Keepin’ It Real with Axxa/Abraxas

If you haven’t heard it yet, Axxa/Abraxas’ debut, eponymous album that hit shelves last March is catchy as hell. The lo-fi, psych-pop record emerged from the mind of 23-year-old Ben Asbury, who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta and whose affable goofiness has him reminding me of the laid-back Travis from “Clueless”—but with longer hair.

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Prior to getting signed to Captured Tracks and recording his first full-length record, the now-Asheville, North Carolina local released tapes on his own label, RTA Arts CollectiveAxxa/Abraxas (which Jarvis Taveniere of the band Woods helped produce) is an electrifying listen that takes us straight to the 60s, from the falsetto-heavy “Going Forth” to the ultra-fuzzy “On the Run.”

Asbury and his band recently kicked off their tour with fellow label-mates Beach Fossils and Heavenly Beat last week, so we caught up with him before the show at Baby’s All Right to chat about his music.

How’s it going? Do you have any plans aside from the shows while you’re in New York?

We have some good friends we always stay with in Clinton Hill, so we’ll hang out with them a bit, swing by the Captured Tracks store, and accidentally spend way too much money on records since we get a discount.

Right, I know you’re a pretty avid record collector. What are some recent favorites you’ve picked up?

I got a record by Miles Davis called Agharta from the mid-’70s. It’s really psychedelic. I’ve been digging a lot of Frank Zappa, just got one when I was in Asheville called Weasels Ripped My Flesh. That one’s pretty weird, it’s kind of all over the place. Most of Zappa’s stuff is like that, like tongue-in-cheek, asshole humor…incredibly talented band members just doing really crazy shit. He’s a really interesting musician, arranger of music.

Would you cite him as an influence?

I’ve only been listening to his stuff since some of my bandmates in Asheville got me into him when I moved up there in the beginning of the year, so maybe sometime in the future. It would be tough to pull off what he pulls off. You need a really tight band that you can just control like puppets—that’s essentially what he did.

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So the album was released in March; what have you been up to since then? How are you feeling now with the passing of all the initial excitement?

I’m ready to get the next record out. I’ve written and demoed a lot of stuff and also have been touring quite a bit. So we did like an East Coast thing right after the album came out, and we were on tour for a bit this summer with the band Amen Dunes and did a whole U.S. tour with them. So it’s been tiring. I’ve been busy, but I’ve been creative. I’ve been painting a lot, too.

You do silkscreen printing, right?

Yeah, last year when the record was recorded and the album was signed, I was working on a really huge project that ended up being 26 different silkscreen fabric pieces that I sewed together into a tapestry. [Captured Tracks founder] Mike Sniper has one that he said they’re putting up in the new office, and they used one in Athens, Georgia as a window display when the record came out. I’m gonna make a couple more. But this year I’ve just been painting. I make canvasses myself and do a lot of shapes and colors.

What’s the weirdest or craziest thing that’s happened while touring?

The best thing that happened that was weird because you wouldn’t expect it is that when our van did break down the people that fixed it stayed open and didn’t charge us for labor. They stayed up like an hour or two waiting for a part. I think that’s weird. We also had a pretty wild time in San Francisco last time we were there. After our show there, Mac DeMarco showed up.

He’s everywhere! He’s like the Bill Murray of indie rock.

Yeah we run into him all the time. I think Dustin [of Beach Fossils] was saying he’ll be here tomorrow. But he toured with Amen Dunes also, and he showed up, and we went and got really awesome burritos at this placed called Cancun in the Mission District, and we were really just doing some weird shit on the streets, and I lost my Ray-Bans. I guess it was worth it. I had too much fun. Lots of good camaraderie. They’re some really fuckin’ weird dudes. You just gotta embrace it.

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So back to the album—tell me about some of its influences, whether in sound or ideas.

I’m influenced by a lot of singer-songwriters, particularly Neil Young. Those songs are written over a long period of time, so my influences change from month to month. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. I know that working with Jarvis in the studio had a big effect on how I thought about arranging, so I think that comes across a lot on the album in terms of how I do things differently in actual studios than I would at home, and that’s affecting how I do stuff now.

Could you talk a little bit about one or two of your favorite songs on Axxa/Abraxas?

The first song is called “Ryan Michalak (Is Coming to Town).” It’s about a friend of mine from college who moved up to New York. We’re actually staying with his former roommate. He’s in Vietnam now, just traveling around Asia. He quit his job and is just indefinitely there until he runs out of money, I guess. But he graduated from college a few years before the rest of us, and he was coming down for the first time after he moved to New York, and I was like, I’m going to write a song, and it’s going to be ready for you when you get here. It was kind of a joke at first, but I ended up liking it a lot.

The song “I Almost Fell”… I recorded the original version of that, and the first version came out on a cassette tape me and my buddy Ryan—who plays bass tonight—co-released like three or four years ago. Then I self-released a tape with some stuff, and that had a second version of that song. And the version on the album is actually the third version, and it just happened to be the one they wanted to use as the first single.

What’s your favorite song to play live?

That changes a lot. I’m really stoked about how we’re about to start—this is the first time we play live like this. We’re playing “On the Run,” which is normally super fast, real different tonight, like super slowed down and really psychedelic. And really extended jams—we really enjoy jamming that out. I think right now I’m most excited to play that. “Painted Blue” is always fun to play too. Pretty much any one that I can shred on the guitar at the end, I really like playing live. A lot of the stuff live I just improvise for however long until I feel like it’s probably getting old to people. I think it’s super important that the crowd gets a different experience. I know I’m bummed out—even if I see a band and they play amazingly—if they sound like they do on the album…like, I could have just listened to the record at home.

So I read that you studied religion in school and wanted to ask if you yourself are religious or if it influences your music-making in any way.

Yeah, I have a minor in religion. I really just find that stuff interesting. I think some of it goes into the lyrics in terms of religious philosophy. I’m not that religious of a person myself. I like to contemplate things, think about what the essences of people are, what life is, what’s your personal connection. I studied religion and sociology and psychology, and I feel like those all relate to everything around us, social situations, norms. Most of the lyrics on this record are a stream of consciousness…I started with a chord progression and then words eventually started forming. The next record the lyrics are a little more…I know what I’m saying when I was writing the lyrics.

Sounds great, can’t wait to hear it. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Just keep it real!

Ben’s WILD Wish:

That I don’t ever have to get a real job. I haven’t had a real job in over a  year now and am going to have to get one when I get back from tour. That’s a real bummer. If I could just focus on music and art all the time that would be great. And I want to tour with White Fence. Tim Presley is like my current favorite songwriter. The first thing I told my booking agent is that if you could ever get me on a tour with White Fence…that’s like your top priority.

 


text by: Claire Voon

photography by: Mallory Corr










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