CBS SF Talks To Poptone About Reviving Music Of Tones On Tail

By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — As members of both iconic gothic-rock pioneers Bauhaus and neo-psych outfit Love and Rockets, guitarist Daniel Ash and drummer Kevin Haskins played a major part in two of the most influential groups to emerge during the late ’70s and ’80s, laying the groundwork for a legion of post-punk and alternative bands that would follow in their wake.

Though they only released four studio albums between the founding of Bauhaus in 1978 with singer Peter Murphy and bassist David J (Haskins’ older brother) and the band’s abrupt dissolution in 1983, the quartet achieved a level of impact unmatched by many groups that emerged in the wake of punk rock’s initial explosion in England. Imitated by many and matched by none, Bauhaus crafted a dark vision that held sway over so many disciples that the band entered a rarified eschelon occupied by the likes of the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath in therms of the breadth of their reach.

While Bauhaus eventually reunite for two rapturously received tours in 1998 and 2005 prior to recording one final album — the celebrated swan song Go Away White in 2008 that led to a last acrimonious split — Ash and Haskins also hit great heights of commercial and critical success with David J in their trio Love and Rockets. Reviving the spirit of late ’60s psychedelia with their nuanced songwriting and gifts for hooky, hypnotic tunes, the band made alternative rock before the genre even existed. They managed one huge MTV hit in 1989 with “So Alive,” but it was the body of work the band created over 15 years starting in 1985 that earned them a rabidly loyal cult of fans.

Love and Rockets would also enjoy a high-profile reunion in the late 2000s, playing lucrative festival gigs at Coachella and Lollapalooza before Ash announced in no uncertain terms in 2009 that he wasn’t interested in reviving the band again. Ash put out a handful of solo recordings since then (including the career overview Stripped in 2014 that found him offering up new versions of classic songs) but it wasn’t until recently that he reached out to Kevin Haskins with the idea of returning to the stage and revisiting the songs of Tones on Tail, his early ’80s experimental project with roommate and Bauhaus roadie Glenn Campling on bass that eventually included Haskins on drums once Bauhaus had split.

Recruiting Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompe to play bass and keyboards, the new trio began playing live shows under the moniker Poptone earlier this year to great acclaim. Though the band touches on a handful of Ash-penned Love and Rockets tunes and a sole Bauhaus song (with the odd Adam And and David Bowie cover getting thrown into some sets), the bulk of the Poptone repertoire is drawn from the minimalist “doom and dance” pop experimentation tracked by Tones on Tail during their brief existence between the musicians’ other two bands.

poptone CBS SF Talks To Poptone About Reviving Music Of Tones On Tail

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CBS SF recently spoke with all three members of Poptone ahead of their current tour that comes to the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco next week, discussing the musical heritage of Tones on Tail and the different approach the new trio has taken in exploring that history onstage.

CBS SF: To go back to when Tones on Tail started, Daniel had already been working with Glenn Campling and putting out music under the name prior to Bauhaus splitting up in 1983. Had their been any thought or discussion prior to that of Kevin joining as a third member?

Kevin Haskins: No, I joined after the split. I think Daniel kindly invited me to come on board and I was very happy to do so.

Daniel Ash: Glenn and myself were getting bored with the drum machine. We needed the injection of Kevin’s magnificent talent.

CBS SF: So Kevin, you had already heard the material that the band was putting out and were familiar with it?

Kevin Haskins: I was a big fan as Daniel and Glenn were releasing all those EPs. I loved the music! I thought it was great, so I was really excited when I was invited to join.

Daniel Ash: You don’t sound very excited [laughs]. I’m just joking…

CBS SF: There are some points of reference in Tones on Tail like the use of acoustic 12-string guitar that connects the sound to what you did in Bauhaus, but there is much more that departs from your musical past. How conscious were you about moving in a different direction from Bauhaus when you started the band in 1982?

Daniel Ash: It’s not a conscious thing at all. It’s the chemistry of the people working together. If you look at the different bands, it’s always the same people give or take a member of whatever group. So Glenn’s bass playing was totally different from David’s bass playing and his taste in music is pretty different as well. So the chemistry of those three people in Tones on Tail is very different. Tones on Tail’s music was very bass heavy, but Glenn’s playing was very original and not the obvious sort of thing; a lot of bass players would just follow what the guitar was doing.

Glenn was the opposite. He would never do that. I would often work around him. He would get the killer riff and I would work around that riff. And the only way I could get it to go into a chorus would be to drop him out, go somewhere else, and then drop him back in. It’s very unusual. Once he locked into a rhythm, he wouldn’t change, in a good way. He would not go into the corny chorus or the corny middle eight. I know Glenn always hated that sort of songwriting style. He thought it was really old fashioned.

So he would just lock into a riff and that had a big influence [on Tones], whereas David was the complete opposite of that. He loves middle eights and choruses. With Tones, it was a really quirky, motley crew, us three. We’re really different, the three of us, but we definitely complemented each other. I think  Tones’ music has aged really well. I think it sounds like it could have been recorded last week or it could have been recorded 35 years ago.

CBS SF: One thing that struck me listening to the Tones on Tails material was how much of what sounds to me like guitar being played with an E-Bow, particularly on the more ambient instrumental tracks. It reminded me a lot of Robert Fripp and Andy Summers, so I was wondering if they had an influence on that sound.

Daniel Ash: Fripp, to be honest with you, hasn’t been a huge influence on me, though I was a big Brian Eno fan. As far as guitarists go, I’d have to say there’s Jimi Hendrix and Mick Ronson and that’s about it really. I just love the fact that Mick Ronson in particular just howls on one or two notes rather than shredding. I have no interest in shredding, unless of course Jimi Hendrix is doing it, and then that’s on a totally different level.

But going back to the E-Bow thing, I remember very specifically that Kevin and myself, and in fact I think the whole band Bauhaus, walked into a music shop. And Kevin wanted one of these Synares, which was one of the first electronic trigger drum pads. I think the guys in New Order had one and he really wanted one too. So we were in the shop and I saw this little chrome thing on the shelf — and I love anything that’s chrome — so I saw it and asked, “What’s that little thing on the shelf?” And they said, “Oh, that’s called an E-Bow.”

And he explained to me what it did [it is an electromagnetic device that vibrates an electric guitar string without touching it, producing a sound similar to that of a string bow], I thought, “Oh my God! That’s a dream come true!” It basically turned the guitar into a keyboard or a violin. Apparently it had been sitting on the shelf for two or three years, and I asked “How come nobody has bought this thing?” And it’s the funniest — a very Northampton thing, It was about £99 or around $120, and they said nobody would buy it because they weren’t going to be paying £99 for something so small! [laughs]

It was a beautiful compact little device, but they don’t make the chrome ones anymore and they have to have a switch now to switch them on. Before you would just put them over the pick-up and they would fire up. So that would have been back in 1978 or 1979. They’re pretty much exactly the same. I think the big difference — besides the switch — is you have two octaves you can use. But it’s one of the best inventions ever. It can take the guitar into a totally different area, because it keeps the strings sustaining.

CBS SF: Another aspect that I enjoyed about Tones on Tail was how the sound at times almost seems to split the difference between a couple of ’80s UK contemporaries: the synth-pop of Gary Numan and the harder, punk edge of Killing Joke…

Kevin Haskins: I remember Glenn being a big fan of Gary Numan and Killing Joke, so that could be where that could be coming from. He was also the guy, in addition to playing bass, who was taking care of the keyboards. So the keyboard stuff on “Lions,” that’s all Glenn. He was a big fan of both of those bands I remember.

CBS SF: One of the biggest songs for Tones on Tail after the fact has been “Go,” mostly because of how extensively it has been used in movies and television. There are a number of danceable Tones on Tails songs, but that is the once certifiable dance floor classic in the catalog. It’s so distinct from the band’s other work. Do you remember how the song took shape? Did it all start with that amazing bass line?

Daniel Ash:  I don’t know if Kevin remembers with this one, but I don’t remember the exact making of that track. I remember doing the words for it. I remember getting those together, because I used the cut-up method. I took magazine and newspaper headlines as Bowie had done and William Burroughs.

But as far as the riff, I imagine on that one it would have been a case of Glenn coming up with the bass line. He was probably fooling around with our $50 drum machine and he came up with that riff. I remember back when we were playing in the cellar where we first lived, we’d just click the buttons on the drum machine and start going with a very simple beat and jam around that. He would come up with those killer bass lines and I’d just start adding lyrics and vocal melodies and guitar riffs.

Kevin Haskins: It would have to be that way, because I can’t imagine you could build that track without having the bass line first. I just think it’s remarkable that I had that many cowbells so I could play a melody [laughs]. They were all kind of perfectly tuned to Western scales, like in the same key.

Daniel Ash: I can understand that they were all in tune in a Western scale, because you bought them in the west. But here’s an example of the Tones’ quirkiness we injected. Kevin coming up with that really quirky bit on the cowbells, you would never get most rock bands to do that. Unless it was somebody like the Pixies; they look at things differently and that’s why they’re interesting as well.

But that’s an example right there. You’ve got that killer bass line from Glenn and then that quirky combination of cowbell notes that’s very cartoon like. It’s got a bit of humor to it. And that, I think, is the beauty of the band. There’s juxtapositions between the serious elements and the real quirky elements and they’re joined together. There’s the formula. But having said that, you can’t manufacture that formula. That’s a natural thing that has to do with those three individuals working together at that period of time to make that music. It’s predestiny.

CBS SF: When I told friends on Facebook that I was going to be talking to you and solicited questions from the hive mind, that was one of them: how did you come up with that weird cowbell sound on “Go?”

Daniel Ash: People think it’s just one cowbell that got vari-tuned or something with effects in the studio. But how many was it Kevin?

Kevin Haskins: I think it was five. I think it is like what Danny just said; sometimes it’s just predestined. Sometimes things just happen in the studio where ideas come out of left field and things just work like that. I sometimes think there is a higher power or some other element that’s coming into play.

CBS SF: Another song that really seemed to resonate from the Tones on Tails catalog is “Rain.” A few friends brought it up as something they listened to over and over when they were kids. Did you realize when you were recording that song that you were tapping into teenage angst and melancholy?

Daniel Ash: As far as the lyrics go on that, I was a moody little bugger. I had extreme mood swings from really high to really low. They’ve got a name for it now, haven’t they? Bipolar. But I was definitely one of those guys, especially with the weather in the UK. If you’re lucky, you would have a couple of moments of sunshine and a lot of rain. And human being’s environment will determine their state of mine, that’s for sure. That’s why everybody in California is so happy. That’s been my theory up to now anyway.

But as far as the lyrics go, definitely. I don’t think I would have written that in Malibu, for example. But it’s definitely very English. It’s got that grayness to it. On the recording of it, at first it wasn’t working. I remember I probably wanted to do some reverse guitar with reverb on it. So when we turned the tape over — in those days we used two-inch tape — when we turned it over and ran it backwards, it sounded more interesting than forwards. So we kept it backwards and wrote around the backward track instead of the forward track.

There again you have that experimentation we used to do in that band. There was no commercial considerations in Tones on Tail. The record company never asked us for a single. We never made any videos for Tones. It wasn’t even talked about for some strange reason. I must say, for myself, I was still very much trying to get a Top 10 hit on the real charts. Not the alternative charts, because that didn’t mean anything to me, and it still doesn’t. I was always thinking it would be fantastic if we had a hit with Tones on the real charts. The ones that everybody knows about, not the indie stuff.

So it’s funny. Although we never made any videos and we were never asked to create a single that would be a hit — and, mind you, that was never Beggar’s Banquet’s style anyway. They never asked for hit records, they just asked for great records. And that was always great about them.

CBS SF: Diva, I know you have some band experience playing with your sister Lola in the group Black Black, but I was curious how far back your interest in music went and if you and Lola were playing music with your dad as you were growing up?

Diva Diompe: Kind of, yeah. We just grew up around music all of the time and a lot of my parents friends were musicians. They were always playing new music they were interested in. My dad gave me drum lessons every once in a while. So I would pick things up and always had a lot of love for music and a deep connection to it.

I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid. When I was 13, Danny got me a bass guitar for my birthday and I started learning that and started playing in some punk bands with friends. I was in a punk band in high school that I actually played drums in, and after that I did Black Black. And then I’ve been in a few bands since Black Black as well; that ended ten years ago. And I’ve done my own solo music too. I have three solo albums out and more forthcoming and some other projects as well. Other solo projects under different names. So I’ve been doing this my whole life.

CBS SF: Was Diva the first person who came to mind to play bass and fill out the trio when the plan hatched to put together a new band?

Daniel Ash: Well, in a nutshell, yes. When I made the decision and was able and wanted to do this — because I hadn’t really wanted to do any live stuff — once I’d made that decision, the first thing I said to Kevin was, “Alright, great! Who’s playing bass?” And he suggested Diva, and as soon as he said that to me over the phone, I had this huge lift up inside me. I thought, “Oh my God, that would be a dream come true! If Diva can pull this off, it couldn’t be more perfect.” Both on the visual level and a musical level.

And she got the gig! The big test to me was if she could play the bass line to “Go,” and she nailed it. And that was it. That’s when she got the gig. But as soon ask Kevin suggested Diva, I thought, “Well, in a perfect world, that would be fantastic.” But I didn’t know her capabilities as far as how good she was on the bass. But she’s totally nailing all these riffs. Problem solved. So it couldn’t be a better combination. The way we look and the chemistry when we’re doing the gigs has been really strong. It’s been great. Better than ever. So I’m knocking on wood. Or at least picking up a twig in the garden. We’re having a lot of good luck at the moment and hopefully it carries on.

CBS SF: So how much input did Diva have as far as the song selection of what you’re covering? I know from the setlists I’ve seen that you’re not doing “Rain” which will bum some of my friends out, but it does seem more of a rock show…

Daniel Ash: We couldn’t do “Rain” live anyway, because there’s all the backwards tapes and everything.

Diva Diompe: I asked for “Rain” a lot [laughs]. A few times at least, but it wasn’t happening. But I did get “Lions” in there. We weren’t going to do it, but then I figured it out and played it for them, and they said, “OK!”

Kevin Haskins: Also “Performance” as well.

Daniel Ash: Also Diva definitely had an influence it what we look like on stage. I had it in my head that we’d do this and be really simple and just wear black. And Diva said, “No. I want to wear white.” And I thought, “What? You can’t wear white.” But then a few days later, I decided it could be great if we could pull the white thing off, because it’s different and it’s not that boring, old fashioned rock and roll mentality. All black now to me seems like old and crusty. We’re bright and fresh! We’re like and alternative Tide advert I think [laughs]. You can get your clothes this white if you use Tide!

Poptone plays the Regency Ballroom on Wednesday, June 7, at 8 p.m. $29.50-$35. Nostalghia opens the show.

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