Having recorded his first three albums on battery-powered keyboards and electronics with a 4-track cassette, Owen Ashworth - AKA Casiotone For The Painfully Alone - has really pushed the boat out for his latest record, Etiquette, released earlier this year on Tomlab.
As well has his signature junkyard of electronic tinkering and drum machines, this release and its coinciding tour features an eclectic mix of strings, guitars, pianos, organs and drums. Mostly accustomed to playing alone, Ashworth has discovered that having a band along for the ride is a pleasant surprise and provides a haven from the maelstrom of odd and unnerving experiences that are all part of touring. The fact that the band, Dead Science, are good friends is also incredibly palatable.
“It’s just really great to have friends to share everyday weirdness with,” says Ashworth at Belfast’s Bunker venue. “My first tour of Europe was three months on my own: I had a rail pass across Europe and didn’t really have conversations with people for weeks at a time. I’d just be on trains and didn’t say anything all day long, just going slowly nuts. I found it really hard to be on my own for that long. I didn’t even have anyone to turn to and say, ‘This guy’s totally crazy, right?’. It got to a stage were I’d just feel crazy all the time.”
Although the solo tour was tough going, Ashworth thinks that it was a real learning experience, and the best way to find out who he really was. Albeit in a slightly scary way.
“It just got to a point were it felt no matter where I went people would just treat me strangely. I didn’t know if it was me or other people. Taking yourself out of the context of everything that you know is your life and your friends, what you’re left with is yourself and I do think that is an important experience to have. I’m really glad I did it.”
The incorporation and utilisation of more instruments into his sound was a gradual process, and the product of an urge to progress and experiment further. Also, hearing friends’ bands cover his material and realising that the songs sounded good helped: any strain was relieved as the songs were filtered through a different set of speakers.
“I think when I started doing this project I never had a very strict set of parameters of what the project would be. I had thought it would be cool to do a trilogy of albums and then move on to something else. If anything the progression came about because I decided that I wanted to prove to myself that I could make a song that would stand on its own as a good song, and not be reliant on a self imposed set of limitations.
“I have a lot of friends in bands and sometimes they’d cover some of my songs and they made me recognise that they were just really good songs that could stand as rock songs in their own right.”
The sound of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone itself is simple yet incredibly addictive: a barrage of reverberated beats, shuddering with a raw, almost dirty intensity; melodic yet often lifting, blown-out chords wrapped around Ashworth’s baritone, guttural observations that form articulate, Raymond Carver-esque character studies; a sound that is wonderfully suited to the odd moniker, which is apparently the result of a slight misunderstanding.
“It was a terrible misunderstanding. I had recorded a song on my friend’s answering machine for her as a message, she was like, ‘Ah that’s really cool, you should make me a tape of it. I want all the saddest songs you have.’. So I made her a tape, and it was called Casiotone For The Painfully Alone as a sort of joke. She asked me to play a show and I said no, and she said ‘Sorry, I’ve already arranged it’, and it was under the name Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. The show went really well and it kind of stuck.”
A firm fan of film, Ashworth actually dropped out of film school to create music fulltime, though film is still an ideal medium for him: “I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers and I might like to dabble in film again at some point. I really like animation: the possibilities are endless.”
This link between the visual and the aural is paramount to Ashworth. Etiquette features strange and haunting artwork from artist Heidi Anderson. She painted what Ashworth described to her from a dream he had: “I had a dream about what the cover for Etiquette was like. There’s something really special about it.”
The cover depicts a little spectral girl and a crocodile sitting at a small table drinking tea and smoking. Anderson also provided artwork for his earlier release, Twinkle Echo. Ashworth is responsible for the other images adorning his record sleeves. Usually quite minimalist, the fullness of this latest image seems to reflect the fullness of the music contained within the album, and the new direction Casiotone is headed in.
This autumn (past UK dates listed here) tour has so far seen Casiotone play in Germany, Scandinavia and Britain. It’s also the first time the 28-year-old native of Chicago has been to Ireland.
“Most of what Americans hear about Belfast relates to the bombings and violence, but my experience here has been lovely. People are really friendly and it was just nice to walk around town. Apart from some murals we saw, as they were quite harrowing. We’re usually in a car or in a club for most of our days and nights, so it was lovely to have a bunch of hours to look around and explore. We weren’t even gonna play Belfast. I got lots of e-mails from people, though. Originally we were gonna have this day off, but I got an e-mail from a girl saying she was really going to try and come see us in Dublin if she could make it. We were asked if we wanted to play and we were like, ‘Yeah, why not’. It was cool because she was here and she came up and said hi. It was nice.”