Greg Ashley playing with Gris Gris (Photo: Mark Murrman)
Greg Ashley had a round trip ticket to France paid for and weeks of shows booked all across the country with his friends, the Inaniel Swims. He arrived at SFO with everything he needed for the trip, ready to do what he's done since high school: play music for people. But he didn't catch his flight.
"I got to the terminal and pretty much had a nervous breakdown," said Ashley.
The day before, May 26, Ashley and his 12 roommates at the Ghost Town Gallery in Oakland had an eviction notice posted on their door telling them they had five days to move out. This sent Ashley scrambling to find somewhere to store all the equipment from Creamery Analog, the recording studio he ran for nine years inside the gallery.
Ashley, who was once called "a true psychedelic visionary, maybe the greatest of his generation," recorded hundreds of projects at his studio, some groups coming as far away as France and Japan to work with him. But despite always paying his rent and even covering those who were short, he had to leave -- an Alameda County judge ordered him and his roommates to do so two weeks before.
A bunch of Ashley’s friends came to his aid and helped him move out of the warehouse, allowing him to tour France, but he was still losing both his home and business. So, while sitting at the airport, unable to calm down, Ashley called his girlfriend. Hearing the panic in his voice, she bought him a plane ticket to Austin, Texas. That's where he was calling from when he told me he wasn't coming back to Oakland. He's moving his studio to the Lone Star state.
“I don’t think I can afford anything in California," he said. “If I win the lottery, I’ll be back.”
A Green Dream
Ashley moved to Oakland from Houston back in 2002. He had wanted to move to the Bay Area since his band the Mirrors played Cloyne Court in Berkeley the year before. The band was better received then they ever were in Texas, and the weather that night in the East Bay was heavenly compared to Houston's harsh summer heat.
"Nobody gave a sh*t about my garage band in Houston," Ashley said. "People liked my music out here. I got to meet one of heroes, Russell Quan of the Mummies, and he was a fan of my band."
"And these kids had a keg outside that wasn't even iced down because you don't really need to -- the weather's perfect."
One of the people he met at the Cloyne show was Oscar Michel, who became a good friend almost instantly. A bassist, Michel began playing music with Ashley soon after he arrived in Oakland.
"He was just a sweet, genuine kid who just wanted to create and make music. He was obsessed with Leonard Cohen," Michel said. "I feel like all those kids from Texas were way more musically mature than we were out here."
The duo went by Medicine F*ck Dream -- the name of Ashley's first solo album -- and only played a few shows before setting up a national tour that would end in New York.
"He had a bunch of material so we decided to book a tour. We just f*ckin' went for it," Michel said.
They didn't complete the tour, calling it quits in Texas and heading their separate ways.
"I remember eating Wonder Bread with Sriracha on it -- that was breakfast, lunch and dinner -- sitting in a parking lot in New Mexico, wondering if we had enough gas to make it to the next show," Michel said.
When Ashley and Michel made it back to Oakland a while later, they tried being in a band again. This time they'd call themselves the Gris Gris, after the Dr. John album. They became a trio after Michel's drummer friend Joe Haener joined and soon they were a local favorite, winning over crowds at dives like the Stork Club with their reverb-soaked folk-garage. (Later they were termed "neo-psych.")
David Katznelson, owner of Birdman Records and a former head of A&R for Warner Bros, was in one of those crowds. He signed them to his label in 2003, a year after the band began.
"I was instantly captivated by the band and loved the show. The songs, Greg's voice, the whole vibe was amazing," Katzenlson, who signed the Flaming Lips, among others, to Warner Bros. "I fell in love with the musical world of Greg Ashley on the spot."
The first Gris Gris album received a 7.0 on Pitchfork -- and this time, when the band toured, they came back with money in their pockets.
Keyboardist Lars Kullberg later joined, and the band would go on to record two more albums before breaking up in 2005. By then, the Gris Gris had toured all over the U.S. and the U.K., and had fans like Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne.
Ashley kept making music, playing with Sir Lord Von Raven and working on his own material, releasing a few solo records along the way. Two years later, he'd turn his home and his mastery of reverb into a business.
The Nonstop Tape
Since he first bought an Tascam 8-track reel-to-reel back when he was in Texas, Ashley has been recording music non-stop. Which is part of the reason he could never find a permanent place to live in Oakland; the few times he did have a steady place, like the storefront on Broadway or the apartment on Grand Avenue, he says he got kicked out because he made music there.
In the meantime, Ashley managed to make remarkably good lo-fi home recordings wherever he could and with whatever equipment he had available.
"He had an apartment off of Grand Avenue, near the lake (Lake Merritt). It was a tiny studio apartment and he had his tape machine there. This was before Gris Gris -- he was recording a lot of his first solo record," Michel said. "I wasn't even a part of it; I was just there, hanging out with him and watching him do his thing. And he told me, 'Hey, can you hold this button down while I record this solo? It's broken.'"
In a few cases, Ashley used temporary spaces where playing loud music wasn't a problem. When he recorded the band Battleship, he rented out the Stork Club on a Tuesday afternoon. He recorded the first Gris Gris in the basement of a house the two shared in El Cerrito.
"Home of Metallica and Creedence (Clearwater Revival)!" Michel said.
Ashley had gone to a few shows at the Ghost Town Gallery and even stayed there for a short while when he was down-and-out before he moved in in 2006. He didn't like the neighborhood that surrounded the old creamery at all -- one of the first times he went to a show there, someone smashed one of his car windows. But the young, artistically-minded tenants, most of them musicians themselves, didn't care that he recorded music all day and the space sounded really good.
"I stayed there for a week in 2003," Ashley said. "I remember going around the building, and that room that I eventually used for a reverb chamber had a trampoline in it and somebody had left some tabla drums. I remember hanging out there with some weirdo hippie chick who was jumping on the trampoline and I was playing those tabla drums, and I thought 'This is kinda weird, but this room sounds amazing!'"
Ashley turned his bedroom into a control room and pieced together whatever equipment he could to start the studio. His mixer, probably the second most important part of his studio after his Tascam 16-track, was found abandoned in another room of Ghost Town. So, he charged $15 an hour for his studio and services, which allowed for friends and up-and-coming artists to afford to record there. Over time, he learned how to make it all sound good.
"If you listen to the Sir Lord Von Raven record, since it took us seven years to record, you'll hear the fidelity get better throughout it," Ashley said. "You'll be able figure out which era of my studio was what because it goes from 'I don't know what the f*ck I'm doing' to 'I know exactly what I'm doing.'"
By 2009, Ashley was recording bands like the Mantles and Dutchess and the Duke, and magazines such as Mojo would be filled with reviews of releases he recorded, all of them dropping his name.
"He was able to not only conjure up the warmest, biggest noises in that room, but also capture them to tape," Dutchess and Duke's Kimberly Morrison said. "Recording at the Creamery was remarkable... I felt like Ariel in The Little Mermaid when she finally gets her voice and she can't even believe she's the one making such sounds."
Around that time is when Ashley increased his hourly rate to $30 an hour. He says he had to because the Bay Area was getting more expensive, but it allowed him to quit his part-time job cutting lenses at an optometrist's office and finally work on music full-time.
"For four or five years, it was my only source of income," Ashley said. "I wouldn't say I was doing really well, but I wasn't in debt."
Apple Pie and Genocide
Back in April of this year, the tenants of Ghost Town Gallery went to court to stop their landlord from evicting them. For over a decade the former creamery on San Pablo was a creative epicenter of West Oakland, hosting bands such as Deerhoof, Xiu Xiu and Thee Oh Sees. According to reports, Ghost Town's owner Mehrdad Dokhanchy pushed them out because there were too many people living there and modifications the tenants made to the building were endangering its residents.
Ashley didn't get involved. It was bad enough that his recording work had declined over the previous years, forcing him to go back to his part-time job at the optometrist's office. He just wanted to concentrate on making music.
"I just couldn't deal with it," Ashley said. "The walls were paper thin and every day I heard people threatening to kill each other in the hallway."
The night the eviction notice was posted on the Ghost Town Gallery door might as well have been a wake. He and his friends listened to recordings he made there over the years while they packed everything up. The Creamery memorial was documented by a frequent collaborator with Ashley, Chris Stroffolino.
"I've worked at more expensive (and more "state of the art") studios, and The Creamery was better than all of them," Stroffolino wrote on his blog. "Greg provided a much-needed service to the community, and was able to eke out a living as a musician/producer in an era where that is becoming increasingly impossible (unless one is willing to relocate to LA or Nashville, and sell one’s soul to the corporate conglomerates)."
While sitting in Texas, planning his next move (probably setting up a new studio outside of Austin), Ashley tells me that what bothers him now is how he left some of his friends' projects in the lurch. A series of recording dates were canceled -- some bands had already bought plane tickets to fly to Oakland -- and he was in the middle of working on a friend's solo project that will have to be shelved now. There are other studios in Oakland those bands can use -- there's even one across the street from the Creamery called Santo Recording -- but they're nothing like what Ashley had created with the Creamery.
"It's a lot prettier inside Santo," Ashley said. "But they charge twice as much as I do. And they won't let you smoke cigarettes, but whatever."
Below is a song Ashley recorded in Texas about leaving Oakland. Warning: there are some explicit lyrics.
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