Interview curated by Robert D. Patrick
Owen Ashworth’s meticulous latticework of emotion is quietly powerful. The soft lilt of sadness, rolling back like sea foam, populates a landscape of forgotten memories and bruised reveries. Ashworth, once known as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, now releases albums under the Advance Base moniker. We caught up with the songwriter before he christens his tour in Bloomington, Indiana on Friday.
ROBERT PATRICK: To me, you’ve always been an exceptional lyricist in the way that you’ve been able to cull emotions from unlikely places. From supermarkets in “Rice Dream Girl” to shared pets with “Our Cat”, there is a sublime level of sadness and understanding. Where does that come from?
OWEN ASHWORTH: Thank you! I really learned to write songs by emulating the qualities that I admired in other songs. Even as a kid, I gravitated towards all of the sad songs & ballads. Those were the ones that sounded the most sincere to me, & those were the ones that stuck with me the longest. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by The Geto Boys had a really profound effect on me when I was in middle school. It was vulnerable in a way that felt honest & a little horrifying. I thought (& still think) a lot about the details in those verses. Bushwick Bill’s bloody hands from punching on the concrete. The right details can conjure a specific & unshakable mental image.
You’re the author of some impressive zines, complete with hand-drawn pictures depicting “Legends of the Silver Screen”. What was the impetus behind this series?
My brother Gordon & I were getting ready to leave on a tour of Australia & New Zealand when Gordon mentioned that he was putting together a zine of recipes & nightmare tour stories called See You In Jail. Not to be outdone, I decided that I’d better put together a zine of my own so that I’d also have something to sell on the merch table next to See You In Jail. Legends of the Silver Screen was the first idea I had, so I spent the next few days drawing portraits of all of the best movie directors that I could think of. I had so much fun doing it that I made two more issues.
Would you ever consider scoring a film, and if so, what director would you want to work with?
I’ve written & recorded music for two movies: Jon Moritsugu’s Scumrock & Laurel Nakadate’s Stay the Same Never Change. The Casiotone for the Painfully Alone EP Town Topic is a collection of all of the music I recorded for Stay the Same Never Change. I really enjoyed the experience of making music for movies & I’d love to do it again. I’d love to write a song for a Nicole Holofcener movie.
As an artist, what’s your experience with Spotify, and do you think it has a permanent place in music?
I think Spotify’s business model is bonkers. It’s a total insult to artists & music listeners alike. I don’t use Spotify & I don’t have my records on Spotify. I know a lot of people who like my music use Spotify & are upset with me for pulling my music. It’s a source of endless frustration for me. I don’t know what I’ll do in the long run. I really wish people would just stop using Spotify, though.
Do you think Pitchfork, as a whole, has been more positive or negative for musicians?
Ask me again after they review my new album.
You were well-researched when you interviewed Mark Kozelek a few years ago for his website. Having had interviewed a musician yourself, what is something that you wish more members of the press would ask artists?
It was easy to interview Mark because not only are we friends, but his music really means a lot to me. There were things I wanted to know about him & his music that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just asking him in conversation, so when he asked me to interview him, it felt like a real opportunity to learn something. I wish more journalists asked questions that they actually cared to hear the answers for. I have done a lot of interviews with uninterested, uninformed writers who just seemed to be going through the motions. I can always tell & I always appreciate it when the person conducting the interview is actually invested in the questions he or she is asking.
What’s your take on the renaissance of vinyl, and do you think it’s helpful to musicians in a climate where physical media is seemingly less popular than ever?
Vinyl was the first format I was familiar with, & it’s still the one that feels most legitimate to me. I’m sure a lot of musicians my age or older would tell you this, but hearing my own music pressed onto a vinyl record & holding a big, beautiful record cover in my hands is just the ultimate feeling of accomplishment. It’s the reason I run my own label & put out my own records these days. When ten big boxes full of my brand new album get unloaded off of a truck & onto my porch, & it’s then my job to pack up each of those records & ship them out to people, that feels significant. It means a lot to me when a stranger decides to buy an actual, physical thing I made & keep it in their house. It’s an honor. I can upload an MP3 onto the internet just as easily as I can type these words. It’s effortless. Digital sales & streams are just numbers on a screen. They just don’t feel like anything to me.
What song, off the new album, makes you the most emotional when playing live?
Probably “Kitty Winn,” because it’s very much about the act of standing in front of an audience & performing. It has a different kind of vulnerability than my other songs. I’ve been playing it for about a year now, & it doesn’t effect me now the same way it did the first few times I played it live, but I still have to be in the right kind of mood to sing that song in front of people. If I don’t feel like I’m connecting with an audience, I’ll keep that one to myself.
Honestly, I haven’t really had any ideas for new videos. I don’t know if I’ll bother doing one this time. If somebody else approaches me about doing a video & I like their idea, then maybe, sure. “Our Cat” was the only video that I’ve made myself, & I only made it because I didn’t think that the song worked so well on its own. The video helped it feel like more of a complete thing. I have more confidence in the songs on the new album.
Your songs have such rich narrative, do you think that your background in film school has something to do with that?
I think there is a really strong visual element to the way I write songs. I can picture the places & the people very clearly. There was a time when I really wanted to make movies, but these days, I’m pretty happy just writing songs.