OK, So This is Pop Perfection: Poptone @ The Depot 06.23
In 1989, the world appeared to be ripe for the picking. I had fallen headfirst into a love affair with music, and Daniel Ash, David J. and Kevin Haskins, collectively known as Love and Rockets, the band that none of my classmates knew until the release of “So Alive” took over MTV and college radio, were one of my favorite acts. Their self-titled album was never far from reach. My parents quickly grew tired of “No Big Deal,” the “static noise song,” but found the psychedelic ambience of songs like “Rock and Roll Babylon” to be acceptable music to listen to in the car.
We won’t count the years, but it has been quite some time since 1989. The summer where I was deemed too young to go see Love and Rockets as they played at Park West. Forget about traveling to see them open up for The Cure in Denver. The words never even got out of my mouth.
Sometimes disappointment sticks with you. It would have been my first concert. It should have been my first concert.
For years, I thought I would never get to see Love and Rockets live, but time proved to be a little kinder than I expected, and I was able to attend a handful of shows, including what was to be their final gig at the Roxy in Los Angeles. Of course they would reform for a pair of festival gigs, neither of which I was able to attend. I should have been there.
These thoughts invade my head as I make my way through the maze that connects the loading dock of The Depot to the stage. I’m to interview Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and Diva Dompe, Haskins’ bass-playing daughter, about Poptone, the new band that allows Ash and Haskins to visit the various stops on their own musical voyage, from Bauhaus to Tones on Tail to Love and Rockets and on through the intermittent solo releases from Ash (yes, Haskins was often there during those albums too). The possibilities are only limited by the band’s prerogative and rehearsal time.
I’ve interviewed Ash a few times, but never in person. It would be my first time talking with Haskins. I had often joked that I wasn’t sure if he had a voice. It turns out that he does, as he helps the young woman running the merchandise table, who turns out to be his niece, set up for the night.
It makes me feel a bit lonely for the days I spent with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on the road. Different venues in new towns, a few familiar faces mixed within the strangers. Watching the crowd’s anticipation, knowing exactly the experience they are about to be treated to.
Ash, wrapped in a leather jacket, his mohawk combed back, and Dompe in all white arrive, and we move from the concert hall down into the basement, where Ash starts the conversation while his bandmates make their way into the room.
The next 30 minutes are a kaleidoscope of topics, revelations and a story about meeting Sting in an airport.
In previous conversations I’ve had with Ash, I felt bound to talk about whatever project he was currently working on. The Poptone tour is more of a celebration of everything he has ever done, allowing me a certain freedom to talk about just about anything. So we start with a topic that I know Ash would be keen on: Tones on Tail.
When I last interviewed Ash in 2009 for New Tales to Tell: A Tribute to Love and Rockets, he expressed a general sense of disinterest in ever touring the old songs ever again. He remained fond of Tones on Tail material, particularly “Go!,” a track that had helped fill the coffers over the years.
Ash reveals that Bauhaus had a clause in their contract that gave them complete creative control over their releases, but with Tones on Tail, he was given even more freedom to explore more experimental ideas that didn’t fit into the Bauhaus mold.
The band originally consisted of Ash on guitar and Bauhaus “roadie” Glenn Campling on bass. The duo could just turn up in the studio and tell them to bill the record label. Amazingly, the label never complained.
When Bauhaus officially split and Ash grew tired of the limitations of the small drum machine the duo had been using, Haskins was asked to join the band.
While some would like to pigeonhole the group as to being a more club-friendly Bauhaus, Ash is quick to point out that the band didn’t have a particular sound. It was all about experimentation. How else could you explain the radical different styles of “Performance,” “Slender Fungus” and “Movement of Fear” from their debut album Pop?
Ash says that Campling’s positive attitude allowed him to write the optimistic lyrics to “Go!”
As to why the band broke up, Ash sums it up in a word: “Glenn.”
Haskins and Ash debate the exact reason. Haskins points to Campling’s desire to move the project in a more electronic direction. Ash insists that it was something else. He mentions some embarrassing interviews that Campling gave, but declines to dive into any specifics.
I note that the current set list is dominated by Tones on Tail material. Ash suggests that while Bauhaus and Love and Rockets had their reunion tours, Tones on Tail hadn’t had theirs. Still, he insists that he was open to playing anything from his back catalog. It was Haskins and Dompe who did a lot of the choosing.
Ash dominates the conversation while Haskins adds color to the mix. To this point, Dompe has sat quietly.
Dompe grew up listening to music and attending concerts. For her 13th birthday, Ash bought her a bass. She had tried playing the drums, but Ash’s gift sent her off in a different direction. Ash is taken aback—he had no idea.
Ash explains that he fell asleep, most likely listening to Brian Eno, only to be jarred awake when Eno gave way to Lemmy. Ash was suddenly filled with a confidence and desire to play live again. Worried that he was just drunk, Ash let the feeling simmer before reaching out to Haskins to see if he had a bassist in mind to complete the trio.
When Haskins suggested his daughter, Ash had only one question: “Can she play ‘Go?’”
Dompe recalls having to audition multiple times before being officially welcomed into the fold, a process that Ash acknowledges must have been difficult for her.
With our time running out, I ask Ash about the future. Initially, he says there is the possibility of new material, but admits that at the moment, he has “tunnel vision,” that they want to get through the tour and prove to people that they are a great live act.
Still, the muse burns brightly in Ash. He admits that he’d like to write a few hits. Real hits. Haskins point out “So Alive.”
Ash pauses, asks Haskins if he ever told him about meeting Sting at an airport. Ash approached the pop star and congratulated him on his latest hit. Sting shrugged off the success—he had cracked the formula to writing hits. If it didn’t go all the way to No. 1 in the charts, it was hard for him to get excited about it.
Ash hopes that he has a few hits left in him.
I hope that someday, Ash can look back on the songs that he has written in the way that I do: so many glorious moments that defined and helped me survive my teenage years. Greatness often goes unnoticed, but for those who recognize it, the gift is greatly appreciated.
It’s time for the group to soundcheck, so we escape the basement for higher ground.
I ask Haskins if I can stay and watch. He gives me a nod and a seemingly puzzled look that suggests that he can’t imagine why I’d want to see them soundcheck.
What he can’t see is the 13-year-old me sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car listening to “Mirror People” as I imagine the band taking the stage halfway up a mountain that feels a million miles out of reach.
For 30 or so minutes, I watch as the group runs through bits and pieces of eight or nine songs. I can’t help but feel like I’ve won the lottery.
A few hours later, I’m front and center as Poptone take the stage. Ash brings his usual swagger as Haskins hides behind his cymbals. All eyes turn to Dompe, the quiet girl who sat in the corner, steps into the spotlight and owns it.
The trio chew their way through “Heartbreak Hotel,” an Elvis Presley cover that Tones on Tail released on the infamous Night Music compilation. Ash has always been able to put his stamp on other people’s songs, and this arrangement is no exception. This will be the first of three cover tracks in the 19-song set.
The night is filled with Tones on Tail tracks, five of which I’ve never had the opportunity to hear live. The Love and Rockets and Bauhaus aspects of the set are similar to what Ash toured in 2002. It worked then, but it feels tighter tonight. Maybe I’m more hungry for the songs that I haven’t seen live in 15 years, but I think a large part of what makes tonight work better than the 2002 show (which, don’t get me wrong, was a fantastic show) is the presence of Haskins and Dompe. Whereas the backing band on Ash’s last tour felt like hired guns, tonight feels like a cohesive unit.
“Heartbreak Hotel” is followed by the Tones on Tail original, “OK, This is the Pops,” a stomper slice of pop that gives way to the distorted grind of Love and Rockets’ “Mirror People.”
Things slow considerably for a pair of moody Tones on Tail tracks. “Movement of Fear” sees Ash swap out his guitar for a saxophone, and “Happiness” is a dark cabaret number that further illustrates Ash’s ability to successfully pluck seeming incongruent aspects from discordant music genres with fantastic results.
Tones on Tail are set aside for the static charge of Love and Rocket’s “No Big Deal,” a wonderful wash of white noise and posturing that slows into the Tones on Tail single “Lions.”
“Twist,” one of the songs I’m hearing live for the first time, benefits from its rougher live arrangement. It was one of the few Tones on Tail tracks that I felt ambivalent about, but this take on the song has me looking forward to the live album the band are planning on releasing following the tour.
“Love Me,” a fan-favorite track pillaged from Love and Rockets’ Express album, leads to the most underrated Tones on Tail single, “Performance,” an edgy electronic track with a bouncing bassline and screeching guitars that sound as fresh now as it did three decades ago. I’m tempted to call it the highlight of the evening.
Poptone then return to the psychedelic ambiance of Love and Rockets’ Express with “American Dream,” a beautiful song built on a 12-string guitar that takes a dark turn when the thundering drums kick in.
Ash brings out an EBow and slides into a performance of “Christian Says” that trades in a bit of the studio’s polish for a bit more bite, cueing the chaotic mix of sounds of Tones on Tail’s debut single, “There’s Only One.”
The set closes with a cover of David Bowie‘s “Cracked Actor.” Those expecting to hear Ash cut through “Ziggy Stardust” might be disappointed, but Poptone’s take on the more obscure Bowie track is a pleasant surprise.
The first encore consists of a solid cover of Adam and the Ants‘ “Physical (You’re So),” “Flame On,” one of Ash’s newer solo tracks and “Go!,” where Dompe proves that, yes, she can play the bassline. It feels like the perfect ending for the night, but a second encore that pairs the Bauhaus track “Slice of Life” with the title track from Love and Rockets’ sixth album, “Sweet F.A.,” proves that Poptone could run through Ash’s back catalog and none of us would complain.
Ash wanted to show the world that Poptone were a formidable live act. He’s done just that. Any fears fans had about Dompe stepping in to play bass can be quickly dismissed. She’s more than capable of playing the songs and has a stage presence that perfectly complements Ash’s performance. The light show, which utilizes black lights and mirrors, is wonderfully inventive, particularly when you consider that there isn’t a smoke machine to be found.
Poptone are everything I had hoped they would be and tease to a future that could not only keep Ash regularly revisiting his past, but also crafting new material that will make us nostalgic for tomorrow.