The band’s spirited "International Orange!" fuses the sounds and cultures of faraway lands.
Tod Ashley of Firewater doesn’t just see the world when he travels. He listens. The band’s new record, International Orange!, brings unlikely musicians together from all parts of the world and combines their styles and instrumentation. Many artists might look to traveling for inspiration, for Ashley its an opportunity to recruit. “From the very beginning, we’ve tried to mash up different cultures and influences, throwing them into a blender and seeing what happens,” he says.
Firewater plays Tipitina's tonight, and Ashley has been the band's one constant, with a changing lineup of musicians from around the globe playing alongside him. “The initial concept that Firewater was, I had these songs and I wanted it to have an open-door policy,”he says. “The previous band I had, we were trapped together into this. We had a major label deal, and we’re touring and touring and touring, and by the end, we all hated each other. I vowed that my next band would be something in which nobody was trapped, and people could come and go as they were enthusiastic about it. I’m very good friends with everyone who’s played in Firewater over the years, but they should only be in the band if it makes sense for them, and if they want to do it. The membership has changed, but it’s good. It keeps it lively and fresh.”
Firewater’s formation and debut album came in 1995, when Ashley’s last rock group Cop Shoot Cop fell apart and left him wanting to start anew. “I grew bored with standard American rock 'n' roll,” he says. “I started getting into music from different parts of the world, and New York is a good place to absorb a lot of influences. You walk down the street and there’s Indian music playing, or salsa music playing. People from everywhere.”
He's always considered himself a world traveler and currently resides in Istanbul, Turkey. He was born in South Carolina but lived in Vancouver and Wales for periods of time. By the time he’d settled down in New York, he realized that he wasn’t made for settling down.
“I had a nervous breakdown around 2005,” Ashley says. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do music anymore, and that’s when I headed off to southeast Asia. I’d had it with the whole struggle. When I was living in New York, it was really exciting in the beginning, and then it became kind of run of the mill. It wasn’t inspirational for me anymore. I took off and taught English in India and Thailand for several months, but then the songs started coming into my head. I couldn’t escape it, I guess.
“There were many ‘aha’ moments, moments by myself watching the sunset from the roof of a building in Thailand, or walking down the street in India,” he says. The band’s 2008 release, The Golden Hour, draws from these moments, and Ashley hopes listeners see this latest record as a continuation of the last. “It’s a bit more focused, and I really tried to reign in my tendency to put everything in the kitchen sink in every song,” he says. “The instrumentation, we tried to minimize everything. It’s the same core band on every song, with a couple of additions. I tried to really focus on getting a sound for this record.”
“I worked with people that I already knew as well as local Turkish musicians. We mixed it in Tel Aviv. Turkey was tripping over eggs with the Palestinians right at the time we were recording, a bunch of Israelis had boarded their boats and killed eight people. We had Turkish and Israeli musicians playing together right in the midst of this situation, where the governments were about to go to war. Part of the concept of Firewater is getting beyond how governments relate to each other, and promoting how ordinary people can get along.”
Firewater continues to achieve this by constantly taking their music to new audiences. They’ve played to an orphanage in Italy, a halfway house for ex-junkies in Germany. Every show is weirder than the next, Ashley says, but the goal remains the same. “We want to get people fired up, let them forget their problems and get them dancing on the tables.”