Final Graduation

After thirteen years of crafting beautiful little ballads for the heartbroken, Owen Ashworth is putting the Casiotone For The Painfully Alone name to bed. Hazel Gibson talked to him on the eve of one of his final shows.

How are you?
Doing pretty good! Just got back from my European tour middle of last week, then I was gone for the next few days and just got back into town and now I’m getting ready to leave for California tomorrow.

How many shows have you got left?
Just three. The last shows are with a band from San Diego called The Donkeys who are old friends of mine, we’ve done tours before. They’re going to be playing with me in Casiotone. We’re gonna have a few days of rehearsal, but we’ve done a bunch of shows together before so they already know my songs pretty well. I’m really looking forward to it.

So you’re going to have a full band lineup?

This is your final tour ever, right?
For Casiotone, yeah. I’m retiring these songs. But when I get back home I’ll be working on new songs, writing and recording and probably just playing some shows around town for the next year, but once the new album is finished I’ll be touring again – but probably not quite as gung-ho as I’ve been in the past.

So what have been some highlights of your final tour? I guess a lot of people have been coming out of the woodwork as it will be the last chance they get to hear these songs.
Yeah, yeah… when I go to different cities old friends have been coming out to the shows, and I feel like people have been extra gushy. It’s really nice. It’s been really emotional and pretty exhausting in some ways. It’s the last show for lots of people coming. But there were 60-something shows on this last tour, so every night feels like a goodbye. It’s draining in a way.

It must feel like going through a breakup that never really ends…
It feels like going to a goodbye party every night! It’s like “I’ve gotta save a little something for tomorrow guys, I’ve gotta do this whole thing tomorrow night guys, I’m sorry!”

It’s been really intense. I’m someone who’s not very good at taking compliments, I just have a hard time sitting and listening to people say nice things about me. So I appreciate it but it’s just kind of hard for me to take in a way, you know? It makes me feel a little embarrassed sometimes. It’s been really intense… but I think it’s important, and I really appreciate that people have wanted to say these things.

I’ve been doing this for thirteen years, so some people have had a really long relationship with the music and it’s meant something to people, which is what I would have hoped for. It feels like an accomplishment, feels like it has a place in peoples lives, so I feel like I did it, and that’s great.

“I’ve already put some work into a new album. I don’t want to do anything radically different”

So if we go back to 13 years ago, almost exactly from your first show, what prompted you to initially start making music? Because you were initially in film school, right?
Yeah, I was going to school ‘cos I had to go to school, and I picked film, but I didn’t do it for very long. I really liked movies but I didn’t like the program I was in, so I changed to English, then to creative writing, then I just dropped out after a while. I just wasn’t really enjoying college. I really liked writing though. I wrote short stories…poems… then started writing songs and really enjoyed it, and had aspirations of playing in a regular band.

I was just making demos of these songs I’d written on a handhold tape recorder or an answering machine – the answering machines that could record an extra long message. So I recorded little electronic versions of these songs that I hoped to flesh out with other instruments and play with other people and circulated the tapes among my friends. One of my friends really liked it and thought I should play some shows, so thinking that I would probably say no, she just put me in a show she was booking and put my band name on the flyers and said “you’re playing this show”. I didn’t even really mean for Casiotone For The Painfully Alone to be the name of the band. I’d made a tape for her, and kind of just named the tape that. She’d requested extra sad songs, and they were all songs I’d made on this little Casio keyboard…

So I really appreciate that my friend was kind of pushy enough to do that, because it was probably something that I would have never had the guts to do on my own. It didn’t ever really occur to me to be a solo artist, but I kind of fell into it and people responded, and I started to play more shows and started to take it more seriously – getting more equipment and just sort of learning how to do stuff. I was a song writer, and a musician and a recording engineer and pretty much just self taught. Trial by fire!

I heard that you were quite interested in the Dogma 95 film movement when you started out, and that you set yourself a bunch of similar rules to abide by in your song writing. What rules did you set yourself? Did you stick with them?
I was at school when I started Casiotone, so when I realised that it was going to be a thing that I was going to do, I just sort of handled it like a school assignment where there are parameters to what I was working on – to strengthen and isolate certain muscles of learning how to write songs or whatever… I just made a couple of factors and limited what the variables would be. Initially when I started writing songs I just wanted to be able to write songs I could perform myself, in real time, limit myself to what I could perform with two hands. I tried to make the songs as short as possible. I guess I have this idea of efficiency, to just try to tell the story in as few strokes as possible.

Also very similar subject matter, like all the songs are pretty sad. And I wanted there to be a very specific kind of mood, I think that’s really influenced by a lot of soul and country music. I basically wanted to make comfort music. The kind of music you want to listen to yourself when you’re by yourself and feeling bad. So yeah, all the songs are in C, with a few exceptions. I just really like the idea of this very specific aesthetic. There are bands that I really admire who have such a distinct sonic palate, like Suicide or Big Black or the Young Marble Giants or certain country artists or the sort of weird mid-period in the early 1970s, like Sly & The Family Stone records recorded with a drum machine – such a specific kind of sound that just became synonymous with the name of the band. I was kind of aspiring to that. The first three albums I made were very much cut from one cloth.

Was this maybe one of the reasons you decided to finish up with your current project, as perhaps those rules only allow innovation up to a certain point?
After I made the third album – I always like to do things in threes, you know three being the magic number – so after the third album I sort of gave myself permission to start breaking all the rules I’d set up, slowly dismantling everything that had defined Castiotone up to that point; creating different sounds, writing in different keys, starting to write about different stuff, involving different musicians, doing more elaborate production. So the first three albums were very much defining an aesthetic, and the next three albums were slowly creeping out of that mold, trying different things. By the time I started working on Vs. Children I knew it would be the last one. I thought for a long time about what I wanted Vs. Children to be, and that it would be the final statement for Casiotone.

So the demise of Casiotone isn’t something that’s suddenly appeared in the last couple of months…
When I was writing Twinkle Echo it first occurred to me that Casiotone isn’t going to go on forever, that at some point I was going to end it, and what else do I want to do with it? What else do I want to accomplish? And so I had the idea for Vs. Children being the last chapter, and what did I want to do with it, how do I get to that point?

I got really bored of the initial rules I’d set. It was an exercise. An attempt to learn to write songs, and I think I’ve done that. I want to do other things but I want to retain the purity of the original idea of Casiotone, so I want to leave it to its own context and make new music- a fresh start, and all that.

So I guess what everyone wants to know is – as you’re leaving it as this contained period of time, this set of work, and you’re moving on to something else – what is your next step? Will you move in a completely different musical direction, or are you just allowing yourself more freedom within what you already have going on?
I don’t know. I don’t have a grand scheme for what it’s gonna be… I’m excited to have the freedom to build new songs. I’ve already put some work into a new album. I don’t want to do anything radically different, because I think the music I’ve always made has just been appealing to my tastes at the time, and I think the last few albums have been a gradual slow movement toward something different. I think the new stuff will be a similarly slow evolution. I can’t imagine I will make a sound that is too radically different from Vs. Children. But I think the first Vs. Children was radically different from the first album I made, so I guess it will continue to change over time.

I’ve started to do more collaborating, starting other projects with other people. I spent the summer in Chicago working with a rapper named Serengeti, producing half of his new album. Yoni Wolf from the band WHY? is the other producer. So I’ve been making some beats for Serengeti, which has been really fun… really enjoying collaborating with somebody else. I’d like to do more of that… working with other people.

For a long time I was really scared to work with other people, I guess I wanted to keep Casiotone as my own thing; I didn’t want to dilute my ideas. I was also insecure enough about my song writing to be worried about giving my songs away for other projects. I was so concerned with making my albums as strong as I could and thought “well if I give this song to this other project then I cant use it for my album, and what if I never write another good song?” and I had so much insecurity for so long that it’s exciting to write a bunch of songs and give them to something else. A lot of the beats I’ve been writing for Dave (Serengeti) have been things I had in mind for my own songs, but he liked them and I thought why not? We can use these beats, work on them together, it’s really fun and inspiring to have someone to collaborate with. It feels good to have lots of things to work on.

Everything feels really open ended right now… and that’s exciting.

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone’s Website

Posted by Nick Fulton under Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A
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