"I feel like I've been personally anchored to a lot of hard times," Owen Ashworth says, when I reach him by phone.
It's my fault we started off on this sad note. I just had to tell Ashworth, who made music for 13 years as Casiotone for The Painfully Alone, that his records had meant a lot to lovesick college sophomore me. His response? Totally used to it.
That's because, in his words, he "was trying to write songs about tough feelings, figuring out what kind of people people are going to be, the hard relationships they go through, the weird transitions." That mindset led to songs like "I Love Creedence," a two-minute tale of best friends grown apart after adulthood intrudes, and "New Year's Kiss," where the titular moment happens not "on a balcony with champagne lips/but in a pantry against the pancake mix." Songs about riding a train, waiting for a plane, missing a bus become quietly devastating in Ashworth's hands.
But the Chicago-based musician has set aside the Casiotone moniker and moved on to a new electric piano project, Advance Base. Advance Base isn't entirely dissimilar to Ashworth's previous releases as CFTPA, and not just because project shares a name with a low-key Casiotone release called Advance Base Battery Life. His tracks are still pleasantly intimate in sound and lyric, little vignettes sewn together with minimal, twinkling arrangements. He dropped one full-length, 2012's excellent A Shut-In's Prayer, with that project – and has another in the works – and released a duo of EPs reworking the tracks from folk legend Washington Phillips and The Magnetic Fields.
He'll play in Indy on Sunday with Mike Adams at His Honest Weight. Buddy Buddy, an improv comedy troupe, will open.
NUVO: In your opinion, removing lyrics, what qualities make your music read as "sad"?
Owen Ashworth: The songs [of Casiotone] are for the most part about the worst time in my life. The worst time in my life, the worst part in a lot of my friends' lives. Songs are, although not totally 100 percent diary-accurate, very much about [that]. This wasn't necessarily anything premeditated, but [the songs] are about the time in people's lives when they are the most self-obsessed and figuring themselves out and having a really tough time. It also happens to be the time in life when people lean on music the most as an emotional crutch. When I was writing a lot of that Casiotone material, there was a lot of really heavy emotional material that was inspiring and influencing me. I was writing very much about that very heavy time that I think people hope to forget when they get older. Being that its myself, I didn't have that perspective at the time. ...
I was trying to write songs about tough feelings, figuring out what kind of people people are going to be, the hard relationships they go through, the weird transitions.
NUVO: When you changed projects to Advance Base, did you discard material you had earmarked for future Casiotone releases? You changed names, changed from a Casio to a Rhodes piano. What else did you put away?
Ashworth: A lot of that music I just felt was kind of emotionally exhausting. I had the choice of either faking my way through it and not really committing to it but playing it because that's the stuff people want to hear or... I was having a rough emotional time actually playing it, because it's difficult music to get into at that time. There was a point where I was like, "This isn't fun. I'm not enjoying playing a lot of these songs."
It was all electronic music, and there was point where I had been touring so much that I had really damaged my hearing. I damaged my hearing making that music. And there were just particular frequencies in that music that were [causing] crazy, psychosomatic reactions. I was having a crazy emotional response just to certain tones, which sounds nuts. But the music was just making me angry. It was tough! There was a point where I was like, "I've just got to do something else." I was touring a lot, and was hitting a point in my life where being away from home was a lot tougher. I needed a clean break. I needed to go home for a while, figure out what I wanted to do with music.
So I bought a Rhodes and started playing much quieter music and just kind of tried to slowly reintegrate music into my life, some fresh sounds. I started playing some of the old songs again; I'll sit down to write and start playing something and realize I've already written that song. But hey, if it sounds good to me now, why not play it again? So I've got a few old songs that I've been playing in a new way again.
NUVO: Tell me about the Washington Phillips EP that you did. That was mastered by the same guy who mastered a posthumous reissue of his recordings. How did that come about?
Ashworth: There's a label called Mississippi Records in Portland. My brother Gordon [Ashworth] is pretty good friends with the guy who runs that label. Gordon told me that I should check out this Washington Phillips record that they just put out, and I was totally mesmerized and obsessed by it. He was a Texas street preacher and a gospel music performer in the '30s, down near Austin, Tex. He invented his own instrument, a modified zither. And he made this music that did not sound like anything else I had heard before. Honestly, it came from heaven. It just sounds like harps, magical harps.
He's a really great singer and songwriter, and there's a lot of mystery surrounding him. So I got kind of obsessed with the whole mythology of him. Trying to figure out how to make his music, I, in the process taught myself a bunch of his songs. I liked the way they sounded on piano, so I decided I would try and record some. I think as a financial venture, covering gospel music from 80 years ago isn't something that most young people are most excited to hear, but it was a really important thing that I wanted to document for myself. And he influenced my writing a great deal, and the way I play music.
NUVO: I just learned that "Jim Wise" on Mark Kozelek's new Sun Kil Moon record Benji was your track. A Shut-In's Prayer came out on his label, Caldo Verde, yes?
Ashworth: I met Mark when I was pretty young, maybe 20, 21. I was working at a movie theater that he came to a lot, so we got friendly that way. We ended up on a few festivals together ... and I sent him the last Casiotone album, and he sent me a really, really nice note, like, "I like this a lot more than I thought I would; this is great." Then, he wrote again and said, "Would you mind if I covered one of these songs?" I was not expecting that at all. It was a song called "Natural Light," which was on the last Casiotone record. He offered to help me put out a record – I feel like it's a real big brother/mentor kind of relationship.
He asked me if I wanted to write anything for his last record, and I happened to have this unfinished instrumental that I had been kicking around forever, didn't really know what to do with. So I was like, "If you want this, you can have it." He ended up making a really great song out of it. I just played piano on a couple of other songs, supported a couple shows for him.
NUVO: Tell me about your musical relationship with your brother Gordon. Your label Orindal Records will put out his latest, Misfortune, next month.
Ashworth: His music is really mystifying to me. We've done a lot of tours together, and I try to keep my questions to a minimum with what he does. It's just like magic to me. I don't get it, and that makes it really exciting. He makes tape music; he'll have three or four 4-tracks running enormous tape loops between the machines. And it's all based on source material and field recordings that he does and manipulates and turns into his own music.
We have a lot of music in common, he recommends a lot of music to me and I recommend a lot of music to him. We have a lot of similar tastes, but it just comes out really different. ... That new album, he basically used a hospital parking garage as a reverb tank. He would just blast music and record it from the other side of the garage. He's a taxi driver, and he mostly works overnight, so he gets a lot of really strange field recordings, a lot of guerrilla recordings in the middle of the night in different areas in Portland.
NUVO: The release forthcoming from Nicholas Krgovich called On Cahuenga is beautiful. I'm a big Mount Eerie fan, so I was excited to see he recorded it.
Ashworth: I met Nick when he was like. The first time I played in Vancouver we ended up on a show together and really hit it off. He sings on a Casiotone song called “Old Panda Days.” This record is an electric piano one, and all songs are from an album called On Sunset that's coming out really soon [Oct. 7 on Tin Angel Records]. We did a tour together last year or two years ago, when he was first starting to play those songs. He didn't bring any instruments on the tour, he just played all the songs on my Rhodes. So his records are usually very produced. He's Canadian, so he will apply for these grants. It's amazing – he'll get orchestras to play on his records. He's a really genius producer and arranger. But [that tour] was the first time I heard him play songs that stripped down and that directly. That's the way music works best for me, personally. I kind of begged him to make an electric piano record. He recorded it with Phil [Elverum, of Mount Eerie] and it ended up sounding so great.
(Editor's note: This interview has been condensed and edited.)