Today's psychedelic cowboys aren't as unstable. Sure, Bevis Frond's Nick Salomon sings a lot about taking drugs and Robyn Hitchcock's flights of fancy seem to come from an asylum, but there's no one who's really out there, no one who exists on the edge of sanity.
At first glance, Greg Ashley doesn't seem like he's going to fill this vacancy. He's short, with tousled brown hair and a rounded, genial face. He's polite and self-deprecating, thankful when his songs are complimented. He doesn't seem unhinged or disturbed or attitudinal; in fact, he seems like he could easily work in an optician's office (which, it turns out, he does).
And yet, this Oakland-based musician is responsible for two of the most exciting, freaky psychedelic records to come along in ages. Last year's solo effort, Medicine Fuck Dream, is a late-night broodfest full of apple pie and genocide, lost highways and lonely days. His brand-new effort -- an eponymous disc by his trio (recently upgraded to a quartet), the Gris Gris -- is even better, a dizzying mix of British blues, Brazilian psychedelia, and N'awlins voodoo. You know that old "This is your brain on drugs" egg-frying commercial? Well, these discs are 10-egg omelets.
"He's got the X factor," says Greg Dulli, leader of the Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers. "When we played together at Slim's, I watched people who didn't know who he was, and they were mind-fucked."
Not everyone's parents want their kids to grow up to be mind-fuckers. Ashley's sure didn't, as they sent him a letter upon release of his solo record, pleading for him to remove the word "fuck" from the album cover, song title, and Internet. (Good luck with that last one.)
"I think my mom was just really embarrassed that she couldn't tell people about [the CD]," laughs the 23-year-old Ashley.
Sitting in his Oakland apartment amidst beer cans, cigarette butts, duct-taped effects pedals, a weathered piano, and an ancient reel-to-reel recorder, Ashley describes the barren wasteland that is League City, the suburb south of Houston in which he was raised. "It's lots of scientists, fishermen, and good old boys ... there's just nothing to do."
Like many suburban kids in the '90s, Ashley found something to do upon hearing Nirvana. But he didn't start playing in bands until he discovered Bay Area garage-punk groups like the Mummies, Supercharger, and the Rip-Offs, all of whom were trying in their sloppy, lo-fi way to emulate the '60s garage crowd. Ashley dug this messy aesthetic for a few years, until he realized how confining it was. "It just became a copy of a copy," he says.
After high school, he took to perusing the work of the original '60s artists, immersing himself in the Rolling Stones' bluesy early material, the Beatles' midperiod psychedelia, the crazed noise of the 13th Floor Elevators, and the fuzzy surf of the Ventures. Assimilating these influences, Ashley formed a quintet called the Mirrors and released two scruffy, all-over-the-map albums. (Birdman Records plans on putting out the Mirrors' first LP, A Green Dream, in 2005.)
Ashley didn't truly seem to come into his own until he began recording solo material in 2001. These new tunes -- which would eventually be released as Medicine Fuck Dream -- were quieter, folkier, weirder. "Karen Loves Kandy" starts out with crazed sax bleating and a hysterical girl laughing, then eases into a meditative piano melody, with Ashley's hushed voice murmuring incantations about "Lipstick sticks thick lips and tongue." On "Apple Pie and Genocide" Ashley sounds like Bob Dylan in 1965, offering a blues number full of cascading, anti-imperialist rhymes; on "Legs Coca-Cola," he channels Leonard Cohen, whispering about "abstinence and skin" over waltzing guitar and feedback drone. There's even a stunning take on Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" -- not an easy song to make your own.
In April 2002, Ashley moved to Oakland, driven westward by boredom and a girl he met while playing a UC Berkeley co-op with the Mirrors. After he hooked up with Oscar Michel, bassist for the Rock and Roll Adventure Kids, the duo began playing Ashley's songs at parties and small clubs. But Ashley quickly recognized a problem. "Nobody wants to sit there and listen to you play a bunch of songs that are depressing and slow. So I started getting back into rock songs."
With drummer Joe Haener of Battleship on board, Ashley formed the Gris Gris, named after Dr. John's 1968 debut album (which was itself named for a form of voodoo). In April 2003, the trio opened up for Birdman Records' Modey Lemon at the Stork Club. Birdman's boss, David Katznelson, was in the audience that night. "I was pissed off, actually," he recalls. Modey Lemon was supposed to play before the Gris Gris, and Katznelson was looking forward to going home early. But when Ashley's threesome started, he forgot all about leaving. "They were making these sounds that I hadn't heard in so long. I couldn't take my eyes off them for the rest of the show."
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.
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.