By Sean Moeller
Some days can be trying and some people get hit harder with the shit card, flattening them right routinely, as if they'd been rammed by an 18-wheeler loaded with rhinoceroses and concrete lawn ornaments. Some people carry their puppy dog eyes with them in their pockets, the same way they would their prescription eyewear. Some people wear long faces like they were going out of style and the Doug and Debbie Downers are out there mumbling about the atrocities of living, plodding through calendar days as if each held a greater degree of vindictive scorn for them. There are those who never seem to stumble into happiness and couldn't buy it even if a grand was a drop in the bucket.
The Owen Ashworth - Casiotone For The Painfully Alone - that we hear in his collective efforts over the last nine years, since he dropped out of film school to make music for a living, are the works of a man who knows his somber. It's plain to see that his soliloquy, at that crucial time during the theatrical performance - with the one beam finding him solemnly at its end, in the middle of the stage - would be a succession of "why me?" preponderances, delivered with shaking arms - palms up - and a silent tear dribbling down each cheek. The songs on "Etiquette," newly out on Tomlab last month, follow Ashworth into his new den of troubles and sorrows, just as they did on 1999's "Answering Machine Music," 2001's "Pocket Symphonies For Lonesome Subway Cars" and 2003's "Twinkle Echo." It's still funny how the new den of troubles and sorrows - hanging on the walls like the prized game heads of successful hunts - still seem to be reflective of the ones that came before, just told over better tea or coffee, and with a lot more depth to them. They have their mother's eyes and their father's heartbreak. We leave girls and friends holding the pieces or we're left holding the pieces of nights gone disastrously wrong or people gone completely astray from the other people and the things that would essentially make they themselves happy people. No one ever really gets to put that star at the top of their tree. They never get to casually breathe it all in as they're always choking back on something, holding in a disappointment.
This, however, is not the real Owen Ashworth. He's not Dr. Remorse. He's not a chronically morose character dead-set on concentrating on the bad times and ignoring the good. For those of you out there concerned about his well-being, he's just fine. He just happens to write tales about people who live on the downside. He's not like that. He is a quiet guy who probably wouldn't have the capacity to show emotion the way Carlton Fisk did when he poked that one infamous homerun against the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series or the way Joey Lauren Adams just fucking loses it in "Chasing Amy." He would be a character actor were he ever to take to Hollywood, playing the guy with the poker face, but also with the hidden side that he'd be a sweet babysitter and someone you could trust with your secrets. Just don't think he's always sad.
"Sometimes," said Ashworth from a German record store last week, when asked if he felt sad. "When something fucked up happens. Today I feel pretty good. I felt pretty good yesterday, too."
The uplifting sorts of things that keep Ashworth going and which he has no problem listing include his cat, his girlfriend, good jokes, driving around and listening to music, good books and movies, cooking for people, hearing stories about his parents as kids and winning at Scrabble. He makes it very clear that he could go on. He's not stuck in a bottomless pit of dreary worries and unhappy endings. It's just a fascination with the kinds of songs that can turn a sunny day into a real moper with no change in the weather whatsoever.
"I'm attracted to miserable songs, of course, but I don't have so much misery in my own life, I don't think. Maybe bummer songwriting is cathartic or whatever," Ashworth said.
Most of the songs are just figments and fragments anyway, tiny sheets of plywood where realities and fictionalized details are pressed so tightly together that they just become one single thing, bonding at the sadness, the same way a door bonds with a wall at its hinges.
"None of the songs are 100-percent true, but many of them are inspired by actual events, locations, people, etc," Ashworth said. "Many of the songs are fictionalized accounts of stories people have told me, or whatever. 'New Year's Kiss' was inspired by an actual New Years party, a neighborhood I used to live in, and the time my car got broken into. I try to write down every significant moment, scene, quote, etc., and true life details and imagined things just get crammed together until they feel like stories."
Ashworth's strongest and most convincing stories come as a result of all of his travels, plying his trade - which amounts to loading an armful of Casios into a bar and then knocking the paint off the walls with his lazy singing voice and his booming programmed beats - and then leaving the next morning to make it to another city. He writes about the girls he can't go see when he wants to, the ones he's had to watch get smaller in the rearview mirror and the ones he'll never see again. Who are all these girls, we're left to wonder. As long as his girlfriend's cool with it, we can be cool with it too.
"Well, yeah, totally it's hard going from one city to the next and leaving friends behind," he said. "I tour a lot, though, so I get to see my friends pretty often. That's just part of traveling. It's a bummer to have great friends in Berlin or Glasgow that I totally miss, but I'm sure glad I had the chance to visit their cities and meet them. Life is complicated and wah, wah, wah. So, now I send lots of postcards all of the time and my buddy list is beyond epic."
On the last tour of the United States that Ashworth made (also the one that brought him close enough that Daytrotter was able to reach out, grab him, blindfold him and "persuade" him to record a session for us), he brought with him his friends in the San Diego band The Donkeys. They rehearsed an 8-to-10 song set of Casiotone songs that would make up the last have of Ashworth's set every night for those few weeks. The Donkeys, country-noir, roots rockers by trade, infused some different life into those songs about longing and regret. They turned them inside-out and forced the songs to buck up a little bit. It's an experiment that Ashworth enjoyed immensely and looks forward to doing more often in the near future, shuffling the parameters of how his fans think about Casiotone For The Painfully Alone music.
"It was totally the best," he said about having The Donkeys as his wing-men. "I have been friends with those dudes for a long time, and we've played a lot of shows together over the years. Tony and Tito's old band, The Anchors, used to cover one of my songs, and they asked me to jump up and sing it with them one night. It was really fun and I said, 'We should do this way more often.' Playing with them adds a whole lot of California to my style. It is so fun to play with beautiful-hearted, brilliant guys who know and love the songs and aren't afraid to take the music to new places. The Donkeys for president.
"I'm really excited about the idea of playing with different musicians. My next tour will be with The Dead Science, from Seattle, who are about as different from The Donkeys as two bands can be. I've been playing music on my own for a long time, and it's a refreshing change to hear other people's ideas. I am thrilled to completely bastardize and make obsolete the good Casiotone name. I hope people get really disappointed and stop buying the records."
But he's got all these rapid fans to please. It could end in fisticuffs. Or stranger things still. Some people care a little too much.
"I get some weird emails about dreams people have about me. That's kind of awkward. Mostly, people have been really nice. It's kind of amazing. I'd be happy to party with most of the people who come to my shows. I totally reserve the right to get weirded out, though."