Towards the back end of last year, old friends Owen Ashworth (Advance Base) and Nicholas Krgovich both released their new full-lengths, Animal Companionship and “Ouch”, each featuring on the other’s. Ahead of Ashworth’s Advance Base UK tour, John Bell lead a conversation between the two as they reminisced on the early days and how they’ve grown and differed in their approaches to songwriting and all the endearing tangents in between.
In various guises, the work of both Californian-born Owen Ashworth and Vancouver’s Nicholas Krgovich have over the past two decades enjoyed important, cult acclaim. In the noughties Ashworth was better known as Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, whilst Krgovich played and wrote in bands such as P:ano, Gigi and No Kids. More recently, Ashworth has making music again as Advance Base, whilst Krgovich has quite prolifically been writing and releasing records under his name.
The two also happen to be old friends. Towards the back end of last year as both released their new full-lengths, Animal Companionship and “Ouch” respectively, and ahead of Ashworth’s UK tour, John Bell lead a conversation between the two as they reminisced on the early days and how they’ve grown and differed in their approaches to songwriting, and all the endearing tangents in between.
“It’s like you know exactly what hook Kimberley hangs up her jacket on, but that’s for you only…”
John: Maybe as a helpful starting point we could begin with how you guys came to be friends and collaborators. I know you’ve both played with each other and have worked on material together, there are quite a lot of connections…
Owen: Nick and I met at an old Vancouver venue called The Sugar Refinery back in… 2001? I was on tour with Little Wings. Nick opened the show. He was 16?
Nicholas: Still a teen, maybe 18? You said “Hi I’m Owen” and I said “Owen… The saddest name of them all”.
Owen: I was 48. Nick covered an Elizabeth Cotten song on a little Yamaha keyboard and it was instant love.
Nicholas: Yeah! Fast friends! Same with Kyle from Little Wings. He took me and my boyfriend body surfing at Zuma not that long ago…
Owen: That is adorable!
Nicholas: We were also impossibly hungover… It was healing.
Owen: We just played a bunch of shows together after that. Whenever I was in BC or whenever Nick was wherever I lived (San Francisco, Portland, Seattle). We did lots of little tours together, either with Nick’s band P:ano, or Nick solo, or To Bad Catholics (Nick’s performance art comedy duo with his cousin Julia), and then later with No Kids.
Nicholas: Still one of my most preferred tours was that one with To Bad Catholics. I think we’ve been real blessed with seeing each other pretty frequently over the last decade or so even though we’ve never lived near each other; just one of those easy, meant to be friendships I guess? Our mutual admiration society also helps.
Owen: That was a good one. Fall in New England. Leaves all over the place.
John: Got ya. I’m 27 and I’m starting to see the friendships that naturally stay strong and the ones that need effort to maintain now.
Owen: Music friendships are funny because there are chances to bump into old friends all over the world.
Nicholas: I depend on that bumping into each other thing, until we all colonize an island in our twilight years.
“We did a tour where we shared a Rhodes. It was really fun to hear what Nick would do with the very same instrument that I was playing. It was inspiring.”
John: Do you think you’ve influenced each other at all in terms of your sound?
Owen: Yep. Nick’s one of my favorites. I think about his songs all of the time when I’m writing.
Nicholas: The hell? Really? That’s so nice!
Owen: Of course. We did a tour where we shared a Rhodes. It was really fun to hear what Nick would do with the very same instrument that I was playing. It was inspiring.
Nicholas: I love Owen’s music too. The palette and the lyrics have always got me. But he’s one of those music makers that has this gift of always sounding like “himself”, so his influence on what I do is more like things I might pick up by just being around him. Owen donated beats for “Ouch”, too. When I started recording the songs I had no budget and no will other than to just “get them down”. Also, my computer blew up so I borrowed an old AirBook, and made it at home on that thing. I knew trying to record drums myself would be a nightmare so I hit up Owen and was like “please send me anything you got!” So he sent me a folder and I was off to the races.
John: Aww, you guys! You’re clearly both pretty independent when it comes to your crafts, but are there any people you’d still like to work with? Nicholas I would love to hear the product of you teaming up with Dave Longstreth. Actually, didn’t his brother do the artwork for In An Open Field?
Nicholas: Yeah that’s one of Jake’s paintings. When I crash on his couch it’s hanging on the wall. I really love all of his work but was super into his “cow period”. I dunno if I think in terms of “dream collaborations”. I don’t really have a lot of goals.
John: I think of suburban landscapes. I’ll have to check them out. I’m tempted to ask the story behind the artwork for “Ouch” but I suspect that might be a trap for “it’s just me sitting in my (elegantly furnished) house”…
Nicholas: There’s a little cow on the In An Open Field cover. An impossibly large tree and a very tiny cow. Ha, not at all! The “Ouch” cover is very conceptually purposeful.
Nicholas: After I got dumped I was really upside down for months. Pretty dang raw. I would meditate often, and in this one guided meditation I was doing with Tara Brach, there was this thing where you picture your future self, however far in the future you felt like going. Immediately I saw this image of me being in this corner nook of a very gentle Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house, dressed as I normally do around the house, drinking a coffee. So, I just wanted to realize that vision; it’s kind of a comforting, safe image.
John: It really is.
Owen: I like that.
Nicholas: On the back cover I’m wrestling with a lawn mower out in the yard of the house, like the true salt of the earth piece of trash that I am. Owen what about the Animal Companionship art?
Owen: The cover was painted by Jessica Seamans, who does a lot of art for horror movie posters and soundtrack covers. She is also one half of a print and poster company called Landland. Her partner, Dan Black, did the hand lettering and design for the album. I asked Jessica if she would paint me a dog and she asked if it could be menacing, but I specifically requested kind eyes.
John: I love the colours.
Owen: Me too. The color scheme ended up looking very Antarctic, which seemed like a lucky coincidence, because Advance Base is named after a meteorological station in Antarctica.
John: You’ve talked about using animals, particularly dogs as a proxy for humans in your approach to love on the record. As an owner of three four-legged friends, this was one of the first things that caught my attention, in honesty. Why you did you want to use that as a theme, and how did you treat it so it didn’t come off as a novelty, or even a concept, for the record. How did you go about connecting it to human issues and relationships?
Owen: Pets seemed like an interesting angle to talk about human relationships in a different way. I have kids, and my friends who don’t have kids but have pets, are always trying to tell me about how their pets are basically human children, and that got me thinking about how animals can kind of be a proxy for human relationships.
Nicholas: I remember once on tour a million years ago we stayed at some people’s house who had a big friendly dog named like Arthur or something and you were like “I love a pet with a human name”. Back to how Owen influences me, that’s a kind of steadfast idea or rule that I’ve co-opted ever since then. We got a family dog named Sally.
Owen: Sally’s a great name.
Nicholas: The pet as human is a danger zone.
John: Yeah I’m onboard with that idea too; one of our labradors is called Chester, but I really wanted to call him Colin.
Nicholas: I once read that Georgia from Yo La Tengo had a cat named Shauna.
Owen: Those are all great names. We have a new kitten and I really wanted to name her Susan but my kids wanted to call her Poppy so Poppy it is.
Nicholas: Your cat is now goth, when she could have been a dental hygienist.
John: Susan Poppy Ashworth?
Owen: Is Poppy a goth name? I guess she’s pretty goth. She’s always prowling the hallway late into the night…
John: Owen you’re known (well, actually you’re both known for) writing very emotional and often quite sad songs. Is it harder to keep that up when you have a family and feel a bit more settled? Not that you need a family to be ‘settled’. Perhaps it’s naive thought, but you get where I’m coming from…
Owen: I’ve only ever wanted to write sad songs. I don’t know why. I’m just a melancholy kind of dude. I love my wife and kids but there is still plenty of stuff to be sad about!
Nicholas: I think we both liberally throw in kind of funny junk in our songs for levity.
Owen: Yeah John we’re both really funny…
Nicholas: A real chuckle fest once you get us going. Owen is one of the funniest people I know… Real good at delivery and phrasing and pithiness.
John: Animal Companionship was released on Run For Cover records, though you have released on your own label Orindal. How did that come about?
Owen: I run a label and it takes up most of my time and money. I love doing it, but it was making me dread making a new Advance Base record, because I realised that I would have to put Orindal on hold to make that happen. I was friendly with some of the artists on Run For Cover, and I think they put in a good word for me. RFC made an offer and it just felt like the right time to let somebody else worry about putting out a new Advance Base album.
Nicholas: Both you and Phil are endlessly inspiring to me about how you run your own shit.
Owen: RFC gave me money to go record in a studio, which meant I could go spend a week at my friend Jason’s studio in LA, get it done, come back home and hang out with my kids and run my label. They have been great to work with, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching how they run their business. I’m really grateful to have been given the chance to compartmentalise Orindal and Advance Base. I think it’s better for everybody this way.
John: For sure… so Orindal is usually a full-time thing for you?
Owen: It’s basically more than a full time job at this point. But it pays like an internship. As an art project, though, I think it’s been a great success.
“I think you put a lot of thought and deliberation into how things sound. And always have… Even if it meant recording to an answering machine. It has always felt purposeful.”
Nicholas: I wanted to talk fidelity for a min. Owen I remember you saying that your hobo tastes sometimes preferred the more modest recordings I’ve made and now you’ve made not an opulent sounding album but definitely a sonically “professional” one. Did anything besides budget inspire that for these particular songs?
Owen: Look, I’m pretty bad at recording music, my discography proves that I don’t understand compression.
Nicholas: But I think you put a lot of thought and deliberation into how things sound. And always have… Even if it meant recording to an answering machine. It has always felt purposeful.
Owen: I have my tastes, but it takes me a lot of time and effort to get the sounds I want. Jason Quever, who recorded Animal Companionship, knows my tastes better than anyone. He helped with a few of the Casiotone records, but I never had the budget to do a full record with him. Recording an entire album with Jason was a long time coming.
John: Yeah, that must have helped you do it relatively quickly.
Nicholas: Yeah! Seems like a pretty fluid collaboration.
Owen: I wouldn’t have wanted to record in just any studio, but Jason and I have 20 years worth of short hand with each other. We work well together. It was a real pleasure recording with him. I’d really lost my motivation to record myself. Working with Jason was inspirational.
John: How do you both treat the time-span of recording and releasing material? Owen, the album was recorded over two separate weeks with a month or two in between, so the songs had a bit of time to breathe? Nicholas, I know you had a couple of years break between finishing songs for In A Country Field.
Nicholas: I have kind of co-opted a “what’s the big rush?” ideology when it comes to these things. I was far more impatient when I was younger. “Ouch” was written and recorded in a couple months, took forever to mix, then took forever to get to the top of the queue with Tin Angel. So, I just got used to the feeling of making a thing and moving on. I feel like “Ouch” was even mixed before you started recording Animal Companionship and it came out earlier.
Owen: I guess I’m just used to the waiting. It always takes me about three years to round up an album’s worth of material. I put it away and pick it up again when I have time. Once it was time to record Animal Companionship, we knocked it out pretty quick. I’d been planning it for long enough that I had a realistic idea of what it would take to finish the record, and I find deadlines helpful, so I just settled on a release date w/ RFC before I went into the studio.
John: Nicholas, my normal impulse here would be to ask why it was much quicker this time to finish writing, but I know already you had a creative spurt after a particularly hard breakup. You’ve both been in the game a while now, is it disheartening to have to use the ending of relationships or anything painful as a particular narrative in interviews? Though to be fair to you Nicholas you’ve admitted that after almost two decades of writing music this is your first proper ‘breakup record’. What’s the trajectory of “Ouch” in regards to your reflection on heartbreak?
“I think that’s one of the nice things about being at this for so long. There’s really no big rush to do anything. Not trying to keep up, or out-do what came before, just kind of living and when it’s time to make something you can just do it and see what you end up with.”
Nicholas: Yeah, I guess I’m not that organised. And have a hard time zooming out and thinking about schedules and what’s actually possible within a set period of time. But I think that’s one of the nice things about being at this for so long. There’s really no big rush to do anything. Not trying to keep up, or out-do what came before, just kind of living and when it’s time to make something you can just do it and see what you end up with. Feels pretty free. Yeah, “Ouch” just happened. I didn’t mean to make it I just couldn’t not do it and just followed it. Shortly after it was written I went on tour and saw Owen in Chicago and I was playing the songs and they were so heavy feeling, then I remember being in Chicago again a couple months later at the same venue and Owen being like “the songs felt so much lighter!” So I would say a lot of the emotions I was so “in” at the time of making the thing have really floated up like a red balloon at this point. But I’m very happy with it as a piece of writing and glad it exists and that I can share it. But I’m just not in those feelings anymore at all and now just have this jubilant feeling of like “oh! you can open your heart, have it broken and survive!” That’s so exciting for going forward to me.
John: For sure – it’s easy to focus on escapism in times like that rather than facing it and turning it into something else. If it’s any consolation, I think ‘Rosemary’ is quietly powerful, about how when we’re in love and for a long time after we have a tendency to (for lack of a better word) romanticise things so that they have some sense of importance in the arc of what happening, when really they more often than not don’t and are just normal moments in everyday life; the image of you stumbling in front of you ex’s house and stopping yourself doing that, taking a big whiff of the fragrant air and moving on is really lucid. I’ve had ‘Belief’ on repeat all day, which seems come from a similar place but with a different kind of acceptance…
Owen: That record felt like a big turning point in your relationship with your music! It’s so open. I’m excited for what the future holds.
Nicholas: Aw thanks y’all! I agree! Wizard of Oz curtain pulled. I’m not planning on touring any of the OUCH songs, though, ‘cause I would feel like a clown singing them now.
John: I think that’s something you’re both good at, capturing small details, or observations, or even impressions, and how they sit with (or cause) the feeling of the song. There are so many examples to choose from but I suppose Owen ‘Same Dream’ would be a good example for you here…
Owen: One of my many many pregnancy songs. Is it suspicious that I keep writing pregnancy songs?
Nicholas: I like that you return to themes. Why not? Who sings about pregnancy! And it’s something so many people do and it’s so wild.
John: I like how the simplicity of ‘Same Dream’s orchestration and slight distortion on the vocal makes it feel like a note to self or voicemail or something, it adds to the personal and even humorous aspect of the song. What made you opt for this version for the record? I’ve heard an another version on Bandcamp that has an upbeat shuffle to it. I’m interested in the practical aspect of hearing problems affected your approach to songwriting (although I imagine that was pretty frustrating) Is it an old habit now or is that still a significant factor?
Owen: That basement demo of ‘Same Dream’ was exactly why I didn’t want to record Animal Companionship at home. Since 2008 or 2009, I’ve been extra sensitive to certain frequencies. Bass is a problem. My shows used to be much louder than they are these days.
“Nick’s having a personal Brexit…”
Nicholas: I remember a tour we did not that long ago and you excitedly put on some music in the Subaru but you had it on so quietly! I didn’t say anything but I noticed.
Owen: I called that basement version of Same Dream “version two” because I wanted to challenge myself to make a better version. Nick you’re not the first person to mention this! I like my music quiet these days.
Nicholas: I would too, particularly if I had two small children.
John: How important is your location for you both? Nicholas I know you’ve spent a lot of time in the UK. Your records are quite distinct from each other, but I’ve always thought there’s quite a continental European vibe to your music, different reasons for each record, but particularly Who Cares? Maybe that’s wistful of me and I’m assigning my own memories to it.
Nicholas: Ha, yeah, I don’t like Europe.
John: I don’t like the UK either, I like New York and LA and Japan, haha.
Owen: Nick’s having a personal Brexit.
John: One’s hard enough.
Nicholas: I’m only kidding. I talk a lot about specific places in my songs. I always have a pretty clear location in mind when I’m writing. I guess our Old Panda Days collab is the closest I’ve come to setting something in Europe. But yeah, sort of back to your original question. I do have a strong sense of place in mind when I’m writing but at this point it’s all in North America
Owen: It’s all very American. Certain labels and booking agents have complained that my music isn’t interesting or relatable overseas. I love all the Vancouver details on “Ouch”. AC is the Indiana record
Nicholas: Yeah! It might be my first real Vancouver record! Feels good.
John: Was the video for ‘Belief’ filmed there?
Nicholas: Yep, in a public square designed by Arthur Erickson who also designed the house on the cover.
Owen: Is Arthur Erickson Canadian?
Nicholas: He’s at least Canadian.
Owen: “At least Canadian”? Haha
John: Owen, you mention Indiana, ‘Dolores & Kimberly’ caught my attention. “You were waiting at the station with a Thermos and some flowers” is pretty a clever line, it’s understated but vivid and captures a sense of both cold and warmth, which I guess has characterised your music style for years. I’m curious if you ever get to a point in a song and think, I want to give some more comfort and resolve to this song or this narrative? I find that song in particular pretty heartbreaking, and I’m not sure why…
Nicholas: Is that the one where the person gets the divorce if they never see the kids? I find that idea particularly brutal too. I love the unsympathetic hero. It’s
Owen: I usually write a lot more than what ultimately ends up in the songs. Trying to figure out rhymes usually whittles out a lot of the extras.
Nicholas: I meant to ask you about rhymes! In the first song ‘econoline’ and ‘smelling good’ seem purposefully like “I’m not rhyming here ya bunch of turkeys!”
Owen: Ha, it was fun playing with the expectation of a rhyme.
John: I guess it’s heartbreaking because it’s about sacrifice. Opening the champagne after “I just can’t see the kids anymore” – don’t do that to me, Owen!
Nicholas: It was probably Baby Duck or something dank too, like Barefoot Champagne.
Owen: It is probably bad champagne. I wrote that song about two women, so there’s all kinds of sacrifice happening in that song. The idea of running away to Indiana to be gay just kind of haunted me. I like leaving a lot of room for speculation. Early into writing songs, I got frustrated when songs were misinterpreted, but now I like leaving room for listeners to project.
Nicholas: I’ve always appreciated that about your songs too. It’s like you know exactly what hook Kimberley hangs up her jacket on, but that’s for you only…