Sean McGuinness (Pissed Jeans, Rat Fist) Talks Ashrae Fax’s Never Really Been Into It

When you hit a creative wall, is it better to start over, or dig in until you get it right? And what’s the deal with the owls?

It is 2001, and I have dropped out of college. I’m in my friend’s basement drinking terrible beer, and we have been railroading episode after episode of his newly acquired Twin Peaks VHS box set. It’s the first time I’ve seen this show and it’s flipping me out. As we creep closer and closer towards dawn, the delirium from lack of sleep only adds to the surrealism and intensity of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s twisted narrative. My palms are sweaty and my eyes are burning, but I can’t put the damn thing down. We are binge-watching hard. I can smell the musty couch I was sitting on. Incest, prostitution, a dead girl, a backwards midget, creamed corn, David Duchovny and delicious pie; this show had it all.

All this comes flooding back to me when the opening synth swells of Ashrae Fax’s Never Really Been Into It come slinking out of the speakers and start sucking on my ears, bringing back welcome memories of being so pleasurably mind-fucked for the very first time.

We were doing something to ourselves, my friend and I. More than experiencing the icy suspicion that Audrey Horn may very well don a disguise and fuck her dad or realizing that, yes, that is indeed a cross-dressing David Duchovny, Twin Peaks felt like a rite of passage. Actively cutting the strings of the safety net of life and making the conscious decision to actually put ourselves through this. Standing and slapping each other in the face over and over again. Gorging and hating it and wanting to see it through.

Ashrae Fax released one album, Static Crash!, in 2003, and since then has remained largely silent, but that doesn’t mean the North Carolina group ever stopped working. Culled from demos and early recordings and then reworked, the process of making this album for singer Renee Mendoza and guitarist Alex Chesney has a similar fuck it vibe, a “let’s abuse ourselves until we get it right” kind of feeling. As a musician, the importance of recording and documenting even the smallest details can become immeasurable. There is a careful balance of creating in the moment and revising under the canopy of hindsight. The most seemingly insignificant move on a guitar or a keyboard can potentially yield a theme for a song, dictate an approach to writing or even become the keystone for an entire album. The best composers are able to pick out the blips and spin them into bigger ideas to be woven into the whole. The less fortunate can be crushed and rendered creatively inept under the sheer amount of material itself, thrust into that bottomless depressive spot where nothing but a feeling of worthlessness exists.

The idea of facing down a dusted-off box of years-old material makes my hands clammy and my heart rate increase with anxiety. Is it more of a challenge to sever ties with a body of work and start, as they say, with a clean slate, or to rework and morph and rework and rewrite material that at a time may not have made sense into something blissful and rewarding? I can’t answer that, and I’m not so sure I want to open that labyrinth.

The owls are not what they seem.

This album twists and squirms like my skin as I watched the backwards-talking dancing dwarf scenes, and each track takes me a little bit further down that anxiety-coated rabbit hole. “CHKN” has a bouncy bass line with just enough layered vocals to float me out of my mind and into the tranquility that only comes with 2:00 AM. “The Big Lie” is just the tune for some twentysomething aspiring DJ to blast at a wet and filthy illegal warehouse party with the clock well past midnight. The welcome wooziness that comes with “Second Chances” speaks to the elation of enjoying a damn fine piece of pie.

Ashrae Fax have made a seamless album for me to listen to late at night. There are parts of Never Really Been Into It that drive me mad thinking about what possibly had been from before and what has been put in play with new arrangements and reworking. On “In Motion,” is it the slow drum groove, or perhaps the gently layered vocal track? What about that warbled guitar, was that overdubbed? These guys have done a pretty good job of masking the origins of this music. It does not sound dated or out of touch. It feels relevant. I get deeper into thinking about where this music possibly could have come from. The ocean? The clouds? Close, but not quite.

There are many, many variables that come with making music. Sometimes it all snowballs into anxiety and you just want to vomit. Most of the time, it just comes down to the gut. The reason that a piece or a jam or a beat has been cast aside or tucked into a box is that it does not elicit that gut sense of knowing that that shit is good shit. Most of us play music for selfish reasons, to make ourselves feel good. To cover a flaw that we can’t quite come to grips with or want to face down. Music can be an extension of emotion for the people making it, and when you have crushed that and hidden it in a box somewhere deep in a closet, it can be harder to reach back and face years after burying it. But sometimes you have to trust your original instincts, and trust that you were onto something. What is the sense of having a backwards-talking dancing midget for recurring scenes? You just have to know somewhere in your gut that the shit is good shit.

Sean McGuinness is an American musician living in Philadelphia. He plays drums in the bands Pissed Jeans and Rat Fist. He is a beer fan. Also a good vibe enthusiast. You can follow him on Instagram here and Pissed Jeans on Twitter here.