'Communique From Thrdgll' by Jason Birch The Current, Charleston, SC Aug. 14, 2003 Ashley Holt has just returned from the Salvation Army with a bag of old LPs, toy keyboards and various electronic parts. He dumps them on the floor of a small, oak-paneled room he calls 'The Brown', a home recording studio/ workshop in the wilds of Spartanburg, SC, where this thrift store material will be added to the arsenal of noisy devices used to create his music. Despite the computer running recording software and the various, battered guitars strewn about, 'The Brown' appears to be an environment better suited to the construction of letter bombs than rock 'n roll tunes. A maze of wires intermesh between crudely augmented effects pedals, half-broken electronics and toy pianos in patterns only discernable to Holt himself. According to him, all of this potential noise is in the service of 'spreading the good word about Thrdgll' (pronounced 'Threadgill'), a sort of philosophical, self-help, pseudo religion that Ashley tries and fails to explain at length. It's fair to say that throughout most of my visit to his studio, I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I first became aware of Holt's music through an 85th generation cassette compilation of lo-fi home recording artists, the sort of tapes that circulate among subculture hipsters looking for the next Daniel Johnston. Among the unbearable feedback explosions and shoe-gazing acoustic dirges was an upbeat track called 'Something's Not Working', a catchy pop number about cars and tractors falling apart that was actually...good! Good in the Beatle-based tradition of good, with a simple, yet solid song structure and a great hook in the chorus. Later I recognized his voice coming from the speakers in local coffee shop. 'Ashley Holt', the clerk informs me. 'It's a tape called Four Hankie Triumph'. The shop owner had found the tape by a payphone (apparently Holt's preferred method of distribution). I got him to make me a copy. For all of his oddball recording methods - the backwards tape tricks, the toy instruments, the microphones rubbed with toothbrushes and so forth - Holt's music is easily accessible. I'd put his sound somewhere between The Pixies and They Might Be Giants, with obvious influences from 80s pop artists like XTC and Elvis Costello. But there's also a distinctly 'Southern' quality to his work, a rustic, homemade sound resulting from his Frankenstein studio setup. The classic punk thrashing of Four Hankie's 'Crabtrap' or 'Emanuel' evoke the stage-diving madness of an early Black Flag show while retaining their storytelling intimacy. Holt is a folk singer with distortion pedals. The recordings are quirky, certainly. A song like 'Bucketlamp', for example (which really is, as far as I can tell, an ode to a lamp shaped like a bucket), might throw plenty of audio curve balls with it's junkyard mambo percussion (Holt plays a Gatorade bottle and the zipper on his jeans, he tells me) but it's ultimate goal is to drive home the hauntingly sweet chorus, to deliver the pop hook and infectious rhythm to which any good pop song aspires. Even if it is delivered with a half-busted drum machine found in a dumpster and a screwdriver banging against the guitar strings. I finally tracked Ashley down online through his illustration website (Ashley is also a professional illustrator with a keen talent for caricature) and emailed my request for his entire musical catalog. Ashley responded with a copy of his latest instrumental CD, Waste of the Magnet's Time, and an invitation to visit his studio in the Upstate where he promised to burn copies of his newly-remastered body of work. I was sufficiently intrigued by his new instrumental work, an energetic set of pop compositions crammed full of colorful LP samples, electronic toy chirping and Cocteau Twins-inspired guitar effects, so I promised to drop by on my way to an Atlanta concert. Ashley lives with wife and fellow artist Melissa Earley on what was once the Holt family farm. The old barn and farmhouse have recently been demolished, leaving a pile of debris from which Ashley sometimes gathers odds and ends for his instrument augmentation and other semi-mechanical constructions. His own house, furnished in mid-century, Danish Modern splendor, is littered with art projects in various stages of completion. He eagerly gives me the grand tour, pointing out the invariable 'Thrdgll' logos appearing in many of his framed drawings. 'Thrdgll manages to achieve pure collectivism without the bother of having a lot of germ-ridden people around', he explains. 'Thrdgll is sodium-free, dolphin-safe and never tested on Andersons. There's metaphysical wisdom to be had for sure, but what I try to emphasize is that a complete embrace of the Thrdgll Way will get you a guest starring role as a corpse on CSI. Which, you know, will get you chicks.' I knew he was joking about this pseudo-spiritual 'Thrdgll' business, or at least I thought he was until he began discussing one of the 'devices' he's built, a collection of radio circuitry boards assembled and hung on the wall in a frame. I assumed it was merely an exercise in collage but Ashley assured me it was capable of transmitting 'communiqués' and that many of his ideas had been transmitted this way. He called it 'Smedley'. He also said there were devices stored under the house that I couldn't see for 'security reasons' and began to eyeball me with such intense suspicion that I started trying to think up excuses to leave. But we soon made our way into the cluttered studio where Holt happily discussed his various home-grown studio tricks. He's one of those recording artists who's attracted to the noisemaking potential of everything, choosing his kitchenware for it's sound quality rather than the durability of it's nonstick surface. Listening closely to those old LPs for musical inspiration as well as for bits he might steal with his sampler. 'Since I've evolved from the old four-track system to the infinite world of digital recording I have a lot more room for the sort of cacophonous percussion I prefer.' He shows me a small, plastic bucket in the closet. 'This one is my favorite but I haven't found the right use for it.' He drops the bucket at an angle to the floor where it connects with a distinctive reverberation. 'It'll sound great backwards'. Holt's guitar collection consists mainly of well-worn toy models that have been aggressively reconstructed with additional knobs and dangling wires. I again assumed that this was merely an aesthetic choice but Ashley demonstrated one of his electronic 'improvements' with a twist of a knob, producing an ear-splitting squeal that nearly drove me out of the room. Something else he 'hasn't found the right use for', I gather. 'All of these are prototypes', he says. 'The songs, the recordings themselves are prototypes. Not that I ever intend to create more polished versions. I'm trying to deliver the raw essence of my designs as a spiritual roadmap to Thrdgll Consciousness. But it may also be because I'm mechanically incompetent or just too lazy to do the job right.' I asked him about his lyrics, which, even when audible are often incoherent, only hinting at general themes. 'Take the third letter of every word, write them down. Now wait for an old Boris Karloff film to come on television. Every time Karloff says 'yes', you take a nap. Do this for about twenty years and you'll eventually receive the eternal wisdom of Thrdgll. Or else you'll get really sick of the whole thing, which is very similar to Thrdgll Consciousness. Except on Thursday.' Ashley plays a song from his upcoming CD, Gargle of the Spartanites, called 'Hoodlums by the Curtain Ignite Petroleum'. It's another instantly-catchy, if oddly-structured tune delivered with a dose of early-80s punk aggression. The lyrics are even more maddeningly obscure than usual. 'I wanted this to sound like a satellite feed from some undisclosed location in the dessert. Something you might hear late at night on a radio station you never picked up before. I don't think anything is worth paying attention to unless you're forced to work for it, to listen very closely.' Having listened very closely to the recordings of Ashley Holt, I think he may be right.
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