By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
City living creates a tendency to shove the music you like into competitions with other attention hogs. When you're just one of a million maggots, hooks that compete with skyscraper cranes and choruses slick as makeup counters can mentally transport you away from the congestion. One iPod click generates beats overriding jackhammers, while the next soundtracks the Muni commute toward the paycheck slavery.
But for every giant anthem there's a batch of slow tunneling tracks that force the rush-hour mentality to bead away even if they're impossible to appreciate pitted against industrial aggressors. Greg Ashley's music doesn't work wedged between BART stops. It won't capture your imagination penciled into a coffee break. It demands your full attention.
Good listeners clock serious time with Ashley's songs. It's not that he makes highfalutin extractions you need a degree in symphonies to translate. The Oakland artist's solo records like Medicine Fuck Dreamand the new Painted Garden are just really delicate in their intricacies, like flea market finds that you wrap in tissue before taking home. The songs sound artfully weathered, edges yellowed the minute they hit headphones. But Ashley's music also ages in reverse, antique in its methodology but young and almost playful at the core. Cue the giggling, tickled girl opening Medicine Fuck Dream, or Ashley's techniques of embracing mishaps a cough in this song, a stuttered track shift on that one while his lyrics take artificiality to task, all marks of a musician short on years and long in soul.
"Greg Ashley is a true psychedelic visionary, maybe the greatest of his generation," Adam Shore of Vice Records writes in an e-mail. "His music is not retro and it doesn't pay homage to music of the past. It lives in this timeless place in a space of his own." Shore doesn't have a professional connection to Ashley who records for local label Birdman Records but he's a big fan nonetheless, as are members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Trail of Dead, and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, according to Birdman owner Dave Katznelson. Katznelson adds of Ashley, "He has a way of changing the molecules in the air when he plays, something that others have done before but is still a rare occurrence. He is not only a great artist, but a great artist playing through a world of fuzz and beauty that I love."
Although his fans have their hopes, Ashley, aged 26 and a chain Camel Lights smoker, isn't poised to become famous anytime soon. His full band, psych rock outfit Gris Gris, was hand-picked to open for Karen O and company two shows in Los Angeles last year but that's probably his highest claim to fame in a decade of songwriting. Still, his grip on fans only firms with time. And with the release of Painted Garden, Ashley proves that in an era of greedy, speedy sonic consumption, his slow-building albums offer a rewarding transcendence outta this metropolis.
To get to the ex-Texan's Oakland studios, you walk past the boxing gloves hanging from a tree branch and take a right at the kitchen appliances nestled into the weeds. Go down the hallway of a two-bedroom apartment and dead-end at his temporary setup (noise complaints from the neighbors have left his renting situation slightly precarious). Although this is technically Ashley's bedroom, these quarters the size of a modest Public Storage unit are as overtaken by recording tools as his yard is with grass. Chords strangle a ceiling fan, stacks of album masters (for his solo work and with the Gris Gris and the Mirrors, as well as for the artists he's recorded Brian Glaze, Killer's Kiss, Battleship) are welded into a closet shelf. Elsewhere, analog artifacts jostle for space with stacks of blank CDs, and a Story & Clark piano stands burdened with random loads of technical knickknacks.
The Queer Eyecontingent would have a field day with this bachelor pad. Ashley's aesthetic is firmly set in "aftermath" mode, the only sign that he uses these digs beyond the creation and recording of music being a browbeaten couch/bed of the sort that usually dies on curbsides, its olive pillows covered in white sheets. But you don't come to Greg Ashley's place for the feng shui, you come by to record your garage band, you pop in to offer help with that piano melody, you spend a weekend drinking beers and end up weaving into the fabric of his Nuggetssensibilities. Or, in the case of Ashley's forthcoming producing project, you're part of a Birdman comp of local "people who have mellower solo stuff," he says. "Each [artist] comes over for a day and we hang out and record a song together."
Musicians request Ashley's assistance for various reasons. (Birdman solo artist Brian Glaze quips, "I like the fact that he smokes more than I do in the studio, and doesn't mind recording drum tracks on Christmas morning in a studio apartment.") But to the outsider, it's Ashley's spirit of pocket-change invention that cements his mystique. On 2003's Medicine Fuck Dream, he hit lollipops against half-empty bottles of Mad Dog for the percussion on a creaky cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." On Painted Garden, out this week, Ashley's anorexic checking account forced more creative forays. To wit: "Medication #5" needed a cello, but all Ashley had on hand was a violin player. After taking a violin bow to his bass, he recorded the violinist at a low speed while she played her part four times as fast. "When the violin is slowed down, it goes down eight octaves and sounds like a cello," Ashley explains. In other words, it gives off a heavy melancholy befitting a song about rotting sexuality. Elsewhere, bent saw melodies "remind me of an opera singer," Ashley says; "it's high and kinda spooky," while clarinet skronk morphs into guitar feedback. "That's what I really love about doing this shit, you can really geek out," he says. "Like the song with a gong on it there's no way I could afford a real gong, so I bought a shitty $5 one and recorded it at high speed again and then slowed it down so it sounds like a low gong." What would Ashley do with the purse strings for a real gong, an actual cello, a live opera singer? He laughs and answers, "Then I wouldn't have anything to figure out."