The Ashtray Hearts
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Ashtray Hearts
Indoor fireworks
MINNEAPOLIS, MN

By Amy Carlson Gustafson

Minneapolis can get depressingly cold in the winter. Touring bands stop coming through, local bands get sick of moving gear in the freezing rain, and music fans try and stay warm in their apartments, hopefully with the help of their record collections.

Sounds bleak, huh? Well, if you’re anything like the Ashtray Hearts, you find inspiration from the treacherous outdoor elements in the most obvious of surroundings: hardwood floors, white walls and old, noisy radiators. On their debut Old Numbers, the Ashtray Hearts have created a somber, inviting album that reflects those lonely, hopeless wintry days in a city full of broken hearts, dead dreams and bittersweet memories.

Singer-songwriter Dan Richmond favors the phrase “apartment music” — also the title of a compilation on the band’s label, Free Election Records — to describe the artistic (and social) aesthetic. “For me, this is the music that defines my lifestyle, in a sense,” he says.

Richmond, who also plays guitar, is joined in Ashtray Hearts by Brad Augustine on accordion and piano; Aaron Schmidt on trumpet, piano and vocals; Steve Yernberg on guitar, banjo, piano and vocals; Ryan Huber Scheife on bass; and John Jerry on drums.

The “Apartment Music” concept also apparently appeals to other like-minded, eclectic Twin Cities acts such as Work of Saws, Quillan Roe, Florida, Kid Dakota, the Owls and Mike Brady, all of whom contributed tracks to the Apartment Music compilation.

On Old Numbers, Richmond fleshes out the notion with lyrics such as, “It’s easier to leave than be left behind” from “The One You’re Closest To”; “I take comfort in the things that can’t wait” from “Disaster”; “She’s where the winters aren’t so bad/The colors never leave” from “Country Bar”; “Are you still sad when you wake up” from “Southern Wedding”, and “I gave away everything I promised you” from “Watching Me Try”. His thoughts gather like dust bunnies in a one-bedroom apartment.

Backing up the gorgeous melancholy found in the words are sounds that loom and linger with a warm intensity, tugging tightly at heartstrings. At the center are Richmond’s sorrowful Cat Stevens-like vocals, full of regret with maybe, just maybe, a hint of hope.

“I don’t know if I’m necessarily trying to get anything across to anyone but the moment,” Richmond says. “I think there is a general — at least on this record — theme of people coming in and out of your life. And in the last few years, whether it be romantic or otherwise, people have come in and out of my life. And I’ve gone in and out of others. So just by keeping track of those emotions and those feelings, they came through in the songs.” - No Depression


St. Paul, Minn. — Local group The Ashtray Hearts joined Bill DeVille in the Current studios to perform their Americana-tinged songs.

Songs: "Rules," "Watching Me Try," "Brother," and "Exits" - Minnesota Public Radio


9. ASHTRAY HEARTS ? "PERFECT HALVES"

Recorded in the dead of winter in a church in Duluth, the second CD by this six-member neo-Americana band actually sounds like spring thaw, its rich guitar noodling and accordion bits dripping over frontman Dan Richmond's budding romanticism. 58 voter points - Minneapolis Star Tribune


May 5, 2005

Too many bands nowadays are in too big a hurry. They're rushing to land a record deal, or they're overeager to put out a CD.

With this week's release of "Perfect Halves," the Ashtray Hearts make a strong case for taking it slow 'n' easy. The elegant, wintery sophomore album comes a long three years after the brooding Americana/alt-country band released its debut, "Old Numbers." Even when it got around to making the new CD, the sextet took a six-month hiatus between studio sessions. The guys didn't even play a gig in that time, last summer to fall.

"It was good to step back from the songs for a while," frontman Dan Richmond explained earlier this week.

Talking in the coffeeshop downstairs from KFAI -- he's program director at the nonprofit community radio station -- Richmond said that day jobs are one reason the Ashtray Hearts don't move faster. Another is their personal lives: Last year saw Richmond getting married and bassist Ryan Schiefe and his wife having a baby.

"We do things in this band at a pace where it doesn't conflict with everything else," Richmond said. "Keeping it uncomplicated is what keeps it fun."

But accordion/keyboard player Brad Augustine said there are artistic reasons for their slowness too.

"We all get our chance to have a little input into the songs," Augustine said. "That tends to take some time."

The Ashtray Hearts formed as the members were finishing college in 2001. Richmond had returned from a long stay in England and Ireland, where he did a lot of writing and a little soul-searching. Many of the songs on "Old Numbers" came from that experience, as did one tune on the new album, "English," in which he sings about "taking a year to turn it around."

The rest of "Perfect Halves," though, was written over the past three years. Said Richmond, "It's much more of a band record."

But don't go thinking that there are a lot of bells and whistles on the recording. What's remarkable about the Ashtray Hearts is that, even with six members, their sound remains restrained and even raw at times. Just as they don't rush their songs, they don't cram them full of any extracurricular flourishes.

Most of "Perfect Halves" was recorded during the winter at Sacred Heart in Duluth, the historic church converted into a recording studio. Like another church-made album, the Cowboy Junkies' "Trinity Sessions," this one has moments of barrenness and loneliness that can chill you to the bone, but then some of the fuller arrangements offer a warming effect. The CD-closing "Flowers," for instance, coasts into a long, noodling guitar outro that's remarkable for how basic but beautiful it sounds.

Richmond's lyrics help evoke these conflicting moods without saying anything too specific. He likened his songs to "conversations you eavesdrop on, and you're lacking the context of them." That description especially fits the opening cut, "Rules," featuring a scant 55 words that set the tone for the album's uncertain, crisscrossing lyricism.

Guitarist Steve Yernberg said, "Our music is pretty sad-sounding, but I don't really think they're sad songs. There are even a few that seem like love songs."

And even if they sound depressed, the Ashtray Hearts come across as one of the happiest bands in town. They're friends first, a point obvious during their six-month break, when they still played softball together and hung out regularly.

The band members will do what touring they can this summer, but they're happy enough getting support at home. They're performing on-air today at around 2 p.m. on the Current (89.3 FM), the new competitor to Richmond's beloved KFAI. ("There's no conflict," he claimed.) Also, look for the Ashtray Hearts to book more gigs soon after Saturday's release party at the Turf Club.

But don't expect them to move too quickly.

'DRIFTER' ON SOLID GROUND

Another reputable Twin Cities artist who took a while to make a follow-up album, bluegrass/folk singer Becky Schlegel had some folks nervously wondering where she was headed when she started working with blues and jazz vets on her new CD. The album, "Drifter Like Me," was co-produced by Jonny Lang cohorts Dik Shopteau and Kevin Bowe, and it features Gordon Johnson on bass. To add to the confusion, her release party Wednesday is at the Dakota. Yeah, the jazz club.

Rest assured, the disc -- which hits stores this week -- is still as rootsy and plucky as Schlegel's 2002 release, "Red Leaf," though not quite as twangy as the releases by her old band, True Blue.

Schlegel's sidekick, banjo- and guitar-player Brian Fesler, works his magic throughout the CD. And Becky herself more than ever sounds like the Alison Krauss of the plains, with a voice pretty enough to make grown men cry. But she never sounds so precious that she can't pull off rough-hewn songs like the troubadouristic title track or "So Embarrassing," in which the former South Dakota farm girl, age 32, tackles infidelity like a poker player bluffing her way to a jackpot. Deal me in.

HALL OF JUST-US

The main requirement for getting into the so-called Minnesota Rock & Country Hall of Fame -- really a couple guys' entrepreneurial venture more than a legitimate rock hall -- seems to be that you agree to come to their party (hence, Bob Dylan and Prince still haven't been "inducted"). Fortunately, a pretty interesting lineup has agreed to come to this year's festivities tonight and Saturday at the Medina Entertainment Center.

The 2005 entertainers/inductees include: Bobby Vee & the Shadows, who haven't performed in 40-some years; Muddy Waters' longtime harp-blower Mojo Buford, who hasn't been out much lately; the local session men from Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," who've once again enlisted Adam Levy to sing with them; Becky Thompson's old band, the Sky Blue Waters Boys (also reuniting at Lee's tonight); plus members of the Castaways and the Fendermen, the '60s garage bands who had the hits "Liar, Liar" and "Mule Skinner Blues," respectively.

RANDOM MIX

More good news for Motion City Soundtrack: Their new song "When You're Around" is the lead-off track on Epitaph's "Punk-O-Rama, Vol. 10," also featuring Rancid, the Offspring, NOFX, etc. It's out June 7, same day as MCS's Mark Hoppus-produced CD, "Commit This to Memory." Release show is that night at the Quest. ...

I've always known local jazz-piano vet Butch Thompson is a great musician, but I never knew how far his reputation stretches until last weekend's Jazzfest in New Orleans last weekend. As the featured guest of Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders, Thompson helped raise the roof on the enormous Economy Hall tent with Dixieland oldies like "Climax Rag." ...

Boasting a lonely, atmospheric Americana sound akin to the Ashtray Hearts, the Pines deserve a welcome to town before their 400 Bar gig tonight. The young duo of David Huckfeldt and Benson Ramsey -- son of renowned sideman Bo Ramsey -- originally hail from Iowa and spent some time in Tucson, Ariz., before moving to the Twin Cities last year. Their self-titled debut recently came out on Iowa City's Trailer Records. ...

El Vez is an hombre of his word, or so says local singer-songwriter Doug Utter. Utter's quirky pseudonym band, Flock of Doug, was supposed to open for the Mexican Elvis back in October, but the gig got canceled amid the First Ave bankruptcy hubbub. El Vez saw to it that Utter got on the bill for Saturday's makeup gig. Now, Utter can play him his new song, "The Ballad of El Vez," in person. - Minneapolis Star Tribune




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Whispering Bob's gallery

Radio 2 stalwart Bob Harris still enjoys sharing the music he loves: from old favourites Love to newcomers such as Ashtray Hearts

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Will Hodgkinson
The Guardian, Thursday 19 February 2004

Bob Harris
Undimmed enthusiasm: Bob Harris. Photo: Pete Millson

Bob Harris has dedicated an upstairs room of his Oxford farmhouse to his music collection. The walls are lined with neatly arranged CDs, and there are a stack of records on the floor that reveal tales of a life on the fringes of the rock'n'roll landscape you might not expect from Radio 2's foremost purveyor of danger-free rock. Out of the records Harris pulls a white label copy of The Slider by T-Rex with some messy writing on it, a dedication to Bob from his old friend Marc Bolan.

"Marc did a drawing of me there," says Harris, pointing out a little scrawl. "I met him in 1967 when I was interviewing John Peel, and John only agreed to meet me if he could bring Marc with him. We hit it off immediately, and we were best friends until the fame really went to his head. He was very pretty, but the bigger T-Rex got, the bigger Marc got, and his weight gain seemed to reflect his ever-expanding ego. After the gigs the girls wanted locks of Marc's hair, and there would be scissors everywhere as you tried to escape. Marc was scared, but you could tell that he was loving every moment of it."

John Peel also gave Harris a copy of Forever Changes by Love, his favourite record of all time. "That combination of acoustic guitar, strings and urgent staccato guitar was something that nobody had heard before," says Harris of the album. He finally met its creator, Love's eccentric leader Arthur Lee, last year. "Years ago we set up a big radio interview with him and when it came to the time to do it he said: 'No man, I've got a hot chick here with me.' It turned out he was lying. Then when I met him for a Radio 2 interview last year, he was clearly on the edge. I thought that was exciting, but the producers kept saying: 'He's a bit mad, isn't he? Do you think the listeners will be scared of him?'"

There is a touch of innocence about Harris that is refreshing. He is now enjoying his fifth decade of bringing the music he loves to a wider audience, from early journalism in the 60s, through to his anchoring of the mature rock TV programme The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 70s, and into his alternative country and rock shows on Radio 2 from the 90s to the present day. (We'll skip over the 80s, his lost decade, when he was cast out for being a hopelessly outdated old hippie.)

But age has not withered him. His enthusiasm for the music he plays is genuine, and he has remained, first and foremost, a fan of the people he champions. This is usual in youth but it becomes rare as the years pass. Harris appears to have remained in that happy adolescent state in which the discovery of a great record prompts one to rush to the nearest friend's house - or in his case the nearest microphone - and announce: "You've got to hear this!"

"I hear a piece of music I like and I instantly want to turn other people on to it," says Harris, pointing to the first single he ever bought, 1957's Diana by Paul Anka. "And I'm incredibly lucky to have lived through the birth and growth of rock'n'roll. I was 11 when I bought that single, and American music was pouring into England. I was on holiday in Cromer with my parents and we passed an amusement arcade where that record was playing on the juke box. There was a magic to it that made me want to be a part of the world it came from. In Britain, we didn't know about the American blues and country music that rock'n'roll came from, so when Elvis's Heartbreak Hotel arrived it sounded so different."

Rock'n'roll was not, initially, easy to get hold of, although its impact was huge, not least on the young Harris. "On one holiday, we stayed in a guest house in Eastbourne and the owner's son was a big Buddy Holly fan. I spent the entire two weeks in the basement listening to Buddy Holly records. It was the best holiday of my life."

Then came the first sighting of a teddy boy. "It was in Northampton. This apparition came towards me with a brylcreemed quiff, a long drape jacket in bright purple, big brogue shoes and a black shirt. I was staring at him, open-mouthed, until he came up two inches away from my face and said: 'What do you want, a photograph?' Postwar Britain was so austere that to see a teddy boy, and to hear this kind of music, was the most exciting thing, and a record player was your main source of entertainment; your portal into another world."

Harris's main job, and joy, is to champion new bands, and with Bob Harris Country being the highest-rated evening show on Radio 2 these mostly obscure bands are getting an audience they could never hope to reach otherwise. He takes the Ashtray Hearts, who appear on his compilation album, Bob Harris Presents, as a case in point. "Here was a band from Minneapolis who pressed up about 150 copies of their debut album and were looking for sympathetic ears," he explains.

"They sent me a copy and I loved it, and by playing it I created just enough interest for them to do a small number of gigs here. Then I met up with them and discovered an absolute dedication to music and a wish to develop their style in their own way. So they're not going to sell a million copies, but they're going to have some fantastic life adventures and play the music they love. And when you get 400 emails after playing a song by an unknown band, it is immensely gratifying. That's what you want from your pop star."
- The Guardian UK


Discography

LPs:
The Strangest Light (Free Election, 2013)
Perfect Halves (Free Election, 2005)
Old Numbers (Free Election, 2002)

Available on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, emusic, etc.

Compilations:
Apartment Music (Free Election, 2002)
BBC 2's Bob Harris Present vol 4 (Assembly Records, 2003)

Singles:
Country Bar b/w New York (7", Free Election, 2001)

Photos

Bio

How can a band stay together when its members no longer live on the same continent? That question faced the Ashtray Hearts as they spent eight years assembling what would become The Strangest Light, the band’s third album. In the end, the distance helped shape the narrative for this collection of songs about lives left behind and lessons learned too late.

In 2008, lead singer and songwriter Dan Richmond left Minneapolis to follow his wife to the Balkans. Other members took on new jobs, new relationships, and parenthood. Yet the band found ways to keep working—members would send song sketches back and forth via email, assembling arrangements piece by piece. This process has made The Strangest Light the Ashtray Hearts’ most collaborative record to date. In addition to songs by Dan Richmond, the album includes, for the first time, songs by guitarist Steve Yernberg (“The Strangest Light”) and multi-instrumentalist and harmony singer Aaron Schmidt (“White Church Hill”) as well as key arrangement contributions from bassist Ryan Scheife and percussionist John Jerry. When Richmond landed back in Minneapolis on breaks and during an extended stopover prior to a move to Oregon, the band would pick up where it left off, working out the new material. Eventually, the songs took final shape in the studio in early 2012. The result has become the Ashtray Hearts’ most complete and compelling record yet: an album inspired by travel, separation, and change, composed of twelve songs about love, loss, and last chances.

On The Strangest Light, the Ashtray Hearts continue to refine the pairing of lush textures and straightforward delivery explored on their first two albums. The record references folk, Americana, and country while embracing the singer-songwriter aesthetic of early 1970s Asylum Records. Yet it retains the band’s signature sound—tight harmonies, layered guitars, and eclectic instrumentation. Recorded at the Terrarium in Minneapolis, The Strangest Light captures the warmth of the Ashtray Hearts’ sound, infusing the songs with both hope and heartbreak.

Band members remain scattered in different cities, with Richmond now living in Salt Lake City, but that is fitting. The Ashtray Hearts make music designed for long road trips home, with songs whose slow pulse echoes the rhythm of the highway and lyrics that capture lives moving in different directions. The Strangest Light is both the end of long trip and the signal of a new start.

Other notes:
• The Strangest Light will be available on vinyl, CD and digital download. All LPs will include a free download code.
• Recorded by Rob Oesterlin and mixed by Jason Orris at the Terrarium. Mastered by Bruce Templeton at Magneto.
• The Ashtray Hearts plan to play shows in the US, the UK, and Europe in support of The Strangest Light in 2013 and beyond.
• The award-winning British independent film The Be All and End All (2011, dir. Bruce Webb) featured music by the Ashtray Hearts.
• The band has appeared on BBC Radio 2, toured the UK, and made several trips around the US, sharing the stage with The New Pornographers, Laura Veirs, Okkervil River, Richard Buckner, Jesse Sykes, and others.
• The Ashtray Hearts have been featured in No Depression, The Onion AV Club, The Guardian (UK), City Pages (Minneapolis), Minnesota Monthly, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), Pulse of the Twin Cities, LA Weekly, The Stranger (Seattle), and Willamette Week (Portland).
• Previous Recordings: Perfect Halves (Free Election Records, elect004), Old Numbers (Free Election Records, elect003), Bob Harris Presents, Vol. 4 compilation (featuring songs played on Harris’s BBC Radio 2 program, Assembly Records, ASEMCD004), Apartment Music compilation (Free Election Records, elect002).
• Similar Artists: Byrds, Hiss Golden Messenger, Wilco, the Jayhawks, Mojave 3, Ryan Adams, Midlake