Ashtray Navigations | Interview | “Lyrics would define parameters on how people should interpret the sounds, and I don’t like that at all”

Uncategorized August 8, 2022

Ashtray Navigations | Interview | “Lyrics would define parameters on how people should interpret the sounds, and I don’t like that at all”

Ashtray Navigations is a mind-boggling, experimental psychedelic rock that originally started as Phil Todd’s solo project, now a group effort.

Todd was the head of the now defunct Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers label. He now runs Memoirs Of An Aesthete.

The group centred upon Phil Todd and has been active since 1991. Colloquially referred to as “Ash Nav”, the group operates out of Todd’s home in Stoke-on-Trent, from which he also ran the record labels Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers and, subsequently, Memoirs of an Aesthete. The project has also released music through labels such as Siltbreeze, Jewelled Antler, American Tapes, Fargone Records, Menlo Park, E.F. Tapes and Freedom From.

“I wanted to make music that was a mix of noise/power electronics and psychedelic rock”

Would you like to talk about your background? How did you first get interested in music?

Phil Todd: I’m from a fairly standard British working-class family, back in those days most families probably had an upright piano in the house. We did, anyway. My mother and uncle both played piano and later I had some lessons for a few years. I was always into music, especially after discovering my other uncle’s early 1960s record collection. It was mostly pop hits of the era, but some early Beatles and odd Joe Meek style productions and the occasional outlier like ‘Tom Hark’ by Elias and His Zigzag Jive Flutes (a South African Kwela record which was inexplicably a big hit in the UK). All that stuff I loved, but later I acquired two life changing records: a John Lee Hooker EP and ‘Ride A White Swan’ by T. Rex. These pretty much blew my mind. I realised those two acts played roughly the same sort of music: instead of the lush arrangements of my uncle’s 60s records there was this wild and hammering rhythmic guitar that sounded nothing like what I thought guitars sounded like (having heard acoustic ones at school) and singing in strange voices which could have come from mars. I could hardly make out the words but the bits I could hear were deeply mystifying, get a black cat and sit it on your shoulder and in the morning you’ll know all you know and I got a wobbling baby wobbling me all the time and stuff like that. My 8 year old mind was transfixed. A couple of years later I saw Motörhead on TV doing ‘Ace Of Spades’ and that was it. A normal life is impossible now. I mean, forget it.

What were some of the very early endeavors in music (pre-Ashtray Navigations)?

Nothing really of note. I messed around in bands at school and a bit after but I was mostly a keyboard player then and I didn’t own a keyboard, except for the piano mentioned in question one, which I couldn’t carry around with me too easily. I got a guitar but couldn’t play it very well, I was a glorified hanger-on. Then I got into the punk/hardcore world and messed around a bit more, wrote a punk fanzine, that kind of stuff. Me and a friend started a sampling project called Tea Culture which was part electronic music and part crazy comedy, a few other people joined and I did various other projects with them. I was from Stoke On Trent and couldn’t really play any instruments very well so the idea of a professional career in music was not really an option then, so I guess I was mostly a music fanatic and dabbler back then.

What led you to form Ashtray Navigations in 1994. Can you elaborate on the beginnings?

I had a guitar, some cheap keyboards, an old delay unit, a harmonica and some bongos and someone sold me the world’s worst cassette four track for £25 I think. So, away we go. I wanted to make music that was a mix of noise/power electronics and psychedelic rock, which was what I was listening to at the time. I called it Ashtray Navigations as a joke (a riff on the Astral Navigations record, of course) and now all these years later, the joke is wearing a bit thin but I have better equipment now and probably a better idea of what I’m doing.

“I loved the punk DIY spirit”

Around that time you also formed your own label, Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers.

Yes, this grew out of the fanzine that I was doing. I loved the punk DIY spirit and wanted to put out a compilation cassette featuring all the people who’d sent me demos to review in the fanzine, especially the ones who were doing something a bit weirder or more inventive or who didn’t quite fit in with the punk/HC thing too well, which I was finding a bit dull and doctrinaire by then. One of the bands I asked (Aerschot) only did long electronic pieces and couldn’t come up with anything short enough for a compilation, so I put out a whole tape by them. Two tapes and you’ve got a label, right. Things carried on from there as I liked the direction things were going in.

The label released so much great material including Melt Banana, Pain Jerk, Universal Indians, Wolf Eyes, Carlos Giffoni, Birchville Cat Motel, Thirdorgan and Cock E.S.P.. How did you select the artists and what was the releasing process like back then?

You know, in this era of digital immediacy, it’s really hard to think back to how things were then. I really can’t recall. You’d assume things were a lot slower then, but I put out a lot of releases very quickly so things couldn’t have been that slow! I guess the name was around, there weren’t too many people in the UK doing this kind of thing, you’d meet people or they’d write to you and eventually things happened. I don’t really miss “the old days” but there was something appealing about being under the radar, having a bit of mystery, that you’d get a tape or record or whatever and not be able to find out where it was from or what the context was and would have to imagine. The fact that you can look anything up on Discogs now and usually find out who was behind it and everything else they released takes a lot of fun out of things. Having said that, some things I released (even as Ashtray Navigations) have not found their way onto Discogs and that makes me happy. Another funny thing is that you’d expect records to sell much more slowly then, but the first Ashtray Navigations single sold out of its 250 copy run in a month or so, whereas now that many copies of a record can hang around for ages. Maybe people had more money then, or less things to waste it on. Don’t know.

There was a whole scene around it, wasn’t it?

Yes, there was, and it’s hard to think back to how it operated from a 21st century perspective. I guess there were magazines that were important (“Your Flesh” was one that I recall, they were mega supportive of my early stuff) and word would just get around somehow.

The label became a document of the underground groups coming out of Stoke-On-Trent in the 90s, such as Ashtray Navigations, Inca Eyeball, Dogliveroil, Green Monkey, A Warm Palindrome, Wagstaff, Subs and Tea Culture. I know this may take a lot of time, but would you be able to discuss all the mentioned groups?

That’s pretty easy as they all involved the same 5 or 6 people in different permutations, with occasional guests, and different styles or concepts for each band. Here’s the key:
Joincey, Marky Loo Loo, Neil Davis, Andy Jarvis, Mikarla Jarvis and myself.

Ashtray Navigations: Mostly me, though Joincey, Marky Loo Loo and Neil Davis and Andy Jarvis occasionally guested. These days Ashtray live is me and Melanie O’Dubhslaine who plays on some of the records too.

Inca Eyeball: Joincey and I. Short improvised songs, occasionally abstruse or confrontational, occasionally melodic.

Dogliveroil: Marky Loo Loo and I, later line ups larger. Noise.

Green Monkey: Together with Joincey and Doog (drums). This band existed for two days with a year or so in between them, one day to make the two singles and tape and one day to make the CD. Improv rock with riffs. No composition beforehand, just dive in.

A Warm Palindrome: Joincey, Andy Jarvis, Mikarla Jarvis and I plus a guy named Daz aka Solomon Kirkland, who I haven’t seen for decades. Occasional guests. Started out as just jams for fun, eventually found some sort of direction, or multiple directions maybe.

Wagstaff: One of many Joincey solo projects, you’ll have to ask him.

Subs: Marky Loo Loo and Mikarla Jarvis. The greatest pop band on the planet, if not the most popular.

Tea Culture: Originally Neil Davis and I, everyone else eventually joined. A bunch of people sat around a computer laughing.

I guess all of these projects except Ashtray and Subs are defunct or at least dormant, though I suspect Dogliveroil and Inca Eyeball will eventually do something new.

In 2001 the name changed to Memoirs Of An Aesthete which worked as a platform for your own projects.

Yes, I ran Betley full time eventually and it was a full time job with lots of administration. The music I was distributing wasn’t doing it for me so much any more, people who were playing music I was interested in previously now seemed captivated by digital blipping noises around the time of the millennium, sub-Autechre style stuff which has never really been my thing. I closed down Betley. I intended to release other people’s stuff on Memoirs, and did for a while, but I felt I wasn’t really doing them justice as it was so much work to promote a label and a ton of bands, so Memoirs is mostly my stuff now.

I really enjoyed ‘Before You Play This’. The whole concept around x-ray turned out fantastic. Would you like to discuss some further words about it?

The packaging was Dave at the label’s idea. I wasn’t sure at first as I like to do all the artwork myself usually, but I thought it was a great concept and they look really cool.

I recorded the music in early 2019. I was alone in the house for a few days and set up the kitchen like a recording studio, with an electronic drum kit I bought but hardly used, it’s too big and unwieldy, and really dug in for a few days. The idea was to do shorter tunes in an “instrumental pop hits” kind of style, or at least close to that. I think it came out great and put it on one side hoping I could get it on a vinyl record at some stage. Two years later, the time arrived. The title is kind of a weird joke that only I found funny, the idea that before you play the record you have to look at the cover and titles and see the words “before you play this”. It was a bit of a whim but it seemed to work for that record, so why not.

“With digital recording technology, the line between composition and improvisation has completely disappeared”

How do you usually approach music making and how important is improvisation?

It’s funny, I was thinking about this the other day. With digital recording technology, the line between composition and improvisation has completely disappeared, at least the way I do it. The stems on a DAW are basically a score, and I can (and do) change the notes or MIDI information and adjust them as much as I like. Improvisation in recording just means recording something unplanned in one take and leaving it as it is (I do that too). I don’t like to write anything down before I start recording, in order to get motivated the beginning should be instinctual, though I’ll change things around a lot later. Live Ashtray Navigations used to be very much improvised, but it all ended up being a bit chaotic and boring and too much like what some of our peers were doing better, so we play compositions now, mostly ones off the records, with only a few bits of improvisations in the gaps or as “solos” like any other band.

I guess the way I approach things is, and what’s key to Ashtray Navigations, working with how sounds blend or rub up against each other to make a spark, or a third unheard sound, or an explosion due to juxtaposition and a clash rather than a smooth augmentation, which goes to make the “music in 3D” which psychedelic music is for me (credit where credit is due, that’s Mik Quantius of Embryo et cetera definition, but I think he nailed it there), and music that is structured “vertically” with a stack of sounds which interact with each other being more important than a linear structure (though there is one of those too, more than ever these days). The guitar usually sails over the top of this, taking the place of what a vocalist would be doing, usually going wild and expressive to some extent. It’s also important that it shouldn’t be too “tasteful” and should be a bit gaudy and over the top. I don’t really like subdued or controlled minimalist music, or at least it’s not something I want to do. When I started doing Ashtray Navigations, guitar solos were considered very retrograde and in bad taste. I’m not sure that this is the case any more, as music has fragmented now and I guess there isn’t any one thing that is “fashionable” now, but in the music scene back then, guitars and “rockism” and long solos were something that hipsters were very snooty about (unless it was something like the Butthole Surfers, who were excused as being “ironic”…right…). I always liked them and wanted to include them for precisely that reason (“junk” that people who think they know it all have rejected usually has something of interest) and because I loved the expressionism of jazz and 60s/70s rock soloists, and I thought it’d be an interesting contrast with music that could be somewhat “cold” and abstract without this human element. I usually love it when two completely incongruous elements are forced together in music, it’s always interesting. Interesting to me, anyway. Nothing should go down smoothly.

Which albums would you highlight when it comes to Ashtray Navigations?

They all have some appeal to me in some way or another I guess, and I don’t like to look back – whatever I’m working on at present is what I’m most into. The ones that stick in my head are the ones that have made some sort of breakthrough or the ones that I think define a certain era. ‘Those Are Pearls That Were His Eyes’, which I think was the first Ashtray CD-r, nails the early sound best for me and also reminds me of the back garden of my old house where I recorded half of it.

There’s a later CD-r called ‘Abomination Rock’ that I like a lot, it was meant to come out on a vinyl record but that never happened, but I think it’s a good one and comes from around the time I thought I should be doing shorter and punchier tracks, and from around when I finally abandoned cassette 4 tracks and got into doing everything digitally.

I also like the LP that was part of the ‘Greatest Imaginary Hits’ package, cos that captures the live set that me and Mel had been playing for a couple of years by then, it’s the only example of Ashtray recording something that we’d played loads and loads of times before it was recorded, a bit of an anomaly and anomalies are always good.

The compilation discs on ‘Greatest Imaginary Hits’ are probably a good intro to Ashtray Navigations, though I personally would not have picked one single track which is on there if I were to put together a compilation of my favourites. That’s good though, and is exactly why we asked other people to do it. It shouldn’t all be about me!

“Lyrics would define parameters on how people should interpret the sounds, and I don’t like that at all”

Have you ideas that refuse to step through the door with you? And what do you do with those sketches?

I’ve been doing this so long that failures often reveal themselves as failures pretty quickly and get wiped straight away. I like the idea that I can throw any kind of music or any instrument into Ashtray Navigations (or at least my version of it, depending on how well or badly I can play it) but some things obviously don’t work at all. One is vocals and lyrics which have featured a few times in the past, but never really to my satisfaction. Lyrics would define parameters on how people should interpret the sounds, and I don’t like that at all. Listeners should be free to do that themselves, and I don’t like the idea that fully understanding the music should be restricted to people who can speak English either. There’s plenty of music out there which foregrounds people singing about their problems or hawking their solutions to all the world’s problems out there anyway. In English.

How have you been coping with the COVID and the lockdown?

Have to admit I didn’t like that one very much at all, especially as I worked at my day job pretty much throughout, and said the job got even less fun than usual. Unless your idea of fun is policing queues and arguing with conspiracy theory types, or trying to avoid arguing with them, with the added frisson that one of them could give you a then-fatal illness. Personally, I’m sick of living through huge events of historical importance: not just COVID but Brexit, the far right resurgence and so called “populism”, the continuing atrocities in Ukraine and of course elsewhere. I’d love a few boring years when nothing much happens and we can all concentrate on art, music, love and joy and the stuff that life really should be about.

What else are you working on?

There’s a new Ashtray LP coming out on VHF Records called “The Apotheosis Of Va Va Voom” and rest assured it’s the best one yet! Also a smaller scale self-released project is in the works, not finished yet so can’t say too much about that one.

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?

Blimey, my favourite records list would be a mile long…but here’s a by no means exhaustive list of ten that probably influenced Ashtray Navigations at different stages of development:

1. C.C.C.C. – ‘Loud Sounds Dopa’
2. Fripp & Eno – ‘(No Pussyfooting)’
3. Various Artists – ‘Acid Dreams’ (killer psych compilation)
4. Royal Trux – ‘Twin Infinitives’
5. Miles Davis – ‘On The Corner’
6. Xenakis – ‘Electronic Music’
7. John Coltrane – ‘Live At The Village Vanguard Again’
8. The A Band – ‘Artex/A Lot’
9. Martin Denny – ‘The Exotic Sounds Of’
10. Pedro Santos – ‘Krishnanda’

I don’t really know new music too well, I’ve gotten a bit out of touch with all that in my old age and have yet to find much that is new to my ears. Maybe I should look a bit harder. I think I’m reaching the “heard it all before” stage, at least with artists in experimental music or electronics or rock. Recently I’ve been listening to Gwo Ka, music from Martinique, which is new to me even though the records are quite old. It’s hard to find, even online, but great stuff. I think it’s inventive music and incredibly psychedelic. The Gwakasonné compilation on Seance Centre Records is probably what I’ve played the most recently.

Thank you. Last word is yours.

Just to thank you, keep up the good work, sir!

Klemen Breznikar

Headline photo: David Larcher

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