As a member of Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets, Daniel Ash has had a hand in creating some of the most distinctive music to emerge in the post-punk era. Though he and his comrades railed against the term, Bauhaus came to epitomize the goth lexicon, even though the band incorporated everything from ’60s psychedelia to dub into their darkened brew. With Tones on Tail and to a larger extent with Love and Rockets, Ash combined that dimly lit aesthetic with pop, creating songs like “Go” and “All in My Mind” that were as remarkable for their hooks as their grim veneers. Love and Rockets toyed with commercial success with “So Alive” before eventually venturing into electronic waters with subsequent albums and alienating much of the audience they had built.
For most of the past decade, however, Ash has been silent. Aside from regrouping with Bauhaus briefly for an album and tour, he has only released a self-titled solo record in 2002. As he explains below, this has been mostly the result of the financial realities of making music in the 21st century. However, he is in the process of making a new album, Stripped, which he is attempting to make a physical reality by use of a PledgeMusic drive. Though Ash initially conceived of the album consisting of re-recordings of his past work, his restless nature seems to ensure that new music will emerge as well. Ash and I spoke on the phone at length about his past and present and how it relates to this new record.
I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, and I know you have some ties to that town, and the first thing I wanted to ask you about was that I always heard “Mirror People” is about Crazy Mama’s.
Daniel Ash: Yeah, it was—that’s right. My ex-wife from years ago, she used to talk about that place and the people who would just stare into the mirrors around the nightclub. So yeah, I named it “Mirror People.”
Aside from the Bauhaus album, Go Away White, it’s been 12 years since your last solo record…
DA: Well, I just put out something on Cherry Red Records called Anthology. It’s a three-disc thing, and the first two are reissues of the albums I made in the ’90s, but the third disc has about 18 or 20 tracks that I’ve done since 2003.
I had seen that, but I guess I thought the third disc was outtakes.
DA: There are a few outtakes as well, but most of it is stuff done with various different people. Several are things with deejays, where they’ve given me a piece of music and asked me to put words and guitar to it. There’s one from Deep Dish, and there’s one called “Goddess Gorgeous” that was done with a guy from Germany, King Brain. I also did a collaboration with a band called Astra Heights. I also put an EP out online, and those songs are on there as well.
That said, to put it perspective, in about the same number of years you put out four Bauhaus records, the Tones on Tail records, and four Love and Rockets records, from 1979 to ’89. So you must be doing other things.
DA: What I’ve been doing a lot of the time is just riding motorcycles. See thing is it is so tough now to make ends meet making music because music is free. In the old days, it was very simple: you got signed by a record company, you went and made an album, and then you went out on the road and promoted it. In 2002, I made that album and went out on the road. The turnouts at the gigs were poor and I got in a big ol’ debt with the record company. When I sat down and thought about it, it occurred to me that I’d be financially better off if I didn’t do anything at all. Every time I’d record music I’d have to put a few grand into it. I really like dance music. Working in that realm, I’d be given a track and I’d turn it into a song and give it back to whoever it was, and they’d say, “Thank you very much,” and that was the end of it. I’d never get paid after spending my own money. In that world, the only time you see money is when you ask for it up front, and I got burned a few times. Then, when the album came out in 2003, I got a couple hundred grand in debt with the record label, Psychobaby. It was really disheartening to come to the conclusion that I can’t afford to make music. The days of record companies with advances and money for tour support for people like me are over. So I’ve been surviving on royalties and doing deejay work, but I’m just a jukebox—I just play music. I did some work for a TV show in 2003, and that was great and I made some money. But as far as making albums like the old days, I can’t afford to do that.
That of course leads to your PledgeMusic project…
DA: A friend of mine, Christopher the Minister, said I should give it a go. He explained it to me and it seemed like a good situation because if you get the pledges, you go forward and make the album. If you don’t get the pledges, you don’t make the album and nobody loses because it’s not a loan.
This isn’t the first time, though, you’ve been creative to raise funds, right? You did that thing last year in Las Vegas…
DA: No, that didn’t pan out. I never felt comfortable with that. It was a weird setup that entailed me playing acoustic guitar around the swimming pool. The idea of playing acoustic guitar is so hippie and old-fashioned it makes me want to retch.
Right, and that’s been your attitude for this project, correct? People might assume by the title, Stripped, that it’s going to be unplugged.
DA: Well, it was. At the original meeting with Pledge, they said I should do stripped down, acoustic versions of the tracks and then later on go the modern route and do electronic versions. Thinking about it, I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so not me. It didn’t ring true to me at all. And a lot of those songs, like “Slice of Life,” are already acoustic, so what would I do, a more boring version? It became apparent what I should do. I really am impressed with drum machines. I love them, and they’re so much better than real drummers. They sound fantastic and keep time, so why would you want to go back to drums that sound like cardboard boxes? I embrace electronic music and love the power of it. I saw the Pet Shop Boys at Ventura Theater, and even though they’re getting on a bit now, they were fucking brilliant! It was just so on! I’m into that, and much prefer it to people rocking out like it’s 1963. So that is the approach I’m taking.
Does rock music—and I use that term in the broadest way possible—hold any appeal to you?
DA: Yeah, I’m completely open-minded. There are only two genres of music that I can’t connect to and that is modern country and western and any sort of heavy metal. Like, I do not comprehend why Metallica exists at all. All that thrash metal stuff I find ridiculous and bland. I don’t understand the success of that band at all. It’s just bland, testosterone-driven noise. It’s just cock rock.
Well, you’ve answered your own question. There are a lot of American males who want testosterone-driven music.
DA: It ain’t just America. It’s the same in the UK and Europe. I remember even when I was 16, I preferred the slower songs of whatever band I liked. But I contradict myself all the time, because I do think Raw Power is one of the best records ever made, and same with the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. But then again I love Brian Eno and Moby, so I have broad tastes and if I hear something and I like it, I like it.
But I was thinking more in terms of your own music.
DA: I don’t really get so excited about guitars, and if do use a guitar, I tend to fuck with it so much, it doesn’t sound like a guitar anyway. And I did that in all the bands I’ve been in. The idea of bass, drums, and guitar, where the guitar sounds like a guitar, bores me. It’s not challenging. With the stuff I’m going to be doing, there will be guitars, but you won’t recognize them as guitars because they’ve been so processed. I’ve always wanted to come up with new sounds, something that hasn’t been heard before. There’s a little taste of that with the new version of “So Alive.” It was influenced by dubstep, but it works.
People had a hard time with Hot Trip to Heaven and Lift when they came out. Are you concerned with your fans having a hard time with this approach to your old material?
DA: Yeah, I think it could be a problem, but I can’t worry about it. I have to go this route because I find it exciting. It does cross my mind, but I’m thinking that now in 2014 people who didn’t like Lift or Hot Trip, might have broader tastes now. It was coming out of Europe and people in the U.S. wanted their guitars. But we were bored. When we recorded Hot Trip, I remember saying this could be our Dark Side of the Moon or it could be a commercial flop, and it was a massive commercial flop. But if you listen to it, it still sounds great. But I can’t make a guitar-oriented album. I hardly ever pick the guitar up. It’s just a means to an end. It’s much more exciting for me to use modern technology. I plan on pulling out all the stops and create sounds that haven’t been heard before in the context of those sounds.
So the process is people are voting on a selection of songs that you’ve already narrowed down, right?
DA: I didn’t want to record tracks that no one cared about so I thought, Let’s see what the public wants.” The only songs I was going to do from any of the bands are ones that I wrote, but there’s been no focus or favorites so far. “So Alive” is a no-brainer. It’s a great pop song, and Christopher the Minister was in contact with John Fryer, who recorded it the first time. There are obvious tracks that I’m going to record, like “Slice of Life.” I’m going to record my favorites, but it’s been all over the place. People have very broad tastes.
You’ve recorded covers of a lot of other people’s songs over the years. I’m curious if you find the approach to re-recording your own songs at all similar.
DA: It is a bit strange. I’ve never done this before and I only just started it with doing “So Alive.” I am a bit concerned that I might get bored with it. I think that’s why I did that “Come On” track, which I wrote the lyrics for in seven minutes. We knocked it out in just a few days. So I think I’m going to do both. I will do the old stuff when it feels right and then record new songs when they come. If I limit myself to just doing the old stuff, if I get bored, it’s going to show on the recordings and that’s the kiss of death. I’ve never put out anything I’m not behind. It’s going to be tough. The challenge with the old stuff is that it has to be as good or better than the originals. I was pleased with “So Alive” because I think the vocal is better than the original. I didn’t really want to cover my own stuff, but Pledge told me that was the thing to do. You start with stuff that’s familiar and it progresses so you have the finances to do a whole new album.
Was there something specific that instigated making music again?
DA: I never really stopped, it’s just been a financial thing. People who don’t ride bikes don’t understand, but I’m addicted to riding motorcycles. The weather is so fantastic in California that I can jump on a bike every day and it’s a fix, an addiction. It’s such a distraction. I ride a lot more now than when I was 20. The feeling you get is such a high, when you get out of town to the mountains or the ocean. And I appreciate the fact that I don’t have a 9 to 5 job and I can do that.
And you’ve been doing visual art as well?
DA: Yeah, about three summers ago, I went crazy in my back garden and bought about 60 cans of spray paint and began painting all these bubblemen. I did about 60 paintings in eight weeks without drugs. It was an inspiring thing that happened. I was having fun. It was just spray cans and throwing things at canvases and pieces of wood. I have a garden with some oak trees and I was just out there painting under the trees through the day.
Does that scratch the same itch that music does?
DA: It’s a creative outlet, but it’s a different process. I became really free doing it because I had no commercial pressure and was just having fun with color. With me, what often happens is I won’t be doing anything for 18 months, but then I’ll cram it all into about five weeks. But I was completely sober doing them. I tried working after a few drinks or a joint, and it was crap.
You’ve been pretty adamant that Love and Rockets and Bauhaus are over and done. Is there anything that would make you re-instigate those bands?
DA: No, you got to understand that Love and Rockets was together for 18 years as a band. That’s enough. It’s like being married and getting divorced and then getting back together. Why would you do that? You’re going to have the same old problems. I think of Love and Rockets and I think of the ’80s. That was when we were really happening, and I don’t really want to go back to that. The only reason someone would want to do that is for financial reasons. And that’s not on offer, because none of those bands were successful financially. But put it this way, would you want to go back to what you were doing when you were 25? It’s the same for me: I want to work with new people, and so do the other guys.