Q&A: Poptone has a new tale to tell

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Poptone

Photos courtesy: Paul Rae, Projections: Cloaking.US

SANTA CRUZ — Looking back, it’s often easy to spot the turning points in our lives, the doors we stepped through that changed the course of our journey. At 15, I was living in a small, affluent suburb in Southern California, a nice vanilla lifestyle dedicated to skateboarding with a soundtrack by Huey Lewis and the News. Then I met an older kid who lived down the block, played the bass and rode a Vespa.

Poptone, Nostalghia
8 p.m., Wednesday
Regency Ballroom
Tickets: $29.50-$35.

I remember sitting in his room as he played a single called “Twist” by Tones on Tail, a band I’d never heard of. As the song’s sonic landscape unfurled itself, everything changed; a new land had been discovered. My friend told me that Tones on Tail had disbanded and some of the members had formed a new group called Love and Rockets. I went out that day and bought their latest cassette, Express. I planted my flag in this new land and began my love affair with the musical output of this small group of musicians. For the rest of my teen years these bands were my north star, a guiding light in my newly expanded world.

Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins have played in three of the most important goth rock bands around: the genre-defining starkness of Bauhaus, then probing dark synthy places in Tones on Tail, and finally riding up the Billboard charts with Love and Rockets. The pair has been a huge part of both alternative music and my life. So naturally it was a thrill to get the chance, 30 years later, to sit down with Poptone, a new band consisting of Ash—who came to the interview dressed in black jeans, motorcycle boots, giant sunglasses, and slicked back hair—Haskins—who looked vaguely dad-like in a black tracksuit and sneakers—and Haskins’ ingenue-ish daughter Diva Dompe at the Rio Theater last week before their show in Santa Cruz. It was even more thrilling to learn that Ash had experienced a similar awakening when he was 15, all thanks to David Bowie.

RIFF: Congratulations on selling out the Teragram Ballroom in L.A. What does it feel like to have this buzz about your music so many years later?

Haskins: It’s great; I’m pleasantly surprised by the reaction. I didn’t really think it would be as powerful as it is and so it’s wonderful.

What’s different about touring now?

Haskins: I was gonna say the dressing rooms have gotten much better. [Laughs]. It’s no different, really. The audiences have been great at every show, really good, but they just seem to be kind of building. I kind of felt the first leg was gonna be nice, we’d kind of go out on a whimper, but the audiences were incredible, like so loud, and that really for me and Daniel reminded us, “Oh wow, this is the sort of reaction we used to get and we’re still getting it.” I feel so blessed to have had the career I’ve had.

How did you pick the songs to play on this tour from this huge catalog of all these different bands?

Haskins: Daniel only wanted to perform songs that he had written and sung on, so that kind of narrowed it down quite a bit. To do a lot of Tones on Tail wasn’t really planned. An agent coined it as a “career retrospective” and when Daniel said that I was, like, “Ok, I get it.” And so that’s what we’re doing. But you know, I’m really happy that it’s Tones on Tail-heavy ’cause I just really love that music and I know that a lot of people over the years would mention Tones on Tail. And not a lot of people from our own age group had had the chance to hear that.

You guys were kind of an early “alternative” act. I hate to use that word. I’m wondering if that has any meaning anymore. How did you guys think of yourselves?

Haskins: I guess we didn’t really think there was a label and we didn’t want to have a label. We got tagged with the goth label and I can understand why, but … once we got tagged with that we would kind of play up to it and flow with it. I mean, we had a hearse that we would go around with. Actually, I’m going to plug my book ‘cause I write about some of this. I made a coffee table book about the bands ’cause I was the guy who collected all the stuff and kept it.

So that’s a forthcoming book?

Haskins: Yeah, I just signed the deal, it’s going to be out in October [from Cleopatra Books].

Dompe: It has stories too; he wrote these first-person stories and it kind of goes along with different flyers and photos and personal memorabilia.

Haskins: I didn’t realize how much material has not been seen until I put it together. Photos and backstage and just candid stuff, plus scribbles and drawings from the band and handwritten lyrics. I’m really excited about it because the content is really strong.

Your bands have always featured a wide variety of musical styles. How did you do it? Did you come up with the sounds and then write the songs around them, or write the songs and then find the musical styles that suited them?

Haskins: It was always very kind of unplanned and organic, and there was only one time we tried to write a hit single, a kind of a huge hit, and that label liked that.

“So Alive” was a pretty big hit.

Haskins: Yeah, I’m trying to think, maybe it was “So Alive,” which was obviously a very big hit. I’m not sure if it was before that; maybe “No New Tale to Tell,” but anyway, it was the first time we tried to sit down and write a big hit, and it just doesn’t work. I mean for us it didn’t. Maybe for the Beatles it worked. The only conscious thought was to try to be unique, you know?

But how do you decide if you want distorted loud electric guitar or mellow acoustics?

Haskins: Like on [Love and Rockets album] Earth, Sun, Moon, that was a conscious effort to do kind of more acoustic to react against the previous album [Express].

Dompe: There will be times when we’ll learn a cover song and try to do a different version of even one of their songs or something. We’ll kind of learn it and then Danny will say, “OK, how do we make it not sound like pub rock?” There’s a conscious effort to always push the music further and make it interesting.

Diva, you’ve got the coolest dad; what’s it like to do a tour with him?

Dompe: It’s great; we’ve always had a really good relationship. We get along very well, we have similar interests and similar temperaments, we’re both pretty mellow. My dad has always really believed in me and has been really supportive of whatever dreams I may have and stuff. My relationship with creativity comes from him.

How’s it feel from your perspective, Kevin?

Haskins: It’s a little surreal and it’s wonderful. I guess it’s no surprise but we really kind of lock in.

How about the wild side of rock and roll, which I’ve certainly heard about in the Bauhaus days, do you worry about Diva being exposed to any of that?

Haskins: [Laughs] Well this is kind of cheesy, but I’m gonna say it anyway: The only thing that’s wild backstage is the wild rice on the rider.

Dompe: We’re kind of past that.

Daniel, I read an interview where you said you were kind of bored of playing these old songs.

Ash: Yeah, but that was then. But now 70 percent of the set is Tones on Tail and we’d only played that probably, all in all, 13 gigs in the states and 12 gigs in England, and that’s it, in 1983. So it’s totally refreshing, plus the Love and Rockets stuff because we were a band for 17 years, believe it or not. And we’d go on the road and play a couple months on the road, this and that. As a band we were either in the studio recording, at home writing, or on the road; all that time. It was constant; very hardworking boys, sort of. And we went on the road every year for many years. So, yeah, you get fed up with it, like anybody would, unless of course you’re a heavy metal band and those guys go on the road for what, 18 months and they’re a completely different breed. I question their brains. Those road warrior guys, a completely different breed. They don’t have a life outside of doing this. You couldn’t have.

Do you feel like you’ve had a life outside of rock and roll?

Ash: Oh god yeah. I mean it’s motorcycles, isn’t it?

So that’s your other passion; motorcycles?

Ash: Yeah, completely, they’re definitely my yoga and kept me sane. I’m not a sort of family man; I don’t got kids or anything; it’s not my thing at all.

Dompe: Yeah, you’ve got six dogs though.

How many motorcycles?

Ash: Twelve. But yeah, the dogs thing was an accident.

So you guys are raising money for an album of live material?

Ash: We recorded the first two gigs that we played together in L.A., which were two sort of little, semi-private shows that were just 250 people a night, so that’s what we recorded.

Do you want to avoid the record industry?

Ash: I don’t think the record industry would have any business dealing with us. I can’t really see us having any real offers. I was talking to our manager today and I just think that’s so old hat; unless you’re a really commercial artist there’s no reason to do that. I keep the doors open to anything and everything that’s offered and see what’s up, but I can’t imagine they’d be knocking on our doors, to be honest, at this stage of the game.

How is it different touring and making music now as opposed to in the ‘80s?

Ash: The only difference to me, apart from [smartphones], apart from texting and emails, is we’re doing it in a civilized manner now. We go on the road for no more than two weeks at a time, then we have a break, then we go on again and it’s completely doable whereas in the past, that was the whole reason why I stopped. Kevin is the same way; you go on the road for two or three months and you never want to do it again. So that’s completely different now.

Poptone

Is the aesthetic presentation of the band still really important?

Ash: Yeah, absolutely, we did a couple of warm-up shows in L.A. to kind of get out there and actually play, because we’d been rehearsing for a couple months and we wanted to play and help raise money for tour support because we don’t have a label and we had projection mapping.

Dompe: It’s a group called Cloaking, they do a lot of underground house shows.

Haskins:They can create a kind of environment around you, but we just couldn’t afford to bring that out on tour. We’re also experimenting with mirrors onstage. We don’t have the money to bring a big production, but we have Scott Simons, who worked with us on Love and Rockets.

Dompe: He really understands they’ve always been a bit more stark and used simplicity to make a strong statement instead of having all the crazy lights. I saw an old photo from a magazine quoting Danny as saying “colored lights are for christmas trees,” so he’s still kind of doing that stark lighting, creating a lot of shape with the light.

Haskins: We’re using ultraviolet lights a lot, which we did with Tones on Tail. With the clothing and the color, we were like, “it should be all black.”

Ash: I thought, yeah, really simple and black and Diva said straight away, “No, I wanna wear white,” and put a spanner in the works. But wearing white, it’s so refreshing, he says, dressed in black.

Dompe: So we have a mixture now; it’s like black and white and that kind of mixes the two bands together, which I like.

Haskins: It feels great to not wear black onstage, plus we’ve got this thing going with the neon with the black light which I think is really refreshing compared with the old-fashioned rock and roll thing. It’s a very simple idea and we used it before, but a long time ago. We were using a backdrop for the first couple of gigs but I much prefer this. We’re just using this black light effect, a very simple idea, white and black clothes with black light.

There’s this attitude in rock and roll that if you’re dressing up for the show it’s like cheating or fake or something.

Ash: No, no. That’s an old-fashioned idea from the prog rock days. It was considered really not cool to think that you ever looked in the mirror, and then Bowie came along and Roxy Music and T. Rex and completely turned that upside down, because I used to hate that attitude. There were all those bands, those prog rock bands when we were in art school, and it was a very self-conscious thing of saying to everybody, “Oh we really don’t care what we look like.” They’d go on stage and not even face the audience and be wearing denim and all that stuff and that was horrible.

Dompe: Danny’s always liked dressing up.

Ash: I get it from my grandmother, on my dad’s side; it’s just in my DNA. The whole prog rock thing, I tried to get into those bands, and I don’t want to mention names because I’m always slagging off those guys. It’s just progressive rock left me completely cold and then suddenly glam rock came around and I’d found my people. The old thing about Bowie doing “Starman” on Top of the Pops; it did change our lives. I remember seeing that, on a Thursday night, saw that thing happen on the TV, and then the next day there was a voice inside my head ‘cause I was 15 years old and mum and dad were going into town to go shopping, and I wanted to go to the record shop to get Starman and there was a voice inside me, really strong, saying, “OK, but if you get that record, everything changes.” It was really strong, like, your life is going to change and you don’t know if it’s going to be for the better or not ‘cause this is the land of… this other place which is definitely not 9 to 5; it’s not normal. It’s a wonderful land, but it was dangerous, in my head it felt dangerous, as well, and yet really exciting and I couldn’t resist it. I went into the store and got the 7-inch and I’m sitting in the back of mum and dad’s car and I’m just staring at this little orange label: “Starman (D. Bowie).” And everything changed.

Follow David Gill at Twitter.com/DavidGi18788752.

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