Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins revisit their musical youth in Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets and Bauhaus with Haskins' daughter at the House of Blues Tuesday.
Daniel Ash doesn’t put it in so many words, but his current band, Poptone, is an Ash/Kevin Haskins cover band. It exists to play the songs he and Kevin Haskins recorded in the early 1980s as Tones on Tail, which is the musical incarnation Ash is proudest of. In concert, its setlist also includes songs they wrote in Love and Rockets and Bauhaus (a few). He has no plans for the band’s future.
“It will hit a wall where it’s either we will have to stop or we’ll have to write new material,” Ash says. The trio started rehearsals in February, played its first gig in April, and is nearing the end of its scheduled dates. “We’re close to that wall right now.”
Tuesday night, Poptone will play The House of Blues with Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompé on bass. On the phone, they’re very different people. She stays in her lane, content to let Ash be the frontman with the media as he is onstage. He sounds comfortable with that arrangement too. He’s gregarious and enjoys being a bit of a scoundrel. The punk ethos that prevailed when he began playing remains part of his aesthetic, so over the course of a half-hour, he gave the entertaining answers and she kept the details straight.
Even though Dompé is Haskins’ daughter, she had to audition, and the test was Tones on Tail’s best-known song, “Go!” For all of its seeming simplicity, Ash insists it’s not easy.
“Glenn [Campling] had a very unusual way of playing the bass,” he says.
“It’s not complicated, but it’s awkward to play it,” she says. “Traditionally, basslines support and follow the chord changes of the guitar. For Tones, he a lot of the songs are crafted around the bass riff, and it’s an integral part of the song.”
Dompé knew her dad’s music as her dad’s music until she turned 12 or 13, when she started listening to punk on her own. Then, she developed her own relationship to the music as a listener and not a daughter, and she fit Bauhaus and Tones on Tail into the context of punk rock and post-punk. “I relate to it on an emotional level,” Dompé says. “I’m musically inspired by it.”
At some point, kids rebel against their parents’ music, but her musical self was very much shaped by the music Haskins shared with her. He helped her connect to Bjork, Radiohead and Massive Attack, as well as David Bowie and The Beatles, and she got to know his friends when he took her to festivals and to see music.
Poptone is the first time she and Haskins were in a proper band together, but it isn’t the first time they’ve shared a stage. Ten years ago, the drummer in her band got sick on the night of a gig, so he sat in since he knew the songs. This time, part of the fun is simply spending time with him. “That’s kind of rare,” she says. “It feels really good to share being creative with him.”
Since Poptone plays Ash and Haskins’ music, she has respected the initial creations and worked to play them as faithfully as possible rather than consciously insert herself into the music. “I’m there to honor the music and contribute with my presence,” Dompé says. Still, there are parts of the show that she initiated. “There were a few songs that we weren’t going to do that I really wanted to do, like ‘Lion.’ I figured out how to do it on the technical side of things, using my computer to sample certain things so that we can play certain songs.”
For Ash and Haskins, Poptone represented an opportunity for a little fan service. Love and Rockets briefly reunited in 2008, and fans asked when they’d get a chance to hear Tones on Tail live.
“We haven’t played the Tones stuff in 35 years,” Ash says. “We had only done one tiny tour.”
Going back to that material from the early 1980s meant revisiting a time when the punk love of inspired amateurism was at its peak. According to Ash, Tones on Tail bassist Glenn Campling certainly fell into that category, longer on staunchly held beliefs than musical ability, but smart enough to make one stand in for the other.
“Glenn had a very unique way of playing the bass,” Ash says. “I could never get him to change keys when we were writing. Once we locked into a riff on the bass, you had to work around that. He thought—and I did as well—that changing key going into the so-called chorus was cheesy and corny.” Because Campling could and would play a given riff relentlessly, Ash often employed the dub production technique of pulling instruments out of the mix to create dynamics in songs.
“He didn’t like traditional songwriting things like Ray Davies would do or The Beatles would do. That traditional songwriting two verses, chorus, middle eight, last chorus, outro--he hated that. That’s why he liked dance music. Because it’s relentless.”
Ash sees his own experience in that approach as well. He didn’t learn scales in part because he considered them boring, but also because he was concerned about the impact of knowing too much. “If you learn all that stuff, there was this big fear for me that I’d start sounding like everybody else. I actually made my own chords up on the 12-string. They are called something else, but I discovered them by accident.”
That spirit of musical inventiveness extended to bands’ gear as well. “None of us had any money,” Ash says. “The bands around that time could only afford little $50 drum machines, and all of us around that time that delved in electronic music, you can tell we got these cheap, simple drum machines. Thank God we couldn’t afford to go into the studio and get that big Phil Collins drum sound. It would have sounded terrible. If you look at pictures from the ‘70s, we’ve all got these cheap H&H amps which I still use in the studio. They were cheap and cheerful and loud as fuck, and that created this new sound.
“We were stretching our imaginations because we had no money and a passion to do it, unlike a generation before where they spent all their money on their Les Pauls and Marshall stacks. We couldn’t be bothered to save up our money and got this cheap equipment. If you listen to [Cabaret Voltaire’s] “Nag Nag Nag,” that a cheap drum machine, a fuzz box and a cheap studio.”
One down side of näive musicianship is that you can reach the limit of what there is to find in your gear and skill set, and eventually that happened in Love and Rockets. Ash admits he got bored, and that led to 1994’s more electronic Hot Trip to Heaven. “We were heavily influenced by early ‘90s electronic music, and it was commercial suicide. But we had to do it. Personally, I was bored with guitars. Bored with writing songs on guitars so we wrote them on drum machines. We hoped it was going to be our Dark Side of the Moon and sell mega-amounts, or it was going to do nothing. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out.” The boredom more than the dwindling success led to the dissolution of the band in 1999.
One song that has not been a part of the Poptone shows is Love and Rockets’ “So Alive.” It’s Ash and Haskins’ biggest song, but they have rarely played it because they couldn’t find a way to make it sound right live. “We tried to do it back in the day and it never worked,” he says. “Doing that vocal live—because it’s quiet, semi-talking almost—it didn’t cut it live.” When a Mexican radio station started using the song to advertise a Poptone show there, Ash thought, “If we could get an alternative version of that that’s valid, that would be a really good thing to do. For obvious reasons.”