Serengeti is the alias of David Cohn, one of Chicago’s most prolific rappers and artists. Through the course of his career, he has released over 20 albums, each of which occupy a place in a coherent and intricate universe of characters that he continues to develop with each new project. Some know him for his beloved alter ego Kenny Dennis, who created a cult hit in the song “Dennehy,” a track recently remixed for the Chicago Bulls. Others know Serengeti for the deeply personal nature and dark humor of his lyricism, all of which has spurned collaborations with Sufjan Stevens, Yoni Wolf of Why?, DEREK, Advance Base and many others. A Serengeti show is a constant work in progress, as it is a working exhibition of his obsessions with both music and narrative storytelling.
Owen Ashworth’s albums have always been about the human condition, and his latest is no exception. That may sound strange, given that it’s called Animal Companionship, but it’s as human as anything he’s done before.
After hearing problems forced the end of his electronic pop project Casiotone for the Painfully Alone in 2010, Ashworth started making quieter music as Advance Base, releasing A Shut-In’s Prayer in 2012, Nephew In The Wild in 2015 and a slew of tapes and 7” EPs in between. After releasing a 2016 live album, In Bloomington, the prodigious songwriter shifted his focus to his label, Orindal Records, and put his efforts into helping other artists release their music.
This break from songwriting gave him time to explore not just how he makes music, but why he’s driven to do so. “I spent a lot of time thinking about why I write songs and what I get out of writing songs,” he said. “It took a while to get back to writing for myself, unselfconsciously.
“The reason I’ve always made music is because it’s therapeutic for me,” he said. “It’s a way of processing my feelings and understanding my subconscious. I love the ritual of writing a song and performing it over and over again until its meaning reveals itself. It’s the closest I get to meditation.”
The meditative nature of Ashworth’s new songwriting process can be heard in Animal Companionship’s spacious arrangements. Blissful drones and lush synthesizer textures envelop soft electric piano arpeggiations and spare drum programming, creating an almost hypnotic backdrop for Ashworth’s lyrical narratives. And the lyrics themselves have found a new focus: dogs.
“There was a while last year when a bunch of different friends of mine were having problems with their dogs,” said Ashworth, “and even though I don’t have a dog, suddenly I was giving all of this dog advice. I was just thinking and worrying about these friends and their dogs all of the time, and dogs just started showing up in my songs.
“When you explain the relationship you have with a pet, it can sound crazy. We all tend to anthropomorphize the animals we love, talking about them as if they’re children, siblings, even spouses,” said Ashworth. “I wrote these songs to help myself understand what pets mean to their owners, how those animal relationships affect our human relationships, and vice versa.”
Unlike the previous Advance Base albums, which were made at home on Ashworth’s trusty 4-track tape machine, Animal Companionship was mostly recorded at Palmetto Studios in Los Angeles with Ashworth’s old friend and former Casiotone for the Painfully Alone collaborator Jason Quever. Animal Companionship still sounds like Ashworth, but Quever’s production adds more depth and clarity than you’ve ever heard from an Advance Base or Casiotone album. The album opener, “True Love Death Dream,” is full of warm synthesizer textures and lush drum machine tones, the kind that sink deep into your soul and take root there. It shows how much time and consideration Ashworth put into Animal Companionship, and how Quever knew exactly how to capture it. From the pedal steel atmospherics of “Dolores & Kimberly” to the densely layered oscillations of “Rabbits,” every movement beautifully frames each song’s narrative. Animal Companionship’s production is expansive but always deliberate, allowing Ashworth to speak volumes through subtle, emotional gestures.
Taken as a whole, Animal Companionship is not just a step forward for Advance Base—it’s the culmination of everything Ashworth has been building for the past two decades. It’s a record that’s gentle in approach and endearing in practice, the kind of thing that only Ashworth could create.
Animal Companionship was co-released by Run For Cover Records & Orindal Records on September 21, 2018.