Ashtray Navigations - The Big Interview

Ashtray Navigations - Skewered by CloudsOver the past 15 years, Phil Todd's Leeds UK-based Ashtray Navigations has pretty clearly led the world in the production of psychedelic noise freakout rock transcendental electrification drone music. Quoting myself here, describing the Ashtray sound: "free improvisation, lo-fi psychedelia, noise and found sounds, the raw power (though rarely the form) of rock, and the tonalities of various drone and ethnic musics. Pure underground sound, basically." Todd's ability to chart infinite variations within this ever-expanding musical universe, plus the seemingly endless flow of releases on his own and other labels, don't really have a lot of parallels in "rock" (Sun Ra might be a kindred spirit), and perhaps for that reason remain heard by far too few.

Since the mid-1990s Ashtray Navigations has released music on just about every format imaginable, much of it on Todd's own consistently far out DIY labels (Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers back in the 90s, Memoirs of an Aesthete more recently), amassing a catalogue that surely must stretch into the three-digits at this point, all the while maintaining a consistency that's really something to hear.

While often working solo, Todd has also collaborated with some of the heavy players in the UK underground. The regular Ashtray live unit brings in Phil Legard (Xenis Emputae Traveling Band) and Melanie Crowley (Ocelocelot), and has also included Ben Reynolds, Alex Neilson (Scatter, Directing Hand) and many guests... Plus of course there are Todd's other projects with Chris Haldowski (Scatter, Nalle, Family Elan) and Neil Campbell (Vibracathedral Orchestra, Astral Social Club)... Not to mention, back around the turn of the millennium Todd played in A Warm Palindrome along with future members of Sculptress (about whom Mats wrote a couple years back), whose avant-garde-meets-folk methodology was ahead of its time in much the same way as the Tower Recordings... And that's just scratching the surface really... The sheer volume of releases and range of high-quality sounds makes it tough to single out particular individual Ashtray albums; in fact, the recordings work even better in the aggregate, where the long-form experimentation can be appreciated comparatively. My best advice generally is to just acquire as much as one can lay one's hands on...

We've been wanting to do an Ashtray Navigations piece since way back in the primordial print days of Deep Water and, well, it took us a while to get around to it (though a couple of AN albums have made it into our year-end-bests lists [in 2006 and 2007], and we recently had the pleasure of releasing some fine Ashtray sounds on the DW label). But that just gave us that much more to catch up with Todd about when we finally did so, as seen by the epic discussion below, carried out via email in fall 2008. Thanks to Phil for all his time and input.

Did you have experience with music from early on, or was it something you picked up later? Were there particular artists that inspired you to start doing your own?

I always wanted to do it, since I first heard my uncle's collection of early 60s pop 7-inchers at a very early age - magic plastic circles which took you to another place when spun - who wouldn't wanna make ‘em? I was playing music from early school years onwards, and the "twanging on toy instruments" aesthetic of those days has never fully left me. Ashtray Navigations was the first band I did where I attempted to play "real" instruments (save for occasional stints on guitar and harmonica in other folks' bands). The big influence with early Ashtray was hearing power electronics and early noise stuff, and also 60s psychedelic oddities. Or rather bad cassette copies of this music. It seemed like something I could do, especially the tape hiss. I could hiss better than anybody and maybe still can (still recording everything on cassette 15 years later). Also Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives was an enormous influence as it proved that tape hiss could rock. Something like that anyway. I've still not got a handle on how that record works its unique magic.

Ashtray Navigations - Use Copenhagen 69 Guitars...When/how/why did Ashtray Navigations first come into existence as a recognizable entity? The first Ashtray music I heard was the Siltbreeze LP, but I seem to recall reading in a fanzine at the time that you had already released some 100 cassettes, can that be correct?

AN came into being in January 1994. I "released" a lot of tapes very quickly, though maybe not 100. This was because I'd just bought a four track (and what a shitty four track it was) and I wanted to see what I could do with it, and what I could do with music in general. The only way to see what I could do was to actually start recording things and putting them in order, as "releases" (though many of these cassettes were issued in runs of single figures). The only way I was going to improve was to generate feedback from a small audience (i.e. friends and contacts in the music scene). I couldn't sit by myself and listen to what I'd recorded trying to work out if it was any good or not, gotta have an audience (even if it is just one other person) for that. You could forget gigs, there was nowhere to play in the town I was from, so I had to do a lot of tapes. The recent 10xCDR reissue (Early Years/Tape Muck 1994-1998) has quite a few of the cassettes but by no means all. I don't have copies of a lot of them any more.

It does seem like the analog recording process is a big part of the AN "sound"... What is it about cassette (8-track?) that appeals to you? It almost seems like the compression and "instant decay" of the medium becomes its own instrument...

It was all I could afford; nope, not even 8 track but 4 track cassette and the worst 4 track imaginable in the early years (ever heard of Vesta portastudios? thought not!). It was held together with sellotape and I used it until at least 2001 or so. Me and a friend had a duo project in the late 90s and we recorded everything on his digital portastudio. One day everything malfunctioned and we lost 18 months of work in about ten minutes flat and I vowed never to use digital again (it just isn't "there" if you know what I mean). Also, yes, the compression and distortion of cassettes is very attractive but I'm not planning on restricting myself to it, especially as analogue equipment breaks down and it gets harder to get it fixed and cassette blanks become more and more scarce. Very recently, I've been experimenting with recording digitally and have been very happy with the results. Anyone who thinks that these recent recordings are going to sound cleaner or in any way less fucked-up is in for quite a shock!

Was it mostly you on your own playing at the start?

Ashtray is mostly me, and it is my "concept" I guess. Guests and helpers are always invaluable and were there from the start. They help take things in directions that I could never envisage by myself.

Ashtray Navigations - Dame Whiskey, Mary JaneThe Ashtray Navigations musical output over the years has been prodigious, to say the least... Any idea exactly how many? Is music something you're working on pretty much all the time? Do you have any particular favorites among them all?

There was an interview with Masami Akita where he was asked why there are so many Merzbow releases and he simply said, "I don't like to stop". What can I add to that? There's the answer for you entirely! I've no idea how many releases there are and I couldn't provide a full discography. I'm more into making music (and cover art and titles) than cataloguing it all, or even listening to it too much afterwards, though I quite often enjoy digging up "one from the vaults" of an evening. I like to record something every week, I feel a bit adrift if I go a week without at least playing. I like everything I've released (or else I would not release it) but yeah I guess I do have a few favourites, usually ones where I feel I've made some sort of breakthrough. Listening back to old things though, what always gets me is how much they change every time I hear them. Ones that I remember turning out really good often disappoint when I dredge them out again. Other things which didn't seem too much at the time can jump out at you. Also things I've released which I haven't been especially wild about, I mean they're OK but not especially stand-out for me, prove to be other peoples' favourites. This is one of the amazing things about music in general, I think.

It does seem like there are some consistent threads weaving through all the varied AN output over the years, even through so very many releases, clearly enough that it can't just be a random thing... Can you say a little more about the concept factor? Does concept precede action, or vice versa, or...?

Concept hardly ever precedes action as I don't believe in restricting myself in any way, but if it doesn't sound like Ashtray Navigations it doesn't get released, at least under that name. The criteria I have for what constitutes Ashtray Navigations is a hard thing to put into words. There are constant threads throughout everything but I guess that is partly to do with my own personal taste, and it being hard for me to disguise my handwriting, so to speak. I'll occasionally make "references" to previous things I've done, either in the cover art or titles or the sound itself, if it feels right, but I largely work through intuition.

I'll usually have an idea of what I want to do before I start recording. Usually everything goes wrong and it sounds nothing like I wanted to do, but quite often it sounds better than what I intended and the idea of the ideal sound in my head shifts accordingly. The fact that my intentions keep shifting in this way, and that nothing comes out "right" is probably the reason I've been doing music for so long and released so much stuff.

Ashtray Navigations - Todd guitarI'm really curious about your guitar & effects setup... You have an instantly identifiable sound across all the varied AN music; is gear a factor in that, or is it down more to technique? Any particular effects or equipment you favor?

I think it is all technique, or maybe lack of - I tend to gravitate towards certain intervals (5ths and 7ths mostly) and modes in my guitar playing partly through habit and partly because that's what seems to fit. I've recently gone back to playing in standard tuning a lot of the time in order to escape these routines. There was a while when I was playing in a "proper music" duo where we rehearsed several times a week and by christ did my guitar playing get good then. In recent years I've tended to only play guitar when doing Ashtray stuff and its getting too easy to fall into habits. If I practice by myself at home I tend to play the same shit all the time and I'm trying to change that. I'd like to either be a much better guitarist or a much much worse one. There's some brilliant examples of bad guitar playing on some of my early records and I kinda miss not being able to do that any more - sometimes it seems like the more you can play the less you end up trying to play, or something. I usually find incompetent or willfully perverse guitar playing much more enjoyable and inspiring to listen to that listening to someone show off their "chops" in the usual predictable fashion.

I also favour guitar playing with a blues feeling - most guitar players these days tend to play with an indie or metal approach but that doesn't do it for me. When I started playing my favourite guitarist was Carlos Santana, and I still think he plays great. Not a hip name to drop at all, but anyone turning their nose up at the first 3 or 4 Santana albums is missing some good shit (I'll pass on the later ones though). To come to think of it, we got compared to Santana when we played at All Tomorrows Parties, intended as an insult but I couldn't have been happier, especially as we must have really offended a fan of indie "music". I get compared to Sharrock quite a bit as well and I think he was just fantastic. I also dig very much Lou Reed's "ostrich" style and Matt Valentine's more exploratory stuff. Bits of all the above have no doubt worked their way into the Ashtray armoury.

Until recently I've always used the crappiest and cheapest guitars I could find, and I got through a lot of them - I can be pretty rough on them and most of them were so bad that they fell apart without me even trying. My basement is a graveyard for fallen guitars and other broken down equipment. I've used different stuff all the time as the stuff I use is usually old and cheap and breaks down pretty quickly.

All Ashtray guitar parts are recorded through small and usually crappy amps, or plugged directly into the 4 track. I'm a big fan of fuzz pedals and have several, though the Big Muff is king. Sustain all the way up, just like Carlos! Lots of other weird pedals tend to figure, I tend to use different ones all the time, the recent revival of the Roland Space Echo being a current favourite.

A lot of sounds on Ashtray records are guitar generated, as I use it to make sounds as well as play notes. Guitar feedback is just the best, an endlessly variable and mutable sound. Electric guitar is just the greatest instrument as far as I'm concerned. You can carry it around with you easily, use it for chords, bass parts, melodies, weird noises and screeching feedback and if you are Jimi you can do all these things at once. Unfortunately I am not him, but we have the same birthday.

In addition to the sound, there's also a distinctive aesthetic for a lot of the cover art and album/song titles. Is there a conscious theme, or do you just pull from whatever is at hand? There often seems to be a real absurdist/surrealist element to the titles especially...

Ashtray Navigations - The Cream WheelI was very into surrealism as a young ‘un but think aspects of it are ridiculous now (it seems too bound by rules a lot of the time, classic surrealism that is). Absurdism is a hard position to avoid, as a working class person from the north of England involving himself in "the avant-garde", if you know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, listen to a New Blockaders record.

The titles are hard to explain, I usually just settle on one that seems right, just an instinct I get. For example a recent CDR I did HAD to be titled The Night Time Is The Right Time, which has nothing to do with the contents or anything but I knew it was the only title I could release it under. Sorry I have no explanation as to why. It's not even a particularly thrilling title. A lot of the titles describe the sound in some way, or are a self-deprecating reference to it, a lot are completely irrelevant, just words or phrases that I am drawn to or stuff that makes me laugh.

Also "rock history" informs a lot of titles, as music has been going on for a long time and there are a lot of precedents for things I try to do. I've recently been putting the names of the instruments I use on the covers, which I never used to do. Some of them have very poetic names, like the Sunn Mustang guitar (actually a very crappy guitar but a cool name), or have some iconic significance - using a VCS3 (or a computer simulation of one) makes me think of Hawkwind or the Radiophonic Workshop. Using a Vox amp makes me think of the Velvets or Beatles or Stones. I can get that type of sound in my head just from the name. That's the essence of poetry surely, putting images and sounds in your head with words that don't really describe anything, in concrete terms.

The titles are the same process I think, something to make an image in the listeners head which has either poetic or iconic significance. That sort of thing. Mel has just pointed out that a lot of titles are to do with word play. This is what I grew up doing. In the town where I am from people can have whole conversations which consist of nothing other than fucking around with language, substituting metonyms or stupid words that rhyme all the time. It's a small, boring place with nothing else to do if yr not into fighting or drink/drug abuse.

Finally though, I'd say that the titles are completely unnecessary for understanding the music. I don't want to do stuff where knowing how to speak English is a prerequisite to appreciating my music, which is why I have very little interest in songs with lyrics, unless they are really good. To come to think of it, I once told someone that I thought "Surfin' Bird" by The Trashmen was the pinnacle of rock lyrics. Kind of a joke but I could still stand by that - "Papa Oom-Mow-Mow" and all that is much more fun that hearing someone whining about them being dumped or telling us all how we can save the planet or what have you.

Can you say a little bit about how your working process has developed over the years? How much is improvised, and how much is planned out? It seems like a lot of the playing itself is improvisational, but also with some larger structure or pattern that shapes how it develops...

There is a lot of improv, but its always structured around some idea or mode or mood. Usually its about getting a feel set in before I start rather than a specific idea about notes or even which instruments to use. A lot of the group pieces (i.e. the stuff with the Legard/Crowley bands or the Reynolds/Neilson bands) were purely improvised with no "cues" from anyone, but with lots of overdubs by me to try to rein in into a specific structure. I dunno. The Mingus quote, "You've got to improvise on something" is true, even if it's just a drone or the sound you make when you first twang a guitar string. "Free music" has too many damn rules for my liking.

Could you say a little more about that? I guess I'm looking for ways to differentiate AN music from a lot of other, perhaps superficially similar but ultimately less interesting, music out there... So much "avant-garde" music ends up kind of deadening, but AN is always, well, FUN...

Ashtray Navigations - Four More Raga MoodsI don't know if I'd call AN "avant garde" - you have put it in inverted commas as well so I guess we are both uncomfortable with that term. In fact, what does the phrase mean? It applied to various art movements in the last century but it doesn't seem to mean anything any more except a very marginal genre niche involving immensely unpopular music, so I guess I fit right in there - ha ha.

I'm just trying to make what I consider beautiful music, and to my taste that involves a certain amount of "pushing the boundaries" I guess. But I grew up listening to things like Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, etc. and always hope to have that kind of wild excitement in the sound of Ashtray Navigations, especially live, even though I know I'm not playing what most people would consider rock music. I want to have a good time, want other people to have a good time and want to move them, leaving them exhausted, drained and maybe a little emotionally devastated by my music, ‘cos that's what I'm into and I assume others will feel likewise. I certainly don't want to leave people thinking I am a clever bastard with a lot of interesting theories or anything like that.

Twin Infinitives by The Mighty Trux was a big ‘un for me - a weirdo record which your parents and friends would loathe but you can still sing along with everything on it, and still very much a rock record. Maybe I'm trying to do the same thing in reverse, only by getting rid of the song element. Of course, when rock'n'roll started it was considered beyond the pale, weird, dangerous and just not music. Same with hip hop and jazz and probably every "classical" musical form. The traditions of every musical form have been built by a few people with a unique vision - "avant-garders" if you like. How long would jazz have lasted without Charlie Parker? If it wasn't for the "avant-garde" (those inverted commas again!) there wouldn't be any kind of music at all. That first caveman who decided to bang two rocks together and call it music must have been considered a real freak and a weirdo, so I think the term is basically meaningless.

As for fun - not sure what you mean, it's a much abused word, usually used by people who want you to buy something or join the great inane cooler-than-thou consumer lemming party. I'd agree that AN is a good laugh though, and often deliberately funny. Standing up on stage in front of a bunch of people bashing a bit of wood with strings on it which is held at crotch-level is an intrinsically ridiculous act and not enough people realise this, let alone USE this absurdist factor. I think it's important to try to do this and remain sincere at the same time. For example, AC/DC or Acid Mothers Temple seem to be aware of how ridiculous they are and play upon those elements all the time, but are totally honest at the same time, i.e. they rock. I admire this very much.

Also when I first started doing AN in the early ‘90s, "raga rock" or what have you was considered beyond ridiculous, possibly politically suspect and best consigned to the dustbin along with the rest of hippy culture. I liked all that stuff but could see the preposterous elements and decided to use them. Calling a CD Four Raga Moods was obviously a semi-(cosmic) joke at the time, but now everyone digs all that stuff and bearded American guitarists can get on stage and play raga-inspired music and talk about their gurus with a straight face and nobody takes the piss. This is a very weird turn of events for me. Some of the people in Arthur magazine, for example, have me howling with laughter as much as watching a Manowar video does, but I suspect others are not moved in this way. I'm still in many ways caught up in the ‘90s, the age of irony.

More broadly maybe, what motivates you? The amount of effort and craft that goes into the music seems to speak of some larger idea or goal...?

Ashtray Navigations - Snakestrings/Hollywood Taught You To KissThere's no goal except that I want to make beautiful music. That's enough for me. And I want to keep doing it. I hate music with "strings attatched", i.e. the artist trying to get you to recycle yogurt pots or reach out and touch somebody's hand or whatever. I quite like art, but I don't really understand it or the point of making it, so making music that sounds good to me and hopefully to other people (about 100 of them?) is it for me. There maybe is a larger idea though, almost an "artistic" idea in fact, which I accidentally almost explained in an earlier interview I did. That was a mistake, you should try and figure out what it is, its more fun that way. I haven't fully figured it out myself yet.

So, on the face of it, that might make AN sound like it fits in with a long tradition of esoteric art...? Is there some kind of crazy wisdom behind it all? Or is it more like a mystery religion in which the mystery remains a mystery even to the high priest? Can you say a little more about the philosophy behind it all?

I'm really sorry, I don't understand this question at all! It's not religious, at least I hope not. Maybe spiritual, but that's a very big word which covers a lot of things in life. I have a very minor interest in esoteric/occult matters but I am not a "believer", I'm more interested in these things from a sociological point of view - the myriad inventive ways in which man has created god in his own image. This isn't Current 93 or anything, I'm not trying to take anyone on a spiritual or philosophical journey. Not sure what you mean by "crazy wisdom" - isn't that something to do with a branch of Tibetan Buddhism which involves attaining enlightenment by acting as outrageously and incomprehensibly as possible? I can sure dig that aesthetic but don't know if it has too much to do with Ashtray Navigations.

Music is quite a mysterious thing though. Abstract visual art has never really been popular, but music is an abstract art form which moves millions of people through sound. I don't know why this is, maybe music is more accessible as it is thankfully missing most of the bullshit which surrounds the fine art world (which increasingly relies upon words to explain to you why such and such a piece of art is "good"). But I still think it is mysterious how so many people can be moved in so many different ways by abstract sound organised into patterns, which does not reference the external world in any obvious way.

Earlier you mentioned having about 100 listeners... Given the motivations behind Deep Water, we definitely admire your dedication to a DIY aesthetic. But do you ever wish your music reached a larger audience? Or would the tradeoffs involved in attempting to do so have a negative impact on the music itself (which after all is the point of the exercise)?

I'm committed to DIY (do it yourself) rather than HSOFDI (Have Some Other Fucker Do It) because I've never found any other fucker TO do it! Ashtray releases on labels other than my own always seem to take months if not years to actually come out, and I've never been on a big label with a good promotion and distribution set up which would get my name in the papers and my name up in proverbial lights etc etc, but then I don't particularly care. I'm grateful for anyone to release my stuff, and I have been a recording artiste on some truly inspiring labels like Qbico, Absurd, Celebrate Psi, Siltbreeze etc etc. I don't have a lust for fame and have no desire whatsoever to be any kind of public figure. I'm not a born hustler either. Obviously I'd like millions of people to hear my music and to become outrageously rich and decadent etc etc but I can't see how this will happen. I seem to have 14,000 listeners on Last FM (I can't believe this either) but none of them seem to be buying anything and it seems I'll be waiting a long time for royalties from Last FM. I don't know what the price would be for having a larger audience as I've never had anyone offer it to me. Obviously seeing a lot of my "contemporaries" not to say people who came up after me doing very well and playing a lot of festivals and being on proper labels and the like gets a little depressing sometimes, but I know from talking to them that all that stuff isn't what its cracked up to be, and I never started playing music because I wanted to be an underground superstar or somesuch crap. I manage to release a lot of records and do my music in whatever way I want to, and people can buy them if they want to make the effort and that is really good enough for me.

Ashtray Navigations - Dirt Mummies and Bloody AmpsHow do you view Ashtray Navigations in relation to other music going on today? With the Internet and all, is it easier for people making independent sounds to share their music around now than it was when you started out?

Maybe it is, I don't know. I grew up with the idea of music coming out of a machine spinning magical circular objects, or a live band, rather than it being piped in down the phone lines, so I don't really think of that. It's true that the Internet has made selling CDs and stuff a lot easier, but I don't really put as much effort as I should into that either. I've got a Myspace if that's what you mean, but Mel updates it more than me. There is of course a lot of people visibly making music now. There's exactly the same number of people doing it as there ever was I'm sure, but thanks to the Internet you can see them more. Not sure if that's a good thing, as musicians should be seen and not heard and definitely not in your face all the fucking time with their big gurning mugs. Music definitely took a downturn with the invention of the picture sleeve, I think.

More positively, I suppose there are a lot of people doing great stuff now which I wouldn't have heard otherwise, and a lot of great old "lost" stuff being dug up and put up on music blogs and the like, and a lot of old musicians moaning that they aren't getting any royalties. Both edges of the cyber-sword gleam yet again...

Are there other artists/musicians/writers/etc., past or present, that you feel a particular affinity towards? And what is it about them that draws you?

There's probably quite a few actually - ha ha. I have to mention David Jackman's Organum project which is probably the biggest single musical inspiration for what I do. Every time I hear records such as Sphyx and Submission I feel inspired to do more music. Jackman's stuff is inspiring both for its beauty and sonic inventiveness, and I also dig in a BIG way his lack of a public profile and his refusal to align himself with the sort of crap that other people in the UK underground music scene have saddled themselves with (I'm sure you know who I mean!) - he just does his music and shuts up.

I've also always felt an affinity toward experimental film makers, especially the marginal (i.e. independent and non-subsidised) ones, such as Brakhage, Maya Deren and especially Jack Smith. Again this is because they have worked intuitively on something which is beautiful and evocative of a very personal and unique vision without disappearing up their own arseholes by spouting on about theories or "the meaning of art" too much. And because they never made advertisements (which is all that Hollywood and most European "art""films are) or sucked up to the art establishment.

How do you feel about performing live? Do you enjoy taking it to the stage, or would you rather do the mad-scientist-in-his-laboratory thing? You've had some great collaborators, I'm guessing they play into that experience?

Ashtray Navigations - live 2005Yes, I'm finally enjoying playing live - the Todd/Crowley/Legard band is very good for this and I'm finally getting over the urge to want to go back and "edit" every live show before the audience can hear it. Live shows rarely go according to plan and maybe they are all the better for it. Yeah my collaborators have all been great and have taken the music in directions I never envisaged, what more can I ask than that? Ms. Crowley has also helped a lot with this interview by pointing out a few things and I should thank her for that as well.

You're from Leeds, right? How much would you say your environment has helped shape AN music over the years?

No, I'm from Stoke On Trent originally, I moved to Leeds in 2001. Being from nowheresville had a big influence as nobody expected anything, I didn't know anyone in my hometown who was doing any music like mine and there was no audience or interest at all except for a few friends. It's pretty much the same in Leeds actually. There are of course "the Leeds droners" (you can name ‘em I'm sure) and we are all friends but they don't play here very often and AN started completely independently of that scene, though knowing good folks like Mr. Campbell and Mr. Bower through the post and phone back then is sure to have influenced me in some way.

Real life -- what do you do when not Ashtraying? Interesting day job? Fascinating avocations?

Ashtray Navigations is my real (public) life - what I do for money is usually boring to do and even more boring to talk about so I won't.

Favorite food and beverage?

Well, I don't really want to think about food right now as I made some dodgy leftover curry today which has given me stomach ache. Vanilla yoghurt is really fucking nice and I might have some of that later. I've sort of lost interest in booze lately, but the beer we have in the UK (the small brewery stuff, not the muck) is a good reason not to emigrate, maybe the only reason. Also I drink tons of orange juice mixed with grapefruit juice which has just the right pleasure/pain alchemy to satisfy me.

Ashtray Navigations - portraitFavorite film(s)?

There's quite a lot of those, but I have yet to see one which I would consider "perfect", but I thought Chumlum by Ron Rice came quite close to my ideal of beautiful moving images.

Best thing you've read recently?

Piero Heliczer's collected poetry has been really inspiring. Don't understand much of it but I guess that's the point, but his bravura word and image pile-ups sure fire up my imagination.

Push comes to shove, top 5 favorite albums ever? (I'm guessing Twin Infinitives is right up there...)

Maybe it is, but picking just 5 Neil Hagerty-related records would be a major chore, let alone 5 from the whole damn history of music. I'd have to have the first Velvets (maybe that acetate version too for variety). Starsailor by Tim Buckley. CCCC, Bismillah Khan and Hawkwind would have to be there. Can I include every free jazz record made between 1965-75 in my top 5? I honestly like them all.

Favorite Saturday night activity?

Played a gig in Glasgow with Blood Stereo and Chris Corsano/Heather Leigh Murray last Saturday night and that's as good as it usually gets.

Supposedly fun/interesting thing that you've never quite "gotten" or just don't like?

Any kind of sport. Especially watching it which seems spectacularly pointless though I can see the fun in playing it.

I just have to ask: The band name - originally a play on the early 70s private press album Astral Navigations?

I'm asked this one all the time. Yes. It's a terrible record, though.

Best piece of advice you ever received?

Someone told me to stretch new guitar strings before you put them on and they'll go out of tune less. It works too. NOBODY else ever told me this and I never read it anywhere (not that I, er, read guitar books or magazines and that). A DRUMMER told me that as well (thanks Neil!) so go figure.

Final words of wisdom?

I am 38 years old tomorrow but that doesn't make me wise. Just old.