Recently I got the chance to sit down with Daniel Ash or, as he’s known on the stage, Teenage Waitress – a one-man outfit of contagious, synth-driven indie-pop. Recently, he dropped his first, full-length debut, Love & Chemicals; a self-professed ‘musical patchwork quilt’ which threatens to challenge how albums are perceived in general; with each track wholly different from the rest; touching on the concept. A book more than an LP. More a story than a record.
Teenage Waitress’ debut features four previous singles, each distinct from the last – but consistent in theme; held together like, well, a patchwork quilt. And with such an eclectic, electro-duvet unleashed unto the fold, now’s the best time to talk to the band themself.
Love & Chemicals is your debut. I suppose the first question should be: what’s it about?
“Love & Chemicals is, for the most part, other people’s stories set to what I hope are some hummable tunes,” Ash of Teenage Waitress explains, “that’s where ‘Teenage Waitress’ comes from, too. I have this vision of an eavesdropping waitress collecting breakfast plates and hearing little pieces of people’s life and maybe having to join some dots. That’s exactly the kind of experience I wanted to give listeners.”
And Ash is absolutely right. The album tries an ambitious amount in its sound – hummable, to say the least – taking the themes of colour, love, loss and heartbreak, before scattering them amongst half-cryptic numbers of synth and power pop. Someone once described Queen’s News of the World as ‘an explosion of styles that didn’t seem to hold to any particular centre,’ something that fits Love & Chemicals very well. The album gives off the vibe of a kind of musical voyeur, looking in from the outside; conversations in the void.
Why the title, Love & Chemicals?
“I’m afraid it’s a very boring answer, but that one has been in my back pocket for years. Every few years I’ll go down the rabbit hole of checking my phone’s voice recordings and notes and when I was looking for inspiration for record titles, I chanced upon a note I’d left in 2015 saying ‘Love and Chemicals’,” Ash tells me; echoing countless mornings of checking ‘Notes’ on my own phone to see what utterly baffling thing I had written there the night before, “It instantly felt right.”
Can you describe your debut in one word?
You describe Love & Chemicals as ‘something of a musical patchwork quilt with all sorts of different textures, styles and emotions’. And that’s certainly true; within the space of a few songs we transition from sonically-upbeat electro pop (‘The Mess You Made Me Make’) to harrowing echoes (‘I’m Leaving Berlin’) and tinges of melancholy synthwave (‘You Ain’t Got It Bad’). Is there any particular reason to which you owe this? Was a ‘collection of short stories of vignettes’ deliberate? Or purely accidental?
“Yeah, it was always very much part of the plan to really go as many places as we could in the running time,” says Ash, before going all nostalgic on me, “That’s why I’ve always loved the LP so much as an art form, you have plenty of time to really play on those kind of contrasts.” It’s at this point when Teenage Waitress gives us a look into his collection, each inclusion bristling with beautiful difference, “Lots of my favourite records have that “patchwork quilt “ sort of feel. . . McCartney’s Ram, Kate Bush’s The Dreaming, The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.” And what a musical taste, too! I can only imagine the smile on Lindsey Buckingham’s face to hear some love for 1979’s experimental Tusk!
Love & Chemicals almost has a ‘story’ element to it; with recurring themes and tales of love and how it can hurt if given half the chance. It reminded me of The Who’s Tommy in its woven structure.
Would it be fair to dub this album a ‘concept album’, of sorts? There seems to be a generally cohesive ribbon throughout of hopeful heartbreak, of someone who comes to realise they can’t have someone; not anymore – and ultimately having to move on. Is that the case, or is Love & Chemicals simply thematic? Is it the same person in every song?
“Thank you, it’s so cool to hear that it feels like a cohesive piece. I never really considered the songs coming from the POV of the same person, though that’s a super interesting thought. I best call Ben Elton and get the stage show going,” jokes Ash.
Would the album work as efficiently if the track listing was changed; or a song entirely removed?
“I tried sequencing the record in a few different ways before landing at the final running order,” Ash details the album’s construction, “For most of the recording process I had a completely different sequence in mind, but it really didn’t work in practice. It’s so interesting how vital that is to get right. Can you believe I had a sleepless night over this once? I’d say everything belongs on the album, but I would say that because I’d lose another night’s sleep picking which one to remove.”
I admit, it’s not a job I envy. You hear stories of when artists have to trim down an album at the manager’s behest, or to make it the best it can – choosing even a single track to scrap (particularly if it’s a concept piece) can be rage-inducing. Tom Petty’s critically-acclaimed Wildflowers underwent much ‘refining’ before reaching the final product. ELO’s Secret Messages missed out on a double-LP for the same reason. But thankfully, Ash’s choices – and their placement – seem to make perfect sense.
I’m sure picking a favourite song is like a mother with their ‘favourite child’, but is there one song on your debut that stands out to you for any particular reason?
“I think ‘TRAK!TRAK!TRAK!’ is my personal favourite,” Ash confesses, “It’s so very different to anything I’ve done before and feels like an important moment in the album run for me. I was very excited when I first wrote it, it felt like a real breakthrough.” And he’s not wrong. ‘TRAK!TRAK!TRAK!’ proves one of Love & Chemicals’ most ‘experimental’ points, with dreamy verses, barraging choruses, and even the nebulous (if admirably weird) kazoo.
You like to experiment with different sounds. I could make out the kazoo on two of the songs, and you mention both accordions and spoons, too, being part of the process. Did you have any goal in mind with these unique approaches to music? Or just tried stuff out and saw what happened?
It’s at this point when Ash delves somewhat into his musical tenure, if such a word is fitting, “When I started writing this record, I’d just finished working with an indie band with 2 guitars, a bass, drums and vocals. I was really determined to take advantage of the freedom of making a ‘laptop’ album and creating these ‘’ what if… ‘’ weird fantasy arrangements of certain songs, with a whole bunch of sounds and instruments I’d never worked with before”, he pauses a moment, “Enter, the lead Kazoo.”
What are some inspirations – both musically and generally – in your musical journey? The use of the kazoo, for example reminds me of The Beatles using them on Sgt. Pepper’s ‘Lovely Rita’, or Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac having drummer Mick use Kleenex boxes and lamb chops during the recording of Tusk. Who, or what, influenced the album?
“I love both those bands and I’m so glad you mentioned Tusk. I prefer that record to Rumours, and I love those panned double drum takes on ‘Walk A Thin Line’. This album very nearly had a song with two live drums takes panned in each speaker too!” As a fan of Fleetwood Mac, I admit it’s tough not share a smile at the enthusiasm for the band’s ’79 album. Released two years after the multi-million selling Rumours, Tusk was practically a commercial failure; with bizarre compositions from Buckingham, disjointed track listing and excessive record costs.
“Musically,” Ash continues, explaining more of both his and the album’s influences, “Bowie, The Beatles, Weller… I’m also really inspired by my friends who I’ve worked with on this album – Uncanny Valley Girls, The Moons, Blue Canary, Hector, Thumbs and Itchy Teeth. All amazing bands.
My day job involves listening to a lot of music so I’m actually not listening to as much new music as I should be in my free time. I’m finding inspiration from a bunch of other places these days. David Lynch’s work has always been a big one. I’ve been thinking a lot about and taking inspiration from the adult swim show Joe Pera Talks With You, which I highly recommend, that never fails to take me to a happy place. Anyone who struggles with stress, anxiety or sleepless nights, go and check out Joe Pera Talks With You on All4. It’s an absolute blessing.”
It’s certainly not hard to see the inspirations of non-musicians in the art world, too, such as Lynch. Love & Chemicals walks a thin line (ahem) between a uniform, synth-indie album, and something much more; the border blurring a lot of the time. It’s clear that there’s a blend of themes and styles with this one; including a lot on the cynicism of love, at times.
Would it be fair to say the album is deeply personal; inspired or forged entirely from your own experiences? There’s a lot of emotion in the lyrics, as well as the sound itself.
“Almost all of it is from other people’s point of views, but it’s really nice that it works like that, too. I was thinking from my perspective with ‘Primary Colours’ and ‘I Don’t Like This Party’. I’ve actually got a whole stack of personal songs lined up for the next album.”
‘I Don’t Like This Party’ remains one of the album’s highlights for me. Ascending from the musical mellow of the last track, ‘…Party’ proves a testament to Love & Chemicals ‘Bowie nature’ with instantly changing it up; lingering somewhere between post-punk and electro-pop.
Love & Chemicals is just as much a piece of art as it is an album. Did you originally want to write just an album? Or did you deliberately seek to create something entirely unique?
“Yeah, I was always aiming for something a bit more than just an album. I went into it with the attitude of ‘this could well be my only chance to do this’ so I really threw the kitchen sink at it,” Ash explains; a refreshingly brave approach to an artist’s debut. One album in and already pushing the boundaries between what’s music and what’s pure art? Daunting, to say the least.
You talk about wanting to ‘work outside of my [your] comfort zone’. Would you say, generally, that you stick with what you know? And if so, how difficult was it to break out of that? Was it easier than you thought?
It’s here where Ash confesses the existentialism we all reach at some point in life, “I was quickly approaching thirty when I started this thing, and had all those usual ‘am I too old to be doing this now?’ thoughts, but really I think creatively I’m actually in a better position than I’ve ever been. I’ve now had years of experience in writing stuff and learning what can work and what definitely doesn’t.
I’d always wanted to make something that comfortably straddled the line of weird vs. poppy, but I think I really needed to clock in those hours (or years!) to be able to create something like Love & Chemicals. I must mention my producer Michael Bissett, who was always full of wonderful ideas, too. Obviously, I don’t have band mates to bounce ideas off of so to work closely with a talented producer who inspired and challenged me was a very important piece of the puzzle.”
The idea of recording one’s debut is exciting, but an ever-looming shadow at the same time. Hearing Ash talk about tackling Love & Chemicals solo – at least on the recording side – is inspiring, though. No matter how tough those dreams may be to materialise, it’s possible. And that’s where another theme of the album comes through. Hope.
Some of the songs from your album border on the hopeful, such as in ‘Blue Walls’, with the line, ‘Emma don’t be sad, this was not the life you’re meant to have’, suggesting it’s not too late to reach your potential, perhaps. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for those stuck in a similar rut?
“I think really just try and enjoy the journey and keep challenging yourself. Like I said, this is the album I’d always wanted to make but it took a while so enjoy, experiment and don’t get too hung up on the time it takes to get there.”
Let’s go back in time slightly. What initially inspired you to get into music, let alone start writing/recording your own?
“It was always Bowie,” nods Ash, the reluctance palpable in his voice, “Sorry, I sound like a broken record, but from the ages of 5-15 I ate, slept and breathed Bowie. I mean to be honest that’s still pretty accurate now.
Maybe slightly less sleeping though.”
Given the transient nature of Waitress’ Love & Chemicals, it’s not hard to make out the similarities. Parts of the album even give me a slight Tonight vibe – though, I hasten to add, not quite as hit-and-miss – but nevertheless, utterly Ash’s own.
Do you have other passions apart from music? Or is music your true love?
“Music and film are my big two. Anything that involves not having to do any sport in front of other people is all good with me.” It’s at this point in the interview where I question whether Ash and I are the same person.
Does any particular lyric stand out to you – was there a moment where one came to mind and you thought, ‘Yes! That’s gold!’? The line, ‘I’m never gonna live my life in primary colours’ springs to mind, personally.
“Thank you very much,”, smiles Ash, displaying a real joy in his album’s reception, “I’m really glad you like that one. I think my favourite line on the album is from ‘The Mess You Made Me Make’. The line ‘I’m like a wilhelm scream, you’ve heard of me’. I’ve had that one for years and it’s been in a bunch of songs I never finished but couldn’t be happier that it found it’s home there. “
How long did this album take to make; from conception to final mix?
“Well, it’s tricky to say because lots of the songs were started/demoed in my bedroom. Then I’d find a weekend when me and my producer Michael were both free to take those demos and rebuild them. We’re about two hours from each other, too, so it was a process of about two years getting all the ducks in a row.
Having said that, if we’d been in the same room for two or three weeks, we’d have finished it in that time frame too. It was just nice to have that extra time for rewrites and to see if any new ideas came along during the process. It was mixed and mastered by my super talented friend Xav.” And how good the mix, sounds, too – debuts can always prove dubious in the mastering stage; great songs can be dashed at the last minute by poor layering, or instruments struggling to come through. Love & Chemicals boasts a complete sound; without losing any emotion in the final polish.
Do you remember the first song you wrote for this album, or the last?
“The first was probably ‘Maniac’, which I used to play in my old band, and the last was uh… ‘I’m Leaving Berlin’. That one was a real last minute addition.”
What was the reason for picking the four singles you did? Mainstream appeal, or something more personal?
“They all felt like a good introduction to the project and are probably the most ‘radio friendly’. I actually bought a blow up doll and was ready to make a video for ‘Maniac’ but had a last minute change of heart and went with Berlin,” explains Ash, “Still have the blow up doll though, if anyone wants one? NM.”
Are you always writing new stuff? Or only when inspiration hits you? Do you plan on taking somewhat of a break now?
“Yeah, I’m always thinking of the next song,” says Ash, giving an insight into his creative process, “I don’t think I ever really have a day off, that side of things. I have to run to the toilets in ASDA a lot and sing melodies into my phone, that sort of thing. That little radar just never seems to switch off, I don’t let it.”
Spoken like a true artiste.
What are your plans after Love & Chemicals is released?
“I’ve not done one full band live show as Teenage Waitress yet so as soon as we can, I’d like to get on a stage with my friends and play the album. I can’t wait to start seeing how some of these songs will work in a live setting.”
And neither can I! Tracks like ‘The Mess You Made Me Make’, ‘Maniac’ and ‘TRAK!TRAK!TRAK!’ were made to be performed live; it’ll be interesting to see who takes over on kazoo duties, though.
Do you think your work will continue to be electro-synth indie-pop? Will you try your hand at other genres? Could we see a totally radical, ‘experimental’ Teenage Waitress record, for instance?
“I think to avoid any future comparisons, I’ll always be trying to do something different every time. Being such a huge Bowie fan from such a young age, that sort of principle has been ingrained in me.”
Cue Teenage Waitress ditching the lightning bolt and androgyny for eye patches, then.
Perhaps it is a little too soon to start talking about ‘future’ releases, but are there any beginnings of potential new songs you have in the works? Outtakes that could be reused?
“There were a bunch of outtakes,” confirms Ash, “perhaps near an album’s worth, but I’ve already written the next thing and haven’t returned to any of those older tunes yet. I’d like the next thing to be a full live band record, with brass. I’ve never experimented much with brass in my music before and I think it’d suit the songs I’ve been writing over lockdown. As I say, they’re a bit more personal this time.”
I admit, the mind boggles at whatever Ash will point his mind to next; but the sound of things already written, and the potential use of brass, is enough to get my inner music geek fired up. I can’t wait to see how Teenage Waitress accommodates an entire marching band onstage.
You talk about how the four singles from L&C have been played on the likes of Radio X and BBC London. How does it feel hearing your music played out loud on the radio?
The mixture of excitement and disbelief are audible in Ash’s words, “It’s crazy, really. And I never take any of that for granted. I feel incredibly lucky that some awesome shows have decided to play my music. It’s always a buzz.”
Lastly, if the listener of Love & Chemicals took one thing away from it, what would it be?
“Maybe that records are still an art form that you can have fun with, for both the artist and listener. I’ve got no problem at all with Spotify, or any of the streaming services, but the experience of working with and listening to a sequenced, two sided record, with artwork is still a very exciting thing indeed.”
And who could disagree? Digital music and streaming platforms have their place; no one can deny that. But there’s something about having that piece of music in front of you; packaged in a 12” sleeve and just waiting to be spun. It’s real, it’s physical. It’s art. Not to be stored away on some cloud somewhere or compartmentalised into organised playlists. To be looked at in person; unveiled for all to hear.
And there ends our interview with Daniel Ash of Teenage Waitress. It goes without saying, but from me – and all of us at Splendid Fred – thank you very much for your music, and your time. It’s been a really fascinating listen, from start to finish, and a privilege to talk it through with you; its creator. We hope the album does well, as I’m sure it will! And may your future endeavours prove just as fruitful, and just as wonderfully bizarre. That’s what music needs right now.
Curiously enough, if you’re a fan of records, just like Ash, you can order his debut, Love & Chemicals, on magnificent transparent violet vinyl, here:
You can also pick the album up on vinyl from the likes of Amazon, as well as Rough Trade, if black is more your thing (You can also buy the album digitally). If you’re a fan of alternative/indie-pop, with shades of colour and explosions of synth, this is something to look out for.