We talked to the iconic member of Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and Tones on Tail about his retrospective project, embracing public life, and ditching music to ride motorcycles.
Photos by Mariana Schulze
Wearing sunglasses indoors is damn near impossible to pull off. To do so is to, with few exceptions, open yourself up to entirely justified accusations of douchedom, poseurdom, junkiedom, and, most damaging of all in today’s culture, complete-lack-of-self-awarenes-dom. But, like I said, there are exceptions; Lou Reed/Nico, all French directors, Algerian terrorists in the ‘60s, Tom Cruise in his underwear (debatable), and…Daniel Ash.
Ash, formerly of Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and Tones on Tail, set a gold standard for romantic disaffection that we have all, with our stupid colorful shirts and utter lack of hair product, firmly failed to live up to. With the style though, it’s particularly easy to overlook Ash’s skills as both songwriter and, even more difficult in some ways, song arranger. Over thirty years, he’s been making music that justifies the entire Staring at Member Of Opposite Sex Across Smoke Filled Room industry. His songs have continuously been that “one song we’re gonna dance to at prom” for black clad ne’er-do-wells the world over.
Ash is also a notoriously private person. Only the fact that he’s, lucky for us, taking on the task of rearranging and re-recording of a lifetime of songs (for fun, experimentation, and, said with an honesty that’s refreshing, to get back in the game) has allowed for this interview. With a crowd sourcing drive for this retrospective project, Stripped, Ash is allowing fans to pick what songs to be reworked and purchase his artwork. They can also go on a motorcycle ride with him and then keep the bike. Shockingly, the man who wrote this is really into motorcycles.
What was the original impulse with Stripped?
We just launched it a few days ago. It’s working out so far. We’ll see how it goes. It’s in the early days. The first thing I’m doing, if it all pans out, is reinterpreting lots of the songs I’ve done in the past—from all the different bands and solo stuff. Truly alternative versions of them. The original idea was to do acoustic, but I gotta say I find that really boring.
I can’t really bear the idea of some guy sitting on a stool with a guitar. It just doesn’t work for me. So it was progressing from that to whatever is suggested with the various tracks. I really want to go out on a limb with this stuff. As always I don’t want it to be obscure for the sake of it.
For example, I just got a vocal of “So Alive” to John Fryer—who actually produced the original version of that track—and he’s in the process of doing a dubstep version. I find that real fun, the thought of that. It’s an example of what I want to do, just something really different.
So yeah, I don’t think the acoustic guitar thing is going to pan out. That was in the original discussions but the more I think about it, it’s way too limiting.
You were saying a few years ago that playing old Love and Rockets stuff was just so boring to you.
Oh yeah, yeah. I would like to do brand new material, but since this is a launching, I was told this is the way to go. Hopefully, if this pans out, it’s not going to be one album of me doing old stuff. But again, as I said, it’s got to be really different. Otherwise what’s the point? It’s not just copying the originals, it’s going to be the opposite to that.
It’s the starting point, and if this thing flies I can progress and start making new music. The reason for this is to get people on board, and to get them interested and take it from there.
I’m also putting up artwork for sale—prints as well as originals. All sorts! Motorcycles… I ride bikes a lot. I have a bike that’s only got 130,000 miles on it.
Yeah, I saw that you were offering up a ride with you and the bike itself.
(Laughs) Yeah, I know. Originally that was not my idea. You know, that particular bike, I’ve done 130,000 miles on it, I’ve had that 16 or 17 years. I thought it might be of interest to somebody, but you know, we’ll see. This is all completely new to me, this whole idea of pledging. I have no idea where this is going to go, but I’m hoping this thing is going to fly so I can get back into the loop of things.
I just got a thing called Anthology. It’s out on Cherry Red Records. It’s two solo albums I did in the early 90s. Then there’s a third album on there’s called Bits ‘N’ Bobs, which I’m really pleased with. It’s the stuff that I’ve been doing over the last ten years. You know—highlights of the stuff I’ve been doing over the last ten years.
When you say trying to get back into the loop of things, do you feel you’re out of the loop?
You’re already a well-regarded, relatively famous musician. Do you want to have a new generation of fans? Do you want to reignite the interest of old fans?
With me either/or or nothing. I either would like to get back into the loop of things—it’s very, very different these days to actually make a living being a musician unless you want to be on the road. And I don’t want to be on the road.
But I would love to be involved in film, TV, or music. It’s either that, or nothing. It’s been quite a while of not a lot happening, to be honest. It’s tough, the whole road thing, I’ve done that, I don’t have the desire to that again. But yeah, actually making music would be great if I could get paid for it. But there’s the problem right there. As I saw in an interview with Kim Deal; music’s free now. It’s very strange times for musicians because, um, it’s free. You can’t sell music. This is why I’m doing the pledge thing. It was actually the idea of a friend of mine who’s helped me out for years, Christopher The Minister. He had the idea of getting this together. So yeah, this is basically the new way, or rather, a way of possibly earning the money to create an album. Which, again: What a concept! When was the last time you sat down and listened to an album? I bet you can’t remember!
It’s upside down. It’s completely the opposite of how it used to be, which was you would make the album and then go on the road to promote the album. Now you make the album to promote the live gig. So the album is a giveaway to entice you to go to the live gig—BUT if you don’t want to do the live gig, well you’ve got a problem! (Laughs)
You know, I don’t really like to talk about the money side of things, because that’s not the reason to do it, but at the same you need it otherwise you can’t survive.
At the end of the day, you have to get paid for what you do otherwise you can’t do it. It annoys me that I always end up having to talk about the financial side of it, which in the old days was not even an issue. In the old days, you either got signed or you didn’t. If you didn’t get signed, you had a day job—that’s it. If you did get signed, you didn’t have a day job and you went on the road and made albums. Very simple. That’s not the case anymore.
It’s quite bizarre times, but then suddenly this pledge thing was offered, and I was thinking 'this is a no lose situation.' Because I can’t afford to put my own money into making something that I can’t sell because people don’t buy music anymore. So with this, if you don’t make the mark, nobody loses anything. I don’t have to put my own money into, which I can’t anyway, 'cause it’s not there. But if they are into it, I can get pledges, and then we can move forward.
Is it exciting or daunting taking on material and redoing them when you’re pushing against the teenage memories of thousands of people?
Well, yeah, it’s a challenge. They have to be truly different versions, and I’m a perfectionist about that 'cause I can’t stand second-rate stuff. I do find, particularly in the indie world, people just throw stuff out, and it’s very under-produced. And I can’t bear that. Unless it’s the Velvet Underground. I’m just really fussy about that.
It’s like when you go to a party of some of these younger people, they’ve got a laptop going on with something scratching in the background on a speaker that’s like, half an inch in size. And I’m thinking, 'Where’s at least the boombox or something?' It’s bizarre to me that they don’t seem to care. I mean, I understand it’s a different generation.
Well, there is a middle ground. It’s not like all of your stuff sounds slick. I never listened to any of it and thought it sounded overproduced.
God, I hope not. I mean, that can be really bad, when it’s over-produced as well.
Back to the pledge stuff, do you mind losing some of the mystique between fan and artist?
I’m really, really private, so yes, that is scary to me. The whole idea of being exposed to that degree is absolutely terrifying. It’s strange. But where I live, it’s practically in the middle of nowhere.
It’s very strange. The music you’ve made, I always thought was in the tradition of Roxy Music and T. Rex. Not to be pretentious, but a certain level of sexiness requires a certain amount of distance.
Yeah, absolutely. This is something I was talking about with Hether [Fortune, of Wax Idols, who is working with Ash on the launch of his new music] actually, 'cause she’s aware of that. I think it’s not good to be too accessible. I don’t want to be too accessible either. I’m very private. You know, I used to live out in LA, but I moved out like 12 or 13 years ago. Because LA can be fun, but when I go there I can’t wait to get out of there.
My thing is getting on my motorcycle and going out to places where the population is 18. Just out in the middle of nowhere. I just like going where there are no human beings. That’s my perfect place to go to on my motorcycle.
The whole motorcycle thing, it’s what keeps me sane. I’ve always had a bike, since I was about 12. I used to steal my dad’s scooter. Anything on two wheels has always just worked for me. It’s the most important thing to me.
If you could conceivably go the rest of your life without making any more music and just driving your motorcycle, would you?
Yes. Absolutely. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say. I’ve always joke about if I won the lottery I’d just jump on a bike and travel around the world 'til forever.
I should make it clear: I obviously love music. It’s a similar thing to riding a bike. It just sets you free. It’s escapism. You’re away from this thing called reality and it just takes you into another realm. Which is a much better realm than 9 to 5.
You know, that hit me about the same time it hits most kids, around 12. They hear what they hear and they think, ‘What is this magical thing I’m hearing?’ And that whole thing just gets you hooked. I remember seeing that on the TV when I was a kid and wanting to be a part of it because it’s just a magical world. And the look of an electric guitar to me was this ticket to freedom and this ticket to a complete fantasy world, which was so much better than mundane world of waking up with gray skies like it was in England and still is.
Do you remember what you saw on TV?
Oh yeah, it was the Beatles. I’m giving away my age now. (Laughs) It was the Beatles, and it was Beatlemania. And I stuck my face against the screen with the volume on full. ‘What is that screaming sound, I love it! Why is everyone screaming?’ I was really young, like eight years old. It must have looked very funny to my parents when they walked into the room.
Before we wrap up, I have a few boring questions for you that you can just give two word answers to. And I apologize in advance. Bauhaus reunions?
Um, if pigs could fly.
Love and Rockets?
Tones on Tail?
We actually were approached four or five years ago about doing it, and it was really exciting, but I don’t honestly know that Glenn Campling can do it. I think for health reasons. People have said to me, “Fuck that, get another bass player!” But he came up with those basslines and they’re brilliant, and I have a real problem with someone else playing them and getting the credit.
Fair enough. Back to the record, not to affect the integrity of the voting process, but are there any particular songs you hope make the cut or even hope don’t make the cut?
Yeah, on the site itself there’s a list of all the stuff I’m willing to tackle. It’s a list of twenty or thirty of my favorites. I mean, there are some songs I’ve written that I don’t feel like I can do any more with. They are just finished and there’s nowhere else to go.
Knowing me, while I’m in there, I’m probably going to go off on a tangent and start creating new songs with these old songs being the starting point, and it’s just going to trip out into something totally like, “What the fuck is this?” But it’s great. That’s what I used to get with Tones on Tail, and I still love that stuff. I’m really still proud of that band. We had no commercial consideration at all with that one. We were completely free. We never even talked about making a video. It’s funny. We never made any videos for Tones. We were just having the best time creating this music, which I’ve said a million times sounds like it’s from another planet. It could have been recorded last week. It’s great because it’s timeless.
The irony is I was always thinking about a hit single, but we never had any commercial pressure to come up with anything super commercial. I wanted a hit to prove something to myself… well actually we did get a hit, we had “Go!”
I was going to say, it’s a very accessible, poppy album.
I don’t mean that as an insult.
I know, I know. It’s just that the lyrics aren’t, “Baby I need your lovin’,” You know what I mean? It’s weird lyrically, it’s all over the place. It’s not Lionel Richie that’s for sure. (Laughs)
No it’s not, I’ll give you that.
You know, it’s pretty out there. I mean, even now. Like, “Slender Fungus” what the fuck is that?
That’s the thing, you’ve always been a heavy psych dude, so when I say poppy, I’m thinking within the terms of like, psychedelic rock, glam rock. Not pop of the time.
It’s not an insult because I called the album Pop, and that was very deliberate. It wasn’t being ironic, 'cause it is pop. But that’s the idea. It is pop with a twist. That’s what I love about the early Bowie stuff 'cause he made brilliant music that was commercially accessible. It was magical. There were a few artists like that: Roxy Music, T. Rex, Lou Reed around Transformer, Iggy and the Stooges. Raw Power is one of my favorites of all time, as well as Nevermind the Bollocks.
It’s funny that you mention Raw Power. We should talk about the production on that one for a second.
Yeah, that makes one of the exceptions! The Velvet Underground, technically speaking, you would say is terrible production, but it isn’t. It’s magic. And, this whole Iggy and the Stooges thing, both mixes— the Bowie mix and the Iggy mix—the songs and the attitude and the energy in the studio when they’re recording is so powerful it overrides. You could hear that shit on a laptop and it would still sound amazing. Everything about the energy just comes through. It’s undeniable.
It just occurred to me that I’m talking about stuff that was made in the 60s. I don’t know, rock n’ roll is a very old animal now, and it’s like, how much can you do with a bass, drums, and guitar?
I read this interview with Lemmy, and he said something like the music that hits you between the ages of 12 and 15, it never leaves you. I think it’s because that’s when you’re most vulnerable. And with me, that was Bowie, the whole glam thing. Although when I was a real young kid, I heard the Beatles because of my brother. He would play a strict diet of The Kinks, Small Faces, The Beatles, the Stones—that’s what I heard from like birth. So I got all that stuff, the English rock, as a young kid. But my own stuff, when it really happened for me was the whole Ziggy thing.
You always hear people like Morrissey and Marc Almond and Boy George and George Michael, theyall talk about Bowie doing “Starman” on Top of the Pops where he puts his arm around Mick Ronson, and it’s looking like, ‘Is that a girl or a guy?’ You know, that whole magical thing. That changed everything for my generation.
I remember going into town in the back of my dad’s car, and I went into the store and bought “Starman” and before I bought this 7” vinyl a voice in my head said, ‘If you buy this record, your life is never going to be the same. Do you want to go down this road?’ Of course I bought it. I remember just sitting in the back of my dad’s car just staring at the sleeve. From that moment on, I knew nothing was going to be the same. I joined this club. Now here I am talking to you on my mobile, talking about music.
Zachary Lipez is still trying to pull off sunglasses indoors. He's on Twitter - @ZacharyLipez
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