Interview: Advance Base

Empathy is what makes Advance Base stand out as a musician. The Orindal Records boss – one of our favourite labels in the world – has a unique ability to inhabit characters entirely. The fact he can write an album about dog lovers though he professes not to be a huge one himself is testimony to this unique skill. As a dog dad myself, I can attest that Advance Base really gets the many highs and few lows that come with ‘Animal Companionship’ – the name of his latest record.

Owen Ashworth the IRL name of Advance Base gives listeners just enough information about his travelling cast of characters leaving it to us to fill the stories in, or embellish them with our own experiences. Indeed I’d be amazed if anyone could listen to ‘Animal Companionship’ and not wonder about the fate of the soon-to-be-mother, the couple in the fire or the lone traveller to the dog park.

In our interview he tells us why he chose dog lovers as his latest subject, as well as explaining how having two little kids has seen his listening habits move to gentler sounds. Advance Base returns to the UK for a set of shows this month, make sure you get down to one – we certainly will be!

How do you balance releasing your own music and touring with running a record label?

I’m still figuring it out, honestly. It’s a challenge to make time for both. When I’m working on new releases for Orindal, I have to put Advance Base on hold, & vice versa. I often need to plan gaps in the Orindal release schedule to make time to write, record & tour my own music. 

What have you found the best way to find artists for your label?

Orindal receives a lot of demo submissions, more than I find time to listen to. It amazes me that so many people have been interested in being part of Orindal, & I’ve met some great people that way, through them reaching out. I’ve never released anything for anyone I didn’t know personally, though. Some of the artists I’ve known for years, long before I started Orindal, & others I’ve met on tour after we ended up sharing bills together, & we just made the right kind of connection. I dedicate so much of my time to each release, I really need to know who I’m working with. It’s a special kind of relationship. All of the Orindal folks seem to have a similar kind of DIY spirit & a strong emotional connection to the art they make, a strong compulsion to communicate through an abstracted medium. If they need help bringing their music to other people’s ears, & I’m able to help them, I feel a sort of obligation to. It’s a joyful thing. The community aspect of the label is important to me, but I have to be careful not to take on too many projects.

What’s the motivation for keeping the label going?

I think Orindal is a really special label, & I’m proud that it’s become a home to so many artists that I love & respect. These are my peers, & I really value the trust we’ve built between us. I want them to have this outlet for as long as they want it, & for as long as I can manage it. 

How has having two little kids changed your relationship with music?

I listen to a lot of music with my kids, & I’m really fascinated by the way they listen, & what qualities in music most attract them. One of my kids is very into ABBA right now, & the other one is very into the theme from Ghostbusters, the one by Ray Parker Jr. The kids will get obsessed with a particular song & it’ll be the only thing they want to listen to, which can be maddening, but I try to find a way to engage with whatever they’re listening to. On past road trips, I’ve spent a lot of time at the wheel just completely focused on the bass playing in certain Disney tunes. Even when it’s my turn to pick the music, my listening habits have moved towards gentler sounds, just because I have to be considerate about what I play in front of my kids, or which albums I leave lying around. Before my kids were born, I was listening to some pretty extreme black metal & death metal, records with truly terrifying cover art, but now those records are filed away on the highest shelf, & they don’t get listened to very often. I also find that I don’t listen to as much rap music as I used to, due to the lyrical content. I don’t think my 5 year old is ready for The Geto Boys.

How do you deal with touring and raising two kids? I asked Hiss Golden Messenger this question and he said his wife has a strict rule of tours lasting no longer than two weeks.

I have to call in a lot of favors. My wife works really hard to keep the house going when I’m away, & we often get some extra help from grandparents, other family, & friends. It’s a painful thing to leave my family for weeks at a time, but I love the travel & the shows. Beyond it being a job, I just really love performing. It’s my version of meditation.

You’ve said that with ‘Animal Companionship’ you wanted to make a record for all my friends who are dog people. Why? 

When you love someone they way I love my friends, it warms your heart to see all of the love in their lives. The pure way that people love their pets is a shining example of that. I just wanted my friends & other pet lovers to know that I see their love & that I appreciate it.

Do you find it easier to write through a fictional lense? If so, why?

I tend to write fiction because that’s the way the ideas tend to occur to me. They are informed by real people & events, but there’s a good amount of abstraction in there, too. A lot about the way I write songs is subconscious, & I try to keep that dreaminess in there. One of my favorite things about writing songs is how vague I’m able to be with the characters & situations. I love being able to just use a few words & sounds to point the listener towards a specific feeling while leaving out any unnecessary details. I want the people listening to be able to bring their own experiences to what they hear. I try to leave room for them. 

You’ve written a lot about friends throughout your career. How has it been being honest about people you love? Are you open with them from the outset? Has it ever brought about any awkwardness?

I’m going to be careful to respect privacy here, but there have been a few times when someone I’m close to has asked if a specific lyric was about them, & I was surprised by their interpretation. Nothing major, but I’ve definitely hurt some feelings & have had to make a few apologies.

More often, someone in my life has recognized details about them or about a mutual friend & asked me about it, but those conversations are typically pretty positive, some version of “aww, hey, you remembered that thing,” & “aww, hey, you noticed that I remembered.” I have written a few times about a friend who died, & a number of our mutual friends have let me know that they had an emotional reaction to hearing one of those songs, but I think we’d both been glad for the chance to share some grief & nice memories. 

For the most part, my songs are made up of lots of very small details from lots of different places, Voltron’d into whole new characters & stories, so the songs aren’t usually about a single person or situation. But, I’ve learned to accept that anything that I put out into the world is bound to be misunderstood by somebody. 

What was it like working in an actual studio for ‘Animal Companionship’? What did it enable you to do that you hadn’t been able to do previously?

Jason Quever, who engineered & co-produced the sessions, is an old friend, & we communicate really well, so we’re able to work very quickly to get the sounds we wanted. Jason has insanely nice gear & he knows how to use it, so he was able to translate the intention of my rough demos & make them sound big & clear. When I’m recording at home, the tracking is typically pretty rushed, & as a result, there’s a lot of experimentation & repair that goes into the mixing process, & I usually end up with some compromised version of my original idea. I think those failed attempts can be really beautiful in their own way, but Animal Companionship is the closest I’ve ever gotten to actualizing the sounds in my head, & that was a thrill for me. It was also a relief to not have to set up the mics & patch the board myself, so I could just concentrate on the performances & arrangements. I can’t tell you what a difference that made. I don’t think I would have been nearly as happy with the results if I’d worked with a different engineer, though. Animal Companionship is testament to my 20+ years of friendship with Jason.

What artists releasing music today inspired Animal Companionship? If they didn’t directly inspire it, what artists were you listening to at the time from today? 

As far as contemporary stuff goes, I was mostly listening to other Orindal artists! Gia Margaret was working on There’s Always Glimmer at the same time that I was working on Animal Companionship, so I was listening to her rough mixes a lot. I liked her piano sounds so much that I asked her to play on “Christmas in Nightmare City.” Dear Nora, Friendship, Greg Jamie, Moon Racer, Lisa/Liza, Karima Walker & Robert Stillman were also influential in different ways. Those were the people I was touring with & listening closely to. Peter Gill from Friendship started playing pedal steel on “Dolores & Kimberly” while were on tour together the previous spring, & it was sounding pretty good, so I asked him to record his part for the album.

Also, I was also lucky enough to support some shows for Stephin Merritt & David Bazan while I was writing those songs, so I had both of them in my head at different times. I mean, obviously Stephin Merritt. There was also a lot of older music that also inspired Animal Companionship, but that isn’t what you asked about.

Obviously with this album you had the theme of humans relationships with pets. Why do you like to have a theme for your records? Do you still think it’s important in an age where people are probably consuming less albums?

Having a theme helps motivate me to write. I like having a big picture concept for an album. Albums are still the ideal for me. I know that a lot of people are going to hear a song on a playlist & add it to their own playlist & that might be the only Advance Base song they ever hear, & that’s fine, but I don’t let that influence the way I like to write & record.

I was surprised to read that you weren’t a dog person yourself. My partner and I have a dog, she’s a huge part of our lives and we love her so, so much. Honestly, I connected with those feelings so much on this record and was really surprised to read you weren’t a dog lover. How did you inhabit that person so much?

I mostly had cats growing up, & for as long as I can remember, cats & I just have seemed to gravitate towards each other. I’ve spent plenty of time around dogs & dog lovers, though. I like hearing my friends’ dog stories, & some of them inspired the songs on the album. If the dog content on Animal Companionship feels accurate & well-researched, then I’m glad.

I like dogs, but I only had one as a kid, & that was only for a year. She was a golden retriever named Lucy. I thought about Lucy a lot when I was making the album.  She was a cool dog.

Can you tell me all about ‘Answering Machine’? I think it’s one of the sweetest songs I’ve ever heard

Thanks! A couple of years ago, I went on eBay & bought the same model of answering machine that I’d used to record some of the first Casiotone songs. That machine had belonged to a roommate, & we used to record little keyboard songs as our outgoing messages. I didn’t even have a landline anymore, but I always liked the way that machine sounded, & I wanted to try to record some piano through it. The box arrived in the mail, & one of my kids asked about it, so while I was explaining how it worked, I remembered being a kid in my parents’ house, & the sound of their old answering machine. I didn’t like to answer the phone when I was home alone, so I’d just let calls go to the machine, & it always felt a little spooky when the tape would click on & someone’s message would broadcast through the empty house. It made me feel like a ghost. I guess that’s where idea came from.

In your album, you put your characters in a house fire, awaiting the arrival of a baby. Where do these narratives come from?

The pregnant woman in “Same Dream” isn’t based on anyone in particular, but I saw it as a pretty common situation with friends & acquaintances who lived in cities, got pregnant, & started to wonder if it was time to move somewhere quieter, less expensive, & closer to family. It always feels a little funny to sing that one on tour, because I’m reminded that the people it’s intended for are probably too pregnant to go to shows, or have already moved away from the city to raise their kids. Not to say that there aren’t parents who still make it to shows, & they’re the audience members I’m most grateful for. Getting a babysitter so you can drive into the city to see a band play takes true dedication.

The apartment fire described in “Care” was pretty close to something my wife & I experienced in our first shared apartment in Chicago. It was a scary situation that brought us closer together, & made our next apartment feel like even more of a home. We didn’t have a dog, though.

You’re coming back to the UK! Why’d you want to come back so soon and what should people expect from this run of shows?

I have my booking agent to thank for putting the July tour togther. There were some festival invitations, which I was happy about, & it seemed like a good opportunity to visit some of the cities that didn’t fit into the Feburary UK tour. I think this will be my last UK tour for a while, so I’m glad I get to see so many places, some of them for the first time. I’m pretty bummed that I wasn’t able to include Bristol or Belfast, but the dates just didn’t work out.

It’ll be a different set from the last tour. Not so many new songs, but a different mix of older songs, plus a few surprises. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I’ll be well-rehearsed after my June US tour, so it should all sound pretty good by the time I get to England.

 Animal Companionship is out now on Run For Cover Records

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