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Tempe's Ascetic House Blurs Lines at Upcoming Sonoran Pop Festival

"Ascetic House is operated out of the West Temple, a small shed in the Sonoran Desert, and much of the artwork, music, and publications were actualized therein."

So reads the inscription at the front of most of the photocopied chapbooks filled with prose, poetry, and firsthand psychedelic accounts issued by Tempe-based Ascetic House. J.S. Aurelius and Alexander Jarson, Ascetic House's founders and spiritual figureheads, pen most of these publications — equally hard-edged and mystic.

We're sitting in West Temple (actually a small apartment in downtown Tempe). But the "shed" imagery fits: The space is tidy and appointed with half-empty bottles of wine, cassette tapes in various points of assemblage, and stacks of literature devoted to rock 'n' roll and magick. A FedEx sign glows in the corner, and gorgeous screen-printed posters, advertising tours and underground warehouse shows, line the walls.

Aurelius and Jarson are trying — with some admitted difficulty — to define what "Ascetic House" is. It's not a label, they say, despite New Times awarding it "Best Label" in its annual Best of Phoenix issue. Yes, they release music, but they insist it's something less designated than that, in a way that hints that Ascetic House could blossom into anything its creators imagine.

"Collective is an okay word to use," Jarson says, reclining on the floor in jeans and a neatly tucked-in paisley shirt. His hair is something marvelous, a curly mop parted dramatically to the side.

"You say 'collective' and people are going to be like, 'Oh, so you all live in a squat together?'" Aurelius jokes, lighting a cigarette as a plane roars overhead toward Sky Harbor. In a dark button-down and black jeans, with his hair neatly cropped, his appearance contrasts sharply with Jarson's.

Classifying Ascetic House is difficult. The group's releases are marked by a shared aesthetic, but it's an unlikely one, in which smeared occult figures (skeletons/pyramids/floating eyes) share space with cryptic Biblical imagery. The sounds are as diverse, ranging from the seething hardcore of the controversial Tempe S.S. to the synth pop of Jarson's solo project Body of Light, the clanging EBM of Marshstepper, and the pop psychedelia of Jarson's guitar-rock band, Otro Mundo, which he plays in with his brother Andrew, with output spanning the distances between beatific to menacing.

"I'll even catch myself saying, 'Oh, yeah, we have this label,'" Aurelius says. "But it's not — it's not even a production company. It's more so just a name for the group of people and what we do."

The core group of Ascetic House has been playing in different lineups for about "six years" now, Aurelius says, tracing the basic inception of the idea to the noise outfit Pigeon Religion. "We just sort of put a name on it to make it easier to manage in our heads," Aurelius says of the proper establishing of the Ascetic House "brand," solidified with the release of Sungsang's Anak Tanpa Bangsa in 2011.

The members of the label/publishing house/whatever's cast stretch across other labels and play in other bands. Aurelius is particularly busy. He plays in Destruction Unit. The band's earliest incarnation featured the late Jay Reatard but has morphed into a thoroughly dusty riff drone machine; Marshstepper's released tapes on Los Angeles-based experimental label Chondritic Sound; Aurelius was headed to Florida the morning after our interview to perform and hang out with Merchandise, recently profiled by Pitchfork as a "rising" act.

The cross-pollination is attractive to the duo, and not just because it makes things even more difficult to categorize.

"I would consider the art — the fliers we've done — 'releases,'" Aurelius says of Ascetic House's nebulous definitions. "It's all the catalog of our accomplishments. Whether it's a punk show or performance art [or] a painting someone did . . . Any aspect of that is part of the same thing."

"There's different intentions," Jarson says. "What I want for my publishing is different than what I want for my music. But in a different sense, it's sort of not. There's a feeling I get, and I just do it — whatever comes out, music, words, scribbles on a piece of paper."

Aurelius counters that he is interested in "disseminating ideas," but that ultimately, "[What I do is] no more valid than someone who goes to work working a bank, working at a factory, or someone who plays pop music, or someone who writes science fiction novels; the circumstances led them to that, and the circumstances in my life [have led me to this]. I don't know why. It's just what we do now. If the day comes that it's not what I want to do, I won't do it."

As nebulous as Ascetic House may be, the upcoming Sonoran Pop Festival, featuring Phoenix-based bands Marshstepper, Body of Light, and friends of the label Soft Shoulder (Gilgongo Records), Christian Filardo (Holy Page Records), and Documentarian, and a cast of national and international acts like Lust for Youth, Pharmakon, Anti-Civilization Mask, Søren, Foreplay, and Granite Mask, seems to somehow illustrate its artistic goals.

The show acts as a sister festival to the fifth-year anniversary festival of New York-based label Sacred Bones at remote desert venue Pappy and Harriet's in Pioneertown, just outside of California's Joshua Tree National Park.

"It's definitely safe to say both labels are mutual fans of each other," says Sacred Bones co-founder Taylor Brode. "We just let Jes run with it, as far as setting up this festival, 'cause we trust his taste and wanted an excuse to do a show together."

The idea has been brewing for some time. Aurelius met Loke Rahbek of Lust for Youth in Copenhagen while on tour with Marshstepper. Rahbek, who runs a label as well — Posh Isolation ("aesthetically akin to Ascetic House," Brode says, "being a highly curated esoteric cassette label") — expressed a desire to visit the desert and shoot guns with the A.H. crew. ("Shooting guns is fun," Jarson says laughing while describing the time he hauled a load of unsold vinyl records out to the desert for target practice).

The idea stuck in the back of Aurelius' head, and when he met Brode in New York (where Destruction Unit played the night Hurricane Sandy hit), she told him the five-year anniversary party put everyone in close proximity.

"I think that a lot of people are starting to connect the dots that there's actually interesting things happening in Phoenix," Aurelius says. "Because it's been so isolated, it's hard for people to pick up on."

Ascetic House-associated bands don't necessarily eschew the local club scene, but their shows often run like an undercurrent to it, starting after-hours gigs at 2:30 in the morning. It's a matter of necessity.

"That kind of thing exists in pretty much every city — even in major cities — but I think it's different here," he says. "You have to do it that way. If you want something to happen, you have to do it or it's not there.

Instead of complaining about Phoenix, its lack of culture, or lack of ideas, Aurelius, Jarson, and their friends are practicing a non-New Age-y (or at least a kind of New Age open to harsh, bit-crushed noise and desert firearm sessions) form of self-actualization. They're creating while others are content to moan. It's inspiring — and in its own way, an approach rooted deeply in Phoenix history.

"If stuff like The Feederz, Sun City Girls, Consumers could happen back then . . .," Aurelius says, shaking his head. "It's a hostile environment now, but I can't imagine what it was like back then."

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.