INTERVIEW : Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Tones On Tail) talks about returning to the road with Poptone
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Long-term Bauhaus watchers were buzzing with excitement this year with the news that half of the legendary and influential post punk band were back in action.
The band’s former guitar player, Daniel Ash, and drummer Kevin Haskins had suddenly reappeared on stage as Poptone. Watching from a distance LTW were thrilled to see the pair at the top of their game, with the trio being made up by Haskins daughter and former member of BlackBlack, Diva Dompe, on bass. The band are taking a typically interesting take on an artfully brilliant career by revisiting one of their more obscure corners – the brilliantly futuristic short lived 1983 project, Tones On Tail.
It’s this that makes Poptone a fascinating proposition. Instead of taking the easy route they have dipped into an artful and less well know corner of their back catalogue and turned up trumps. Tones On Tail may never have had the increasingly huge influence of Bauhaus or the commercial top ten in the USA huge success of the other post Bauhaus project, Love and Rockets but their stripped down, post punk, death disco, wonk, sounds futuristic to this day and lands Poptone very much in the now.
The band have been touring the USA and youtube is bearing witness that they are at the top of their game, taking the sparse and stripped down brilliance of Tones and cranking it for the 21st century with Diva Domp perfectly delivering original bassist Glenn Campling’s startling bass lines with Haskins drums being as sharp as ever and Ash charismatic stahe presence and stripped down guitar as perfect as ever. It sounds brilliant and brings the then futuristic wonk pop of Tones into perfect focus as well as playing a couple of Love and Rockets songs, a Bauhaus song – Slice Of Life – which was sung by Ash and a spooked version of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel covered in the Tones days and a powerful version of Adam Ant’s anthemic Physical.
Hopefully they will bring the band over to the UK and Europe. The time is right with Bauhaus back in focus as one of the key bands of the post punk era.
The last time LTW spoke to Daniel Ash a couple of years ago he was remixing old songs into new electronic shapes and said that he had no interest in playing live. Why the sudden swerve in direction?
Daniel Ash :
‘It’s actually a funny story. What happened was that at the beginning of the year, in January, I was watching youtube stuff late at night – old videos of music stuff and I nodded out because I had had a few drunks, with youtube carrying on. I was probably listening to Brian Eno’s Before And After Science’ when I fell asleep and a few hours later I was woken up by Motorhead’s Ace Of Spades. I jolted out the chair because it was fucking loud, at number 11 on the headphones and it instantly put me in the frame of mind to play music again.
I remember when we started Bauhaus years ago and when I had a hangover I would always put on Never Mind The Bollocks to get rid of the hangover when we all lived in same house in Northampton. Everyone thought this was a bit unusual but the adrenalin of that brilliant album, as well as the Stooges Raw Power, always worked for me.
Anyway I woke up in a fantastic mood with Ace Of Spades blasting out. I’d had a couple of joints before I fell asleep and I hardly ever smoke joints so maybe that also helped! And this voice in my head was telling me to play live and also telling me that what was pissing me off was that trying to get into film and TV music like I was, was difficult. The competition was through the roof. I would love to score films but it’s a very tough gig to get. Everyone wants that gig. I’m 60 now and time is running out and this voice – the voice of Lemmy! told me to play live for the first time in 8 years and it feels right and when i decided I felt 20 years younger than the day before.
At that moment I had an epiphany and I felt elated with Ace Of Spades in my head and I called Kevin (Haskins) whilst I was still a bit drunk. Kevin had been asking about playing live again. I then decided to play the Tones stuff live again because we had only done one small tour of the UK and USA decades ago.
Me and Kevin discussed who we were going to get to play bass and he said that his daughter Diva Dompe plays bass, which I knew, and we thought if that worked it would be a dream come true. If she could nail the Tones On Tail song, ’Go’ she could have the gig – so we auditioned her and she was great. The bass, of course, is key to the sound. It was very left of centre and Glenn Campling’s bass lines were so original and important to the band’s sound.’
LTW : The band came together quickly.
‘Luckily a friend of mine in LA in Burbank had this fantastic studio space which we got for nothing because we had no money! We rehearsed solid for a couple of months and put together the set which is 70 per cent Tones, a couple of solo things, a Bauhaus song and a couple of covers. We were going to call this thing Slice Of Life after the Bauhaus song but at the 11th hour we heard that Steve ignorant from Crass was using the same name and Kevin called me to tell me that and he didn’t like that name anyway! anyway, that night I had a dream to use the Poptone from the Pil song but without the ’s’ and i thought – hang on a minute! that’s perfect.
We have been on the road in the USA since April and we have been touring two weeks on and two weeks off so we don’t get burned out. It’s not not like the old days when we would tour for three months and get burned out – it’s a much more civilised way of touring now!’
LTW : It’s interesting that you have decided to concentrate on the Tones On Tail part of your extensive and great catalogue.
‘People wanted to hear those songs live because we only did 13 gigs in the UK and the small US tour. With the other two bands we had done a few reunions and we have played all their songs several times but the Tones stuff was played live only at that time. I know the Tones stuff is super obscure but it’s still my favourite. It’s really out there and sounds like it could have been recorded last week. It’s very alien sounding.’
LTW : Tones On Tail was a fascinating departure from Bauhaus at the time.
‘To be honest when we were doing it we knew we were doing something special and super underground. Our label, Beggars were very good and they said do what you want and left us alone. It might have been underground but I still wanted Top Of The Pops like I wanted it from every project. I would think commercially. I was not into being underground and cool. For me the Pistols had been on Top Of The Pops and for me that was the way it should be. With Bauhaus I had wanted Bela to be on Top Of The Pops even if it was nine minutes long. It’s ironic that I have been in these alternative bands my whole life…!
What is alternative? I guess we were the alternative to Lionel Ritchie. If it means good taste and damn good music and an alternative to the bland and crap mainstream of the seventies that was safe and boring then that’s a good thing.’
LTW : Initially starting in 1982 Poptone was a side project between you and art school friend, flatmate and Bauhaus “roadie” Glenn Campling. The band’s name is a reference to the way calibration tones were recorded on the “tail” of reel-to-reel tape. After the break-up of Bauhaus in 1983, Kevin Haskins, joined on drums and became a full-time concern for all three members before stopping in 1984 with David J replacing Campling for the next project Love and Rockets who went on to huge American success.
‘All of us lived in 37 Adams Avenue in Northampton. Kevin has just come out with a great book ‘BAUHAUS UNDEAD: The Visual History and Legacy of Bauhaus’ (……link ) and he remembers number 37 but my memory is it was number 41. Maybe we lived at both addresses? We were on the dole and living anywhere and everywhere so it could have been both houses. I had known Glenn from art school. We both went to art school in 1972/73. He became the Bauhaus roadie but he hates me saying that because we were all friends really. I remember one day he had this bass and started playing these riffs and I said, ‘wow, this sounds great – lets do something!’
It was a big old house so we put the project together in the cellar. I can’t remember the details of how he started with the bass but he had this bass, an 8 string Kramer with an aluminium neck (Kramer XL-8 Aluminium Neck 8-String Bass Guitar) that gave it a real sharp sound. Those 8 strings were almost like a 12 string guitar. Glenn was a complete natural and he started playing these riffs straight away and as soon as I heard him play, I knew. We rehearsed in the basement of the house, pissing of the neighbourhood. Glenn didn’t play nice – this was fucking loud bass and the music must have been travelling to quite a few houses round there. It was such an English thing – always a hassle getting somewhere to rehearse. Everyone loves music but no one wants you next door!
We tried rehearsing in a teacher training college run by these flakey hippies who said I can use this room. After three months I go sort out the the money, the ten quid, and it was run by these real flakes. I would go got to their parties and think no way if I had kids would I want this lot teaching them! they were useless hippies!’
LTW : I’m always intrigued by all this artful behaviour in Northampton. It seems a quiet place and an unlikely pace for Bauhaus, Tones On Tail etc to be creating in as well as Jazz Butcher and Alan Moore…
Daniel Ash :
‘I heard that back in Seventies Northampton was the testing ground for new bands by their labels. If you could get a reaction out of a Northampton audience they reckoned you could get a reaction anywhere. We were most miserable audience in the UK apparently and they would use the city as warm up gigs to test themselves!
Everywhere was quieter then. The UK has changed a lot which I notice when I go back now and then. The last time I went to Glasgow it had really changed. It was so different back in the day. I went back to the UK last January because every three years I have to update my visa and I was walking around Northampton and was amazed by how cosmopolitan it now is. When i lived there, there was a 50/50 chance of getting beaten up and now walking around is no hassle at all. I was wearing these unusual glasses and these kids were asking where did you get your glasses from when I thought it would be a fight! this is not the Northampton that I remember! it was completely different, you can now wear what you want. You couldn’t get into pubs then because the guys in the suits would start the fights. it was never the punks.
I wonder about moving back to the UK – you could never retire in California. it’s so expensive but I love riding my motorbike and the weather and the roads are perfect for that here.
LTW : Poptone are an example of how to vamp up old songs. But then Tones On Tail sound futuristic to this day – an extension of Bauhaus’s creative rush and a great collaboration from a frantic creative period.
‘With Bauhaus we were obsessed with not sounding like anyone else. Of course there are some influences like with me and Pete being in love with the Ziggy thing and Kevin’s favourite band being the Clash whilst David was very eclectic and would go all over the place but he would always recognise the good stuff.
Pete and myself were Bowie boys. Bowie in 72. We were best friends sat at school talking about Starman on Top Of The Pops, Trex, Lou Reed, Iggy first two albums and Roxy Music and nothing else. That was it. Bauhaus was very intense. Really intense. We didn’t have time for any crap. The whole thing was super quick. It was always ‘what’s next?’ Bela was recorded a month after we formed. It’s is chemistry thing. With the Tones it was a break from that intensity of Bauhaus. Again it was very quick. Glen would have these bass lines or do keyboard things because he loved synths. He loved Gary Numan and loved synths. I had no interest in synths – it’s all guitars for me. And it was a combination of the two that made the sound. I asked Kevin to come in later – at first we were using a cheap drum box that was twice the size of a packet of cigarettes put through an amp with broken speakers to give a dirty edge to it. There was a lot of laughing. We smoked a lot of pot!’
LTW : Of course the bass was the key to post punk and especially to Tones On Tail where the instrument almost takes the lead but the guitar is an imaginative and perfect counterpoint and as ever played without cliche – no riffs or solos – great touches, sounds and counter rhythms and never the same thing twice. Quite brilliant. And all the time sparse and the whole sound utilising space.
Daniel Ash :
‘I really loved Glenn’s bass playing so much that I would keep everything clear just to hear those bass riffs. I have never had any interest in rock guitar solos. They are just ego wanking in big way. I would allow the bass playing to really breath and carry the tracks. Without the bass line there would be nothing there. With Glenn, also, he never likes to change and go into a middle eight or something like that. He thought it really corny. It was like the opposite to the Kinks who would have a beginning, first verse, middle eight – he hated all that. Once he was on a riff he would go on that riff and I mean that in a good way. In Go there was no way to go to another key so it’s the one riff only. The only way to make it different or change was to cut the bass out here and there – subtract rather than add with Glenn locked onto a riff that goes all the way through and that was the magic that made us sound different.
The guitar in Tones is sparse. This was the minimalism to the extreme in that band. It was very simple but great. It was the opposite to Yes and Genesis which I’m sure you’ll agree is unbearable. They were torture for me to listen to. I can’t bare the people who like that intellectual bollocks. I detested that musical snobbery of those guys who were into staring at fingers whilst they were playing. You want the girls to listen to your music. That’s why I love 70s disco music.’
LTW : Working fast the original Tones recordings were put down very quickly – one session in the legendary Rockfield studios and the other in Beck Studios is based in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire where Bauhaus had recorded that legendary first session with Bela Lugosi’s Dead. The studio was set up in 1969 by the legendary late Derek Tompkins, who had recorded a diverse selection of people like Helen Shapiro, Joe Brown and the Brothers, The Baron Knights and Frank Ifield to mention a few. Most famously, Freddie Mercury also recorded a few tracks at Beck during his Larry Lurex days.
‘There were no rules. It was so free in that band. The record label said do what you want so I booked studio time without asking them and said lets get in the car and go and record! We used Becks studio in Wellingborough which was a great 16 track studio built by Derek Tompkins all by himself. He was quite a character. He had this stutter and he would take the piss! I would do this riff and would say how did that sound and he would say f-f-f-f-f-fucking useless – do it again which was terrible for your confidence. The studio was always really smokey. Derek would smoke 60 fags a day in this tiny room and it was so smokey that we could not see each other in this room that was painted grandmother living room bright orange – bizarre place. Derek was in his mid fifties then and lived until he was over ninety – makes you wonder about smoking!
LTW : Did this claustrophobic room and enviroment infect the sound?
Daniel Ash :
‘The sound we made was the opposite of the studio. We also went to Rockfield to do the album. In the mixture I can’t remember which songs were recorded where. I couldn’t tell the difference. Derek came to Rockfield with us. That was hilarious. He would stay in his RV outside the studio at night. He wouldn’t sleep in the accommodation rooms in the house with with us. He had cotton wool in his ears all the time Derek because he couldn’t stand earwigs in his ears. The first thing in morning he would put cotton wool in his ears. He never went in the sun. One time it was sunny and we had a ping pong table outside the studio. He didn’t like moving around but we played table tennis and he got ill because he got sunstroke from being outside for 20 minutes. He would wear open ended sandals with socks on and when setting up the mix for us you could tell if it was working because his feet would slightly rock an inch up and down. We would stare at them and nudge each other, saying the toes are going – he’s doing the rocking toes – the track is working!’
LTW : Tones On Tail was the first real opportunity for Ash to sing lead vocals after his outing on Bauhaus’s ‘Slice Of Life’ from the band’s 1983 Burning from the Inside album.
‘I sang the Spice Of Life track because Peter was sick with pneumonia. With Tones On Tail it was freedom to do the vocals in any way. With Bauhaus it was a very strict format. Peter was the singer and so he should be and I was allowed to go and play guitar with no restrictions at all. Tones On Tail only lasted a year or two. I’d always totally loved Bolan and Bowie who were a big old influence but when I was in front of the mic it was scary because my natural instrument is the guitar. Something Derek got me to do was to track the vocals 4 times like Eno does on Here Comes The Warm Jets or the multi-tracked vocals on Babys On Fire and the magic is vocal number 4. You have to lock into the vocal over and over but luckily for me it’s not that hard to do at all – once you do the forth one this magic would happen where it would sound big and rich. With touring though I have noticed that in this last year, my voice is much stronger than you think an old fart’s voice would be!’
LTW : Poptone not only sound great but look great. Playing in white hand painted clothes the balance of the band as a trio with a thirty year old woman on bass and the two veterans who still cut a dash is an original and perfect balance.
‘Kevin and myself were very fussy about is that you got to look good. Some guys look shit but to us it’s important with the visuals. You have to look great. Just watching some your stuff like your Tedx talks you understand this. You understand this as well. If you have still got your barnet and not put on weight it helps. When I found out that Diva could play it was a dream dream come true. She looks great. She is 30 but she looks younger. She lives healthily, eats right and doesn’t smoke or drink. Before the gig she is drinking herbal tea whilst I’m pacing up and down shitting myself! I say we are on in 5 minutes and she puts the tea down, starts putting on her eye make up in a relaxed manner whilst I’m still a neurotic Catholic guilt guitar player. If I don’t feel stressed I feel I don’t deserve to be there. I was brought up a Catholic and like Peter (Murphy) I went to St. Mary Catholic school for Boys and it was a nightmare. You got the cane for not going to church on Sundays or at school we were told that if you don’t go to confession and get knocked over by a bus your soul would be a black piece of coal and you would burn in the pit of hell for eternity. They told me that at ten years old and that sort of shit stays with you for ever and you react against that strict bollocks especially when your god is a jealous god. I think the entity of god, if it exists, would have no notion of jealousy, it seems so ignorant to think that a god can have an emotion like jealousy.’
LTW : Will there be any new songs?
Daniel Ash :
‘The way it’s working out is that I’m not feeling it to be honest. Everything we play has all been written and recorded and we just listen and copy and play live. The chemistry for us to do new stuff is not the same. There is a thirty year age gap and whilst its great with the older songs but with new songs I’m not so sure. Poptone is a retrospective vehicle. I personally don’t want to be in a band anymore where I have to argue my point and get everyone on the same page and agreeing. I’m too old to do that. Poptone was created especially to play back catalogue and then go in our separate directions.
To do new music within the confines of being in a band is hard work. The chemistry in the bands is always different with the individuals in the bands. I’m very aware of the power of the chemistry of bands in comparison to solo stuff which doesn’t always touch what bands can do. I mean some people can do that – Bowie could do that. Bowie always picked the best musicians and he got the best from them on the other hand most solo efforts don’t work – look at the Stones, Mick Jagger puts out a solo album out and§ that sells 600 copies. For me, most bands are more powerful as a collective. I’m a socialist in that way…’
LTW : Will there be new songs from you solo if not Poptone?
‘I’m really lazy! I never even buy new equipment. Ive had the same guitar for 30 years. Weirdly, though, I saw this guitar in Ventura. The other day I went into a music store and looked round and I saw this 12 string – and I played a chord and it sounded amazing – rich, loud and easy to play and I bought it for 500 bucks and I bought the guitar and I’ve not done that for 30 years. I put it in a black bin liner and I’ve already got a couple of songs out of it. I needed something to inspire me. All my stuff is in LA and my guitar and my tiny amp is kept where I live. I’m going to go around the corner to a friend’s studio and record a couple of tracks, get them down, get them recorded and if the magic happens, it happens, see where it takes you…it’s always open ended.’