Owen Ashworth has been quietly going about his business for 20 years now; first as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and now as Advance Base. He has built up a formidable discography of homespun but always beautiful music, the kind that guides you on lonely walks home from nights at the pub. Earlier this year, James Turrell and Owen met up for a chat where they discussed everything from dogs to Charlie Brown’s Christmas to The Great British Bake Off Baking Show.
With Animal Companionship, which came out last October, it’s kind of an idiosyncratic theme. A lot of the press has been ‘it’s an album about dogs’ which is not quite true.
There are a couple of threads going between the songs and pets is definitely a theme.
It seems to me about how people’s relationship’s with pets reflects other relationships they might have. So songs that have a dog in them are really about romance or parenthood. How did that theme emerge?
It just kind of naturally started showing up in my songs. I feel like there were a few friends of mine that had dramatic incidents with pets lately and all these strange animal things kept happening when I was in the middle of writing the album. My neighbor across the street he rehabilitates exotic birds –
What does that entail?
Basically, it’s like a halfway-house for exotic birds that have been injured, and he re-sells or they go to a shelter. And he has all these parrots and stuff in his house, and we can hear them squawking and stuff. I have little kids and one bird escaped and flew directly to our house and landed on the telephone pole on our roof and for close to like 48 hours the bird wouldn’t come down. It was squawking really loudly and attracting crowds, every time I looked out the window there would three or four people looking and taking pictures.
Your house was famous!
Yeah the house was famous for a while and eventually the bird came down. But this was just one of many things, I also had friends who needed very expensive, bizarre medical procedures for their pets. This cat showed up in my yard and we ended up adopting the kitten – well, it adopted us really. Just over the course of like six or eight months, these weird things with animals kept happening. I had already written a few songs about dogs or people’s relationship with pets and then I just really leaned into it, it was like some kind of sign from the universe. But every record has some threads and kind of consistent themes going through it. And once I have basically a couple of prompts or ideas about the shape of the record, it works as a guide to what kind of songs I want. But especially with the press campaign and the fact there’s a dog on the cover and my label are much more shrewd with marketing than I am, they really leaned into the dog angle. And I was a little skeptical, but the response has been great. I mean, a bunch of people who really love their dogs have responded to it.
Do you think you have picked up some new fans?
I do yeah.
The label had the photo contest where people sent in a picture of their dog and they made this slide-show for the video for this song called Your Dog. People posted pictures of their parent’s dogs back home and then sent their Mom’s to go watch the video. And then I would get these notes from the Mom’s saying, ‘I never listened to what Danny likes but this was wonderful and thank you for putting our dog in the video.’ So I think it was a smart idea as a hook but I’m a little embarrassed because it’s not that much about dogs. I mean there are dogs in the song and there is definitely some appeal for dog owners but it’s not like a ‘How To’ manual for how to adopt an animal or anything.
Can I use this line of questioning to tell a funny story about my dog?
It was a boxer, quite a big one and every morning he used to sit at the top of the stairs, and he could hear the postman doing next door’s post –
And as he closed the gate of next door, he would stand up and has he opened our gate and got towards the door and just before he put the post through, he would run as fast as he could head first into the letter-box.
It used to be my job to hold him back to stop him from doing it.
Did the narrativized lyrics develop naturally or did you start by wanting to write in that style?
No, it’s the only way I’ve been interested in writing songs. All through being a fan a music it was my perception of how songs were written, I just assumed everything was fiction. I always thought they were really good stories, like these Willie Nelson records my parents had. Or Paul Simon’s Graceland was a really big deal and my Dad had this one live Bruce Springsteen album. And so I’d hear these songs and they always sounded like great stories, and I was just trying to recreate what I liked about music in the first place.
The lyrics are very conversational I would say but really tight rhymes and meter. Are you finishing the music and then writing the lyrics from scratch or do you have lines written down like ‘One day I might use that’?
Words usually come first with me. There might be a melody or one line that I might build a song around and I’ve gotten better at it recently but for a long time I used to find it really difficult if I had music to start with. I just felt really sunk trying to match words to it. But the song Rabbits on the record, I finished the entire instrumental and then wrote three sets of lyrics before I decided which one I felt worked best for the song. It was an interesting way to do it because if you have rough drafts of lyrics you can strip a song for parts and there is another version of that song that is still kicking around in my head that might end up on another record. But typically, it’s the words, or at least some kind of melody and the feeling I’m getting from it will dictate the mood of the songs.
Are you writing complete drafts and then doing re-drafts?
Oh yeah it can sometimes take me a couple of years to finish a song. Yeah, sometimes I’ll have a really good idea and then sometimes my wife will have the kids and I’ll have four hours to myself and I’ll spend that time just working on the song. It’ll get to a point where the music is finished and I have pretty good idea of what the song is about, but it will probably be another six months of revising drafts of lyrics before I am totally settled with it. Recording this record was a little different because I had been recording myself but this time, I went to a friend’s studio in Los Angeles. It was two different sessions and we recorded half of the songs in each session, so I had to have everything ready to go and record. So I would finish the lyrics, have a pretty good idea of what the arrangements would be and then it was just a matter of building up the track in the studio. And then once I had recorded the first batch, I kind of saw what else I wanted to do with the record to make it feel more well-rounded.
It feels like a slower and softer record this one compared with the previous two Advance Base records?
That was partially recording in a nice studio. I felt like I had to more space in the mix to have things be really clean and spacious. And I was just trying concentrating on getting really nice sounds but lyrically I think it’s a more brutal record than the last felt. And I wanted to present the lyrics in the most gentle environment possible, I thought of it like sitting someone down before giving them bad news. I told Jason who engineered it that I wanted it sound peaceful like a therapy session or something.
Every album you’ve released since Etiquette you’ve put on a Christmas song and obviously with the Advance Base records there’s always a song called ‘Christmas in -’ and then the name of somewhere. I am unashamed Christmas music obsessive.
Why do you keep going to back to that theme?
It’s just a really fun thing to write about. It’s a real love/hate thing with the holidays because they can be super depressing. It’s just a really emotionally volatile time and it’s a real shortcut to putting someone in a headspace of – you hear Christmas and you immediately have what your own emotions are towards it. And it’s just a really fun genre to play with.
Yeah definitely. What are some of your favourite Christmas songs?
I really love the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts Christmas, I mean I listen to that year-round, it’s wonderful music. That was a huge sonic influence on me and every time I am making an album, I’m thinking about something from that record. I have a John Fahey solo guitar Christmas record that I really love, and my brother gave me this African Christmas record called Missa Luba, which is great I listen to that every year now. The Mark Kozelek Christmas record I love, and my kids really love it, which is great and I think it’s really classy. There’s some Gene Autry Christmas stuff that we listen to every year.
This is great, I’ve not heard of any of this.
Are you kidding? You know the Peanuts stuff right?
Yeah I know that that album exists.
That album is sensational.
Peanuts in England, particularly for people my age, it’s not really a thing.
That’s a shame.
I know it a bit. But I’ve never really listened to that album, I’ve heard some of the songs though.
All of those early movies are great, and the comics are great, and I think Charles Schulz – that dude is a massive influence on my life. I grew up with Peanuts and I thought about Snoopy a lot while making Animal Companionship. I don’t know if you know the comics but Snoopy has this brother named Spike in the Mojave Desert and every once in a while, Snoopy will get a letter from him and they’ll just be this lone panel of Spike sitting next to a cactus in the middle of nowhere. That is an image that has haunted me my entire life.
Going to back to the narrative lyrics quickly, have you ever tried writing anything else like novels or short stories?
I’ve written short stories for sure, nothing I’ve really published though. Songs are really the ultimate for me and I just really like doing it. I’ve written essays that have been published here or there and actually I have published some stories in like small zine type things but only really when I’m asked, it’s not something I’ve actively pursued. I draw a lot and I have a book of drawing and an exhibition happening in Bloomington, Indiana right now.
In the first week that I moved back in 2017, I went to see Julie Byrne in a church next to Vondelpark.
It was only doing research for this interview that I found out that you put out her first record.
Yeah and she sings on the first Advance Base record.
Yeah, I only noticed that the other day as well. How did that come about?
Julie lived in Chicago and we played a few shows together and she’s great, I really love seeing her play. She’s a really warm person and we hit it off really fast. Advance Base started as a full band and there were four of us, we were all grown-ups and some of us have kids and some of us have other jobs as well. I got invited to do this support tour with The Rapture, who are old college friends of mine. Nobody in my band could do it and I didn’t want to do the tour solo, so asked my brother Gordon to come along and I was talking to Julie and she mentioned she wanted to tour so I asked her if she wanted to come sing harmonies. So there was a little tour where Advance Base was me, my brother Gordon and Julie Byrne. Singing with Julie was different than with anyone else I’ve ever sang with, it was really fun recording with her, and I recorded that first Julie Byrne 7 inch.
Was that at your home studio?
Yeah and then the album I put out was – she had released two tapes and they had gone out of print. They were great so I proposed we just put them both on a record and then they would stay in print. She left Chicago not long after that but while she was in town we played a lot of shows together.
Am I right in thinking that running Orindal Records is like your day job?
Yeah it takes up most of my time when I’m home.
I’ve only listened to a few records from the label, so I can’t talk about everything and things don’t sound the same but there’s definitely a tone. What are you looking for when you sign someone?
I can’t really explain it. It’s mostly solo artists and there’s just like a certain colour I get from putting stuff out. It has to be someone I personally really like, and I started the label just to put out my own music. I then ended releasing a record of my brother’s called STLA, which I love. And then Julie was the next artist that I worked with and it’s just slowly grown from there. I’ve never really actively pursued other artists but as people started to know the label, artists started coming to me and when it seemed like a good fit, we did it. I have small kids so when I’m home, I’m home and hanging out with them. I was just trying to figure what work I could do from home and running a little mail-order label seemed a thing I could do and still be present for my kids.
Who produced Animal Companionship?
I don’t think there is a production credit. Jason Quever and I had about a thirty second conversation about it, and Jason was like ‘I think we’re both the producers’ and that sounded right to me. I think the record says ‘Recorded and Mixed by Jason’ but I don’t think we did a general production credit. But it just felt like a really good partnership, the two of us. We would let each other know if we had a bad idea but mostly it was encouraging. It was a total delight recording with him. Except for one big fight where I bought a pack of cigarettes for the first time in a year and a half but that mostly just because we had interference from cell-phone towers leaking into these two piano tracks and Jason was having to do insane work EQing out all this interference and static and we both just lost our minds. We had to cover the room in tinfoil to block it out.
Is that a common problem or something to do with just this studio?
It’s happening more and more with cell-phone towers everywhere, especially when you are using vintage gear. Plenty of people are just using VST’s and doing things in the computer but we were using 45 year-old electric pianos and tube amplifiers and a very complicated signal pass, where I was singing through the very old mic through these very old tube compressors, and then putting that signal on tape and routing it back out through an amp for like spring reverb and then back through the amps. The way we doing it was very precarious.
Sounds like it.
But we were doing it the way we wanted. It wasn’t necessarily The Beatles’ music but just because we those sessions are so well documented we were kind of obsessed with George Martin’s recording techniques. And this process called A.D.T. which is Artificial Double Tracking, which is the kind of psychedelic tape worm-hole affect which we used a lot on the record. Jason and I have been talking about psychedelic 1960’s recording techniques for the entire time we’ve known each other and now he has this beautiful studio and all the gear he ever wanted. And we got to make all these dumb dreams come true and it felt like studio fantasy camp making the record. At home I’m recording on a four-track and doing really primitive versions of the same affects and it was great to use the actual equipment I had been trying to replicate on no budget forever.
What have you been reading recently?
I bought one book on tour with me it’s a collection of Lorrie Moore stories, she’s great. I’m travelling with my friend Jamie, she’s a writer and we were talking about books about writing she hadn’t read On Writing by Stephen King, which is the best book about writing I’ve ever read, so we’ve been listening to that audiobook in the car. Regardless of what you think about Stephen King’s horror, it’s fantastic. I big fan of Stephen King all round and he was a big influence on this last record, I was thinking about him a lot.
Have you ever seen the film version of Pet Cemetery?
Oh of course.
It’s just hilariously bad.
It’s not great but the book is fantastic and maybe my favorite Stephen King novel. Obviously, Pet Cemetery and Cujo were things I was thinking about writing these dog songs.
I saw in an interview that you are a fan of the Bake Off?
The Great British Bake Off?
It’s Bake Off in the UK but the words ‘Bake Off’ is the copyright of Betty Crocker in the United States.
Yeah so it’s called The Great British Baking Show in the U.S. Yeah my kids like it, and there’s not a lot of TV with my 5 and 7-year-old so it’s great. Do you watch it?
What do you think of Noel Fielding as a presenter?
Did you know who he was before?
Yeah I was a huge fan already.
Yeah me too.
I couldn’t believe it when he took over.
I think it’s good. It’s obviously – in England we call it ‘End of the Pier’ comedy, I suppose in America you call it Vaudeville.
Oh yeah, really broad humour.
But yeah I like it.
I think he’s really charming, I like it too.
I do genuinely think that Paul Hollywood is an awful human being.
I used to feel this way but I’m coming around to him. I love when he’s on screen now, I have a friend and he really reminds me of him but I’ll never tell him this but I think he’s very compelling.
I mean he’s great TV, like Simon Cowell or whatever.
I think I would rather drive across the country with Noel Fielding though.