Casiotone for the Painfully Alone started out in 1997 as a solo project for songwriter Owen Ashworth. Initially using just a keyboard and a basic drum machine, Ashworth challenged himself to make the most of minimal elements. The result has been a body of work that not only speaks directly to the emotions, but also to the imagination.
Ashworth's songs are often like short stories depicting a moment in time in the life of its subjects. The portraits are often so vivid that it would be easy to assume the songs are autobiographical when indeed they are not.
A collaborator with members of notable indie-rock bands like Dear Nora, the Dead Science and Xiu Xiu -- all fans of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, incidently -- Ashworth has become one of the luminaries of underground music in the last decade.
Casiotone's show at the hi-dive this Saturday, September 11, is part of the act's final tour. We recently had the chance to speak with Ashworth about his background, his songs and inspirations.
Westword (Tom Murphy): What inspired you to do this project, and how did you come up with that name?
Owen Ashworth: In my late teens and early twenties, I had aspirations of starting a regular old rock band with drummers, guitar players and stuff like that. But it was difficult to get people to commit to rehearsals and show up on time. I had borrowed a Yamaha keyboard from my little brother, and I started writing and recording songs like that with the intention of fleshing them out.
The demos kept stacking up, and band rehearsals kept falling through, and after a while, I ended up with all of these songs. I played the music for some friends and they liked it. I'd never experienced anything like that. It was novel for me to navigate around these sounds. There was something interesting about it to my friends, who asked for copies of the tape. A friend asked me to play a show.
A friend named the band based on a misunderstanding and put it as the name on the flier. After my first show, the name stuck. A friend had asked me to make her a tape of my songs, and I wrote that name as the title of the tape, and it was listed as my name for the show. It was easy for me to write these two-handed arrangements and play these really simple songs, and it would force me to actually make sure the songs are good, because it was taken for granted that the arrangements and instrumentation would be kind of crummy.
Coming from college, I'd been in film classes and writing classes and been given these kind of restrictive assignments that were sort of tools to exercise certain muscles and get you better at your form. So I thought that was an interesting way to write a song. Those first three records are pretty single-minded, in terms of arrangements and subject matter. I realized much later on that all the record-cover colors corresponded to the rooms I'd been living in at that time.
Ww: Your music sounds like something you'd like to hear in a Todd Solondz or Wes Anderson movie, because it's very cinematic. How would you describe your process in writing songs?
OA: Oh, yeah. I like movies a lot. Without really having the budget or equipment for making movies, that's the closest I can do. I think I'm very visual when I write and think about what subjects look like, so movies are a big influence on how I write songs. Ww: Your lyrics strike me as poignantly observational vignettes. Do you have a bit of a literary background, and are there any particular authors whom you find interesting or who otherwise inspired the way you write lyrics?
OA: I like short stories a lot. They're my favorite thing to read. I've been reading a lot of Lorrie Moore. Her first book is called Self Help. I like Raymond Carver and Southern Gothic writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. I think the way I write songs are pretty influenced by short stories. I like the idea of the songs being very self-contained little stories.
Ww: Your music also reminds me a bit of Arab Strap and Smog. Were those artists at all an influence on your own music? If so, how?
OA: Yeah! Particularly Smog. Especially when I started writing songs. I was really fond of his earlier records. I haven't kept up with his more recent stuff, but I think he's a great songwriter. I haven't heard a ton of Arab Strap stuff, but I like what I've heard.
Ww: What Smog albums are your favorites?
OA: Wild Love I'm really fond of. I have a seven inch of "A Hit," with a B-side of "Wine Stained Lips." The Doctor Came at Dawn, Red Apple Falls -- I didn't like that the first time I heard it, and I came back to it a few years later, and I was crazy about it.
When I was younger, I was less responsible with my spending, and I bought a lot of records in the mid-to-late '90s. I saw him a couple of times and saw him with Cat Power. He's definitely a big influence; he's a great lyricist. Every once in a while, I'll still be reminded of an image from one of his songs.
Ww: What was so important to you about Shrimper Records in the early '90s and the KMEL Jams of the late '80s?
OA: When I was still in high school and first becoming aware of independent music, I got a Lou Barlow cassette tape with a crayon drawing on the cover. It was really exciting; it was for sale at a retail store. It had a simple photocopied sleeve, so I sent for a catalogue.
I even started corresponding with Dennis Callaci. I don't know how much he enjoyed it, but I'd order tapes and write him a letter, and he'd send a little note back along with the tape. It was really inspiring, because it was the first time that music seemed really accessible. People with equipment no fancier than what I had access to were recording music, and it was finding its way to me.That was really inspiring.
Just from a business-model standard and recording aesthetic standard, Shrimper was really important. I always appreciated that Dennis Callaci was really nice to teenage me. I think because of that, I've made an effort to be very reachable to the people who hear my music, and I try to answer all the correspondence I get, because people were nice to me when I was younger.
KMEL was the hip-hop and R&B station in the Bay Area. When I was in middle school and high school, there was a bit of a racial divide, and you'd listen to hard rock and metal before R&B. But I just never really liked guitar music very much. I liked Biz Markie, A Tribe Called Qwest, De La Soul and the Geto Boys. That was some of the harder stuff, but one of my all-time favorite songs is "My Mind Playing Tricks on Me."
Ww: Why did you put "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the end of "Optimist vs. The Silent Alarm"?
OA: I don't really know how to intellectualize that. It just seemed to fit, and it was a melody I really liked. There's a real desperate, religious quality to that song, like when you're praying when you're at your most vulnerable. That whole album, Vs. Children, has some religious themes and references all through it.
It was a way of introducing one of those themes; it was a little perverse, but I thought it sounded really good. I sent it to my label in Germany and one of the graphic designers there said, "This song is great. It's so catchy. I have it my head." He didn't recognize it. He thought I wrote it! It's flattering, I guess.
Ww: "Young Shields" is one of my favorite Casiotone songs because it's so beautiful and also somewhat dark and moralistic in tone. What inspired that song?
OA: A lot of my songs of the past had been more about a character. And I had liked the idea of writing more of an anthem. I wanted to write an overture for an album that was about the whole record. So that was the idea. It remains one of the most popular of my songs. In my attempt to write something that was an overture of the album, it's sort of representative of all of my songs as a whole. It's not about particular people.
I think it is a bit about myself as a younger person. That was the first record I made when I felt conscious about being older than the characters in some of the songs. It was more about experiences I had had instead of experiences I was in the middle of. I think it's a little bit nasty, but I think it's supposed to be self-effacing.