Long running but not exactly prolific, New York's Fly Ashtray was a band of warped pop eccentrics working in territory most commonly referenced through Pavement and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. Fractured pop songs that buried their hooks under heaps of lo-fi noise were FA's stock in trade, along with a goofy brand of psychedelia and a dry, absurdist sense of humor. Elements of British Invasion pop, new wave, jangly R.E.M./Television-style alt-rock, and avant-garde rock weirdos from the Red Krayola to the Residents were all audible in the group's eclectic sound as well. Fly Ashtray's lackadaisical attitude toward recording certainly contributed to their relative lack of exposure -- it often took them years to issue new material, and what they did release was often on small, poorly distributed labels. Yet that informal aesthetic also contributed to a loose -- if uneven -- charm cited by many of the critics who did hear their albums.
Fly Ashtray was formed in 1983 at Fordham University, in the Bronx area of New York City. Charter members included singer/bassist/guitarist John Beekman, guitarist/bassist Chris Thomas, and guitarist/bassist Mike Anzalone. They were soon joined by keyboardist/guitarist/bassist/singer James Kavoussi and drummer Eric Thomas (Chris' brother). It would take until 1987 for the group to issue their first recording, a 7" single called "The Day I Turned Into Jim Morrison." They next appeared with a brief track on ROIR's New York Scum Rock compilation in 1989. Despite their lack of available material, the band had been recording off and on for most of the ‘80s, and issued a self-released, cassette-only compilation of its early work in 1990, called Nothing Left to Spill. It was accompanied by a four-song EP, Extended Outlook, on the See Eye label, plus a 7" single, "President Stoned." Another 7", the three-song "Soap"/"Bip"/"Feather," followed in 1991. By this time, Eric Thomas had left the group to move to Japan, and Mike Anzalone also departed to concentrate on playing in Kavoussi's other project, Uncle Wiggly. Thomas was replaced by new drummer Glenn Luttman, leaving the group a quartet.
Fly Ashtray's first proper full-length was 1991's Clumps Take a Ride, which appeared on Kramer's Shimmy Disc label and collected material from the previous three years, including their signature song "Ostrich Atmosphere." The EP Let's Have Some Crate followed on the British label Hemiola in 1992, and finally -- after a decade of existence -- the band released its first full-length album of all-new material, Tone Sensations of the Wonder Men, on Shimmy Disc in 1993. After this unprecedented level of activity, a hiatus of several years followed, during which time Kavoussi embarked on a solo project under the name pHoaming Edison. Fly Ashtray returned in 1997 with the Flummoxed EP, their first release for indie Dark Beloved Cloud. In 1998, they experienced their first personnel shift in quite some time, as Beekman departed, to be replaced by bassist/guitarist/banjoist David Abel (also of Autobody). A third full-length album followed in 1999, under the title Sawgrass Subligette; it featured contributions from Abel's crony Jim Abramson, an Autobody bandmate who also drummed for Dymaxion. In 2002, Fifth Beetle released a long-delayed EP, Stop the Zockos, which had been completed in 1995. The following year, Glenn Luttman took his leave from the band, and was replaced by Autobody/Drumhead percussionist Eric Marc Cohen.