Advance Base’s Owen Ashworth
Without ever actually requesting it, certain people compel others to change their demeanor. Peers and authority figures demand separate rules of dialect and behavior, while grandparents may presume an entirely different persona altogether. And that’s how it feels talking to Owen Ashworth. The gentle giant—who, last year, retired his Casiotone For The Painfully Alone project to redirect his efforts as Advance Base—rounds his consonants and speaks with such soft timbre that one shudders at the thought of coarse language in his presence, lest his politeness be turned to painfulness.
These days, that effect is more an exaggeration of duty, though. Ashworth is no longer the fragile twentysomething for whom Casiotone For The Painfully Alone served as the most accurate description possible. He now has a wife and child, as well as a rotating cast of friends who seem happy to play alongside him as Advance Base. That act’s debut album, A Shut-In’s Prayer, was just released last week. Ashworth’s introspective narratives still play a fundamental role, but now they’re couched in more robust instrumentation and feature characters who no longer need to be sheltered from the casual crassness of human life. Before Advance Base joins The Donkeys for an Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros after-party at Mo’s Irish Pub May 26, The A.V. Club spoke to Ashworth about growing up, having a family, and why he doesn’t like talking to strangers.
The A.V. Club: What has it been like finishing a project that was fairly popular and then trying to re-brand yourself as something completely new?
Owen Ashworth: As far as gaining popularity and growing an audience goes, I have pretty low expectations these days. There was a process of shedding some ego after Casiotone was finished. I’m playing music now because I recognize how important it is to me. I’m not as dependent on touring or record sales for my income; and thankfully, music feels like less of a job than it used to. If I had the sorts of attendances at Casiotone shows as I’ve had at Advance Base shows, I would’ve been thrown into a panic, worrying about rent or the future of my career. These days, I’m playing shows because I want to, and because it feels good to play my songs in front of people, even if it’s a much smaller number of people than it has been in the past.
I remember asking Phil [Elverum] from Mount Eerie, formerly The Microphones, if it was weird starting over with a different name, and he said, “It might have been weird for other people, but not for me.” It was comforting to hear him say that. I’m trying to just let it be weird for other people.
AVC: From a songwriting perspective, Advance Base does not sound very removed from what you were doing as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. What made you decide to make the change?
OA: I’d been doing Casiotone for The Painfully Alone for 13 years, and it just felt like it was time for something new. I’d lost the emotional connection to a lot of the songs that I’d written in my early twenties, and it felt crazy to just keep playing them forever. I wanted to write new songs without having to worry about how they were going to fit into a set list next to all of the old songs that people were coming to my shows to hear. I thought I might be able to write better songs if I just stopped worrying if people were going to like them as much as the old songs.
AVC: How much of this transition is actually parallel to your personal life experiences?
OA: I think the last couple of years were a really good change in my life. I got married, I had a kid, and I moved to Chicago. It felt insincere to sing these songs I wrote as a very young man. I just don’t have the same kind of relationship with those songs anymore. I don’t want to disrespect those songs, because there are people who like those songs. There are still people who are finding out about Casiotone, so I wanted to leave Casiotone as it was and do something different, as opposed to just dragging the Casiotone name forever—and I really got a perverse realization of that in the last couple of records that had no actual Casios on them.
There’s more happening in my life outside of playing shows and living up in my head, thinking about my band all of the time. Having a family keeps me from feeling sorry for myself quite so, so much—and that has certainly changed the tone of my songs. I’m writing more about people worrying about other people, as opposed to worrying about themselves.
AVC: Does A Shut-In’s Prayer have a thesis other than just this transition?
OA: I intentionally didn’t want to make a heavily themed record, because the last Casiotone record had a real thread, and I thought about that album a lot before I did it. I wanted to try something different, and just write the songs that came out of me without over-thinking it too much. Honestly, these were the first handful of songs I wrote for Advance Base. So a lot of the themes that come out are about families, because that’s something that I think about a lot.
AVC: One thing that was striking about CFTPA was how you’d have songs that take place in three or four different states all within the same record. Can you talk about how or where you come up with characters and narratives in your songs?
OA: It’s hard to say. It’s all just a bunch of made-up stuff, but some of the people in my songs are based on myself or people I know, or at least places that I know. Usually, there’s just a particular kind of feeling that I’m trying to get at, so I imagine the circumstances and environment that might bring a particular kind of person to that feeling. I try to just describe enough of a scenario to let someone figure it out for themselves, because that’s usually what I’m trying to do, too. Figure it out for myself.
AVC: How self-aware was the name Casiotone For The Painfully Alone?
OA: I never really liked the name. I’ve told this story before, but I’d made a tape of some songs I’d written on a Casio keyboard for a friend. She had asked me, “I want to hear all of your saddest songs.” She had just gone through a bad thing with a boy. So I named the tape “Casiotone For The Painfully Alone” and thought nothing would come of it. And then, knowing I wouldn’t agree to it, she just put the name on some flyers for a show I had booked. So the name was already sort of taken care of, so I felt like, “Well okay, if that’s what the band is, then I’ll try to work within those parameters.” So, in that way, it sort of felt like a school assignment.
I would always hate it, though. I would be at a party, or meeting some of my parents’ friends, and they’d ask what the name of my band was, and I’d just mumble it because I was so sick of saying it. And it really was a dividing thing. There were people who were very intrigued listening to the name and other people who were like, “I am never going to listen to this.” So there’s something sort of interesting.
I think there’s a real intense sentimental and vulnerable quality to those songs, so I think most of the people who would be turned off by the name wouldn’t like the songs anyways.
AVC: It self-selects its audience.
OA: Yeah, and I think one of the things about the name Advance Base is that it doesn’t really conjure anything at all. It’s a reference to baseball, and also, like, mountain-climbing exploration, setting up a base further away than the home base. And I just like the way the words sound. I’ve always admired bands whose names are kind of meaningless and you can project anything onto them.
AVC: You recently said that you don’t like talking to people about your band, or that you’ll sometimes lie about what your equipment actually is while on tour. Is that something that’s gotten better or worse with age?
OA: I was on the El a while back, coming back from the airport. I had a flight case with drum machines in it. This kid, maybe 13 or 14, asked what was in the case, and I said, “Two drum machines.” The kid asked if I made beats. I said yes, and then he told me that he was an MC with a lot of rhymes. I said that was cool, and then he asked if I would make him some beats because he was going to be really famous. I told him sure, and then he tried to do a fancy handshake. I said, “What is that?” and then he laughed and got off the train. That is why I don’t like talking to strangers about my equipment. They might offer me a job, and then laugh in my face when I don’t know the right handshake.