April 22nd, 2011 | Published in Articles
To celebrate Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations’ fortieth birthday, Bang the Bore secretly rounded up as many of his associates, collaborators, fans and friends as they could find in pursuit of mapping one man’s contrary, bloody-minded and impossibly convoluted contribution to the margins of Planet Earth’s Psychedelic Underground. They contributed anecdotes, questions, named their favourite recordings and detailed the extent of the influence they’d taken from his work, all without his knowledge. Finally, in the embarrassingly grandiose style of This Is Your Life, we sprang the whole surprise on Phil Todd and Mel O’Dubslaine (the current AshNavs line-up) and invited them to comment back.
These are the results: a personal history covering twenty years of the UK-and-elsewhere’s most bizarre, unquantifiable and unclassifiable music, from some of its most bizarre, unquantifiable and unclassifiable contributors, including Stewart Keith (nee Walden), Chris Daniels, Pete Coward, Clive Henry, Matt Valentine, Aaron Moore, Alex Neilson and Paul Walsh.
This is part two of this two part feature. Click here to read part one, featuring Neil Campbell, Luke Vollar, Phil Legard, Daniel Spicer, Simon Morris, Robert Hayler, Laura Naycher and Jason Williams.
December 1995 – I first meet Phil Todd, at the 1-in-12 in Bradford, where Smell & Quim are performing.
Later that month, I’m in Stoke-On-Trent at a music party hosted by the other bloke in Phil’s excellent band Tea Culture. I play a solo set of novelty pop songs (“Right Said Fred” by Bernard Cribbins, “Funky Gibbon” by the Goodies, and so froth), Inca Eyeball play a set (including a song about me, which I missed because I was in the bathroom), and Ashtray Navigations play (I believe) their first ever live set – Phil plays guitar in his well-known style, and I’m the guest drummer, drumming on a leather case.
The next day, Phil, Joincey & me record an A Band tape, which turns out to be the very last A Band activity of the 20th Century.
August 2007 – The A Band have just remorphed/reformed, and our second gig is at The Gramaphone in London, where the headline act is Ashtray Navigations. It’s the final night (if I remember correctly) of their two-week tour of the UK. Phil plays percussion in the A Band, and then between our set and his headline set, half the audience leave and don’t come back.
Phil: I still have the tape of Stewart’s set, and I think we recorded two A Band tapes, actually. I’ve still got them, somewhere.
BtB: How many times have you played with the A Band?
Phil: In the 20th Century I think it was just that cassette. Since they reformed I think it was maybe two gigs with them. I might bring my tuba down with me to play with them at the A Fest.
BtB: Do you actually play tuba?
Phil: Nope. I can’t play it and it looks silly so it’ll fit right in with the A Band.
BtB: That’s pretty much the same as Tim Drage’s rationale for why he plays guitar in the A Band. Would that Bradford 1-in-12 gig have been the same occasion when you first met Neil?
Phil: Yep. That would have been it. That’s definitely the first time I would have met Stewart. I’d heard of him and maybe written to him.
Mel: That’s not the 1in12 video where Stewart turns up and does fire-eating?
Phil: No, I don’t think it’s that one.
Mel: That one’s pretty impressive. He was so thin!
Phil: I remember for that one Stewart had a list of things to do on stage according to the throw of the dice.
Mel: That whole Luke Reinhart thing.
Phil: Some of them were things like ‘Stage Dive,’ but then it got to things like, ‘Shove a bit of wood up your arse,’ or ‘Kiss every man in the audience and call the police.’ They all came up!
Mel: Did he actually shove a bit of wood up his arse?
Phil: I don’t think it actually went in.
Mel: Half the audience leaving is one of the hallmarks of a legendary gig.
Phil: I know that Stewart claimed that the A Band were Ashtray Navigations that night, which kind of works, because the A Band renames for each show to anything beginning with ‘A.’
BtB: So he stole your name before you went on?
Phil: Well, to be honest I came up with the name and thought I’d keep it because I could pass it off as an A Band thing.
Mel: I got paranoid that if I played with the A Band and he announced them as Astray Navigations then everyone might think that we’d played already and then they’d all go home after the A Band set, so I refused to play with them and just stayed off-stage.
Phil: So thank you, Stewart. You spoiled it for everyone. And no doubt will do again at Anonymity and Artlessness in a couple of weeks. Oh yeah, Stewart did play drums on a leather briefcase. It’s still in our basement. Maybe I could auction it, one day.
Mel (hopefully): One day really soon? As soon as you like.
Chris Daniels (www.chrispauldaniels.com)
I’m sorry to have missed Phil’s singing mermaid act, whenever that was.
Apart from them being completely supportive and generous to me as a person Mel and Phil have been a huge influence on me re-investing time into projects and pursuits that matter to me.
It took a while to sink in just how much Mel and Phil could talk passionately about experimental film makers such as Jeff Keen or George Kuchar and, looking back to my time in Leeds, I often learnt more through references from them during casual pub chat than at a lot of lectures when I went on to study at the Royal College of Art. They are a force for good in this world!
Mel: “I often learnt more through references from them during casual pub chat than at a lot of lectures when I went on to study at the Royal College of Art.” Why does this not surprise me?
Phil: I think you should spend more time in the pub than you should at art college.
Mel: Yeah, I agree with that wholeheartedly.
BtB: Did you guys ever go to art college?
Mel: I did. I did an MA in Fine Art.
BtB: How’d it work out?
Mel: Well, I’m not doing it now.
Phil: Right… now I’ve got to explain the singing mermaid act. Bridget from Vibracathedral and her housemate Yoko…
Mel: …who, funnily enough, I went to art college with, years before I met Phil…
Phil, making a gesture: … saw me doing this at a gig once – I hope the recorder is picking this up – and said “Phil looks like a mermaid!”
Mel, interpreting for the field recorder: Phil is tying his ponytail.
Phil: So they hatched a bizarre art plan where I would dress up as a mermaid and play the guitar on stage, and they would project a film of fish and sea things at me.
BtB: Was this filmed?
Phil: I have a tape of it, yeah. It’s not very clear, unfortunately. Or fortunately, depending on how you see it.
Mel: You’ve still got the costume, somewhere.
BtB: So we could attempt some kind of crappy All Tomorrows Parties Don’t Look Back-style reconstruction.
Phil: Me and Julian from Vibracathedral did some very good music for it. It was going to come out but it never did. We rehearsed this thing for bloody ages as well. It was at the Packhorse, we used to go up the Packhorse every Friday to practise this show, with me lying on the table wearing this fish tail and two women projecting things onto me. And apparently someone stole the projector at the Packhorse a few days before, so the police came up to investigate. Yoko was going to be a fisherwoman, so she had this big stick, so there was me in my mermaid costume and Yoko with this big stick raised above her head when the police came in. I just have visions of those coppers going back to the station and telling everyone, “Oh, lads, you wouldn’t believe what we saw today. Ah, the sickest thing…”
Pete Coward (bootlegger, Wire’s web developer)
So let’s talk about Tea Culture, specifically the three loosely-linked albums “Kwik Save’s Shopping In Asda’s Bags”, “Tesco’s Shopping In Sainsbury’s Bags”, & “Safeway’s Shopping In Co-Op’s Bags” (you spot the connection there?). I was reluctant to highlight these as I guess they are somewhat obscure entries in Phil’s ‘oeuvre’ (oeuf-ra?) and with AshNavs obscurity is neither merited nor sought, and certainly not to be wallowed in. But I get the sense that it is probably expected, much as Richard Youngs‘ No Fans is both a statement of defiance and of resignation…or indeed as Phil’s own valedictory fuck off from Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, “All Aboard The Good Ship Marginalia.”
And these CDs do spotlight a coupla aspects I love about Phil/Ash Nav… his ambition and his bloody-mindedness. The latter quality is shared by all the best bands & Phil has it in spades. Also his willingness to mine the depths of rock history for dead ideas & tropes to resurrect (and do it *right* this time) or else to give the corpse a good kickin’ and record the results. AshNavs were later to nail the Monument To British Rock… these three twisted motherfuckers are some kinda monument to provincial charity shop finds, Sunday tea-time listening round your nans’, disinterested late night channel hopping… the kinda stuff we did before drugs, you know? Dense, intricate, sinister/reassuring collages of b-movie/instructional video dialogue, samples of scratched MOR juke hits, cultural detritus that is now spewed forth via the great cultural leveller of the internet but of course Phil/Tea Culture was lowering our lowest common denominator long before then.
They are also reliable carriers of that WTF/how the hell/what just happened vibe that you get from the best AshNavs releases. They are short of Todd Rock God moments but I’m sure the other contributors will bring those to the table. And you can dance to them! That’s probably the winning point. You may stand a serious risk of injury while trying to do so but hell it’s worth it.
And they ooze Britishness, in the choice of samples, the lo-fi surrealism, the attention to domestic details (those titles!). The Britishness you love but feel constrained by, that ambivalent sense of patriotism engendered by knowing the best rock band in the planet is from Stoke. Puts me in mind of The Shadow Ring, Folkestone boys recording when I was living (barely existing) in a Folke-y bed-sit just down the road from them but never came in contact till Graham had buggered off to the states. Respect to you, Phil, for staying on these shores.
The concept? Fucked if I know and fucked if I care. “Tesco’s Shopping In Sainsbury’s Bags”? Ribena in red wine bottles? I just know it makes perfect sense to me.
Phil: There’s really nothing to add to that, because it really nails just about everything.
BtB: Do you feel as though it’s quite rare that people get what you do?
Phil: Yeah, especially because I can’t really put it into words myself. As far as I’m concerned it’s still in the process of becoming.
Mel: I think hours we’ve sat in the kitchen with Pete drinking Red Stripe and smoking endlessly might have elucidated things for him.
Phil: Yeah, I’m usually stoned when I’m round at Pete’s. I don’t know, I’d have to think about it, but right now I’d say that’s the best and most accurate review I’ve ever had. Even if he talks about Tea Culture mostly. Tea Culture was the first music project that I did before Ashtray.
BtB: Well, Pete’s a bootlegger. Maybe he’s been bootlegging your conversations around the kitchen table.
Phil: I’d never have put it that eloquently. That really is an incredible piece of writing. It really does illuminate everything.
BtB: How did you first run into Pete?
Phil: I don’t know, I have a feeling that he just started turning up to gigs and recording them, but I might know him from him ordering through Betley. But where I first spoke to him I really don’t know. All lot of the time you do gigs and talk to people and you’re usually on your way to the stage or from the stage, or you’re packing up your gear and you don’t really remember people.
BtB: Have you ever put out any of the recordings he’s made?
Mel: There was Live at Oto.
Phil: I’d put out more, but I get the feeling that I’ve put out rather too much live stuff over the last few years. Yet even more live stuff would be surplus to requirements. I haven’t actually played some of the things he’s taped, mainly because I thought, “Oh, god, that was a dreadful gig, I don’t want to hear it again.” But usually when you hear them again they’re fine.
But yeah, that’s absolutely what Tea Culture was about, and yeah, it does bleed into what I’m doing now. “All Aboard the Good Ship Marginalia” was a CD by me, Joincey and Andy Jarvis. A few months before I’d been down to the Rough Trade shop with a pile of my releases and the guy behind the counter looked at them and said, “Oh, this stuff’s all so marginal.”
Mel: What was in there? The first Wolf Eyes European release?
Phil: Yeah, I think it might have been…
Mel, sarcastic: Oh, it’s all so marginal. Why would anyone want to stock that?
Click here to download an MP3 of A Voulmn (from A MONUMENT TO BRITISH ROCK)
If AshNavs’ only contribution to the world was their music, that would be reason enough to celebrate them; but I admit that they occupy an exalted place in my world for other reasons. Though make no mistake about it, they’ve made some incredible recordings; and even in the truly egalitarian atmosphere of the home-taping/whatever scene as I remember it, I always thought they stood out from the pack.
But I confess that when I think of Ashtray Navigations, I straight away think of Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, a label and distribution run by Phil Todd. It wasn’t the only one – Kylie productions and Fisheye spring to mind – but it had an air of mystique about it. It really did seem like a gateway into another world.
Back in the legendary days before most people had easy access to the internet, flyers for zines and tape labels were passed around person to person; so I literally had a bag full of flyers and bits of paper and every time I sent someone a tape or zine or letter, I’d grab a handful and put them in. I’d receive them too, and that was how I first found out about AshNavs, via a flyer from a label called Muzamuza. I ordered AshNavs, Mlehst and Cathedra tapes from them, because they looked interesting.
So one day I got some tapes from someone and included was a scribbly, messy, photocopied booklet for something called Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers. I didn’t recognise a lot of the bands and projects listed in it, but I just knew that they would charm my ears. Truth be told, I probably didn’t order much from BWCD over the years – during that time I was trading tapes so frequently that I rarely clamoured for any more new music – but it stood as a good meeting point for so many small labels and projects across the entire world. An international trading post! These things were important: they linked people up, gave participants a wider perspective on what they were doing, and, most importantly, gave us easier access to Aube tapes!
My one brush with fame actually came via BWCD. I traded some copies of my Canister zine for the Harry Pussy “Live Fuck Love Songs” video (if you can conceive of a better trade, well… you can’t!), and in a later letter Phil told me that one of my zines had ended up going to a certain Thurston Moore.
Swoon. Thurston and I often chuckle about that…
Mel: Simon Morris still does that. He still puts hundreds of flyers in an envelope.
Phil: That’s how it used to be done.
Mel: But for gigs that you could never possibly get to and probably took place last week. I wish it was like that again. It was more fun. Were your early booklets very hand-written, then?
Phil: Well, you know. I didn’t have a computer.
Mel: You got into typesetting things, didn’t you? I’ve seen the later ones. They seemed quite professional.
Phil: They’re just on an electric typewriter.
Mel: They’re not scribbly messes, though.
Phil: Some of the early ones were, but I tried to make them look as clean as I could. Especially later on when there ended up being so much stuff in them.
Mel: I’d love to see Thurston Moore’s warehouse. He must have a warehouse.
Phil: He used to get a copy of bloody everything. Apparently he was going to set up a tape museum at one point a little while ago. Thurston’s own personal tape collection, that you’d pay to go and see or something. That’d be a good way of making money.
Mel: Free entry, five dollars to leave.
Phil: Don’t touch that Tea Culture tape!
BtB: You guys opened for Sonic Youth at one point, didn’t you?
Mel: I didn’t. I only joined relatively recently. Phil’s played with Sonic Youth, and his other band Inca Eyeball opened for Pavement. Apparently Pavement found Phil’s record in a bargain bin in America and played it and were like, “Wow man, when we go to England we want these guys to open for us.” That’s how things were done in those days. None of that pay-to-play bollocks.
BtB: These are Clive’s photos of a few of the early cassettes and fanzines (pictured right).
Mel: I haven’t seen that early Temple Guitars cassette. We’ve got a couple of them in the house, but not from quite this early on.
Phil: That’s my rubber stamp, that. On the top left. Made by Christina Lamb, from Brighton. She was a fanzine writer who made rubber stamps. I might still have that, somewhere.
BtB: Do you still have all the Betley stuff? Have you kept a copy of each?
Phil: Somewhere, yeah. It might be almost destroyed by black mould, though. I love that picture of the cats on the Temple Guitars cover.
BtB: Is this stuff all available in some form, at least?
Phil: No. Some of it might have been reissued. I could reissue some of it; I’ve got all the masters back now.
BtB: Neil Campbell said he was going to photograph his AshNav’s collection too, but he wimped out. He was moaning about the sheer amount of work it would take to get it together in one place, plus it might be too much stuff to fit into the frame. I should have offered to lend him my camera. It’s got a Panorama Stitch function.
Having a fave Ashtray recording is a bit myopic, but if I had to pick a one it would probably be his Nashazphone side. If it was inclusive of their entire discography, subjectively from all of what we own here on Maximum Arousal Farm, I’d say it might fall into a tug of nugs between “The History of British Rock”, “Bryan Adams in Tribute to C.R.A.S.S.” and the above mentioned jammer “Six Imaginary Scenes from the Life of Muhammad Al Aqil.” After all this is a man who doesn’t make it easy for ya and certainly isn’t capable of being catalogued. RA would be proud.
I’ve seen the unit play at least a half a dozen times and we’ve jammed together on occasion. Erika and I sat in with Phil and Mel once at a local ‘townie’ gig when they were on a US tour. Another real sweet moment was Phil absolutely RAGING on harmonica with the Golden Road during an extended version of our song “Canned Happiness” at a festival in Edinburgh. Al Wilson would be proud. I probably shoulda gave him my G harp for keeps after that, the kinda symbolism like when a noble country artist gives away their instrument as a gesture of the ultimate respect… a Johnny Cash to Dylan fantasy. I thought about it, but there was something about knowing “Phil wailed on this hohner” every time I put my lips to it.
Gotta say though, the ultimate love crush came for me back in 2006 when Phil broke out his Big Muff for some inspired big moments at a Whalley Range gig sitting in with MV & EE. I think the ultimate laser to my cerebral cortex was after he blasted a wild HIGH volume solo over one of our extended acoustic jams, actually that was the cadence of the whole set and we have killer tapes to prove it. We walked off stage feeling pretty victorious and he said something like “Imagine how good this could be if we rehearsed!” That redefined a key role in my attention to his art.
Snowy Vermont, Winter 2011
Mel: Matt’s actually made a blog about Phil, saying how much he loves Ashtray Navigations.
BtB: Is that the one that David Keenan did a recent submission for?
Mel: Yeah! That’s it, there’s two submissions on it, Keenan and Matt Valentine. Heh, I shouldn’t blow his cover, I quite like the fact he was anonymous. He’s posting under some Hindu name or something.
Mel: Does he mean A Monument to British Rock? Not A History of British Rock?
BtB: Should any of these be corrected?
Phil: Nah, don’t correct anything.
Mel: It’s Matt, it must be right. I like being called a “unit.” Like Frank Zappa’s kid.
Phil: I still think that about that time I played with him, that it would have been really good if we’d rehearsed it.
Mel: Oh, that one! This promoter put Matt Valentine on, Phil sat in with them when they played to a load of folk music fans, fans of ‘the new folk.’ The PA was feeding back fearsomely. They all ran for the hills with their hands over their ears, but it was a good gig.
Phil: There were a few freaks in the audience who stayed. It sounded nasty. I had a nasty borrowed amp, no reverb or anything like that. I had that stupid little travel guitar that makes a big racket. All the songs were in D as well, which was very good.
Mel: I remember one person in the audience likened it to something, probably some disparaging comparison to some rock band that you really like. Not Santana this time. Some greasy rock band that’s probably really fashionable now. The sort of thing you weren’t meant to like in 2006.
BtB: Have you still got those tapes?
Phil: I have, yeah. It was a good gig. Although the last song was cover of Powderfinger by Neil Young. I was meant to have walked off stage by the time they were supposed to start that one, because I didn’t know how to play it, but they just went into it, so I thought, “Oh, God, here I am on guitar, having to play a song that I don’t know how to play.” And I tried to do all the solo bits. I imagine if you listened to it it’s not going to sound as bad as it felt at the time, but at the time it felt pretty bad. Matt’s one of the best guitarists in America, I think.
BtB: How did you first hook up with them?
Mel: They played a Termite show.
Phil: Yeah, but I only spoke very briefly to Matt at the end of that. He admitted to me that he was an Inca Eyeball fan, which not many people would admit to.
Mel: Nobody would admit to that. Not even Inca Eyeball fans admit to that.
Phil: Not even the other member of Inca Eyeball would admit to that. Yeah, I met him briefly at the Termite show but I only really started talking to him properly at a later gig in Newcastle.
Mel: That was great, being sat in an old Newcastle pub with Matt Valentine, with a lurcher by the fire, drinking mead. Geordieland is ace.
Phil: I think MV & EE do that whole ‘reimagining of what rock music could’ be as well. There’s some kinship there, although they’re usually seen as being a bit more reverent than us. I don’t know if they are or not.
Mel: The other thing I hold in their favour is they’re the only Americans I’ve met who are really into real ale. They have total respect for British real ale.
BtB: I could introduce you to a few. Dad sometimes seems to have converted half the American Charismatic Church to real ale. He thinks it’s it’s his Calling is to redeem every beer in the world by drinking it.
Mel: Is God OK with this?
BtB: By Dad’s definition I think God is OK with a lot of things. Any more thoughts on Matt Valentine?
Phil and Mel, in unison: He rules.
Phil: He seems able to drink a hell of a lot of real ale without any ill effects whatsoever.
Mel: Almost as much as a Geordie. Well, it depends which Geordie. Almost as much as Joincey. There we go.
Many years ago, perhaps 1996, Phil Todd wrote to Volcano The Bear and offered to release something by us on his Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers label. For some reason or other this never happened, but fast forward to February 2009 and Mel from Ash Nav booked Anla Courtis and myself to play a show in Leeds. We stayed with Mel and Phil. It’s the first time I recall meeting him. Phil has a lot of information and is a knowledgable and friendly man.
Come October 2010 I was on tour in Europe with Amolvacy and we played the Incubate Festival in Tilburg, NL. AshNavs were also playing. We went to see them but couldn’t get in the tiny venue, so we listened from outside. It sounded pretty wild in there. Afterwards Phil and I discussed Tim Buckley circa ‘Starsailor’ and he told me that AshNavs were coming to New York later that month, so we kept in touch.
Phil arriveed in New York and gave me three Tim Buckley bootlegs circa ‘Starsailor.’ AshNavs played a great show at the Issue Project Room. On Halloween my ex and I had Phil and Mel round at our apartment in Brooklyn. We dressed up and went to a Halloween party which. The party wasn’t very good but Phil’s attempt at a horror costume was commendable, despite it being just fake teeth and a little fake blood (see photo).
The following week it was my birthday. Phil and Mel came to the party and ended up staying for the next few days as they were stuck and homeless. We hung out, went for walks and to bars in the neighbourhood. A pleasant time was had by all.
Fast forward to October 2010. Phil emailed me asking for my address as he remembered my birthday wanted to send me something. I was touched by the generosity and friendly nature of this gesture. Lo and behold a few days before my birthday a parcel arrived from containing a box of PG Tips, an AshNavs CD, a CDr of Iranian/Persian 45’s and a DVD of a This Heat concert. What a wonderful and generous man Mr Todd is. Thanks Phil, you’re a star.
Phil: Here’s the man who saved our lives in America.
Mel: I would have been eaten alive by rabid dogs in Central Park if it hadn’t been for Aaron Moore. I owe him my life.
Phil, on viewing Aaron’s photo (left): You’ve got the photo, hah! Aaron said I looked like Keith Connelly from the No-Neck Blues Band.
Mel: I’ve got those photos, they’re great. We went on a bus into town, but it didn’t matter because everyone was dressed up really stupidly for Halloween. But they couldn’t find a proper costume for me, and I just pulled together some odds and sods that they had lying around the house. I had some sort of papier mache hat on and painted my face white and I had yellow tights on. I got to this hipster party in Brooklyn and this girl asked, “What are you supposed to be?” And I replied, “I’m an alien.” Aaron’s costume was brilliant. He went as a defrocked priest.
Phil: He went as a priest, but he had all this rubber piping stuffed down his trousers. He was walking round Brooklyn wearing it, some guy shouted “Shame!” at him.
Mel: And then we were at this party and some guy came up to me and Aaron and said, “Hey, cool outfit. But may I ask, why does your penis have to be black?” He ended up having a big debate with this guy…
Phil: …and it was just the colour that the insulation happened to be. Aaron really did save our lives in America, because everything bloody went wrong. His house was a little refuge away from it all.
Mel: We kept ending up there. We tried to leave, but we just couldn’t. Everything else fell through, but Aaron was always there.
BtB: Can you remember what happened with the Volcano the Bear release intended for Betley?
Phil: I can’t remember. I did ask a load of people for things. No recollection of that at all. Pity it never happened, it would have been a good addition to the label.
Mel: Oh, I have to say something about their gig at the Termite Club February 2009. About a week before the gig the promoter asked, “So, you’re going to have a drum kit, right?” Which he hadn’t asked me before. I was thinking, “You never said nothing about no goddamn drum kit!” To hire a drum kit at that point would have cost me about eighty quid, which I estimated to be about twice as much money as we would actually take on the door. So I told him I was going to pull the gig, that they were welcome to stay at my house but that I didn’t really want to put the show on. If I’d had to hire a drum kit then I might as well have just given them eighty pounds for them not to play, so that I could at least be ahead. The promoter went a bit nuts and was like, “How dare you pull out! This is so unprofessional!” So I spoke to Aaron and Courtis and they were like, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Have you got some cardboard boxes there? We’ll play with that.”
Phil: Now that’s a real improvising musician.
Mel: When someone makes a generous offer like that, how can you refuse? So I told him alright, the show’s on, and I got him two cardboard boxes out of the cellar which he played with great gusto.
BtB: Well, he’s a great drummer.
Mel: Yeah, even on cardboard boxes, he’s a really great drummer. They stayed over after that, Aaron was really into me playing Fifties rockabilly.
Phil: I hope we do our mail collaboration one of these days. I should get things moving on that. He’s a very talented man. A very nice man, too.
Mel: A very, very nice man
When Sara and I moved to Leeds in 2009 we didn’t know anyone at all. Mel and Phil were undoubtedly the most welcoming people we met in the first few months. Clive (Henry) and I had invited them to play one of our shows in Southampton and they happened to be playing at Café Oto that same weekend, so we offered to drive them down from Leeds for both shows. Most people wouldn’t be willing to spend the weekend with a couple of strangers…
It’s been a pleasure to work through the stack of AshNavs CDs I’m amassing. I reckon it’s that attitude that keeps his music fresh and keeps the ideas coming in: you’d be hard pressed to meet anyone more engaged, enthusiastic and open-minded. He’s just as wild about forgotten soul, funk and pop music as he is Incapacitants or Polwechsel. He burned a dirty hurtload of AMM and MEV CDs for me about eighteen months ago, so maybe we can reunite Eddie Prevost and Keith Rowe through a shared hatred of piracy.
Whenever I see AshNavs perform I always sneak a peek at Mel’s set-up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use the same rig twice. I have a lot of time for that. She’s got a really good sense for how to develop an idea slowly and naturally; Phil’s brand of blown-out extended soloing on guitar or keyboards needs a slowly shifting atmosphere to give it context. Lazier musicians would fall back on looping devices. In a sense my experience of Phil is pretty indivisible from my experience of Mel… almost every compliment I could pay him could be equally applied to her.
The more I listen to relatively new releases (“Dirt Mummies and Bloody Amps”, “The Beak Stuck Out of the Snow”, “Ink Clouds and Axe Revealer”) as well as older discs (“Four Raga Moods”, “The Love That Whirrs”), the more I’m convinced that there’s nothing that a band like Acid Mothers Temple can offer that Phil can’t do just as well. Ashtray Navigations are certainly a hell of a lot more consistent.
Mel: I don’t think Phil ever uses the same set up twice either. You keep using that same guitar though. You’re so boring, Phil!
BtB: Ah, the guitar’s a distraction, you see. You tend to pay more attention to someone’s rig if they’re not using a conventional instrument.
Mel: I find everything’s becoming conventional, including pedal set ups. You get certain pedals that people seem to like, and you can really hear it. “Oh, there’s that pedal again…”
Phil: I don’t have a pedal board, you see. So I just use what I used for the immediately preceding practise.
Mel: One day I’ll patent my Noise Table. You’ve got your Black & Decker Workmate (gestures to the Workmate in the corner with guitar pedals velcro’d to it)… but for most people, you get to a gig and there are no tables. So you have to lug some cast iron monstrosity across the room. If there’s a whole gig’s worth of noise musicians you end up fighting over three tables. I just think you should have a fold-up aluminium table that you can take to shows.
BtB: Totally agreed. I see them in DIY stores all the time.
Mel: Or camping shops.
BtB: They’re dirt cheap!
Mel: All you’d need is some clips for wrapping cables around, then you could patent them as Noise Tables. £59.99! You’d make a fortune.
Phil: The time for that has passed. You should market them as Hypnagogic Tables these days. With a swirly picture of Chris DeBurgh on them.
Mel: And a pyramid! Chris DeBurgh on a pyramid.
BtB: The good thing about Workmates is there’s all the holes that you can feed Velcro and cables through.
Mel: Even if you manage to get a table in a pub, it’s always just this plain square or circle and the cables are going everywhere. Maybe I should get a Workmate.
BtB: Mine was only about twelve quid.
Mel: Ah, but the weight of them. They’re quite heavy, aren’t they? I wouldn’t be able to just carry that everywhere. I’m trying to think of something more portable, if you don’t drive. The aluminium fold-up camping tables would be ideal, if they were modified.
Watch the video below for Alex Neilson’s contribution…
BtB: If this was a Wire Invisible Jukebox you’d have got top marks for recognising your music at the start almost instantly.
Phil: It sounds really good. I don’t think we even have a tape of it. Yeah, I remember that bit at the end. The dog walked on the keyboard and set the demo function off.
Mel: It sounds like “Venus” by Bananarama. Billy the dog is great. He’s acutely deaf and was bemused by all the people in the house.
Phil: He’s drawn to music because of the vibrations. I couldn’t keep the dog away from me while I was playing.
BtB: Can you remember when you first met Alex?
Phil: I didn’t meet him at that Sonic Youth concert but I remember that band. I met him when he was opening for Vibracathedral with his old band, Aste, which was his band with Chris Hladowski. They were really good.
BtB: So was Alex actually a member of AshNavs at one point?
Phil: Yeah. He’s on “The Love That Whirrs CD”, and the triple LP.
Mel: And “Four More Raga Moods.”
Phil: He’s on quite a lot of them, we recorded a lot of stuff together. What he said was spot on, we just used to go to the basement and start playing without any discussion, and half the equipment would be broken.
Mel: The washing machine would leak, that was in the basement too. The basement would be full of water, all the carpet tiles would be coming off the floor. And it stank.
Phil: It was good, though. It was a really productive basement for playing with Alex. With the worst drum kit you can imagine, which he made sound really good.
Mel: All the good bits of that kit ended up taken away by the original owner.
Phil: I wish he’d come back for the crap bits, too.
Mel: I love his playing style. He’s so adaptable and he really listens. His music’s like water. It just fills in all the gaps. He can be exactly where he needs to be to make something work.
Phil: He’s a drummer with his own volume knob as well, which is very rare.
BtB: We played a Hunting Lodge show with him and David Keenan as the Tight Meat Duo in Bristol, along with Raccoo-oo-oon. He was outstanding.
Phil: I enjoyed playing with David Keenan. I played guitar, he played saxophone in something.
Mel: Wasn’t that the Tight Meat Quartet?
Phil: I think it was the Tight Meat Trio.
Mel: There was that bass player George from the Glasgow Improvisers who was really good. Phil sat in on guitar. That was a pretty fun night, I’ve got some photos of that somewhere.
I’ve seen AshNavs play a far too small handful of times. I don’t get out much or travel far when I do, so most have been in Leeds… but the most memorable occasion for me was closer to my physical and spiritual home at the Dewsbury Socialist Club.
Booked as part of a Burns Night electronica spectacular Ashtray Navigations kicked off with a crazy Disco Duck loop which warped into a grand wailing wall of guitar and synth tones. The slightly dodgy PA didn’t really do them justice and I’m sure they won’t look back on it as one of their finest half hours but for me the venue was perfect, the beer good and the vibe spot on.
Mel: You know Paul’s musical history, don’t you?
BtB: I only know him from Early Hominids.
Mel: He was in Smell & Quim. He left just about when Neil Campbell was joining. He seemed lost forever; nobody had any contact with him or knew where he was. But Neil Campbell used to get the train to work with him every day, because bizarrely they live in the same town, and he saw him reading Lords of Chaos on the train. And Neil was thinking, “Nobody his age would be reading Lords of Chaos, it must be Paul.” So eventually he went up and asked, “You’re Paul from Smell & Quim, aren’t you?” It was so weird… if Neil hadn’t got the same train as him we might never have seen him again. Glad we did, because he’s a really nice guy. Hell, can he drink!
Phil: I never met him in those days, but I used to order from him. He used to run the Stinky Horse Fuck distribution. He and Dave had separate addresses on the adverts, but it was always Paul I used to order from. I’d stand by his description of that gig. It wasn’t that good, but it was great to play the Dewsbury Socialist Club.
Mel: It’d be great to go back there again, as long as we didn’t get beaten up by old women. We turned up and they’d be watching You’ve Been Framed on a massive telly. We soundchecked and I looked up and there was an old woman in a pink jumper sitting at the bar with a look of horror on her face that said something like, “This is my bar and I will fight you!” Luckily some of her relatives came and bundled her into a taxi and took her home before we played so that she didn’t kick off.
Phil: We really spoiled You’ve Been Framed.
Mel: How many people can you see fall into cakes before you get bored?
Click here to download an MP3 of One Year Medicine Head (from JOHNNY FUCKOFF MINOTAUR)
Click here to read part one of this two part feature, featuring Neil Campbell, Luke Vollar, Phil Legard, Daniel Spicer, Simon Morris, Robert Hayler, Laura Naycher and Jason Williams.