BOMB’s Mixtape series continues with psych-folk legend Ed Askew. Ed discusses his creative history, psychedelic drugs, and the recent reissue of his album Imperfiction, before laying a mellow mix on our heads.
When I asked Ed Askew what people called his style of music back when he first started recording—in the 1960s—he told me, “Well, nobody called it anything.” These days, though, there’s no such thing as genre-defying, and Askew’s approach is pegged outsider psych-folk (approximately). That descriptor is more or less accurate in regard to the recordings he made in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, many of which have enjoyed new popularity with the semi-recent reissue craze. Labels like Yoga Records, Time-Lag, Destijl, and Drag City are busy uncovering great recordings that would have been otherwise lost to time. But in the case of Ed Askew—whose reissued albums include Ask the Unicorn, Little Eyes, and, most recently, Imperfiction, all frantic, frayed, bright-eyed masterpieces—the reissues don’t tell the whole story: he’s been creating steadily for about five decades (both music and painting), and he’s not letting up.
I talked to Ed Askew at his apartment in Washington Heights, where he keeps his famed tiple (pronounced tipple), a surprisingly resonant guitar-like instrument that can be heard on many of his recordings. We discussed artistic creation, hitchhiking, drugs, his experience with outsider label ESP Disk, and, finally, what he’s been listening to recently. Ed’s Imperfiction is out now on Drag City.
Jacob Kaplan Can you talk about your history with ESP Disk? How did your relationship with the label begin?
Ed Askew I was staying at somebody’s place in New York. I was going to the East Village—it was before the burned-out building time, but it was still kind of ramshackle—near Tompkin’s Square, and I would go around to these places they used to call “basket houses”, where people would pass a basket [for donations], and I would just show up. They got to know me well enough that if I showed up with my tiple, I could always play. People would know who I was even though they didn’t know who I was. Somebody told me, “You ought to contact Bernard Stollman [the founder of ESP Disk], he might like your music.” And somewhere I got a number; I probably just looked it up. So I called him up. He said, “I don’t listen to people who come here and play for me. You have to make a tape.” I didn’t have a clue where I would find a reel-to-reel tape recorder. And I told him that and he said, “You’ll find one. Bye.” I found one and I made a tape and brought it over… as soon as he listened to it he offered to make an album.
JK That album was Ask the Unicorn, recorded in 1968. And in 1970 you recorded Little Eyes, though ESP never released it. What were the recording processes like for those two works?
EA They were both recorded [at] studios in New York. For both of them I was just in a room with one guy, the engineer, and I sort of produced them. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I did it. Ask the Unicorn, the guy was more involved with making decisions himself, about reverb, all that stuff. Little Eyes, the guy was sitting in a booth and he had dark glasses on and he would just do what I asked. I wanted the album to sound like one continuous take.
JK And it does.
EA We came back the second day, and we redid . . . I think, two songs . . . inserted them. Which was hard to do, because, he explained to me, the sounds will change, even though the settings are all the same; it’s a different day. He had to adjust stuff. So all we did—he brought the tape out, and we put it on one of those machines, and then we simply went through everything, and I’d go, “Take that out, take that out, take that out… OK, stop, OK, start.” We just edited on the spot, in one time, basically.
JK So you literally cut out the parts you didn’t like?
EA Yeah, that’s how we did it.
JK Earlier you told me, “I don’t write songs, I make songs.” What did you mean by that?
EA One sits down and works a song out on an instrument. Since I got my computer—it kind of coincides with my hands getting worse, in a way—I started using Pro Tools, and I found it was a lot easier on my hands if I worked things out in sections. So all you need is the basic amount, for the verse, if you’re doing a song, you need a chorus if you want to have a chorus, and that’s all you need . . . and then you can start moving this stuff around, until you get it the length you want. And then I listen to it and I figure out the words. So that’s like making something, more like painting, like collage, than sitting down and going through stuff until I have a song, which is what I used to do.
JK So sitting down and going through stuff, that’s more like writing a song in the traditional sense?
EA Yeah, that’s more like the folk idea of writing a song. Except I don’t know if traditional folk artists referred to themselves as writing . . . I don’t know if they said they “wrote” a song. I’m a painter; I like the idea that I made something.
JK That idea of putting pieces together, fitting things into place.
EA Yeah, which is how I do it now.
JK Back to ESP: was there a discernible community of artists at the label? Did you feel included in a sort of movement or collective?
EA I never really met the people on ESP. I would come to New York to talk to Bernard [Stollman] and that was it, basically; I didn’t see any people. It was just a small office. I think [Bernard] basically would lease or rent a studio and send the artists over there, and he’d put them together with an engineer, and they would just make the record. I don’t think he had anything to do with any production.
JK So it was very decentralized.
EA Yeah, except he had control over what happened in the office.
JK Did it seem like Bernard had a vision, a sort of aesthetic or sound he wanted to promote?
EA I don’t know.
JK I ask because ESP is pretty well known for free jazz artists, but there was also marked deviation from that genre with fringe rock and folk acts like you, Godz, the Fugs, and Pearls Before Swine. You had no real contact with those groups, the rock and folk acts?
JK No, the only time I met Pearls Before Swine was . . . there was this guy named Lou, who had a program for a few years on WYBC. At that time there were some people who had folk shows. So [Lou] was going to have [Pearls Before Swine] on his show, and he stopped by where I was living, so I talked to them for a few minutes. I was going to go over to the station with them, but I was tripping . . . for some reason everything was too intense, so I said, “I gotta go,” and jumped out of the van.
JK Did you like Pearls Before Swine’s music? They wrote stuff at least marginally similar to yours.
EA I liked Pearls Before Swine. Now it sounds really folky to me. The whole folk revival—I liked it at the time, but now I don’t even listen to that stuff. And they’re still a lot of people who play that way. Somebody sent me a message [in regards to my newer music] that it’d be better if I degraded the sound (laughter). I don’t want to do that. I like a nice clear sound. I don’t like all this reverb.
JK Degraded sound quality, reverb: both are very popular nowadays. And it’s funny, your older stuff sounds lo-fidelity, which is definitely part of its appeal.
EA But it’s clear, there’s very little reverb on it. People send me things thinking I’m going to like them. Somebody sent me some rap artist—every other word was “fuck”—thinking I would love it. I told him it wasn’t my cup of tea.
JK What was your relationship like with psychedelics? Did you use them frequently?
EA Yeah (laughter). Yeah, for those few years . . . friends of mine, we used to go out to the woods and trip every weekend. Then I got into doing trips by myself and wandering around New Haven. But I started having weird trips.
JK How do you mean?
EA Sort of paranoid trips. But that just comes with the territory. The way you deal with that is you remember in the middle of that kind of thing that in a few hours it will be over. But I never liked the feeling of chemicals in my body, even prescription stuff. The last time I tried psychedelics . . . I hadn’t done it in a long time, and somebody had given me some fresh mushrooms in honey. So I did those, but I wasn’t able to do anything but lie down and listen to some Indian music. I never did any more after that.
JK What was the relationship between drugs and the music you were making at the time? Could you create while tripping?
EA I don’t know . . . I don’t really think about it. I started smoking pot at the school I was teaching at.
JK Which school?
EA After I got out of Yale I got this teaching job. I was trying to get out of the draft. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam: it seemed like a bad idea at the time. So I got a job at this crazy school, called the Shapley School, in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
JK And I have it that you first started writing songs while working at that school.
EA Yeah, I started writing songs . . . but I never thought of them as folk songs. What I would do is . . . at the beginning of each day, they’d [the students and faculty] gather in a circle, and anyone who wanted to say anything could say something. So I’d sing a song. It was kind of a weird school. That’s when I started smoking pot. I wasn’t the most successful teacher in the world. Smoking pot while you’re teaching is not a good idea. And I was drinking a lot too.
JK Is the Shapely School still around?
EA No, it ended with the semester. I taught for a semester and that was the end of the school. I ended up not going to faculty meetings, I ended up going off, smoking pot in the woods during my breaks. I was getting depressed. But I made good friends with some of the students!
JK What was it about the environment of the school that inspired you to start writing music? Was it something about being around kids who were also excited about creating things?
EA Well, in a way I had an audience. I sang songs to them.
JK And that really helped.
EA Yeah, it was part of it. Also I was making art still. I gave up making art for a while . . . after [the Shapley School] was over I gave up making art. And kept playing music. And then I moved to New Haven. By the end of that semester I had probably at least twenty-five songs, maybe thirty. I remember there was a whole folder of songs I threw away. Like an idiot. Some time after the Shapley School ended and I ended up living back in New Haven, I met a young woman who took me to the Exit Coffee House, which was in a church basement. It was in the First Methodist Church, I think. On a corner by New Haven Green. And I was going to play, and I was very nervous about it: I’d never played publicly before. I’d only played for these kids. I wasn’t confident.
JK You make a distinction between pop music and art. What’s the difference?
Ed: Well in a way there isn’t [one], but in a way there is. Somebody who knows traditional forms—the way a song’s supposed to sound, where the break’s supposed to be, all that stuff, those chords—and they’re worried about who’s going to like it, they’re writing for a kind of audience, they’re writing folk music, or they’re writing for the theatre, that’s kind of like popular music. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people who are brilliant, and they aren’t people who are inventive—The Beatles were really inventive, they got away with a lot. But they wrote for a general audience. But a lot of people write for a general audience and they have a niche, and they stay in the niche. They’re not going to risk . . . like, Springsteen put out that album of folk music We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. And I read he’d been doing that for years, but he was afraid it would affect his image negatively if he put any of that stuff up. So in a way that’s a difference between a pop artist and an art artist.
JK So you’ve never been concerned about catering to an audience?
EA No, you just write. You don’t worry about whether anybody’s going to like it. If I worried about if anybody was going to like it, I suppose I . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t do multitracking.
JK Let’s talk about your lyrics. Often, they don’t line up in a conventional way with the music, the chords. Sometimes the lyrics and the accompaniment even seem to work against each other.
EA It’s partly from listening to Joni Mitchell. Not from the way Joni Mitchell sounds, but what she writes . . . I’m listening [to her] one day, and I’m going, “That’s conversational, that’s like she’s just talking.” And she can stop anywhere and start anywhere, regardless of the music. It struck me as a sort of thing that would make things interesting.
JK Was Joni Mitchell one of your first influences? Who were others?
EA Yeah, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I was listening to stuff all my friends were listening to. When I was in high school I was listening to Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. I had a stack of 45s at that time. But then I got interested in classical music.
JK In high school?
EA Yeah, in my later years in high school. I was in choirs since I was a young kid. And so mostly through undergrad, I wasn’t really listening to pop music. In my late teens and early twenties I was listening to Harry Partch, Kurt Weill, John Cage. Anything I could find that was strange and experimental, that’s what I was listening to. Erik Satie. When I was at Yale, John Cage visited. I was interested in stuff as a painter—music painters would be interested in, like experimental music. And at that time there was a kind of prejudice on the part of art people. I remember once I was visiting [my friend] Jan [Hashey] in New York and I brought out my tiple, and these two guys got up, and said, “We don’t listen to popular music,” and they left. And I remember also going down to an alternative space, where they fancied themselves avant-garde. And they wouldn’t even listen to me, because I played folk music. That’s all changed. It’s all mixed up now, which is nice. So it wasn’t a prejudice . . . I was just interested in experimental music. That’s really what interested me. So probably Kurt Weill had more influence on my songs than Bob Dylan. Then, by the time I was writing [music] at Yale, I remember someone bringing to our apartment a Dylan record. And friends of mine were into the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So in my mid-twenties I got interested in pop music again. In five years everything had changed totally, from Elvis Presley and Fats Domino to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Doors. So actually I had just begun listening to that stuff when I started writing [songs].
JK I feel like most people start with Dylan and the Beatles, and then move toward the avant-garde. Your experience was the opposite of that.
EA Yeah. I also was interested in surrealist poetry. I was reading an English translation of Lorca. And that had a big influence on my writing.
JK Do you see your lyrics as poetry? Some of the lyrics on Ask the Unicorn and Little Eyes are almost bewildering in their intensity and abstractness. It seems a lot of them could function as verse, divorced from the music.
EA Yeah, like “Fancy That” Ask the Unicorn, I’m kind of doing a snow job of imagery. I just wanted to do this snow job that kind of went on and on and on.
JK It’s disorienting.
EA It just kind of poured out of me. But I don’t know what half that stuff means. ‘Cause it’s pictures, I’m making pictures. I’m not trying to explain the world to people. Also it has to do with my beginning to feel rebellious, like kind of pre-hippy days. My beginning to feel like, “Fuck you.” And I just felt free, I could say anything I wanted, all of a sudden.
JK And that’s how the lyrical franticness on a song like “Fancy That” came about.
EA Yeah, or “Mr. Dream” Ask the Unicorn. [That song] came out of my remembering… Kennedy is Mr. Dream. And LBJ is Mr. Remember. People who think I’m writing about myself all the time . . . if somebody writes a story, you don’t ask them who [their] lover was at the time, and how it influenced the story. You ask them about the story. And you know the story is just a story. You may ask them, “Did you use a source in your life?” And inevitably they always say, “I used some memories of my mother for this, but that’s not what my mother was like.” And that’s sort of the relationship I have to all [my] songs. But a lot of it’s just made-up stuff. This kid Tony, who’s a friend of mine (points to a picture of Tony, tacked to the wall), we have a very nice friendship on the web. He’s a great guy. He’s a Mormon, actually. He’s just a great guy. We both like boys’ choirs, we both like a lot of stuff in common. I wrote a bunch of songs for Tony. They all sound like love songs, but I was never in love with Tony. But I always tell Tony if I write a song from him, I say, “This is a love song, but I’m not in love with you.” It makes it a much better song if I make it into a love song. I found, early on, that instead of writing songs—again, a lot of my explanations are after the fact. I look at something, and I say, “Oh, that’s what that was about,” and I come up with an explanation. But when I wrote it, I just did something.
JK That’s a really interesting idea, that as an artist you don’t know what the art is about, completely, until after you’ve created it, and gained some objectivity.
EA A lot of times, yeah. Probably most of the time. If you explain stuff, or if you wrote a song about me and my girlfriend or me and my boyfriend, and what we did, and how my heart’s broken ‘cause she cheated on me… those make good songs, but they’re very literal, and you just kind of follow your nose through the song.
JK Are you likely to alter the music in service to the lyrics?
EA What do you mean?
JK Like the chords almost give way to the energy and boundlessness of the lyrics. Is that intentional?
EA It has to do with it being on the tiple, which gives you an entirely different impression than a keyboard. I’d be playing the tiple, and I’d be going (gets up, dances around), I’d be like dancing. So the tiple is less formal, in a way, more Dionysian. Later on I started writing about very specific situation in less sort of apocalyptic imagery. I was very taken with Dylan, I was very taken with Lorca. I was more taken with the idea of being some sort of a static creature. And later on I didn’t feel the need to do that so much. I’d respond more to situations in my life. Where I wouldn’t try to explain them but I’d use those situations to create songs. When I wrote a lot of those songs [on Ask the Unicorn, I hadn’t even have a lover yet. I didn’t have a lover until I was like twenty-six. I had yet to sleep with anybody. So there was all that pent up sexual energy. Later on, the songs became about my relationships, and my disappointments. So, that’s kind of a big change, at least lyrically.
JK A lyrical constant I’ve noticed in your music is color. You cite specific colors in many of your songs.
EA Yeah, I like using color. It’s partly being a painter. It definitely has to do with being a painter, and seeing things as a painter. A lot of people, I get the impression they don’t notice the color of the world. It enhances imagery. I can’t imagine using imagery and not coloring the images. Yeah, I still use it a lot. But it’s not symbolic. There’s that song “My Love Is A Red, Red Rose” Little Eyes, and that’s a sequence of colors. And each color would give me the verse. Or it went the other way around, I don’t know.
JK So each verse…
EA Was an image based on a color, yeah. For me colors bring things to life. The thing is not to overdo it.
JK Let’s talk about Little Eyes. You recorded it for ESP Disk, but that label never released it.
EA The fact that I was able to put out Little Eyes [on De Stijl in 2007], that was a total piece of luck. Because [the studio] sent me a test pressing. Somebody insisted we make a copy of [the test pressing] before I wore it out, because it was on acetate. And eventually it just wore out, it was no good after a while, because I played it to death. Because it didn’t release, it was the only one, I just listened to it all the time and ruined it. What are you going to do? So we got somebody to make a good tape of it, and I had that tape for years.
JK Then how did De Stijl get in contact with you about it? How did the reissue happen?
EA It’s a long story. There’s this guy in England named John Farr, like a super-fan of mine. He tried to get a hold of me for years. Fontana put out Ask the Unicorn in England]. It turned out I had a lot of fans in England, and I never knew about it—ESP never mentioned it. [Bernard] Stollman just didn’t tell you about things like that. He didn’t bother. And they were waiting for another album, and I made another album, but ESP never put it out.
JK Why not?
EA They were going bankrupt. But also Stollman said he didn’t like the piano [on Little Eyes. I don’t know if he liked the album. It was very strange.
JK How do you feel about the album?
EA I love the album.
JK What’s the relationship between those first two albums, Ask the Unicorn and Little Eyes?
EA Well, they’re like a set. Little Eyes is only two years later.
JK Did your tiple playing change between Ask the Unicorn and Little Eyes?
EA A little. I became more precise. I could pick out melodic lines. If you listen to Little Eyes, the tiple playing is much more specific. The thing that kind of broke my heart was . . . I got really good at the tiple, later on. I got much better later on. But none of that ever got recorded.
JK I read somewhere that for you the very act of playing the tiple—something you don’t do much anymore—affects the way you sing, the timbre of your voice.
EA When I played the tiple I used to tend to dance, so that would have an effect on the way I sang. The whole thing was very intense, and the tiple’s loud. It doesn’t look loud, but it’s very loud. And I suppose it had to do with those songs.
JK Concerning Imperfiction: I have it that you released the album on cassette in 1984. Can you talk about that process? The distribution of the cassette?
EA Strictly speaking I didn’t distribute the cassette. Strictly speaking, Jan [Hashey] had asked me for a tape of my music, and I didn’t have any way to do it. At some point somebody gave me a little two-track tape recorder, and a RadioShack microphone. One day I decided, “Well, I’m tired of not being able to record anything.” I’m sure there would have been a way, if I’d been a little pushier, to get somebody to do it. But I don’t want to bother people, or something. So I decided, “I’m going to make a recording, fuck it.” So I made the recording. [Drag City] cleaned it up quite a bit—originally that recording was very noisy. Because right near by—what some people might think is tape hiss—was a road with constant traffic.
JK Yeah, it sounds just like tape hiss.
EA They had to mask that out somehow. Also, it’s a cheap tape recorder, and a cheap microphone. So I just made a list of songs I wanted to record and I recorded them. And I sent the cassette to Jan. Gone. Done.
JK So you did distribute the cassette, but only to one person.
EA To one person. And then years later I asked people to send me tapes if they had them. So Karl sent me Little Eyes. And Jan sent me Imperfiction. I made a copy and sent her [back] the original. The copy didn’t sound much different. So I sent that out to Steve [Krakow, a/k/a Plastic Crimewave]. He hired me to come out to Chicago and do a show a few years ago. It was the first time anybody had asked me to play music in years. They flew me out to do a set in a festival. Later on [Steve] developed a relationship with Drag City. He said, “I think Drag city would like to release Imperfiction, would that be alright?” I said, “Yeah, but the sound is terrible.” And he said, “Yeah, but it’s a great tape.” I said, “Well, alright, the performance is good.” I didn’t have a clue they could clean it up like that. So they did it.
JK What were you doing musically during the interim between Little Eyes and Imperfiction?
EA All those years? I was writing all those songs that are on Imperfiction. I didn’t just suddenly write all those songs. Those songs were written over a period of fifteen years.
JK They’re remarkably less frantic then the material on Ask The Unicorn and Little Eyes. They’re more succinct, almost pop.
EA Yeah. They came more directly from my life. They were more about somebody I fell in love with, or . . .
JK And you had fallen in love at that point.
EA Yeah, I had, it wasn’t imaginary. Although you take liberties, for the sake of the song.
JK In the song “Art and Life,” there’s the line “A true musician seeks harmony.” Can you talk about that?
EA I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it sounded nice. One is always looking for harmony in one’s life. I think one upsets it more than one creates it, though. In Buddhism there’s a thing about hope and fear. Hope and fear are two sides of the very same coin. It’s not just like, “Hope is good, fear is bad, if only we had hope.” Hope is a fantasy that gives you comfort. That’s OK, as far as it goes, but if you act on it you may make a mistake, your decision may be based on a fantasy. Sometimes I couldn’t pay my rent and I’d tell myself, “Something will come up.” That’s hope. Even when I wrote it I realized it couldn’t be just harmony, because dissonant music is sometimes very beautiful. To be one with situations. Which is hard to do, because one’s always thinking about things.
Ed Askew’s Mixtape: June 2011
Beirut, “Sunday Smile”
I like the nostalgic quality. I like the Slavic influence on their music, and the horn parts. It has a very relaxed [quality], and yet it’s very tight music.
Fire on Fire, "Hangman”
This is considered contemporary psych-folk. They have this old-timey quality, but it’s very modern.
Frederic Rzewski, “The People United Will Never Be Divided”
These are variations of the song “The People United Will Never be Divided.” He does classical compositions that have political . . . the compositions themselves are not necessarily political but the titles are political, and they may relate tangentially to political situations. There was a whole thing called “The New Song” [Nueva canción]. When there was a folk thing [in the United States], there was a whole movement to write political songs [in Latin America].
Joni Mitchell, “Stormy Weather”
This is off a late album of standards Both Sides Now. They’re arranged to follow a love affair. The thrill, and then there’s a breakup, and then a kind of nostalgic look back. She has a painting she made of herself on the album [cover].
Josephine Foster, “How Happy Is The Little Stone”
I guess she’d be called psych-folk. She’d fit in that whole thing. I met her in Chicago, she’s a friend of Steve [Krakow]. Her voice sometimes grates on me because she sings off-pitch. And I’m terrible about that—I can tell if you’re a millimeter off-pitch. But it’s alright, that’s just her style. She’s a great lady.
Bright Eyes, “Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed)”
I like Bright Eyes. I have Cassadaga, I don’t really have any other albums by him. I love the first song.
Lotte Lenya, “Pirate Jenny”
I think an influence might be Kurt Weill in the productions (like Threepenny Opera) he made with Bertolt Brecht. And the singer Lotte Lenya, who was married to Weill and sang in the shows, had an amazing voice. Great stuff.
Jacob Kaplan is a writer and schoolteacher. He lives in Brooklyn.