Extracting Wasps from Stings in Flight: An interview with David J Haskins
Forty years is a long time. Forty trips around the sun. Ideas and movements rise and fall, technology transforms us. Culture squirms and dances on - splintering and reforming, yogic and mercurial - as the world becomes scarcely recognisable in the interim.
For an album to linger in the public consciousness for such a span, it needs to be a rare piece of work; one that both touches the zeitgeist but remains timeless, crisp and minty as successive generations fall under its spell. With their 1980 debut In the Flat Field, post punk protagonists Bauhaus achieved such a feat of time binding.
Brittle yet expansive, it’s monochrome palette encompassed myriad shades of grey but was most content to linger in the high contrast extremities of inky black and strobe light white. From the dissonant bombast of ‘Double Dare’ via the spidery minimalism of ‘The Spy in the Cab’ through to the impossible tension of ‘Nerves’, the album set the blueprint for the sound and aesthetics of an entire subculture.
Now in 2018, bass player David J Haskins is reuniting with vocalist Peter Murphy for the worldwide Ruby Tour, celebrating forty years of Bauhaus and playing the aforementioned debut stab at wax in its entirety.
I called David in the studio in Prague to muse and banter on Bauhaus, Baudelaire, bass guitar and the spirituality of punching Donald Trump.
How does it feel, being back on stage with Peter Murphy after all these years?
We started with a festival date in Guadalajara Mexico which was a great launch. It had such a good spirit to it that it really set a tone for the rest of this tour. The two guys playing with us - Marc Slutsky on the drums and John Andrews on guitar - are really up for it. They’re really into the band, but we’re encouraging them to bring their own styles through so it’s not just aping the records. The aim is to really convey the essence of it but also bring their own artistry to bear so it has an element of their own originality. That makes it fresh.
To this day, the In the Flat Field LP has a real uniqueness to the song writing that is wildly ambitious for a debut, which to these ears seems borne of equal parts naivete and sheer confidence.
Well I think you’re kind of spot on there about the naivete and the confidence - that’s all to do with youth and hubris and believing in yourself in an extreme way. The band came together and began writing material very quickly, and we had an album ready to record probably within six months of being together. At the time we were just itching to get it down on tape and it was very exciting to us 'cause it was our first record.
Going to London and just getting lost in the world of the album was a great experience. We were very much hooking into the post punk scene, which I think was a great time in music. It was a very exciting time because it was an evolution. It came out of punk and had the spirit of punk, but musically it was becoming much more evolved and diversified. We were a big part of that but we were also very, very individualistic I think. There wasn’t really any other band that was like us and we were aware of that at the time.
A big part of what set the band apart on those early records was the bass. Far from the relentless downpicking of some contemporaries, you used your fingers to make the low-end ooze, pulse and throb in a way that dovetailed beautifully with Kevin Haskin’s motoric drums and Daniel Ash’s shimmering, spiky guitar lines.
Well a huge influence on my bass playing was dub reggae and reggae in general. That was really my first musical love as far as a genre was concerned. It was a great time for reggae in England in the early 70’s. A guy called Errol ‘Flabba’ Holt just cropped up on no end of recordings and seemed to be the go-to bass player in Jamaica. His playing was really solid, steady and with that tone that I loved - so I married that to a kind of weird, avant-garde, post punk rock music. But that was the main influence really, reggae.
Lyrically you featured prominently as well, notably penning the lines to Bauhaus' debut single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead'…
At that time Edgar Allan Poe figured quite prominently. And Baudelaire. I really loved Flowers of Evil, and that was knocking around at the time. The French symbolist writers and figures. I discovered Rimbaud via Patti Smith so that was all very influential. Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, the surrealists and Andre Breton… for me that was all in the mix. I was in my early twenties so it appealed to my sense of brooding melancholia I suppose. A young man. A serious young man. Romantically inclined! Darkly, romantically inclined! (laughs).
Revisiting albums in their entirety often gifts fans the chance to hear long neglected tracks that haven’t been aired since their inception - in this instance, tracks like ‘Dive’ and ‘Small Talk Stinks’ have been in hibernation for decades. What has it been like re-approaching and reappraising these songs?
I haven’t done it yet! I’ll let you know in a few weeks! (laughs). I haven’t really delved into ..Flat Field yet, apart from the sort of stock live tracks like ‘A God in an Alcove’ and ‘In the Flat Field’ which have always been there. But yeah, it’s true, I haven’t played those other deeper cuts since the album came out. I think I’ll be alright, though; I can play a bit better now than I could back then. I was going to say ‘Maybe not as fast’, but that’s not true - listening to things like 'In the Flat Field’ which is pretty fast, I can more than keep up with it. That’s the great thing about having played for decades. I find things that back then were something of a stretch, and I can hear that on the record that I’m stretching for it, now I can play them with pretty much consummate ease. It's a fantastic position to be in, so I feel very confident about it.
Going back to these albums - I've been listening to them whilst working them out - I’m surprised at how well they stand up and how original they are. That kind of takes me by surprise. I haven’t played them at home for my own entertainment or my own curiosity in decades, so it’s like ‘Wow, that was kind of unique’, you know? It was different. But I know that Peter is very much into getting into these deeper cuts and I think that’s great. It’s more interesting than if it was just ‘the greatest hits’.
A little bird told me there are also some re-issues in the works.
Yeah, pretty much everything is going to be re-issued on very high-quality vinyl. I’ve gone back to pretty much exclusively buying albums again on vinyl. You cannot beat that sound. And the vinyl you buy now is much higher quality than what we had in the 80’s, so it’s very satisfying to have our own records reissued in a very high-quality format.
Are there any secrets locked in the vault that might be getting unearthed for the re-issues?
There is but it’s something I can’t talk about at the moment…
Although this tour is a celebration of the past, you've never rested on your laurels and you've continued to push ahead with numerous projects. Can you tell us a little about the solo album you've just recorded in Prague?
I was doing a tour of Europe and was writing on the road. I had these songs on me that I’d written in Porto and, as my next venue was in Prague, and an amazing musician I was playing with (violinist Karel Holas) has a studio here, we got talking. He said ‘Why don’t you come and record here and I’ll play on it’. It turned out so well. He brought in some other local players and I just loved the vibe of it. It was just right for the songs, half of which I’d written and half of which followed. I loved the studio, I loved being in Prague. It has the right atmosphere for a really European sound, so I decided to return and record the remainder of the album here. I’d done some of it back in the states and one track in Berlin with Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre - that was kind of the stepping stone from America to Europe.
In the midst of all this, there has also been an ongoing run of intimate acoustic solo shows...
The circuit I’ve been playing on for the past eight years or so has been mainly the living room circuit, and then extending that into some more unusual venues like art galleries, tattoo parlours, chapels and churches - but mainly literally in peoples' living rooms. I love the intimacy of that. It makes for a very special occasion where each gig is very unique and I have personal contact with the audience during the set. Afterwards they can tell me their own stories about how they discovered the music and what it means to them, which is very touching for me.
I feel more connected with the audience than I’ve ever felt before. I just love doing it. I’m wrapping it up at the moment because I have to commit to the shows with Peter, which will be extensive and take me through 'til spring of next year. I just have two more shows at present and they're both in the UK. One is in London and one is significant; it’s at Beck Studios in Wellingborough, which is the place where we originally recorded ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’. In a way it's really nice that this is the last gig for a while because It’s the first time I’ve been back there since 1984. So that’s going to be a real special gig. Back to Beck.
As anyone who’s felt the nakedness of appearing with only an acoustic guitar can attest, these types of affairs can sometime be more terrifying than theatre or stadium shows…
I don’t find that so at all (laughs). I don’t find any shows intimidating anymore. I don’t really find anything intimidating, actually. I don’t find any social situation intimidating, which is just something that comes with being an old geezer. I just don’t give a fuck. I get into a zone and it’s a bit of a Zen zone and I just sail through life. What informs that is a sense of mortality, and it’s a real sense of mortality, it’s not the romanticism of a 21 year-old. With age it’s made real. Life’s too short and getting shorter all the time, so there isn’t time to be uptight about situations -on a stage or off. It doesn’t affect me that way anymore.
The last time we spoke you were promoting the release of your memoirs Who Killed Mr. Moonlight, a tome that meditated on your days with Bauhaus and your dabbling with the arcane. At the time, you promised a follow up that would shed some light on the more colourful hues of the Love and Rockets years…
It’s just a case of having the time. It’s going to happen, but it’s on the backburner. It’s bubbling away in a little pot back there. One day I’ll dish it up, but at the moment I’m working on a book collating all this poetry I’ve written from the early 80’s up until now. It coincides with me doing a new project called Annabelle Lee, named after the Edgar Allen Poe poem, on a project called ‘Fugue State’. It’s a fantastic group; there’s about nine musicians who are mainly from the jazz and classical world. The main drivers of it are (guitar player) Richard Ellis and (singer) Sheila Ellis. Sheilas voice is really redolent of Billie Holiday. They asked me if I would contribute some spoken word and so some of these poems that I’ve been writing up will become a part of that. We’ve recorded about five tracks already and it’s turned out really well. They were also my backing band on one of the tracks on the new album called ‘Proper Level Seven’.
Will we be seeing any shows with them or any solo shows with a full complement of musicians?
Once I’ve played this Beck show I have nothing booked 'cause I’m really focusing on the shows with Peter, but my album will be out in the spring of next year and I want to do shows with that. I would love to come to Australia and do some solo shows, so maybe this jaunt will help to facilitate that. The only time I’ve played in Australia was at the invitation of Amanda Palmer when I joined her for a version of 'Bela Lugosi’s Dead' and 'Boulevarde of Broken Dreams' in Melbourne a few years back. I was playing on a track for the album she was recording in Melbourne at the time. I had a great time in Melbourne, I really loved it and I’m very much looking forward to coming back.
I recently spoke with Daniel Ash (of Bauhaus) about the possibilities of coming to do some shows in Australia with his Poptone outfit and he was saying he’d love to as well, but that financially it just isn’t viable.
I actually haven’t seen them yet because I’ve just been busy out on the road at the same time they have. I’ve seen clips though and it looks very good. Daniel seems to be playing great and my niece Diva is doing a good job on the bass. I always liked Tones on Tail - I thought that was a very original band, so I can understand Daniel's motivation to do that but I haven’t had a chance to catch them live.
It will be fantastic to finally see you out here. Peter’s been twice before and although it was good, especially the second time round when he was focusing on the Bauhaus material, there was a little something lacking in the ‘original members’ department…
Yeah. I refer to it as ‘half-cocked but fully loaded’ (laughs).
As someone who has made his home in America but is currently traversing the globe, have you had a chance to glean some first-hand insight into people’s perceptions of the baffling state of play in America at the moment?
Yes! (laughs). The consensus seems to be that it’s just a ridiculous circus politically, which I completely agree with. All of what’s happening has been so divisive. It’s a very different place, and it’s exposed a prejudice that I was aware of to a degree but didn’t realise was so terrifyingly prevalent. The prejudice and fear that ‘45’ has tapped into for his own ends is just lamentable. It’s been really refreshing being away from that for a bit because I can’t stand it. I can’t stand that motherfucker. I’m not a violent man but I think if I was in a position to kill that bastard I would not hesitate. I know I’d go down. I’d be locked up and my life would be over, but I just can’t believe that man. He just repulses me so the nth degree.
Perhaps they would build statues in your honour if you were to do it though, giant gleaming edifices that years from now would proclaim your righteous deed.
I’m not really interested in that. That’s what he’s interested in. Fuck that! (laughs). Let’s get over the ego and try and evolve for god’s sake!
As an individual who has been drawn to meditation and recently embraced a pursuit of the spiritual, one can understand that kind of desire. Or maybe desire is the wrong word, perhaps ‘detachment from desire’ is a better way of putting it…
I guess my last statement was not exactly what one would hope to come from meditation and seeking a higher spiritual calling, but I am human. And just the idea of Trump makes me incensed. We should probably forgive the bastard in a way and get over the fact that, I don’t know, something probably happened to him when he was a toddler that fucked his nut up (laughs). I don’t know... One tries to be Zen, but sometimes you just want to punch a wall. Or punch him. When I see that smug mug on the TV I just want to punch the bastard. It does bring out the worst in me really, it brings out the id. But it’s funny - that’s what he’s tapping into. He is pure id. He’s tapping into some deep, dark, primal negativity there.
Strangely enough, previously when similarly polarising figures raised their head, it tended to have an equal and opposite reaction within culture. There was a lot of talk about how a Trump presidency was going to inspire a lot of great punk music, in the same way Reagan and Thatcher did, but that doesn’t seem to have happened…
Yeah, but I think that it has inspired extreme resistance if you look at all the kids going out and protesting. It’s just the fact that music, to be honest, is not as vital as it was when say Bauhaus started and it’s not the thing that is the call to arms. Now it’s more just about getting up and talking about it and making a podcast or something (laughs). I dunno! Music isn't the galvanising force that it was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But certainly there is the odd band.
Speaking of which there’s another project I’ve been involved with which I‘ve just finished and I’m really proud of. It’s a track called ‘In the Shadow of 45’ which has a double meaning, and it’s by this band Duende out of Detroit. The really have that gritty Detroit garage punk sound but it’s psychedelic. Fantastic. So I’ve done this album with them called Oracle of the Horizontal which we recorded in a week. Just bashed it out. It was very exciting and that’s going to come out in October. A lot of my friends and journalists I’ve played it to compare it to the Australian scene in the mid 70’s with bands like the Saints and the Beasts of Bourbon, it’s got that kind of sound to it.
All of these projects just seem to come together naturally and organically. They’re not forced. There’s a kind of osmosis going on... I don’t know what it is. It’s a kind of magic. Artists and musicians are attracted to each other and find each other in some mysterious way, and these are just manifestations of those connections, and I love that. It’s pure and it’s natural and it’s real. Art. Music.
The Ruby Celebration tour kicks off in Australia next month. Tickets and VIP info available here.
Ruby Celebration Tour Dates:
10/22 – Adelaide, AU @ The Gov 10/25 – Brisbane, AU @ The Zoo 10/26 – Melbourne, AU @ Max Watts 10/27 – Sydney, AU @ The Factory 10/28 – Perth, AU @ The Capitol