An interview with Owen Ashworth of Advance Base (formerly Casiotone for the Painfully Alone)
“I’m not very interested in singing about myself,” says Owen Ashworth, the humble songwriter behind Advance Base. Often using the first person narrator to paint a scene or explore characters, Ashworth approaches songwriting more like an old time folk storyteller than a modern singer-songwriter. “I know that it’s natural to assume that the person singing a song is singing about themselves, and I don’t mind that, but when I’m singing one of my songs, I’m picturing the characters in the songs, and most of the time, they are people I made up, even if they aren’t all that different than me,” says Ashworth.
In an age when most songwriters focus on self-exploration, his style of songwriting seems slightly antiquated. But where one might expect sparse acoustic guitars to accompany this approach, most of Ashworth’s music uses keyboards, vintage electric pianos, and drum machines. This unlikely pairing of folk storytelling and minimalist electro pop is what makes his music so intriguing and so hard to pin down.
Ashworth made a name for himself with his previous moniker, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (CFTPA), a synth pop project that started in 1997 while he was taking an Intro to Piano class in college and borrowed a battery-powered Yamaha keyboard from his brother to practice scales on. He instantly fell in love with the keyboard’s presets and started making songs of his own. “A slow rock beat and a few drony organ chords sounded pretty good to me, so I started writing these simple little songs and singing them into a hand-held tape recorder,” Ashworth says.
He made tapes for his friends and, with their encouragement, kept going with it, eventually getting signed to German indie label Tomlab (home of Deerhoof and The Books) in 2001. Early in his career, he realized that CFTPA was, conceptually, a project that wouldn’t last forever and even had the idea for the last CFTPA album – Vs. Children – planned in 2003, six years before its release. When the album finally got released in 2009, he spent a year and a half on the road in support of the album before retiring the CFTPA name, and all the songs that went with it, for good in 2010.
The Advance Base project started while making beats for Chicago rapper, Serengeti. The name had been used for his home recording studio since 2006, but the 2011 Serengeti album was his first time he’d been credited under the moniker and the name became the default for everything to come after. The switch to Advance Base could easily be seen as just a new name, since Ashworth makes music that is so distinctly his own. “I don’t know how to describe what it is, really, but for better or worse, I can’t seem to shake whatever it is that makes one of my songs sound like one of my songs,” Ashworth says. But the project does have definite differences from his previous work in CFTPA – a vintage Rhodes electric piano takes the lead role in most of the songs, the tempos are generally slower, the characters and themes slightly altered.
“I have a wife and a kid, and more of my writing deals with family relationships these days, as opposed to the heartbroken love songs that I wrote as a younger man,” Ashworth says. The changes have made the critics take his music more seriously, with his 2012 debut, A Shut In’s Prayer, getting praise across the board and making #19 on MOJO Magazine Best Albums of 2012. Everyone seemed to call it a “more mature” effort, which could be seen as comical given the innate similarities, but Ashworth understands the critics’ interpretation, “The older I get, the more nostalgic my songwriting seems to get, and I think there’s something more mature-seeming about singing about memories,” he says. A subtle, but striking, change is that while CFTPA were mainly stories of the city, a pastoral backdrop has taken over many of the Advance Base songs. It seems fitting then that he would reinterpret an artist from the largely rural, character song-driven, folk blues of the 1920s and 30s.
The gospel folk blues of Washington Phillips has long been revered as a marvelous curiosity among folk music enthusiasts. Using only a zither-like instrument that many scholars are convinced was homemade, Phillips recorded only 18 songs, 16 of which survive today. The attraction is more than just an early example of DIY ingenuity, though. As Ashworth puts it, “No one else’s music sounds like Washington Phillips’.” Phillips’ one-of-a-kind voice brings the unique sound of his instrument and his spiritual lyrics to an almost ethereal realm. “His voice is completely wonderful and pushes out so much genuine empathy and caring. It’s so intimate and so completely mysterious at the same time,” Ashworth says.
Advance Base’s recent EP, The World is a Bad Fix Everywhere, reinterprets Phillips’ music in a subdued fashion that pays tribute more than it reinvents. Its five songs mainly use an autoharp, a Rhodes electric piano, and a drum machine to retell these old stories, creating a curious dichotomy – while incorporating electronic sounds into these folk songs, he’s also using instruments old enough to be considered vintage. A combination that makes the album exist somewhere outside of time, not clearly of any era. Which seems a proper tribute to Phillips’ otherworldly music; music that was recorded in the late 1920s, but was largely unknown until it was collected and re-released in the early 2000s.
While not a religious person, Ashworth is compelled by the relationships people have to religion and connects to gospel music as a songwriter, “I find there is a lot of very relatable emotion and struggle happening in those songs,” Ashworth says. The EP started with Ashworth teaching himself to play the well-known Washington Phillips song, “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son.” He says, “There’s so much to the relationship of that son and his mother and her religion. I can’t listen to that song without wondering about those people and what happened to them.” The project is also the result of his recent writer’s block. “I’ve chosen a really ambitious kind of over-arching narrative for my next album. It’s just one big story and it’s taking forever to put all of the pieces together,” Ashworth says, “For now, I’m stuck…so I’ve been recording a lot of covers, just to keep the engine going.”
While the much-anticipated follow-up to A Shut In’s Prayer might be a ways away, he’s not letting it slow him down. Currently on tour in Europe and with The World is a Bad Fix Everywhere just released in June, another EP, Our Cat, came out at the end of July. Our Cat is a perfect example of Ashworth’s unabashed love of the mundane. “Small details and tangible things are a sneaky way into people’s lives, and I want songs to feel real,” Ashworth says. Ashworth takes on little moments with an almost literary zeal and has documented many moments of life that have previously gone unacknowledged in song.
He’s sung about a confessional letter blowing down the street, walking home in the snow after missing the bus, and killing time while waiting for a car to get fixed. Now he turns his lens on the story of a cat that gets lost and (spoiler alert) eventually gets found. In another songwriter’s hands, these kinds of songs might come off as shallow or dull, but Ashworth has a way of making these moments shine in a fashion that’s more akin to a short story author than a songwriter. “I work to make the songs feel as intimate and relatable as I can manage, because those are the kinds of songs that I like to listen to. Some people like big songs, some people like little songs,” he says, “If you want to hear a song about world peace, you can listen to a Coldplay record. For lost cats or keys, you can listen to Advance Base.”