The last year has been tough for Gordon Ashworth.
During that time, the prolific noise and experimental musician, who records under his own name and as Concern and Oscillating Innards, has had to deal with the end of a romantic relationship, the slow demise of his death metal band Knelt Rote, and having his life upended by the rapid changes happening in his adopted home of Portland, Oregon. The emphasis on luxe apartment complexes and real estate has kicked up the cost of living in the city exponentially and forced the demise of many of the punk houses that Ashworth performed at and lived in. With the arrival of Uber, even his ability to earn a decent living as a cab driver has taken a huge hit.
While all of this may be forcing Ashworth to consider transplanting himself, it hasn’t sapped his creative energies at all. He recently released cassette The One You Love & Cannot Trust, released on his own label Iatrogenesis Records, finds him further exploring his interest in folk music through acoustic guitar improvisation and sound collages using field recordings and clattering percussion. At the same time, Ashworth has started a new imprint, Olvido Records, through which he intends to unearth lost gems of non-Western music, starting with an LP of recordings by a mysterious Greek rembetika artist known only as A. Kostis.
Ashworth recently sat down with FACT before taking off on a two month tour of Europe to discuss his new album, his new label, and his possible exodus from Portland.
What can you tell me about this new label? Have you always had an interest in bringing archival recordings like A. Kostis back to light?
Yeah. I’ve been releasing noise music, mostly on tape, for a long time. For more than 10 years. I have a lot of musical interests that have nothing to do with the kind of music I perform or the circles I’m in. I’m a vinyl collector and a huge fan of old music from all over.
Sometimes you just hear things you become obsessed with and you think, “Why isn’t the whole world also obsessed with this?” and “Where has it gone? And can I help?” The Kostis thing happened when I heard one song from this guy, and then I just had to go deeper and deeper and I realized there was like, one song scattered throughout compilation CDs. And you know, there’s plenty of other great stuff on there, but there’s just something special about those Kostis recordings.
I realized that there were 12 songs and that would be a perfect LP and nobody’s done it. I got really lucky getting in touch with friends in Athens, like Dimitris Kourtis was a big help, and Tony Klein who wrote the liner notes and tracked down the original discs. There’s this whole mystery aspect to the record, who actually did the recordings and who plays on them, because it was under a pseudonym and barring us completely solving the mystery, I couldn’t be happier about what he was able to and what Dimitris was able to do, and the photographs we got. So, yeah, I’m extremely excited about it, especially as a first release.
How long have you had this fascination with non-Western music?
I’ve been interested for a long time. It took me digging deeper and deeper and kind of connecting the dots. I got into Cuban music through Congolese music from like the 50s and 60s which was hugely influenced directly from Cuban music from the 20s and 30s. That took a while for me for some reason. The Cuban sound just eluded me, and once I found that, I started connecting all the dots between just the history of music and crossover influences from other cultures.
I definitely don’t glorify it because a lot of it, especially coming from disadvantaged parts of the world, it was associated with and in context of horrible violence and racism and inhumanity. It’s really important to be aware of that. Greek music, too, because a lot of Rembetika comes from catastrophe, refugees coming from Smyrna and these real difficult conditions. I try not to romanticize it aside from the fact that it’s beautiful music. but an important part of the label is really trying to understand that context and not shy away from it.
How do you relate this to your interest in making noise music?
I don’t really know. I mean, any music that I’m obsessed by, I definitely study it and really try to pick apart all the elements that I can. Not just musically or rhythmically or lyrically but also tonally and sonically. The different textures and different production techniques and eras and places and playing styles. My music has mutated more into the realm of folk, a hybrid of folk and noise and drone and these other influences. So I feel like it’s becoming a little more apparent in my music.
“A bizarre, abstract impression of folk.”
Was there a point where there was a big shift in bringing these folk influences into it, or was that sort of a gradual process?
It was pretty gradual. The earliest stuff I did as Oscillating Innards was really abrasive, hardcore stuff. I started recording instrumental acoustic guitar music and self-releasing that on tape around 2004 or 2005. It was really one-off side project things under my real name. Then as I started to mutate more as a musician in the more recent years, it’s become more direct and apparent influence.
But the record that my brother put out last year [S.T.L.A., released on the Orindal imprint] that’s definitely like the gauntlet. A bizarre, abstract impression of folk. From there it’s become a natural direction, an extension of those influences and sort of internalizing them and putting them through the ringer and bringing them back out.
Even with your harsh noise stuff, there’s a meditative quality to it with the use of drone. Is that something that you recognize and emphasize?
The drone aspect is really important and that’s always been there. I definitely gravitate towards folk and traditional musics that incorporate drone and that have that kind of repetitive cyclical feeling. I’ve done a lot of drone as Concern over the years. That’s a fundamental part of my music, and will continue to be.
With any of the stuff that you do, is it very mapped out or plotted out or is it all improvisational?
[The One You Love & Cannot Trust] is all improvisation and all the playing is improvised. I view it as a bridge between more fleshed-out and composed albums. It’s working with some newer elements like the more blatant folk stuff and also some personal developments in manipulating sound and experimenting with textures. Certainly for an album, there’s definitely a lot of composition and planning and it’s generally more concept-driven With his release, it’s thematically very concept driven but as far as the playing goes, it’s not. It’s very open and free.
What sort of concepts were you exploring with this new release?
It’s really personal [laughs]. It’s about a really difficult year and a lot of self-examination and really trying to understand… it’s very self-referential, and the cover is a self-portrait. It’s really heavy handed and on the nose, which I’m fully aware of and definitely exploit and have a sense of humor about. But yeah the cover, the title, and all the track titles are all very self-referential and just documenting a difficult time and trying to understand it.
DIY is a huge element of your career and music: putting out these records on your own and doing a European tour where you’re taking busses and trains. Where does that drive come from?
Much of it comes from punk, that self reliance and developing your own community and network, and uh, just doing as much as possible that you can just so that you’re not paying other people to do things that you could do yourself. My parents were definitely real hard workers. My mom’s a nurse and my dad was laid off a number of times growing up.
I grew up in an area that was absorbed into what is now Silicon Valley. It was really brutal watching that transition happen and young yuppies that were willing to work for less come in and take away jobs from people like my dad who’d been working for a company for 20 years. Just seeing my dad really struggling to push through difficult situations certainly influenced me. But also growing up and playing in grindcore bands and being in that scene really pushed the sense of self-reliance.
“My current home is under vague threat of being torn down and gentrified.”
I did want to ask about the end of Knelt Rote, your black metal band, and what that means to you to have that project come to a close?
I should say that it’s very uncertain. There’s not necessarily a finality right now. Our current drummer, who is our second drummer, Elias Bloch, recently moved out of the country for work, which we totally accept and respect. But it’s been something that’s been a big part of my life for a number of years and has developed more and more and something I really appreciate.
We’re in the process of recording an album right now and we’re intending to at least tour Europe in the next couple of years, but there’s really no certainty at all. I’m most likely not gonna be living here [in Portland] by the end of the next year. Eli will be out of the country.
We’re embracing the change and not fighting it and just doing what needs to happen in everyone’s lives. We’re not completely abandoning it but we’re also prioritizing our own lives right now. It’s interesting because this has coincided with my job falling apart, a long term relationship falling apart, the house, my former home falling apart, and my current home being under vague threat of being torn down and gentrified.
We’re the last big punk house and they just put in 16 $2000 apartments across the street just this year. So there’s all these signs that feel like it’s really a time for change and that all the things that are really tying me this town are all dissipating all at once all within a year. There’s definitely an emotional aspect that makes me want to fight it and try to revive the things that brought me and made me happy to be here but at the same time it just seems like the writing is on the wall and the most healthy thing is to move on.