INTERVIEW: Owen Ashworth of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
photo | Hannah Persson/cftpa.org
Yeah, I'm a different guy than I was when I first started writing songs. Lo-fi crooner Owen Ashworth is the man behind the keys of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. His music is delightfully sad and bittersweet, but the guy's actually very much together. Just a regular dude who is into taxidermy, basement shows, chillin' in horn shops and searching for the most terrifying Baudelaire-inspired electronic compositions. I got a chance to interview the mild mannered gent a few weeks before he hit the road. Presently on tour with the Chicago based band Magical Beautiful, Ashworth wants to make one thing very clear: there will be horns. City Paper: So you're living in Chicago now? Owen Ashworth: Yeah, I've been living in Chicago for about four years. I lived in Portland, and Seattle, and San Francisco Bay at different points. But I grew up in California and also lived there in my early twenties and after I did more touring. I started bouncing around the west coast and recording music with people who lived in both Washington and Portland. Sometimes it's just easier to move to a place to get a record connection, you know? But yeah, I've been in Chicago for a little more than four years and I don't think I'll be moving anytime soon. I like Chicago a lot. CP: What do you like about it? OA: I think it's just a really good looking city with really interesting history. I like the buildings a lot, and the kind of architecture. I'm kind of fascinated by the history of Chicago, especially the criminal history. There's such a bizarre and sordid past to this city and I'm still kind of enamored with it. And being from the west coast, it's interesting to be in a place that has a slightly longer history as a city. CP: So then what's your involvement with Philly? It's mentioned in some of your songs, and you cover Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia." Did you ever live out here? OA: No, I've only been there on tour. And I covered "Streets of Philadelphia" and it kind of worked its way into another song, but I don't have any personal connection with Philadelphia. I like the city and visiting it, but I don't know very much about it to be honest. CP: Well there's plenty of history here, too, if you're ever looking for tours guided by Benjamin Franklin. OA: Absolutely, yeah. I haven't had a day off in Philadelphia. I really want to see the Panopticon at some point. And more of the traditional U.S. Government sight seeing. I won't have any time off for this tour, but maybe next time. CP: Fair enough. So I wanted to know about your covers, since you've done a few. [Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia," Paul Simon's "Graceland," Prince's "When You Were Mine"] What is it about covers that you like? OA: Well, they're all just songs I love and felt some kind of connection with, for whatever reason. It's a different instance in each case. It also comes from my own curiosity, and wanting to learn how to play them, and I really enjoy playing them. And I hope I have something new to bring to them to validate a new recording. A lot of the pieces are just songs that I've played live at a couple shows and then people would ask if I had recorded it. And I was like, "Oh, no, well maybe I should." And it usually would take me a little while to get around to it. It's a tricky relationship with covers. Because they're all songs that I love, and I love playing them, but I get kind of a guilt reflex because I feel like I should spend more time working on my songs, and why am I singing other people's songs? The people enjoy them, and I'll play them when people request them, but I don't think I'll be doing any new covers for a while. I want to at least get another album finished before finishing other people's songs... again.
photo | Hannah Persson/cftpa.org
CP: Can you tell me about Magical Beautiful, the band that you're playing with? Is this a band specifically for Casiotone? OA: Well no, my friend Tyson [Torstensen], it's his project that he's been doing for a good long time. Tyson's a guy I know from back in California, and he moved to Chicago a little before I did. He has gone on a couple tours playing in my band, and we were talking about doing it again. And he said, "Well I have an idea, what if Magical Beautiful comes?" We've been wanting to do the same routing anyway. And I get along with all the guys. Actually, the drummer from Magical Beautiful [Alance Ward] has also played some shows with me. It's the first time I've played with the other two guys in the band [Nick Broste and Charles Vinz] , but we've been rehearsing a lot and it's sounding pretty good. I'm excited about it. They'll be playing their own set, and then Magical Beautiful, plus me, plus my friend Nick — who lives in Oakland — will be flying out to play the drums. There will be a six piece band with horns, and bass and drums. It'll be really good. I'm actually practicing with them tonight, it's really coming along. CP: Why the departure from what we're used to with the live shows being very stripped down? OA: I think this is my fifth tour with a full band. I don't play with a band as often as I play solo. Just because it's a lot more complicated to organize and it's more expensive and all that. But I did two U.S. tours with this band called the Donkeys, some of the guys who played on Vs. Children. The last couple of records I've made have used more complicated arrangements, and more non-electronic instruments. There's a lot more drums and piano, and bass and guitar and things like that happening. So it's nice to occasionally be able to present the songs in their more recorded version as opposed to the electronic solo arrangements I would be playing otherwise. It exercises my brain in a different way and it's really fun to delegate tasks to other people, and we all play as a giant band. But I think the next time I do a tour it'll probably be solo because a lot of people still haven't heard solo versions of the new songs. But nobody has heard the full band versions live yet, either. CP: I saw you when you played with the Donkeys a few years ago in Philly, but it sound like what you're doing no is going to be even bigger, with the horn section and everything. OA: Well, yeah, we're going to have some horn parts in some songs, and I haven't done that live before. But with two of the Donkeys there are five of us, and this time there will be six. So it's nice to have the extra pair of hands, for sure. We'll be able to do more percussion parts. There are still songs that have more complicated keyboard arrangements, so we'll have three keyboards for a few things. And, yeah, we're learning horn charts and things like that. I'm actually going to the saxophone shop this morning to pick up my friend Alance's cornett... which we tried to get cleaned out, or something. I don't know very much about horns, but I've been hanging out in horn shops all of a sudden. It's been great, really exciting. I think that playing with these guys will probably inform a lot of arrangements and recordings for the next record, too. I'm looking forward to putting some horns on some new things. CP: Any desire to do any massive, 14 minute long ballads in contrast to the short songs? OA: No, the songs will all still be pretty short. They'll just be a little more fleshed out. A friend was joking that it's like the Saturday Night Live version of Casiotone. It kind of feels like it when people have a studio or sessions music where people come in and play. But these are all buddies of mine, and we're taking a lot of time to rehearse, so I think it's going to sound great. CP: Do you have any new work on the way as far as a new album? OA: Yeah, I've been recording stuff on my own. And I made some beats for a rapper in Chicago named Serengeti, and we've been doing a little bit of recording together. I'm going to do some things for his new album. But for this tour we're mostly playing older songs that have been rearranged. It's going to take me a little while to get the next record finished. I want the album to be a new experience when people hear it instead of there being rough versions up on YouTube or things like that. It really colors someone's experience of the record if they have preconceptions of how the songs are supposed to sound. I'd prefer if people just hear the album cold. So we're not going to play any of the new stuff on the tour. CP: You're keeping it a secret from us, then. You said it'll be a little while before the new album though? OA: Yeah. I'm not in any rush. Some people have started to email me wondering when there'll be new stuff. But I'm taking my time. I've had a few other projects for compilations. We're doing a little single just for the tour that's a really limited vinyl single. There'll be a couple other smaller projects that I'm doing between that and the new album. CP: As you get older, do you see your adult life affecting your music? OA: They're very different songs than when I was twenty, I think about different stuff, I have different concerns. And a lot of the songs are inspired by things that happened to my friends or to me, and things around me. So I think the characters in the songs have aged along with me. There are songs from my first couple of records that I still really like, but I don't know if I could write a song like that again. It just wouldn't occur to me. I just worry about different stuff now, or I think about different stuff these days. And I imagine I will continue to change the older I get. I think there's been a maturity I can see even in my records. And however much I've matured... I'm not sure how much that is. Yeah, I'm a different guy than I was when I first started writing songs. CP: Well I guess we all have to grow up eventually. But I saw that back in January you were trying to book some house shows in Florida. You still like playing in people's living rooms? OA: Yeah, I do. I spent about 10 days in Florida in January and it was great. I was traveling by myself, which got to be a little much by the end of it. I think about a week in a rental car by myself is about where I tap out. I was seeing a lot of movies. I never really had friends in Fort Meade. I know a few people in a few places. I would go several days without knowing anyone's name which is an interesting experience to have in your own country. But I spent a lot of time looking at animals. I went to some manatee spots and looked at manatees swimming around, which is something I've never done. And I had a really nice drive through the Everglades. Stayed at a lot of Super 8's, ate at a lot of diners. It was good. I played a really fun house show in Cape Coral, which is a town that doesn't get a lot of, I guess, indie shows. People seemed really excited and grateful that it was happening. CP: There was lots of positive reciprocation? People were excited that you were in their house, or their neighbor's house? OA: Yeah, but I've played some weird house shows before where it feels kind of uncomfortable. Like any show, sometimes it feels like people's energies are going in different directions, and sometimes it feels like people are all trying for the same thing. And it just feels really positive. It's a nice communication with strangers. [Cape Coral] was one of the best shows, where everyone just felt like they were on the same page, and really excited. It seemed like friendships were happening all over the place! It was real nice. I think that people who lived in the same town forever and didn't know that these other people lived there... it just felt like a really nice community experience I guess. CP: Going back to the manatees, you're a really big animal person? OA: I'm really fascinated by animals, yeah. I have a pet cat, but I think wild animals are just... I think it's just an extension of being interested in human nature and psychology in general. I'm fascinated by what motivates beings, and the way animals and people live. When there's a chance to go look at some animals I've never seen before and I'm in a different country, or a different part of the country, I really enjoy doing that. It's part of being a tourist, but I enjoy that kind of thing more so than museums generally. CP: What about the Museum of Natural History in New York, with all the taxidermy animals? That one's my favorite. OA: Oh yeah. Every time I'm in New York I go, actually. I do a lot of drawings of animals, too, so I'll go to natural history museums. I'll either draw, or take pictures of the animals to draw later. And taxidermy, I'm kind of fascinated by it. It's such a kind of grotesque but really amazing art form. I go to natural history museums as often as I can. The Field Museum in Chicago is actually really great, there's a lot of birds. CP: Do you have any favorite new music that you're into right now? OA: The thing I've been listening to almost everyday lately is just a used LP I bought of Bill Withers live at Carnegie Hall. It's kind of been a real big inspiration of what I want the band for this tour to sound like. He just has such a great band. He only recorded with them I think on his second and third albums. Then the live album they made in between. But it's just a totally perfect band I think. I saw a documentary about Bill Withers a couple of months ago. He's been one of my favorites for a long time, but I've been extra obsessed with him lately. I bought a record by this hip hop producer named Oh No and it's called Ethiopium. It's got beats made out of Ethiopian jazz and soul music. And I really love Ethiopian music from the '70s. That's been really fun to listen to. I don't listen to a whole lot of new stuff, I listen to mostly older records. I listened to De La Soul this morning. There's this electronic composer named Ruth White who I really like and made an album called Flowers of Evil, which is a reading of a Baudelaire poem over electronic soundscapes. It's just one of the most truly evil sounding records I've ever heard. It's something I've been looking for, for 13 years. I heard it when someone was playing it in the video store in San Fransisco and I asked them about it. It took 13 years to find a copy of the record. So I just got that. CP: Has it been worth the wait? OA: Yeah, it sounds as good as it did in the video store. CP: Do you have a favorite Casiotone song, or can you not separate yourself from that to pick one? OA: I wouldn't say I have a favorite. It changes all the time. There are definitely songs that I prefer over other songs. Even while in the process of rehearsing with the band, there are songs that end up sounding better in rehearsal than I was expecting. Then there are songs that work better as recordings than as live pieces. So it changes all the time. It's usually whatever songs we're focusing on at the moment, that's the one I'm thinking about a lot and finding ways to present it differently and figure out different arrangements. Right now we've been rehearsing this song called "The Subway Home," which is a song I've recorded twice. And we're doing it with horns. It's a really quiet song, and it's been really fun to play. And the other guys are bringing some really interesting ideas. Some songs are clicking with them more than others I'm noticing. We started with a lot of songs and we're playing the ones that are really feeling the best for everybody. By popular vote we're deciding which songs are going to be in the set. CP: Any chance you're going to do "Destroy the Evidence"? OA: No, it's going to be mostly stuff from Vs. Children and Etiquette. And a couple other songs. But we're doing it with no electronics, so it's going to be a different kind of tour than usual. CP: As one last thing, have you heard any good jokes lately? OA: Oh man, good question. I really like jokes. Well, my wife made a really funny joke the other day. A friend of ours sent her a text message saying that he was at a bar and there was actually a painting of dogs playing poker in the bar. And he has never actually seen one of those in person. And my wife said, "Nothing beats a pair of spayeds," which I thought was really funny. CP: Is your wife pretty humorous? OA: She's pretty funny, yeah. We make a lot of really stupid jokes. I'll tell you a joke that I made up that isn't so great. It's actually another dog joke, coincidentally. What's the worst thing about prison for dogs? Soli-terrier confinement... yeah. CP: It's a good thing that your wife is funny. OA: It's a good thing she thinks I'm funny. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone plays Mon., April 26, 9 p.m., $10, with Magic Beautiful and Light pollution, Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 215-739-9684, r5productions.com.

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