Ashworth dropped out of film school to make songs on Casio keyboards that have
more complex plots and more realistic characters than anything playing at the
Orpheum down the block. He's played scrabble with the girl from the Blow, he's
sang Neil Young songs into his friends' answering machines, and he once made a
mixtape that featured a Shangri-Las song segueing into a Shellac song. The man
is a living legend, and he was kind enough to take the time to talk about his
tour, his awkward name, and his experience making Etiquette, his very
first album featuring instruments other than Casios. Killer diller.
How has the tour been?
First of all, I'd just like you to know that I am
typing this from the van. Welcome to the future, man. Tour has been beautiful. I
am traveling with The Donkeys, who are some of my favorite dudes ever. No
How was New York? Did you have more fun at the Cake Shop show or the show you
played in Brooklyn?
New York was a lot of fun. We went to the Met and saw the Rauschenberg show.
The Met also has a truly stunning painting of Joan of Arc by Jules
Bastien-Lepage that I like to visit whenever I'm in town. I enjoyed both of our
New York shows. We got to play with Federation X at the Cake Shop and they were
totally great. I think the Glasshouse show was my favorite, though, because my
friend Mo's band, Hola Chica also played, and so did Zeke Healy, who is one of
my favorite guitar players ever. I have to say that the Glasshouse makes me
kind of nervous, though. I tend to get a little panicky and claustrophobic in
In that really long Playing in Fog interview, you talked about the Dogma
95-style rules you made up for yourself when you started the project, and the
two rules that stuck in my mind were "it's all Casios" and "every song is super
fucking depressing, no happy songs allowed." And clearly, with Etiquette,
you've broken the "all Casios" rule, because there are lots of other instruments
on it. How do you feel about that change?
I was ready for it. I decided a long time ago to commit to three albums in
the "all Casio" framework, so once I finished Twinkle Echo, I was eager
to try different things. Etiquette was an exciting album to make.
What made you decide to bring in more instruments?
Oh, I'd always wanted to write for other instruments, but I had committed
myself to maintain the integrity of my planned trilogy. I did cheat a little
along the way, though; Pocket Symphonies and Twinkle Echo both use
strings, and there's even a little quiet guitar on one song from Twinkle Echo. Anthony
from The Donkeys was actually a huge motivating force in being more adventurous
in my arrangements. Dude recorded a beautiful cover of "Half Ghost" on acoustic
guitar, and hearing that song in a whole new context was really inspiring. It
made me realize that I could take my songs in almost any direction and they
would still be my songs, and that was exciting news.
How do you feel about having other people sing and play on the record with you?
I was glad to get some friends involved. It took some trust and a little
letting go, but it was a wonderful feeling to collaborate with people I love and
try to make something grand and beautiful and outside of our own egos.
How was it working with all the various musicians/ producers/ singers you worked
with for the record?
The logistics could be tricky. I was so used to just recording on my own
and whenever I wanted. Getting three or four people in the same room at the same
time was a lot harder than I would have expected. Everyone who plays on that
record is there because I was thrilled to have them involved.
The guest vocals add a lot to the album, but at the same time they sort of
shatter the image of a guy sitting alone in his room whispering his stories into
a microphone. How do you feel about that? I think it's fair to say that a
feeling of loneliness has been pretty central to your songs. Is it harder/
different trying to sound lonely when there are people singing with you?
I think using other singers helps the listener recognize that the songs are
coming from lots of different perspectives. My songs have always had a wide
cast of characters, and as long as I was using different musicians, it made
perfect sense to me to also use different voices to portray those characters.
It's like hiring actors, and hopefully it helps people to recognize that I am
also playing a part myself when I'm singing. I'm not trying to tell my life
story. I'm trying to tell stories and hopefully draw an emotional reaction from
the listener because that is the sort of relationship I like to have with the
music I listen to.
Now that you've broken the Casios-only rule, do you think you'll ever break the
sad songs-only rule?
Maybe it's just because I grew up with country music and blues music, but
I've always been more attracted to the darker side of songwriting. Only singing
about sunshine and happiness is beyond boring for me. Honestly, it kind of gives
me the creeps. I don't trust any music that is too cheerful. I just write about
what is interesting to me. There are a million ways to write a sad song. Some of
my songs are certainly sadder than others, but I think some degree of regret or
guilt or melancholy or frustration or general dissatisfaction will always find
their way into my writing, because that's what feels real. I like conflict and I
Why did you call the album Etiquette?
Both the cover and the title came from a dream. I didn't know what all of it
meant at the time, but I just decided to trust the dream and try to make it
work. I described the dream cover to Heidi Anderson, who painted the Twinkle
Echo cover, and I think she did an amazing job of recreating it. I wrote and
recorded a lot of the songs with the title and cover in mind.
I like the name Answering Machine Music. Do you
ever leave songs on peoples answering machines/ voicemail?
I used to leave song ideas for myself on my own voicemail a lot. I upgraded to a
handheld tape recorder a few years ago. One drunken night a few months ago, my
friend Kelly and I figured out some Neil Young songs on guitar and banjo and
called our friends to play them for them. If they weren't home, we'd just leave
them on their answering
What's that music on your voicemail message?
The Ed Lover Dance from Yo! MTV raps.
Your songs remind me a lot of Jeffery Brown comics [TMT
Link]. Your songs and his comics have that same quality of being sort of
rough and simple and very personal, like songs or drawings a friend would make
for you as a birthday present or something, not to publish or sell, not for the
public. Do you know those comic books? Do you know what I mean?
I'm not sure if I've seen any of Jeffery Brown's comics. I certainly like
the idea of intimacy as an aesthetic, though, and it was a conscious decision to
make recordings that sounded personal, and maybe a little voyeuristic. Some of
my favorite records are the ones that instantly create a sense of space. I like
it when music can sound close, even uncomfortable.
A lot of your songs ("Tonight was a Disaster," especially) remind me of Mountain
Goats songs. Do you listen to the Mountain Goats?
Oh, definitely. I don't buy nearly as much new music as I did in my youth,
so I haven't heard as many of the recent Mountain Goats records, but I have a
lot of fondness and respect for that dude. I just don't have the same disposable
income as I had in my carefree teenage years. I spend all of my record money on
car insurance and furniture and fancy coffee drinks these days. I mail-ordered a
lot of Shrimper cassettes when I was in high school, and I was definitely
motivated by the DIY aspect of a lot of those dudes' music when I first started
making songs. The Mountain Goats were especially inspiring at the time, because
the dude was writing way better songs than most bands I'd had access to, and he
was recording them for nothing. I think that dude has written some killer
dillers and it's exciting to see that he has been expanding his sound lately. I
was hanging out with Peter Hughes from the Mountain Goats when I was in
Rochester and he told me that they have been playing with Eric Friedlander, who
is one of my favorite cellists in the world. Fucking right on.
There's something sort of teenage/ early-twenties about many of your songs:
they're about hopeless crushes and mixtapes and first apartments and things like
that. What did you listen to as a teenager / 22 year-old? What would've been on
that mixtape in the mail in "Oh, Illinois"?
I wrote a lot of Casiotone songs when I was in my early 20's, so that makes
sense to me. I would hope that my albums are growing and aging with me, though.
It's not my intention to write teenage sounding songs well into my thirties,
It's funny you ask about mixtapes, though, because I actually just got back a
mixtape that I had made in 1999 or 2000. A good friend of mine died last year,
and his boyfriend found the tape in his things and gave it back to me as a gift.
It took me a while to feel okay about putting it on, but listening to it has
made me feel a lot closer to him, and has also been a powerful reminder of what
it felt like to be in my early 20's. I was listening to it in the car a lot
before I left on tour. I'm going to try to type the track listing from memory:
01. Remake/Remodel - Roxy Music
02. The Girl Outside - The Move
03. Love Goes Home To Paris In The Spring - The Magnetic Fields
04. Return To Me - Long Hind Legs
05. The Boy - The Shangri-Las
06. Billiard Player - Shellac
07. Sing Swan Song - Can
08 .Thick Marker - Sensational
01. Horizontal Hold - This Heat
02. Some Mogwai song that has the Arab Strap dude singing on it
03. Theme from Rosemary's Baby - Christopher Komeda? Is that that dude's
05. Sligo River Blues - John Fahey
06. After Hours - Velvet Underground
07. Jack Smith - Supreme Dicks
I think that was it.
What have you been listening to lately?
I just got Volume 21 of the Ethiopiques series and it's really, really
beautiful. It's all instrumental piano music by a woman named Tsegu-Maryam
Gubrou. It's really playful and quiet and sort of reminds me of some of John
Cage's music for prepared piano. It doesn't go over too well in the van, but
I've falling asleep with it on the headphones. I bought a couple of Baile Funk
compilations when I was in New York and they are fully righteous and make for
better driving music. I also bought a John Prine live album on the
recommendation of my friend Jay and there's a song on there called "Six O'Clock
News" that totally kills me.
A sort of embarrassing confession: like most of the Tiny Mix Tapes writers, I
sign my articles with a fake name, and my fake name is Rice Dream Girl. (I'm
cringing, as I type this.) I heard the song on the radio when I was in high
school, and it was the first moment I had where you hear a beautiful, strange
song on the radio and the DJ doesn't announce it, and I wondered what it was for
a few years and was really happy when I finally found out. My question for you
is: should I be embarrassed about the name? Your project has sort of an awkward,
embarrassing name, too. How do you feel about it?
Can I just tell you that a dude at a show recently asked me if "Rice Dream
Girl" meant I was "into Asian chicks?" And the dude was Asian. As long as you
like rice milk, I don't think you should feel embarrassed about using the name.
I am long past being embarrassed by the name Casiotone for the Painfully
Alone. The band was named by an old friend of mine based on a minor
misunderstanding and I was glad to have the decision made for me. Band names are
dumb and embarrassing no matter what, but it had to be called something, so it
might as well be something way too long and rhyming that gets messed up half of
the time. Like the Etiquette dream, having a title decided on helped
define the parameters of the project.
Finally, please critique the scrabble references in the following songs:
a) The Blow/ "Where I Love You" - "You and me/ In the cave underground/ Where
we'll meet/ And play scrabble/ With our flaxen haired progeny."
b) Kimya Dawson/ "Loose Lips" - "They think we're disposable, well both my
thumbs opposable/ Spelled out on a double word and triple letter score."
c) Ludacris/ "Cry Babies" - "You punks pucker and pout, bicker and babble/ Now
they all lost for words like I beat 'em in scrabble."
Which scrabble reference is best, and why? How do they compare to your reference
in "Roberta C."?
I actually started a game of Scrabble with Khaela from the Blow in Chapel Hill
last fall, but we never finished it. I think Ludacris wins, though, because I
really like thinking about Ludacris playing Scrabble.