Daniel Ash & Kevin Haskins Look at the Past As They Head Into the Future As Poptone

photo by Paul Rae

Over the past few decades, musicians Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins have influenced generations with their work as Bauhaus, Love & Rockets, and Tones on Tail. With their latest project Poptone, they revisit the songs of their youth with Haskins' daughter Diva Dompé. Today, the trio's self-titled debut hits the streets, a double-live LP featuring classic TOT singles "Go!" and "Christian Says" plus Love & Rockets tunes "Mirror People" and "Ball Of Confusion," Bauhaus's "Slice Of Life", and more. In this interview with KEXP, Morning Show Producer Owen Murphy looks back with the guys at their influences, being played by John Peel, and what music means to them.

KEXP: Were there surprises in going back and playing these songs that surprised you this time around? 

Daniel Ash: Well, I think particularly with the Tones on Tail stuff, it was very otherworldly — which I'm really proud about. There's some stuff there where I think about the arrangement, say with "Burning Skies." Put it this way, if I heard that on the radio and I hadn't written it, I would be well impressed. It's just the arrangement is unusual — the way it goes from the beginning of the song to the breaks to going into the second half of the track, etc. It's sort of ridiculous to say this, but it's really my style, what I would do, but I did do that. (Laughs.) So yeah, the arrangements and the juxtaposition of different styles of music. That was very much the case with Tones on Tail, where we use, y'know, swing from the 1930's mixed in with rock, mixed in with whatever, just different genres of music we used in that band. 

It seemed like you took a lot of chances to create something new and vibrant. What was in your head and in your heart that made you want to take different directions with your music? 

Kevin Haskins: Um... hashish. (Laughs.) We smoked a lot of fun stuff back then. But, actually, no — I mean, the creative part is something that's inside you.

Daniel: Various things can enhance that and make you look at things differently. The thing I've always been obsessed about is not sounding like anybody else. So, with Tones on Tail, we had a real free-range, as far as that's concerned. There was no pressure at all from the record companies to do videos, to do hit singles. Well, we definitely wanted hit singles, that's for sure. But, there wasn't a pressure. I wouldn't even call Beggars Banquet the record company. I just booked the studio and sent them the bill, which, looking back, is wonderful because most people find that shocking that you are able to do that, but we never booked into expensive studios anyway. We used Beck Studios in Wellingborough, which is the same studio we used for the other bands when we started out. It was with Derek Tompkins, and it was just a little 16-track studio but the quality of the sound in that place was great. It was a little analog, very warm sounding, and a very laid back atmosphere in there, it wasn't like a sterile studio. 

Kevin: I think with all the bands, we never preconceived anything other than what Daniel said. I think we all wanted it to sound unique and be as innovative as we could be. But there was no plan. It just happened really organically.

Daniel: The working process — I don't know if it's the same for other people, or different for individuals, or pretty much a standard thing. But, the bottom line is, you just either have that creative spark or you don't. I can't really define what it is. Somebody the other day asked, "How do you write a song?" and it's really hard to define, but it can come from a one-liner, like a lyric, just one line that sounds great, or a chord or two on the guitar, and that's the inspiration point from there, and then you build on that. With the help of a bottle of red wine. That's how it works for me anyway. And what's interesting is, you can start writing a lyric about something, and by the time the song's finished, it's about somebody or something completely different from your original idea. And if you leave yourself open to let it go where it wants to go and not say, "Oh, that was a mistake. I better change that" — go with the mistake. That's often really interesting when you are absentmindedly, say, strumming some chords and then you hit the wrong chord. But that wrong chord sounds better than the chord that you were originally going with. If you keep yourself open, it can take you a direction you would never have thought of, which is interesting.

The cut-and-paste thing that Bowie used, that William Burroughs used — I used to use headlines from Viz Magazine in England and the National Enquirer over here, or The Sun newspaper in England where you get these really dramatic headlines and cut them up, put them on a piece of paper, and move them around. The lyric for "Go!" came from using the cut-up idea. In fact, most times, songs did. 

You have a history of picking really interesting songs to cover and doing great things with them. For example, "Ball of Confusion," and on your new record, you cover Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." How do you approach making a cover of someone else's song your own, and interesting to you? 

Kevin: Well, again that's something that I can't define. I can't tell you in words how we do it. It's something that happens in your mind as you're working on the draft. You just get the basic chords that someone's made up, and then you take it from there and let it go in whatever direction. 

Daniel: The bottom line is, Kevin and myself will be working on stuff and it's like, it either sounds right or it doesn't. If it doesn't sound right, we change it until it sounds like, "yeah, this is working now."  I can't go into detail on any particular song and what that is. I suppose I could say, I remember I discovered the tremolo on this old Fender Amp that I was using when we did our version of "Heartbreak Hotel." I really like the tremolo sound. It reminded me of like the '50s and '60s music, if you like rock music where they used that heavy tremolo. And that probably was inspiring to me at the time, you know, because I used that sound on the track and that would have sparked its direction to a degree. And then, Glenn [Campling] playing bass the way he does, which is not traditional at all — that made it our own. Do you remember how we worked out "Heartbreak"? 

Kevin: No, I don't. You know, it just happens. Organic. 

Daniel: If you think about the bands we've been in, those three bands, it's pretty much plus or minus a member. (Laughs.) The nucleus is us two, who have been in all three bands. 

Kevin: The common denominator. 

Daniel: Yeah. But look how different Tones on Tail sounds to Bauhaus. Look how different Bauhaus sounds to Love & Rockets. The chemistry of the individuals in the band creates its sound. That's why the Beatles sound like the Beatles, The Clash sound like The Clash, et cetera. 

Daniel, what makes Kevin a great drummer? 

Daniel: He's original. I'm not just saying that because he's sitting here, but I think he's probably the best drummer I've heard. I really like John Bonham. I'm not a huge Led Zeppelin fan, but that drum sound, I really get it, the bombastic huge sound you get. But with Kevin what I noticed is, he plays like a jazz drummer, he holds his sticks in that way. He was trained that way. The bottom line is, what's original. That's what sets him apart for me. 

Kevin: Thank you kindly. 

Daniel: No problem. Can I have that 50 bucks now? 

Kevin, what makes Daniel a great guitar player and singer? 

Kevin: I think Daniel's a very underrated guitarist. It's, you know, what he was saying about me: very innovative, original, unique, creative, and he's got a funny haircut. Especially now. (Laughs.) 

So, I think you've named your new project Poptone after a song from Public Image Limited. And, you know, clearly, John Lydon did some really interesting things in the late '70s and even in the '80s and '90s with that band. I'm curious, what was life like for you guys before the punk explosion of '76, '77, after. How would you compare and contrast those two things and how did that inform your art in your life in general? 

Daniel: Well, the only thing that was interesting or exciting for me before that was the whole glam rock thing with Bowie. Bowie, T Rex, Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed. That's why I was listening to at that time. Love that stuff. The whole glam rock movement. Not the crappy side of it, like Chicory Tip and all that nonsense. I'm talking about T-Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Bowie — those four completely took me over when I was about 15-years-old. There was nothing after that until '76, '77 when the Sex Pistols were on Top of the Pops, which is our equivalent of MTV in the UK. I was saying to Kevin the other day, it sounds really funny now, but I was so excited when I saw them on — you know, there was so much conservative, real middle of the road rubbish on that program around that time, and then suddenly the Pistols came on. I saw that footage and I was so excited. My adrenalin was pumping so much, I had to run around the block a couple times to come down from the excitement of the whole thing. It was so brilliant to me, the fact that they got on that program. It was a huge "fuck you" to everything. You know, all the horrible prog rock that was going on and then the real tacky pop music. And then suddenly the Pistols on Top of the Pops, which is the most commercial show out there. It was brilliant. Bauhaus wouldn't exist without the whole punk thing, for sure, because it gave us the confidence to do it. And then, obviously, Lydon went even further with the P.i.L., and again sonically, that was so different. He could have easily done a Sex Pistols Mach II and full credit for him for not doing that at all and being much more experimental. If you listen to the Metal Box now, it's really, really potent still. It could have been made last week, that album. You can't pigeonhole it in a decade at all. I saw footage of Coachella — I think it was in 2012 — and wow, did they stand out. You know, the bass lines, and the arrangement of the songs, and the way he sings is so original. So that had a big effect on us. 

How about you, Kevin? 

Kevin: Everything what he just said. (Laughs.) Well, you know, if you interview any member of a punk band or post-punk band, they would say the moment where they saw Bowie doing "Starman" on Top of the Pops, it was literally life-changing. Definitely for me, when I saw that, I was just fascinated and completely in awe of this alien-like androgynous creature. Just the whole thing sensuality of it, the charisma of that song, the way they looked — it was just inspiring. And I think that had a huge, huge impact. And also, I think John Peel was really very important to the whole post-punk and punk movement. Just spreading the word around and revealing these songs. I think he was hugely influential in the whole punk rock movement. That was huge for me. I'd just left high school, and I had long hair and flares, and my brother took me to see the Pistols and The Clash at the 100 Club. I was 16. And I think my jaw was just on the ground the whole time. It felt really dangerous and edgy. When The Clash came on, it just like this express train, and then the Pistols to follow them were even more so. The next day, I got all my hair cut short. I got these polyester pajamas, these blue pajamas, and I went into the garage and did a "Jackson Pollock" with dad's emulsion paint. And off I went. I went to see Led Zeppelin like six months before, and John Bonham did this half-hour drum solo and it was amazing. That whole show was amazing. I wasn't a huge fan of them, but you know I went along, and I left with half of me feeling just really excited because I'd just seen a great rock show, but the other half of me was really dejected because I thought, "I'll never be able to play as good as John Bonham and might as well give up." Like, really dejected. And then after that Pistols/Clash show, you know, it's a cliché but I thought, "well, I can do that." That was even way more exciting than Zeppelin. And that gave me the confidence to do it. So, that was hugely pivotal as well. 

Daniel: I remember, you know, The Cure and everything, all those bands when they first started out, all of us around that time, we couldn't play properly. Like, the Banshees, us, New Order, and Joy Division — you could tell we weren't proper musicians in the old sense of the word. All those post-punk bands came from us, or people like us — we can't play like that, but we can't be bothered to. Who wants to be bothered to learn how to do scales? I know one scale — E major or something, maybe C minor, I don't know. But you know, it's a different attitude. The old bands, the old farts, Led Zeppelin and all that lot, they were seasoned musicians. I remember because I was at the mercy of this in art school. There were all these other guys there that could play properly and all they wanted to do was to play like Jimi Hendrix. And for two reasons, no way was I going to do that. Number one, I was way too late to learn how to play like that. And number two, what's the point anyway 'cause somebody has already done it. So, you don't compete with Jimi Hendrix. You take the instrument and go completely left field with it and just keep it super simple. I mean, I like playing just one string a lot of the time, and it's really effective as long as you got the right wobble box on it, it can sound great. Shredding bores me to tears. Shredding is just, ugh. It's just ego-wanking. All you're doing is impressing spotty-nosed 14-year-old blokes, and who cares about that? That whole thing went out the window when punk came along. The musical snobbery — is what I'm trying to say — disappeared with punk. That's the bottom line. And that was really healthy and it still is. It's like early Devo, as well. If you listen to their stuff when they had their 15 dollar guitars, it sounded fantastic. You know, with these really crude instruments. It was something fresh because you got these "Rick Wakemans" and horrible stuff like that, with playing 16 keyboards or something with a big, you know, gold lamé cloak on, my God. No. But then again, if you're David Bowie, you can wear that clothes and look fabulous. 

What does the loss of David Bowie, and his legacy, mean to you? 

Daniel: The day it happened, I was just waking up about 9:00 in the morning, and my girlfriend says, "Uh, I gotta tell you something, and you're not going to like this" and she told me and I was devastated. I started crying. It was weird, it was like my Dad had just died or my brother or something. It really, really hit me hard. It was really strange. It was like a family member gone. I mean, his music is so close to my heart. All through the decades — not so much the very last stuff but for two or three decades there, he couldn't be beat. So that was such a shock obviously, just came completely out of the blue. But yeah I can't believe, I was really, I was crying. I just couldn't stop for a couple of days. 

What do you think about his music and him was so impactful to you? 

Daniel: The mix of the sound and vision. You know, the sound of what he was doing with that look, particularly, obviously, the Ziggy thing completely. I embrace that 110 percent because I relate to it. I really didn't feel like I was from here. And this guy was looking like I felt, if you can get what I'm saying. That androgynous thing has always attracted me, and he was that's incarnate. He was that thing that was in my head, something from another planet. I never wanted to be here, you know, on this planet. I've always felt alienated, like most teenagers do, and he was a complete escape from that. Visually and musically, it was perfect. 

Kevin: There's a line in "Starman," and on Top of the Pops, he sang, "I picked on you-ooh-ooh," and he pointed directly into the camera. I've heard other people remark about, when he did that, everybody who was blown away by that performance, which is, you know, tens of thousands of kids — we all felt he was talking directly to us. Like Daniel was just saying, it's like, "I am not alone." You didn't feel as alienated. 

Daniel: The country was split in two with the people that absolutely hated what he was to them. He was a threat to everybody's sexuality. That's a funny thing. It was nothing to do with sex to me, it was something that was way above such things. In my head, this was just a fantasy; I never thought of him as sexual. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating and beyond being just mortal. It was this wonderful fantasy world. Early Roxy Music when Eno was with them had the same thing. Marc Bolan. Those three entities, those three had that magic where they could really pull it off. When music really hits you around for 14, 15, whatever you're attracted to, it'll never leave you. You can see that influence with us anyway. 

You guys mentioned John Peel earlier. I'm curious what did it mean to you to have John Peel play your music? 

Daniel: Well, he was the only one that would play it because it wasn't that commercial Top 40 and he had that ear for the good stuff. One thing about John Peel that impressed me, he would shut up until the record was finished. A lot of deejays, they talk over the end of the track or the beginning and just feel a complete respect for the artist where he would play the song from the very first note to the very last note, and then he'd talk. No other deejays I know do that. So I personally was very impressed and respected him for that. 

Kevin: When he first played "Bela Lugosi's Dead" — we had a tip-off he was going to play it, and we all lived in the same little, terraced house which was pretty cold and miserable. We were all "on that dole," you know, so, we were not rich. We all sat around this little transistor radio in the kitchen, and hearing our song come out of the radio was such a magical moment. It was a "bucket list" moment. And just so exciting. When we got to hold "Bela...", which was our first record that we released, just holding the vinyl and looking at the grooves, that was another pivotal, magical moment. I put out a coffee table book on Bauhaus and I devoted a whole story to John Peel. When I was putting the book together and just thinking back, I realized how hugely important he was, not just to us, but to so many bands. So I want to give him a tip of the hat. 

Why does music matter to you both? 

Daniel: It's a soul thing. It's in your soul. A string of notes put together right just touch your soul. It takes you to another place. 

Kevin: It's actually fascinating. isn't it? It must alter the chemistry. 

Daniel: That's exactly what I was going to say. Years ago there was a documentary on the TV about this and this is how simple it is. If you put the right notes together, it creates a chemical reaction in the brain that makes you feel good. If you put the notes together and they're the wrong notes, it makes you feel bad. That's the difference between noise and music. So, there's your answer, right there. 

Poptone's self-titled debut full-length is out today, Friday, June 9th, via Cleopatra Records. The band embarks on an East Coast tour, starting June 20th at the legendary First Ave, in Minneapolis, MN.