The Global Circus
World Nomad Tod Ashley Brings Firewater to The Fore of World-Punk
Tod Ashley, frontman of the Brooklyn, N.Y., band Firewater, is the rock equivalent of a circus barker, that seedy guy with the painted-on smile who laughs in your face, then cries into his gin late at night when he's alone. He's fond of swirly carnival noises, step-right-up showmanship, and musical delirium. He writes songs with titles like "Hey, Clown," "The Circus," and "The Man on the Burning Tightrope" (ostensibly about George W. Bush, but also a self-portrait). Underneath the big-tent trappings, though, something dark and tragic festers: The clowns scare little children on purpose, the safety nets are full of holes, the strongman has been crushed by a trapeze girl, and running the whole show is the mad geek in the straitjacket.
Recently, Firewater's once-tortured ringleader has found solace and productivity in the life of a wanderer. He's spent the past three years on the road. "I left because I was starting to think bad thoughts," says Ashley, better known as Tod A., in a phone interview from Brooklyn. "I had to get out of here."
The first few lines on Firewater's new album, The Golden Hour (Bloodshot), answer many of the questions that have lately surrounded the band: "Well, I ain't gonna live in your world no more," Ashley mutters in his sepulchral growl over a bhangra beat. Spooky background vocals chant, "Here I come, Borneo," in low tones as Ashley continues, "Got a monkey for a president/ and a head all filled up with cement/ I'm getting out of here."
Formed when Ashley's previous band, Cop Shoot Cop, broke up in 1995, Firewater has attracted a strong cult following, thanks partly to Ashley's habit of spitting his bitter lyrics as if they cut his mouth on the way out, and partly to its unclassifiable combination of Gypsy, punk, klezmer, sea shanties, and drinking songs. The band has close ties to Gypsy-punk outfits such as Gogol Bordello and Balkan Beat Box; members of both have played in Firewater at various times.
In 2005, after five Firewater albums, Ashley had what he describes as a "freakout." Fed up with the music industry, newly divorced, depressed, and unbearably disgusted by Bush's re-election, he took off. He went on sabbatical, roaming the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent equipped with a backpack, a single microphone, and a burning curiosity to see "all the places we were bombing," as he puts it, only half-jokingly.
"I felt like I wanted to go and meet these people and see what they had to say," he says. "Instead of the usual getting everything through the media--you know, I wanted to see what people in Pakistan had to say about America."
But Ashley didn't travel in order to talk politics; what he wanted was to overcome them. This he accomplished through music. Everywhere he went, he asked to meet local musicians. Using charades and broken English--"communication was a bit of a problem," he deadpans--plus his single microphone and a laptop, Ashley set up impromptu recording sessions with groups of musicians he encountered. Those recordings, made in several countries, evolved into Firewater's new album.
"All the songs have some element that I recorded along the way," he says. "But I recorded a lot of traditional music just for my own enjoyment. A lot of the times these guys would just set up and start to play. I rarely got what I expected. It was always better."
The Golden Hour radiates excitement, indignation, joy, and rage; it has a narrative force previous Firewater records lacked, and Ashley's tremendously varied road recordings add up to a consistently rich texture. The sound is more overtly Middle Eastern and Indian than on earlier records, but there's still plenty of serious clowning. Among its many themes, the record considers what happens when, instead of running away to the circus, you realize that you are the circus. In songs such as "Borneo" and "This Is My Life," Ashley describes the frustration that drove him out of New York and the sadness of leaving. "Feels Like the End of the World" gets at the isolation that haunts the traveler. And then there's the self-explanatory "Weird to Be Back."
The journey and the record seem to have purged the worst of Ashley's self-destructive impulses. These days, he sounds downright cheerful. "I'm more optimistic than I've been in a while," he says. "It was very therapeutic."
Though he learned a great deal and may have tamed his meaner demons, Ashley isn't one to spout platitudes about the ease of cross-cultural interactions. The trip didn't always go smoothly, something that becomes clear when you read the blog he kept while roaming, Postcards From the Other Side of the World (postcards.blogs.com/postcards_.. ("I'm cannibalizing it a bit for a novel now," he says.) He had intended to travel overland from India to Istanbul, Turkey, but two illnesses and a number of other complications threw him off schedule. He had a date to meet his girlfriend in Istanbul, so he decided to cut the trip short in Afghanistan--only halfway, he notes with disappointment. He plans to return at some point to complete the Peshawar, Pakistan-to-Istanbul leg.
The whole journey, Ashley says, was "a series of small surprises." These included the fact that in several places you could buy beer but only on the black market. "You know, they're all taking opium, smoking hash, but beer--oh, no!" he says, laughing.
He also discovered that the music young people like is apparently universally reviled as "noise" by their elders. In India's Punjab region, he says, traditional music is handed down in group sessions, where new players learn the trade by sitting in and gradually playing along with older musicians. The kids, he discovered, all love modern bhangra dance music, and the old men can't stand it.
In the out-of-the-way parts of India and Pakistan, "people are very much victims of their lack of education," he says. "This of course makes them a lot easier to control. It works the same way there as it does here.
"I wouldn't say that surprised me," Ashley adds. "You know, they're as influenced by the media as we are. We're all limited to the sources of information that we have."
The trip, he concludes, was at least a partial success. "I don't feel that I came to understand Muslim culture in the way that I hoped I would," he says. "But talking to people, you can put all the politics aside."
When language failed him, music took over. "They were rocking out, I was enjoying it," Ashley says. "It was very human."
Right now, he has about two-thirds of the next Firewater record written, but says he's in no hurry to finish it. "I want to do another trip first," he says. "I really liked that process--the mystery and surprise and not knowing what I was going to get."
His sabbatical is over, but Ashley still has the urge to roam--and his discontentment with America. He didn't linger in Brooklyn for long; the band toured Europe this spring and is now in the middle of a U.S. tour. Afterward, he'll head back to Indonesia, where he's set up something of a home base.
"I'm technically homeless," Ashley says. "But I'm kind of starting to collect some stuff in Bali. It's starting to feel a bit like home. America doesn't feel like home anymore, if it ever has."
In a Lonely Place (8/4/2010)
Montreal's Arcade Fire shows its American roots on new album
Keeping it Together (6/30/2010)
Marah and the Hold Steady add a harder, not as hopeful edge to Bruce Springsteen's working-class angst
By the Throat (6/9/2010)
Pianos Become the Teeth wrest screamo back from latter-day crapcore nonsense
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201