There’s Only One: An Interview with Daniel Ash
From the monochromatic spikes of early Bauhaus, through the off-kilter experiments of Tones on Tail and the numerous evolutionary leaps and tangents of Love and Rockets, legendary guitarist, songwriter and frontman Daniel Ash has 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 his bow.
Now, after close to 40 years, he and fellow Bauhaus 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.
Above: Daniel Ash (foreground) with Poptone bandmates Diva Dompe and Kevin Haskins.
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 years, 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. I fell asleep with my headphones on watching YouTube stuff - I think it was ‘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. But this feeling just made it crystal clear that that’s what I should do. A couple of days went by, I thought about it, then I called Kevin and said “I’m in. Who should we get to play bass?”
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. Eight weeks later we were on the road doing sixty gigs throughout the US, Mexico and Canada.
It’s great that the Tones on Tail material is getting a fair shake. Of the three main bands you’re known for, they’re kind of the outlier and in many ways the most interesting…
It was probably the freest band I was in and, to be honest, out of the three bands it's 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. 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 'cause ‘Go’ started out as a b-side, but all the DJs at the time played it and it ended up being a big old hit in Germany for about 5 or 6 weeks. I think it’s 'cause 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.
How was it initially revisiting the songs when you were preparing for the tour with Poptone?
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 'cause 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.
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 re-validation of the older tracks?
Well the band Poptone for me is a vehicle to play the retrospective. We’ll be going on 'til July, 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 goes - and I’m going to do a shameless plug here - I’ve just finished recording 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 telling you about it, but there you go. That slipped out!
There's another track on there called ‘Walking Home Drunk’ which is interesting, 'cause 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”. There’s this local character in town where I live called Sherman who is basically the local drunk. 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 'cause 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).
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 with Poptone is that it’s 70% Tones on Tail music, and that’s not Dave’s style of playing at all anyway. David and Glen (Campling, Tones on Tail bassist) are very different players with completely different styles.
Coming back to what you said earlier about the lack of pressure you felt 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 with Love and Rockets is, you have to understand that we were together as a band for 17 years continually - 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.
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. 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 'cause I couldn’t do that and he’d already done that. Why would I try and compete? No way was I into shredding and all that stuff - to me it’s just self-indulgent and really boring and only appeals to spotty sixteen-year-olds.
I had no interest in that and I wanted to go the opposite way - kind of like the original Bauhaus art movement, which was very simplistic and functional but not excessive. I love fifties rock and roll for that same reason. It’s simplistic but extremely effective, the complete opposite of the whole shredding thing which to me is just ego wanking. I don’t have any interest in ego wanking… on the guitar (laughs).
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’.
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 just had to have it and it changed everything for me. It completely opened up the sound of the guitar. It was very inspirational for me to get hold of that little gizmo.
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.
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? Really? We’re clean cut kids here! Cups of tea! We’re English! (laughs).
It’s actually just one guitar! 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 creating a wall of sound.
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”. It was a case of exploring contrast 'cause we would get bored quickly.
After that we got rid of the guitars altogether 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. 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 - but we had to do it 'cause we were bored with guitars and 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. I’m glad you said that because that's where our heads were at, completely!
Looking back after such a long a varied career, which era or approach are you most fond or proud of? Which era defines you best?
I would say, in all honesty, the Tones material is closest to my heart. 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. I’m really proud of that. I think the best stuff does stand the test of time no matter what genre it is. We achieved what we wanted to with that.
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 'cause 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’d rather go for a ride.
So what’s next for you guys? Are we gonna get to see Poptone in Australia?
Well it’s funny you should say that 'cause 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! I’m serious! (laughs). I was talking to a friend of mine who books me DJ stuff and he said I should think about it, but this is the same issue we’re having with Europe. Put it this way: it takes seven or eight thousand dollars just to transport us all to a gig, and that’s before we make any profit at all. 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.
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 'cause 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.
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!