Bauhaus guitarist Daniel Ash on the zen-like appeal of motorcycle riding
Daniel Ash was the influential and iconic guitarist for Bauhaus, Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets, and he's also released a number of noteworthy albums under his own name over the years. His ability to mix melody, raw emotive sound and moving atmospheres into his guitar style has meant all of Ash's musical projects have had a diversity of sounds, moods and modes -- a depth of soundscaping rare for a rock musician.
Love and Rockets all but committed career suicide with its daring, largely synth-driven 1994 album Hot Trip to Heaven, but like OMD's Dazzle Ships, the project is coming to be seen as a masterpiece ahead of its time. These days, Ash no longer tours, but he does the occasional DJ gig when he's not riding his motorcycles. We recently spoke with Ash about the zen-like appeal of riding, his unique guitar style, meeting David Bowie and his desire to get further into making soundtracks for film and television.
Westword: When did you get started riding bikes?
Daniel Ash: Well, actually, I started stealing my dad's scooter when I was about twelve, and I've been obsessed since. I saw some photographs of Harley-Davidsons when I was twelve, as well. That engine looked amazing to me, and I've been hooked ever since. I ride a lot. I've got a lot of bikes, especially Harleys and Triumphs, stuff like that.
Do you ride cross-country quite a bit?
Yeah, there's one that I'm just getting rebuilt at the moment because I've worn it out. I put like 140,000 miles on it. Ironically, I've got twelve bikes on the road, but I've got to rent a bike for this trip because my long-distance bike is completely worn out, so I'm renting one from the Harley store for ten days.
It's one of those full dresser bikes with the bags and the thing on the back and the stereo. I've never had one of those before. It's the first time I'm going to be on granddad's bike instead of a chopper or something like that, so it's going to be really comfortable and fun.
Are you doing other DJ gigs on the way here?
No, just the one in Denver. Just taking three or four days to get there and three or four days to get back.
Anything you're planning on seeing on that trip in transit?
Everything. I'm just going to have a look at a detailed map. Basically I'm going to do 250 miles a day over about a four-day period, so it's easy, really. I'm used to doing up to 500 a day, so it's going to be nice to take my time.
When you've been asked in the past about doing your DJ gigs, you've said you're more or less a jukebox. Is there anything you've discovered lately that you've found to your liking?
I just find stuff when I find it just looking online and stuff like that. I just play everything from the '50s up until yesterday. It's a very eclectic set depending on the crowd. There are things people might have forgotten about that I might put in there. Things like Metal Box, by PiL.
Sometimes I like to pick stuff that you haven't heard for a long time but sounds really good even now. I love that track by Yoko Ono called "Walking on Thin Ice." I think it's really underrated, because the original mix still sounds amazing now. It's funny, because I'll put that on sometimes and people will say, "What the hell is that? It sounds great. I don't know what it is. It's weird!"
A lot of people are very ignorant of her work as a musician and dismiss her as an artist because they haven't bothered to look beyond her connection with John Lennon.
Well, that Double Fantasy album was brilliant. That "Walking on Thin Ice" track -- they were recording and mixing that the day he got shot. The story is she went into the studio after he got shot just because she had to and she finished it up. I think that's where that screaming vocal comes from. It sends a shiver down your spine when you hear that.
One thing noteworthy about your own music from Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets and your solo albums is the way you play your guitar: It's as though you're using it as a tone machine rather than [using] a more traditional guitar-playing style.
Yeah, I've always wanted to get that effect rather than be just another band with guitar, bass and drums. I used to use this thing called an ebow, which turned it into a keyboard, in a way. I used that for a long time. I just experimented with tones, simple stuff really, but just an attitude toward a guitar that I'd like to think of as a little bit different from the usual stuff.
I used a Fernandes guitar, which has a built-in sustainer. When you flick it on it sustains all the chords or all the notes for as long as you want it. It's got three different pitches of controlled feedback. Instead of the old-fashioned way of having to go up to the amp, you just flick the switch, and you've got it under control like that.
Fernandes put a patent on that thing years ago, so it's the only guitar where you can get that sort of sustainer. They created that in the early '90s. But it's real handy to have that effect because you can get controlled feedback. When you're facing the amp it's hit or miss. Either you get an octave above, an octave below or the same not so it's very effective.
An early song "Double Dare" has a wide array of sounds.
That's just hitting the strings a certain way with just an echo unit. It's a technique, I suppose you could call it. Just some slapback echo on the guitar.
Later on in your career you went more into electronic territory. What sparked your interested in that?
Three bands, really: Leftfield, the Orb and Orbital. I started to hear that stuff in the '90s. It completely seduced Love and Rockets. We completely fell in with that attitude toward music. That's why we made Hot Trip to Heaven, but unfortunately that was commercial suicide because we were sort of known as a guitar band. I heard stories of, especially in the U.S., of people taking the CD back and saying, "This isn't Love and Rockets. I want my money back."
What? That's one of your best and most interesting albums.
Yeah. As a band we needed to do that to keep it fresh for us. But, you know, I was hoping it was going to be our Dark Side of the Moon. It was either going to be that, or it was going to be a flop. Unfortunately it was a flop. But I'm still proud of the record.
Again, I'm a bit of a sucker for something sounding like it's from another planet. Like the Tones on Tail stuff, I think it's aged really well. It could have been recorded last week. I've said this a million times, but what I was going for was that it sounded like it was from another planet, but you could still tap your foot to it. Looking back, I'm pleased with how [that Tones on Tail music] turned out in particular.
It's interesting you say that because the Tones on Tail music is right now influencing a new generation of some of the more interesting guitarists in underground music.
I hear it now. Bands like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Oh, never heard of them. I'll have to check them out.
That kind of angular, maybe it's a guitar but it's been sculpted to sound like a synthesizer.
Yeah, you've got to do something else, or everyone is going to sound like ZZ Top. Eliminator is a great record but one is enough. [Making non-standard guitar sounds is fun], otherwise we'd still sound like the 1950s, and there's no point in that. Because of the gizmos out there, now more than ever, you've got the opportunity to turn it around to whatever you want.
In your own guitar work there is plenty of melody but also bizarre soundscaping and textures. When you were doing that originally was there anyone you heard that was an inspiration, or were you more or less just experimenting with what kinds of sounds you could produce with what you had?
The essence of it was that I didn't want to sound like everybody else. Because I remember when I was in art school everybody was trying to be Jimi Hendrix, and I thought, "One, I could never play that well. Two, I'm way too lazy to try to play that well, so I might as well take this piece of wood with six strings on and fuck with it and sound like nobody else." Otherwise what's the point? Otherwise you're just like a cover band playing in a bar, which seems like a waste of time.
I remember the day I found the ebow. It was on the top shelf of a little music store in my home town, and nobody had bought this thing simply because it was a really small thing, and it cost a hundred pounds, like a hundred and thirty bucks, and nobody touched it because they thought, "I'm not going to pay a hundred thirty dollars for something so small" -- that mentality. In those days the ebow was chrome. I picked it up, tried it out and had to have it. Everything changed when I got that little gizmo.
What were some of the effects you had access to back then?
Just the usual. A bit of echo. The old Watkins Copicat. Over here you had the Echoplex. The ebow was out in the early '80s. Just the usual fuzz box and wah pedal. Not a lot of different stuff, just the way you play it. A lot of it is what you don't play to what you play. Try not to fill it all out. I've always liked guitar players that were simple more than shredding. I really can't stand that. It doesn't mean anything to me.
That's why I like the guitar player from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I happen to know he likes what I've done. I love the simplicity of what he does because it's powerful. He's direct and powerful. One note can say much more than 25 notes. I have no interest in the whole shredding thing.
It's more emotionally expressive to leave space for the tones and melodies to ring out and linger in the listener's mind.
Yeah and it's funny enough that the guys that do do that think that they're the ones being emotional but it's just ego-wanking. Look how many notes I can play, you know? So what?
You've done some work soundtracking for television?
Yeah, a couple of things. I'd like to get a lot more. I did this thing called Keen Eddie in 2003. I'm hoping to get a few more things in the future in that area. When I think of someone like Danny Elfman I think, "What a gig!"
For more than twenty years now more people know his soundtrack work than what he did with Oingo Boingo.
Oh, I don't know anything about Oingo Boingo, actually. I know the music he's done with Tim Burton, that's it. I couldn't tell you one song. I don't know what he was doing in the band.
I believe he played guitar and sang.
There you go. The best combination. It's funny I don't know anything about them but I know who they were. The story I heard was that Tim Burton begged him to start doing music for his films and he didn't want to do it. He had to keep asking him, which is funny because I heard a story just the other day.
I know the bass player for Sade. She didn't want to be at the front of the stage or sing as much. She just wanted to be a backing vocalist, and they forced her to come to the front. As soon as she did, everything exploded for her. Strange how that happens.
When you're composing for television or films, how do you go about that?
The main thing I did was that TV series, and we had a visual to go with that in front of us. A lot of the music was already there and we had to do something that was an equivalent. Paramount Pictures and Fox would have had to spend a million dollars to use a lot of music on there because it was by a lot of really well-known artists. My job was to do something similar in a similar area whether that be reggae, thrash metal or alternative rock or whatever.
So instead of spending a million bucks, they only had to pay me sixty grand. A friend of mine, Joel Wyman, who wrote the whole series, said, "Okay, I've got this gig for you." There's certain originals they had to use like the Jimi Hendrix song because the episode was about Jimi Hendrix. There was another where characters had Duran Duran masks on, so they had to use the original material.
But that stuff is really expensive to use, so I got a guy named Billy Goodrum who was literally my neighbor up the road and we went into his garage with a G5 to record it all. We didn't re-record the originals, we just did music in the desired style. Thirty second bites for the whole series.
That was most fun I ever had doing that stuff. It was actually a comedy, which I'm not exactly known for. It was great making this music for a modern comedy sketch. We had a free reign and luckily it worked well. I'd like to do more of that. Spread the word. I'm there.
Years ago you were in the film The Hunger.
I was in The Hunger for a millisecond. You blink and I'm gone.
You were on set for filming, though.
Yeah, we met Bowie and everything, which was a real thrill. I remember I was standing there at seven thirty in the morning in the club and I hear this guy, a dress rehearsal, who says, "Oi, you've got my shoes on." I turn around, and it was Bowie, and we were wearing exactly the same shoes. I was a bit star struck, and I couldn't say anything. Some of the guys talked to him but I was wandering around the whole day. There was a lot of eye candy that day. A lot of interesting things to look at.
Did that boost Bauhaus ahead in the world of music in any way?
It didn't hurt us, that's for sure. It was just a fun day. It's funny, I think we got paid about seventy-five quid for that day, which is about a hundred bucks. But it wasn't about the money. It was about being there and in the same room as Bowie. We were in our early twenties then. It was a real thrill. He was one of our major heroes.
Possibly because of that movie or for other reasons, it seems funny that people would call Bauhaus or, even more curiously, Love and Rockets "Goth." It seemed more like a glam thing than a Goth thing.
Yeah, it was. That was a big influence. Peter and myself were pretty much obsessed with all that stuff in the late 70s when we were kids at school.
Did you ever get to see Roxy Music?
I did. I saw Roxy Music when I was fifteen, I think. The second album had just come out. The second single, "Dramarama." I went with a friend from school and I got front row seats. I was about fourteen feet from Eno, which was mind-blowing at the time. It was at The Rainbow in London. I remember seeing Lou Reed within a year of that, and Berlin had just come out, and that was amazing as well. I saw Bowie a couple of times. Once for the Thin White Duke tour.
Do you still tour with your own music?
No, I don't tour. We did Lollapalooza and Coachella -- Love and Rockets and Bauhaus. I haven't done anything in that respect in probably six or seven years. Not really into that anymore. I'm more interested in studio work.
That's very understandable. What about touring do you not like?
I was done after thirty years. It gets boring repeating it over and over. I'm done now so it's time to do something else. So now I fiddle around with bikes.
Do you work on your own bikes as well?
To a degree. I just love 'em. I got an old Harley the other day. I think it's an amazing bike. I got it customized in a tasteful way. With things like that I'm just like a kid.
You moved to California nineteen or twenty years ago. Does that afford you the ability to ride all the time?
That's it out here. It's the perfect climate for riding. There's not a lot of bugs in the air. It's a dry heat and it doesn't rain. It doesn't get better than that, really. The whole thrill of it is that a lot of the time you don't know where you're going. This trip to Denver, the only plan is the first stop is in Vegas because it's on the way to the gig. I've traveled a lot around Europe and I've done various trips around the U.S.
Sometimes I'd bring a bike on tour and fuck off for a couple of days while everyone else is sleeping in bed, which is great. It's my yoga, really. It's called "the lazy man's Zen," riding a motorcycle anyway. It's not for everybody because you've got to watch it out there. For me it's the perfect thrill and I like to do it more than anything. There's a sense of freedom like nothing else.
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