"It says Phoenix, Arizona, on my telephone, so it must be you," Daniel Ash says by phone from California as we prepare for a marathon conversation. The guitar-playing singer and sax man is getting ready to take his new project, Poptone, on the first leg of their 2017 North American tour, which will feature songs from Ash's previous bands Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, and Tones on Tail — as well as a few covers. Ash is joined by drummer Kevin Haskins (a perennial collaborator with Ash) and Haskins' daughter, Diva Dompe, on bass.
New Times talked with Ash about his change of heart regarding playing live, guitar pedals, and kicking off Poptone's tour on May 11 at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.
So are you ready to rock?
It looks that way, yeah. Thanks for the plug.
My pleasure. I know there's a ton of us out here in the desert who are looking forward to May 11.
We can’t wait. We just want to get out there. We’ve been rehearsing for about six weeks in Burbank, in a studio there. It’s all sort of falling into place, touch wood. Hopefully we’re going to have a lot of fun this year. We’re doing this through October. Then after that, who knows?
Are you still based in Los Angeles?
I live near Ventura. I live in a little sleepy town near Ventura. I’ve lived here since 2000. I got out of LA about 17 years ago.
How did Poptone come about?
I woke up about 4 a.m. one night with my headphones around my neck and I had this revelation that, “Oh my god, I need to go out on the road.” It is a complete contradiction and turnaround from what I’ve been saying for years. I never thought I would play live again. I was sort of over it and suddenly, nine [now 12] weeks ago I had a complete change of mind.
I can’t explain. I had no desire [to play live], and I now I have a complete … a real desire to do it.
It was just this voice in my head saying, “Go out on the road. This is what you’re supposed to do.” It was like there was no contradiction in myself at all. I left it for a couple of days thinking, is this feeling going to pass, and it was still strong. The obvious choice was to contact Kevin [Haskins]. It just came together.
Kevin’s daughter, Diva, plays bass. Long story short, she got the job, and we’ve been rehearsing. We haven’t stopped for the last six weeks. First official gig of the tour is with you guys on May 11. We’ve got it planned out so we don’t do the whole thing in one go. We have breaks in between. That’s the civilized way to do it.
I think we’re allowed to do it that way now.
Yes, I think you're right. How long has it been since you have played live?
It’s been seven or eight years since our last tour. [Love and Rockets played Coachella in 2008.] There was a lot of dust on my foot pedals.
Are you a gear guy? I've always been curious how you got such great sounds.
Oh, god no. I’m the antithesis of a gear guy. I have no interest in it all. Having said that, I’ve caught myself recently looking at gear magazines and all the new effects pedals. But, I have stuck to my old boss pedals. That’s all I really need, and a wah-wah pedal. I’m definitely not a gear head, no.
That's interesting to me. I'm not much of one either, but I guess I just assumed you must be.
It’s not brain surgery. A bit of echo and an e-bow and it doesn’t sound like guitar. Mick Ronson said he didn’t use any effects. He only used a wah-wah pedal. What’s much more important than using lots of different “wobble boxes,” as I call them, is using your imagination. Having said that, I’ve got about eight pedals in front of me for the gig. They’re the same eight pedals I’ve used since 1979.
What do you like to use?
I always use a chorus at full-speed. A good old fashioned fuzz box. Boss do a great fuzz pedal. That orange one? You know it? I really don’t like the heavy metal ones. They just sound ridiculous to me. They sound like sawdust. It’s a real thin sound while this [orange] one has some balls to it.
I used to have one of the orange boss pedals. I play bass now, though, so I haven't used one in a long time.
So then you know. I like using flat-wound strings on the bass. That’s what I use. I like the nice warm sound.
I like the two extremes of having the bass really sound like a bass and the guitar sound like a razor blade so sonically they don’t interrupt each other. It’s all about what you don’t put in. When Portishead’s Dummy came out, my god, talk about hearing bass. The way they mixed that stuff, the bass was incredible. The space the bass had in their mixes was brilliant. It breathed so well.
Do you want to know my favorite color?
Not really, but okay ... what is your favorite color?
It’s interesting because it’s so unusual. It’s silver. The thing is, is that a color? I’m not sure that it is, but that’s my favorite color.
That’s a color.
Of course, it is, yeah. I suppose it all goes down to the love of motorcycles and chrome. Nobody ever says silver as their favorite color. They always say red or blue or black. People say, “Black isn’t a color. Black is all colors put together.” Which apparently is the case.
So it’s the most colorful color of them all ...
Well, you would think, yeah. It doesn’t look it, does it?
How has it been to revisit some of these songs?
Some of these songs I was sort of dreading because I thought it was going to be so hard to recreate live. Songs like “Twist” from Tones On Tail. The ones that I thought would be difficult are ending up being my favorites to play. I love “Twist.” It’s such a quirky song. Of bands I’ve been in, I would say my favorite is Tones On Tail. Always has been. It sounds like it’s from another planet, but it’s very commercially accessible.
I have to say, Daniel, that I love Tones on Tail. I love turning people on to the music so much.
I think … it stood the test of time really well. That Tones stuff could have been recorded last week and it would still sound fresh. Things like “Twist” is really fun to play live. Things like “Movement of Fear” which is very dark. Very spacious. It’s just a bass line and a vocal. Talk about minimal. It doesn’t get much more minimal than “Movement of Fear.” That Tones stuff is a lot of fun in the rehearsals. All of it, really. We haven’t chosen one song that we don’t like [playing].
Your discography is pretty huge, how did you come up with what to play?
Between Kevin and myself and Diva, we’re basically choosing the favorite tracks. It’s like, you know, the greatest hits although they weren’t exactly hits because we were always in "alternative" bands. They’re all sort of favorite songs. We’re doing Adam Ant’s “Physical” because it is just a blast to play it.
Are you doing anything from your solo work?
We're doing “Flame On” which is very Iggy and the Stooges. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks was a work of art as well. That’s brilliant. It’s actually really well recorded. It’s not got that thin punk sound. Steve Jones’ guitar sound can’t be beat. It’s sort of the opposite of my sound. I try and get the guitar sounding like a razor blade. He’s got all that bottom end.
Here we go again talking about gear. I think it’s because you told me you are a musician at the beginning of the conversation. It’s hard not to talk about bits and bobs. Wobble boxes, as I call’em. The thing is not to keep talking about it. Just keep it to yourself that way nobody can steal your sound. There are certain little tricks and chords you don’t want to tell anyone about. You have to have your own thing.
Is this the first time the Tones' stuff has been played in the states? I thought I read that it is...
When we were a band in 1983, Tones On Tail played a little tour in the U.K. and a little tour in U.S. Probably 13 dates in each country. There is actual footage of Tones playing in 1983.
Oh wow. I'd like to see that.
Let’s be honest, Tones On Tail is very obscure. It’s not exactly Britney Spears.
It’s still cool. It’s still underground. We never had a T-shirt deal, for example. There is no Tones On Tail T-shirts out there. We had a deal for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, but we never had one for Tones. We’re going to bring some on tour. People don’t know who Tones are. They’re going to find out on this tour.
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I assume Diva understands she has some pretty big shoes to fill ...
I was really nervous at first. It’s in her DNA. She got it. She’s playing those bass lines really favorably. The big test for any bass player who is going to play on this stuff is to play “Go.” That’s the tough one. The sound, the inflections, the whole thing … she nailed it. We went through so many fuzzboxes to get that sound on the “Go” bass line.
You’ll never guess what got that damn sound. It was the orange boss pedal. We’ve been rehearsing six weeks solid to get it right.
You sound excited about this new project.
It’s been a bit nerve-wracking, but I can’t wait to do it. The interest is through the roof. I’m really, really flattered and surprised. People want to see it. I’m amazed. A lot of is the Tones’ angle. It was a shot in the dark. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not, but we went for it.
Poptone are scheduled to play at Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Thursday, May 11.