Advance Base is the music moniker of Owen Ashworth, who recorded as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone until 2010. CFTPA released a number of albums, which were well received by critics and fans who appreciated Ashworth’s lo-fi electronic sound and microcosmic storytelling.
Advance Base’s first album ‘A Shut-In’s Prayer’ was released last year, with Ashworth continuing to use those familiar elements of narrative lyrics, keyboard and electronic beats to create a warm and nostalgic collection of songs. Advance Base’s first UK gigs start at the end of this week so I caught up with Owen to find out what we can expect from the tour and how things have changed for Advance Base.
AP:This is the first time you’re coming back to the UK since the farewell tour of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone; is there anything specific that you’re looking forward to on your return, Owen?
Besides from seeing old friends & the thrill of traveling around to different cities, there is something galvanizing about being on tour in the UK. Playing for UK audiences is a different sort of challenge than playing anywhere else. At home in the States, if an audience doesn’t like my music, they get wooden, or they get chatty, or they just leave. I find UK audiences to be more aggressive & outwardly critical, & there’s something really exciting about that. The most hostile audiences I’ve played in front of have been in England & Scotland, there’s a real satisfaction in pulling that kind of crowd around. It can feel like lion taming. It’s real work, & it’s a little dangerous, & even when it ends up being a total mess, I know I’m a better performer for having had the experience. I’m probably setting myself up for disaster by admitting that.
AP:On a warmer note, have loyal CFTPA fans been coming to the Advance Base live shows?
I’ve seen some old familiar faces around my shows around the US & Canada, which always feels like a nice reunion. Advance Base has a smaller audience than CFTPA did, though. I knew I’d lose some people just by changing the name. Of course there are people who just don’t like the new stuff as much. That’s normal & I’m sure there are still some people who liked CFTPA, but still don’t know about Advance Base. But there are new people, too… people who never listened to CFTPA & are hearing my music for the first time. That’s exciting to me. I made a decision to start it all over again with Advance Base, & it’s going to take time to build an audience again.
AP:A Shut-In’s Prayer draws on a range of instruments and includes vocal harmonies – are you bringing other musicians with you on the road or is touring still about playing solo?
It’s just me this time. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to bring a full band over, & honestly, I’m perfectly happy just playing on my own. Being a front man doesn’t really come naturally to me. I find it a bit awkward, having to speak for these other people on the stage. In addition to trying to put on a good show, I also tend to worry about how much fun my bandmates are having. It feels like hosting a party & worrying if your work friends & school friends are going to get along. Performing on my own with just keyboard & my voice & some drum beats feels very comfortable, because that’s how I tend to write. When it’s just me, I can relax & just play the songs & try to focus on the people in front of me.
AP:Let’s talk more about A Shut-In’s Prayer. You seem driven by storytelling in your songwriting, do you begin with a narrative idea or does music come first when you compose?
I didn’t start out with much of a plan for A Shut-In’s Prayer, beyond having certain instruments & production ideas in my head. In figuring out the sound of the record, I’d come up with characters & situations that seemed to match the mood of the music. The more I wrote, the more I noticed lyrical themes emerging, & those themes would inspire more songs. The sound of A Shut-In’s Prayer is very nostalgic to my ears, so I ended up with a very nostalgic set of lyrics.
AP:You are obviously interested in family life as subject matter on A Shut-In’s Prayer – was this a conscious choice when you were creating the album?
My wife was pregnant with our first child while I writing most of A Shut-In’s Prayer, so I had family on the mind a lot. Becoming a parent gave me a new kind of empathy for my parents & grandparents. It wasn’t that I was trying to write about family, necessarily; family was just where my mind was. My subconscious always seems to lead the way when I’m writing. That used to embarrass me, but these days I’m trying to trust it & just let the songs go where they’re going to go.
AP:You use the first person in your lyrics, such as “we lost touch, I don’t think of her much, I’ve got kids of my own”. How much of your songwriting is purely imaginative and how much of your own experience do you invest in it?
I’m not so interested in writing about myself or telling true stories. I’m usually inspired to write by real people or situations, but I don’t feel any obligation to stick to the truth. As long as the songs feel real & relatable, I’m satisfied. That song, “Riot Grrrls,” was a little bit about me, a little bit about a few different friends of mine, & a little bit about a woman in a grocery store whom I overheard describing one of her kids as “half grown.” I didn’t know what that meant, & I still don’t, so I gladly pass the confusion on to you.
AP: Do you write songs in a particular location or at a designated time or is it just whenever/wherever inspiration strikes?
I can’t remember the last time I finished a song, honestly. I’ve had months of writer’s block. Usually, I’ll have little ideas running through my head throughout the day, but especially since my daughter was born, I only have a few small blocks of time per day to sit down at my piano & try to hammer out some chords to go along with the scraps of rhymes or melody that I’ve been trying not to forget. Keeping a little digital field recorder handy has been really helpful for recording little ideas. Lately, I feel like I’ve just been collecting puzzle pieces, waiting for a free afternoon to try to figure out how they’re going to fit together. My daughter keeps me very busy, but I’m very grateful for it.
AP:Which of your own songs are you most proud of and why?
Mark Kozelek covered a CFTPA song called “Natural Light,” & I thought his version was so beautiful. So, of course, I now think that “Natural Light” is a great song. I’m very shallow & vain.
AP:How does working as Advance Base differ from working as CFTPA?
CFTPA changed a lot over the years, & I see Advance Base as a continuation of that change. All of the tracks on A Shut-In’s Prayer, except the last one, were written on the same electric piano. I liked the idea of focusing on a few key instruments, & building themes around a few simple sounds. A Shut-In’s Prayer has more of a live, naturalistic, folksy sort of sound than the last CFTPA album (Vs. Children), but I can already feel my tastes moving somewhere else.
AP: So, on that note, what’s next for Advance Base?
I think the next album will sound a little more psychedelic, perhaps a little more evil.
We look forward to it Owen.
Advance Base plays two gigs on 6 July (Cambridge’s Portland Arms and Reading’s Double Dot Bash), following with Bristol’s The Cube, Brighton’s The Hope, Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh, Glasgow’s Nice N Sleazy, Manchester’s Night & Day Café and finishing at London’s The Lexington on 12 July.
If you live near any of those locations then grab this rare opportunity to hear Ashworth’s consummate solo musicianship in person.
For more info visit www.advancebasemusic.com