Interview by Squid
CFTPA: Owen Ashworth
*A Portion of this interview originally ran in Mesh Magazine Volume 2, Issue 6
A Don't front like you haven't heard of him, indie rocker. The guy with the brown cardigan and the glasses who had the nerve to stand in front of you on stage at The Rickshaw last week with a cadre of broken down Casio keyboards and a microphone. You thought he was setting up for someone else, or just sound checking maybe, when all of the sudden: he started singing in this husky rasp of a voice. He began rocking little ditties about a cellist with a broken heart or a friend who worked at a candy store or a shut-in Smiths fan. You thought he was being ironic, or overly cute maybe, until half way through one song, he abandoned melody altogether and made sure every little note on that keyboard was feeding back in the most brutally obnoxious way possible. Clearly, dude was not joking.
Welcome to the world of Owen Ashworth, aka Casiotone For the Painfully Alone. Ashworth has been simultaneously infuriating and endearing Bay Area audiences for ten years with his inimitable mix of plinks, static, bittersweet lyrics, and outright geekery. Back in town for a brief respite from recording his upcoming fourth album up in Seattle, Ashworth sets the record straight on his new Euro Dance sound, people who can't listen to his music anymore, cruising for sex in Tennessee, and being the King of Scrabble.
Squid: I want to hear about the canoeing first.
Owen: Did I talk about canoeing? My Dad is in a canoe club and he's really into canoeing. The thing about being at home right now is once a week I'm having to move canoes all over the yard, on and off of vans. So there's this special canoe knock I've gotten used to whenever I'm working on stuff. (Makes knocking sound) and it's like "(sigh) Okay, let me put on my shoes...". I just went camping with my family for three days. My parents were up in Bend, Oregon for a week and I went on this little float with my Dad. It was really nice. I used to do it a lot when I was younger. It's just really peaceful. But it was really hot. Dehydration and the sun laid me out for the rest of the day. I had heat stroke.
Squid: You forget to drink water when you're doing stuff like that.
Owen: I think it's because you're surrounded by water? So it doesn't make sense that you're thirsty because everything's wet.
Squid: You spend a lot of time with your family. Do they listen to your music?
Owen: No, not anymore. (Laughs) My mom is really supportive and she reads the lyrics more than anything. She'll comment on things but I think - my parents just don't listen to much pop music much anymore. I think my Dad sort of tolerates it but he's never really been very interested. He'll be interested logistically, "Oh, Italy! Where are you going to be in Italy?", but it has nothing to do with the music. "Your car! Do you need an oil change?". He's always really concerned that I've got the proper emergency supplies when I leave on tour. Nothing about how the shows are. It's really funny - that's just how he operates. My Dad is the scientific mind and my Mom is much more creative. She writes short stories and poetry. She tells me that I'm the reason that she was inspired to do it. So that's kind of nice.
Squid: That is really nice.
Owen: Yeah, she's had some things published in the last couple of years.
Squid: For the record, yours is (some of ) the only music that I can still listen to (post-breakup), because lot of that stuff I do not want to think about. Because you associate (music) with a person.
Owen: I got an email a couple of years ago from this woman. Her ex-boyfriend had played her Casiotone and they had listened to it together and then he dumped her and she was really heart broken and she wrote me this letter: "I can't listen to your music anymore. I'm really sad about it, but I think you're really great and I just sort of wanted to say goodbye." It was this really touching letter and I totally understood.
Owen: There's music like that for me where I can't listen to it. Where I've had weird emotions or weird memory attached to it so I've just had to put it away. But it was so weird to be on the other side of that. To recognize that this is a person, you know? It was really... I don't know, it really bummed me out, for her sake, but it was really kind of cool to get that.
Squid: When I first saw you, you were with the Papercuts. Was that actually your first (band)?
Owen: No, I was already doing Casiotone. That's actually how I met Jason (Quever, Papercuts founder). The story is that I used to see Jason around school all the time. He always had the sourest look on his face.
Squid: (Laughs) What school?
Owen: San Francisco State. We called him, The Most Emo Dude On The Planet. He always looked so dissatisfied with everything going on. He was playing with Duster at the time and I went to their show at the Bottom of the Hill and I was like, "I can't believe it's that guy !" He was playing the maracas and making them look like the most intensely sorrowful instrument. I was like, "How did he do that?"
I was convinced that he was this incredibly difficult and rough guy. And so sad. I played this show and he came to it and I was like, "I can't believe that guy is here, what is he doing here?" After I finished the show, I was packing up and I hear this voice that said, "That was really great, thanks!", and I turn around and he's just running for the exit. I was like, "He liked it?! I can't believe that guy liked it!" Later I saw him at school and I made eye contact and he looked away and walked right by me. But a minute later he ran up and was like, "Hey! I was at your show it was really great! I have this reel machine and if you ever wanna record or anything, I record at my house and I like your music." I said, "Thanks! hey!(I thought you were a jerk?)!"
I'd been doing Casiotone for a year or two at that point. I guess the first album was out already? No. The first single was out. It must've been '98. I went to his house and we were recording this song and he was really into casios and he was like, "I have an SK-1 too, why don't I play you this song I made that has an SK-1 on it". He played me this song, and I was like, "That's so good! I wanna hear more!" and he was like, "I don't play that stuff anymore. We're recording over that". I said, "NO. No we're not recording anything until you get more tape because I want you to at least mix it down for me." He had sort of given up on The Papercuts and I constantly pestered him. I became the cheerleader.
I was the drummer of the band for a while. I played keyboards, and it was mostly just because I needed The Papercuts to happen more that it ever being my band. It was always Jason's project. We've always been sort of mutally admirous of what we're doing. There was a period of weird intense rivalry. There were just a bunch of us playing music - like when I was doing the little record label, Cassingle USA - Cass (McCombs) and Jason and Lucas (Bernhardt, of Cuspidor) and myself. We're big fans of each other's music but it just got really kind of competitive.
Squid: That's almost is better in a way?
Owen: Except we were at each other's throats.
Squid: (Laughs) Okay, that sucks.
Owen: My friendship with Jason has persevered and it's seven or eight years we've been friends now. We're still really supportive of one another's music. He's helping to record some of the new album. Actually I was just at his house teaching him one of the songs.
I don't know, generally, I'm not close with that many musicians...the people I hang out with are not usually music people. I feel like it's just really weird to have that scene be your life and your social network and everything. I just sort of shy away from it. There's so much surface bullshit. And you know, I don't have to be friends with every band in the world. I can respect them and give them space and that's fine.
Squid: How did the name come up?
Owen: It was a total fluke. I was playing in other bands, trying really hard to get something together and I was trying to coordinate people's schedules and it was "how much Modest Mouse tolerance can you handle from this person" versus how much...(and I'm totally fine with Modest Mouse, I'm just saying them for example...)
Squid: I know exactly what you're getting at.
Owen: It was so hard getting egos and schedules and heads together. I was making demos to play them for people. I borrowed a keyboard from my little brother. I was taking a piano class at State and my totally cute pre-teen brother was like, "You could borrow my keyboard". It had the beats built in. I started working on songs and making tapes to play for the people I was playing music with, mostly just recording instrumental stuff. My friend Kelli liked one of the tapes and I made her a copy. Just as a joke I had written Casiotone for the Painfully Alone on the tape. It wasn't a band, it was just the sad songs so it seemed funny to call it that.
She really liked the tape and she called me a week later and asked, "Do you want to play a show?" I was like "We haven't really practiced. We don't even have a name." She said, "No, not your band I mean you. I really like that tape." I said, "No. Yeah, I'm not really interested at all." And she's like, "Well, I made flyers already." There was this band Juniper, they were this D.C. pop band, and she wanted me to open up the show. I was like, "What did you call it?!", thinking of my own name, Owen Ashworth, on a flyer and totally flipping out. She said, "Well, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone!" and I said, "NO. You're kidding, that's terrible !" She said, "That's what it says, you just have to play this one show, come on!"
I was like practicing instrumental songs and thinking, "This is really fucking boring, I should probably sing some songs." Basically, just in the course of a week I wrote the four songs that ended up being the first single, plus another song. I sang those songs and was like, "It's over with!". But a friend was there and said, "You want to play with our band next week?" I said, "Uh. No...". They said, "Hey! You should do it, it'll be really fun!" I said, "(sigh) alright.". I did that show and a friend of mine was at that show and was like, "Do you want to put out a 7 inch?" and I said, (affecting totally incredulous look) "Are you fucking with me?" I never had any intention to do this. It snowballed into where I realized I really liked writing songs. I just needed a kick in the ass and to have a little confidence about it.
Squid: But I think that there's a dividing line there. Talk about "fight or flight". It would've been really fucking easy for you to say, "You know what? No! I don't care."
Owen: And I totally said no. But Kelli fought me on it. She kept giving me keyboards she'd find at the swap meet til I had a bunch. I was like, (shrugs and smiles), "Alright, I guess I'm doing this..."
Squid: That brings us to the question that I cannot BELIEVE no one has asked you. Doesn't (performing) freak you out? The first couple of times I saw you - between songs when you're unplugging shit and replugging shit and moving shit around. I don't even like putting together presentations that other people are going to give let alone being in front of bunch of taciturn fucking indie rockers with their PBRs all thinking, "Impress me".
Owen: It started with the idea that I was convinced no one was going to like it. I basically wanted to make it as difficult, unlistenable and unprofessional as possible. I've sort of kept a good deal of that.
Squid: But it doesn't really take you that long! I always wait for something to happen. Especially in Barcelona, (at the Primavera Sound Festival), where I'm like, "I cannot believe he's in Spain and he can just do this in front of all these people..."
Owen: It's ridiculous. I can't believe I'm doing it still. It just evolved very organically and ...what's the word I'm looking for? I had the same trouble with this same word the other day!
Squid: And you're the Scrabble guy.
Owen: Yeah, well, try it on a tape recorder, and it's a different story. What's the word? Just that it's all grown completely out of necessity. "This is what I need to do to play the song". "This is what I need to do to perform them live". Once I realized "Okay, I have band and what are the rules?" I was film student and really nerdy about film and really impressed by Lars Von Triers' Dogma 95.
So I was like "Okay. Only Casiotone. Only white keys. Every song in the key of C. Every song is efficient and short as possible. Every song starts when the singing starts and ends when the singing stops. Every song is super fucking depressing, like no happy songs aloud. And it's all Casios. Those are the rules. Just, utilitiarian, that was the word I was looking for. Totally economical and utilitarian but at the same time totally rough and unprofessional. Just the sound of changing (from) song to song. The amps can buzz as loud as they're going to buzz.
It's sort of a very "Fuck You" attitude. I was 18 and going to emo shows and feeling like shit about myself. Every band hated themselves and reflected that onto the audience. It was so negative and it just fucked me up. For a long time. It's like, "People are dicks and I'm buying into it and I feel like shit about myself! I want to be in a band and none of these dudes are going to like me and it's so clear. I'm just going to...it's going to be punk and I'm going to be brutally honest - it's not a show." But that has sort of become the show. Just how "not show" it is.
Squid: The first couple of times I saw you I realized there was going to be this 50/50 split of people. (Some) who were going to be like "Fuck this guy!", and then rest of them were going to say, "This is the coolest thing ever". I was one of those people, "I love him and I must go to everything now because he is SO so out there...". This was around the time we started Playing in Fog. I was listening to a lot of different stuff but Casiotone was the one thing where I felt like I was satisfying all these different kind of (genres at once). Because I'd go to these twee shows and I'd think, "I'm going to freak out. Everyone's four and half feet tall 'cause they're all underage and I can't deal" and then I'd go to these punk shows where people would be staring at me because I wasn't wearing "the code".
Owen: I kinda wanted to be uncomfortable for the audience as a safe. If I'm uncomfortable on stage, it's way easier for everybody else. There's not really any fashion or artifice. That was the idea. I wanted to be very direct.
Squid: That was exactly it. And, like I said, it was dissonant. As long as I have that, I'm a very happy camper. Noise is my favorite genre.
Owen: Have you heard my brother Gordon?
Squid: No! that's right, tell me...
Owen: Oscillating Innards. He's awesome. I mean it really pushes my patience of what I can tolerate as far as noise and like he's just way deeper into it. He makes fun of my shit all the time. We go back and forth on each other. But I love seeing him play. It's just the most brutal and loud and ridiculous thing.
Squid: When did you get a sense, I mean obviously people were asking you to play shows but when did you get the sense that it was going to work and you could tour? You tour all the time.
Owen: The first tour I ever really did...I always have the most ridiculously roundabout answers! I was at State and I had this History of Music class and there was this dude Luke with huge black hair and he wore a trenchcoat to school every day. People called him psycho and I was like "who is this dude?". I was sitting in this class and the teacher was talking about girl groups and Phil Spector and made some point about the Shangri-La's and me and this dude Luke shot up our hands. And we're just looking at each other. We were geeking out about the Shangri-La's and like, "Oh Shadow Morton what's his deal? I heard that they were running guns - is this true?" or "Did they kidnap somebody? Because I heard that.." and Luke was like, "Yeah, I heard that same thing!" After class he's like, "What's your deal man?" He was tweaky and weird and he said, "Are you in a band?" and I said, "Sort of", and he said, "I'm starting this new band and they're called The Rapture you should check us out!"
Squid: (bursts into hysterical laughter)
Owen: He says, "We should trade tapes!" We traded tapes and I was like, "He's going to fucking hate this". I listened to his and was like, "This is one of those bands that I thought my band was totally rebelling against!" But he was like, "I really like your stuff, man! We should play some shows together!" and I was like, (incredulous look), "You're fucking with me! ".
We played a doughnut shop in Walnut Creek together and I remember that was the first time I met Cass McCombs at that show. He was living in Walnut Creek. Luke got really into having me play with The Rapture cause it was the same black-haired skinny song kids, talking shit. I would open and I think Luke just loved to see these kids freak out about it. Luke got to be really antagonistic about it. I have so many tapes, of the early shows where Luke's like, "Fuck you! You can't fight this guy!" in the middle of my set. Getting on the mike being like, "Fuck you guys! This is awesome! This is the most honest thing you've ever seen at a show! Fuck you!"
So we've been friends forever and they would bring me on tour, which was so awesome of them, and we'd be playing shows like, Strictly Ballroom and with Black Heart Procession. It was all these bands that I used to go see that like made me feel like shit about myself basically. It was just so fun to be the antagonist and fuck with people. Go in knowing this is going to be uphill all the way. There'll be a couple kids who get into it and those are my people.
Squid: I think that takes a lot of nerve because it is, as you said, there's the whole culture hating yourself. Of "the hatstand". If you're into it, no one's going to show it. Everyone's going to stand there. You can't tell if people are into it or they're not. There's one dude standing by himself nodding furiously with a beer, but aside from that it's really difficult to tell if people are into it. But now it's not like that (for you)...
Owen: I don't know.
Squid: You have a crazy huge draw.
Owen: I'm ten years older now and I have a very different perspective than when I was going to shows all the time. I'm not going to shows to make friends, I'm going to shows because I'm excited about a band or I need to get out of the house. It's hard to be be objective about it. Going to shows and seeing some of the same people you'd see at shows ten years ago who I've never met before and thinking, "I wonder how that guy's doing?"
Squid: How do you think your focus has changed ten years on? Obviously you have built an audience, so it's not as "uphill" as it was. I feel like, maybe the songwriting has that evolved more? How do you write, actually?
Owen: It depends. I have drum machines at home full of beats and stuff that I really like. Maybe eventually I'll have an idea of where I can use it. It's generally, I mean a song isn't a song until I have a story. I'll have melodies and ideas and loops and things but til I have lyrics, it isn't a song to me. Sometimes it's really spontaneous and I'll have a couple lines and build a song around that.
Squid: So since it's my favorite and I have to talk about it all the time, how did Blue Corolla come up?
Owen: That song I started a really long time ago. I remember I was working at Whole Foods in the bakery. They had the same music playing over and over again in there. I had this melody in my head and the first verse of the song. I called home and sang it on my voicemail and saved it because I liked it. I wrote it down in my notebook and put it away. And sort of abandoned it, I didn't know what to do with the song.
I met this dude Daniel who worked in a candy store. I said, "That's the coolest, you work at a candy store? That must get sooo many ladies, working at the candy store." We were just joking about that and I was like, "I've really got to put that in a song. I like that." Then I finished the album and it had been incredibly short. I had been merciless about cutting songs and making sure I loved every song on the record. I recorded everything and me and Jamie mixed the entire record. And I was like, "It's 28 minutes long! Fuck! That's not even a half hour. I need one more song. I know I need one more song". So I found that notebook and thought, "I should try and finish this song." It was last minute, at first I was like, "I don't even like this song" but I needed another song for the record. It's my favorite song on the record now.
Squid: It's my favorite. Absolutely. It's weird coz I have all of your stuff. But for some reason, that one just...I think it's because, when the chorus comes in and, there's extra melodies...no, not "extra melodies", why did I just say that?
Owen: You mean like other keyboard parts?
Squid: Yeah! All of the sudden it just becomes this road trip tune. And it's layered. And to me, as an outsider, it sounds like a bit of a different direction for you.
Owen: Yeah, I think it sort of paved the way for the new record. That was the last song I wrote for the record. Just because I had always written songs with shows in mind, and that I can't do anything that's going to be more than what I can perform live. I think that was the first song where I wasn't really thinking about that. I was just trying to make a good sounding record.
I remember giving the cd to Jamie when it was done and was like, "What the fuck's Blue Corolla?" We had mixed the record together and then I had just tacked this one song on at the end.
Squid: What about "Toby, Take A Bow" ?
Owen: I was living in Portland. I worked a record store, and I was fucking miserable at the record store. Hearing people talk about records: "Oh, this guy's a total acid burnout", "Yeah, this guy killed himself", "This guy is totally damaged and lives with his parents!", and I would be like, "Whoaaaaaaa!". People had this funny idea that being tortured and miserable is so much more smart and interesting. That's fucked up! The expectation is to make something great, not to have the most ruined life. I was dating this girl who was super obsessed with The Smiths and had a Morrissey tattoo. She was the darkest personality and super miserable and totally had that complex which I'd been a victim of myself. "Oh Nick Drake! I really - wow! Oh, he was so upset!". (Affects bewildered look.) This is so smart! And I love Nick Drake, but I think there's just a weird morbid fascination. I just sort of wanted to make a song...making fun of her a little bit? (Laughs.) I don't know, something about The Smiths, they're such an obsession, it's such a cult around him. I love The Smiths.
I remember before I wrote that song, driving in downtown Portland trying to find parking one night. And I was just losing my fucking mind. I was listening to "The Queen Is Dead" in the car and "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" came on. I kept rewinding it and listening to it again while I was trying to park. Probably for like, twenty minutes. Like five or six times, just on repeat, singing at the top of my lungs, delirious. I keep driving by the Powell's and they have parking lot and a parking attendant and mid-belting the song I look over and the parking attendant is this girl wearing a cardigan and a Smiths' t-shirt...
Squid: (Falls over on couch laughing.)
Owen: ...and I know I've driven by SO many times. That must've been so charming and hilarious to see, working in this parking garage.
Squid: Well, I'm sure you made her fucking year...
Owen: I'm sure she went home and told her roommates about it. So that's sort of what the songs came out of. The whole record was supposed to be about media and art affecting your life in various ways. That seemed to me to be the most literal, direct example.
Squid: Yes, and as I said the writing really stands out on this album. The melodies stay in my head but I specifically remember listening to that, and the part about "There Is A Boy Who Never Goes Out", and just cracking up. I'm usually driving by myself, and nine times out of ten, if I'm listening to something and it makes me laugh, I'll just be in hysterics, alone, in my own vehicle.
Owen: I want to tell you more about that song...(Thinking) Two things! One is that I talked about The Cure on the second record. I mentioned two Cure records in the name of the song. And somebody sent me a stack of Cure bootlegs. I was like, "That is awesome! I'm going to have to do that again on the next record." So I thought, "Who do I want bootlegs by? Whose interests can I pique by just mentioning a band in a song?" So I went over, I don't know, just the whole idea of Casiotone is just taking one stupid idea waaaay to far. So it seemed to make sense just mentioning a Cure song...so I'm just going to fill a song with every reference to The Smiths I can put into it. To see what kind of a reaction I can get from Smiths fans.
Owen: Yeah. I got torn apart on a Morrissey message board. Somebody sent me the link. People just talked so much shit. I thought it was hilarious. Those are the most offensive, insular, insane people in the world.
Squid: Oh yeah, it is. It's really interesting I have board that I'm on for one of my favorite bands. There's a really good group of people on there. There's also a group where I have to watch myself. And I don't like writing where I have to think about what I'm writing.
Owen: I wrote that being very self-conscious and knowing it was going to get a reaction from people. A friend of mine had collected really horrible Smiths' puns for a long time. Fake Smiths songs, like, "There Is A Boy Who Never Goes Out" and another one is "The Boy With The Porn In His Bedside Table". That didn't make it into the song. But it just felt like there was so much weird Smiths' stuff was going on in my life that I just needed to put it into a song and put it away.
Squid: The other one that I love is "Jeanne If You're Ever In Portland". I'll tell you, again it was...so different from your other albums, (in that) words were popping out at me. And the Xs on the hand was just the most adorable thing. I remember being in my car (again) and looking at the stereo and thinking, "Awwwwwwww...".
Owen: That song is about two friends of mine and they have no idea that it's about them. Some friends of mine who are a couple who met when one of them was on tour. They both have told me it's their favorite Casiotone song, and they don't know that I wrote it about them. So it's a secret.
Squid: Any other salient moments on this album that you wanted to talk about?
Owen: I mean there's a weird story to everything and I steal so much shit from my friends and books and other music. Weird ideas from other music. Lots from movies and just this mish-mash. But it's almost all referential to somebody I know. And people almost never know it's about them. It's gets twisted so much that...it isn't about them. You know, Daniel worked at a candy store and I end up putting it into a song.
Squid: What about the new one? How do you feel the new one's going?
Owen: It's good. (Laughs at understatement.) I like it? There's really no thematic thing like the past records have had? The first one was supposed to be that every song is supposed to be an answering machine message. Something you would say on someone's answering machine. So it was recorded on answering machines. The second one was all about public transportation, the idea of sort of being in one boat in between places. Twinkle Echo is about art and media. How the media that you consume affects your life. Also, every song on Twinkle Echo is supposed to be a beginning or a middle or an end of a trilogy made up of a song from each album. So it finishes a story.
Squid: You're fucking blowing my mind here. I'm going to need to write this all down...do you have any sort of diagrammatic I can use...?
Owen: I did it very open ended and I sort of just did it for myself. The last song is on the record, but the reason is...there are fifteen songs on each record. But the song "Giant" at the end of Twinkle Echo is this really short song that repeats three times? Because the idea is that it's a component of three different stories. At some point characters from the other records went to the movies and cried. And that's just the idea.
Squid: So "Daina Flores You're The One": is that Star Wars, Empire, or Jedi?
Owen: I'm not telling, I don't wanna give anything away about any of them. Except that the songs that have 'Casiotone For The Painfully Alone' in the title? Those three are a trilogy, directly. In reverse order. But that was the idea of Twinkle Echo. I just wanted to have a trilogy and finish it. I wasn't going to make another record. I was like, "That's it! I'm done!" But then... I kept writing songs. I was going to call it (the band) something else but I didn't want to start over again.
So the idea for the new record, the only real theme at work, the only rule is that there wasn't going to be any Casiotone on the record. Anything but. But I've already broken that rule, which I think, is what rules are for. There is a little bit of Casiotone on it. What was the other idea...? I originally wanted to call the record, "Graceland". Because I've been covering it...
Squid: Oh, shit, YEAH! Tell me about that. Because when I think I'm older ...how old are you?
Owen: I'm twenty-eight.
Squid: I'm thirty-four. When you covered that, speaking of being miserable, and a time in your life. Being a total geek in high school. My little group of dorks in Academic Decathalon who really didn't hang out with anyone. That album was OUR album. 1987. Graceland was IT.
Owen: It's a great record, yeah. The lyrics to that song, as someone who was very young, being on a roadtrip with my parents, listening to it. I thought that song was so sad and amazing. When I was on tour in Europe for three months, I got really homesick and I started covering that song. Just for myself if anything. I didn't know if anyone would recognize it.
Squid: I was so fucking excited.
Owen: Musically it's not really recognizable, but it's just that melody and the lyrics. I wanted to build a whole record around "Graceland", and have the whole record be about Tennessee. That was the plan. But then Tomlab tells me that, due to some weird German copyright rule, because I changed the music so much, and because I changed New York City to Redwood City in the lyrics, they didn't think they'd be able to release the song. So that's going to be on a single for somebody else. Basically, I had built a narrative around the song and the one link was taken out. I was like, "What do I do now?" Some of those songs are left, some were scrapped and replaced with others.
This record was weird because I wanted to make...I was writing another album called "Vs. Children" which was stories about families. I wanted to take a year off and then record that with a full band. I had all these songs for it. Then Tomlab was like, "We need a new Casiotone album", and I was like, "This isn't done! I don't know what to do." I started playing with Jherek (Bischoff, of The Dead Science and Degenerate Art Ensemble) in Seattle and it was so much fun. I thought, "I should just try to whip something out with Jherek". Jherek and I are going to maybe do an EP but I don't know what it's going to be about. But we need money. Give me money!
Owen: Then I started writing and I was like, "I'm just going to make this an album". I have like, five songs right now. There are like a dozen half finished songs at this point. But everything I finish, I'm really excited about. The next couple weeks is going to be nailing down the lyrics on a lot of things. It's half really electronic and not really a "Casiotone" sound it's more of a really...Euro Dance Music sound?
Squid: (Tries not to laugh. Fails.) You were talking about maybe getting a band together.
Owen: There's a lot of other instruments. Some of the songs I'm recording with Jason on piano and drums. There's going to be some pedal steel on it.
Squid: Oh cool! Deb will cry! That's her favorite.
Squid: We love pedal steel.
Owen: Jherek is playing bass all over it. Actually, when I was in Seattle last, we recorded in David Byrne's former bass player's basement. She had the coolest stuff: a really nice piano, a bunch of really nice basses that Jherek freaked out about. Really nice amps. Jherek was like, "Please let me play this bass on something!" There's a ton of bass.
Squid: Is it "bottom heavy"?
Owen: Well, yeah! I mean it's really huge bass drums and a lot of synth bass. It's way more "dancey" than the other ones? I'm trying to make...I want it to be the most depressing record? The idea was to make the most miserable dance music. I want people on Ecstacy to cry. (Laughs.)
Squid: That's a good thing though. To still be trying to get in people's faces and do something that they're not expecting. Or something that makes them uncomfortable.
Owen: I may be fooling myself. I don't know! There's a Christmas song on the record. There's a New Year's song on the record. There's a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute song on the record. In a very indirect weird way. It's like this weird Creedence subtext. There's still a song about Nashville called "Nashville Parthenon" about cruising for gay sex at the Parthenon in Nashville. I went to The Parthenon and I just decided that it would be the best - I don't know anything about Tennesee gay culture - but if I was gay in Tennessee, this is where I would go to have anonymous sex. It's the fucking Parthenon! It would make so much sense.
There's some really really dark stuff, but some of it's way more dancey than anything else I've done. Big ridiculous arpeggios and house beats. Jherek has been a big influence. I've always been the boss, and I really love Jherek and trust his opinion, and it's been really hard to let go sometimes. When he has an idea, I will let him see it through and see how it sounds. More often than not, it'll be great.
I just sent the first single to Tomlab. Tom's like, "I really like this single, I think it's a good record...It is a little Xiu Xiu...!" You know, Jherek has worked with Xiu Xiu so I think that's the Jherek influence. I'm trying really hard to send it in the direction of serious electronic Pet Shop Boys style? But circumventing Postal Service? I'm trying to be really careful to not put myself in that niche.
Squid: But I think that people who listen to your music have got that frame of reference and they're going to take whatever you do now and put it through the Casiotone filter. It's not like they're coming at it like, well obviously there will be new people who come to the shows who don't' know, but it's not like people don't have this other body of work that they can refer to. People get it really quickly. Like I said, it's like the first show of yours that I saw. And I'm looking around and I'm thinking, "50/50!"
Owen: Exactly. That's awesome.
Squid: So do you think you're going to put together a band for this one?
Owen: I don't know! I was on the phone with Tom yesterday and all he's heard is the single. He's like, (German accent) "How will you perform this music, Owen? How are you...I don't understand how just you can perform these songs? I think you need a band". I can't afford a band! I would love to! I would tour with a fucking string quartet if I could. That would be my dream, you know, just drum machines and strings. I don't know. I'm going to finish the record and then worry about it. Jherek can't tour. I would love to find some other string players.
I'm going to do a tour in March with a full rock band called The Donkeys from San Diego. We played one show in San Diego where we practiced for three days and then had the full rock version of Casiotone.
Squid: That's going to be fucking nuts.
Owen: Bass, electric piano...and I just sang. And it was so much fun. We're going to do a tour like that where it's going to be half like that and probably half the really harsh electronic stuff myself. Split it up. I'm really happy with how it sounds. So that's going to be sort of a one-off thing. In theory I would like to do some one-off recording with The Donkeys, but I just think Casiotone will always be mostly me. It's really awesome to have Jherek involved now and the other people who are going to be playing on the record but...
Squid: How come you've never thought of doing an album about Scrabble? As odious as people find Friendster, I had no idea until I was looking at that. People kept talking about how you beat their ass in Scrabble. Which I can't play at all. I freeze up. I've got letters in front of me, and I can't do it.
Owen: I don't feel like it's anything to be proud of, that I play a lot of Scrabble. It's kind of embarrassing to be really good at Scrabble. It's like being, "So rad at Donkey Kong!".
Squid: But I think it's because they can't fucking do it!
Owen: I don't know! I grew up playing a little bit of Scrabble. I guess about four years ago, I started playing a lot. I always played. I was just really into scrabble. I think about it a lot! I enjoy it. I didn't see the movie, I started reading the book and wasn't really interested. I just really like playing. And I wrote that song, "Roberta C" and I put her high score way above mine. Then I thought, "I have to beat Roberta C. I can't fucking tour this song without a higher score than Roberta C!" So I beat her.
Squid: Did you?!
Squid: And what do you do? You just put the little letters in front of you and words just start popping into your head?!
Squid: I can't do it!
Owen: It's not about how many words you know. It's about knowing the tricks. Being strategic about Scrabble. You know the shitty two little letter words that everybody always..."XI!"
Owen: It's a greek letter.
Squid: Okay, sorry. See?
Owen: Or Ka! It's the ancient Egyptian word for the Id, I think? Ai! It's a kind of sloth! Things like that. It's not really valuable knowledge except that it's another 12 points or whatever.
Squid: You gotta be careful. I can imagine people getting aggro and drunk.
Owen: Dude, that's why I don't play without my dictionary. I have a scrabble dictionary. I'll be like, "Look it up! It's right there!"
Squid: You know they have that t-shirt: "Scrabble: It's Your Word Against Mine"
Owen: That's good. I saw one that said, "Who needs U?" and it's all the q words that didn't have u in them?
Squid: (Laughs)...yeah. I don't know how you can play that game.
Owen: I just feel like I'm prepping for retirement.
Squid: You're going to go to the retirement home and ..
Owen: ...destroy? Yeah. I'm just getting the jump on them. But you know there are people who won't play with me. You know, I'm not competitive sort of person at all. I really enjoy Scrabble. I don't mind losing. I don't mind playing with people who aren't as good as me.
Squid: Yeah, you don't mind losing...but you don't lose! So how do you know you don't mind losing?!
Owen: I absolutely lose! I can't believe this has turned into Scrabble Chat...
Squid: It's a significant part of your personality that your audience doesn't get to...well, it's what your friends all reference! I think those goofy (Friendster) testimonials, people run out of things to say. What are they going to say, "I love Owen's music and his songs make me cry". You're going to talk about the other things you think of when you think of a person.
Owen: I just really like the idea of making a character of myself. A caracature. Wearing the same clothes everyday, basically and being a cartoon character. And if Scrabble is my schtick, then that's fine, but I'm totally nice about it. Some people just won't play with me coz they think I'm gonna be an asshole. No! I just enjoy playing and it's not about beating somebody it's just I really like it.
Squid: Sou're going to Chicago to play a show.
Owen: Chicago for a week. I'm probably going to play a lot of Scrabble in Chicago.
Squid: You gonna dominate?
Owen: We'll see.
Squid: Whatever happened to the show where other people were going to sing your songs?
Owen: One person signed up. Ten of my friends were like, "You have to do this. That would be the best idea." And then I'm doing it and nobody stepped up.
Squid: I would've figured that all of your friends from other bands would've just popped up.
Owen: Nobody...yeah. My really good friend Jenny said she'd do it. And nobody else. I didn't hear a peep from anybody. And that show ended up being cancelled. That's was the first night of the tour with Nate Denver and it was going to be a Halloween show. And Nate was asked to play at Wes Borland's Halloween party in Hollywood. The original guitarist from Limp Bizkit. Huge Nate Denver fan.
Owen: Nate says, (affecting deep Nate Denver voice), "Owen. We can roll down to L.A. and Wes is gonna pay us a grip of money and it's gonna pay for our rental car. And...(pauses for effect) we're probably going to hang out with Nine Inch Nails. And I hear he has an collection of swords that feature actual swords from Lord of the Rings. Do you wanna play the Hemlock? Or do you wanna go to this party?"
Squid: (Interviewer loses shit.) So how was it?
Owen: Fucking weird as shit. I was wearing a Misfits t-shirt and Wes Borland flipped out coz he had just carved Crimson Ghost in a pumpkin. "I gotta get a picture of you guys together. That's awesome!" But I met a dude from Tool and Nine Inch Nails and saw swords from Lord of the Rings. This huge, huge, huge house in Hollywood.
Squid: Is Trent Reznor going to work with you? THAT would be...
Owen: Trent Reznor wasn't there. It was other members. It's the touring band. But most of these dudes were like, "Do you know who that is?", (and I'd say), "No..." , and they'd be like, "that's blah blah BLAHH!" (Nods head.) "Oh...okay..."
It was totally Nate's night. It was rad to see him conquer the room of drunk metal industry types. Watch them flip out for Nate. And Nate did Deicide covers and people lost their minds.
Squid: I would've lost my mind. But he's another person, when I saw that you guys were touring together, it was perfect. Nate is the same way, where you're either fucking there for him or not.
Owen: I was talking about it to him and I said, "Here's the thing Nate. People think we're a joke. But we're so NOT a joke that I think we just need to stick together. And he said, "You're right man..."
Nate's one of my favorite songwriters and I think we both really enjoy each other personally and each other's music. I have such a good time with him.
Squid: Don't you get sick of the indie irony thing?
Owen: Yeah. I don't know. I think you hear the name of the band and you're like, "Oh, please ". If you see the shitty drawings on the record covers, you think, "Oh, God ". If someone told me about my band? I would just be like, " Please ". But I feel like as soon as I start playing, it's just so evident that it's not a joke. It's uncomfortable and weird.
Squid: Where did you get the pulpit? From WHENCE came the pulpit, because when it showed up I was like, "That is IT".
Owen: The thing about the pulpit is that I can never go back now. A friend of mine, his dad is a trash collector. His dad pulled that lecturn out of a church in Walnut Creek. It was being thrown out. It was home made. It was built by a minister with a P.A. system in it. There are speakers and a pre-amp in it. My friend had it in his garage and I said, "That's tremendous." He had no room for it and said, "You should take it!". I said, "What am I going to do with it?" He said, "You should use it for Casiotone!"
It was really awkward at first coz it's slanted. But the first show I played with it people just flipped out. So I have to use it now. I've sort of built the whole set up around it. I actually took the pre-amp out so the inside of it's all storage. The keyboards are in there. I've made it work. And it's so dead serious, a fucking lectern on stage? People are like, (sounding scared), "Dude isn't fucking around". It's so pretentious! It's ridiculous.
Squid: That's the beauty of it! So then what happens when you play, say, Primavera Sound in Barcelona. Obviously the pulpit did not come with you when you.
Owen: The awesomest thing is that LCD Soundsystem flew me out to New York the first time they headlined threir own show in New York. James (Murphy, LCD Soundsystem) has always been super nice about Casiotone stuff. He called me and said, "Oh hey I talked to Luke, and Luke said you have this, uh, lectern, and uh I don't know, is that important? I can get you one if you need one." He was dead serious, like whatever you need. I can get you a lecturn. Just the idea of James Murphy going around to churches, "You guys got a lecturn that I can borrow?"
Squid: It's on your rider. You have a pulpit and green M&M's on your rider.
Owen: I can't really take it on tour coz I don't take my van on tour and lecturn just lives in my van. I rent a car for tour just because I couldn't afford gas. Can't take it off the west coast.
Squid: How does travel affect your set? If one of your keyboards gets jacked up...
Owen: It happens all the time. Play it by ear! Part of the fun of Casiotone is the fact that half the shit is broken and something cuts out all the time. I've never played a show where something didn't go wrong. It's what keeps it interesting.
Squid: With a lot of people I know who are in new bands...it's one of those golden rules where they'll play live and say, "oh we messed this up and this up" and I say, "Nobody knows you messed up until you tell them! Don't say that!" But for you it doesn't seem like it's this unnerving thing that's driving you nuts.
Owen: No! Coz that's every show I've ever played and I just sort of expect it. And that how the arrangements come about. Something will cut out and I'll think, "I should remember that!" or something will be way to distorted all of the sudden and I'll think "It's staying distorted, I like that!" Or I'll have to use a different keyboard for a song or I'll have to program a beat on the fly for the drum machine and all of the sudden it might just end up better. When you play fifty shows with a song, it takes on a new life.