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Slip Inside This House 

Gris Gris frontman Greg Ashley makes pop oddities with pocket change

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
City living creates a tendency to shove the music you like into competitions with other attention hogs. When you're just one of a million maggots, hooks that compete with skyscraper cranes and choruses slick as makeup counters can mentally transport you away from the congestion. One iPod click generates beats overriding jackhammers, while the next soundtracks the Muni commute toward the paycheck slavery.

But for every giant anthem there's a batch of slow tunneling tracks that force the rush-hour mentality to bead away — even if they're impossible to appreciate pitted against industrial aggressors. Greg Ashley's music doesn't work wedged between BART stops. It won't capture your imagination penciled into a coffee break. It demands your full attention.

Good listeners clock serious time with Ashley's songs. It's not that he makes highfalutin extractions you need a degree in symphonies to translate. The Oakland artist's solo records — like Medicine Fuck Dream and the new Painted Garden — are just really delicate in their intricacies, like flea market finds that you wrap in tissue before taking home. The songs sound artfully weathered, edges yellowed the minute they hit headphones. But Ashley's music also ages in reverse, antique in its methodology but young and almost playful at the core. Cue the giggling, tickled girl opening Medicine Fuck Dream, or Ashley's techniques of embracing mishaps — a cough in this song, a stuttered track shift on that one — while his lyrics take artificiality to task, all marks of a musician short on years and long in soul.

"Greg Ashley is a true psychedelic visionary, maybe the greatest of his generation," Adam Shore of Vice Records writes in an e-mail. "His music is not retro and it doesn't pay homage to music of the past. It lives in this timeless place in a space of his own." Shore doesn't have a professional connection to Ashley — who records for local label Birdman Records — but he's a big fan nonetheless, as are members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Trail of Dead, and Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, according to Birdman owner Dave Katznelson. Katznelson adds of Ashley, "He has a way of changing the molecules in the air when he plays, something that others have done before but is still a rare occurrence. He is not only a great artist, but a great artist playing through a world of fuzz and beauty that I love."

Although his fans have their hopes, Ashley, aged 26 and a chain Camel Lights smoker, isn't poised to become famous anytime soon. His full band, psych rock outfit Gris Gris, was hand-picked to open for Karen O and company — two shows in Los Angeles last year — but that's probably his highest claim to fame in a decade of songwriting. Still, his grip on fans only firms with time. And with the release of Painted Garden, Ashley proves that in an era of greedy, speedy sonic consumption, his slow-building albums offer a rewarding transcendence outta this metropolis.

To get to the ex-Texan's Oakland studios, you walk past the boxing gloves hanging from a tree branch and take a right at the kitchen appliances nestled into the weeds. Go down the hallway of a two-bedroom apartment and dead-end at his temporary setup (noise complaints from the neighbors have left his renting situation slightly precarious). Although this is technically Ashley's bedroom, these quarters — the size of a modest Public Storage unit — are as overtaken by recording tools as his yard is with grass. Chords strangle a ceiling fan, stacks of album masters (for his solo work and with the Gris Gris and the Mirrors, as well as for the artists he's recorded — Brian Glaze, Killer's Kiss, Battleship) are welded into a closet shelf. Elsewhere, analog artifacts jostle for space with stacks of blank CDs, and a Story & Clark piano stands burdened with random loads of technical knickknacks.

The Queer Eye contingent would have a field day with this bachelor pad. Ashley's aesthetic is firmly set in "aftermath" mode, the only sign that he uses these digs beyond the creation and recording of music being a browbeaten couch/bed of the sort that usually dies on curbsides, its olive pillows covered in white sheets. But you don't come to Greg Ashley's place for the feng shui, you come by to record your garage band, you pop in to offer help with that piano melody, you spend a weekend drinking beers and end up weaving into the fabric of his Nuggets sensibilities. Or, in the case of Ashley's forthcoming producing project, you're part of a Birdman comp of local "people who have mellower solo stuff," he says. "Each [artist] comes over for a day and we hang out and record a song together."

Musicians request Ashley's assistance for various reasons. (Birdman solo artist Brian Glaze quips, "I like the fact that he smokes more than I do in the studio, and doesn't mind recording drum tracks on Christmas morning in a studio apartment.") But to the outsider, it's Ashley's spirit of pocket-change invention that cements his mystique. On 2003's Medicine Fuck Dream, he hit lollipops against half-empty bottles of Mad Dog for the percussion on a creaky cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." On Painted Garden, out this week, Ashley's anorexic checking account forced more creative forays. To wit: "Medication #5" needed a cello, but all Ashley had on hand was a violin player. After taking a violin bow to his bass, he recorded the violinist at a low speed while she played her part four times as fast. "When the violin is slowed down, it goes down eight octaves and sounds like a cello," Ashley explains. In other words, it gives off a heavy melancholy befitting a song about rotting sexuality. Elsewhere, bent saw melodies "remind me of an opera singer," Ashley says; "it's high and kinda spooky," while clarinet skronk morphs into guitar feedback. "That's what I really love about doing this shit, you can really geek out," he says. "Like the song with a gong on it — there's no way I could afford a real gong, so I bought a shitty $5 one and recorded it at high speed again and then slowed it down so it sounds like a low gong." What would Ashley do with the purse strings for a real gong, an actual cello, a live opera singer? He laughs and answers, "Then I wouldn't have anything to figure out."

The soft focus approach is integral to Ashley's work, whether it's embedded in his narratives or infused into genres (folk, free jazz, garage, Latino and Middle Eastern music, among others) that move through one another like dreams. Painted Garden is less the pillowy whispers of Medicine and more the rocky psych ride given in Gris Gris records, with multiple directional shifts. The new disc flirts with homemade Tropicalia on "Sailing With Bobby," featuring chirping birds and the downy coo of a female singer, incorporated due to Ashley's affection for Brazilians Os Mutantes and the loungy Martin Denny. "Fisher King" also maintains an island vibe, albeit with arsenic spiking cocktail beats; lyrics tell of "gettin' high on a balcony hangin' from a string/ pick up your spoon, cook up your breakfast sad fisher king," against clattering percussion that mimics utensils cracking glass. Shifting moods again, "Pretty Belladonna" performs a tear-blurred waltz to a crush already spoken for.

The songs reveal his disappointments with artifice or romantic archenemies — sex bludgeoned by cheap bargaining, a foe acting "like a dollar bill that's waitin' for the powder," landscapes pocked with whores who douse their faces in garish hues. But Ashley's songs are single-edged swords, offering tender images of, say, the desire to make a girl blush, earnestness struggling up from within cynicism's hard crevices.

Ashley's music doesn't offer emotions that can be easily text messaged. He holds old-fashioned beliefs about what can't be bought — whether the subject concerns quick rendezvous or recording studios. As Birdman's Katznelson says in semi-seriousness, "[Ashley] is a total romantic, and his records are fantastic to have sex to." And, well, regardless of whether you use Painted Garden to compliment a set of satin sheets, Ashley's Wonderland charm places a warm halo between you and the rest of the hustle. It's a cozy place to settle — even with the painted ladies lurking for dollar-bill boys around the corner.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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