THIS IS THE POPS – Daniel Ash On His Return To Live Performance With Poptone, Plans for New Material And HIs Enduring Love For The Three-And-A-Half Minute Hit Single

Picture by Brian Hodges
Picture by Brian Hodges

Funny, open and engaging, Daniel Ash is not quite what you might expect from the man behind some of the darkest and most experimental music of the past 40 years.

The founder of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets is back on the road with new ensemble Poptone and teasing the prospect of new music and a European tour.

Featuring the father-daughter combination of long-term collaborator Kevin Haskins on drums and Diva Dompé on bass, Poptone have been playing a set heavily laden with tracks from Ash’s cult third band Tones On Tail.

Formed about 18 months ago, the trio’s gone down such a storm with US audiences that they’re out on the road again having just released a self-titled 13-track album recorded live in session for the KXLU radio network in Los Angeles.

Excited and invigorated by his return to live performance, Daniel was on fine form when he spoke to Matt Catchpole shortly before the start of the new tour.

He revealed that Poptone have started work on a new track and are in talks about the prospect of a European tour, perhaps as early as this Autumn.

Refreshingly honest and highly entertaining, he confessed to being drunk on Top of the Pops, dumbstruck by David Bowie and in awe of the perfect three-and-a-half minute commercial pop song.

Just don’t ever say that Poptone is a Tones On Tail covers band….

Poptone – Ash (right) with Diva Dompé and Kevin Haskins

So Daniel, I gather it was Motorhead that awakened your desire to play live again?

Yeah, it was very weird, I nodded off at about midnight, I suppose, watching Youtube and I think, listening to Brian Eno, Before and After Science, or something really subdued, when I suddenly got a blast in the ears at full volume of Ace of Spades it was quite a moment! Just straight away I got this idea of {adopts Hollywood announcer-style voice} I should get the band back together! I think I was still buzzed from drinking red wine. I left it a couple of days and still felt the same, so I called up Kevin and he said: ‘My daughter plays bass’ and the rest is history – she worked out really well. That was like, a year and a half ago. We played 60 gigs across America and Canada and a few in Mexico last year, just finished off the West coast and we’re going out again to do the East Coast.

Any plans to bring Poptone to Europe and the UK?

We’d love to do Europe. It’s a matter of making it financially viable. There’s talks at the moment of trying to get a promoter there. If that’s the case we’ll hopefully do something in The Fall in the UK and, I don’t know, France, Spain. Obviously, the UK is top of the list. The one thing with the band which has been a misconception is that we’re a Tones on Tail cover band, because of the name Poptone – we never saw that one coming. We are not only doing Tones on Tail music I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because Glenn (Campling) the original bass player isn’t in the band. But it’s been a bit of a hurdle for us for doing festivals, because nobody out there really knows what Poptone is.

Any plans for new material?

Well I didn’t, but I’ve just put out something on my website called Alien Love Song on Danielashmusic.com – you can download it for a couple of bucks, or I’m also doing a limited edition CDs with a hidden track. And then the other day I came up with something that was really really quick and I thought: ‘I’m going to give this a go with the band’. So, I’ve sent my bits off to Kevin and Diva – just the guitar and the vocals – and they love it. So, they’re working on it as we speak. So we’ll see, if that works out, that could be the beginning of this thing going to the next level. I’m just experimenting, I know there’s  chemistry with Kevin and myself, and with Diva I want to see what she comes up with as far as the bass goes and take it from there. If it feels good we’ll do it. I have a working title for it, but I don’t want to say because it’ll probably change.

So tell me about the album, I understand it was recorded live?

Yeah it was radio session for the Part Time Punks station in Los Angeles. After the tour we had some time off and this thing was offered and we were fresh off the road so it came together pretty quick. Tones was something I was doing in between Bauhaus and when Love and Rockets formed. The live set last year was 70 per cent Tones on Tail songs, plus a couple of covers we were doing just for fun. This year we’re leaning more towards Love And Rockets tracks – we’ve got three or four of those – and then this time next year who knows? We might have some new songs, that would be the ideal because all that thing of ‘they’re a covers band’ will go out the window.

Ash with Glenn Campling in the original Tones on Tail

Did Tones on Tail give you an outlet to experiment without any of the commercial pressures of being in Bauhaus?

Yes that’s right, although ironically I’ve always loved the three-and-a-half minute hit single, I’ve got a lot of respect for anyone who can write hit singles, it takes a lot more talent than writing another obscure album track. I’ve always had admiration for pop music. Certain songs are just three-and-a-half minutes of perfection for me. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson was just the perfect pop song. It just makes you feel good from beginning to end. It’s just that magic where everything is in its right place.

That really is ironic considering the song you’re perhaps best known for, Bela Lugosi’s Dead, is eight-and-a-half minutes of alternative rock?

I remember the day we recorded that pretty well. I was thinking this is so good, this has really got the thing, but it is eight-and-a-half/nine minutes long – so we weren’t gonna get on Top of the Pops, or MTV with that, we knew that, but it did have something special. Yeah, I know, there’s a real contradiction there, because I’ve always been into commercially successful music and I’m in these bands that are the opposite of that, so it’s very strange. I don’t know, maybe these pop stars wish they were more arty farty I don’t know – I doubt it (laughs).

What sort of music made you want to pick up a guitar?

Oh definitely the whole punk thing that happened in ’76 with The Sex Pistols, but before that what really got me was the whole Ziggy Stardust thing and very early Roxy Music, Lou Reed around Transformer time – that whole thing set me alight – that was where I wanted to be. After that whole punk thing came and got rid of all the old farts, the Deep Purples and all that crap and it gave us all the confidence to actually do it. It’s an old cliché but, until punk, none of us thought we could do it, because all these musicians like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, they could all play properly and we couldn’t. But then the Sex Pistols and all these other punk bands came along and were successful and we thought: ‘We can do this!’ Seeing the Sex Pistols on Top of The Pops was so inspiring, such a breath of fresh air, after all the middle of the road crap that was going on at that time.

Did you ever imagine you’d be on Top of the Pops Yourself just a few years later?

Yes! Absolutely! We did! You have to. I remember when I was 17, I went to see Lou Reed at De Montford Hall in Leicester and I thought: ‘I’ve got to do this, even if it’s just playing a tambourine or something, I’ve got be on that stage!’ That was the world I wanted to be in. The idea of a job just didn’t compute at all. Luckily it happened! When I was 21-years-old Bauhaus were on that exact same stage at the De Montford Hall and I thought: ‘I’ve arrived’ That was a real buzz for me, it hit me hard, I thought it was great!

What was it like playing Top of the Pops?

It was a little studio and the sound system wasn’t very good. It’s about a quarter of the size you imagine it to be when you’re a kid watching it and you feel so self-conscious miming. A lot of the audience there were looking at us going: ‘Who are these guys?’ And so we got pretty pissed drunk to do it. We were pretty bombed. Well I was anyway, just to deal with the self-consciousness of the miming, because you feel like you’re faking it. It was difficult to take it seriously, the sound coming out of the speakers isn’t exactly inspiring, it’s not like it would be at a live gig, so I just remember drinking a lot to get through it.

Can you remember who you were on with?

I think we were on with Wham! – I mean talk about a juxtaposition, you couldn’t get more opposite. Another time Joe Cocker was back stage and we we’re all having our make-up done – and he says: ‘I don’t think there’s much you could do with me’. Spandau Ballet were there as well. I remember them rolling in late afternoon. I think we did Top of the Pops three times (does an impression of his early 20s self) ‘Hey mum, I’m on telly 7.30 Thursday! – make sure you switch the telly on!’.

Bauhaus appeared in The Hunger with David Bowie what was that experience like?

It was great! As you probably know I’m a huge Bowie fan. We got there at 7.30 in the morning for dress rehearsals. I was just waking up and I hear this voice go: ‘Oi! You’ve got my shoes on!’ I turned around and it’s David Bowie. I’m completely starstruck, I can’t speak, my mouth’s gone all dry and I just go: ‘Yeah!’ That’s all I could say. Glenn, from Tones on Tail, who was there, just starts laughing at me. I’m stood there with David Bowie and we had the same shoes on. That was just surreal at that time in the morning. What struck me about Bowie was that his skin was like porcelain. He had perfect skin and this is before make-up. He would have been 36 then, ‘cos we were 26 and he looked perfect in the flesh, no zits, no nothing. At the end of the day he came up and shook my hand and I still couldn’t talk to him. He was my total hero.

You have a very distinctive guitar technique – did you set out to sound different to other players?

Yeah absolutely. I was pretty obsessed with not sounding like anybody else – that was the whole thing. What’s the point otherwise? When I was at art school everybody wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix, I love Hendrix but I didn’t want to sound like him – it’s already been done. Plus, I was way too lazy to work it out, learn scales and all that stuff. So I just went the other route and had more of a DEVO approach – keep it really simple – and I’ve sort of stuck to that to be honest. I have no interest in shredding and all that stuff – it leaves me completely cold.

You’ve made quite a lot of use of the Ebow – a device which produces string vibrations – how did you get into using that?

Well we hadn’t been together long as a band and we went into this music shop ‘cos Kevin wanted to get an electronic drum. Behind the guy that was serving us was this little chrome thing on the top shelf and I asked him what it was. As soon as he showed me what it did I was like: ‘I’ve gotta have one!’ I remember it was £99, which was a lot in 1978, plus we were all on the dole, but I had to have it. I don’t know how I came up with 100 quid, but I did. He said: ‘It’s been sitting on the shelf for years’. I said: ‘How come no-one’s bought it before?’ And he said: ‘Well, anyone who’s looked at it before has said I’m not paying a 100 quid for something so small.’ What sort of logic is that? Anyway, I grabbed it immediately and never looked back.

Do you still use one now?

Oh yeah, we’ve got a song called Burning Skies and another called Christian Says – on both those it’s used all the way through. They still exist, I bought a new one the other day when I needed a back up. They’re brilliant – an amazing invention!

Picture by Brian Hodges

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kevin a few weeks back about his new book have you had a look?

Yeah, I’ve got a copy – he did a brilliant job. I think he’s doing really well with it as well, which is great. I know he spent a lot of time on it.

Did it bring back any particular memories for you?

Of course, I don’t like to dwell on the past stuff – but, looking at the pictures – it does feel like a million years ago and in the same breath, sort of like yesterday. It’s really weird.

And how much are you enjoying playing live again?

Well, it’s like riding a bicycle. I hadn’t played in like eight years, or something, and it was pretty nerve-wracking during the first couple of shows, but once we got up there again it was good. We’d rehearsed solid for about eight weeks and it really paid off. It was like we hadn’t played for a couple of weeks, instead of eight years. You feel exactly the same as you always did. Playing live is one particular thing and nothing really replaces that. You’re never going to replace that live gig feeling, both for the band and the audience – it’s a very specific thing.

Love And Rockets – Ash (left) with brothers Kevin Haskins and David J

You and Kevin have both settled in the US, do you think America has been more receptive to your music than Britain?

Definitely with Love and Rockets. It was like night and day, we couldn’t get arrested in England – no real interest at all. In fact we had a hit over here called So Alive and in England the record company told me they re-released the single three times and it sold a grand total of 600 copies – whereas over here it sold close to a million. It was funny though, because when we started as Love and Rockets we thought we’d be playing bars again, starting from scratch. But we had this song called Ball of Confusion, which was like a club hit, so as soon as we got over here we were playing relatively large places, right off the bat. As far as Tones goes, I think it was so obscure in England, Europe and America that it’s something that’s got better with time. The one album that we made still sounds good. It’s funny the times I’ve been at parties and I’ve seen a copy of the Tones album on the coffee table, it’s weird – people still listen to that music. That album Pop has never been deleted from Beggars Banquet.

Why do you think there’s still so much interest in your music?

The really obvious answer I guess is because the songs are fucking good! Why else? If they weren’t any good, people wouldn’t care. Particularly with the Tones stuff – it’s stood the test of time well, sonically. it sounds like it’s coming from another planet, but it could have been recorded last week. If you check out the albums Everything or Night Music – they could have been recorded by a bunch of 20-year-olds, the other day. It’s different from anything else, I think.

  • The Poptone album is out now via Cleopatra Records.
  • Poptone are midway though a US tour, plus Toronto and Montreal in Canada. For details visit the band’s website here.

 

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