Ash Beck (AKA Den Of Ashes) meets up with us at his go-to coffeeshop Java Man in Hermosa Beach, CA to discuss his full-length release California, what being the grandson of country and western greats means for his music career, and not giving into pressure that society places on musicians.
You are currently riding the highs of your positively received album California. For those who have yet to discover its amazingness, would you like to share a little bit about some of the lyrical themes and instrumental elements that you chose to include in the album?
Ash Beck: A lot of the themes for this album is autobiographical in many ways, and what’s funny is I actually contemplated leaving California at a time in my life.
An absurd thought! *laughs*
Ash: I know, crazy right? *laughs* What I ended up doing is going back to the reasons why I came out here in the first place, which is how the title track “California” came from. I remember calling my wife to tell her that we weren’t moving, and I got this huge ‘Thank God!’ from the other end. *both laugh* We were thinking about moving to Austin.
Austin is pretty cool! It’s a good second choice!
Ash: Yeah it is! If we didn’t live here we would’ve gone there. But what it really came down to was that the West Coast just has this magic to it. I came here when it was kind of a transitional period between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. For that song I came in and just really went back into those thoughts. I sat down with my guitar, hit a staggered beat, and threw it back to a classic sound where it’s a little folk-y with some romance. In reality, the song is derived from thoughts about travel and going through where you are right now and where you could go. I was in New York first, then I went to Nashville, and then I came out here and have been here for years. When I got here I was just like, ‘Wow! This is a great place!’ The landlords I had were the founders of Hillcrest Country Club, which all of the stars had belonged to. They would invite me there to have breakfast or dinner like once a month, and I would sit there and meet everybody. I got to meet Milton Berle, George Burns, Michael Douglas, all these wonderful Hollywood people. It was just awesome! And when they’d talk to you, there was this glimmer in their eyes, like, these piercing eyes of stardom. These people had a presence and I wanted to capture that in my music. Actually, there’s a song that came from when I first moved out here after I finished college, called “Late Night Radio.” When I started writing that I was like, ‘This is a really cool song!’ But I think had I released it back then instead of going down the path of being a musician, I don’t think it would have been as…hmmm…what’s the word I’m looking for?
Ash: Impactful, yeah! In fact, I also don’t think it would have even been accepted because ‘folk-rock’ hadn’t really emerged yet, people were still calling it ‘Americana.’ So timing is everything, and when you hit that timing then it’s magic! But back to California, the themes are clearly rooted in western, especially in songs like “Hangman” where it’s pretty much classic western in a 6/8 beat. When you’re listening to the album, it’s not just this strum along constant beat, it fluctuates a lot, and it comes down to keeping it interesting, even for me. There’s a central theme in the instrumentation. As a songwriter, you have to decide, ‘Ok, what’s going to make this magical? What’s in the essence of it?’ I think about The Beatles and how they’re great riff makers, and that’s what I try to make sure that my music does, having a lot of riffs and things that make a little bit more iconic. But when you get into the instrumentation and really understand it, you’ll see that I pair things down to where I can play acoustically in my solo performance. I might bring in a piano, or a pedal steel player, or a drummer, or a bass player, when you’re playing live, it just depends on if your space is large enough for you to bring in your whole band. On an album though, everything has to be present and you have to give people an idea of what you’re trying to create. You also have to give people room and space to do what they do best. The thing I learned from the entertainment industry when I was writing scripts is that it’s all about building characters. In music, each instrument is a character and I absolutely utilize that. When I explain what they are embodying, they understand that tonality. Whether it’s going to be ‘up’ or ‘down,’ or it’s gonna be inspiring or a little bit more ominous, it’s just amazing when you’re in this whole moment of understanding.
That’s so cool that you call that process characterizing! It’s true when you really think about it.
Ash: It really is amazing watching it happen! What you’re kind of getting into with western is that there’s a lot of different things that are going on in the music itself, like, hopes and dreams and death. I write about the human condition, even if it’s my own, and I do my best to capture those moments as they’re happening.
Cool! And which song would you say was your favorite to write and then record?
Ash: Oh man! That’s like asking ‘Who is your favorite child?’ *laughs* I obviously love them all for very different reasons and that’s why they’re on the album. I did chuck some songs though, I originally came in the studio with sixteen songs, but I know that they’re going to be reconstructed for something else. But getting back to the question, honestly, one of my favorite songs is “Canyon Walls,” the last song on the album. It just riffs off and was kind of like Den Of Ashes meets David Gilmour/Pink Floyd, it just has that beautiful space to it. David Gilmour has been a huge influence on mine, and when you think about it, Pink Floyd is all about spatial relations. So as fans, you want to incorporate your influences from all of these different people. “Canyon Walls” was a very different song because it was so sparse acoustically, and especially when I was writing it down, but I knew what it would end up being when I started adding everything into it in terms of the highs and lows and the depth. The interesting thing about it was that I was very reluctant to release the full length version of it. I have a radio edit of it because you conventionally can’t have a song that’s six minutes and fifty-ish seconds. *laughs* As much as I wish I could put that out there on the radio in full, when I take a look at my numbers for marketing it becomes important to keep those things in mind. My albums don’t get cherry picked. My Blackbird EP was not cherry picked. If you look at all of the downloads and bars they’re all consistent, which in a way I think is a good thing for what I’m trying to do. People are choosing my music to go on a journey. The EP was a way to kind of test the waters out on people who will eventually receive the full storybook that is the album. That’s exactly what music is, it’s a story that resides within itself that can sit on the shelf until someone wants to revisit it.
Plus I feel like it helps us to process it better in the long run.
Ash: Oh yeah definitely!
Now you’ve gotten to work on music videos with the greats like Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, and Michael and Janet Jackson. If you had an unlimited budget to do a music video for any song off of California, which song would you choose and what would your concept be?
Ash: I would choose “California” right off the bat because the song itself is a journey and is a period piece as well. Those types of scenes are harder and more expensive to construct, but it also depends on what level of reconstruction you do. I would absolutely want to bring back James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, just a bunch of different people from way back in the 1940s. The dream would be to basically have Hollywood Boulevard barren, and to have nobody in existence in any of these places except me. The concept would be to play it out pretty much the way that it starts. It’s walking outside, it’s the rain, it’s the train, it’s going on board and progressing the style stylization all the way through where black and white becomes a little more sepia tone and then becomes a little bit more Technicolor. It would follow the suit of cinema. Closing down Hollywood Boulevard is massively expensive, but to be able to do it would just be amazing! I’d also like people to be able to have their own interpretation while I give the narrative so to speak, and people can go in and think in their own heads about what they perceive. You don’t want it to be so shallow that it’s just about some arbitrary thing.
Yeah! And music is so subjective where one day the song can mean something and then the next day can be completely different.
Ash: Yeah. It depends what mood you’re in. It’s funny isn’t it? I was talking to somebody about my first EP, specifically the song “Blackbird.” That’s a pretty dark song in and of itself, and when you listen to it, you’ll be able to hear a darker tone instrumentally and lyrically. But somebody had interpreted it as a very inspiring song because they recognized it as this moment of redemption and a moment of reconciliation. Or with my song “Demons and Angels,” there’s not a whole heck of a lot of interpretation there, but it’s really about my dad’s last day on Earth. I wrote about because I needed to get that out of my system, and when you have something heavy like that impact you when you’re eight years old, it sticks with you and it comes out in some way or form. You just have to be open to exploring it.
Absolutely. And how would you say that the songwriting and recording process for California was similar in different to that of the Blackbird EP?
Ash: You know, that is a really good question because I made myself switch positions for this. I had a producer on the first one, and even know I’m extremely happy with it, I chose to produce California because I wanted to go through everything tooth and nail. I’m not by any means a micromanager, I let people do what they want to do, but there’s a certain essence that if I’m missing something then I’ve got to bring it in. The process was pretty much the same, we recorded and mixed in the same studio, and we kept everything local. As far as the process, I liked the process of the first one, but it really came down to the nuances of the instruments and bringing in the right people to play them. I wanted to make sure they understood the style really well. I mean, there was a point where I ended up going back in and re-recording all the guitars because I thought they needed a little bit more to them. In the studio, you have to have some momentum, and honestly, I’ll admit that I’m not the best at writing charts. I’m pretty good at it, but a lot of other musicians read the charts pretty strategically and it’s a better way to go in the long run. When it came down to producing California myself and spending the time to really go through it, one of the big discussions was more so the way that I play. I’m a huge fan of Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Keith Richards, and all of them have the same thing in common. They play a bit more organic, on the beat or sometimes a bit ahead of it or slightly behind. Many people play on the the beat that’s on the straight and narrow all the time, which keeps things a little bit more sterile and digital. If you want to stay on that standard, that’s fine. I don’t do that. My playing style is bit more organic, that’s what really gives it more of that ‘classic’ feel. We recorded all analog and went into a digital recorder, but everything that’s analog just has a little more warmth to it, you know? Some people that were a part of the recording process wanted to make it more contemporary, and I was like, ‘No. That’s the last thing I want.’ Unfortunately some had to completely leave the process because of that, but it was really important that I have that organic and analog feel to the music. You can’t throw things back in time and have a super modern vibe to it. It just doesn’t work.
I definitely agree. It’s sometimes better to keep things more natural as opposed to having all the bells and whistles.
And keeping along on the idea of EP releases. Right now with the state of the music industry, we tend to lean more towards shorter releases and singles, what are your thoughts regarding this trend?
Ash: Oh, I think producers will be the death of music. Now the latest trend is doing a song that’s two minutes long so people will keep going back and repeating it in order to get more plays through streaming. To hell with that! I feel like whenever people start finding ‘formulas’ it becomes the death of creativity, hands down. I have not nor will I ever allow myself to fall into those ideas. I’ve been a pretty boisterous artist in my career for very particular reasons, because when people try to formulate it they end up destroying the whole foundation. You have to let things be what they are meant to be instead of trying to make it fit to some mold. Writing and creativity is organic, it’s massively organic, but then when you get to recording process it becomes a little bit more mechanical, like, ‘How do I get this into a physical point where it all makes sense?’ And you know, a single versus an EP, I think it’s okay to have an EP as long as it’s a concentrated effort, but don’t call that an ‘album.’
Yeah, a cohesive thought process instead of a bunch of songs that you want to put out in one go per se.
Ash: I remember years ago everybody was doing a lot on their albums. They’d have one or two good songs, and then the rest was crap.
I mean, there’s still that nowadays. *laughs*
Ash: True. *laughs* I personally can’t do that. And I want to talk about music videos for a second, because what people don’t realize is that by doing the art of music videos, it has to exist in time forever. Once it’s done it’s done, so when I’m pushing daisies and long gone, people will still be able to see that work that I did. I don’t want somebody going back to my catalog and going like, ‘Oh, well that was ok I guess.’ I want them to really understand what kind of artist I am because a true artist is always going to give every thought into the process. Mind you I’m all about mistakes too. A great example is my song “Silver Dreams,” in which we went in on Pro Tools and the background vocals hit in the wrong place according to where I said I wanted to go. We did a quick preview of it, and I was like, ‘This is in the wrong place but it sounds so freaking cool! Do not move that!’ But going back to the question, I think it’s ok to have follow up singles. A lot of artists nowadays want to do singles so they can say, ‘Hey look at me!’ but honestly, the only way you really make money in this business is by touring. The EP was really good for me to start with, but the album has been very impactful because people are taking the time to deconstruct the whole thing from beginning to end. I would rather them take the time to sit down at the end of the day or the weekend, put headphones on, sit down, and really listen as opposed to trying to listen to it when they don’t have the time. That’s the way I think music should be listened to. So the singles are ok for me if they’re a follow-up, EPs are ok because it’s like a small storybook, and the large storybook is an album. I personally will probably be making albums and EPs as opposed to singles. I’m planning to release another EP soon, but I’ve been on the fence about making it more than four songs. I don’t think I would do more than four songs for an EP because it starts getting into album mode and kind of throws people off.
People are like, ‘I want more! Give me more!
Ash: Right! Or, you know it’s enough on the amount but they’ll say, ‘Oh, this one doesn’t quite fit.’ I have two different styles that I write in and I have to give homage to both of them. My natural style comes really easily to me, but as an artist I was like, ‘Well, if it comes out easily is it really good?’ That’s actually one of the big stumbling blocks for artists, and I feel like it was definitely a big stumbling block for me when I was starting out because it’s easy to write the music first or to write straightforward lyrics and thoughts. When I finally understood my process, I realized that it was very simple because I write from a skeletal structure, and then I let my mind go into a lyrical kind of melody, and then I come back and write according to that melody. It’s almost like improv, like we talk about actors doing improv, but singers do it too, you just have to not have any inhibitions whatsoever. Sometimes it’s syllables, sometimes it’s a feeling or a thought, sometimes I write songs where I don’t know what they’re about and then will suddenly understanding it so I can finish out those thoughts. David Bowie taught me a lot, in which he takes his lyrics, chops them up, throws them in a hat basically, and pulls them out again so he can deconstruct the song and really understand it. It’s super interesting! If you have a song that needs some problem solving, you can take it, flip it upside down and see if it still solves the same way or differently. That right there is when you know it’s an organic process. It might change the mood or the thought of it, but you just need to let it be what it’s meant to be. I feel like sometimes people try too hard to force a song to be something, but if doesn’t come right at that very moment you just have to allow it to come out on it’s own.
Yeah. And when you think about it, it’s really the spontaneous things that we remember most and not the structured things.
Ash: Yeah, it’s a mixture of influences and timing. You never know how things are going to pan out and what’s going to appear, but when it does, you’ve just gotta look at it again and not question it.
Yeah! So going into marketing and music business and how much we love it, social media is pretty much the prominent form of marketing right now whether we like it or not. Do you feel that it helps make it easier or harder for independent artists to make a name for themselves?
Ash: Oh I am highly opinionated about this, but I still think that you have to do your best to understand what was, what is, what will be, and realize that this kind of thing has stages. I think right now is an interim stage, one hundred years from now people might look back and be like, ‘Wow. These people were idiots.’ *Heather laughs* Or they’re going to say, ‘They totally destroyed it for us’ because now you wonder if there’s a real human involved in it. I think right now there’s a lot of argument that ‘influencers’ are the most important people in the market, but influencers are really ‘influencers’ if they’re interested in your product. They can have offshoots of things, and then someday sooner or later they will shoot themselves in the foot because of it’s really more about them than it is about the people they’re pushing to, and people shouldn’t confuse that. I went into this world of music after having a crazy successful career in film and music videos, and I said, ‘If I have just one fan, then I’ve achieved my goal. If one person likes my music then that’s perfectly ok with me, because at least I’ve connected to somebody other than just myself and my thoughts.’ Music always finds an audience and you just have to accept that you can’t get there the quick way. People ask me, ‘Oh why don’t you do The Voice or American Idol?’ But it’s like, why would I want to do that when there’s only like two or three people that have ever come out with longevity after those shows. Don’t get me wrong, those shows are still really great, but you have to keep in mind that they’re still going into a machine. Anyways, I do think the one-on-one, intimate part of the marketing is what it really has going for it. You have to know who your market is and know who is listening to you. I know my market and I know who I’m going towards, but I also understand that I have a lot of fans that are into classic rock just as much as they like folk rock. As you know, my stance is that I’m bringing back western, I’m bringing back western folk rock in California. You have to understand what people want to listen to and where they are geographically as well, and it really just depends timing wise. I think social media does some good things by helping keep everyone connected, but I also don’t think it’s quite the intimate setting that it tries to let on. You can go on Instagram and I see what people post, and sometimes it just looks like they’re just taking stabs in the dark or throwing things up to see what sticks. Sometimes people put stuff on there they shouldn’t be putting on there, like, if their performance is bad or the lighting isn’t great, they’re not thinking about the whole presence of what social media can really project. But then you have some people are just awesome at it!
Those few people with natural social media finesse. *laughs*
Ash: Right?! *laughs* I personally think that YouTube is one of the better social platforms that everyone has been embracing. Do I want YouTube to be my sounding ground for everything? No, I’d rather drive everybody to my site. Even for press who wants SoundCloud or all these other things. I won’t drive them there, I will bring them to my site. You want to see my world and what I’m doing, my site is the best for that information. I think ‘good’ social media is when you’re able to brand yourself, but sometimes it’s so easy to get locked into things that aren’t that great for us marketing-wise. I don’t think we’re nearly at the level we need to be in order for it to be truly effective. So the best thing I can say is drive people to your world as much as you can. Let that be all encompassing, and don’t screw up doing it. *laughs*
If only it were that easy. *laughs*
Ash: Well, people will put their foot in their mouth and then retract, they do it all the time. I’m a pretty honest guy, I have no problem with saying what’s on my mind, but there’s some things that I actively stay away from, like politics for example. As far as politics go, if you ask me a question I can give you one of course, I’m not going to sit there and lie about it.
It’s like, I can give you an answer, it might not be the answer you’re looking for, but I can give you one. *laughs*
Ash: Exactly! I might not agree with everything that people have to say, but I do agree they have the right to say it. I think that’s the best way to stay respectful. But honestly, the thing about being an artist is that you have to be able to go way out there and be comfortable doing it. That’s why music is so diversified. Not everybody’s Lawrence Welk, or Adele, or Billie Eilish. Some people are just kind of on the straight and narrow, and you know, there are other people are just kind of chaotic.
As long as we embrace it, there’s nothing wrong with being a little weird. *laughs*
Ash: Exactly! *laughs*
So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Ash: Oh we could be here for hours! I could start pairing people up right now and go on and on. *laughs*
You could also bring them back from the dead!
Ash: Ah! Well I’d say the two living people I would bring Neil Young and Billie Eilish because we all have our dark sides, and it would probably name it after Neil Young’s song “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” I could do one with Chris Stapleton and it would be the ‘Ash and Chris Saving Country and Western’ tour. *laughs*
Cool! And how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Ash: That is the hardest damn juggling act on the planet. *laughs* It’s like a balloon, you squeeze one side and the air is going to go to the other side. It’s a hard thing to do. I try to write a schedule that specifies when I’m on or off, and when I’m off I’m doing other things, you know. Artists love to produce when we can, I love visuals just as much as I love music, that’s why my stuff is very visual and descriptive. I actually like to help design for other artists, which has been pretty cool and I’m finally starting a new design company this year called Beck Modern that I’m very excited about.
Ash: Thank you! But my point being is, many artists have different types of careers as well. The way I balance it is I just let it find its own equilibrium, I try at least. *both laugh* As far as personal life, I try to make it for family and friends the best I can. I have watched, and missed, so many things. I’ve seen planes that I was supposed to have been on and was like, ‘That’s my plane going to such and such!’ *both laugh* So as far as a balance, I’m not the best person to really try to figure that out, but what I can do is try to do my best and hopefully everything works out time-wise. One of the reasons why I sold the house that built at the height of my career was to basically commit myself to the music part of my life. I wanted to make that time available, and that was the only way I knew how to do it that worked for me. It’s known that people can hold onto things and miss their dreams, and if you do that then shame on you. If you have more than one talent, and you have one lifetime, it’s almost like a big joke to have multiple talents and having no time to figure it all out. You have to try to be strategic and find out what’s resonating in you. As an artist, you have to give it its space and time, and you have to live your dreams, because if you don’t, then you might meet your maker with all of these regrets.
Yeah. And there’s so many stories of people out there that are on their deathbed saying all of these regrets for the things they wish they did. No one ever says, ‘I wish I had more money’ or ‘I wish I put more hours in at work.’ They say ‘I wish I had more time with my kids’ or ‘I wish I got to travel the world’ or ‘I wish I got to pursue this dream I had.’
Ash: And it’s amazing that you understand that because it’s extremely important. You’re only young once.
Exactly. So with being the grandson of famous country and western entertainers John and “Texas Peggy” Clemens, do you feel like there is a higher bar that you must meet as a music in terms of your career success?
Ash: That was a very interesting household growing up in. I think one of the best things that it did was that it introduced me to a lot of great music early on, and a lot of amazing people growing up so when I came out to L.A. it wasn’t jaded. I wouldn’t have took the flag of me wanting to bring back western and have this whole aspect if I didn’t have their legacy, and also I wouldn’t do it unless I was truly honest with myself. I think you have to respect yourself and your talents and be realistic about it. You have to want to write good songs. They also taught me is that sometimes a simple song is what’s best for who you are as an artist, and I think by growing up and understanding music early on showed me what really made a song or the instrumentation or producing ‘good.’ That kind of chiseled me as a musician to the point where you have the confidence of going in and asking, ‘Am I picking up where they left out? Am I good enough to go do this?’ They’re my inspiration, but they’re also my bar that I’ve set for myself.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Ash: Hopefully concert tickets. *both laugh* I think out of anything, I want to be recognized as a really good singer-songwriter, and hopefully one of the best by the time I’m done with what I need to accomplish musically, whenever that time may be. I want them to walk away and really understand that my music is resonating personally to somebody, not just to a bunch of listeners. I love the intimacy that I have with my fans, and I love being able to share that with them.
And to end us off, what other big exciting things should we be expecting from you in the near future?
Ash: I’ve got a huge gallery tour coming up that I’m really excited about. My brain works in a very different way than most people where I try to find niches that don’t normally get explored. It’s important to me as an artist to recognize that there are just as many art galleries competing for the same space.
The same with venues as well.
Ash: Exactly! And to be fair, some of those venues are crappy, some are great, some club owners and promoters will get in touch with you, others will totally blow you off. I was amazed with how little support I had from people that I’ve known in radio and whatnot for years, and I think it’s because people like to have their vision of who you are. But then all of a sudden, somebody from way over here can be like, ‘Oh we love your stuff!’ and you’re like, ‘Alright cool!’ You have to realize that sometimes a really great opportunity might come from your peripheral view, and that’s how I came up with the gallery tour. I have some of the rarest photographs on the planet from my grandparents tour, my grandmother was an incredible photographer, and these pictures I have are absolutely priceless. You will rarely see these in books, so what I’m doing is I’m setting up a full gallery with those photographs and doing a performance in that space. What people can expect going into this gallery performance is having a great intimate force that inspires them to get up and walk among these things as the performance happens, so this will be more of an event than a show. Right now it’s really about earning the fans and giving them an experience where they understand what I’m doing and what I can bring to the table. And like I said, there’s many more songs coming. The upcoming albums are going to be kind of a continuation of a thought because there’s just so much more to the story. I can’t wait to curate the next thing because it’s going to get you into another part of who I am as an artist.
And we definitely can’t wait for everything either!
About Java Man Coffee House:
For those who love the sea but hate the overbearing crowds that Venice and Santa Monica draw, look no further than Hermosa Beach. Sure, you’ll find your trendy restaurants and boutique shops that tends to find a home in any beach city, but you will also stumble upon classic gems like that of Java Man Coffee House. The 1920’s bungalow style cafe automatically feels like home when you step in through the doors with vintage warm neutrals and pops of color, oldies dancing around your eardrums, fun coffee themed artwork and decor, and the friendliest and quickest staff that I’ve met in the South Bay area. With an extensive drink special and food menu as well as a variety of seating areas outside and inside, including an adorable nook area complete with comfy couches, the possibilities are endless for whatever type of experience you are looking for!