Voodoo Chile

Through his solo work and new band the Gris Gris, Oakland's Greg Ashley explores the freaky side of '60s psychedelia

Soon after, Katznelson agreed to release Ashley's solo LP and the Gris Gris' debut. "His songs sound like nothing else today," the label owner says. "What sets him apart is he writes really great songs. And his lyrics are thought-provoking, fragile even."

Greg Dulli agrees. "Like most eccentrics, [Ashley] brings an incomparable style to his music and twists his lyrics like a pimp. He's here to lead, not follow, and I love that kind of rock 'n' roll."

Just where is Ashley leading with The Gris Gris? Back in time, to 1966 or so. There's the Kinks-y "Mary #38," with its ambling "Sunny Afternoon" riff and snarling vocals; the sensual Rolling Stones-ish acoustic-blues of "Winter Weather"; the Seeds-y stomper "Necessary Separation." Those are the more structured tunes, the more classically rock numbers. There's also more out-there fare, from the Dr. John-esque violin-and-percussion voodoo curse of "Plain Vanilla" to the sinister Velvet Underground-ish feedback freakout of "Best Regards." And then there are the best songs, which combine the two approaches, much like the work of Ashley's unstable forefathers. On "Me Queda Um Bejou" -- inspired by Brazilian chanteuse Astrid Gilberto and the oddball Os Mutantes -- Ashley mixes together a stark acoustic guitar and drum part, a spazzy noise section, and a sweet piano melody, then takes off in a new direction, singing a strolling lullaby over slow tambourine and breathy sax. "Everytime" is more vicious, with a funeral pyre organ figure, a serrated guitar riff, and vocal howls that are sure to raise the hairs on your neck.

Gris Gris (L-R): Greg Ashley, new 
keyboardist Lars Kulberg, Oscar Michel, 
and Joe Haener.
Gris Gris (L-R): Greg Ashley, new keyboardist Lars Kulberg, Oscar Michel, and Joe Haener.

As for lyrics, Ashley is adept at many styles: detailed character description ("Settled down on Grand Street/ Slept inside a box/ Mary slept with everyone/ Mostly just for fun"), impressionistic angst ("Slip inside the tourniquet that surrounds the world/ In my mind"), and social critique ("Don't give me no homework, Mama/ I don't want to read/ Well, they're so organized/ Inside their greed").

Of course, if you ask Ashley what drives his oft-dark writing, he'll most likely give you a shrug. "I don't like going around telling people how I'm feeling like shit all the time," he says.

So Ashley's not going to pick out an ax and smash up a studio anytime soon. That's great. Great for me, the interviewer, and great for you, the listener, who'll get to hear more of his fascinating tunes in the future. These days, it seems, it's better to shine on like a not-so-crazy diamond.

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