Greg Ashley | Interview | New Album, ‘Radio MDMA’
Greg Ashley is a songwriter, producer, studio runner and novelist who has been creating a strong and singular body of work since the mid 2000s. ‘Radio MDMA’ is his latest album released a few months ago via Real Charmer Records.
Ashley released records on Third Man, Mexican Summer, Trouble in Mind, and Birdman to name a few labels, and recently published a book with his second on the way. His most recent album ‘Radio MDMA’ was recorded all analog in a run down church in downtown Oakland.
In addition to being a songwriter, Greg Ashley is also a highly regarded music producer in analog recordings.
“I’m more documenting than making shit it up”
It’s really nice to have you discuss your latest album. ‘Radio MDMA’ is your 9th solo album. How long did you work on it?
Greg Ashley: I think I started the album in 2018 slowly writing songs and just recording them as they came along. The first two tracks on the album I recorded in December 2019. The rest of it I recorded in the church I was using on Athens street in Oakland, CA in 2018. I set up a makeshift studio in the shed I had been living in in Kosse, TX and continued to live in for the next 2+ years. So ‘Radio MDMA’ was finished and untouched after I mastered it in January 2020. Sean pressed the records and then the fucking pandemic struck so we let it sit in boxes for two years. Couldn’t tour on it, the world is going to shit et cetera. So it was released this year back in March because of the obvious. Answer to your question, I’d say three years.
The world and society is sucked into its own selfish vortex… climate changes, pandemic, war … to what degree are you influenced by the current world situation and is the latest album a reflection of recent events?
Absolutely, I’m more documenting than making shit it up. The world on a macro scale that surrounds me and my world specifically don’t need me to make up any bullshit. I just tell my songs as they happen or what I perceive is happening around me.
Tell us about the songs co-written by Hugo Lamy and Powell St. John. How did that come about?
The Powell St. John song is me finishing an unfinished song of his. He passed away last year and his wife Toby, a wonderful lady as was Powell. She wants to put out a compilation of his songs and my rule has always been you never cover a song that has been perfectly so I’m not gonna do a hit for the compilation, just seems pointless and it’s not like I can sing worth a shit so just finishing the song I think works. Hugo Lamo is a genius bass player, songwriter, guitar player, producer. I think he cooked once and it was delicious as well. Anyways, I have no explanation, when I work with Hugo, and I’ve never written songs with anybody else really, it just works. The man is a musical genius.
Powell sadly passed away. He was a man full of stories and he shared quite a bit of history with me in an interview we did about 10 years ago. It’s hard to imagine a “psychedelic Texas”, where the underground met conservatism. Do you ever think about how it must have been in the Vulcan Gas Company? And to what degree did 13th Floor Elevators and other native Texas psych rock bands influence you as a musician growing up there?
Man really, I like ‘Fire In My Bones’. An LP that is them re-performing their first album way way way better. They influenced me a bit, for a short time in my early 20s, but not really. There were more complicated things going on and I think The 13th Floor Elevators are vastly overrated. Sorry Texas, fuck you I can say whatever I want! It was really the publicist for my first record label. She kept comparing me to them et cetera. So all the “Journalists” hit copy and paste…and whatever…now I’m like Roky Erickson’s second coming.
Can you share some further words on how ‘Radio MDMA’ was recorded?
Track 1 and 2 were recorded in a storage shed in Kosse, TX by myself in 2019. The rest of the tracks were recorded in the church on Mead Street 2017-2018 over two years in which crazy insane shit continued to happen to me and I had to leave Oakland.
When did you move to Oakland and how would you describe the underground music scene and how it changed during the years?
Moved to Oakland in May 2002, left October 2019. The music and the whole city was great when I got there. By 2019 half of all the musicians and been displaced and you were left with a town of fucking douchebags. But I did go back for three months at the beginning of the year and it was kinda nice again. Nobody is on the street because they are all working from home because of Covid. So I spent three months as a bum taking in the best city in America, without the tech pricks.
Would you say there’s a certain concept behind the songs on the latest album? How would you compare it to your previous album, ‘Fiction Is Non-Fiction’?
Nothing different really. We have problems with the world, society, culture, equity, love, being a piece of shit and trying to change. That’s all I ever write about, just life.
How do you usually approach songwriting and does that change song-per-song or do you have an established pattern?
No, I have absolutely no pattern, no algorithm I run. It’s always different, and I almost make it a point to do this that way so I don’t cover the same ground a million times and become redundant.
I think these days we are paying much more attention to albums than in the previous years as the Covid forced us to stay indoors listening to music.
I’ve mostly been listening to violin concertos. Easy on my shit ears…
“I essentially only use analog equipment”
You’re also very active as a producer keen to analog approach. Tell us about your involvement in production and what are the advantages of analog in your opinion?
Well, I essentially only use analog equipment. At this point I am not opposed to using some digital equipment. It’s not like in the 90’s when it really sounded like fucking shit. I stayed away from that equipment like the plague. OK, in my opinion both have their thing they do well, and the thing they do like shit. Now, just to start this out on what will make me have an equal opinion, or whatever you wanna call it. There is shit that digital recording does better than analog. It makes perfect copies of things with no hiss. If taken off the standard 1″ reel to reel tape running at 30 inches per second (nothing will ever sound better than this). A current digital recording program of a symphony will make a perfect copy of the recording and the sound will already be colored by the original analog source. Now the thing that people need to understand about digital VS analog recordings is this: Analog tape can do something that Digital can never do and vice versa. If you send a signal into an analog tape and you have passed the threshold of 0db the music that you will hear off the tape in the playback will start to have a slight compression element to it. If you go further like say past +3db and above you will receive more compression, but also you will get distortion, meaning that the sounds will have way less dynamics (less loud and quiet) and therefore be compressed into a more singular volume, one that will get more distorted the harder you hit the tape. It won’t get too loud, and won’t get too quiet. Which is exactly what you want for everything but classical music. And I’m simplifying this like a motherfucker. Now classical music has the most dynamics of any music recorded. This meant this music had the loudest and quiets things that happen in music. Now your digital recorder at this point is crystal clear. Tape always has hiss when it gets quiet. Classical music gets quiet, you hear the hiss, classical music wants to get bigger and more powerful but on digital they are stuck at 0db (if you cross 0db with digital you get the worst distortion with no value. It’s just shit, but with zero hiss. So I’d say it does a great job with the symphony but a shit job with rock and roll). Catch 22…all great music.
What are a few key lessons you’ve learned about producing that other producers could take advice from?
Most of the time, don’t bother. Get a real job.
I hope you don’t mind if we talked about the early years, tell us what kind of records would we find in your teenage room?
Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, The Mummies, The Tiki Men, Leonard Cohen, The first three Beck records, The Pagans, ‘Kill By Death’ Comps, and The Beatles.
Was The Mirrors your first band?
No, The Strate Coats. (You can find one of our shows on YouTube)
You released two albums with this garage psych rock group. What are some recollections from it?
The Mirrors were all the songs I didn’t understand music theory enough to complete. The Strate Coats broke up, I took a year of community college, and I learned what the notes meant and was able to finish songs that I could now transpose keys and understand what key I was in in the first place and then change those ideas and tie them together.
I was pleasantly surprised when your third popped out via Cardinal Fuzz / Feeding Tube. Why was it unreleased at the time?
The lost third Mirrors album? It was unreleased and never meant to be, but they wanted to so fuck it.
How did The Gris Gris come about?
This is another complete accident in my life. Mirrors broke up in 2002, I moved to California, and promised myself I would never ever have another band. There’s all this drama and schedule and bullshit. But Oscar Michel the bass player asked me a million times to play bass for the solo stuff I was doing in California which was the songs from my first solo album ‘Medicine Fuck Dream’. I gave in, he got us a drummer that I said, “OK but only a snare, floor tom and ride cymbal. No kick drum. We’ll keep this simple”. Oscar was right, it worked, I wrote a bunch of songs and we made records. For the second album Lars Kullberg joined, Oscar’s roommate, who was a genius organ and piano player. Then we toured blah blah blah. We had a great time making two studio records recorded at my place and two live records. And then we all quit.
Both albums that you released have a truly mesmerizing atmosphere. Would you elaborate on the two releases you did and what runs through your mind hearing them today?
If you’re talking about the Gris-Gris records, I wrote strange fucked up songs. And we as a band had a blast and even if we played bad we were a freak show so people loved it. The records to me are a somewhat lyrical embarrassment, but a musical achievement.
Around this time you also decided to record your first debut album, ‘Medicine Fuck Dream’.
I recorded ‘Medicine Fuck Dream’ right after the second Mirrors record. All recorded in my garage in Texas except ‘She’, recorded in my apartment in Oakland. All around 2001 or a little of 2002. It’s my best-selling solo record but not the best one. It was my first shot. I was essentially a child, not much more than a teenager.
What can you tell us about your collaboration with King Khan on ‘Murder Burgers’ album?
I produced and engineered the record. And I played some guitar. Wrote a song or co-wrote one, I can’t remember. Fun time.
Would you also like to comment on Sir Lord Von Raven, The John Brothers Piano Company Quintet and The Strate Coats?
I talked about The Strate Coats and Sir Lord Von Raven not really and the John Brothers would be a whole another interview in itself.
Looking back, which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig? Which songs am I most proud of?
I think lyrically ‘Pictures of Saint Paul Street’ is the best. The rest of my records musically are equal or better but the lyrics were the best on ‘St Paul Street’.
Let’s end this interview with some of your favorite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Everything Caetano Veloso and then go on YouTube and just explore the most fucked up Nigerian shit from the 70s with synthesizers on it you can find.
Thank you for taking your time. Last word is yours.
If you decide to write songs, you have to say something, and I’m not sayin’ something right out of the gate, but if you haven’t said shit but pathetic children’s music and you wake up at 35. Stop. Take a shitty job and shut the fuck up. I’m not saying be preachy, that’s worse. If you can’t make a comment that means something to your society or bullshit generation, fucking stop. Especially if you are making a living off of it. Shut the fuck up. Music is too important to let a bunch of no talent losers make our society ever more stupid than it is. Shut the fuck up. You are just a shill in the capitalist system, and your opinion means nothing but shit except for you to make more money, or stroke your fucking ego. But everything could get better.