Chris Ashford Interview
This interview, conducted by Chuck Foster [circa 2009], originally appeared on Horror Garage, but is show here in its entirety for readability:
Over 30 years ago, Chris Ashford kick-started the Los Angeles DIY punk movement when he released a 7” by some young friends called The Germs. His label, What Records?, would go on to release some great singles by seminal L.A. bands. In the early ‘80s, Ashford changed the label name to Iloki and focused on surf music. Now he has Wondercap Records, an avant-garde jazz label whose roster includes some names from the old L.A. punk days.
I spoke to Chris on the phone to chronicle his career from What to Wondercap and to gain some personal insight into L.A. punk, the music industry and life in general.
Horror Garage: What was going on in L.A. in the late ‘70s, right before punk rock happened? What was the mood, the vibe around Hollywood and Los Angeles?
Chris Ashford: Well, that’s an interesting one to ask because, obviously, L.A.’s so spread out, so everybody’s a little different.
HG: As it pertains to you. What were you doing?
Chris Ashford: I was just out of high school; I graduated in ’75. From a personal level, I was just kind of floating for a little bit to see what I was going to do, but I had become pretty good friends with Georg and Paul, a.k.a. Pat Smear and Darby Crash, from working in a record store. They used to come in and I used to talk to them a lot. We had a lot of common ground because we all liked Iggy Pop. Glitter was just dying out at that point — ’73 to ’76, that era was pretty heavy into glittery type stuff. As much as The Stooges are “The Godfathers of Punk,” they were still lumped into that era, with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, The New York Dolls and stuff like that. I think we all grew up in such a way that we didn’t want to hear Fleetwood Mac and that kind of stuff on the radio. So we were all reading the magazines and we’d hear bits and pieces from New York about bands like The Ramones and, obviously, from overseas, The Sex Pistols. There were magazines like Trouser Press, and even Creem would have articles about the stuff before it really got onto vinyl, or as it was just about to. I think everybody was just sick of the rock star stuff or the disco stuff. We used to go hang out in Hollywood and see bands and hang out in clubs and various other things that youngsters do. I think Hollywood was a more centralized area because the Sunset Strip was still happening. The Whiskey was still very active and The Roxy was very active. I guess at that point it was Filthy McNasty’s – they didn’t have much, but they had a little bit — and Gazzarri’s was still there, so that whole west side of the Sunset Strip was still a pretty happening area for a lot of different types of shows. Santa Monica Civic, on our end of town, used to have a lot of big shows and we all went to see The Tubes and Queen.
HG: What kind of stuff were you listening to at that time?
Chris Ashford: Gee, I was rather fucked up and had a lot of records. I worked in record stores and I had access to all this stuff. I’d listen to anything from The Stooges to Tanya Tucker — I’d drive people all kinds of crazy! I was really getting into that early Jonathan Richman stuff, we all listened to Iggy, but Raw Power came out in ’73 and Kill City was the only thing that really came after that until he finally went solo. I’d always been a big Doors fan, so I followed Ray Manzarek’s solo stuff. I went to Anaheim and saw Merle Haggard. I just didn’t like the mainstream rock stuff that we always hear. Everybody always kind of makes fun of Rodney Bingenheimer, but Rodney was really instrumental in playing a lot of interesting stuff back in those days on KROQ. I had the dark side, too. I liked John Cale and Kevin Ayers…
HG: Velvet Underground?
Chris Ashford: The Velvet Underground, but they weren’t really going at that point. Early Roxy Music…
HG: Lou Reed?
Chris Ashford: Lou Reed, absolutely! Patti Smith was a big deal. I saw her the first time she played L.A. at The Roxy. Incredible stuff. It was kind of the edge of what was coming.
HG: What was going on in the mainstream that turned you off?
Chris Ashford: Well, we really didn’t need to hear Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours again. They could “go their own way” for all I cared. It was heavy disco, still a heavy influence from things like Boston and southern rock, a lot of guitar hero-y kind of stuff. Led Zeppelin was still going, I guess…
HG: Barely, on one leg.
Chris Ashford: Yeah. But when Devo came to L.A., which is not punk rock, they were certainly very different from what had come before. Bands like that were actually very influential to changing things and seeing something different. But going to high school, it was just Led Zeppelin, Elton John, The Eagles, which, God knows we needed another record by them. You get the idea.
HG: What was it that attracted you to the stuff that you liked?
Chris Ashord: Well, I think part of my personality was that I had kind of a — like who else in L.A. didn’t — a semi-screwed-up family life [laughs]. The Stooges always had that teenage angst. When you’re young you like that energy and that power, hence Raw Power — it was a perfectly named record. That kind of stuff really fit a big part of my personality. And I used to listen to things like Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart and David Peel and The Lower East Side, so I definitely was attracted to really screwy things, but then on the flip of it, I was really attracted to the country music of the time, too, because country music was always like cheatin’ and fuckin’ up songs, and you think, “Whoa, yeah! This is Middle America! They’re all fucked up like we are, just in a different way!” So I think a lot of it was that the norm was just too prissy and nice and it just didn’t fit my personality.
HG: So you were hanging out in L.A. and you met Paul and Georg in a record store…
Chris Ashford: That was Licorice Pizza, and a stint at Music Odyssey, which were a block away from each other. Paul used to skateboard around and I used to talk to him. Like I said, both of them would come in, and then, of course later, I even hung out at their high school with them. I think, in the scheme of things, you meet people that you’re supposed to meet for whatever reason. You don’t know it at the time, though.
HG: How did you go from hanging out with Paul and Georg, who would become Darby Crash and Pat Smear, to starting What Records? and releasing the first Germs 7”?
Chris Ashford: Well, you’re taking about a two-year period in there, so we have to work through that. As they were going through school, they were talking about starting a band. A few of the schoolmates were the band and they made shirts and then, finally, they started working on actually really making a band and looking for people within that period. I had started working at Peaches [another record store] on Hollywood Boulevard after the other stuff, and when we were all hanging out, basically, I guess I said, “Let’s figure out how to make a record.” I didn’t start What Records? to “start a label.” I think, as a unison mind, I was the piece of the puzzle that was making the record while they were making the band. I went to Richard Foos, who had the Rhino store at the time, and I asked, “Where did you press this Wild Man Fischer single?” and started figuring out how to do the stuff a little bit.
HG: What attracted you to that end of it?
Chris Ashford: Well, I’ve always been a real record collector. I loved records and I loved packaging. In my era of growing up, there was this fallacy that, “Oh wow, you made a record, you’re gonna be rich! [laughs]” Which is obviously very naïve, but that’s how we looked at records. You didn’t think Iggy was on the dole, you’d think, “This guy’s got money, man! [laughs]” I think because I loved records so much and, obviously I loved music of course, but part of my personality is that I’ve always been into that final thing that you can hold and read and do whatever with. That probably pushed me over to that side more, but I wasn’t trying to push to be in a group because I had enough insecurities and lack of talents to push me that way. Everything wasn’t planned out; we were just this whirlwind that did it because, obviously, the first Germs single — if you look at the complete history of The Germs — it was recorded way before they became what they were really going to become; but on the other hand, there are enough elements of the charm of what The Germs were to become in there to make it very appealing to people.
HG: A friend of mine said that “Forming” was the perfect name for the song because it sounded like a band forming.
Chris Ashford: Absolutely. Nobody would have signed that band to a label at that point. It was just too raw.
HG: That’s certainly one way to put it!
Chris Ashford: The chord pattern and the melody and the lyrics that they put together are all very intact; it’s just not the punk rock that would come. Even for, shall we say, Darby’s lack of abilities to be a real singer, he still knew how to accent things and create enough of a melody in his way that it still would come through.
HG: Oh yeah, I completely agree. I think that he was quite a brilliant lyricist. A lot of people denigrate him for using a thesaurus, but who cares?
Chris Ashford: Well, his biggest influence was Bowie, and Bowie up until that period of time actually was a good lyricist, too, and very imaginary. Darby gravitated more to that space-age Major Tom kind of thing due to his background, the way he came up, where I was more attracted to the Jim Morrison type thing which — it’s hard to explain his lyrics, but they’re not quite hippy; it’s very multi-faceted. You can’t take them for what they say. It’s imagery, but not necessarily straightforward.
Chris Ashford: At times.
HG: Darby’s lyrics always struck me as being very literary, which I think was an interesting contrast to the music.
Chris Ashford: Well, he was very well-read, too. He did a lot of reading. As a personality, he would look into things. He’d want to know why someone meditating didn’t have to sleep. He was very interested in things. He was very interested in psychology. We would go take Scientology tests on Hollywood Boulevard and then let them sit there and try to sell us on classes and we’d all walk out laughing and then talk about what we did. He liked to see what they were trying to do and he liked to fuck with them. He was very literate and, for a young man who passed for his age, he packed a lot in. He was definitely a lot smarter than your average high school student.
HG: Even possibly than he let on. In The Decline of Western Civilization, he didn’t come off all that bright in that interview.
Chris Ashford: The problem was, once he started going heavy to the heroin and other drugs, it changed him a bit, too. More of just the high would take over, which was sad because he was definitely heading down that road in, once again, a very short period of time. The other thing, obviously, is, at the age that he was, he never really had a chance to mature, so he never got to see someone maturely deal with some of this stuff. But, also, he had been through so much, he was very sharp.
HG: What happened after “Forming” came out? You pressed this 7” piece of vinyl and then what did you do with it?
Chris Ashford: I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. I got it into Peaches — big surprise! But then, with all of us hanging out, see this is what I always thought was interesting is this whole timing of everything that happened with all of this is really crazy. I was working at Peaches right when The Masque was starting to happen, actually before it happened — it was just a rehearsal studio, and I was working the night that the very first show happened. They passed out a few flyers and had a few of the bands play and there were only five or eight people there. The rest were people that were part of the bands down there. So between being a kind of a pseudo-manager with the Germs — I got them their first photo sessions and helped them take care of stuff and got them hooked into playing The Masque. All this stuff was happening around us. None of us were experienced music people, but we were all hanging out and meeting the people and being in the right place. It all worked really well for them, in that sense. I was doing stuff with them and then, one night at Peaches, Peter Urban, who used to manage The Dils, came in and said, “We really like your Germs single. Would you be interested in putting out our record?” That’s when it first started really clicking. “Okay, cool, I’ll put this out and now I have a little label. What am I going to do?”
HG: Is that where you got the name? How did you come up with What? Records?
Chris Ashford: When we first started doing The Germs’ first single, The Germs were kind of in between being…. I wouldn’t say a joke band because in the beginning they started out kind of as a joke, but then evolved into the real thing, and so the single was done kind of in between. What? Records just came out of my brain, like “What records?” The cover of the first record, a lot of it was taken from the idea that this is humorous as well as being a band. If they had been another three months along, it probably wouldn’t have been like that. They probably wouldn’t have had the humor as much and made it more a serious thing. The “What?” just came out of that.
HG: I understand that the response to the single was overwhelmingly negative.
Chris Ashford: [Laughs] Actually, it’s a double-edged sword. All the press hated us. Back Door Man was kind of an underground magazine, because, you know, none of the big papers were going to touch it. Back Door Man trashed the hell out of it, but then, when a couple of the punk magazines got involved, a.k.a. Slash and, later, Flipside — they liked it. But the first Germs show at The Orpheum, they just threw peanut butter all over the place and then the Kim Fowley night at The Whiskey, even that, they were throwing this weird concoction of salad dressings all over the place and doing “Sugar, Sugar.” They were getting attention, which was completely Darby’s idea, but it was a little different than what people were used to and there really wasn’t a lot of punk rock in L.A. The Weirdos were around, but they didn’t even like to call themselves punk rock in those early days. It was just kind of cutting and grating at people, and the single did the same thing. Rodney played it right away, too, and everything happened so fast, it was interesting. They would play clubs and something would get broken so they couldn’t play that club, and they couldn’t play this club and they couldn’t play that club. At one point, nobody would book them, so we’d call the band different names just to get them in.
HG: From all this, you had The Dils come to you based on that single to release “I Hate the Rich” b/w “You’re Not Blank.”
Chris Ashford: In the meantime, Greg Shaw had started his little store and distribution thing, too, and he definitely sold a bunch of The Germs’ singles.
HG: What kinds of people were buying it?
Chris Ashford: Well, that’s a good question! [Laughs] I know when Greg was doing the distribution, they got a lot of it back east, so I really don’t know where that was going. But I think the people that were really buying it, from places that I would see, like Peaches until I stopped working there, it was people that were… The Dangerhouse guys used to come to Peaches and talk to me. They saw the single and they bought one and they’d go, “You did this? You work in a record store and did this?” Well, guess were their little light bulb came from to start Dangerhouse Records. It was a lot of these people that were really just around, that were hanging around the scene — well, there was no scene — what was beginning to become something. And I think Rodney playing it helped a lot. A lot of the people that were alienated by the regular things going on that eventually found their way to The Masque and a lot of the other shows were probably the ones that were finding the single. It sold a fair amount. It sold more than a lot of people’s singles did back in those days, so somebody was buying it.
HG: What happened with The Dils?
Chris Ashford: The Dils had the same kind of thing. It sold pretty well, too. It didn’t sell as well as The Germs, but a lot of this is taking over a couple of years when I say it didn’t sell as well. At the time it was selling, and, once again, Greg Shaw’s distribution — he was shipping it somewhere and it was selling from there. They were playing a lot, but, once again, they weren’t that well-liked in some ways, too. The people that understood them really liked them, but they had so much of that Communist thing going on originally — that was mostly their manager, Peter Urban — that people just kind of dismissed them as another Clash or something like that. They also wouldn’t let people push them around. I’ve seen them almost get into fights here and there with various people, including Kim Fowley one night at The Masque. People were a little wary of them at first, at least from going to shows and stuff like that. I think they had that not-quite-fitting alienation even into the group of people that was the not-quite-fitting alienated people. But between the two of those singles, it certainly gave me the door to start doing more records if I wanted to, a couple 45s. I don’t know if I was just living too much of a seat-of-my-pants life or what, but I never sat down and said, “Okay, let’s seriously get some contracts, sign these people. Let’s make a REAL record label.” It was always, just, “Let’s do a record,” you know?
HG: It was the first record by a lot of those bands, right?
Chris Ashford: Oh yeah, absolutely. “Forming” is still considered the first DIY punk single in LA.
HG: What exactly was “punk?” Was it a word used in terminology at the time?
Chris Ashford: Obviously, New York and London were six months ahead of L.A., anyway. I picked up the first Sex Pistols single in the end of October, early November ’76 and picked up the first Ramones single in December ’76. The Germs’ single wasn’t until June or July ’77. The term had already been pretty much coined. It was still people that were really interested in that stuff and were reading about it in Creem and other magazines that would hear about it. You’d be walking in the street and, if you had any kind of gummy punk look, people would be driving in their cars and they’d yell at you, “Hey Devo, man!” And I was like, “Yeah, Devo’s punk rock. You’ve got it right!” So the perception of punk rock was already pretty well instituted by The Sex Pistols and other bands well before we got to it. And also, if you look at pictures of real early Masque shows, you would see a lot of people with long hair and regular clothes. It seemed like a lot of people that showed up at those shows half the time were art students or people looking for something different. It really wasn’t like hardcore punk shows, which you would later see in a couple years. I’ve always said, The Screamers weren’t really a punk band, they were more of an arty techno band, but they completely had the attitude.
HG: Well, that begs the question, how come you never released a Screamers 7”?
Chris Ashford: Nobody released anything by them!
HG: I know!
Chris Ashford: They were “waiting for the big deal.” I think near the end of the band, they were somehow contemplating doing it themselves, but they wanted a deal, to the best of my knowledge. They didn’t mess with any of the labels, Bomp! or anybody.
HG: What did you release after The Dils?
Chris Ashford: Well, after that I was going to try to do a collection. I was going to make some kind of sampler, which I started recording all the tracks and did. I took basically most of the bands that I knew from The Masque, and I did two songs with The Eyes, which was DJ Bonebrake, Joe Ramirez and Charlotte Caffey, two songs from The Skulls and two songs from The Controllers. The other recordings I did with the Germs, “Around and Around” and another version of “Forming” were part of it. I recorded a band called The Spastics and did a couple songs with them. I recently found those tapes and they may see the light of day. They were the most hated band in that scene, next to Shock. Actually, The Spastics were more hated. For their grandiose show, someone put a fire extinguisher on them when they were playing The Masque. Originally, I was trying to do something with The Alleycats, but it didn’t work out. I was going to try to get Jem Records to do distribution on it, but what they were going to pay me — compared to what I wanted to try to pay everybody, obviously — was too little for the manufacturing. For whatever reason, I didn’t think I could do it myself at that point, so I ended up releasing, first, a three-song EP with one Eyes, one Skulls and one Controllers track and then I did a Controllers single after that. All the stuff that has later come out on What? Stuff or What Is It or the compilations that I’ve done is pretty much that stuff.
HG: Why was The Controllers single called “(The Original) Neutron Bomb?”
Chris Ashford: Because The Weirdos had a “Neutron Bomb” at the same time, so we were being cheeky and saying ours was first.
HG: Was it actually first?
Chris Ashford: I think we — I shouldn’t say we because it’s really theirs — I think The Controllers’ was a little bit ahead, but it’s such a short period of time, it’s too close to really say. We didn’t want to have the song out with the same name that The Weirdos had at the same time.
HG: Was it all in good fun, or was there a little bit of rivalry there?
Chris Ashford: No rivalry. The Controllers, in some ways, were looked down on a little bit because they had a different sense of humor, so things like “Killer Queers” got taken the wrong way.
HG: “Slow Boy…”
Chris Ashford: Yeah. Well, “Killer Queers,” obviously, because there’s a fair amount of gay people around L.A. It wasn’t meant as a slight on gay people, but some people took it that way, so they got a little misunderstood at times. They may not have done as well as they maybe should have because of that.
HG: Fear kind of had the same thing, and they were much more upfront about it, though I doubt that they were serious.
Chris Ashford: But they’re a little later, too. We’re still talking ’77 and very, very early ’78.
HG: Now with The Eyes, is that the same band that went on to do “Disneyland” and “Take a Quaalude Now?”
Chris Ashford: It’s the same band, but the only member that’s constant from “Don’t Talk to Me” b/w “Kill Your Parents” to there is Joe Ramirez. DJ had already taken off to X land and Charlotte was already working her way to Go-Go land.
HG: I know you just talked about doing a compilation that ended up splitting into different singles, but did you ever think about doing a full album by a band?
Chris Ashford: At the time, I really hadn’t. Everything was off-the-cuff and a compilation sounded like a good idea to me. After that, I was actually working on starting another Germs single, too, but due to various reasons — the studio I was using and some other problems — nobody wanted to wait and it didn’t work out. Inexperience of knowing other studios for the prices and stuff like that, they finished it and did it for Slash. In their evolution, maybe that’s what was meant to be.
HG: Was that “Lexicon Devil?”
Chris Ashford: Yes. We even had a cover then. I had a mock-up cover for a while that I don’t have any more. Their train was rolling, and we had some stalls, and no bad blood, just, okay, things are going to be different.
HG: I guess it gave you some time to focus on the other bands that were playing, too.
Chris Ashford: I don’t think I ever took it that seriously. I was hanging out and if I wanted to approach somebody, I’d say, “Let’s record,” or “Let’s do something.” It wasn’t a well thought-out game plan, which is probably why I didn’t keep it going and doing what I probably could have done. If I had gotten more involved and did think about albums and did think about stuff like that and really got serious about it and figured things out, it could have been a whole different thing, but it is what it is.
HG: When hardcore was rising, when the bands from the South Bay were coming up — Black Flag, etc. — what was your reaction to all that?
Chris Ashford: Well, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting perspective because, I look back on it and I think, in a sense, I felt there was a competitiveness starting. First it was the Hollywood bands, then it became the South Bay bands, and, of course, a little bit later, the Orange County bands. I remember seeing Black Flag at The Starwood, like first time they played there, and there was hardly anybody there. And then, I remember after The Germs broke up, you’d see a Black Flag show there and, all of a sudden, it was a huge crowd. So, I think at first, people, at least from the Hollywood demographic, the people that would go to those areas, looked at them competitively, like, “What have you got?” Later, they got very, very accepted. It went from a very small thing to a much bigger thing very quickly, even within itself, before they came in. Everything was changing fast.
HG: Did you see any differences musically?
Chris Ashford: Absolutely. I think original L.A. punk rock, from ’77 until let’s say mid-’78, was all kind of rock’n’roll — quirky, but still very melodic, whereas they got faster and harder quicker. The end of it is almost when the English oi thing came in, in the early ‘80s, where it was just more an attack than actual songs and melody. I think every little step along the way has been a progression to that. Outside of The Germs, Black Flag were much harder than anybody else. When the Orange County bands came in, it was more of an extension of that, though they brought different elements in, too — more of a skateboarding element came in. The whole scene, within a three-year period, evolved immensely. Talking about the age, I think a lot of people that started it in the early ’77 stuff that were a little more arty and stuff like that, three years later, they were already almost 30. It changed the complexion and it changed the group of people that were involved. Nothing in a negative way, except for, it’s not really the bands’ faults, but the violence inside the clubs escalated because the people that came to the shows were a little more aggressive.
HG: The goon element?
Chris Ashford: Yeah.
HG: What was the end of What Records?
Chris Ashford: I did a few more releases into the early ‘80s when I started doing surf music. I actually did the first Halibuts record on What. Then, I got somebody who wanted to buy the name. This is a good story. It was a Christian label, Word Records, who wanted to buy the name What Records because they wanted to put out a rock’n’roll version of their label for their Christian artists who weren’t doing necessarily Christian music. At that point, I think I was poor enough where I decided to work out a deal and take the money. In my mind, at that point, What had kind of lost its identity anyway because I did various different things. It wasn’t just punk rock and people weren’t that interested in the old punk rock at that point. To me, the name change was kind of a hassle. You have to change your stationary and change the labels on your records, but it wasn’t that big a deal to me to lose it. I think if that had happened five years later, I don’t think I would have done the deal. I got okay money, but nothing to buy a house with. It was one of those situations where, when you’re involved with things, you don’t necessarily look into the future and think people are going to care about those things that you did before. I didn’t think that “What” would make that much of a difference. In my thinking now, I made a mistake, but at the time, it just is what it is.
HG: Did you go directly into Iloki, or did that come later?
Chris Ashford: Iloki was the immediate name that I went to, since I was doing surf music, hence “palm tree of hits.”
HG: Is that what the name means?
Chris Ashford: It basically means, “I’m low key.” It gives a Hawaiian kind of thing to it. Everybody puts all kinds of meanings to it, but that was the one that basically relates to the whole scheme of it all.
HG: How did you get into surf music?
Chris Ashford: I grew up with it! I’m in L.A.! I always liked Dick Dale. I always liked Jan and Dean.
HG: Was it happening on its own, in its own world, while everything else was happening, or was there a revival?
Chris Ashford: At that point, there really wasn’t much of a revival. I was a collector of surf music and I was bringing records up to KXLU and going on the “Surf Wave” show there regularly and playing stuff with the DJ there. There were inklings of things happening. Jon and the Nightriders’ first album had come out. I think The Surf Raiders had a single and an LP or something. I think even Rhino had put out their History of Surf reissues. But there really wasn’t any scene of bands at that point. Nobody could just go play anywhere and do a surf thing. Then, one day, a couple guys from The Halibuts came up to KXLU as well, and we started talking and they told me they have this band, it’s kind of a surf/ska band. I said, “Well, that’s kind of neat.” You know, ska was still going, Madness and Bad Manners and stuff like that. We just got to the point where I ended up recording them. I did a surf comp and I had been periodically doing little bits and pieces with Davie Allan and the Arrows for comps and stuff. He’s fuzzy, psychedelic surf, but he’s surf. I started putting together surf comps and I started working with The Halibuts. I actually took on as their manager in the beginning. They started out more surf and ska and later, as they progressed, they got more and more traditional sounding. Once again, I probably recorded them a little bit too early, too, at first, but all the energy and all the wackiness is there. They had a good little run. We did a couple of albums and then they started doing stuff on their own and I managed them and got them all kinds of stuff in the ’80s. I’d get them opening for Dick Dale or The Ventures. They played a show with Jon and the Nightriders. This is all a good seven, eight years before the ’93 surf revival.
HG: Or the ska revival for that matter.
Chris Ashford: Yeah. When they first started, they were still on the tail end of the first stuff. Bad Manners and some of those kinds of bands were still going strong, but you weren’t having the big hits like Madness and Selector were, at least in the early days.
HG: And The Specials, right?
Chris Ashford: Yeah. That took up a lot of the ‘80s where I was working on a lot of surf stuff. I reissued an album by a group called The Pyramids, who had a hit called “Penetration,” and did three What Surf compilations and recorded various different people. That’s when I hooked in with Agent Orange and produced two of their songs, covers, for my comps and then later worked with them and got that first EP on Enigma and got them signed to Enigma.
HG: They had moved on from the hardcore at that point, right?
Chris Ashford: They were still kind of in it, but they were definitely refining from it. The album, This Is the Voice, is still edgy, but it’s not that full on attack of the early band. Mike Palm went deep, deep, deep into surf music and later had his side project, The Diorras, which was an instrumental surf band. So that was kind of like the next chapter.
HG: And you also put out a Skull Control album?
Chris Ashford: Skull Control was ‘90s. That was like ’91. After that, stuff was dying off and I was morphing into figuring out what I was going to do. Kidd Spike and I had been talking about a lot of stuff and hanging out. They have now surfaced, but back in the day, none of us knew where The Controllers demos had gone. I was saying we’ve got to record “Hot Stumps” and record some of the other stuff that The Controllers had done. Stingray was living back east at the time. Originally, Spike had put together a band called Weird Skull Control, which was Nicky Beat, Billy Bones and himself, so it was a Weirdo, a Skull and a Controller. I put out a 45 by them. At this point, Nicky Beat was gone, but it was still Billy Bones, and then we started working on an album. In the midst of doing the album, Spike and Billy Bones didn’t see eye-to-eye about some stuff and, the next thing you know, it was just Spike. Between the single and the album, we found Maddog, so she got involved in it. Basically, it’s really just The Controllers without Stingray.
HG: After Skull Control, you did a Hawkwind live album…
Chris Ashford: A friend of mine was a huge Hawkwind fan, and he recorded them in Oakland on their Space Bandits tour. We made a deal with Dave Brock and I put that out and I did an album with Davie Allan. I was kind of ramping up, like, “Okay, let’s do nice packages, do this a little more seriously and do a little more promo and not be so localized.” I kind of got going up until ’93 and then I decided to open a shop, Ruckas Records, which changed the whole complexion of what I did with the label. I was getting kind of fed up with distribution. There’s all these little different distribution companies and your stuff would get put out there and sell okay for a while and then they’d put you on the back-burner, forget about you. Through everything that I’ve done, I’ve not necessarily done things to be in the norm, I’ve just done these things that I was into at the time. Sometimes it was too, shall we say, cult-y at the time. I was doing surf music in the ‘80s and it was the ‘90s when it got popular. People always had a hard time grasping some of the stuff that I was doing. Sales were not always what I wanted them to be and I went through some big ordeals with some distributors. I put out a Belairs collection, an early surf band, and had put together all these tapes with Paul Johnson and had a 40-page booklet in the CD and I would go down to a store and say, “How come you don’t have this Bel-Airs record? It’s available through this distributor.” I’d find out, “Oh, we order it all the time. I don’t know.” I’d give them a copy and then they’d finally get one and then they wouldn’t get back in there and I’d find that the sales person who was doing that account was not paying attention to what I was doing and we could have sold tons. Great. So I was getting kind of fed-up and, I don’t know, maybe starting a store was my idea that there’s always a place for my stuff. But the store was so involved, it was ’93 to ’97, that I just really couldn’t keep up and do a lot of label stuff at the time because I’d always try to do it myself. Smart idea. I did a couple more records. I did a honky tonk 10” with a girl named Dee Lannon and then I started putting together some stuff with Davie Allan and ended up working on licensing stuff more than really working on my label. So the label kind of spiraled down into nothingness, and the store, for what it’s worth, I burned out, more than anything else. It went through a tough music year where it didn’t do as well but a lot of it was really burn-out on my part. I just didn’t really get that motivated to do anything again until a few years ago. I did a few projects where I put together a couple Davie Allan records and got them licensed and had a few of my things licensed out on What? Stuff, a Bomp collection, but I never really put emphasis on my label. Finally, I took the first two Halibut vinyl albums and put them together on one CD and released that a few years back. And then, I decided, as usual, another change in direction, and I started another label.
HG: Which is Wondercap Records.
Chris Ashford: Which is Wondercap Records! It’s kind of this thing of people who are not really known for jazz stuff, but are doing jazzy kind of things, only it’s not straight jazz, necessarily. David Winogrond was the drummer for Davie Allan for 13 years, but he’s always liked Elvin Jones and he’s always liked psychedelic music and things like Hendrix, so he’s got his version of psychedelic jazz. I almost label it as prog rock at times, too. Then I made a deal with Sam Phipps, Sluggo from Oingo Boingo. He had an album that he did in the early ‘80s that was a straight hard bop jazz record, so I put that out and we added a few tracks to it. Recently, I hooked up with DJ Bonebrake again. He was the drummer on the second set of Germs songs that I recorded and he drummed on the Dee Lannon record. I called him one day and said, “Hey DJ, let’s do a record!” Between his schedule and playing with everybody else, we took two years trying to figure out what to do for a record. His is kind of a pseudo-jazzy, soundtrack-y, exotic-y, whatever you want to call it, kind of record. I’ve done a second record with David Winogrond and I’m looking to kind of set up a label that incorporates a lot of people playing with each other, ultimately, that are not necessarily from jazz background, but can be. Right now, I’m in the process of putting together a project with DJ Bonebrake and Elliott Caine, who’s a jazz trumpet player, and start creating this little community of people making records together.
HG: Kind of like the Blue Note thing.
Chris Ashford: Yeah, it has a lot of that going. One person’s the leader one time and one person can be the leader the other time. The way the music industry is now, I really want to make a label that is — I hate using this word because it’s been used over and over — but I’m trying to make it as artist-friendly as possible. I’m not looking at this as a big business label, but I want to make it a creative label and I want everybody to make something out of it, whether all the projects make money or not, because I think if we get a group of people that really want to be creative and can find the time to record and want to record and maybe do things with other people that are involved in this, we can actually make an interesting catalog of recordings that lets everybody be who they want to be. I want people to be a little more out there and a little different, not just get locked into the norms of bebop jazz or whatever. It can definitely have rock feeling because a lot of people are from that. I, ultimately, would like to see somebody like DJ Bonebrake scoring films and doing something different that way.
HG: How did you start Wondercap? I know I was pretty surprised to hear that you had suddenly started this jazz label.
Chris Ashford: Well, a couple things happened. A few years ago, somebody I know was starting a label and they wanted me to come in and be one of the A&R people. To make a long story short, the funding never came through on the label so it never really happened, but I had started talking to some really cool jazz people about doing a record, which included Dr. Art Davis, who is now passed away, but he’s one of the legendary bass players that played with Coltrane and played all through the late ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. David Murray was going to be involved with the Art Davis project and a couple other people. I always listened to some jazz here and there, but I didn’t really move into some of the more interesting things that I found because I really wasn’t that familiar with David Murray at the time, so I really pushed into more saxophone-y stuff instead of just listening to Miles Davis and some of the other things I listened to. That kind of sparked me into more of a jazzy thing. David Winogrond and I have known each other for 255 years and we used to talk about stuff. He and I just started talking about jazz and maybe a project. He was getting excited about maybe doing something different than he had been doing, so that kind of morphed into what happened. I just always had a label in my blood so much. It seemed like it was ten years where I didn’t really do anything. I just started looking at it and going, “Okay, I’m crazy enough! The music business is in the worst shape it could possibly be. Everybody’s going down and here I am. Okay!” I started really looking at things and started saying, “Financially, we have to be able to record and make records happen where you can sell less than 1000 and still kind of be okay and everybody can make a little money.” Figure between people that I knew in the studios and engineers and stuff, but still make a quality record out there. Jazz is kind of another thing, too, where you can actually do a lot of live recording and still come up with stuff, so you’re not spending lots of money on recording. You’re not overdubbing a million vocals and guitar parts. It’s kind of a way, at least as the label is starting to get known a little bit, it’s a way to make some interesting records for low budgets and, hopefully, we’ll get a little more attention and people will look at it and say, “That’s a pretty cool label. I’d like to be on that label!” You know how it goes. Just kind of create this little recording community that is making good records. Hopefully, we can all keep surviving.
HG: One thing that especially interests me about it is that, for a long time, the established jazz community seemed to completely ignore and write-off Los Angeles. That was one thing that really irritated me when I lived there. One of my personal favorites, Peter Brötzmann, was doing a tour of the US and he didn’t come to L.A. I had to drive up to San Francisco to see him!
Chris Ashford: I’ve heard some really great stuff by him, too! L.A. is a funny place. We’ve pushed the industry to the point were if a band’s going to make money, they have to play live. You really don’t make money off of records anymore. Gone are the days were everybody sold 500,000 and they could make a living off it. No way. They go out and play live and they charge a big gate, and that’s how they make their money. Jazz has kind of morphed into that in this city. The Jazz Bakery goes on. A lot of big acts play there because, if they’re going to play L.A., they kind of have to in some ways, but it’s not a real comfortable place to go play because they have these fold-out chairs and it’s like a big auditorium with fold-out chairs kind of thing. One of the other clubs is Catalina’s, which is a really expensive dinner club and I think they’re a little snobby about who they bring in. You’ll go to the club and you’ll drop 30 bucks there on gate. Then there’s dinner and drinks. There’s another club off Mullholland on Beverly Glen that Herb Alpert partially owns, but once again, it’s a dinner club and these cutting-edge people don’t go there. I’ve been forced to see people like Ornette Coleman over at UCLA, which, it’s great to see him there, it’s a great sound system, but it’s still not the right atmosphere for that kind of thing in some ways. In the smaller clubs, there’s Jax and there’s Charlie O’s, but everybody kind of wants to be a dinner club and the jazz is just secondary. I don’t get a good feeling there’s a really good place for touring bands or artists to come in here and really be okay, which is probably why Brötzmann didn’t want to play L.A.
HG: I was part of a Sun Ra newsgroup at the time and I had made mention of it on there. A lot of people said that LA’s not taken seriously by the jazz community. I thought that was a shame because there’s some great jazz history there.
Chris Ashford: Oh, there’s all kinds of great jazz history and there’s a couple great artists who are not straight jazz at this point, but who should really be recognized, like Nels Cline. Sure, he’s playing with Wilco and sure, he gets a little out there for the jazz community and more into a noise thing at times, but he still does some records that are more jazz at times. I don’t think he really gets his due. It’s really hard in this city. I think the press, which I expected to be wholehearted anti what I was doing — the jazz press — has actually risen a little better than I thought they would. All About Jazz has been very supportive. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because, to run a magazine now, they want you to take out ads, too, so you do the trade-off thing. All About Jazz has been very supportive, Jazz Improv is working on being supportive, which is out in New York, but then things like Jazz Times are just a nightmare. I haven’t been able to get a peep out of them. Distribution’s been okay. I’ve been able to get it to all the Jazz Online sites. Cadence Magazine has been good, but it’s mixed. I think the people that are doing the avant-garde jazz know things are changing in jazz, too, whereas a lot of the old guard wouldn’t pay a hoot to me. I don’t think Downbeat pays much attention to anything I send them.
HG: Yeah, the jazz establishment can be very uptight.
Chris Ashford: Snooty. Oh, I’m gonna get killed for that one!
HG: But it’s true! I’ve experienced it and it’s annoying.
Chris Ashford: One of the DJs from KJZZ was at a book store doing a signing and they had a compilation CD they were selling. I brought a couple things to him and actually had a great talk with him and I know he likes more of the avant-garde type stuff anyway, so there is the group that’s out there, but there is the establishment that’s squeezing it, too. I can’t really count on radio play. Even if you get radio play you’re going to get played, what, once every week? That doesn’t sell records.
HG: Have you tried anything with National Public Radio?
Chris Ashford: Absolutely! It worked on a few. Maybe, until I get a little bigger, I have been concentrating more on west coast and US continent, not really stretching it overseas yet because it’s too thin. But as the catalog gets bigger, I’m starting to work out more and see if I can get something going there. It all depends on how good the catalog is. If I can keep it consistently into what I feel fits it, there will be an audience. It just takes time to find it.
HG: I think I told you before that I think your audience is more weirdos like me who own a ton of Sun Ra albums.
Chris Ashford: I can’t disagree with that!
HG: I’ve liked everything you’ve done, but I was really blown away by the latest Winogrond album, Into the Ether.
Chris Ashford: I think a lot of people will be. He’s kind of riding that line that I’m riding with my label. He’s not perfectly jazz, he’s not perfectly psychedelic rock, he’s not perfectly hard-edged punk rock. He’s kind of a tweener and it’s going to be interesting to see how people take him. His first album got a few good reviews and got a few scathing reviews and I expect the same on this one. It depends on where it’s coming from and who’s writing it.
HG: One thing I find really interesting about his albums is the production. It’s very different. It’s almost very slick and polished, but also dreamy. It definitely sounds different.
Chris Ashford: You have to hand that to David because I’ve let David do his own records and I just release them. Between him and his engineer and his sax player, Jack, they are the brainstem of how the production is. I let him ride and do his own sound.
HG: From what I understand, that’s kind of what you’ve been doing, right?
Chris Ashford: For the most part, though with DJ Bonebrake, he and I were very active in creating what he did. He’s kind of like me — we’re very multi-faceted music lovers and we like many different things, so we had to knuckle down and figure out what kind of record it was going to be. DJ has never done a solo record before. He’s been involved in a million things but this one is really, shall we say, his brainstorm. As a producer, I had to say, “Let’s get focused. What are we going to do? Where are we headed?” I helped him a lot in bringing out what his first vision would be. We’ll probably do another Trio record and who knows if it will even sound close to the same? I don’t know. At least I helped him get over the hump of that first record, so I was very active in getting that one going. I’m looking to a trumpeter named Elliott Caine. We’re going to do some stuff with DJ and him together. DJ knows him because he’s played on Caine’s record on a track or two. I’m trying to take them out of their norm, once again, and do something really wacky and different between them. Elliott wouldn’t necessarily do it with his quartet or quintet. I’m trying to let people be themselves, but challenge them to so something a little different from what they normally do, too.
HG: You’ve got a lot on your plate. You’ve got Wondercap and some other things you’re working on…
Chris Ashford: I’ve been trying to coordinate some releases for Hepcat Records. We’ve done another Gears reissue that will probably be out in a couple months. We’re also doing a D.I.s reissue, which is Axxel and Dave Drive’s band after The Gears. In searching through the tapes for The D.I.s material, we found the original 1979 recordings of The Gears, so we’re adding five of those songs to yet another reissue of The Gears’ album, but it’s going to have something fresh and new on it, too. Of course, The D.I.s only did a five-song 12” in their day, and we found 17 more studio tracks to add to it.
HG: So this is not D.I. from Orange County.
Chris Ashford: This is not the Orange County D.I., this is The D.I.s. — Drill Instructors. We’re probably a couple months away from getting those out and together. Not that I need extra work to drive me crazy, but I’ve been trying to coordinate some projects for Hepcat and we’re talking about a Shock one right now, too. The Gears had done some recordings in 2003, four songs for a label that has basically folded since then. I bought those tapes recently and I’m going to look to do a four-song 10” on Iloki/Wondercap for The Gears as well.
HG: So Iloki’s still going?
Chris Ashford: It’s never really stopped; it just hasn’t been very active.
HG: You mentioned The Spastics…
Chris Ashford: The Spastics! Well, that’s another one. I want to do another vinyl compilation of all the old What stuff and The Spastics have two songs. I’m going to add those to it. I just need to get a hold of one of them and make sure I got all the information right from the old days. I don’t know who’s going to be that excited, but they were the world’s most hated band! But it adds something new.
HG: It sounds exciting to me!
Chris Ashford: I’ll let the recordings speak for themselves when you hear it. I won’t explain it.