For Fans of Dark '80s Music, Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins' Poptone Is a Dream Project
Photo: Paul Rae, Projections: Cloaking.US
First there was Bauhaus, emerging from the U.K. city of Northampton in the late 1970s. They took their myriad influences — glam rock, punk and dub among them — and twisted them into dark dirges that came to define the scene we now know as goth. Then there was Tones on Tail, a short-lived yet influential trio with an eclectic sound that was alternately pop and experimental. After that, Love and Rockets rode the line between alternative and mainstream, eventually scoring a U.S. chart hit in 1989 with "So Alive."
They are three bands with two connections: Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins. Now, guitarist/vocalist Ash and drummer Haskins have reconvened as Poptone, a new project that is making those still enamored with the moodiest sounds of the 1980s very excited.
For some, that excitement swelled on a Friday night in April when Poptone plays the second of two intimate warm-up dates at Atwater Village recording/rehearsal studio Swing House. In a room the size of a small club, Ash, Haskins and bassist Diva Dompe run through a tight, hit-heavy set: "Mirror People" from Love and Rockets, "Christian Says" from Tones on Tail and many more. The multi-generational crowd — mostly dressed in black, of course — dance as best they can in the packed space and crane their heads over raised cell phones to try to get a glimpse of the band.
A few hours before the performance, L.A.-based Haskins explains that he and Ash often talked about performing together again, but those chats typically ended quickly. "It would start off kind of positive and then we would think of all the negatives and, at the end, we would have a laugh and say, let's not bother," he says.
Ash, who lives in Ojai, hadn't played in years. "I had lots and lots of reasons not to do it," he says. One of those was age: "I didn't want to be one of those guys that carries on when you've peaked and then you're going down the other side. It's sad and a bit pathetic and embarrassing."
Then, the singer/guitarist woke up at 4 a.m. with an revelation: "I should start playing music again." At first he brushed the idea aside, but when he found out about U2 — contemporaries of his — taking The Joshua Tree on the road for the album's 30th anniversary, he reconsidered his self-doubt. "Nobody is saying to them that they're too old. It doesn't even come into the conversation."
With Poptone, Ash and Haskins have found a way to make sense of bringing the past to the stage in 2017. This, technically, is not a band reunion. The two are the common threads between Bauhaus, Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets and the only members of those three groups involved in this project. On bass, they brought in Dompe, an L.A.-based solo artist (and Dublab DJ) who has recorded under her first name and, more recently, as Yialmelic Frequencies. She's also Haskins' daughter. Together, they've pulled together a partial Ash/Haskins career retrospective that emphasizes the songs that Ash wrote or sang lead vocals on, or both.
Visually, they merge the styles of the three projects with black-and-white stagewear and merch. Bauhaus wore black. Tones on Tail wore white. Love and Rockets had some killer album covers that made heavy use of black and white with touches of red. On stage, the effect is stunning, with the musicians dressed in fairly stark outfits and nearly engulfed by the pulsating images behind them and the colored lights that pour onto the stage.
Haskins remembers when Tones on Tail first toured. He mentions how some fans of their old band would show up with Bauhaus markings on their leather jackets and sit on the stage with their backs towards the players.
"I thought they were sitting on the stage because they thought it looked cool to sit on the stage," says Ash.
"No, they were like giving us the finger," says Haskins. "And we were wearing all white, which must have really annoyed them."
That's certainly not the case now. When Poptone play Tones on Tail songs, the crowd seems extra-pumped. That group existed so briefly and so long ago, from 1982 to '84, that it's fair to say that for a lot of fans (myself included), Poptone presents their first chance to hear these songs live.
On one level, Poptone is a celebration of the years of the friendship and collaborative work between Ash and Haskins. The two met at art school, where Ash was the cool older kid with custom motorcycles and drainpipe trousers. Haskins once snuck a peak into Ash's locker to find copies of the music magazines Melody Maker and New Musical Express, but no art supplies. During our interview, this comes as a surprise to Ash.
"Actually, it was kind of weird that I spied on you," admits Haskins.
"That is really weird," Ash replies.
Before Bauhaus, Ash and Haskins played together in The Craze and Jack Plug and the Socketts. More recently, the two have DJed together.
Poptone may be a nostalgia trip, but it's one that crosses generational lines. That's especially evident in Dompe's role as the group's bassist. Dompe says that, while she was familiar with her father's music before Poptone, she didn't learn how to play the songs until the audition and rehearsals. On stage, she does more than just play the parts; she finds cohesiveness between the work of two different bassists. (David J wielded the instrument for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, while Glenn Campling was the bassist for Tones on Tail.)
During the show, every bit of excitement surges when Poptone plays Tones on Tail's best-known track, "Go!" It's a party track driven by a static-y bassline that feels like mounds of tension being unraveled. Its beat is so fast that it can propel dancers to jump to the rhythm instead of grooving to it. Then there's that ecstatic shout of the song's title, which now sounds like more than 30 years of collected earworms unleashed upon the room.
Eight years had passed since Ash last played in a band, but when Poptone began rehearsals, "Go!" was the first song that came back to him. "Because it's so simple," he says at Swing House hours before the show, adding that he's only playing one chord. Because of its propulsive bassline, "Go!" is also how Dompe got the gig. "That was the real test for this band," says Ash. While the trio are focused on material that dates back decades, there is also a freshness to what they're doing.
"It's weird how you just add or subtract a member of the band and it becomes something completely different," says Ash. "So, this is going to be different again, when we do original material and new stuff down the road."
"We'll see," Ash clarifies, adding that they'll be on tour on-and-off into fall. They also just launched a PledgeMusic campaign for a forthcoming live album. "It's exciting, the idea of it. We don't know. It's a natural process."
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