Daniel Ash Talks Inspiration Behind New, But Retro, Band Poptone: 'It's Like Riding a Bicycle'
The grinding heavy rock of Motorhead might seem a strange source of inspiration for singer/guitarist Daniel Ash to return to the dub-inflected post punk music of his past. But it was hearing the former’s classic single “Ace of Spades” late one night that inspired Ash to ring up his longtime friend and musical collaborator Kevin Haskins to start Poptone, a retrospective project that performs material from the three projects they were a part of together: Bauhaus, Tones On Tail and Love and Rockets.
The bulk of the material on Poptone’s setlists, and which makes up their forthcoming self-titled album, comes from the Tones On Tail catalog. That group began as a side project for Ash while he was a member of Bauhaus, and a chance for him to make music with his friend and roommate Glenn Campling. But when Bauhaus imploded in 1983, it became his main gig, with Haskins rounding out the lineup. Together, they made one full-length album (Pop, released in 1984) and a handful of singles, from which came their dancefloor classic “Go!” and cult favorites like “Christian Says” and “Twist.” The group dissolved in 1984 with Haskins and Ash moving on to form Love and Rockets with their fellow Bauhaus cohort David J.
Since then, Love and Rockets released seven studio albums, scoring a #3 spot on the Billboard Top 100 with their single “So Alive.” While their last album came out in 1998, the trio continued to work together off-and-on until 2008. Along the way, they also reunited with singer Peter Murphy as Bauhaus for a series of tours and a reunion album (2008’s Go Away White) before ending that project for good.
For Ash, the past 10 years have seen him recording and touring as a solo artist, while Haskins continued his career creating soundtracks for films and video games. But what lingered in both of their minds was the idea of dusting off their Tones On Tail material for a tour. All it took was a early morning wake up call from Lemmy Kilmister to make it a reality.
Joined by Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompe on bass, Poptone embarked on a successful North American tour last year, which included recording a live set for the popular KXLU radio show Part-Time Punks. That session turned out so well for the band that they decided to release it as an album (out on June 8th via Cleopatra Records). They’re also heading to the East Coast this month for a run of shows that will wrap up on July 1st in Silver Spring, Maryland at the Filmore.
Billboard caught up with Ash in the midst of rehearsals for Poptone’s current tour to talk about the inspiration behind the band, revisiting 30 year old material and the future of this project.
The story goes that you decided to start playing live again after hearing a Motorhead song. Take me back to that fateful night.
I’d fallen asleep looking at YouTube and I think I might’ve had Brian Eno’s Before and After Science on. And then good old Motorhead kicked in and it just jolted me. It woke me up completely. It had to be four in the morning and I just had this revelation that I should play live again. I can’t explain it. Something just kicked me up the bum and said, “It’s so obvious what you should do right now.” I had a couple of days where I thought, “Is this just the red wine talking or what is going on?” It still rang true a couple of days later so I rang up Kevin and said, “Okay, who’s gonna play bass?” Long story short, we got Kevin’s daughter Diva playing. Eight weeks’ rehearsing later and off we go.
Was it always in your head to do this with Kevin rather than doing a solo tour or project?
Oh yeah. Kevin had been wanting me to the Tones On Tail thing for a long time. We only played a handful of gigs when we were together before. But it wasn’t practical to work with Glenn [Campling, the original Tones On Tail bassist] because he lives thousands of miles away and he has his own life. Plus, we weren’t only doing Tones On Tail numbers. We were picking from the three bands to do this retrospective. So, I didn’t want to be confined to doing Tones stuff. We could open it up to doing solo stuff, do whatever works. I thought the Poptone title was perfect for it. That was another 4 a.m. thing. I don’t know, I seem to wake up all the time at four in the morning and get these ideas. We were searching for a name and “Poptones” from P.i.L. came to mind. And I thought that really is sort of a neutral name that could work for this. It sounds really modern to me. We were going to use Slice Of Life for the whole project but it turns out that was taken by somebody else. Then I thought, “Well, Poptone sounds even better.”
Because you wanted to concentrate on Tones On Tail material, was that part of your thinking about not asking [former Love and Rockets and Bauhaus bassist] David J to participate?
No, not at all. Glenn and David play so differently. They didn’t want to play each other’s basslines anyway. They are from completely different planets. So, it wouldn’t have worked. Tones on Tail and Love And Rockets are chalk and cheese. They are very different bands. It’s amazing what one person, plus or minus, in a band will do. The chemistry with the three bands is actually very different. So, somebody neutral was perfect. I remember Kevin said to me years ago about the idea of Diva playing bass. It’s always appealed to me. I love the way she looks, to be honest. She looks terrific. And she can really play that stuff. Because I said to Kevin, “If she can play ‘Go!,’ she’s got the gig.” And she could play it. Boom. Done.
Was it fairly easy to switch back into Tones On Tail mode and get those songs down?
Like riding a bicycle. It’s like we haven’t been together playing those songs for about two weeks instead of 35 years. Instant.
Were there songs that were more challenging for you than others?
There’s some that we couldn’t play live because they were created in the studio. I didn’t want to use a bunch of backing tracks and everything. That’s a drag. There are some that we literally couldn’t play live anyways. Only a handful. Most of them are just the three of us playing bass, drums and guitar. So most of them weren’t a problem.
How have your feelings about these songs changed since you wrote and performed them back in the ‘80s?
We haven’t changed at all. We’re the same people. I was joking about this with Kevin. We hadn’t worked together in years but when we were rehearsing I said to him, “Kevin, we haven’t changed at all. You’re exactly as you’ve always been and I’m exactly the same.” It’s an odd thing. We’re the same people. He still writes really long lists of things to do. And I don’t. I wing it.
Are there any thoughts at this point toward writing and recording new material, or do you just want to stick to the older material that you’re more comfortable with?
Poptone is a vehicle for me to play a retrospective set. As far as new stuff, I’ve got a thing that I’ve just recorded, which I’m going to shamelessly plug right now. It’s called Alien Love. I’m doing it as a one-off CD and you can download it from my website. So that’s exciting for me. I’m just going to see how that goes and see if there’s any interest. But as far as Poptone goes, the original plan for that band is doing a retrospective, as far as the three bands that Kevin and myself have been in over the last 70,000 years.
Something else that Kevin was involved in was Bauhaus Undead, a book that collects memories and ephemera from your years together in Bauhaus. I was curious about what you thought of it.
I think he did a fantastic job. I really admire him for the patience he had. He put a lot of work into that book. I’ve got nothing but admiration for him.
Were there things in the book that surprised you? Things that you forgot even existed?
Yeah, yes. I mean, I haven’t read it. I’m an instant gratification sort of guy. I’m one of those guys where I just look at the pictures first and then look up the lines here and here. I haven’t analyzed everything that was written. But the whole vibe of it is very positive. There’s no criticizing other members of the band or the public. And I really appreciate it for that. It’s really classy.