Margaret Chardiet isn’t sure how to describe the crippling pain that flooded her body last fall, but she says that if you can imagine being stabbed in the side repeatedly by a butcher’s knife, you’re about halfway there. Chardiet didn’t pass out when shock set in. The Brooklyn artist — better known as noise architect Pharmakon — called her mom back home in Pennsylvania, who issued the following advice: “Go to the hospital.”
“My brain wasn’t even working properly,” explains Chardiet, midway through our two-hour interview on the top of her graffiti-covered apartment building. “I thought, ‘Oh right; that’s what you’re supposed to do when this happens.”
Since she could barely move, a roommate “half carried” her to a taxi, as Chardiet tried to suppress the kind of screams she usually lets loose on Pharmakon records, where they’re accompanied by grinding electronics. It took hours of CAT scans and morphine drips before doctors finally uncovered the collapsed organ that was cutting off her blood supply, and the orange-sized cyst attached to it. Chardiet went under anesthesia and woke up to the hospital’s worst-case scenario: losing the organ entirely.
And yet Chardiet couldn’t help but smile: she was no longer in pain.
Chardiet was kept in the hospital overnight for observation and released the next day, but that didn’t mean she was fully recovered. The aftermath of the surgery — three major incisions and a sore abdomen — kept her bedridden for weeks, forcing the cancellation of Pharmakon’s first European tour just days before it was supposed to begin.
But rather than completely derail the momentum behind her Sacred Bones debut Abandon (released five months before her surgery and, eerily, is full of primal screams and grinding, saw-like electronics), Chardiet forced herself to get back on the road just a month after her operation. She also started to develop the songs that would ultimately turn up on this year’s Bestial Burden. As suggested by the cold slabs of meat pictured on the album’s sleeve, the album’s six songs are a meditation on the ways the human mind and body become disassociated from one another during times of duress.
Which is essentially the opposite of how Chardiet feels when she’s performing those songs onstage. In many ways, it’s the only place where she feels whole.
“It’s not really about anger,” Chardiet explains when asked about how she gets into such a violent headspace. “It’s complicated. I usually get really nervous before I play, and sometimes I think those nerves are from that fear of, ‘Oh fuck, I have to put myself in this place now.’ There’s a resistance to that. But as soon as I start playing, it brings up this altered state — sort of like an ecstatic place, in this weird way. I’m not just me, Margaret, anymore. I’m the concept and the ideas and the lyrics and the sound.”
To hear her tell it, onstage is where the line between Margaret Chardiet, a 24-year-old New York native with a surprising sense of humor, and Pharmakon begin to blur. “It’s not an alter ego,” she says. “It’s not a mask. It’s the opposite, a vulnerable, intimate, personal thing. That’s a scary thing to do every night: opening yourself to a room of strangers. But the excitement gets me to that place. It’s sort of perverse in that way, to be honest.”
Margaret Chardiet was born at the dawn of the ’90s in her family’s home in Ridgewood, Queens, not far from the rapidly-gentrifying area where she now lives. While her parents encouraged creativity, the young Chardiet often hid or destroyed her own work as she struggled to find the artistic voice her father (a musician) and mother (a visual artist) already had. As she puts it, “It’s intimidating to grow up with parents who are artists if you happen to be unlucky enough to be an artist yourself.”
“Margaret was a really withdrawn child,” says her sister Jane, a multi-medium artist who currently plays in the ambient-noise project Appetite. “My dad would taunt her and call her ‘space girl’. She was always in a corner playing with a piece of string or performing a play alone. She was just generally in her own world.”
That world startled her teachers more than a few times — especially when they saw the knife-stuck bears and blood-splattered eye sockets she was drawing. They nervously attributed them to “developmental delays,” but Chardiet’s mom saw it as self-expression, and refused to medicate her — a decision she’s grateful for in retrospect. “I feel like [art] is an important tool when you’re growing up. People are too stuck on technology [nowadays] to face themselves or people around them. It bothers me so much I want to forcibly break that down.”
Chardiet took the first, tentative steps toward her career shortly after she moved into Jane’s first apartment in Philadelphia. She planted a cot in Jane’s kitchen, co-opted the cabinets and stuffed her things into the stove. She also forged a pivotal friendship with Jane’s boyfriend over the local noise scene.
“He said, ‘You know what? You’re a total freak,’” recalls Margaret. “‘You seem a little bit left-field; maybe you’d be into this stuff.’ And he made me a mix CD with the harshest, nastiest, most perverted projects on it. I was immediately enthralled.”
“It was a weird whirlwind,” adds Jane, “but once she found out that ‘noise’ existed, everything fell into place. It’s like she had been looking for it all along and just didn’t know it.”
Around 2007 came the first official Pharmakon release, Articles of Faith, a feedback-filled recording featuring Ryan Woodhall of the noise trio Yellow Tears. Shortly after that, she discovered Dominick Fernow of Prurient‘s dearly missed Hospital Productions record shop in the East Village which, when you’re young and curious about the noise scene, was a lot like finding a porn shop at age 16.
“It was always scary and weird,” says Margaret, “with Dominick sitting there, looking at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I think he saw me as trouble at first.”
More like a liability — he actually told her to never come back. But that didn’t deter Margaret from returning every week and buying four or five records at a time.
“I think it was apparent that it wasn’t this mischievous thing,” she explains. “I’d be like, ‘So, the last time I was in here, I got Sex and Death by Macronympha.’ And instead of being like, ‘It was cool!’, I’d tell him why I liked it. I really engaged with him.”
If you track down a Prurient 7” from 2007 called Worm in the Apple, you’ll find a rare early recording of Margaret (credited as “Miss Chardiet”) delivering Fernow’s damaged poetry over scorched synth lines.
“That’s me!” she says with a smile. “That’s my 16-year-old voice!”
PHYSICAL (YOU’RE SO)
In the book Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens, Michael A. Rinella writes, “There is some notion that, early on, ‘pharmakon’ meant ‘that which pertains to an attack of demonic possession or is used as a curative against such attack.’” The dualism of that definition was reflected in Hippocratic medicinal practices, like the use of a squill plant as “both an effective remedy and a potent means to drive out evil.”
This relationship is echoed in Chardiet’s music, which is built on battering-ram beats, electro-shocked synths and vocals that sound like exorcisms. The lyrics, though, read like an attempt to find a kind of peace by confronting life’s most difficult questions. Take the title track on Bestial Burden: As freaked-out keyboards churn, screech and squeal, Chardiet slowly loses her grip on reality, laughing uncontrollably and shouting “I don’t belong here!” into the void.
When she performs the song live, it’s as if the audience is implicated in some unspeakable act — guilty by association, left with little choice but to face their worst selves. That tension is amplified when Chardiet leaps into the audience, shattering the fourth wall and shrieking at fans face-to-face.
“I love to see people squirming,” explains Chardiet. “I can see it in their eyes. To have them come up and say, ‘What the fuck was that?’ — that’s what you want as an artist. You want to reach people; you want to affect them.”
“Her live performance has always been really captivating,” says Jane. “The first time she played in front of a big crowd was at Tesco Fest in 2011. Something snapped in her that night; I remember seeing her go into the audience and look people in the eye. They went berzerk. Some jerk pushed the mic into her mouth and chipped her tooth, and she was bleeding and kept going. Something felt different about Pharmakon after that night. She was owning her material, and it really moved people.”
“It’s more than just therapy or this cathartic experience,” adds Chardiet. “There’s content; there’s a message; there’s words. They are compositions. I’m not just up there flailing around, getting my crazies out or something.”
One person who recognized Pharmakon’s formidable live presence early on was Michael Gira, a performer who’s spent decades mining id-like impulses and repressed desires in his own harrowing music. When the Swans frontman is asked why he asked Pharmakon to be the opening act for multiple tours, he says it all in six words: “Because she is fierce and courageous.”
Another underground icon who’s toured with Chardiet and witnessed her high-wire act firsthand is former Whitehouse frontman William Bennett. Now known as the percussion-heavy solo artist Cut Hands, Bennett played after Pharmakon on Godflesh‘s recent U.S. tour. “Margaret’s music is an absolute breath of fresh air,” he says. “I don’t see it as part of any tradition, because it feels like such a personal statement of expression. That may be a reason why it crosses over to non-traditional noise fans — the total commitment she’s made to her music.”
That commitment extends to the recording process, whether she’s gasping for air against flatlining synths (“Vacuum”), wailing against a wall of moaning machinery (“Intent or Instinct”), or generating frantic, stomach-churning choking sounds (“Primitive Struggle”).
“That idea of the body failing — where I’m pushing myself to a degree where I’m out of breath,” explains Chardiet. “Being completely gutted and spent by the end of it, so there’s no room for anything else to happen — when I don’t reach that, I feel disappointed.”
And while all of that pushing and pulling is exhausting, that’s ultimately part of the point.
“If it’s not exhausting, it’s not worth doing,” Chardiet insists. “If I didn’t put all of myself into it, there would be no point.”
“It is hard for me not to cry every time I see her,” says Jane. “She doesn’t fake things. For her own sake, sometimes I wish she could.”