[Interview] Axxa/Abraxas

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I spoke with Ben Asbury, the brainchild behind Axxa/Abraxas, on a picnic bench outside of the Complex Theater in Glendale, CA. He’s a pleasure to talk with, like a cerebral Spicoli that wails out onstage revivals. Our conversation drifts from origins, to songwriting, to racism in the South and the story behind his Captured Tracks signing.

Moxipop : So you’re from Athens, GA originally, correct?

Ben Asbury : I grew up right outside of Atlanta, but I went to college at UGA, so I lived there for four years. I’ve lived in Georgia until January when I moved to Ashville [NC] to be with my band.

MP : At what age did you start making music?

BA : Shit, I mean I was in elementary school when I took some piano lessons. First I started playing bass. My brother tried to teach me some power chords on guitar to play some punk music with him. My hands hands were too small, so he was like, “Well, here, play this bass. You only have to hold one string at a time.”

MP : I look at Georgia as having a great music scene in a lot of different kinds of ways. How was it growing up playing music in Georgia, and I guess Athens more specifically?

BA : Well, I really didn’t put myself out there too much until like a year or two ago. I was really just making stuff in my room, not really showing it to people. So it was cool, I grew a lot that way, but maybe a little slower than other people do that are playing out and have bands. I only had one band before this and it was like a middle school punk band that had like three practices, then we kicked our drummer out.

MP : So then I guess you started making music on your own. Is this the music you’re playing now with Axxa/Abraxas?

BA : More or less. I’d say the stuff that we’re playing now I started writing three or four years ago. I pretty much have always used instruments to write music rather than play other people’s music. At any given time I might know four or five songs by somebody else, but then I just won’t play em and I’ll forget em.

So then you organize all the instrumentation on all the music. This is your band.

Yeah. On the album I play everything except for bass and drums. Jarvis and Aaron from Woods played those, because Jarvis recorded that album. All but one [of the songs are] a three piece so it would have a little bit of a live feel. Then I just overdubbed everything else on top.

You have your own label, right?

Yeah, it’s a little tape label. It’s like noise music. I don’t promote it at all. It’s there for people to find it if they want.

Is there any connection between your label and Captured Tracks at all?

I mean, the stuff that was on the demos I sent them that they signed me off of I self released through that. On the record, all the spacey-sounding interludes come from a tape I self released. It’s the one that [Captured Tracks] reissued with the special edition. It’s all just synth-musings, outer-space jams.

One thing I noticed about your music is that you seem to have a knack for this catchy, classic-sounding rock while putting the listener in that ethereal head-space. Is that a conscious thing you’re doing?

I guess? Haha. I don’t know. I write in a really particular way. It’s like just me alone in my room, adding each instrument one at a time, and writing most of it as I go. Most of these songs I originally write as folk songs basically, just with an acoustic guitar. I’ll come up with a vocal melody and I’ll just be singing or saying whatever and eventually that’ll turn into some sort of words that the rest of the lyrics are based off of.

How has it been hooking up with a label, going through that whole experience, and working with Captured Tracks specifically?

They’re good people. Right now, they’re super fucking busy because they’re expanding like crazy. There’s been some personnel changes at the high up levels, people have been moving on to bigger gigs or more personal gigs. I’m really interested to see what the next few months is going to be like because we’re starting to think about when I’m going to be going up to record the next record.

How has you’re recent move to North Carolina been?

It’s awesome, I’m with all these dudes that I’m playing with. This is a little bit of a different band than the one I played with on the first tour. I have a couple extras so that I have people in terms of availability. It’s like six other people that I play with but we tour as a five piece.

So I guess moving there allowed you to play with this band more consistently, get things a little tighter.

I had four specific people that I was going to play with when I moved up there. That changed a little bit when I got there. I was like, “I can’t necessarily guarantee that all of these people are going to be able to tour as much as I’m trying to.” because right now I feel like that’s the thing to do when you first get out there, move around, get your name out there. Show people what you’re doing, you know. So I don’t want to make people feel stressed out and shit because they have school or something with their families and then feel obligated to have to come on every tour. I got backup people and we’re all good friends.

Since you’re from the South, what’s your most favorite Southern stereotype and least favorite Southern stereotype?

Hmmmm. That’s a tough one man. Most favorite, let’s see. Southern Hospitality is a good one, but that’s just for the most part true. Negative stereotypes, I mean, there is some racism down there, especially in the more rural parts. But it’s really not too bad beyond the things you see in every city in the US. The way that districts are set up so that poor areas and rich areas cause de-facto segregation, that sort of stuff’s everywhere.

In a lot of ways I think the South is less racist than a lot of other places because that’s where it all started for race relations in the US. There’s actually more interaction between the races that goes on there.

That’s true in the cities especially. In the rural areas, that’s where you do find some more backwards things, but even there I think, especially with the most recent generation, people are getting that it’s bullshit. Of course that sort of thing is always going to linger around for a long time. It’s something to be conscious of going in there because obviously there’s people down there that want to completely deny that it’s a thing and it’s very obviously still a thing, even if it’s just in the implications of past issues of racism and segregation that have led to current differences in opportunity.

From talking to you, it sounds like you were a person who more or less kept to himself with music for a long time. How did you make that transition? Has it been comfortable for you?

It’s been comfortable. It’s been surprisingly comfortable. It’s really kind of funny because, a year ago, I guess I’ll say this was a new year’s resolution or something like that, t that point I had self released two albums and an EP. The first album is more like free-form psych music, but the next one, a lot of the songs on the [Captured Tracks release] were on that one. So I was like, I have all this music that I’ve recorded and I’m not really doing anything with it, nobody really knows what I’m doing. Up till then I was cool with that because it was really personal. I was like, maybe I should at least get it out there and see if I can get a bigger label to put it out on tape or something.

I sent it to some labels, like Night People, a lot of smaller, pshychey weirdo labels and I didn’t hear anything back. I like a lot of the stuff on Captured Tracks and I was poking around the website and it said “We listen to all demos. We like tapes, but we prefer CDRs.” I had a singular CDR left and I was like, what the hell, they’re probably not going to get to it and if they do they’ll probably be like, “Oh this is another lo-fi dude making music in his bedroom.” So I sent it up there and I wrapped it up in a fabric print, the special edition comes with a fabric print, I do a lot of screen printing on fabric, put a little note in there with a track listing and my phone number and email address, probably wrote something weird on it.

It was like late February, early March, a few months had gone by and I’d kind of forgotten about it. I was working at a summer camp and there was terrible cell-phone reception out there, so I’m kind of off the grid, so I get text messages like 3-4 hours after they get sent to me. I’m in this room where we keep weird clothes to dress up in, because kids love that shit, and, for some reason, I got cell reception in this room for a second and I had a text message from a number I didn’t recognize from like three or four hours ago. I opened it up and it said, “Hey this is Mike from Captured Tracks. I’m really loving this CD you sent us.” And of course I’m like, “Holy shit! He thinks I’m ignoring him or something because it’s been like four hours and I haven’t responded.” And I was just like, “Hey thanks for checking out the demo. I’m really glad you’re liking it!” I didn’t know what to fucking say to that, you know. I didn’t hear anything back and I’m like, “Oh man, I blew it. Whatever. It’s not like I was anywhere before them.” Then he emailed me a little bit later and we emailed back and forth. He actually offered me a contract the same day he heard the demos, which is not something he does normally.

Did that happening get you ready to just get out there and do it?

I had started putting my music out there in Athens, selling my demos at Wuxtry Records, I’m a big fan of that place, they’re fucking awesome there. I put my tape in there, the clerks knew me because I was buying records there all the time. They listened to it and they started spreading the word about it. I sell more tapes from my label at Wuxtry than I sell online. They kind of got me into [the idea that], “Cool, other people are actually digging this when they’re hearing it and it’s not that weird to be putting myself out there.” But when that happened and Mike got back to me I was like, “Oh shit man, maybe I can actually do something with this beyond just it being a hobby.”

Originally we were talking about maybe me just remixing some of those demos and rerecording some, but a couple weeks later I got another text from him saying, “What do you think about coming up to New York and recording with Jarvis from Woods?” I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to. It’s not like I’ve been listening to Woods for like years now.” I think my friend had actually joked that, “You should demand to [have it recorded] at your house.” Which of course, by the time that was going on, he wasn’t living in that space anymore.

Since you mentioned that you do a lot of screen printing, are you trying to incorporate both your art and music as a total package?

All the art from the Captured Tracks release comes from a series of twenty-six cloth pieces I made over the [course] of last year. The LP actually comes with an art booklet, so that’s cool. All the stuff on RTA, I design all the art that goes into the cassette tapes and screen print all of those. It’s multimedia a little bit. I think there should be a strong visual aspect to any music thing because it sets the tone and helps you to get into what is going in the mind of the person creating it, whether it’s them creating the art and the music or them choosing the aesthetic to go with the art that someone else does. I very much like to be involved in the process of everything that goes into how things are presented.


Ben Levine is originally from Rockford, Illinois. He recently moved to Los Angeles after spending a year and half in the Israel Defense Forces. He has a degree in Russian and Religious Studies and enjoys hotdogs, Iceland, and live performance of all kinds. Follow him on Twitter @levineb and Instagram @tread_endznor.

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