Just over a year ago, Owen Ashworth announced he was killing his one-man-and-collaborators band, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. He spent the back half of 2010 playing his last shows under that name -- the band's final appearance on Dec. 5, 2010, was the 13th anniversary of its first -- and producing half of Serengeti's new album, Family and Friends, under his new moniker: Advance Base.
The new name may sound more upbeat, but it's really just more subtle in conveying its isolation.
"The name Advance Base comes from the explorer Richard E. Byrd's memoir, Alone," Ashworth writes via email. "Advance Base was the name of [an] outpost in Antarctica where Byrd lived alone for five terrible months in 1934. I'd taken the name Advance Base for my little home studio ever since I moved to Chicago during the winter of 2006." Ashworth's Advance Base is where he recorded most of the songs on Casiotone's 2009 singles-and-rarities compilation on Tomlab, Advance Base Battery Life. (Byrd's Advance Base was where he almost died of carbon-monoxide poisoning.)
That studio lends continuity between Ashworth's past and current work, both in name and in sound. Advance Base rehearses in the same apartment where much of Casiotone's later work was recorded, and the apartment's "obvious noise limitations have helped define the arrangements," Ashworth writes. "It's been a refreshing change to play quiet music. I'm taking prettiness into consideration more than I used to."
Though he claims it wasn't a concern, there has always been a beauty to Ashworth's music. The band name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is like a thesis statement for his early work: lo-fi electronic music whose roughness conveys a personal quality that eases a painful loneliness.
"I've come to realize that there are just certain themes and patterns that I keep returning to," he explains. "And for better or worse, everything I record just winds up sounding like another one of my songs."
Ashworth cuts an imposing figure: a burly, bearded and bespectacled explorer of human loneliness. Judging by appearance alone, you'd expect him to be chopping down trees or selling paper towels (his press photos often involve flannel), rather than crafting short, softly sung and intensely felt vignettes about young folks who are lost and, importantly, aware of it. A master of the evocative detail, he makes their stories specific and yet relatable. (His economical approach to writing also makes him an excellent Twitterer; you can follow him at @advancebase.)
Written more often than not from the perspective of a character, rather than the songwriter himself, Ashworth's stories are populated with a young America that shares a thematic (though certainly not sonic) continuity with Bruce Springsteen. Usually kids or young adults, his protagonists are looking for a connection and some kind of hope. But Ashworth's youths don't have the dirty-hooded salvation that Springsteen's early music clung to so desperately. They only have Ashworth, their creator, who provides them with sympathy and dignity -- whether he's chiding, consoling or commiserating with them.
The Springsteen influence is something Ashworth shares with his younger brother, Gordon, whose solo project, Concern, is part of the current Advance Base tour.
"We were driving around and listening to the radio when ‘Streets of Philadelphia' came on," the elder Ashworth recalls. "We both reached for the volume dial to turn the radio up, and we were kind of surprised to know that we both really liked that song. It wasn't something we'd ever really talked about before, but Springsteen was part of our shared musical history. It just sounds like family to me."
The brothers have worked together often in the past, and there's not a hint of sibling rivalry as the elder Ashworth writes about his brother: "Gordon's been in bands since high school, and he remains incredibly prolific with projects like Concern, Oscillating Innards, Knelt Rote, Vile Horrendous Aerial Bombardment and probably a bunch of others that I'm forgetting. I really love his music."
Ashworth's fondness for the music of both Springsteen and his brother led to a Casiotone/Concern collaboration in 2009: a square, 8-inch, vinyl-only release on the label People in a Position to Know. On it, the brothers give "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Born in the USA" the Ashworth electronic treatment. ("Gordon & I thought that recording some Springsteen covers together would be a nice present for our folks," Ashworth explains.) They've followed it up with a 7-inch single of Carter Family covers, recorded for this tour.
Though his current project is named for an isolated Antarctic base full of carbon monoxide, Ashworth's work is built on collaborations with, for and on family and friends. The Advance Base/Concern tour is simply another aspect of that seeming contradiction -- a trip around the country that's like home for two brothers.
"Touring is how we get to spend any extended period of time together," Ashworth explains. "Tours and Christmas."
ADVANCE BASE with CONCERN, DREAM WEAPON. 8 p.m. Thu., Sept. 1. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $8. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com