SKYSCRAPER MAGAZINEOwen Ashworth spent the last year living with strangers for twelve hours at a time; strangers like an Alabama woman with a bobcat in her backyard and a raccoon running around the house. He's not a hitchhiker or a milk carton runaway who hates his parents and makes out to Evanescence under black lights. As the sole songwriter behind Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Ashworth's a struggling, starving artist in every sense, living hand-to-mouth from touring revenue and slow-rising record sales. Think of him as a modern-day traveling folkie, with a Muppet Baby keyboard strapped to his back instead of a scratched acoustic guitar. Now that he's finished dodging flowers in Japan and pricking the ears of Europeans on a seemingly endless 2003 tour, Ashworth's living with his parents and looking for a job. No, really: the affable, talented musician who toured alongside The Rapture months ago is now anticipating a return to pushing popcorn and Snowcaps at a California movie theatre. "I'd like to be at work more, even if it's only a couple of nights a week," he says of his obsession with crumbling movie theatres, the kind with balconies, rising red curtains, and a single dust-glazed screen. "Theatres are always these beautiful, amazing buildings, where two hundred people sit in the same room the same night," he adds, mentioning he's worked at six before. "It sounds very hippie or new age, but it creates a pretty amazing atmosphere." The first thing that comes to mind when hearing Ashworth talk is, 'Oh, how ironic: a twenty-six year-old musician who wears tattered blue sweatshirts and Buddy Holly glasses, who works at the local independent movie theatre, and who sings about Smiths fans, rice milk, and rock shows. Haven't heard this one before.' Hell, he's even a film school dropout, former fanzine publisher and music writer on top of it all. But there's nothing ironic about Ashworth's slow rise from Bay Area anti-hero to flagship artist of the German electronic/experimental label Tomlab. "He plays completely from the heart and takes his songs seriously," says labelmate and Xiu Xiu founder Jamie Stewart, who also lent layers of guitar to, and mixed, the Casiotone record Twinkle Echo (2003) "I've heard him scream at people from the stage, that he'd walk out if they didn't stop being assholes." "At first, people disregarded me as a joke, but once I played they seemed a little apologetic," Ashworth adds. "It's not like I'm singing songs about food or something." Even though he avoids singing about turkey and peaches, it's taken six years for people to stop looking at Ashworth as a novelty. Much of the misconception comes from his minimalist music. Casiotone's four-track recordings ( borrowed four-tracks, mind you) are like a no-fi Postal Service: lyrics as literate as Stephin Merritt, vocals as whiskey-on-the-rocks deadpan as Leonard Cohen, and music as punk and skeletal as Suicide under a pile of pillows. His debut is more of a scattershot collection of character studies than a musical statement. The 1999 self-release Answering Machine Music (Cassingle USA; re-released on Tomlab) pays homage to Lou Reed's noise collage Metal Machine Music through songs taped on actual answering machines. What it lacked in production values it made up for in late-night phone call storytelling, something Tomlab noticed and rewarded with the release of his proper full-length, Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Cars . For instance, "Baby It's You," a tense, terse love letter buried under a coating of fuzz and feedback and plodding heart beat, was enough to grab the attention of DFA co-producer James Murphy. The Rapture's Luke Jenner, an old friend of Ashworth's, handed him the song. "I was blown away by the lyrics and the way it's so patient in its energy," Murphy says. "It opens up so much at the end with just a Casio. He makes great songs that affect you." Immediately apparent when listening to a Casiotone song are its intimate, bedroom closet production and overwhelming aura of claustrophobia. It's as if the cold machines spewing mechanical beats behind his words are slowly eating his memories away, nipping at his every syllable. Ashworth likens the effect to the Hank Williams and Bob Dylan records he'd listen to while growing up, that feeling of peering through the peephole of someone's bedroom while they sing their pain away. It's a sound he punctuates with scratching, popping, and hissing tape noise: futurist folk, if you will. "I always really liked music that sounded damaged, like I listened to a lot of very old, sort of 78s - scratchy music or experimental pop bands," he says. "The unifying quality seems to be this unlistenableness that I find engaging and appealing." Ashworth's fascination with dissonance began in high school, when he often tooled around with tape loops and listened to his father's copy of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano . "You can have it if you want, but I'm warning you it's terrible," his father said. Ashworth obsessed over Cage's compositions, wearing the record's grooves out the way people his age normally played The Pixies. Ashworth says he listened to it once a month for nine years and, although he enjoyed the experimental side, he quickly realized he wasn't born to replicate it. "It's really beautiful, wonderful music, so outside of the ordinary," he says. "It's something I try to incorporate into my music, and add interesting textures, because I don't think I could pull off just making sound. I would miss songwriting too much." The Casiotone project grew out of Ashworth's affinity for songwriting. Since high school in Redwood City, California, he ghostwrote songs for area musicians because he didn't have the confidence to sing. As more people paid attention to his work, he started recording his own music with cheap Casios as his backing band. The early recordings began circulating at shows in cassette form under Ashworth's modest Cassingle imprint. When people started trading his songs and asking him to play shows, Ashworth says he became the "band by default." "I didn't have much of an agenda when I started this band. It was a side project of other things I was doing," Ashworth says. "People just responded to it and I found it an interesting exercise for songwriting." Had people not shown interest, Ashworth may have continued to pursue film as the ideal medium for his fly-on-the-record-store-wall stories. But he says he would have dropped out of film school, regardless of the outcome. "The program was geared toward making students into a cog in the Hollywood machine," he says, adding how one student was an intern for George Lucas. "I realized there's too much cost and compromise involved in making a film. It makes more sense to write, and even more with music, because people pay so much more attention to you. It's like how books on tape are so much more popular than books now." If Ashworth's songs were indeed a book of short stories, they'd probably be entitled On the Road: The Next Generation . His is the voice of the disenchanted post-Clinton generation, the college graduates and dropouts who grew up with promise only to have it pulled from under their eyes as soon as they were supposed to enter the work force. His are the tales of musicians, writers, painters, poets, playwrights, and actors: the twenty to twenty-nine year-olds forced to live off of menial part-time jobs with no health insurance until their art is recognized. Ashworth's writing is often critical rather than introspective, especially his latest, Twinkle Echo . "Every thing I write starts off very visually," he explains. "I think in terms of characters and scenes. There's a circumstance between every song." Each two-minute snippet offers a quick glimpse into the life of another directionless soul. They have names like Toby, Eleanor, and Jeane. They live in Portland, Phoenix, and Kansas. They wander public libraries, coffee shops, and indie rock clubs. They play Scrabble, drive dented blue Corrolas, and listen to mopey music. In other words, they are the stereotype of the jaded hipster, the kind of guy you see with greasy hair, a Pabst in hand, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth at a bar, or the kind of girl you see wearing leg warmers, thick eyeliner, and a scowl at a show. At first, Ashworth admits his focus on such a scene could get him unfairly pigeonholed as the Kerouac of hipsters. "I was a little disappointed with the last record ( Twinkle ) at first because it sounded so insider, talking about being a band on tour and The Smiths. I hope people don't find that as exclusionary." But then he adds, "It's just my social circle. I don't see it as a hipster lifestyle. It's more about just being poor, honestly. The theme of the record is people who tortured themselves in really unhealthy ways. That's a common trait in musicians and artists. I wanted to make music that sounded very personal to the people around me." Murphy covered similar territory in his Urban Outfitters anthem "Losing My Edge," a first-person account of an aging cool kid coming to terms with his colored-vinyl trading, Electroclash-copping successors. The LCD Soundsystem song is much more tongue-in-cheek than anything Ashworth has written, but Murphy says he can still relate to Casiotone's subject matter. "In my head, it lines up with me, having been a punk rock kid looking for love and friends," he says. There are two other common strains to Casiotone commentaries. People think his dry delivery and detached vocals are depressing, and consequently believe he sounds a bit too much like Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields fame. Ashworth admits to the first: "I have this problem with thinking of happy things as insincere and cheap. It's something I need to get over." He's much less agreeable about the Merritt comparisons, though. "It's kind of sad," he says. "The comparison is inevitable if you are making electronic music with smart lyrics because there aren't a lot of people making literate pop music. I think he's a great songwriter, but he's not much of a reference point for me." Jamie Stewart's own band, Xiu Xiu, often drapes its dark, depressive stories in warm/abrasive electronics as well. He also doesn't see the resemblance. "I'm a little detached from what the current indie rock releases are because of a lack of what I would consider intelligent songwriting," adds Stewart, laughing. "But, hey, I'm sort of a fucking jerk." "A lot of his sound is driven by being true to what he wants the song to say," Murphy says. "To get a more polished sound that requires other engineers and studios would risk losing the intimate nature of the songs, so he's wisely been careful in his production choices and changes. As time goes by and he finds producers and studios and suggestions that he can trust fully, the sounds can change without losing the particular Owen-ness, so to speak." Ashworth hasn't begun recording his next full-length yet. He's busy playing the occasional show and looking at movie theatres for the time being. But he does envision some changes with the next record, beginning with an often touted "more organic" sound and string arrangements. "I'm ready to try something else and get out of the trappings of the synth-pop ghetto," he says. That's the thing. From his name ( Casio tone) to his music, Ashworth represents the recent resurgence of synthesizers and indifferent vocals. It's a revival that caused a buzzword to rise and die within months (Electroclash) and a renewed interest in the Eighties that's already waning. Stewart says Ashworth exists outside of both the hipster and electro realms. "The scenes are unconnected," he says. "It's not like there will be a show with the Greasers and the Socs of how synths are used. Owen is also outside the bullshit ironic hipster scene. It's not like he continually crosses paths with people like that." Whoever latches onto his music, Ashworth still thinks of himself as Hank Williams with a decent Casio collection. "I've played in bands with guys who are really into guitar pedals and amps, and I just found it ridiculous," Ashworth says. "There's something folky, punk, and minimal about Casios because they are so common and easy to use. One day they'll replace acoustic guitars." We may be decades away from seeing bedroom Bob Dylans drop their Gibsons for synths and keyboards, but Ashworth has a point. There is something special about his music, something personal in its simplicity. Now, if only it stays that way. "Some of my favorite bands write under strict limitations to have a distinct sound, like Big Black," he says of his goals. "So, I was interested in having a defined set of aesthetics to write under. But I am definitely ready to try something else."
Skyscraper Magazine #16 Spring 2004