Four years ago, when dedicated George W. Bush haters vowed to leave the country if the president were reelected, not many ended up with a one-way ticket to France. It required a certain commitment that most Hollywood liberals simply didn’t have. But Tod Ashley, a.k.a. Tod A. of the angst-ridden indie-rock band Firewater, did. A veteran of the downtown music scene who led the art-punk band Cop Shoot Cop in the eighties, Tod A. became so disenchanted with the U.S.—and with New York—that he embarked upon a transcontinental quest for personal and political exorcism in 2005. “I became so depressed that the idea of sitting under a palm tree far, far away from George Bush became more appealing,” he says. “So I put everything in storage and left.”
Three years later, just in time for the next election, he’s back—in the form of a new Firewater album called The Golden Hour. While teaching English in Bangkok and Calcutta, Tod A. concocted an ambitious plan to tour India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran with a microphone and a laptop computer, recording a new batch of songs with local musicians he met along the way. He checked into cheap hotels in Jodhpur, Lahore, and Peshawar and ordered up so-called nautch parties, with a traditional wedding band featuring a ululating singer and a G-rated belly dancer. None of the performers understood English. “They were a little confused,” he says. “I would play them the song and try spitting and making mouth noises to describe the beat that I wanted. [The result] was always something different, but always better.”
Very often he was invited back to the musicians’ homes for further jamming; liberal use of opium softened the barriers. The result is a mélange of Firewater’s clanging and melodic Eastern European–flavored gypsy rock, Indian and Middle Eastern percussion, hypnotic sarangi solos, and hints of reggae dub and New Orleans brass. If that sounds like shiny, happy music conceived by Benetton, fear not: Tod A. still has the same acid attitude of his Cop Shoot Cop days. The album is a biting travelogue, the rantings of a surly castaway among the noble savages. “Well I ain’t gonna live in your world no more,” he sneers on the opener, “Borneo.” “I got a monkey for a president and a head all filled up with cement—look out, Borneo!” By the end, he’s referring to himself as a “three-legged dog on the roam.”
Tod A. bristles when I (apologetically) compare him to Paul Simon, who once caught flak for exploiting African rhythms for top-40 pop. “Yes, in the back of my mind there’s always that,” he says, “but rock and roll was born out of Saharan blues and white hillbilly music. There’s no shame in trying to merge different influences.”
It used to be that Tod A. could find enough exotica in New York. In the nineties, he wandered into Kismet Record Company on 14th Street and discovered Russian songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky, which inspired him to bridge punk rock and the cabaret theatrics of Nick Cave and Tom Waits. But even back when Bill Clinton was president, Tod A. seemed awfully dissatisfied on Firewater’s 1996 debut, Get Off the Cross [We Need the Wood for the Fire]. “I was probably less happy than I am right now,” he admits.
Tod A.’s grand scheme hit a snag at the Pakistani-Afghan border, where no taxis would take him through the lawless Khyber Pass. “That wasn’t a place I could walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, my name’s Tod, from America,’ ” he says. “It’s a very paranoid place. And for a reason. People have tried to invade them since about 5,000 years ago. They’re a bit … edgy.” Unable to enter Iran, he wound up in Tel Aviv, mixing together recordings by Israeli and Pakistani musicians.
The whole experience had something of a personal cost. On a return trip to New York, which he describes on the song “Weird to Be Back,” Tod A. “felt like a tourist,” though he adds that it wasn’t all that bad: “It’s much more enjoyable than feeling like a prisoner.”