Chuck Foster talks to Chris Ashford
Over 30 years ago, Chris Ashford kick-started the Los Angeles DIY punk movement when he released a 7” by some young friends called The Germs. His label, What Records?, would go on to release some great singles by seminal L.A. bands. In the early ‘80s, Ashford changed the label name to Iloki and focused on surf music. Now he has Wondercap Records, an avant-garde jazz label whose roster includes some names from the old L.A. punk days.
I spoke to Chris on the phone to chronicle his career from What to Wondercap and to gain some personal insight into L.A. punk, the music industry and life in general.
Horror Garage: What was going on in L.A. in the late ‘70s, right before punk rock happened? What was the mood, the vibe around Hollywood and Los Angeles?
Chris Ashford: Well, that’s an interesting one to ask because, obviously, L.A.’s so spread out, so everybody’s a little different.
HG: As it pertains to you. What were you doing?
Chris Ashford: I was just out of high school; I graduated in ’75. From a personal level, I was just kind of floating for a little bit to see what I was going to do, but I had become pretty good friends with Georg and Paul, a.k.a. Pat Smear and Darby Crash, from working in a record store. They used to come in and I used to talk to them a lot. We had a lot of common ground because we all liked Iggy Pop. Glitter was just dying out at that point -- ’73 to ’76, that era was pretty heavy into glittery type stuff. As much as The Stooges are “The Godfathers of Punk,” they were still lumped into that era, with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, The New York Dolls and stuff like that. I think we all grew up in such a way that we didn’t want to hear Fleetwood Mac and that kind of stuff on the radio. So we were all reading the magazines and we’d hear bits and pieces from New York about bands like The Ramones and, obviously, from overseas, The Sex Pistols. There were magazines like Trouser Press, and even Creem would have articles about the stuff before it really got onto vinyl, or as it was just about to. I think everybody was just sick of the rock star stuff or the disco stuff. We used to go hang out in Hollywood and see bands and hang out in clubs and various other things that youngsters do. I think Hollywood was a more centralized area because the Sunset Strip was still happening. The Whiskey was still very active and The Roxy was very active. I guess at that point it was Filthy McNasty’s – they didn’t have much, but they had a little bit -- and Gazzarri’s was still there, so that whole west side of the Sunset Strip was still a pretty happening area for a lot of different types of shows. Santa Monica Civic, on our end of town, used to have a lot of big shows and we all went to see The Tubes and Queen.
HG: What kind of stuff were you listening to at that time?
Chris Ashford: Gee, I was rather fucked up and had a lot of records. I worked in record stores and I had access to all this stuff. I’d listen to anything from The Stooges to Tanya Tucker -- I’d drive people all kinds of crazy! I was really getting into that early Jonathan Richman stuff, we all listened to Iggy, but Raw Power came out in ’73 and Kill City was the only thing that really came after that until he finally went solo. I’d always been a big Doors fan, so I followed Ray Manzarek’s solo stuff. I went to Anaheim and saw Merle Haggard. I just didn’t like the mainstream rock stuff that we always hear. Everybody always kind of makes fun of Rodney Bingenheimer, but Rodney was really instrumental in playing a lot of interesting stuff back in those days on KROQ. I had the dark side, too. I liked John Cale and Kevin Ayers…
HG: Velvet Underground?
Chris Ashford: The Velvet Underground, but they weren’t really going at that point. Early Roxy Music…
HG: Lou Reed?
Chris Ashford: Lou Reed, absolutely! Patti Smith was a big deal. I saw her the first time she played L.A. at The Roxy. Incredible stuff. It was kind of the edge of what was coming.
HG: What was going on in the mainstream that turned you off?
Chris Ashford: Well, we really didn’t need to hear Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours again. They could “go their own way” for all I cared. It was heavy disco, still a heavy influence from things like Boston and southern rock, a lot of guitar hero-y kind of stuff. Led Zeppelin was still going, I guess…
HG: Barely, on one leg.
Chris Ashford: Yeah. But when Devo came to L.A., which is not punk rock, they were certainly very different from what had come before. Bands like that were actually very influential to changing things and seeing something different. But going to high school, it was just Led Zeppelin, Elton John, The Eagles, which, God knows we needed another record by them. You get the idea.
HG: What was it that attracted you to the stuff that you liked?
Chris Ashord: Well, I think part of my personality was that I had kind of a -- like who else in L.A. didn’t -- a semi-screwed-up family life [laughs]. The Stooges always had that teenage angst. When you’re young you like that energy and that power, hence Raw Power -- it was a perfectly named record. That kind of stuff really fit a big part of my personality. And I used to listen to things like Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart and David Peel and The Lower East Side, so I definitely was attracted to really screwy things, but then on the flip of it, I was really attracted to the country music of the time, too, because country music was always like cheatin’ and fuckin’ up songs, and you think, “Whoa, yeah! This is Middle America! They’re all fucked up like we are, just in a different way!” So I think a lot of it was that the norm was just too prissy and nice and it just didn’t fit my personality.
HG: So you were hanging out in L.A. and you met Paul and Georg in a record store…
Chris Ashford: That was Licorice Pizza, and a stint at Music Odyssey, which were a block away from each other. Paul used to skateboard around and I used to talk to him. Like I said, both of them would come in, and then, of course later, I even hung out at their high school with them. I think, in the scheme of things, you meet people that you’re supposed to meet for whatever reason. You don’t know it at the time, though.
HG: How did you go from hanging out with Paul and Georg, who would become Darby Crash and Pat Smear, to starting What Records? and releasing the first Germs 7”?
Chris Ashford: Well, you’re taking about a two-year period in there, so we have to work through that. As they were going through school, they were talking about starting a band. A few of the schoolmates were the band and they made shirts and then, finally, they started working on actually really making a band and looking for people within that period. I had started working at Peaches [another record store] on Hollywood Boulevard after the other stuff, and when we were all hanging out, basically, I guess I said, “Let’s figure out how to make a record.” I didn’t start What Records? to “start a label.” I think, as a unison mind, I was the piece of the puzzle that was making the record while they were making the band. I went to Richard Foos, who had the Rhino store at the time, and I asked, “Where did you press this Wild Man Fischer single?” and started figuring out how to do the stuff a little bit.
HG: What attracted you to that end of it?
Chris Ashford: Well, I’ve always been a real record collector. I loved records and I loved packaging. In my era of growing up, there was this fallacy that, “Oh wow, you made a record, you’re gonna be rich! [laughs]” Which is obviously very naïve, but that’s how we looked at records. You didn’t think Iggy was on the dole, you’d think, “This guy’s got money, man! [laughs]” I think because I loved records so much and, obviously I loved music of course, but part of my personality is that I’ve always been into that final thing that you can hold and read and do whatever with. That probably pushed me over to that side more, but I wasn’t trying to push to be in a group because I had enough insecurities and lack of talents to push me that way. Everything wasn’t planned out; we were just this whirlwind that did it because, obviously, the first Germs single -- if you look at the complete history of The Germs -- it was recorded way before they became what they were really going to become; but on the other hand, there are enough elements of the charm of what The Germs were to become in there to make it very appealing to people.
HG: A friend of mine said that “Forming” was the perfect name for the song because it sounded like a band forming.
Chris Ashford: Absolutely. Nobody would have signed that band to a label at that point. It was just too raw.
HG: That’s certainly one way to put it!
Chris Ashford: The chord pattern and the melody and the lyrics that they put together are all very intact; it’s just not the punk rock that would come. Even for, shall we say, Darby’s lack of abilities to be a real singer, he still knew how to accent things and create enough of a melody in his way that it still would come through.
HG: Oh yeah, I completely agree. I think that he was quite a brilliant lyricist. A lot of people denigrate him for using a thesaurus, but who cares?
Chris Ashford: Well, his biggest influence was Bowie, and Bowie up until that period of time actually was a good lyricist, too, and very imaginary. Darby gravitated more that that space-age Major Tom kind of thing due to his background, the way he came up, where I was more attracted to the Jim Morrison type thing which -- it’s hard to explain his lyrics, but they’re not quite hippy; it’s very multi-faceted. You can’t take them for what they say. It’s imagery, but not necessarily straightforward.
Chris Ashford: At times.
HG: Darby’s lyrics always struck me as being very literary, which I think was an interesting contrast to the music.
Chris Ashford: Well, he was very well-read, too. He did a lot of reading. As a personality, he would look into things. He’d want to know why someone meditating didn’t have to sleep. He was very interested in things. He was very interested in psychology. We would go take Scientology tests on Hollywood Boulevard and then let them sit there and try to sell us on classes and we’d all walk out laughing and then talk about what we did. He liked to see what they were trying to do and he liked to fuck with them. He was very literate and, for a young man who passed for his age, he packed a lot in. He was definitely a lot smarter than your average high school student.
HG: Even possibly than he let on. In The Decline of Western Civilization, he didn’t come off all that bright in that interview.
Chris Ashford: The problem was, once he started going heavy to the heroin and other drugs, it changed him a bit, too. More of just the high would take over, which was sad because he was definitely heading down that road in, once again, a very short period of time. The other thing, obviously, is, at the age that he was, he never really had a chance to mature, so he never got to see someone maturely deal with some of this stuff. But, also, he had been through so much, he was very sharp.
HG: What happened after “Forming” came out? You pressed this 7” piece of vinyl and then what did you do with it?
Chris Ashford: I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. I got it into Peaches -- big surprise! But then, with all of us hanging out, see this is what I always thought was interesting is this whole timing of everything that happened with all of this is really crazy. I was working at Peaches right when The Masque was starting to happen, actually before it happened -- it was just a rehearsal studio, and I was working the night that the very first show happened. They passed out a few flyers and had a few of the bands play and there were only five or eight people there. The rest were people that were part of the bands down there. So between being a kind of a pseudo-manager with the Germs -- I got them their first photo sessions and helped them take care of stuff and got them hooked into playing The Masque. All this stuff was happening around us. None of us were experienced music people, but we were all hanging out and meeting the people and being in the right place. It all worked really well for them, in that sense. I was doing stuff with them and then, one night at Peaches, Peter Urban, who used to manage The Dils, came in and said, “We really like your Germs single. Would you be interested in putting out our record?” That’s when it first started really clicking. “Okay, cool, I’ll put this out and now I have a little label. What am I going to do?”
HG: Is that where you got the name? How did you come up with What? Records?
Chris Ashford: When we first started doing The Germs’ first single, The Germs were kind of in between being…. I wouldn’t say a joke band because in the beginning they started out kind of as a joke, but then evolved into the real thing, and so the single was done kind of in between. What? Records just came out of my brain, like “What records?” The cover of the first record, a lot of it was taken from the idea that this is humorous as well as being a band. If they had been another three months along, it probably wouldn’t have been like that. They probably wouldn’t have had the humor as much and made it more a serious thing. The “What?” just came out of that.