Joe Ashton is big; 6-foot-5 and tortured. You don’t want to tell him that his band—well, his one-man musical endeavor—sucks. At least, not to his face. Good thing that’s not called for this evening. That is to say, Ashton’s “band,” the electro-industrial Phono, is sufficiently left of suck status. Even if he did suck, and you shouted it up to his lofty countenance, he’d likely just write a song about it and move on.
After only five minutes in his presence, it’s obvious that’s the kind of guy Ashton is. The puzzle is how, on Phono’s newly minted CD Dementia, he seems to hurt so well and recover so adroitly, only to break down and watch the cycle repeat.
“The song ‘Dementia’ was a rebuilding process, emotionally, for me. I had a bad experience that left me completely drained, physically. I thought I was really sick and didn’t think I could recover, but I finally realized most of it was in my head and I started to rebuild. The lyrics, ‘Dementia’s done stripping down dreams of ecstasy, worn down and full of regret/I’ll face the fears I made/Forcing my eyes wide open to see and live the same,’ are me forcing my eyes open. Most of the songs were ground-zero points in my life. I wanted to reflect how I’d been sick or pissed and rebuilt.”
Given the sole-proprietary nature of Phono, there is no real this-member-enlisted-this-member or these-dudes-met-in-preschool anecdote by which to acquaint you. Phono didn’t necessarily form; it manifested as the three faces of Joe Ashton. The perfectionist, hell-bent on justice for his vision (he’s on his seventh drummer); Joe the Performer, a beast reliving the emotions of his songs onstage; and Average Joe, much-needed mouthpiece for each.
Phono’s story—however simple and, in this city, common—is that of a solitary kid growing up rock in Osmond country. Unique to his tale, at least when taken in tandem with stories from most local musicians, is he won’t balk at bitching about it. Like most kids who listened to rock & roll, when he’d cop to it, his pals’ pious parents would snub him.
“Every time I told someone about the music I liked, like Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails or Queen, people would totally shun me. They wanted everyone to listen to hymns; everyone had to be the same.”
Music, says Ashton, a drummer since age 8, was his retreat from hymn-ogenization. He’d play any instrument he could get his hands on, teaching himself in scant days to manipulate them, technique be damned, to make sounds that suited his needs. Over the years, he’d learn to construct and compose sonic self-portraits and catharses. At age 15, he met the man who introduced him to the recording aspect and helped him flesh out songs.
“He sold me my first four-track. It was a piece of crap, but we were just screwing around, layering tracks and messing with different vocal ideas. It was a good way to practice.”
The screwing around became serious over the ensuing years. Ashton’s songwriting progressed quickly (Dementia is very much like the industrial sonic tapestries of his influences, Nine Inch Nails, Enigma and Aphex Twin) and so did his game plan. In late 2001, he assembled a band, which began playing shows in 2002 on beer-soaked local club stages and festivals such as Utah Pride Day. He created a website, www.PhonoOnline.com, as a hub for fans to commune and sample his wares. In February, he released the Lotus EP and this week launches Dementia, re-recordings of Lotus tracks alongside new tunes, with a show at Gravity (formerly Zipperz) and a listening party/meet-and-greet/autograph-signing at Sanctuary the following night.
Meet-and-greet? Autograph-signing? Maybe someone should tell the big fella to slow down.
“I just think if you put forth a big presence and show what you think you’re capable of, any labels interested will see I have all my stuff in place. I want to make huge first steps instead of baby steps. Another answer would be to say, ‘Why not?’”