Interview

Owen Ashworth On Advance Base’s New Dog-Themed Album Animal Companionship

Listen to the album's first single "True Love Death Dream."

Owen Ashworth has been making criminally under-appreciated music for over two decades now, first as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone and more recently as Advance Base. He’s a storyteller by nature, and the narratives within his songs typically catalog the eternal ticking of the clock in heartrending but plaintive fashion.

On his new album, Animal Companionship, he explores the primal desire of wanting someone to settle down with at the end of the night. But instead of writing about strictly human connections, Ashworth found himself writing a lot of songs about dogs. Dogs are a constant presence on Animal Companionship. Ashworth hasn’t actually had a dog since childhood — he’s admittedly more of a cat person — but there was something about the codependence of that specific human-canine bond that fascinated him, so he crafted an entire album stemming from that idea.

Of course, calling Animal Companionship an album exclusively about dogs would be doing it a disservice. It’s purposefully about a lot more than that — it covers death and grief and those bleary moments where everything suddenly seems to make sense until it doesn’t — but the concept of companionship elides throughout. Ashworth’s style has always been prismatic, slipping through time and space to craft enduring and dreamlike portraits, this time of loves lived and lost.

The album’s first song and lead single is “True Love Death Dream,” and it’s a tragic young love story. After a car accident leaves one of them dead, the one left behind gets a pet: “Now your dog has got his name/ You never tell anyone that/ His memory’s your own constant companion,” Ashworth sings, reflecting from years on down the line. Those little secrets that we tell ourselves and no one else, those physical remnants of love: It’s in that intimate space where the mantra at the center of this particular song — “It was true love/ Don’t ever let them tell you any different” — feels eternal.

Listen to “True Love Death Dream” below and read on for an interview with Ashworth about his new album.

STEREOGUM: So what have you been up to since the last Advance Base album?

OWEN ASHWORTH: Nephew In The Wild came out in 2015. I’ve got two little kids and a wife and we moved into this house in Oak Park, Illinois, which is a suburb outside of Chicago. I set up a little home basement studio and was recording that album after everyone would go to sleep or whenever I had spare moments. I lost a lot of sleep trying to full-time parent while also running Orindal Records, which is pretty much my growing concern these days. Making that record was rough. I was burning the midnight oil to get it done.

So I was not in any hurry to try and do that again. I was writing these new songs and putting them on the back burner while I was doing more label stuff. I just didn’t want to record another record, I didn’t want to go through that again. It really took Run For Cover reaching out and offering me a nice advance where I could afford to go into a studio and let someone else record it to make me want to do it.

STEREOGUM: Did you have any hesitations about partnering with a label considering you’ve been running your own for a while now?

ASHWORTH: They really showed up at the right time. I was a little surprised that I was so immediately into the idea. I started both Advance Base and Orindal in tandem because I wanted the freedom to be able to release stuff on my own. The label started with the idea that it would just be an outlet for my music and my brother’s music. But over the years, I ended up putting out Julie Byrne’s first record and it was such a great experience working with her that I wanted to do more of that. I found it really gratifying to work with other artists. Having made records for as long as I have, I had information to share with people and it felt like a good lane for me to be in. I wasn’t really expecting that. The label has grown into this different thing, where there are twelve or more other artists on the label who are some of my favorite people and people I love working with.

I was making release schedules and talking to artists on the label, figuring out the plans for the year, and I kept getting asked “When are you gonna make a new record?” I didn’t want to have to put label money into my own thing and I didn’t want to have to take time away from the label to make my own record. The fact that another label wanted to take care of that seemed really nice. And they’ve been really supportive of Orindal — we’re calling it a co-release and I get to put an Orindal logo on it. I think I’m more hands-on than a lot of artists because I’m used to dealing with the manufacturing side of things.

We’ll see. It’s kind of an experiment to see if it would make sense to do more collaborative stuff in the future, but for now it’s just such a relief that there are people invested in and excited about working on my record because I did not want to have to promote my own record myself.

STEREOGUM: After you got the offer from Run For Cover, how did you start to shape the songs you had written into something that would make sense as an album?

ASHWORTH: I had a bunch of different little groups of songs. I was mostly thinking about live shows when I was writing songs, figuring out what kind of songs I wanted to be playing live. Once they made the offer was the first time I really had to consider what I wanted the next record to be. I had maybe seven or eight songs that I felt really great about and I recorded really quick demos and sent them to my friend Jason Quever. He’s been a friend of mine since college and he was really helpful in recording a bunch of the Casiotone stuff — he recorded some of the songs on Etiquette, which, weirdly, I’m in the middle of reissuing

Jason is a real deal engineer now. He’s recorded with Beach House and Cass McCombs and he did the new Luna record. He’s still one of my closest friends and someone who knows my music better than pretty much anybody. So I said, “Hey, it might make sense for me to come out to Los Angeles to record this together.” And he was really excited about it, so we started bouncing ideas off each other over the phone.

I sent him what I had and I went out to him in January and we spent a week recording a bunch of stuff. Some of it was working great and some things weren’t working as well, so I went home for a couple months and just hammered out what the rest of the record would be and came back and recorded a few more songs. It worked out really well because basically I was only recording for a total of two weeks — it was a week in January and a week in April. So it was a very concentrated time where I was sleeping in the studio and basically doing nothing but working on the record all day.

I went home, hung out with my kids, and had the rest of my life. To have Jason as a partner who was really invested and was able to work quickly… It was great. I already want to do the next record with him. It was very inspiring. I’m so pleased with the quality of Jason’s work and how he’s able to make my ideas sound so much bigger and clearer than what I’m able to do on my own.

STEREOGUM: You were working on the Etiquette reissue at the same time as this. Even though that album’s 15 years old now, do you see any connections between that album and this new one?

ASHWORTH: I think the biggest connection is just having Jason involved. I’ve been wanting to reissue Etiquette for a few years now. My contract with Tomlab ended and the vinyl had gone out of print and that’s the one record that people are always asking me about. So once I had the rights to do it again, I thought it would make sense to re-release it. The timing worked out weird because it’s happening right before the new album, which wasn’t really the plan.

But having spent a lot of time with those songs recently, I was thinking a lot about what has changed in the way I write songs. I kind of stopped writing what I would consider to be love songs at some point, and I was wondering why that was. I think part of it is just getting older, having different concerns. When I was in my mid-20s, I was trying to figure out romantic relationships between one person and another. But I kind of missed writing love songs and I wanted to see what love songs would look like from the perspective of a married 40-year-old man. And it ended up being a lot of songs about pets and thinking about friends and the kind of relationships that people have with the animals in their lives. It ended up being a weird way into exploring people’s relationships with animals as a kind of proxy for people. So it seemed like a different way to write love songs.

STEREOGUM: Do you have a dog?

ASHWORTH: I had a dog growing up, but I’ve been a cat person for many, many years. My kids want a dog really bad so we’ve been talking about dogs. I’m a good dog uncle. I don’t know if I want the full responsibility of a dog. But I’ve always been really fascinated by people’s relationships with their dogs because there’s such an intensity to that relationship that’s much more co-dependent than what I experience with my cat relationships. I really admire it and I wish that I could see dogs in the way that people who love dogs see dogs. I wanted to make a record for all my friends who are dog people.

There were a lot more dog songs, but it seemed like too much. It could have been a whole album about dogs but I don’t know how universal that would be. And I was getting tired of it myself and I told myself I needed to back up a bit. I spaced them out more and tried to find connections between stories about strictly human relationships and people’s relationship with their pets.

Thinking about dog songs a lot, I was looking up a lot of other dog songs and art and literature about dogs. You know a lot of dogs over the course of a human life — dogs don’t live as long as people. So many dog stories are about the eventual sad end of a dog’s life, and I didn’t want to write those kinds of songs. I wanted dogs to represent something else on this record. The constant companionship, the steadfast and endless kind of dog love. I wanted this to be a record that would be a comfort for dog people and not something that would be depressing that reminds you that dogs die.

STEREOGUM: The first song on the album and the lead single is the reverse of that, though. It’s about a person dying and their memory living on through a dog. How did that song come about?

ASHWORTH: That was one of the last ones I wrote. It’s very literally about both types of relationships. I originally felt like it would be the last song on the record, but Jason said it was the best song and it should go first and I like how it works because it sets up the thesis for the whole record.

But there’s a lot about that song that I don’t totally understand. A lot of writing in recent years has been me trying to trust my subconscious and get out of the way of ideas. Sometimes I’ll figure out a song years after it’s released. There’s something exciting about that. It keeps writing exciting for me when there’s some degree of confusion in it.

I had a dream about Gary, Indiana. I live in Chicago, so Gary is our neighbor to the east. And I’ve done a lot of driving through Gary in recent times, just trying to know that place better. Driving around very late one night, I drove by this building that was basically a bath house that the city didn’t want to call a bath house — they called it an Aquatorium. It’s fallen into disrepair now, but I parked in front of it at 2 in the morning and I just tried to imagine what this building could have meant to people who had lived in Gary at the time when it wasn’t as deserted and depressed as it is now.

There’s a lot of different ideas in there. There are some true elements, thinking about people I used to know who have passed away. The way I write most of my songs are that there are a ton of different sources that I try to Frankenstein into a single idea. So I don’t totally get the song, but it gives me a heavy feeling so I try to follow that feeling.

STEREOGUM: There’s another song on the album about Gary, too: “Christmas In Nightmare City.” What do you think it is about places that have maybe seen better days that inspires you?

ASHWORTH: There’s usually some kind of strong location to everything that I write. Having a place in mind is really helpful to me to make it feel more real. The last record, Nephew In The Wild, ended up being a lot about Michigan. So this one, not really intentionally, ended up having a lot of songs with references to Indiana. I spend a lot of time in Indiana, I have a lot of really good friends in the Bloomington area so I’m down there a lot.

“Christmas In Nightmare City” is more directly autobiographical than a lot of the songs in the sense that it’s a true story, just a much simpler kind of story. I stopped drinking alcohol last year and the first few months of that were kind of tough and I had a lot of restless energy. So that’s when I started going to Gary a lot. I’d drive to Gary listening to Stephen King audiobooks until I was tired and ready to go to bed. There’s this crazy spooky part of Gary where the oil refineries are that makes you feel like you’re in outer space, especially in the middle of the night when there’s no one around. So that was the inspiration for that song.

And I didn’t know this at the time I wrote it, but there’s an Italian horror movie called Nightmare City. I was like, I better see this movie just in case because I don’t want to be making a reference to something totally insane. It’s an obscure one, but it’s not great. It’s a lot of fun to watch, though it doesn’t really have anything directly to do with the song.

STEREOGUM: What else ties these songs together for you?

ASHWORTH: There are musical connections, where I tried to keep the same feeling throughout the album. There’s always a lyrical and more literary component, but I also just wanted this strong feeling to be present. Jason was such a huge help in getting the atmosphere right.

Indiana is also a theme throughout the record. It’s really a record about grief and grief management. A lot of people have had a pretty rough couple years. Since I’ve been thinking about Etiquette a lot, that record was made shortly after a very good friend of mine passed away. Having to revisit that material while getting it ready for the reissue put that friend back in my mind. I had to come to terms with a lot of unprocessed grief.

I was also thinking about more recent friends who passed away — that stuff was all in my head and I just wanted to acknowledge it on the record. So there is a real heavy feeling throughout, and that’s just where my mind was at the time of recording it. And then I drew in that theme of animals and pets as a comfort, trying to find hope and love and positivity amidst darkness and Indiana.

TRACKLIST:
01 “True Love Death Dream”
02 “Dolores & Kimberly”
03 “Your Dog”
04 “Christmas In Nightmare City”
05 “You & Me & The Moon”
06 “Walt’s Fantasy”
07 “Rabbits”
08 “Same Dream”
09 “Care”
10 “Answering Machine”

TOUR DATES:
07/26 Chicago, IL @ The Hideout *
09/23 Lakewood, OH @ Mahall’s Locker Room *
09/24 Toronto, ON @ The Baby G *
09/25 Rochester, NY @ Small World Books *
09/26 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right *
09/27 Cambridge, MA @ Atwood’s Tavern *
09/28 Portland, ME @ Apohadion Theater *
09/29 Burlington, VT @ Light Club Lamp Shop *
09/30 Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz PDB *
10/01 Greenfield, MA @ Root Cellar Bar *
10/02 Kingston, NY @ BSP *
10/03 Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA *%
10/04 Washington, DC @ Studio Ga Ga *
10/05 Charlottesville, VA @ Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar *
10/07 Columbus, OH @ Cafe Bourbon Street *
10/17 Chicago, IL @ The Hideout
10/18 Iowa City, IA @ PS1
10/19 Omaha, NE @ O’Leavers
10/20 Sioux Falls, SD @ Total Drag
10/21 Fargo, ND @ Aquarium
10/22 Winnipeg, MB @ The Handsome Daughter
10/23 Grand Forks, ND @ Ojata Records
10/24 Duluth, MN @ Red Herring
10/25 Minneapolis, MN @ The Warming House
10/26 Milwaukee, WI @ Cactus Club
11/08 Louisville, KY @ Surface Noise Records
11/10 Knoxville, TN @ The Pilot Light
11/11 Durham, NC @ The Pinhook &
11/12 Greenville, SC @ Cabin Floor Records
11/13 Athens, GA @ The World Famous
11/15 Lafayette, LA @ Artmosphere
11/16 Galveston, TX @ GAR &
11/17 Austin, TX @ Hotel Vegas &
11/18 Denton, TX @ Dan’s Silverleaf &
11/21 St Louis, MO @ Foam
12/06 Vancouver, BC @ Wise Lounge #
12/07 Seattle, WA @ Barboza #
12/08 Anacortes, WA @ Kennelly Keys #
12/09 Portland, OR @ Turn Turn Turn #
12/11 San Francisco, CA @ Hotel Utah #$
12/12 Los Angeles, CA @ Bootleg Theater #
12/14 Tucson, AZ @ 191 Toole #?
12/17 Denver, CO @ Hi Dive #?
* w/ Gia Margaret
% w/ Friendship
& w/ Moon Racer
# w/ Lisa/Liza
$ w/ Stephen Steinbrink
? w/ Karima Walker

Animal Companionship is out 9/21 via Run For Cover / Orindal. Pre-order it here.