I first heard Bauhaus when I was about 16 or 17. The song in question was Crowds, a maudlin little number almost bereft of guitars that I encountered on a community radio station up at the dusty end of the dial. It intrigued me enough to scour the city in search of an LP. I found the one with the naked guy blowing a horn on the front. Later I would discover it was their debut Ín the Flat Field’. When I got home and put it on my stereo the whole world was tilted on its axis. The opening salvo of Double Dare was deafening. That fuzzed out bass, clattering drums and otherwordly guitars. Those keening, screaming, teetering, cascading guitars.
Of all the musicians who made me revaluate what the guitar was capable of, Daniel Ash is probably the first that springs to mind and the one that has stuck with me the longest. Both traditional and wildly experimental, his playing coaxes such a myriad of sounds from his speakers that via a stunning three band run, he was able to touch upon a far wider range of colours than most any of his contemporaries. From the monochromatic spikes of early Bauhaus, through the off-kilter experiments of Tones on Tail and then the numerous evolutionary leaps and tangents of Love and Rockets, he paved the way for countless others to find their muse amidst shards of treble and feedback.
Quintessential punk bombast, psychedelic fervour, widescreen texture, and nascent electronica are just some of the quivers to this man’s bow.
Now after close to 40 years he and fellow Bauhaus/TOT/LAR alumni Kevin Haskins are revisiting some of those sweet and sour sounds with their new project Poptone, an album of reskinned classics and a continuing run of shows that still hiss and fizz with a vitality that utterly belies the age of the material.
I called Daniel in L.A. on a hectic Monday to get the scoop on all things Poptone, performance, past, present, and why we should be thanking Motorhead that he’s back at all.
How is Monday treating you?
It was a crazy morning. At the moment my life is like an episode of The Osbournes but without the money. It’s pretty nuts, I’ve got a lot of weird stuff going on.
Let’s start with Poptone and work our way back. How did the idea to do Poptone initially come about? Was it a conscious decision to give Tones on Tail in particular their due?`
It was actually yeah. Kevin had been asking me on and off for a few different years and in about 2010 Coachella offered us the gig, but it never felt right until last January when suddenly I had a bit of a revelation.
I hadn’t played live or done any gigs in ten years and I had this thing that happened to me at about 4 o’clock in the morning where I fell asleep with my headphones on watching youtube stuff. I think I probably fell asleep to ‘Before and after Science’ by Brian Eno and got woken up by ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead. It really jolted me and I had this little revelation that said ‘you should go and play live again” which I had no intention of doing again ever. But this feeling just made it crystal clear that that’s what I should do, so a couple of days went by, I thought about it and then I called Kevin and said “I’m on. Who should we get to play bass?”
And to cut a long story short he said his daughter Diva plays bass. And I said ”…well can she do ‘Go’? If she can do ‘Go’ she’s got the gig. And she could play it really well. So cut to eight weeks later and we’re on the road doing sixty gigs throughout the US, Mexico and Canada. It was great so we’re back onto it and we’re gonna do it all again, we’re starting rehearsals tomorrow actually.
It’s great that the Tones on Tail material is getting a fair shake cos of the three main bands you’re known for they’re kind of the outlier and in many ways the most interesting…
Yeah it was probably the freest band I was in. It was a situation where at first it was a side project with just Glen (Campling, Bass) and myself but then when Bauhaus split up it became the main gig for a while. I would say to be honest out of the three bands it is my favourite. There was never any pressure from the record company to do singles or hit singles, although I really wanted hit singles in the commercial sense. But then again I wanted ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ to be a hit single but it’s nine and half minutes long! So that was never gonna happen. (Laughs)
My memory of that band is that we had a lot of fun in the studio. It was very much a case of “I’ve got something, lets jump in the car and go” and the record company Beggars Banquet just gave us free reign to do that which was great. It was the freest time back then and I really love being eclectic, doing one particular style and then doing something completely opposite and we had the complete freedom to do that within the band.
Go! Was a hit a single in some parts of the world though right?
It was yeah. It’s weird cos ‘Go’ started out as a b-side. I think ‘Lions’ was the a-side cos at the time I was really into slow songs and I remember thinking that it would be really different to put ‘Lions’ out as an a-side, but all the DJ’s at the time flipped it over and played ‘Go’ and it ended up being a big old hit in Germany for about 5 or 6 weeks. I think it’s cos it’s got that killer bassline and also ‘Ya Ya Ya’ means ‘yes’ in German which I didn’t even think of, I just started singing and that’s what came out of my mouth on that day we were recording. At the time I was using a lot of ‘cut ups’ like the way Bowie did when he was working with Eno.
The oblique strategies?
Yeah, where you take a sentence and cut it up. I was doing that with a magazine in England called Viz which was a really low humour magazine with the fat slags and all that which was really funny, and also really cheap newspapers like The Sun where they’d have the most drastic in-your-face headlines, so I would cut up all those headlines and make lyrics for the songs. Most of Tones on Tail’s stuff was done that way and that again was new to me and it was very liberating cos your subconscious takes over and you just put sentences together that you wouldn’t necessarily think of. When you put them all together you make something completely different, so that was really exciting and an easy way to work as far as getting lyrics together.
How was it initially revisiting the songs when you were preparing for the tour?
It’s just like riding a bicycle. It comes back to you straight away. When we started rehearsing it was like we’d been away for about two weeks instead of thirty-five years. We rehearsed at home individually to get the ball rolling and then as soon as we got together it worked. All-in-all we rehearsed solidly for about eight weeks though just to get it as good as we possibly could before we played that first gig cos the pressure was on, I hadn’t done a gig in ten years. We ended up doing a couple of semi-private gigs in LA and the rehearsals really paid off. It was nerve wracking obviously after not doing it for that long but we were so well rehearsed that it went well.
The album actually has a real urgency to the delivery of some of it. I like that you didn’t fuck with it too much, it has a real kinetic live feel to it where tracks like ‘Mirror People’ are almost punk and twice as fast as the original.
Yeah, that was the whole point. It was all recorded live in a studio session with bass, drums and guitar all recorded at the same time without all the frills, bells and whistles. That was the whole point rather than doing polished versions.
Are you planning on augmenting it with any new originals in the future or is it going to be more just a revalidation of the older tracks?
Well the band Poptone for me is a vehicle to play the retrospective. It’s a retrospective tour and it’s a continuation this year. We’ll be going on til July and then we’ll see what happens but as far as I’m concerned this is strictly for playing those songs from those bands.
As far as stuff in the future…I’ve just recorded something a couple of months ago and have a few different things on the boil but one thing that’s actually finished is, and I’m going to do a shameless plug here for my new single ‘Alien Love’. It’s down as a freeload on my website and I’m also doing personalised CD’s with that track on it and also a hidden track. Actually it’s just defeated the point with me just telling you about it but there you go. That’s slipped out! But there’s a couple of tracks on it, there’s ‘Alien Love’ and then there’s this other one called ‘Walking Home Drunk’ which is interesting cos I had an almost dub-like version of the backing track for Alien Love up and running and I thought “wow it’d be great to get a vocal on there” and there’s this local character in town where I live called Sherman He’s basically the local drunk and I bumped into him on the street at 11 o’clock at night and said “hey man, come in and do a vocal on this track”. He was pretty buzzed at the time and I got him in front of the microphone and what happened, happened. His nickname in town is The Shermanator cos after about 11 am every morning he’s pretty much like a bull in a china shop. You’ll see what I mean when you hear the track but it worked out pretty well (laughs) THE SHERMANATOR!
Is the new stuff reminiscent of what you were doing with ‘Foolish Thing Desire’ and ‘Coming Down’? Or is it a completely new sound?
It’s not really a new sound cos when I pick up the bass I tend to play in a certain style most of the time. It’s like with Tones on Tail because with Glen and myself we’d occasionally swap instruments and he’d play guitar. Particularly when he’d bring an acoustic and I’d play the bassline, it was really weird cos his guitar playing on the acoustic would sound like the way I played it when I played bass I’d sound like him so it therefore this stuff, especially the bonus track sounds like it has a typical Tones on Tail vibe. It’s got that flavour to it, whereas Alien Love is more of a full-on guitar oriented little rocker. So you should download it! It only costs you four bucks. Danielashmusic.com!
Was it a conscious decision to not get David J on board this time around so as to lend it a sense of separation from Love and Rockets?
Well the thing is with Poptone is that it’s 70% Tones on Tail music so that’s not Dave’s style of playing at all anyway. We wouldn’t have thought of doing that cos David and Glen are very different bass players with a completely different style.
Speaking of the lack of pressure you had with Tones on Tail and the freedom you had when playing with them is it true that part of the reason for the initial dissolution of Love and Rockets was the stadium shows at the end of the 80’s and just thinking “shit, this has gotten too big?”
Absolutely not. The idea of playing stadiums really, really appeals to me so I had no problem with that at all. The bigger the better. What bugs me is playing little clubs. I’m totally into playing big shows. The way things are at the moment obviously that’s not happening but I have no problem at all with commercial success in that obvious way. That’s not an issue.
The thing is with Love and Rockets you have to understand that we were together as a band for 17 years continually so that’s a hell of a long time for three people to get on and be together working in the same space. It was just relentless. It was writing, on the road, album, on the road. For seventeen years it was just on and on and on so there comes a stage where you need to quit and do something different, that’s all it was.
Going back right to the beginning with Bauhaus you forged a really unique and influential playing style that was quite unorthodox. What was the mindset involved with your approach to guitar at the time?
Well I deliberately kept my myself innocent about how to play which was a combination of being lazy and not wanting to sound like anybody else. That combination seemed to work really well cos I really didn’t want to learn all those jazz chords and all that stuff and if I did ever come up with stuff like that it was a complete accident. It wasn’t like I sat down and studied it from a book or whatever. I just stuck to the idea that a guitar is just six strings with a piece of wood attached. Sometimes I’d use drumsticks or whatever to get sounds but there was no reason for me to try and be like Jimi Hendrix or as good as Jimi Hendrix cos I couldn’t do that. He’d already done that. Been there done that. Why would I try and compete with that? No way was I into shredding and all that stuff cos to me it’s just self-indulgent and really boring and only appeals to spotty sixteen-year-olds.
I had no interest in that, I wanted to go the opposite way, kind of like the original Bauhaus art movement if you like, which was very simplistic and functional but not excessive. Forget the flamboyance and just get down to the core of the whole thing. I love fifties rock and roll for that same reason. It’s simplistic but extremely effective so it’s the opposite of the whole shredding thing which leaves me completely cold and to me is just ego wanking. I don’t have any interest in ego wanking…on the guitar (laughs).
So I went in the other direction, instead of using six strings I would tend to use one or two. I used to love the way Mick Ronson used to play with Bowie where he’d just howl on one or two notes. That would say so much more to me than these guys that shred, that’s just showing off.
There’s a lot of textural work that you did and even across that initial run of albums it evolved pretty rapidly from the spikiness of ‘…Flat Field’ via the experimentation of ‘The Sky’s Gone Out’ up to where you can hear the burgeoning roots of what would become Love and Rockets on ‘Burning from the Inside’.
Yeah one thing that changed everything for me to my advantage was discovering the e-bow. A lot of people think it’s keyboards on various songs but it’s actually e-bow which basically turns the guitar into a keyboard cos it just sustains on the one note. ‘Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven’ and ‘Burning Skies’ are probably good examples of that. As soon as I saw that thing on the shelf I asked the guy “what is that?” and he showed me and I just had to have it. It changed everything for me. It completely opened up the sound of the guitar. That was very inspirational for me to get hold of that little gizmo. They cost about $100 and it just changed everything. I also use the sustainer which is thing they have on the Fernandes guitars and it’s the same principal. They’ve had the sustainer for years and it does pretty much the same thing except that it activates all six strings at once. After you’ve used the sustainer or an e-bow, going back to a normal guitar is very limiting because with these you’ve got infinite feedback basically, and you can do a lot with that. If you just use it with a distortion pedal and an echo unit you can take it to Mars and back. The sounds that you get are wonderful. It doesn’t sound like a guitar anymore which really appeals to me.
Guitar-wise You were mostly using Tele’s weren’t you?
Yeah Telecasters. I had this 72 Tele from when I was a kid and it got burnt in a fire but then I discovered the Fernades guitars that had the sustainer on it and I just used those from then on, but these days I’m using a tele again. I just sort of split it 50/50 between the two. I like the sharpness of the Telecaster and I got that sound idea from Wilco Johnson from Doctor Feelgood. I just saw him playing a telecaster through an H&H which is a solid state amp that has this real sharp sound. It’s like the opposite to a Les Paul. It just has this super sharp sound so that really appealed to me. Wilco Johnson’s setup, that’s where I stole that idea from.
Then as we move into Love and Rockets especially starting out with songs like “..Dog End” you’ve got a really psychedelic feel with lots of guitars. Did this reflect where your head was at psychically as well as musically? Basically I’m asking if there were a lot of lysergics involved?
Druggy Druggy Druggies? (laughs) Really? We’re clean cut kids here! Cups of tea! We’re English!
It’s actually just one guitar! It’s the right wall of sound. We just called it the wall of sound. It’s just keeping the strings going all the time and doing a churn or flick on your fingers but it’s not like seventeen guitars at once. It’s just one. It’s that wall of sound. I just describe it as that.
Then after the Express LP you guys really stripped back the sound. There’s a lot more space on ‘Earth, Sun, Moon’, was that a kind of reaction to the sort of claustrophobia that a lot of studio work and effects can bring to a song?
Well we’d done the more electric guitar-oriented stuff with Express and then we thought “alright chaps let’s go away into the countryside now and walk around with the sheep and goats and the chickens”. So we did. We went into the country to do something more acoustic oriented. It was a case of exploring contrast cos we would get bored quickly. We did Express and then we thought we’d do the opposite and get the acoustics out. And then after that we got rid of the guitars and did ‘Hot Trip to Heaven’. At the time we were very influenced by bands like The Orb, Leftfield, Orbital and that whole electronic thing that came out in the early 90’s which was brilliant. We were very, very influenced by that which is why we came up with Hot Trip to Heaven. As a band we’re really proud of that album but unfortunately it was commercial suicide for us. I remember saying this is either going to be our ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or its going to completely bomb, and unfortunately it was the latter. It just bombed. Most people were like “where’s the guitars?”, y’know? But we had to do it cos we were bored with guitars and having that sound. We needed to try something different. We’d always be chopping and changing in that band.
That album sounds fucking great on ecstasy. ‘This Heaven’ in particular is a great ecstasy song.
Oh yeah absolutely, that was definitely an influence around that time absolutely. I’m glad you said that! That’s where our heads were at at the time! Completely.
Looking back after such a long a varied career touching on all those different elements, which era or approach are you most fond or proud of and think defines you best?
I would say in all honesty closest to my heart is the Tones material. What I wanted to achieve with that was music that sounded like it came from another planet but you could still tap your foot to it which is exactly what I think we achieved. It sounds like it’s from elsewhere and I also think it’s really aged well. You could put that stuff on now and it sounds like it could have been recorded by a band last week, even though it was recorded in 1983 and I’m really proud of that. I think the best stuff does stand the test of time no matter what genre it is really. We achieved what we wanted to with that.
I think it sounds quite current as well cos a lot of it was done with quite a low budget right? It doesn’t have that overproduced sound that became so prevalent in the 80’s…
Yeah we were nice and cheap to record. We did a lot of that stuff in a little ten track studio and it’s funny cos I remember Martin Mills the guy at the record company at the time said “this is really cool, you have a real knack for making a really cheap studio sound like a really expensive one”. And I found that to be a real compliment. You don’t need a lot of stuff, you can just work with what you’ve got. You can go to the most expensive studio on planet earth but if you don’t have the talent and if you don’t have the suss then nothings gonna come out of it, and yet you can go into a 4 track studio and get something if you’ve got the suss and the know-how.
I’m not a big believer in a huge amount of bells and whistles. Quite the opposite. I like to be limited. It’s like something Brian Eno said when he was working with Bowie, he said what they wanted was a synthesizer that would make eight really good sounds not one hundred and eight ‘okay’ sounds. So I’m very much a believer in that as well.
It’s good to have limitations in the studio otherwise you can get into a situation where you never stop. In a big flash studio you can get overwhelmed and you can’t focus because there’s too many options. The simplicity of a decent studio is key, as long as what you do record is quality then that’s all you need.
So now that we’re in retrospective mode and celebratory mode. David’s done his book, Kevin’s done a book, are we going to get the Daniel Ash book?
I really, really doubt it cos I don’t have time for that stuff. I ain’t got the patience. I really love motorcycles and all my spare time is taken up getting away from the big city and buggering off into the countryside. I’ve just got a thing about bikes and it’s getting worse as the years go on. That’s my thing. Maybe when I’m too old to ride I’ll come up with something but definitely not in the foreseeable future that’s for sure. I aint got the patience for that. And It doesn’t really appeal to me doing a ‘tell all’ about it I’ve got other things to do. I’d rather go for a ride.
There’s something to be said for leaving some mystery about things as well. Something you guys had particularly with Bauhaus, especially for what was a bunch of good looking guys, you were very oblique with your imagery. It wasn’t like Duran Duran where you were all over the cover. There was a lot of mystery involved.
Yeah, well we never ever talked about what we were gonna look like, it just sort of happened naturally. I used to wear black from back when I was at art school. It was convenient cos I was a grease monkey who was always dicking around with motorcycles so I was always filthy and the black clothing was just practical. It was never talked about, what we would look like. Ever. Which is ironic cos you’d think that would be all that we talked about when you think about how we used to look, but it was never mentioned at all. It was just a very natural thing.
As far as the comparison with Duran Duran goes, the reason we weren’t on all the covers is cos we weren’t a commercial band like Duran Duran. But for what it’s worth I thought Duran Duran were a fantastic pop band. They were great. I love all that stuff, I love George Michaels stuff as well. People will look at me and go ‘oh you’re just saying that for effect’ but not at all, I thought George Michaels solo stuff is just brilliant songwriting and he produced wonderful songs. I thought Duran Duran were the perfect pop group. I love their stuff. I think it takes a lot more talent to write hit singles than it does to be arty farty and just elitsist and underground all the time. Not everybody can write a hit single. But those guys could so I have total respect for them
Who did you see as your contemporaries?
Well just the obvious of the so-called alternative rock bands. When we started out there was Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, New Order, all of us came up at the same time. Just the obvious.
I’ll tell you a band that I thought were fantastic, just real fun and great was The Flying Lizards. Love that stuff. They did brilliant versions of ‘Sex Machine’ and ‘Money’. They’re really, really good. That is the alternative stuff that I really love. So amateur but so brilliant at the same time. Then again I also love Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry which has a very sophisticated production so I’d like to think I’m quite eclectic in my tastes.
So what’s next for you guys, are we gonna get to see Poptone in Australia?
Well it’s funny you should say that cos I was talking about it. We want to come to Europe, Australia, all those places but to be honest at this point in time the finances just aren’t there to do that. We haven’t had any offers where it would be financially viable for us to come over there. That’s what it comes down to in all honesty. Do you really think that they’d be into Poptone?
Yeah absolutely, there’s a lot of people who would be ravenous for it. That stuff gets played at clubs all the time, you see the t-shirts, Peter Murphy did two sold out shows here within the space of a year. You need to come.
Well okay then! You just give us a shitload of money and we’ll be over there in 48 hours! (laughs) I’m serious (laughs). I was talking to a friend of mine who books me DJ stuff and he said you should think about it, but this is the same issue we’re having with Europe. If the offers are there the offers are there. Put it this way, it takes 7 or 8 thousand dollars just to get us all to get to a gig, and that’s before we make any profit at all so this is just the way it is. I mean we grossed a bunch of money last year but by the time we paid flights, rehearsals, lighting guys, sound guys, the crew and the band, you only walk away with a fraction of that gross.
It is what it is. Always has been. If we get the offers we’re there. If we can’t afford to, we can’t afford to and that’s just the reality of it. It’s funny cos I’ve been told not to say things like this but it’s just the truth of it I don’t see any reason not to just tell it like it is.
Well we’ll try and get a whip round going.
(Laughs) See! There you go! (laughs) get a whip around the whole country and then we’ll get over there. Fabulous!
I’ll see you in about 48 hours when you get that whip around going!