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Love Machine 

A boy and his Casio set up shop in Heartbreak Hotel

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000
It's the summer of 1997. The indie scene is abuzz about a self-published zine called Wyatt Riot. Over two issues, the crudely handwritten rag has explored a slightly alarming (and thoroughly amusing) fascination with Wyatt Cusack, guitarist for local indie rock bands Track Star and the Aislers Set. There are fun facts ("Wyatt has Superman sheets!" "Wyatt loves baseball!"), sightings around town (including a map in the vague shape of a "W"), and dreams about Wyatt ("We were sitting on his bed playing Atari and drinking grape juice."). At Track Star shows, people search the audience, trying to figure out which doe-eyed fan is the zine's author, Owen Ashworth. In a piece in SF Weekly (Riff Raff, Jan. 7, 1998), Ashworth says he'd "like to jam with [Wyatt], do some high-fives, get some pizza."

Following Issue 3, the zine stops. Soon afterward, word spreads that Ashworth is playing solo shows under the name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Just him and his Casio keyboard. People scoff. Who does he think he is? You can't just become a rock star because you want to.

Then in 1999, he releases his debut album, Answering Machine Music: A Brief Album in Twelve Parts. Owen Ashworth, it turns out, is quite an accomplished songwriter. This slightly nerdy, rather teddy-bearish lad of 23 is a goddamn poet. He's a champion of the lovelorn and the lovesick, the lo-fi answer to Bill Withers. And he's just getting started.

Like many home-recording fanatics, Ashworth went solo out of necessity. After graduating from high school in Redwood City in 1995, he tried playing bass in various bands at S.F. State, doing "mostly slow, sad stuff." When that didn't work out, he began collaborating with his roommate. "We would form a new band each week, write three songs, and break up," Ashworth says. A big movie buff and longtime local theater employee, Ashworth gave his bands names like An American in Paris and Avec.

Then came Wyatt Riot. The zine began as a joke for a friend's birthday party. "I had just read this Morrissey fanzine," Ashworth remembers, "and it was so sensational and ridiculous. But it was OK to have these outlandish fantasies because he was a celebrity. I thought it was funny, with the idea of indie rock destroying the rock stars, to take just an ordinary guy in a band and treat him the same way."

The best thing about the zine is that it's impossible to tell if Ashworth is serious or not. The writing is so over-the-top gushy that you could stick the copy into 16 Magazine and no one would know the difference. Which, of course, was the whole point. "I didn't want it to look like a joke," he says. "I wanted it to read like Dynamite magazine."

It's also possible to see the origins of Ashworth's songwriting in Wyatt Riot. One piece, "Wyatt ... Junior Self-defeatist," is incredibly painful in its detailing of the taunting Wyatt supposedly endured during preschool. And the kicker comes at the end, when Ashworth writes, "Oh wait, that stuff didn't happen to Wyatt ... it happened to me."

After giving up on the zine, Ashworth borrowed a Casio from his brother and arranged a bunch of his songs for keyboard. He didn't take the project very seriously -- he liked to buy prerecorded cassette singles and just tape over them. And by pulling the erase head out of a boombox, he could do really primitive, unsynced multitracking. Ashworth competed with his friend David Hanna to see who could fill up an entire tape in one week. Later, when he gave one completed tape to a friend, she liked it so much she asked him to play a warehouse show with Juniper and #Poundsign#.

"I'd never even considered taking it live before," he says. "I'd never sung in front of anyone. I was so nervous I wouldn't even sound check."

The show went well. In January 1998, Ashworth recorded three songs on a four-track for a 7-inch. Then last year he released Answering Machine Music on his own label, Cassingle USA. "The album was intended to be a series of answering machine messages," he says. "The first track was even recorded on an answering machine, and graced my friend Kelli's outgoing message for a few months."

Listening to the record is like hearing 11 Dear John letters, or rather 11 miserable phone messages the Johns left after receiving their letters. Some artists write love songs; Ashworth writes I-wish-you-loved-me songs. But a whole album of "boo hoo" and "I miss you" could get old really fast; Ashworth saves the game with dry wit and an eye for detail. In "I Should've Kissed You While I Had the Chance," he watches his ex take the long walk home "past the blinking lights of the strip clubs and Carl's Jr." In "Rice Dream Girl," a lonely boy in an all-night supermarket tries to get his groove on by offering a girl a coupon for a White Castle hamburger. In "Daina Flores You're the One," the high school class genius longs after his female counterpart, composing secret letters and morosely mumbling "Hooray for class of '91."

Ashworth's hangdog voice adds significantly to the record's pathos; rather than sing, he speaks his lyrics in a way that screams "bad posture from growing too fast." Noisy drones, synth warbles, and clangy rhythm tracks add a bit of levity to his downbeat lyrics. If the record had a cartoon character on its cover, it would be Underdog.

Ashworth is in love with cheesy singer Leslie Gore. He's also in love with actresses Gena Rowlands and Martha Plimpton (in her Goonies period), but Gore is it. In the cool, semidilapidated confines of his basement living room/ practice space, he shows me a video of The T.A.M.I. Show, circa 1964. Smokey Robinson performs a couple of tunes; then comes a very slim Tina Turner, a very white Jan & Dean, and a very, very limber James Brown. Next is Gore. She looks way out of place, with her titanium-blond helmet hair and mismatched facial features. But from the second she breaks into "You Don't Own Me," she's totally captivating.

The apartment's walls are decorated with Polaroid photos arranged in lines. One section is devoted to a recent Casiotone West Coast tour with Santa Cruz band Spike & Princess. Another corner houses equipment for the Papercuts, a band for whom Ashworth is drumming and whose debut album, Rejoicing Songs, he is about to release. All three bands -- plus Papercuts member Cass McCombs -- will perform at an upcoming Cassingle USA showcase at the Stork Club.

"The Papercuts is the first band I've felt really excited about being in," Ashworth says. He discovered the group when Papercuts songwriter Jason Quever was helping him record Casiotone songs over old Papercuts cassingles. "He didn't care about the songs, but I made him make me a tape. I love them," Ashworth says.

While Quever's songwriting has a similar sadness, the Papercuts' sound is much fuller and utilizes acoustic guitars, hip hop beats, and multitracked harmonies. Working with Quever has inspired Ashworth to flesh out his new Casiotone tunes with strings and live drums. "The new songs are shorter too," he says. "Some are less than a minute. I'm trying to make it as minimal as possible; I'm a big fan of the Young Marble Giants. I'm trying to eliminate musical breaks because in pop things are repeated two or four times and that just seems silly. I'm going to call it Casiotone for the Painfully Alone Plays Pocket Symphonies for Lonesome Subway Car."

A German label called Tom is interested in releasing both records in Europe. For now, Ashworth has been selling four-song preview EPs at shows. One song, "Tonight Was a Disaster," may be the best thing he's written. Over a clean, simple synth line, he muses about a girl he loves who is still hung up on her former boyfriend. Then there's "We Have Mice," in which a guy can't bring himself to kill the mice that keep him company at night while he waits for his girlfriend to call. Ashworth explains: "I was writing about animals for a while. I would try to include one in each song. There's also "Look, Cindy (The Toucan Song),' which is about a tropical bird being used as emotional leverage in a relationship."

As his lyrics have gotten more succinct, Ashworth's beats have gotten more complex. He now has eight keyboards and a few larger Casios. "I have 200 beats to choose from," he says. "I've been running beats through the Casio Rapmaster too. It's getting tougher to pull off with just two hands -- occasionally I have to use my feet. For a while I put some of the beats on a Walkman and would use voice activation [when playing live]. That was a big crowd-pleaser.

"I've never studied piano; I've got a pretty limited knowledge of music," Ashworth admits. "None of that matters -- I think taking music lessons is totally bunk. I've learned more just playing with the Papercuts. Just get a tape recorder and start playing songs."

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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