Video director Ashley Jones on promo production under lockdown

Ashley Jones moved to London from his native Wales to make it as a musician, but it was as video producer that he would make his mark.  He’s been responsible for 50-odd promos for many of the underground music scene’s finest, from William D Drake of his childhood cult heroes Cardiacs to Hurtling and Stephen EvEns.

Lockdown may have put paid to many a musical plan but it it’s not stopped Jones from staying busy, switching – with the aid of his children – to animation and capturing clips using his phone.   Here, he tells us of what got him started, what he’s proudest of and what he’d like to do next, if and when life ever returns to normal.

Hi Ashley,  how are you coping in the lockdown?  We’ve seen some quite impressive pictures of your new beard on social media….

As a family we’ve coped remarkably well.  We’re lucky to have a garden and we get on annoyingly well.   However, I am now more beard than man and I have no real exit strategy.

Your love of rare and fine whisky is also well documented on your channels – we hope you’re not overdoing it!

Four years ago I setmyself the goal of becoming a whisky bore in six weeks.  I dramatically overshot.  In 2018, Sue (the bionic Chaos Engineer who works with me on most projects) and I went on a trip to Islay, the Hebridean home of peated whisky.  It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I was Augustus Gloop.

Making music videos must be difficult in these circumstances.  But we see you’ve managed to produce one for ‘Dustbin Man’  by Stephen EvEns that has surfaced recently.  It’s a mixture of animation and performance, tell us about the process.

I normally have a set of rules that I follow when I am making videos.  Lockdown has meant I have had to temporarily abandon some of those.

We had been discussing ‘Dustbin Man’ for a while prior to Lockdown.   The song is so relevant to these times that I felt we really should get the video done.

It crossed my mind that an animation could work.  Apart from anything, animation frees you to use sets and locations that are otherwise unavailable.  We had always wanted to have (singer/guitarist) Stuffy in these scenes and animation allowed us to do this.

I did some sketches and created an animatic to show how the video would work.

I often shoot little demo videos when I have an idea in mind.  I knew Stuffy would have a phone but not much other video kit.  So I shot my own demo using natural light and my phone to check that the approach and look would work.

Stuffy did a brilliant job of filming himself which made my life so much easier when I was putting him into the scenes.

I got my daughter, Seren, to turn my drawings into images I could animate.  My son, Bryn, is also into animation and I asked him to provide the walk cycles for the binmen.

I had booked a week off from my day job to go on holiday to Scotland (obviously) in the first week of April.  Obviously, we couldn’t go so I spent that week in front of the computer working on the video.  I love the moment when things start to coalesce from a bunch of bits into a coherent whole.

Stuffy and I chatted using Facebook’s video calling so that we were able to bounce ideas around.  But it was pretty quick given the nature of the work.  It’s a great song, and “Employee of the Month” is a great album. I did the gatefold photo for the album artwork and I was thrilled to receive a copy of the LP last week.  I am hugely proud to be a part of it.

You’ve got another animation – or at least part animation – in the pipeline with Micko & The Mellotronics’ ‘Psychedelic Shirt’.  Without too many spoilers, tell us about what’s involved.

Micko and I have worked together several times now.  We were initially introduced by Mikey Georgeson from David Devant & His Spirit Wife.  The first time we met was in a pub in Kentish Town where we talked about our common love of Florian Schneider and Gibson Les Pauls.

Micko is very much a storyteller and he has a strong commitment to narrative.  We are working with an artist to create the artwork for the video and I am going to be using some new tools to create the animation.  I am hoping this will make the animation more dynamic and musical.  I am still working on the animatic; working with a defined narrative makes this phase a bit more work, but I think it’s going to pay off.

You seem to strike up relationships with certain artists and work on a series of promos.  That must give you a certain freedom to experiment….

I’m not in it for the money.  Thank God.  There are two things I love about making music videos.  Firstly, the initial conversations about what the video is going to be.  Some of my videos have been 100% my idea.  Some have been (nearly) 100% the artist’s.  My favourite ones are the 50/50 ones where we thrash ideas around in a pub or café.  Preferably the former.

The other thing I relish is the problem solving during the filming and editing:  “How am I going to make this happen?”  I love those moments when the seemingly impossible becomes reality.

Tell us a bit about yourself – your background, first musical loves and what made you pick up a camera.

Short version:  Moved to London to play in a band.  Never quite made it.  Got my first real camera when my kids were little and mainly took pictures of them.

Musical loves:  Early Adam and the Ants, Sex Pistols, early Human League, Fad Gadget, Kraftwerk.  The centre of my musical universe since about 1989 is Cardiacs.  Everything stems from there since then.

We know you also work as a photographer – which came first?

I made some music videos for my own band in the late 90s.  From around 2010 I started taking photos at gigs; I’d also done some studio photography with my brother-in-law, Lann.  We started using “The Chaos Engineers” name back then for the studio work.

But I got into making music videos all because of one evening.  Roastfest was a gig put on by Kavus Torabi’s “Believer’s Roast” label at the Camden Unicorn on November 12, 2011.

I took photos of almost everyone playing.  One of the bands was ThumperMonkey.  They liked the photos and I offered to do a studio shoot for them.  We did that shoot and it went well.  Michael Woodman, the lead singer and guitarist, is also very interested in film-making.  Mike had offered to make a video for Knifeworld, Kavus’s band.  He asked if I would like to be involved and nothing was ever the same after that.  I have worked with pretty much everyone who played at Roastfest at some point.  Mike is a hugely talented man and someone with whom I love working.

Any videos you remember seeing that made you think ‘I want to do that!’?

Cardiacs’ “Tarred and Feathered” was shot by the people who made The Tube but it was my great audio-visual epiphany.  My sister remembers me seeing it when it was live on telly and it immediately and permanently blew my mind.

Tim Smith is a brilliant video director as well as my favourite music maker.  I have to use that broad term because he does it all.

I love Anton Corbijn’s photography and videos.  I also think that Bjork’s videos are astonishing.  I mentioned my rules earlier.  One of these is that the artist has to be at the heart of the video.  Madness wrote the book when it comes to “video as vehicle to define the band’s identity”.  I want my videos to showcase the artist – because that’s what all my favourite videos do.

What was the first promo you shot?  Any memories?

The first one I worked on was for Thumpermonkey’s “Wheezy Boy” which Mike Woodman directed and edited.  All my footage was overexposed, but Mike never complained.  I remember being stunned by how brilliant the actors were.  I have only worked with actors a few times; that was the first.

Tell us a bit about who else you’ve worked with…  

I was a huge Stump fan in the 80s and am extremely proud of the video for “Rubberised” that I did for Prescott, Kev Hopper’s band.  I think it’s the most technically innovative thing I have done.

Looking at my YouTube playlist, I am shocked to learn that I have made more than fifty videos.

I’ve loved pretty much all the songs and artists I have worked with:   Hurtling, Simon Love, Knifeworld, Awooga, The Fierce And The Dead, Arch Garrison and Cesarians.

I have also collaborated heavily with the brilliant Richard Larcombe on his Lost Crowns project.

You’ve worked with William D Drake I believe….  Are you part of the Cardiacs fan cult or was this strange world new to you?

I really am part of the cult.   I have compered at the last two Alphabet Business Conventions.  Which means I talk in a loud voice before the bands come on and quietly stand next to Tim Smith at the side of the stage for most of the show.

They played Distant Buzzing on a big screen at the ABC months before it was released and it was my most “goosebumps” moment when it was shown.  Hugely exciting.

I saw Cardiacs loads of times and still miss the transcendental experience of throwing my hands in the air to the strains of Big Ship.

I also love Bill’s work and my personal favourite Cardiacs material is the stuff from Bill’s time in the band.

You’ve also shot with a few well known comic actors – Kevin Eldon, Paul Putner, Suzy Kane….    That must have been fun.

Micko has an amazing capacity for getting great people to work with him.  So it’s flattering that he also works with me.  Kevin, Paul and Suzy were all delightful to work with and it’s been fantastic to have the chance.

When we shot Schmescos with Kevin, Micko’s brother, Hollywood director Wash Westmoreland, was standing next to me.  Wash was also utterly charming.  It was an amazing few hours and I felt like pinching myself.  I still do.

You have a penchant for the Hitchcock-style cameo too – is that a deal breaker?!

I have tried to get myself in lots of the videos.  My kids particularly like my cameo in Distant Buzzing.  I am there at 3:05.  I’d like to be in all of them but sometimes I forget because I am so busy on shoot days.

Any other highlights of your career we’ve missed out –

It was fantastic to be at RAK studios in November when The Spammed recorded their version of Get It On.  It was six weeks before Neil Innes’s sad passing and it was wonderful to meet such a kind, talented and funny man.  I took mostly candid stills of conversations between the band and the also-amazing Tony Visconti.  Again – I was pinching myself for weeks.

Finally, if you could pick one artist alive or dead you wish you could or could have worked with, who would it be?

I would love to have worked with Fad Gadget/Frank Tovey.  I met him – and this sounds like a pattern – six weeks before he died.  I love his work and would love to have worked with him.  And always, always, always Cardiacs’ Tim Smith.  But I don’t know what I would bring to the party with Tim because he does everything so brilliantly himself.