Influenced by bands such as The Who and The Easybeats, Ashley Naylor already had a keen interest in power pop when starting his first band as a teenager, which ultimately led to forming his current band EVEN, still going “22 years strong”.
Ashley is keen to talk about his “absolute favorite thing”, song writing. This is affirming, considering he also divides his time between family and being a sought after guitarist for Paul Kelly, Rockwiz and Dan Sultan, among others. He’s articulate and thoughtful, ready for a chat at the end of a Melbourne heat wave, where it’s just cool enough inside our local front bar.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that. It might’ve been with the first band I was in, the Swarm. The lyricist and singer was Francis Leach, the radio broadcaster. He finished singing about 1991. Every now and then I get Frank out and do a song with him at a party or a function or gig. I think one of the first songs we ever wrote was probably mid 80’s. I would’ve just written the tune and handed it over to Frances in the way Johnny Marr would to Morrissey (laughs).
So you already had that connection with him and the band, and you started writing.
Yeah we were a song writing partnership for about 5 years. We’d like to finish the songs we started as teenagers, in terms of actually recording them properly one day. We did a couple of seven inch singles but the band never made an album so it’s one of my unfinished things hanging over my head. I’d like to record them properly, now I have the resources.
So it was after that you wrote your own songs and lyrics?
Yeah probably 91, 92, started writing lyrics and chords together. Circumstance might’ve dictated that, because Frances left to work for Triple J in Sydney. It was a very exciting thing for him, and pretty much put an end to the band as it was. We went on as a trio for a couple of gigs and what would become EVEN was formed out of the ashes. I still play with Matt the drummer from EVEN, we’ve been playing together 31 years.
Your solo stuff as well?
My solo stuff I play all the stuff.
Then with gigs is it solo acoustic?
My stuff is a fluid thing. If there’s someone else on the bill they might play on some songs, or I might put together a band for that night. Generally I can get out with a guitar and get over the line. I’ve kind of been hardened by years of indifference – stroke – great support, so i’m not afraid to get up there on my own.
Sometimes it’s easier?
The beauty of a solo gig is you’re free. It’s like going for a bush walk, for as long as you want, wherever you want, as long as you know how to get back home. That’s the key I think at a gig – know how to wrap it up, not just to wander aimlessly, which I have habit of doing – probably doing it right now. One thing i’ve learnt from the Paul Kelly’s of this world, the Dan Sultans and guys i’ve been playing with over the years – get a set list a few days before – not scrambling the night before the show. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s good to put thought into the way it flows, having peaks and valleys and all that stuff. That’s one of my current things, trying to balance songs in such a way, like a narrative, a set that makes musical sense in a way that you finish strong. These are things i’m learning even as i’m hurtling towards 50 at an alarming rate.
When writing with EVEN, are you bringing songs to the band, or do they come about from jamming?
Mostly the former. I formed the band as an outlet for my songs. Essentially the band started as me demoing the songs on my own. Then I brought Matt in to play drums, and I played bass and did all the vocals so it was a massive ego trip for me – full indulgent ego trip. Then we were lucky enough to have Wally join us playing bass. Great singer, very supportive and wasn’t pushing songs down my throat so it gave me freedom to keep writing for the band. We’re about one song away from finishing the 7th album, or 8th.
Do you find the revival thing of the 90’s and 2000’s is helping with EVEN?
It’s a great question, because we never split up. We’ve been together for 22 years in various degrees of in and out of the public eye. We did the Corner on 22nd December, played to a really big crowd which was great for us. My brother who’s been a mentor since I was a teenager, has taken a really active role helping us get records re-pressed. 20 years since our first album, launched at the Corner, and it was just.. euphoric. If there was sentimentality towards that era, it was exhibited in full that night. Our record came out ’96 and was really well received at the time so there’s a lot of fondness for it. Now i’m so far removed from the emotions, I can perform it with fun without the 20 something angst I might’ve attached to it.
Is that for the better?
Absolutely. Obviously there’s something that can’t be replicated like that naievety and all that attitude. But I think the rawness is what makes it its own beast. It was just a time capsule and we were influenced by the bands around us, and bands that came before us.
Easybeats, The Who and at the time we were making the record, bands like You Am I were at the peak of their powers. I was very influenced by You Am I. I was probably shy about it at the time but i’m very open about it now. REM and The Smiths – a lot of jangly pop bands. A bit of a classicist, but i’ve grown to accept that and not be apologetic about it.
The song I first knew from that time was Black Umbrella, not sure if that’s the same for others?
Yeah I think that’s similar (for others) – it was the only song that entered the ARIA top 100.
With following albums, and all that going on (radio success), did that influence how you were writing – was there pressure?
I guess there was subconscious expectation to produce music of a certain standard. We were the judges of what we considered to be worthy. I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I pride myself on trying to write good songs, and play them to the best of my ability. What I can’t do vocally i’ll try and compensate for on guitar. What I can’t do lyrically, i’ll compensate for musically. On our fourth album we were unsigned and had a distribution deal with Shock. In a lot of ways I look back on that as my favorite, because we paid for it ourselves, pretty much from the royalties from one of our songs being in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Our publisher at the time, David Vodicka (Rubber Records) had a mate in the States who put 70 seconds of one of our songs in a scene, which earned 4 or 5 grand. We didn’t have enough money to promote it, but that’s another story. So we promoted at gigs, we went overseas, we had Ian McLagan from the Small Faces play on two songs. It was special record in many ways.
With your solo albums you seem more country influenced. Is that because it’s what you’re now into?
A little bit. Pretty mixed. My county leanings are from the ears and eyes of a rock and roll player, not from a country music purist. Any rhythms or feels from the rootsy world have come via a teenager listening to Hoodoo Gurus, they haven’t come from growing up on George Jones records. Any flavours that come through, are from listening to the Stones and how white suburban kids translate that music.
Listening to the song Last of The Longhairs sounds quite country, and a bit bluesy.
It’s kind of a loose song. I’m glad you mentioned it – it had a very long gestation. Started in my mates lounge room in 2004. I had a (16 track) digital recording device, early 2000’s thing. Stupidly, I took it away to W.A, was staying at my mate Kevin’s house. He was working and I had the lounge room to myself. I played acoustic guitar and overdubbed another one. Then I put on an electric guitar track. I liked it as an instrumental. Fast forward to about 2010 when I finished off (the album) High Horse. I said ‘right i’ve gotta finish these instrumentals’.
Each verse is a different character – i’ve never really talked about this before. The first verse is based on Anton Newton from Brian Jonestown Massacre, the second verse is a fictional character and the last verse is about me. I pose the question – at what point does a man cut his hair? Willie Nelson has set the standard, with cascading plaits. I grow it out and think ‘don’t cut it, don’t cut’ and then I cut it. At what point do you stop cutting your hair? (Laughs)
I’m gonna go back and listen to the song now, that way.
It’s a deeper song than that, kind of like celebrating people who pride themselves on not being too mainstream or conformist. I guess the bottom line is just be free. “one day when the wind blows through it will comfort you”. It’s about wearing you hair long (laughs).
Staying true to yourself.
Yeah it could be the simplest thing, routines or a lifestyle choice that has become something you pride yourself on.
Have you got any song writing rituals, like things flow better after coffee etc?
I can’t be 9-5 songwriter. I know a lot of great songwriters have been that. Benny and Bjorn from ABBA and Nick Cave go into their studio or office space and write.
What I like to do is write in solitude, when the house is empty. I write best when there’s no-one around. My first feeling is that (the songs) must stand up as an instrumental, before I put lyrics on them.
You write an instrumental completely first?
Yeah. It might’ve been different in the past for some songs. If you stripped the vocals off the EVEN records, i’d like to think that the songs have a tune worthy of being an instrumental. It might have a guitar line or something but everything revolves around the music for me.
Do you think that’s from playing in bands?
Yeah, my first role in music was to be a side man, and I do get a lot of gigs doing that now – Paul Kelly and Rockwiz. And I relish that for its’ own rewards. One thing that’s a ritual is I’ll usually start on an unplugged electrical guitar. I find it easier to hold the chords.
Touring with Paul Kelly, Rockwiz and others has obviously influenced your song writing?
It has, probably by osmosis. Playing a million songs in Rockwiz, you sort of work out what makes a song tick. At the same time I don’t feel the need for my songs to be traditional. One thing I really have learnt from Paul is to be organised with your songs, and to also have an unwavering vision. That’s not to say that people playing on the records I’ve done with Paul, aren’t able to contribute their own flavor to the music, but I appreciate the way he’ll come in with a lyric sheet and chord progression and very rarely divert from that. Obviously Paul’s got a track record and has been writing and performing songs since the late 70’s. I’ve only been doing my own songs in public for 20 years, you know im still getting used to it (laughs).
It’s a great thing to watch come together. It’s like assembling IKEA furniture (laughs) – I’ve done two items lately.
That’s a killer!
It’s a killer, but I’ve cracked it now. I cracked the code, internal high fives all over the place. I’m trying to think of a good analogy – The new EVEN album I call a house of match sticks because it’s taking so frigging long to finish.
So you would more often than not, take a song pretty much finished into the studio?
Time is different now – I can write instrumentals at the drop of a hat, finishing the songs is a lot harder. I bring instrumentals to the band, then take the rough tapes home and assemble a melody around the chords. It’s almost like i’m co-writing with myself. I’m a big fan of the Smiths and the way Johnny Marr would approach his songs is the same – he’d record the instrumental and Morrissey would come and sing on top. I guess it sounds very Spinal Tap, that i’m co-writing with myself (laughs). I’m co-writing with my other personality.
I’m in a band with myself
I’m forming a duo with myself. This is gold!
Any recurring challenges with song writing?
I always find myself failing to write soaring choruses. I take confidence knowing that there’s a lot of songs out there I love, that don’t have massive choruses. Also I try and write non gender specific lyrics. That’s one thing I sort of set out to do when the band started. Occasionally there might be a word alluding to the songwriter being a certain gender. There’s certain subjects I don’t tackle. I always joke they’re like year 7 poetry, or first year uni philosophy (laughs)
Well that’s the stuff everyone relates to.
What’s those things, Japanese haiku? I’m trying to write pop song haiku’s. Occasionally i’ll squeeze a fancy word in a song, but I try and limit it.
I always think i’ve got to get away from nature metaphors.
I’m all for nature. I’m the same, the sun and moon feature heavily in my music. Sometimes i’m in the mood to write a Brian Jonestown kind of song, like a drone with a minimal melody. Other times in the mood to write a Ray Davies kind of song. That’s part of the pain of song writing, that you’re inevitably falling short of your heroes. And it’s the quest to keep going and try to write amazing songs. I’m on a quest like every other songwriter.
It seems you put good thought into your song titles – Karmic Flop, Eternal Teen.
I’m really big on titles and I think that comes from my love of The Smiths. I try to keep it really simple or evocative – hopefully both. Karmic Flop was a play on words – there’s a Funkadelic song called Cosmic Slop, so that’s my white boy version. It’s a bizarre phenomenon, naming a song, naming a band and being in a gang that has a name.
How do you know when a song is finished?
I don’t really ever know. I think with multiple listens once you’ve recorded it, that’s when I realise I’ve got as much out of the song as I could possibly. I have often in the past dealt with a lot of chaos in my mind, that I like writing very concise, organized music. That’s not to say people who write chaotic, wild music do that to counteract calm and tranquility – I don’t know. I think a song is finished when I do get that sense of order. Given the past chaos, like a lot of people have, writing crafted, organized songs gives me a sense of order in the world. I don’t know why I don’t do it more often. It’s something you build and you want it to withstand the world, fashion and trends, and if it with stands those elements to one listener, then it’s worth it.
More a feeling, than something conscious?
Yeah, cause the options are limitless really.
Photo credit: Emma – Jane Johnston