Advance Base: Animal Companionship, ABBA, and the Art of Lowering Heart Rates

Advance Base’s Owen Ashworth (Photo by Jeff Marini)

There are days where I think the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” is the greatest love song ever recorded. David Byrne’s yearning yelp, the twinkling soundscape, the way lines like “Sing into my mouth” convey so much about desire and attraction and need. But to be honest, the real reason why I think it’s possibly the best love song ever is how it stripes away all the romanticism and weight we put on relationships with one simple line: “I’m just an animal looking for a home.” 
 Brush away all the poetry and philosophizing we apply to love and that’s what remains: raw animal need. The desire to belong, to not be alone, to feel like someone will take you in in the dark of the night when you have nowhere else to go and they will do so again tomorrow. Love is someone picking you up from work every night when you don’t have a car and helping you finish the crossword puzzle in the morning when you’re stumped. It’s this reassuring and blunt view of love that colors Owen Ashworth’s latest collection of songs.
 Ashworth has been putting out records since 1997, first under the Casiotone For The Painfully Alone banner before rechristening his solo project as Advance Base. While he’s gradually added different kinds of instrumentation over the years (like the pedal steel that sings on Animal Companionship highlight “Dolores & Kimberly”), most of his work consists of his weary, emotive baritone telling stories over Casio keyboards. His sound and production style sounds like what would have happened if Leonard Cohen teamed up with Suicide, or a version of Bruce Springsteen that tunneled deeper and deeper into the depressing and spare space he carved out on Nebraska.
 Ashworth’s latest album, Animal Companionship, is one of the year’s most beautifully written albums. The songs on the record are about creature comforts and the creatures that comfort us. There’s stories about people visiting places just to see a friend’s dog, friends who call their answering machines so their dogs can hear their voices, love songs about people who give up everything so they can move to Indiana and slow dance with their new partners after a night of drinking champagne in their living room. Like Byrne on “This Must Be The Place,” the characters in Ashworth’s songs are just animals looking for a home.
 Ashworth is the kind of songwriter who can take a hackneyed image like a heart carved into a tree on “Same Dream” and turn that familiar image into a emotional sucker punch. He also gives the album a novelistic feel with recurring characters, frequent references to the same setting (Gary, Indiana), and narrative ambiguity. While not every song on the record references dogs, all the songs feel of a piece: Each of them are concerned with what it’s like to build your life around another person or thing, and the vast emptiness that can swallow your life when that person goes away.
 I had a chance to talk with Ashworth recently about the making of Animal Companionship, his love for ABBA, and what it’s like trying to play these hushed songs in public.
 With an album like this, where there are so many songs that share themes and imagery, it makes me wonder about your songwriting process. Do you set out with a specific theme in mind when putting together an album? Or is it more of an organic process, where you write a bunch of stuff and go “Hey, I got a bunch of songs about dogs.”

It’s a bit of both. I just kind of try to follow my subconscious. After I’ve written a few songs, I’ll sit down and look at them and try to figure out what they have in common.Sometimes I’ll write a few songs and that’ll start pointing me in a direction; Sometimes I’ll throw out those original songs or sometimes they become like the thesis of the whole thing. For Animal Companionship, “Same Dream” was one of the first ones I wrote. And that just has a couple of mentions of animals in it. 
 I just started thinking about animals and people’s relationships with them and it seemed like an interesting idea to explore and maybe a nice way to tie-in different kinds of stories. Ultimately I’m interested in writing about people’s relationships with each other. But writing about people and their connections to animals seemed like a neat way of approaching that idea.
 The songs on Animal Companionship are fictional, but the details you use- like the narrator who can’t finish crossword puzzles alone or the song about the person who names their dog after a dead boyfriend- feel so vivid and lived-in. When you write these stories in your songs, do you insert personal details or draw on the experiences of people you know to make them feel so authentic?

There’s a lot of autobiographical details that I just put in different contexts or I’ll write about people I know.. I probably had 30 ideas for songs during the process of writing this record. So it’s usually just a lot of editing where I’m trying to whittle it down to find the best material. So some of the references on the record might seem more random or disparate. But they came from larger contexts that got edited out at some point.
 You’ve got a long history of covering The Magnetic Fields. What inspired you to cover “You And Me And The Moon” on this record?

I realized that the songs I had written for this record were pretty bleak — It’s a sad bunch of songs. Grief is a really big theme on the record and I felt like it needed some levity; Something a little brighter. So it acts as a little break on the record.
 Is it hard doing the kind of music you make live? I can’t imagine the kind of intimate music you make playing well in a bar with people shouting over each other to be heard.

I try to avoid bars. But I think this record, more than some of the previous records, was really developed through live performances. The arrangements I wrote came out of playing them over and over and over again. The way I think about my live shows has changed in recent years. I’m really trying to create a kind of meditative, almost claustrophobic space. I call it performing the ritual. I don’t want it to feel like a rockstar show. I want it to feel meditative and intimate and very personal in a way that kinda hits like hypnosis and puts everyone on the same page and lowers their heart rate. The drones and the slower tempos of the songs — It’s trying to get people on my level, I guess.
 You mentioned in past interviews that you’re an ABBA fan. So I have to ask: What’s your favorite ABBA tune?

That’s tough to choose. I have a five-year old daughter who is really into ABBA recently. While I’ve been away on tour, I put a bunch of ABBA on a iPod for her and she told me over the phone that she’s been listening to the last song from The Visitors a lot: “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.” She says she listens to it every night before going to sleep. So I’ve been listening to it a bunch, too, just to have that shared experience with her.
 But yeah, that song in particular I had in mind a lot while working on Animal Companionship because it has a really different pace compared to the rest of their catalog. And just the way that voice is treated and the sounds — I think it’s just amazing. So that became a reference point for the record for that kind of tone and atmosphere.