Growing up a horror hound, there were many aspects of those sleazy, late night flicks that appealed to a young punk like myself. Of course the gorier the better. All of my friends and I wanted to be Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, or Stan Winston. Those guys took appliances, latex, and fake blood to a whole new level. Sometimes it was hard to tell that you were seeing effects and not the actual gory demise of some b-rated actor. Then if you threw in a little T&A, well I didn’t know anyone that would complain about that. Young couples in the throes of hot, forbidden coitus only to get caught, not by mom and dad, but a machete-wielding undead maniac that chops them to bits. The voyeuristic boob shot from a lit bedroom window, or the butt shot in the kitchen as some dude is grabbing a beer from the fridge. Naked flesh always upped the ante of any great, late night horror flick.
One aspect though that seemed to be less thought about, at least from the watcher’s point of view, was the music. What was noticed mostly was the pop and rock songs used. The scores that carried the film throughout weren’t really discussed that much at the time. But over the last few years, thanks to record companies like Death Waltz Recording Company, Mondo, and Waxwork, those old horror film scores have gotten the recognition they deserved. For me I always paid close attention to the music. Not only were they cues to what was happening(or what was going to happen), but they could really set the mood overall. They could go from sticky sleaze to overwhelming melancholy within a moment. Like with any sort of film, without a proper score the slasher/horror film would just feel empty.
Besides me, Christopher Ashley was paying attention to those scores as well. Since the late 90s Ashley has been making sleazy, heavy synth-laden music under the moniker Slasher Film Festival Strategy. The music runs the gamut from lo-fi, 4-track recordings to more cleaned up affairs. While all original music, they feel like they follow a specific narrative. Albums like Wet Leather, Crimson Throne, and his latest Psychic Shield all feel like scores to actual slasher/sci fi flicks, yet they’re all just concepts coming straight from Ashley’s head. Scores to imagined late night horror movies you’d come across on Night Flight or cable access at 2 am.
Christopher Ashley and I sat down and talked about the music of SFFS and his influences over the years.
J. Hubner: Growing up in the 80s and 90s what kind of music were you listening to? Living in rural North Carolina I can imagine getting your hands on music had to be tricky. I, too, grew up in a rural area outside a small town. Magazines like Metal Edge, Hit Parader, and Circus at the local newsstand for all my musical info.
Christopher Ashley: Metal Edge, Hit Parader and Circus were all high school staples as they were quite accessible. My best friend and I spent many hours removing the Metallica, Megadeth and Guns ‘n Roses posters out of those magazines. As far as the other parts of the question, there really isn’t a short answer, as music has been in my life for as long as I can remember. My earliest experience with music was listening to Motown and Soul music with my Mother and my sister and listening to pop 45’s on our turntable as young children. As a teenager I was very much enamored with bands far-ranging; this was the birth of my obsession I suppose.
J. Hubner: When did you begin to get into the alternative music scene?
Christopher Ashley: Unsane, Jesus Lizard, Dinosaur Jr., The Cure, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Tool and Metallica were all teenage favorites. As I entered my late teens, hardcore/punk, chaotic hardcore mostly (less of the chugga chugga variety and more of the noisy, screamy bands of the time – Chokehold, Unbroken, Los Crudos, Swing Kids, Spazz, Man is the Bastard, etc. were all staples.)
J. Hubner: When did you start playing in bands? Where did your musical tastes develop?
Christopher Ashley: I played in bands throughout my youth until my late 20’s, so I have been making music of some sort for over 20 years, and collecting records for just as long. As far as where I got my musical tastes from, I suppose it was just a product of living in the middle of nowhere in the southern United States, a place I loathed as a youth, but learned to love and accept as an adult. Fanzines, pen pals, mail-order catalogs were the only way to regularly obtain music. Distros at shows were big for my development and the rare trip to the record store that was 45 miles away was literally mind blowing. As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I really dug deep into my love for heavy metal and shortly thereafter discovered jazz music; these two genres remain my favorites over 15 years later.
J. Hubner: Besides the musical influences, 80s horror must have had an impact on you as well. When did you start watching horror movies?
Christopher Ashley: I spent a lot of time as a teenager splitting my time between a town of 2500 and an unincorporated community of maybe a couple of hundred. When in the larger town, I had access to a video store. It was called “The Movie Place” and it was amazing. The town was small enough that I could walk there from my father’s. These were the days of the VHS. Shelf after shelf of beautiful boxes stuffed with styrofoam inserts with amazing cover art. Horror, Sleaze, Action, Martial Arts… My mom was super cool about allowing me to watch and listen to what I wanted. She trusted me and as I entered my teenage years I was pretty much able to come and go as I wanted. I was lucky enough to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and Nightmare III in the theater at age 10 (wtf? Dad, haha), so horror was a big deal. Aside from the 80s staples like, Friday the 13th, Nightmare series, Evil Dead I and II, Halloween, Dead series, the video store turned me onto other films like April Fool’s Day, Bloody Birthday, Chopping Mall, Happy Birthday to Me, Silent Night, Deadly Night…the list goes on and on. I also was a huge fan of martial arts films and ninja films that were staples in the “action” section of the video store.
J. Hubner: Any favorite films or directors from the era?
Christopher Ashley: As far as directors and favorites, I am not sure I truly had a favorite, although Nightmare was a big deal for me as a kid, but I wasn’t truly aware of directors, etc. until much later. This was way before the internet. Today, you just go on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes and are made aware of every film by every actor, director, etc. Like music, you had to work for that kind of stuff in the 80s/early 90s. You had to be dedicated.
J. Hubner: We had a local bookstore/newsstand in town when I grew up and I remember going in there every Sunday with my dad and picking up the newest copies of Fangoria, Gorezone, and Slaughterhouse magazines. Were you a fan of the horror mags as well?
Christopher Ashley: Gorezone was a big deal for me starting around 6th grade. I remember when it first came out and the local convenience store had it. I’m still amazed they would sell it to 12/13 year old kids… I remember Leatherface being on the cover of the first issue I think! I stopped reading it after a few years, but still I was a huge fan of that magazine in particular and we always wanted to be special effects/makeup artists.
J. Hubner: So when did you go from music fan to music maker? What age did you start playing music?
Christopher Ashley: At age 15, I got a bass for Christmas and a small amp. If I recall, my Mom got me the amp and my Dad the bass, something like that. I immediately began learning to play with my best friend, John Henley (he mixes/masters all of the SFFS material to this day and we played in a number of bands together) a much more established guitar player. We would play Metallica, Nirvana, Queensryche and I was pretty terrible. Thankfully I picked it up quickly and moved on to other instruments. I still write some of the SFFS material on stringed instruments before I take it to the keyboard.
J. Hubner: Let’s talk about Murder Weapon. You started the band in 1997. Were you in any other bands before that, or was Murder Weapons your first band?
Christopher Ashley: Murder Weapon was the first “serious” band I suppose. I had been in several bands prior to that including a noisy, hardcore type band called Shutter as a teenager. Many other bands came after.
J. Hubner: At the time the band disbanded there was an LP recorded called ‘Rampage on an English Village’. Does that LP still exist in any form?
Christopher Ashley: Unfortunately the master is lost. There is cassette version floating around, but the mix is unusable. It had some of our best material and I wish it could have been released.
J. Hubner: Tell me a little about Index For Potential Suicide, the band you formed after Murder Weapon broke up. How did that band come together?
Christopher Ashley: Index formed immediately after Murder Weapon split up. I moved to the coastal part of the state to start a band for the most part. We began as a power electronics/noise band heavily influenced by Japanese noise, Throbbing Gristle, Man is the Bastard. It was a rejection of hardcore of sorts. I was a primary songwriter, but everyone in the band was very active in writing. Our bassist wrote a lot of lyrics and riffs and our drummer was a very active write as well. Index was very prolific in only a year and a half of existence. 2 tours, a demo, a 7”, a split 7” and a full-length. A discography was released and I recently re-issued our full-length “The Newest Youth Rebellion” on my label as part of my Southern Hardcore Series. Index broke up just before we were about to do a 3 week tour with west coast dates with Bastard Noise and Noothgrush.
J. Hubner: So during the time you were still playing in Murder Weapon you began experimenting with noise, experimental, and dark synth music under the name Slasher Film Festival Strategy. Had you always had an interest in synth music? Who were some artists of the genre that influenced you?
Christopher Ashley: Synth music not so much, but electronic music sure. Mostly influenced by Japanese power electronics, West Coast Power electronics, Coil, Vinyl Communications label, Cold Meat Industry, Throbbing Gristle, early industrial, film music and hip-hop instrumentals were all influences. As far as “the genre”, at the time I wasn’t aware there was a genre. When I began to push SFFS as a horror soundtrack inspired project, this was probably 2-3 years before Zombi and I wasn’t aware of Goblin. Of course there was Carpenter, of course he became an influence. I remember in the early 2000s when I would talk about SFFS to people at shows or whatever, often times the comment was “oh you are trying to sound like Zombi”. Zombi was on another level. I was one guy with some synths, drum machines and a 4-track. Zombi was a sophisticated prog band, even back then. I pushed SFFS into more dark ambient territory for a few years circling back to horror-themed sounds on 2003’s “Dead Bodies.”
J. Hubner: Honestly, you were ahead of the curve in regards to the interest in horror scores. You were making the music before anyone even considered it a genre, and as just something that generally interested you. Not trying to create a trend.
In the beginning when you first started creating music as SFFS, how did you go about creating these pieces? Were you just tinkering around, or were you creating musical interludes to stories or scenes you had in your head? With titles like “Corpse Pile”, “Sewer Tunnel”, and “Paul Owen’s Last Five Minutes Alive”, they seem specific to something, not just random titles. I could be reading too much into it as well.
Christopher Ashley: Definitely, when I first started in 97ish, I was just playing with keyboards and my drum machine. After recording 3 releases (several of these pieces appear on the Early Works collection), I picked up a Juno-60 in late ’99. It was much easier to get the sound I wanted with that machine. These definitely were “scenes” in my head and the latter just was part of my obsession with “American Psycho”.
J. Hubner: Can you tell me about the gear you use? Have you upgraded since the early days? From the ‘Early Works’ release to your most recent release ‘Wet Leather’ it sounds like the fidelity has improved quite a bit. Have you upgraded from 4-track cassette recording to computer-based? Do you ever miss the simplicity of 4-track recording?
Christopher Ashley: All material since 2010 has been recorded on a computer. I much prefer the simplicity of the 4-track, but really enjoy the cold, digital sound of the computer as well. I’ve never really wanted a “warm” sound. I strive for a cold, bleak sound, even if I am playing a melodic part and I think the computer does that. I still have a number of synthesizers and use a combination of hardware/software.
J. Hubner: During your interview with the Damn Fine Cast podcast you mentioned that the 2013 SFFS album ‘Crimson Throne’ was written as a score to a film idea you had. So what was the idea behind the imagined film? Is it something you think you’d ever want to pursue in regards to actually getting this film made? Is cinema something you’d like to pursue someday, either as a music composer or filmmaker?
Christopher Ashley: Here is the description of “Crimson Throne” right from the marketing material, “Space Shuttle Ambition was NASA’s fourth operational spacecraft launching on February 3, 1987- the first manned space flight to Mars. Dubbed Operation Crimson Throne, the goal of the mission was to terraform Mars for potential colonization of future human inhabitants. A crew of seven successfully landed on the red planet on September 6, 1987 and all contact was lost a mere 18 days later. This is their story.” The only primary intent of SFFS was to score film. Over the past few years, I have made contacts with a lot of people, but I still haven’t had the opportunity to score a film.
J. Hubner: Just a few months ago you released a split with Antoni Maiovvi. It’s a great three song split, btw. How did that come about? Had you known of Maiovvi prior to doing the split?
Christopher Ashley: I reached out to Maiovvi as I was fan of his work. I partnered with the amazing artist Haunt Love to handle the packaging. Maiovvi also played in an amazing noise-rock band called Geisha that I was a fan of as well.
J. Hubner: The split was released by Death Waltz Recording Company, as well as your own label Foreign Sounds. When did you start Foreign Sounds? You run a label, as well as write and record music, and you have a 9 to 5 as well? Does sleep factor into your life?(laughs) It seems like the punk, DIY thing to do, start and run your own label.
Christopher Ashley: Actually, I released the split on Foreign Sounds. Death Waltz/Mondo did get exclusive distribution. Foreign Sounds began around late 2010. I got serious about in 2013 and have released over 30 releases since then. I am a district manager for corporate retail and have a loving wife and amazing daughter. I have put out records for 20 years, so it just seemed natural. My first label existed for 6 or 7 years. Initially, it was to be a vehicle to release my own music, but I have had the immense pleasure to work with a lot of my favorite artists in the metal community.
J. Hubner: So you have a new album out through the Death Waltz Originals label titled ‘Psychic Shield’. First, how does the new one compare to ‘Wet Leather’ in terms of aesthetic and sound? Does it feel like another progression for you?
Christopher Ashley: PS is definitely a progression, yet it fits in nicely with the trilogy. There is some melody on this record. Certain elements are more laid back and it’s intentionally a slow burn.
J. Hubner: Also, why did you decide to release it with Death Waltz? I absolutely love Death Waltz and Mondo, so I’m not saying releasing with them is a bad thing. Just curious as to why you didn’t release it under your own label. It seems you might have to give up some control when you’re not releasing it yourself.
Christopher Ashley: Spencer/DW did a lot to help expose the new generation of soundtrack collectors and electronic music enthusiasts to my music. Even though my project was 16 years old when “Crimson Throne” came out, his promotion of the project and direct support really pushed it to the right audience. After “Wet Leather” I knew I could sell 500 copies of record on my own, but that was my peak. I couldn’t get anyone to review my records or write about my project. After Spencer offered to do PS, I was ecstatic. We talked about it for about a while (as I worked on the record, etc.) and as soon as I got the materials over he got it manufactured immediately. DW and Mondo’s reach is immense and I think that assisted me when I was working the record. I released the CD and cassette and DW/Mondo did a beautiful job with the LP.
J. Hubner: I agree. They did an amazing job with the record, and DW are a huge reason I started collecting the horror scores in the first place. I think it was in 2013 when I heard about their release of the Fulci House By The Cemetery soundtrack. It was all downhill from there for me(laughs).
Can you share any info on what you have planned for the rest of 2016? I imagine SFFS isn’t really something you take out on the road, so are there any more releases besides ‘Psychic Shield’ we can look forward to?
Christopher Ashley: There are always things in the works and in the event SFFS ever plays live again, there will have to be more people involved. Some people can pull off the laptop thing, but it just doesn’t do anything for me in a live setting. My bud, Xander Harris goes all out with a ton of hardware and really does it right as a one man show. Many others do a good job of managing this as well. As far as releases, there is a lot on the plate. Several splits including a collaboration with the amazing Pentagram Home Video, an electronic/soundtrack influenced compilation released by the man behind Vi-Res, an EP based on leftover material from Crimson Throne and hopefully a new full-length.