Ever since the mid-1990s dissolution of cult noise-rock outfit Cop Shoot Cop, songwriter Tod Ashley (aka Tod A) has traveled an eclectic musical path with his group Firewater. Initially mixing klezmer and Eastern European folk with punk in a way that prefigured the rise of Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box, the band's ever-expanding global palette grew even broader when the musician decided to leave the U.S. following President George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.
Traveling through Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East, Ashley incorporated extensive field recordings with local musicians on Firewater's standout 2008 album The Golden Hour. On the group's brand-new effort, International Orange, (Bloodshot Records), Firewater weaves elements of ska, dub, bhangra, and Latin rhythms into the fabric of Tod A's acerbic, politically charged anthems and drinking songs. We recently spoke with the songwriter as the band's tour made its way to Philadelphia. This Thursday night, Bender's Bar hosts a listening party for International Orange ahead of the Firewater show this Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Independent with like-minded locals Damon and the Heathens.
Tom Waits and The Clash are frequently used as reference points when talking about Firewater, but listening to International Orange reminded me a bit of Camper Van Beethoven, who were the earliest rock band I can think of that incorporated elements of Balkan music into their songs. Were they an influence on what you've done with Firewater?
Yeah, some stuff. I think he [David Lowery] was a really good lyricist, and they were great songwriters, but the voice of the main singer always irritated me. Great songwriters, clearly. But I think Tom Waits and The Clash could be better reference points. I think both Joe Strummer and Tom Waits are amazing lyricists, so I would take that as a complement.
From what I was reading, this album was recorded in Istanbul and Tel Aviv. I know you ended up in Turkey after touring for the last Firewater album, but what led to recording in Israel?
We were working with Tamir Muskat from Balkan Beat Box. He used to be Firewater's drummer, and now he's one of the main guys in Balkan Beat Box, and he's also a producer. He's produced the last few Firewater records. So he's just a guy I really enjoy collaborating with, and his studio is in Tel Aviv. It's just a hop, skip and a jump from Istanbul.
I know on your last album, The Golden Hour, you did a lot of laptop field recordings with musicians in a variety of places. Were you working more in studios instead of mobile recording this time around?
I wasn't able to do that this time. I'll try to do again on the next record and take another trip, but this time I just didn't have the dough, to be honest. I wanted to do a documentary, and I wasn't able to afford to do that. So I think the journey will continue next time.
Tamir Muskat did the mixing on International Orange. Was the final mix a collaborative thing, or did you hand the finished recordings over to him to put his stamp on them?
Well, he didn't produce on this one, he just mixed it. But he's a very creative mixer, and if he has ideas, he always contributes. It's always a collaboration, but more so when he's producing. This album he wasn't able to produce because of the timing, but he definitely added some stuff. He played drums on some songs and percussion on other songs. If he hears something that he can add, he does. He's always adding. Or subtracting. [Laughs] Usually it's subtracting. If I've overworked something, he's quick to take it out. It's good to have another set of ears listening a bit more objectively.
What's your approach to the songwriting process? Are you one of those writers who has pages and pages of lyrics that you pick out what you want to build around, or does it start with the music and the elements you want to bring in around the basic guitar and vocal melodies?
Both. It's kind of left brain and right brain. It's like two pots cooking on the stove simultaneously where you somehow mix them together at the end. I'm working on lyrics independent of the music and music independent of the lyrics. Every now and then a song will kind of pop into your head fully formed, but that's maybe one per record. The rest of them it's sort of finding the right marriage.
The songs draw on a really broad range of global styles. Do those elements come into each song as you're figuring out the music?
Well, I demo everything, and that sort of tends to take things in a certain direction. I demo them on the computer with found sounds and MIDI and try to map out what the orchestrations are going to be. This time, the orchestrations had the same basic elements in most of the songs, just percussion, drums, bass, guitar and trombone. I tried to limit myself to that. But I always demo everything on the computer and see which direction the song wants to go in. Sometimes that solves the issue, and sometimes you have to rip it apart again and try it a different way.
Next: Todd A on moving abroad after Bush's re-election.