Introducing: Advance Base’s “Christmas in Nightmare City”

Stream the new track and read an essay on its backstory written by Owen Ashworth.

Between Advance Base and my former music project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, I’ve written a good number of Christmas songs over the years. Like most of my songs, the Christmas ones tend to focus on people at low points in their lives—people who have found themselves in the midst of relationship crises, difficult life changes, or just bad luck. The songs are intended to be a comfort for folks going through their own tough times. Commiseration has always been a guiding principle of my songwriting.

A good number of the Advance Base and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone Christmas songs have talked about drinking, because for most of my adult life, alcohol been a regular feature of the holiday. There’s a lot that I love about Christmas, but seasonal depression has become as much a part of the tradition as the cards and carols, so in past years, I tended to drink my way through. Last Christmas was my first since I quit drinking. I’ll spare you the gory details, but my body & conscience made it clear that it was time to stop. What better way to say goodbye to drinking than with another Christmas song?

“Christmas in Nightmare City” deals with the restless energy, sugar cravings, and minor identity crisis I experienced after I quit drinking. That restless energy often led to insomnia, and on a few occasions, I’d spend those late, lonely hours just driving around the Chicago suburbs, listening to talk radio or a Stephen King audiobook, eating gas station candy, and letting my mind wander. I remember one night in early December, making my way through Gary, Indiana with Pet Semetary on my Subaru’s stereo, passing under the blinking street lights of an abandoned downtown, and then getting lost in the industrial zone. I got pretty creeped out, so I turned off the stereo and just listened to the eerie hum of trains, factories, and refineries rolling past. I was struck by the grace of the industrial work lights, twinkling through the mist. They reminded me of Christmas, and I found it all strangely comforting. That was the feeling I tried to get at when I wrote “Christmas in Nightmare City.”

The “Christmas in Nightmare City” video was directed by Karima Walker. Karima is a singer, sound designer, and video artist from Tucson, Arizona. I released Karima’s most recent vinyl LP, Hands in Our Names, on my own label, Orindal Records, and we did a couple of tours together after the album’s release. Karima performs with a portable video projector, and her homemade video collages of the desert surrounding Tucson are a gorgeous and surreal accompaniment to her music. I’ve always admired Karima’s ability to create an immersive environment with her projections and music, so I wasn’t at all surprised when Karima told me that she was working on some collaborative projects with choreographers & sculptors. When Run For Cover Records offered me a budget to make video for one of the new Advance Base songs, I sheepishly asked Karima if she’d be interested it directing something. I was thrilled that she agreed, and when she suggested “Christmas in Nightmare City,” I figured we’d better get down to Gary and film some of the refinery lights that inspired the song.

Karima used to live in Chicago and had her own fascinations with Gary. We talked on the phone about how Gary felt like Chicago’s ghost, and how we wanted to represent the city in a way that felt respectful, highlighting the beauty, while also acknowledging the haunted feeling of driving through a partially abandoned city.

We spent two nights driving around Gary and the surrounding industrial area. It was a pleasure to be in the car with Karima again, listening to music, making jokes and seeing the sites of Gary. Karima mostly filmed out of the car window, sometimes with me in the foreground, sometimes not, and we’d occasionally pull over so Karima could get a better shot of something she’d noticed off in the distance. I’d sit in the car with the hazards on, wondering what she’d found.

The second night of shooting ended with a violent rainstorm. I was worried that the weather had ruined some of Karima’s shooting plans, but when she turned to me and said “I think we’re done!” I could tell that she was excited about what she’d shot. She flew home to Tucson the following morning.

Karima emailed me a rough cut less than a week later, and I was astonished by what I saw. Considering that 90% of the video was filmed from inside my car, using only ambient light, couldn’t believe how good all of the shots looked. For me, though, the real magic of the video is Karima’s kaleidoscopic approach to editing. I love the way the video starts very simply and naturally, almost documentary-style, before the layers of light start to creep in and shift, and everything goes psychedelic. I don’t have the words to describe what Karima does, because it feels like its own language. All of the feelings that inspired me to write “Christmas in Nightmare City” are there, and it somehow feels like its own world now. I couldn’t imagine a better visual accompaniment for the song, and I’m proud to be able share the video with you.
—Owen Ashworth

Animal Companionship will be released on September 21 by Run For Cover Records/Orindal Records.

Owen Ashworth is an American singer, songwriter & producer, best known for his former electronic pop project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, & current, slightly less electronic pop project, Advance Base. Owen also runs Orindal Records. He lives in Oak Park, IL with his wife, their two children, & two cats.