Calling From The Fun House: Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton
Ron Asheton has the creepiest answering machine message on the planet: "LEAVE...A...MESSAGE.... Thanks a million."
I tried for months to get through to the ex-Stooges and Destroy All Monsters guitarist, who's spent the last few years leading Dark Carnival and making his mark in low-budget horror films like Mosquito.
His New Order and New Race bandmate Dennis Thompson suggested I call Ron and pretend to be from Australia. Then after we spoke one night, he called the man himself and hooked me up. (Many thanks, Machine Gun.)
This interview with Ron Asheton was conducted from his home in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 2, 1998, between 6:30 and 8:30 PM. As anyone who read Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me or Black to Comm fanzine issues 15 and 16 can tell you, he tells a great story; what you miss in print is his extremely expressive inflections, the dialects -- he is an actor, after all.
K: Day before yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the recording of Kick Out the Jams, and the Stooges were the opening band. Any thoughts on that?
R: When they did the Kick Out the Jams record? Actually, we weren't the opening band. We didn't play, but we were certainly in the audience. I'm pretty sure we didn't play...I don't remember playing, but I know I wanted to be there, and I was there. I think The Up played.
If I remember correctly, we didn't play, 'cause it was very tense and they were very stressed out, and they wanted to keep it low-key. So they just had something very simple, not to make it a major production, I believe. We were there, though, and now I'm kind of glad that we didn't play, because they were really stressed out and some of them took acid to record...I know Wayne (Kramer) did. He got an SG that night and he usually played a Stratocaster, but he thought the SG had a little more balls. I remember him saying, "Gee, it was pretty strange playing a different guitar, not really being used to it and being on acid. " Dude, I couldn't have done it. No way.
So yeah, it is...hey that's right, and that's officially Zenta New Year. (Laughs)
K: That's correct. Thirty years, who woulda thunk it.
R: Who woulda thunk it. God, it's been that long, dear Lord.
K: So what have you been up to lately? I understand there's a recording project with Thurston Moore.
R: Oh, yeah, well, we already did two things. A year ago, last February, I went out and did two songs for a movie soundtrack, Velvet Goldmine. It's coming out this weekend, I believe, November 7th it premieres in New York. Michael Stipe (produced) and Todd Haynes was the director. They were putting together a band that was Stooge-esque, because the movie's loosely based on the relationship of Iggy and David Bowie.
So they got Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley and Mike Watt and Mark Arm. They were looking for a guitar player, and Don Fleming had just recorded the Dark Carnival CD (The Last Great Ride, pictured right), and he goes, "Gee, I just got done working with Ron Asheton. How about Ron Asheton? Is he Stooge-esque enough?" So he went back, took the idea to Michael Stipe, and the record company said, "Yeah, good idea. "
I went out and I wrote a couple of new original songs, and we jammed for about two or three hours. Just kinda went through and did all the old Stooges songs, the ones that Mark Arm and Mike Watt and Thurston Moore knew, and they wound up putting TV Eye in the movie, and a little bit of an original song I wrote. I liked the experience so much that I kept bugging Jim Dunbar, who was kind of the liaison man with the record company..."Well, gee, man, we've gotta keep this band together, we've gotta make a record."
Sure enough, London/Polygram let us make a record last July. So they have that movie soundtrack which we have one tune on, TV Eye, and shortly after that, hopefully the beginning of next year, they'll put out the Wylde Ratttz record, because the band's called Wylde Ratttz. In the movie, we're the backup band to this "Curt Wild" character. It turned out really well.
Besides those guys, we did about three hours worth of jams with Sean Lennon. Just came in and ran tape. On the record, there's little pieces of music between some of the songs, and that's some of the jam stuff. I mean, there is literally three hours worth of stuff. Of course, much of it didn't make it to the record. I have other CDs that were test pressings of possible arrangements or songs in order, where there's a lot more of the jams. I guess they decided to get it down to a little bit more rock 'n' roll kind of format, 'cause a lot of the jams...there are rock sections, but there's also a lot of really cool spaced-out stuff. Imagine two sessions of three hours where anything goes. "Roll tape!" We did, I think, altogether, 52 reels of tape, and that's a lot of tape when you figure, what's a reel of tape -- 150 bucks or something, if they get 'em at a discount.
It was fun. So I'm looking forward to that coming out, and then there's even talk of that band touring, and that all depends, of course, on everyone else's schedule. Everyone's real busy, but everyone's really into doing it. The guys are talking about going out for six weeks. At first there was just talk of a couple of New York gigs. I originally said, "Well, gee, that'd be fun but. . .not very profitable. It'd kind of be fun to go out for a bit and make a couple of bucks and have some fun playing for awhile, and not just playing two nights in New York and it's over." So hopefully something will be put together, if we can ever get those schedules to jive. I know that Mudhoney and Sonic Youth have the same booking agent, and he's real excited about booking it, so it's no problem, it's just a matter of getting people together.
Mike Watt is a total road rat. He's been on the road for three years now, non-stop basically. He took a little time off, he did Europe, the States, Europe, came back and did the States, and now he's doing the States again. We were supposed to even maybe play when the movie premiered this weekend, but Watt's on tour. He booked 52 shows in 53 days! The guy is just a total, total road rat. I mean, that's all he does is play. He can't stand not playing...and if he's not, he's on the computer. He's a pretty amazing fella.
Other than that, I've been doing motion pictures. Last Thursday, in the afternoon, I was flipping around the TV and they showed Mosquito. Mosquito's a picture that I acted in with Gunnar Hansen, who was Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (pictured left.) Sure enough, the ABC pre-Halloween double horror feature Mosquito! That was really fun, to see that, and it's always a kick to see your name in the TV Guide. My partner, Gary Jones, directed that movie. We've got several screenplays; he's out in California, around Hollywood, Simi Valley. He's got an agent, he's directed some Hercules and some Xena and Honey I Shrunk the Children and some other TV series, that I AYPY thing that flopped. But we're out there selling scripts, trying to put money together to make movies...enjoying the writing aspect and writing screenplays, and acting, and still doing the music and trying to keep my hands in all the stuff.
K: Dennis Thompson (ex MC5 drummer) was telling me how, when you guys were in New Order, you'd be sitting around the apartment saying, "I wanna be in a movie," and now you've done that, you've been in four or five of 'em.
R: Yeah, I think I did nine. They're all shot here; they're all Michigan pictures except for one where they came from L.A., but they cut my scene out. I auditioned; I wanted to be the cop, but the director was a Stooges fan. I'd never met him before...he goes, "I have this idea for a little scene for you." It was this party scene -- of course, they cut the whole party out -but that's okay, it was fun to do.
Yeah, I really enjoy that. I wanted to do that way before music. When I was a kid, I didn't want to be a fireman or policeman or anything. "I wanna be on TV!" And it's really fun to act, it's fun to play that you're somebody else. I just like the whole putting-together, just the working of making films. It's very tedious at times, but if you really love it, it's really fun to see the whole thing come together. So I'm glad to be working on that.
My partner, he's got Icebound, it's making the rounds of the studios; he wrote that with Gunnar Hansen. Bob Kurtzman and him are partners in that -- Bob Kurtzman directed Wishmaster, and he owns K&B, which is the fourth biggest special effects house in Los Angeles. So that's making the rounds of the studios now, and then right after that, our stuff goes out. Having Bob Kurtzman attached -- Wishmaster did well, they made it for six million and I think it made 25 million back -so that's gonna help get the project going. Hopefully, there's a small part in it for me. They're talkin' about makin' me the sloppy, dumpy cop, but that's cool. If I can do all that weird comedy stuff, I've always enjoyed that stuff. There'll be a lot of John Candy and Chris Farley bits. Oh yeah, I love all that stuff.
But also, what I'm looking forward to is if this Wylde Ratttz thing start's poppin' -- I think the record will do well because it's such a curiosity piece, just having that group of people, and those people being pretty popular. What I want to do, and I'm pretty sure it won't be that hard after getting all this press, is get a record deal and of course, make a record. Go out and make my own musical statement and then kinda buddy up...I spoke with Dennis Thompson, we might do something, but first, I just wanna have complete control on the first record. The songs'll be mine; I don't wanna have to argue with other strong personalities about how they want this or that to go. 'Cause I've done that all my life, and I'm sick of it. It'll be fun, but I'll probably wind up playing with Dennis...and my brother (ex-Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, pictured right), also.
K: So what is Scott doing these days?
R: Right now -- he went back to Florida, he's been up here all summer and fall. He went on a tour with Sonny Vincent. Have you ever heard of Sonny Vincent?
K: No, sure haven't.
R: Well, I hadn't either. (Laughs) But Sonny's pretty competent. He's real popular in Europe. His music is kinda Stooge-y, poppy, a little more poppy. My brother did a couple of months tour and a record with him, with Sonny Vincent. Cheetah Chrome (ex-Dead Boys guitarist) calls up -- "Hey man, come out to Nashville and make a record with me, man." So my brother goes and it was Cheetah Chrome and Sonny Vincent, and they got Captain Sensible from the Damned to play bass. So they did that, and Sonny went and hawked the record on some little European label, and did well enough to put a tour together. So they went out for like two months which, oh man, according to my brother, it was a pretty rough trip. A little less than he was used to. . . sometimes it'd be all of them sleeping on filthy mattresses in the attic of a friend's house. But then Sonny got some money together, and my brother came back, they brought the Captain over here. Cheetah bowed out; he didn't do it because he couldn't get the contract and the money he wanted, so he didn't go to Europe. But he did come and do this record.
My brother did another record with Sonny Vincent which he's trying to sell now, and I mixed it for Sonny. I played on one song and then I had one day to do...there were 12 songs; I did one in one day, and then the next day, I did 11 tunes (and I got the flu) because Sonny had to leave the next day. But it turned out pretty good.
Other than that, my brother's got a little...he's in business now, actually selling T-shirts, through ads in magazines. He designed 'em himself, a whole line of hats and T-shirts which he's been putting out, trying to get ads in little papers, and I took a few to New York, got Thurston Moore to buy one..."Tell your friends, here's his P.O. box..." Other than that, he's not doin' too much. I can't neglect him; I'll probably have him play on our record. Yeah, l've gotta do that.
K: Is he still doing anything with Scott Morgan, or is that on hiatus?
R: They just put out that Sonic's Rendezvous thing (Sweet Nothing). I guess that's Freddie Brooks, Fred Smith's old sidekick...he kinda did all Fred Smith's dirty work...and apparently they put out this record. I haven't heard it, but he's not doing anything with Scott. He's basically uninterested. He's kind of into the same thing...he wishes he could fall into a situation like I did with that Wylde Ratttz thing that's a specialty band, we can fall in and make a record that somebody's gonna back. So he's kinda Ann Arbor-ed and Detroit-ed out, he's kinda had his fill of just slummin' around here. Even though Scott Morgan has talent and everything, and there's talented people here, they just seem to stay here. They never break out. They either can't find a way, or nobody wants them, and he's kind of sick of that. His girlfriend and their child live in Florida, so he just went back down to Florida for the winter. They usually come up here for the summer. He has a house by the lake, so that's basically what he's doing...'hunt-on' and fi~shin'. Fishing is the most, it's his favorite thing.
K: I never woulda thought.
R: Yeah, he really is an outdoorsman; he's spent a lot of time outdoors. As children, we always enjoyed it, 'cause my father liked fishing. But for me...well, I like being on the water and stuff, but...I can't kill anything, so I don't like hunting anymore. I like eating fish, but I don't like them flopping around when I pull them out of the water. But he likes it...it's relaxing for him to sit out on the boat. With a can of beer, he's got a boat, it's his own lake, or he'll go to friends' who have lakes, they're all private lakes, so he has a good time.
And he's got his drumset set up in a place where he can go and bang on them once or twice a week. His chops are pretty good. I didn't get to see him actually record, but like I said, I went in after he was done tracking and got to mix some stuff and he sounded good as ever. And everyone always says they really like his drumming. Of course he did stuff with Deniz Tek (on Take It to the Vertical); that was back a few years ago.
So where are you now?
K: Fort Worth, Texas.
R: Yeah...The only time I've been in Texas is at the Dallas airport to catch another plane. They never wanted those Stooges to play in Texas. Never had a job. I mean, we'd stop there on the way to someplace, but we never had a job in Texas.
K: You'd be surprised how much interest there is in the Stooges down here...in Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin, especially.
R: Yeah, I know that. Gunnar Hansen (pictured left)...Leatherface...is moving back to Austin. His mother's there, so he's gonna be moving to Austin next year, so I might even come and visit him there. He's going to buy a house there in May.
K: Austin's a great town.
R: He was originally from there, his family. Believe it or not, they moved from Iceland. He was born in Iceland, and the family moved to Austin, Texas. And that's where he went to school and everything. It's only been the last, I dunno, ten or so years that he's lived in Maine.
K: I take it then that Dark Carnival is on hiatus?
R: Well, yeah. Niagara's doing her art show. She's been painting and being rather successful at it. She's had shows out in L.A., she's had a lot of shows in Detroit, she's gonna be going to New York, she's done lots of illustrations for Details magazine. As a matter of fact, Details magazine is having its "Woman of the Year" award, and they've given it to Jennifer Lopez. They're having a party in New York and they've sent out 400 invitations to different celebrities, and they hired Niagara to do the invitation, which was a life-size...whatever, pinup of a woman. Apparently, they're gonna fly Niagara out...Niagara's going to New York for the big party. She's been doing good.
It's the same kind of thing. We put out that record that's on Sympathy for the Record Industry (The Last Great Ride) and shopped it around and no one was really interested in signing that band. For some reason. Whatevah. So for me, doing the Wylde Rattz thing was just the incentive to stop that. I've been in Dark Carnival (pictured right) since 1991 and I put a lot of money into it, and now I just wanna see about getting my own deal. I really liked the band, good players and stuff, writing with Niagara. I like doing the spooky songs; she's more of a stylist than a singer, and she has to have special kind of material. I've got stuff that rocks and stuff that's really melodic that she can't do, but I enjoy doing the spooky stuff with her. Not that I don't like the stuff that I have to come up with, but it'd be fun for me to do my own thang So I don't know what's gonna happen with that. Right now I'm just lettin' it ride. I should say, "letting it rest."
K: I heard [Dark Carnival rhythm guitarist] Greasy Carlisi was having some health problems, and [Carnival bassist] Pete Bankert was playing with Dennis Thompson for awhile.
R: I think Pete did some weird record with Dennis. Pete told me a little bit about it.
And Greasy...It runs in Greasy's family that they have small arteries and veins. And they have a history of health problems in their family. Apparently he musta had like five heart attacks. We were on the road to New York and he was havin' chest pains. Everyone kept goin', "Marry your girlfriend; she's a nurse. Marry her so you'll have health insurance, because you keep complaining about your heart all year." and everyone's goin', "Gee, he probably had a heart attack." So one day he was cutting the lawn and he got severe chest pains, and he called up his girlfriend, who was a nurse, and she came from the hospital and took him to another hospital. Sure enough, he had to have angioplasties right there, where they open up the arteries and everything. They said he had a mild heart attack and he's probably had several. But he's feeling much better now. We kept telling him, and he goes, "What do you think it was?" and I go, "Probably it was a heart attack. " Here's a little guy who's very trim, hardly a pinch of fat on him, but it runs in the family, and he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. But he's okay now.
We did those benefits for him. The first one was Dennis Thompson and Wayne Kramer and Deniz Tek -- the Dodge Main band -- Scott Morgan. They were like the headliners. They did a benefit for him to defray his costs, because he owed like 30 grand or something to the hospital 'cause he had no medical insurance. And we did a show with Dark Carnival headlining and about ten other bands. Made a little bit more money for him about a year or so later. But he's doin' bettah.
And as far as Pete working with Dennis...I never quite understood what it was. They took some old Rob Tyner voice and they played new music over it. Now Pete's back in Michigan from L.A.; he's lived in L.A. also. I'll have to call him and say "Hey" and see what that was about anyway.