Step Right Up: Axxa/Abraxas
Interview with Axxa/Abraxas.
“As I got older I started delving deeper into the history and various movements of music over the last 50 years and I try to take my favorite sounds from my favorite bands/albums/songs and blend them together.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Axxa/Abraxas is the pseudonym for 23 year-old Ben Asbury, whose debut self-titled album will be released by Brooklyn-based independent label Captured Tracks this March. Hailing from just outside Atlanta, Georgia, Asbury combines a plethora of irresistible tones and infectious melodies on his highly accomplished debut, taking in divine worlds of fuzzy pop psychedelia, lo-fi pop, and swirling haze of 60’s psych and art-rock.
The tracks on the record were written and demoed around the time Asbury was in college (and shortly after) in Athens, Georgia, where he was studying psychology, religion and sociology. Meanwhile he started the RTA Collective, which featured Asbury’s cassette and CD-R releases along with his visual art. The artwork of hand-crafted silkscreen imagery lovingly graces the sleeves of the eagerly awaited debut full-length Axxa/Abraxas release. A visionary DIY aesthetic is forever apparent in Asbury’s art, whether it’s the medium of visual art or music.
What is most striking about the debut record is not only the large sonic palette Axxa/Abraxas draws from but the beguiling atmosphere that resides throughout the layered sonic creations. A stream of consciousness exudes from Asbury’s abstract lyrics where a sense of spontaneity and magic is captured from the spark of the young artist’s creativity. The glorious instrumentation of vocals, guitar, bass, drums, organ and synths conjures up the sound of a distant past, amidst an uncertain future. ‘Axxa/Abraxas’ is a record to “soothe our weary eyes”, a place to gather one’s thoughts and fears and a step towards inner contentment.
A record collector and music obsessive from a very young age (“I got into punk in the third grade”), Asbury’s Axxa/Abraxas seamlessly fades through a journey’s past of 13th Floor Elevators, White Fence, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Television Personalities and beyond, creating one cohesive whole of utterly transcendent, enlightening torch-lit gems. The songs, explained by Asbury, are “generally directed at myself, often criticizing my shortcomings”. The Crazy Horse-esque tour-de-force ‘Beyond The Wind’ contains floating guitars and an eerie atmosphere that drifts in and out of focus. “This fragile heart is in the sea / To fall apart in misery” reveals a torn heart unravelling at the seams. A delicacy and intimacy permeates throughout.
The album was recorded and produced by Jarvis Taveniere (Woods, Rear House Recording), who also adds bass guitar on several of the tracks. Woods drummer Aaron Neveu stepped in on some songs, as a trio of Asbury, Taveniere and Neveu quickly laid down the bare tracks. Later, the sublime layers of Asbury’s synths, organ and lead guitar would be recorded to tape. A wonderful pop sensibility glistens across each of the album’s ten cuts that conjures up the sound of Woods’ distinctive psych pop oeuvre, particularly on the stunning closer, ‘All That’s Passed’. The words and music feels just that. The pop gem contains clean guitar tones (echoing Real Estate or Woods), warm percussion and an infectious bass groove, all played beneath Asbury’s evocative vocal delivery. ‘All That’s Passed’ is a song of hope and healing: “We soothe our weary eyes / And we take a step towards what we recognize / And realize it’s never worked before / So why we’re trying again and again and again”.
Album opener ‘Ryan Michalak (Is Coming To Town)’ begins with Asbury’s synthesizer musings before erupting into a gloriously infectious indie-rock anthem, recalling the likes of Deerhunter and, more specifically, Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza. ‘Going Forth’ is a West coast pop crystalline gem with Byrds-esque guitar licks and organ-frenzied bursts (think The Zombies ‘Odyssey And Oracle’) on the momentous chorus. The beautiful guitar lead towards the song’s close brings to mind the perfect pop symphonies of L.A.’s Allah-Las and their note-perfect self-titled debut album from 2012. A punk energy and urgency is evident on lead single ‘I Almost Fell’ (the oldest song on the record) that recalls the likes of Dan Treacy’s Television Personalities. ‘Same Signs’ is an irresistible folk lament. Asbury muses “You’re just feeling alone” on the song’s chorus as a meandering guitar line (think Ducktails) evokes vivid imagery of lazy summer days and rolling green hills.
Hot on the heels of labelmate Juan Wauters’ debut solo album, ‘North American Poetry’, Axxa/Abraxas is another towering achievement from a hugely promising artistic talent, home on the indie-supreme label, Captured Tracks.
Interview with Ben Asbury, Axxa Abraxas.
Congratulations, Ben, on your truly remarkable debut album. The songs range from fuzzy pop psychedelia to swirling haze of 60’s psych rock and lo-fi pop and art-rock that creates a truly captivating batch of songs. Please discuss the space and time in which these songs were written and drawn from? I was very interested to read a lot of the songs were written while you were in college?
BA: Thanks! All the songs on the album were written while I was studying at the University of Georgia and this past summer while working at a summer camp after I graduated. I recorded all the demos on a Tascam 4-track in my ever-moving, ever-evolving home studio space “The Time Cave”, which is a clutter of music gear and magical objects that I’ve acquired over the years. The oldest song on the album, which is incidentally the first single, ‘I Almost Fell…’ (also the first song under this moniker that had lyrics) was written at the end of 2010 and is in its third form on the record. The synth interludes on the album were recorded in the Time Cave in 2012 and are culled for a self-released tape of synth musings.
The album was recorded by Jarvis Taveniere (Woods, Rear House Recording). This must have been a special experience for you? The collaboration works wonderfully as faint hallmarks of the producer’s works is evident in the layers of pristine instrumentation. What was the typical day-to-day routine of recording like, Ben? Did the songs change or evolve during the recording process?
BA: Working with Jarvis was awesome, as someone who has been a big fan of his work it was really thrilling to be in the studio with him. Over the 8 days of studio time that we had the routine took a couple different forms. Aaron Neveu, who plays drums in Woods, was around for the first few days and we took the opportunity to record the cores of most of the songs as a three-piece with Aaron on drums, Jarvis on bass, and me doing rhythm guitar. After Aaron left we kind of jumped around between songs adding in the organ/synth parts, vocals, and extra guitar tracks. Some of the tracks were refined a bit and we made a few changes to endings (in anticipation of the flow of the album) and that sort of thing but most of the songs stay pretty true to the original demos, we wanted to keep the vibe pretty similar to those.
The album’s highlight for me is the sublime ‘Beyond The Wind’. The rawness and immediacy of the song is really quite something. The opening lyrics, your vocal delivery and the Crazy Horse-esque feel that permeates throughout conjures up the sound of someone lost or that of a broken heart. It’s incredible. A cathartic energy is released by the mist of guitars and ethereal vocals. Can you recount for me please writing and recording this song? It must have felt good to capture the mood and sound in the studio?
BA: That song has an interesting history, as it is simultaneously one of the oldest and newest songs on the album. It shares some similarities with a song called ‘State of Mind’ on my self-released demo album ‘Time Inside’. I wrote ‘Beyond the Wind’ this past summer and realized the similarities between the two songs and more or less merged them together. As with all my lyrics they’re written initially through stream of consciousness and then refined when I attempt to write them down. I feel like most of my lyrics are written in such a way that there is enough ambiguity for each person to find their own meaning, perhaps link the words to something in their life to create a perspective on it. For me the lyrics define the previous half-year for me, I moved around a lot and things were pretty much in disarray, being productive in between moves but having gaps of spaceless time. For me it highlights the difference between our true nature as humans and the things we have to go though to live in this society. Life can be a frustrating experience, and I often feel the weight of our current reality on me, it can be depressing. I feel like the main vibe in that song comes from the subtle, yet very spacey lead guitar that lurks in the background throughout the song. When I was playing that guitar part in the studio I was able to pretty much totally space out for the duration of the track and I think that really helped to capture the mood.
I would love to gain an insight into the visual art aspect of your work. How does this filter into the music side of things? I imagine they’re very closely connected. Staying on this, I absolutely love the album artwork — stunning DIY silkscreen imagery. Please talk me through the album cover artwork please?
BA: Like most things my artistic activity works in cycles. I’m almost always writing new songs but sometimes I’ll be recording demos nonstop and sometimes I wont even hook my guitar into an amp for weeks. I’ve been really into printmaking since I was fairly young but it wasn’t until about a year ago that I was very productive with it. When I’m in a musical down period I start getting more productive with silkscreen art and vice versa. It keeps me from getting depressed during the musical down time. The biggest link between the music and the art is the approach I take to creating them. I’m very much a process artist; I try not to think too hard and to let my subconscious make the decisions.
The album art is all culled from a large piece that I spent the entirety of last year working on. Its 26 separate silkscreen pieces done on fabric that I have sewn together into a tapestry of sorts. I’m making five of these, one for me, one for Mike Sniper, and 3 that will be available to any interested art loving folks. I wasn’t making any of these pieces with the intention of them being the album artwork but as the folks at Captured Tracks began to find out more about these pieces it became apparent pretty quickly that it was the right fit. Since the process of creation is the same for each media (audio or visual) I’ve come to find that the two are irrevocably intertwined.
Growing up you must have been exposed to music from an early age. What bands, albums and artists resonated powerfully for you? I would love to take a look into your (eclectic) record collection.
BA: I was exposed to ‘Crosby, Stills, & Nash’ and ‘Déjà vu’ by CSN&Y early on and I still consider both of those records to be perfect. Neil Young is a major musical role model for me. The album ‘Dusk at Cubist Castle’ by The Olivia Tremor Control was one of the first more recent experimental psych pop albums I heard and it had a big impact on my musical taste. I’m also really into Television Personalities and other early Rough Trade stuff. More recently I’ve really enjoyed White Fence and other rock bands from that scene, knowing that music like that can still come out and thrive is really motivating to me. I actually just packed my record collection up as I’m in the process of moving to Asheville, NC. It took 10 boxes (not including 7″ singles). Not sure how to feel about that.
Can you trace me back to your first encounter with music? What were the first instruments you learned to play? How did your fascination with sound develop?
BA: Growing up my parents would play ‘Fox 97.1’ in the car. It’s been a long time since that was a radio station but at the time they played lots of 60s pop music, so like Motown and psych/ folk rock stuff. I was really into CCR and had a ‘best of’ cassette that I played all the time. I took some piano lessons when I was pretty young, then later started playing bass. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I really started seriously playing the guitar. Music was always around when I was growing up and my dad and brother both played guitar, so that definitely drew me to making music. My dad wrote folk songs and so usually when he would pick up his guitar he would play originals (as well as some choice Dylan songs and the like). Because of that I’ve always viewed instruments as a means of writing music rather than learning music by others. As I got older I started delving deeper into the history and various movements of music over the last 50 years and I try to take my favorite sounds from my favorite bands/albums/songs and blend them together.
You operate the RTA Collective, which features your cassette and CDR releases along with your visual art and recordings made by friends. When did this begin? This labour of love must be a great creative outlet for you and all done with the inspiring DIY aesthetic. What are the latest releases and what are the upcoming releases for 2014?
BA: Technically I started using that name in 2009 to self-release a cd-r of the heavy post-rock music I was making at the time, although I never actually finished the packaging so it was never released. I did one other cd-r summer 2010 under my own name. I started putting out tapes late 2010/ early 2011 in order to co-release the first Axxa/Abraxas album with my friend (and touring guitarist) Brian’s label. I’ve been expanding it ever since and it has become a collaborative effort as I do art that I feel captures the vibe of the awesome music that my friends make. The last batch of tapes included a tape by me as A.X. which has the synth music on it used for the upcoming Captured Tracks album, as well as tapes by mill, Aprotag, and electronic oddity DJ Mickey. Once I get settled in at my new place in Asheville I’ll be getting a bunch of new tapes out, all music by my friends and I. There’s gonna be new DJ Mickey and Aprotag as well as a tape by my touring organ player Joe’s synth project Subtle Body and some poorly recorded, raunchy punk music, Flaccid Blast, which I play guitar in.
What are your hopes for 2014, Ben?
BA: Now that I’m in Asheville, where my band is, we’ll be practicing to get ready to do some tours after the album drops. In the meantime I’ve got about an album and a half of songs written that I need to record demos for and I’ve got the next few batches of RTA tapes to keep me busy. Basically I’m just trying to stay productive and keep doing the things I love doing.
‘Axxa/Abraxas’ is available on 4 March on Captured Tracks.