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?