconsequential bag of bones — “this very banal, unimportant, grotesque aspect of ourselves,” as she put it in one interview — but Chardiet feels “people were so distracted by the personal mythology that the [concepts] never got absorbed.” Her traumatic experience definitely shaped the LP, but it was never meant to define it.

This time, with Contact, Chardiet “wanted to create something that was a living organism, a thing that exists outside the confines of an album,” where listening could trigger a moment “when our mind can come outside of and transcend our bodies.” From the cataclysmic drone that ignites the opening track, “Nakedness of Need,” to the three mammoth thuds that close the album on “No Natural Order,” the doomful frisson sparked by Contact is at the center of Chardiet’s mission. She says her work is meant to offer the opposite of comfort: “When you feel a nagging anxiety creeping up on you, face it instead of suppressing it and sedating yourself.”

Contact is full of truly disquieting tintinnabulation — electronic bursts that resemble slurred tommy-gun fire, chains rattling in the periphery, cooing vocals that are decimated by harrowing shrieks. Ultimately, Chardiet’s intention isn’t to shock or alienate, but to command the listener’s complete attention in the way a live Pharmakon performance does. “I had this big question of why I wasn’t satisfied with the process of putting out albums, why the live shows were always so much more fulfilling for me,” Chardiet says. She noticed that “before you’re even playing,” there are “all these people there for this one thing, and they’re all pushing that [energy] towards you, and you’re pushing it back, and it’s this endless cycle, this feedback loop.” To her, it’s the sort of thing that might inspire “the sobering moment of realizing how small you are.” By “small” she means “we’re all just animals, all just the same…there’s nothing that makes even humanity itself special.” That’s the state of empathy she hopes Contact will provoke.

Conjuring the feeling of a live show’s feedback loop through a recording was no easy feat, though. Working in her apartment’s basement studio, Chardiet would do takes “over and over again without stopping,” sometimes up to half a dozen times. After a particularly grueling rehearsal of “Nakedness of Need,” her vocal cords gave and her throat started bleeding. She spent the rest of the session struggling to communicate with her sound engineer by way of a notepad. It’s a fitting image, in more ways than one, of the artist’s fight to get her message across, of her being “truly experimental” despite the risk of failure. And though at first it sounds like the type of corporeal anecdote she wouldn’t want people to be distracted by, Chardiet jokes: “Yeah, ain’t much to mythologize when it happens a few times a year!”

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