- Jeffrey Marini
- Owen Ashworth in his west-suburban backyard. Not pictured: his daughters, who have a much easier time fitting into that toy log cabin.
Chicago singer-songwriter Owen Ashworth has left behind the borderline twee indie-pop of his best-known project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, but his current output as Advance Base remains modest, earnest, and even sweet. The second Advance Base album, Nephew in the Wild, which comes out this Friday on Ashworth's own Orindal label, is a quiet record, filled with serenely luminous electric-piano melodies and gentle, sashaying percussion. But evil lurks beneath the surface. "You are the devil's kin / The sign of the beast on your skin," he sings on "Pamela," a song about a young girl born to teenage parents—her father deals drugs and her mother works at Dairy Queen. "You have come to fulfill a prophecy / To level humanity / And burn everything that you see," he tells her in a soothing baritone, backed by a tender, cycling piano melody. Two songs later, he tells the story of a murderous demonic curse in a song called "Summon Satan."
Ashworth and his wife, Holly, are horror-movie fanatics, and binge-watched them in 2011—at the time, she was pregnant with their first child, and he'd recently started working on Advance Base material (including songs that would end up on Nephew). "You know how women have hormonal reactions to food?" Ashworth says. "She wanted horror. We watched every scary movie we could think of. It was really fun." The couple noticed a recurring theme in some of their favorite films—Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, The Changeling, The Exorcist. "We realized that a ton of horror movies that we loved were totally about parents being afraid of their children."
Ashworth, 38, has two daughters; one turns four in October, and the other will be two in September. The inspiration for the new record came in part from fear for his children, rather than fear of them. "I kind of want to make a horror album that's a family album," he says.
With Nephew in the Wild, Ashworth continues in the new direction he's pursued since adopting the name Advance Base, which suits his new identity as a family man: his songs aren't as loud, he doesn't write as much about relationship drama, and he doesn't tour as often. Between 1997 and 2010, as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, he released five cultishly beloved albums of endearing and sometimes overdriven lo-fi electronic pop, touring North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. He retired the project with a farewell concert in his old home of San Francisco on December 5, 2010, the 13th anniversary of the first Casiotone show. "A lot of those Casiotone records were about girls and boys," he says. "Very simple stories, mostly with two characters."
Family factors into his songwriting more these days. Ashworth is a stay-at-home dad (Holly works outside the home), and he had to sneak scraps of time during his kids' daily routines to record Nephew in the Wild in the basement of the two-story suburban house his family bought last year. "I have these songs ringing in my head all day till I can put the kids to bed, make sure they're asleep. And then I can go downstairs and try to actually play the stuff—hopefully not forget it," he says. "God, the voice memo on phones is a lifesaver. I can just run to the piano—'That idea is recorded, I won't forget it, I can work on it in six hours.'" Ashworth played most of the instruments on the album, as he usually does, recording on the same model of Tascam cassette four-track he's used for most of his professional career. Guest vocalists and instrumentalists (generally one per song) mostly sent in their parts via e-mail.
Ashworth grew up in Redwood City, California, just south of San Francisco, and his life in music began on his 16th birthday: an uncle gave him his first instrument, an X-shaped Hondo Explorer bass. One of his grandfathers, who sang in barbershop quartets, showed him the ropes. "He taught me how to play cowboy bass—basically the music fundamentals," Ashworth says. Music helped keep him occupied when his classes didn't. "I was pretty disengaged in high school," he says. "I just saw my mom on this last tour, and she was reminding me that the word 'aloof' would always come up in teacher-parent conferences."
Ashworth worked an after-school job at a movie theater and directed a play as part of a drama class, but otherwise he dedicated his free time to honing his skills as a musician. Using a karaoke machine and an answering machine, he taught himself how to record on his own. "A lot of handheld tape recorders can pull out the erase heads so you can record something else in layers, with no synching," he says. "Whatever was on the tape before would still be there—so just really primitive multitracking."
Early on Ashworth made noise collages, but he never shared them with anyone—at least not on purpose. "I would get these tapes at thrift stores and record, and then I would put them back in thrift stores. So there were a bunch of them in Bay Area secondhand shops," he says. "I never intentionally or pointedly shared. It was so private and not really meant for entertainment so much as just learning how to use that stuff."
Ashworth kept his experiments to himself. Not even his younger brother, Gordon (an experimental musician who also plays in a black-metal band called Knelt Rote based in Portland, Oregon), knew exactly what he was up to. "We were both pretty private and independent with that stuff early on," Gordon says. "I remember seeing keyboards and tape recorders when he went off to college. He was a huge motivator from then on—being a DIY musician, self-producer, solo performer, et cetera. It hadn't occurred to me that you can just do all that alone."
Though Ashworth figured out how to go it alone making music, he wouldn't have made it to the stage without a little help. "At 21 a friend talked me into playing a show after I had some songs recorded but felt very shy about it," he says. "I had very supportive friends who were like, 'You should do this.'" He played his first show as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone in December 1997, and in early '99 he self-released the project's debut full-length, Answering Machine Music. He dropped out of San Francisco State University and supported himself working at the Lumiere Theater.
On Answering Machine Music Ashworth molded the toylike, chintzy sounds of Casio keyboards and a cheap drum machine into somber, contemplative pop songs. His resonant, half-spoken vocals are sullen but mellifluous, and he pushed his instruments into the red, creating harsh, gritty percussion and a piano tone so fuzzy it sounds like something off a shoegaze record.
Tom Steinle, founder of German independent label Tomlab, bought a copy of Answering Machine Music at Amoeba's San Francisco shop shortly after it came out. "Answering Machine Music became one of my most favorite albums in that year," he says. "Which was really unexpected, as at that time the musical context where Tomlab originally sprung from in Cologne was defined by new electronic music." Steinle struck up a correspondence with Ashworth and eventually signed him, a move that catalyzed a change in Tomlab's roster to include a bigger, broader network of musicians: after releasing Casiotone's Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars in 2001, the label went on to work with indie darlings such as the Books, Xiu Xiu, and Owen Pallett (under the name Final Fantasy).
Ashworth first visited Chicago on a tour with Xiu Xiu in 2001, when he was still living in the Bay Area. "They drove like maniacs," he says. "I'd be chasing them like 100 miles an hour through Iowa." Fortunately everyone survived the trip, and he had most of a day to kill in Chicago before the show. "It was awesome just to see a totally different-looking city," he says. "Some nice people at the show who put me up that night—their apartment was incredible. They told me what they paid for rent, and I could not believe it. It's like, 'Are you kidding me? It's so much cheaper than San Francisco. Damn, I gotta move here!'"
The thought stuck in his head, and in 2005 Ashworth met Holly on another tour through Chicago. "I already liked the city, but meeting her totally clinched it," he says. The two dated long-distance for a few months as Ashworth plotted his relocation to Chicago. He moved to town in January 2006, after spending his last few months on the west coast without a place of his own—when he wasn't on tour or in Seattle recording the fourth Casiotone album, Etiquette, he slept on his parents' couch in the Bay Area so he could save money.
Ashworth settled in Wicker Park with Holly and set up a makeshift studio in a large closet. He christened it Advance Base, a name he got from Alone, Admiral Richard E. Byrd's 1938 book about struggling to survive five months of Antarctic winter in a meteorological station whose defective stovepipe poisoned him with carbon monoxide; the station, built for three people, was named Advance Base. "I called it Advance Base as a joke, 'cause it was freezing and I'd go sit in there alone and pretend I was a band," Ashworth says. "This idea of one person trying to do the job of three just out of stubborn pride was kind of the motivation." In autumn 2006, that apartment caught fire, destroying many of the Casiotone master tapes; he and Holly moved to Logan Square, and he brought the name for his home studio with him.
During that period, Ashworth also got to thinking about reframing his musical identity. On Etiquette, which came out in 2006, Casiotone sounded richer and more fleshed-out—less like a one-man band and more like an actual ensemble. "The last couple albums definitely felt like a different thing, and by the time Etiquette came out I really wanted it to be a different band name," he says. "But my label [Tomlab] was very discouraging of that idea. Like, 'You don't want to start over. People already know who you are. You should just keep going with it.'"
Ashworth finally decided to put the Casiotone name to bed after the release of Vs. Children in 2009 and a lengthy spring tour in 2010 for which his backing band consisted mostly of Chicago group Magical Beautiful. "That was the tour where I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore. This is killing me. I'm so sick of these songs,'" he says.
Part of the problem was Ashworth's customary stage volume. "I had really damaged my hearing, and I was having crazy psychosomatic reactions to the sound where I would just get angry—like bass frequencies were just so painful that they just put me in a really bad place," he says. "Casiotone stopped and it was a really big relief. I was happy to not hear those songs for a while, 'cause it hurt to listen to them, physically."
Ashworth had been burned out since the release of Vs. Children. "I felt like I was touring too much—it was my full-time job, and it stopped being fun," he says. "I realized I kind of had to figure out why it was important to me." He found his way back to music making with the help of eccentric Chicago rapper David Cohn, aka Serengeti, who'd discovered Answering Machine Music in the mid-aughts. "I absolutely just fell in love with a couple songs immediately," Cohn says. "Just blown away." He says Ashworth's music "was really helping me through some times," and for years he'd wanted to collaborate.
The two of them connected in summer 2010, before Ashworth left for the last big Casiotone tour in September. Ashworth had a trove of unused Casiotone beats saved up, and he and Cohn began building on them in Ashworth's studio. "That was fun, 'cause I felt like it was totally serving Dave and I had no ego attached to it," Ashworth says. "He would just come over and we'd drink coffee and work on these songs." Six of their collaborations wound up on Cohn's 2011 album, Family & Friends, and others came out on a pair of seven-inches. Ashworth was credited as Advance Base.
Those sessions refueled Ashworth. "I realized how much I liked writing songs," he says. "Making music in some capacity was just part of my equilibrium, just to feel OK about the rest of my life." He set out to start a new project, something that would be quieter—for his ears' sake and also because he wanted a live band, which would practice and record in the apartment he shared with Holly. He solicited bandmates on Craigslist. "I basically was like, 'I want to start a band that's Carter Family crossed with Young Marble Giants—very quiet, slightly postpunk folk music with some electronics,'" Ashworth says. Only one person responded—Jody Weinmann, a friend from defunct Chicago electro-pop duo the Spectacles.
"I saw someone needed a female singer and bassist," Weinmann says. "I looked closer and I was like, 'That's Owen. Owen's looking for someone like me.'" Ashworth had been too shy to ask Weinmann directly, but she answered his Craigslist ad. "She's like, 'This sounds like you,'" Ashworth says. "So it was like, 'OK, I guess we've gotta make music together then.'"
In early 2011 the duo started practicing at Advance Base in Logan Square. "It was just full of records, merchandise, T-shirts, and all kinds of stuff," says Weinmann. "Owen had his Rhodes in there, and a really great painting of Willie Nelson right above it. When we were practicing, you could look at it and it was really inspirational." Soon they brought aboard pianist-singer Edward Crouse and multi-instrumentalist Nick Ammerman.
Their group, also called Advance Base, debuted onstage in May 2011. Ashworth referred to the lineup with Weinmann, Crouse, and Ammerman as the Advance Base Family Band; when he hit the road as Advance Base, he'd sometimes team up with his brother as a two-piece. The bigger group dissolved due to family and work responsibilities in fall 2012, six months after the release of Advance Base's debut album.
Ashworth released that album, A Shut-In's Prayer, on his own new label, Orindal Records. It's warm, intimate, and cozy as a hearthside, with a quietness that draws the listener closer. Some of the lyrics are downbeat—on "New Gospel" Ashworth describes a troubled drinker hiding empty bottles—but his empathetic performances make him seem to care about his sad and broken characters as much as he wants his audience to.
Ashworth's audience is smaller these days, in part because he ditched his better-known name. "My label was totally right—starting over is super hard," he says. "There are people all the time who are like, 'I had no idea you kept doing music.' Or 'I had no idea Advance Base was you.' It's just really hard to get the word out on that kind of thing."
Fortunately Ashworth has musician friends in a position to help. David Bazan has taken him on the road, as has Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard—both on a solo tour and for part of the Postal Service reunion. Sun Kil Moon mastermind Mark Kozelek, who covered Casiotone's "Natural Light" on the 2010 EP I'll Be There, has tapped Advance Base as an opening act; he also recruited Ashworth to contribute to the masterful Sun Kil Moon album Benji. And in May 2015, Ashworth played four dates warming up for Stephin Merritt.
The Magnetic Fields front man has been a fan of Ashworth since the Casiotone days. "He's a great lyricist," Merritt says. "He has a voice that doesn't remind me of everybody, which is nice, and his lyrics are perfectly suited to his voice." In 2013 Advance Base released a song-for-song cover of the 1992 Magnetic Fields EP House of Tomorrow, and the two men shared a bill at the Old Town School of Folk Music in fall 2014. "He actually is as sweet and humble as he sounds on record," says Merritt. "It was maybe a month or so before that I had a dream in which Owen was covering 'Jamaica Farewell,' and I e-mailed him about that," he says. "He actually did it." After the show, Ashworth recorded a version of that classic Harry Belafonte number and sent it to Merritt.
- Jeffrey Marini
- Ashworth in his kitchen, which is miraculously clean considering that he and his wife have two kids younger than four
Ashworth has less time to tour these days—his three-week trip in July was the longest he's spent on the road since he had children. "I hate being away. I miss those kids," he says. Now when he does the planning and budget crunching for a tour, he has to keep the whole family's interests in mind. "I feel like a different person in a lot of ways, but it's good," he says. "I feel like I lead a more purposeful life than I had been before. But that's me. I'm not saying parenthood is purpose, but it definitely felt like I had a new motivation."
That perspective informs one of the best and most personal songs on Nephew in the Wild, the moving, affectionate "Kitty Winn" (named for an actress in The Exorcist). "I'm not out looking for something / I haven't found," Ashworth sings. "You won't see me around / I've got a family now." Last year's move to the suburbs makes it harder for him to see his friends, and he's more enthusiastic about staying home than wearing himself out on tour. On an album that lingers so often on the evil lurking in the shadows, "Kitty Winn" provides a bright, uplifting conclusion.
Ashworth is putting extra muscle into promoting Nephew in the Wild, not just because he's proud of it but also because he'll make some big choices about his music career based on whether it reaches more people than A Shut-In's Prayer. He's hired a publicist, and last week NPR started streaming Nephew as part of its First Listen series. Ashworth also hopes to ramp up his touring at least a bit. "The fate of this record will decide how much time I can put into music in the future, as far as how much I share with the world," he says. "But I think I will just always make music. I love doing it, but it may be more of a hobby moving forward." v