Owen Ashworth found his relative prominence in the early 2000s spinning vivid stories of lost youth over lo-fi compositions as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. As that project came to a conclusion at the end of 2010, we were left to wonder what might be next. That answer slowly unveiled itself over the last two years to be Advance Base, a project that while still focused on Ashworth’s unique storytelling and creaky vocals, opened up a new world of full band collaboration and organic songwriting. Back in July, a couple of months after the release of his debut effort A Shut In’s Prayer Owen was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the shift to the new project and what he has planned for the future.
Beats Per Minute (Colin Joyce): Hi Owen, how are you today?
Owen Ashworth: I’m good, thanks. It’s Tuesday & my daughter is taking a nap. Let’s see how many of these questions I can answer before she wakes up.
BPM: Much of the early press for this album made a big deal about a shift in fidelity, but it seems to me that shift occurred more with Vs. Children. What would you say is the defining characteristic of the new Advance Base project, in comparison to CFTPA?
OA: When I starting writing songs for Advance Base, I wasn’t worrying about how they would fit into context of all of the songs I’d written before. I was just trying to write songs, one at a time. Advance Base feels wide open in a way that music hadn’t felt for a long time, & that’s an exciting thing.
Half of the songs on A Shut-In’s Prayer were recorded live in a room with other musicians, & half of the album was recorded track by track, mostly by me. Even when I was working by myself, I really made an effort to create a certain kind of roominess in the recordings. Those CFTPA albums feel very claustrophobic to me. I wanted to hear some space this time around, to represent that wide-openness I was feeling.
BPM: There seems to me a lot of nostalgia in your lyrics, particularly in songs like “Riot Grrrls”. Would you say you’re doing a lot of looking back on this album?
OA: It sure seems that way. I was surprised to see what sorts of themes kept showing up in the lyrics. It wasn’t until I put all of the songs together that I really knew where my mind had been. Part of ending CFTPA & starting a new project involved a lot of looking back & figuring out where I was at age 35. I feel like a very different person than I was when I started CFTPA at age 20. Maybe it’s just that there are more years to remember now.
BPM: Has having a child affected your creative process, this is your first album where you’ve had a kid correct?
OA: Our daughter was born in October, and by then, most of the album was finished. Almost all of the songs were written and recorded while my wife was pregnant. I wrote “Goldfish In A Robin’s Nest” about what it’s like to wait for a baby to be born.
BPM: Do you think having a kid has manifested itself lyrically or thematically? Something like domesticity of “The Sister You Never Had” immediately comes to mind, though I think you’ve said elsewhere that it isn’t autobiographical.
OA: I think the next album will be a better indication of how parenthood has affected by songwriting. Getting ready to be a parent sure got me thinking about family a lot, & that’s reflected in the songs on A Shut-In’s Prayer. “The Sister You Never Had” was the last song that I wrote for the album. It’s about someone remembering their childhood, and recognizing the points where their family started to change and drift apart. I didn’t set out to write about my family specifically, but my memories and experiences inform everything I write. An American Werewolf In London was a big influence on that song.
BPM: You’ve constructed some pretty compelling characters over time, even if they exist only in the universe of one song, but the emotion contained in the songs seem real. How do you deal with melding the autobiographical elements of your work with your fiction?
OA: It’s pretty rare that I write about my life in any sort of direct way. I don’t feel any obligation to tell true stories. I get obsessed with certain details of my life, and sometimes I won’t know why, but I’ll put these little things into my songs, because I’m frustrated by them, and I just want to make some sense out of them. There’s a part in one of my new songs where someone’s car gets broken into. The window is smashed and somebody has to drive around in winter with a smashed window. My car got broken into not that long ago. The passenger side window was smashed, just like in the song. When I was cleaning out the broken glass, I found blood on the car seat, and even on the ceiling of the interior. Whoever broke that window must have cut themselves pretty bad. I cleaned it up the blood the best I could, but there are still these little brown spots on the ceiling that I missed. I don’t think about them until I’m in the car, driving around, and then I’ll just be sitting in traffic, staring at the spots and thinking about that person cutting themselves on the glass, maybe not even noticing at first. I didn’t know what else to do with that, other than just put it into a song.
BPM: I guess with that last question I’m more specifically referencing CFTPA material like “Roberta C.”, but the same philosophy seems to hold true to a lot of the Advance Base songs as well. Are these at all rooted in real events and real emotions or is it mostly stuff you’ve constructed?
OA: I got the idea for “Roberta C.” while I was waiting to pick up a sandwich I’d ordered at this cafe near the movie theater where I was working. This was in Albany, California. I’d just read something in the newspaper about the baseball player Roberto Clemente, & there was this waitress at the restaurant, reading the same paper I’d just been reading at my job. We were both standing around, waiting for my sandwich to be ready, & then I noticed her noticing my name tag from the movie theater. I was envious that she didn’t have to wear a name tag for her job. She knew my name & I didn’t know hers. I imagined a cafe called Robertas, no apostrophe, where all of the waitresses were named Roberta, and none of them wore name tags, because everyone knew they were all Robertas. Then I thought about how Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash & so did Otis Redding. I’d been listening to an Otis Redding tape that morning. There’s a part in the song “Just One More Day” where he sings “true love is so hard to find.” I thought it was really dumb and sweet and I liked that part of the song, and I imagined a waitress at Robertas liking it, too. It was probably another year before I actually wrote that song, but that’s where I first got the idea.
BPM How do you come about an Advance Base track? Obviously the lyrics seem to maintain some sort of primacy in the songwriting process, but it’s obvious you’ve paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics of the musical compositions as well. Can you talk about that a bit?
OA: I’ve been writing all of the Advance Base songs on an electric piano. My songs usually start with some little melody. Sometimes I’ll record a little instrumental demo, and slowly, little rhymes will start to stick to the melodies. Usually, there will be a phrase or two that will give me an idea about the mood of the song, or what kind of person the song is about, and it’ll sort of build out from there. Sometimes songs take weeks or months or years to finish. I remember writing the song “Summer Music” pretty quickly, by my standards. I came up with the melody on a Thursday, and quickly made a drum beat in my sampler. It was sounding like a torch song to me, so I wrote some torch song lyrics. I recorded what I thought was a demo on Saturday, and then decided that it sounded pretty much done. I never bothered to try to record it again. Every once in a while, I’ll get it right the first time.
BPM: I know you’ve done a bit of touring on A Shut In’s Prayer, what have these shows looked like? When I saw you last August, it seemed mostly a solo show with some help from your brother.
OA: My friends Nick, Jody and Ed have been playing shows with me around Chicago and the Midwest. They all play on the album, & they all helped a lot in figuring out what Advance Base was going to sound like. They all have jobs, families, and their own shit to do, and touring isn’t so easy when you’re a responsible adult, especially touring in a band that doesn’t make much money. So, I’ve had to figure out more portable and economical versions of Advance Base. My brother did that tour with me back in August and that was a lot of fun, but it was more of a special kind of occasion than anything really sustainable. He was really doing me a pretty big favor by doing the tour. Luckily, Advance Base seems to work okay as a band or as a solo electric piano and drum machine thing. I’m enjoying trying out the songs in different ways.
BPM: Do you have any more extensive touring plans? You haven’t hit the east coast yet really, but I imagine that must be tough with having a kid?
OA: Advance Base has been to the east coast twice, but they were both short tours. I’ll do a few more short tours in the fall, I just can’t do 100 or 150 shows a year like I used to in the CFTPA days. I don’t like being away from my daughter for more than a week or two at a time. Maybe that’ll change when she gets a little older, but right now, sticking close to home is the priority.
BPM: I do notice on your touring schedule you’re opening Mark Kozelek’s date in Brooklyn in September, is that part of a larger tour or just a one-off type deal?
OA: I’ll play one other New York show that weekend, but that’s it. I’m pretty much just heading out to play with Mark.
BPM: How’d you get involved with Kozelek’s label to begin with, there’s obviously some similarity between you two as songwriters?
OA: I met Mark maybe 15 years ago, when I worked at a different movie theater back in San Francisco. He’d come see movies sometimes, and I recognized him from the Red House Painters shows I’d seen. I was a big fan of his music, and I always offered to put him on the guest list whenever he came by. I guess we made friends. Over the years, we’d run into each other every once in a while, and he’d be like “Oh yeah how’s it going?” and he’d ask me about my music, just really friendly. I ran into him on tour in Poland a couple of years ago, playing on the same festival. The festival organizers put us and the band Wire on the same shuttle to the airport, and Mark and I just talked about San Francisco the whole way there. He asked if I’d send him one of my records. I did, and he liked it, and ta da. He’s one of my heroes, and it’s been pretty much a dream to work with him. I’ve learned a lot from the dude.
BPM: Where does Advance Base go from here? Do you still see yourself putting out material as frequently as you did with CFTPA?
OA: We’ll see how it goes. Family is the main thing these days, but I really truly love writing songs, and I don’t see any reason to stop. I think I’m just going to keep making records forever, whether anybody wants to hear them or not.