Last April, members of the British pop-ambient trio Love and Rockets came perilously close to testing Neil Young's contention that "it's better to burn out than to fade away." The musicians were in California to record L&R's new album Sweet F.A. when the Laurel Canyon house inhabited by the band, and owned by American Recordings founder Rick Rubin, erupted into an inferno after an electrical fault caused some equipment in Rubin's home studio to ignite. Most of the building was destroyed, along with some master tapes for the nearly completed album and thousands of dollars' worth of rare instruments.
"Somebody came downstairs at seven in the morning to get a glass of water," recalls L&R front man Daniel Ash. "They went 'round the corner to the rehearsal room and the mixing desk was ablaze. Ten minutes later, the whole house was on fire and we were literally jumping out of bedroom windows. All our gear got destroyed, the whole lot."
Determined to complete the project it had only half-finished, the band--Ash, bassist David J and drummer/programmer Kevin Haskins--moved into a cheap motel and accepted an offer from some friends who owned a tiny studio in Silver Lake, California, where L&R recorded the album's last four songs. "The studio was this little converted garage," says Ash. "It was the middle of summer, no air conditioning and real hot. We did our vocals in the toilet, drums in the living room and bass in the kitchen. We went right back to basics.
"It seems to all sort of fit at the end of the day. We think Sweet F.A. is our best record."
Love and Rockets' 1985 debut, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, deserves that accolade for its mantric groove and swirly pop texture. (Wanna see God? Plug into Teenage Heaven with a tank of nitrous oxide at 3 a.m.) Nevertheless, Sweet F.A.--shorthand for a kind of Zen detachment expressed in the title track as "fuck all else"--is a clever piece of stripped-down machinery, one whose understated guitar and keyboards mesh intriguingly with Haskins' sophisticated rhythms and David J's liquid bass. Less trancey than 1994's Hot Trip to Heaven--the respectable studio artifact L&R produced after a five-year hiatus--Sweet F.A. is both stark and occasionally lush, melodic and momentarily grating. Some cuts recall the Fall's clatter and grind ("Here Come the Comedown"), or early David Bowie ("Shelf Life"). Others, like the first single, "Sweet Lover Hangover"--with its bongos, piano plunking, distorted guitar and Ash's velvety croon--bear the distinctive mark of the rocketmen.
Before Love and Rockets, of course, there was Bauhaus--the influential gloom-and-glam band founded in 1979, hot on the heels of Joy Division's initial success at turning manic depression into movable product. Fronted by the vampiric Peter Murphy with Ash, Haskins and David J contributing assorted macabre, jagged noises in support of their singer's expressionistic posturing, Bauhaus spun bleak art-rock tales with titles like "Kick in the Eye" and "Terror Couple Kill Colonel." Never truly able to manufacture a full album of strong material, Bauhaus managed several outstanding cult singles, including 1979's "Bela Lugosi's Dead," a record that sounded equally cool spun at 45 or 331U3 rpm. Murphy sang the tune during the opening montage of David Bowie's 1983 film The Hunger.
After Bauhaus dissolved, Ash and Haskins did a stint as Tones on Tail and enjoyed mild success with the dance-club hit "Go!" A year later, David J returned and the three christened their new band after an underground comic book by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez that detailed the kitschy adventures of a group of L.A. riot grrrls.
The first incarnation of L&R lasted four years and as many albums. Earth-Sun-Moon, the fine 1987 release which included "No New Tale to Tell," held the No. 1 spot on the College Music Journal Top 100 chart longer than any other album in history at that time. In 1989, the band scored a No. 3 pop single inthe U.S. with "So Alive" and toured extensively, playing Dodger Stadium with the Cure and the Pixies before fleeing the specter of commercialism and calling it quits. "We began to feel as though we were going through the motions," explains Ash.
Together again in support of its second "comeback" recording since 1994, L&R continues to showcase the acid house/dance styles that all three members explored during the breakup. The band members have also dabbled with alternative methods of composition, periodically employing Brian Eno's Oblique Strategy cards to tap into their unconsciousness while in the studio.
"If you get into a tight spot," explains Ash, "and don't know which direction to go creatively, you just pick up a card and it might say 'What is really on your mind?' and you do that. It gives you the most abstract suggestions and you interpret them. You only use the cards when you need to. Some people think it's a lot of bullshit, but it depends on the individual. I can't imagine Elton John using them, but I can imagine David Bowie using them."
While L&R's music and songwriting processes have shifted somewhat from the early days, the musicians have remained a constant in each other's lives. "It's weird," says Ash, sighing. "We've been together 15 or 16 years now. It's very strange." An odd quaver comes into his voice, suggesting something like fear at the passing of time. "But," he continues, "as long as [the music's] vital, we'll keep doing it. At the moment we're on a roll, but over the last year or so we went through an identity crisis and wondered, 'What the hell are we doing?' We didn't even know if we had an audience, but the way it's worked out, it seems we have."
One key to Love and Rockets' perennial, if underground, appeal is Ash's compelling guitar work, which maintains an uneasy truce between two styles: pretty-and-slick and outright feral. Melodic songs emerge out of feedback, percussive clutter and ambient whorls often disappearing as quickly as they arrived. Within a single tune, chunky buzz-saw licks can trade off with clean, minor-key folk arpeggios while Ash whispers about a dream girl or finding inspiration on a motorcycle trip. L&R has always been about the exploration of inner space rather than outer (although Ash, having exchanged his Bauhaus black for shiny silvery duds, does appear vaguely extraterrestrial these days).
Relying on intuition, the band intermingles danceable/tranceable melodies with Eastern philosophy--particularly Ash's Buddhist leanings.
"Buddhism is what I personally focus on," says Ash. "I was brought up a Catholic and I think that's a terrible, ridiculous religion with a hell of a lot of bullshit and hypocrisy. Christianity's been distorted because of money through the ages. It's a very crude religion emphasizing fear of God. Buddhism is my path. It doesn't riddle you with guilt."
Love and Rockets now shares a label (American Recordings) with another man in black who found religion (along with rekindled popularity): Johnny Cash. Ash admits he is happy with American because it's "more like a big family," but remains suspicious of the recording industry as a whole and isn't shy about taking swipes at it. "Shelf Life," off Sweet F.A., is a haunting dirge with country undertones that bites the hand that feeds it by posing the question: "How many A&R men does it take to change a light bulb?/I'll get back to you on that."
Ash considers corporate mediation between artists and their audience a necessary evil, but tries to avoid getting tainted by the recording industry's "sterility" and its dehumanizing power that tends, according to the singer, to turn musicians into products no different from "a loaf of bread or a carton of yogurt."
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Despite the occasional volley launched at A&R drones or "rednecks" vying for the U.S. presidency, Ash sounds remarkably at peace for a guy who's literally gone through fire, and who recently had a $23,000 custom Harley stolen from outside an L.A. rehearsal space.
"Well, taking a leaf out of the Buddhist book," says Ash, who anticipates buying a new Triumph in a day or two with the theft-insurance money, "nothing's too important; I try to keep life as simple as possible. I sold everything I owned in England when I came over here.
"I'm really into music and motorcycles. As long as I've got those two things, I can carry on."
Love and Rockets is scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 24, at Club Rio in Tempe, with Dandy Warhols. Showtime is 8 p.m.