the mad heiress interview:
david j. haskins
david j. haskins has helped shape several sounds and styles in popular alternative rock music from 1979 onwards.
his work with bauhaus and love & rockets remains influential today.
he has also maintained an active solo career since the mid-80s, and collaborates with the likes of geniuses such as alan moore.
he is a source of much inspiration and kindly spoke with mad heiress about a range of topics.
mh: if la and london were boxers in a ring, who would win, and who would fight dirtiest?
dj: i've got to say london would win. i think london would have la on the ropes within four rounds. and london would probably fight the dirtiest. there would be a lot of showmanship in the la corner, but i think they'll be throwing in the towels pretty early on and it would be pretty bloody. london would take the belt.
mh: you came of age right at the height of london's punk scene in 1976. punk is often presented by historians as a cultural explosion. but this was decades before cell phones and internet, when culture moved a lot slower. for you, was it a slow discovery, "hey, something's going on," or was it really an epiphany?
dj: there was a bridge, which was pub rock. dr. feelgood, ian dury's band, kilburn and the high roads. dr. feelgood in particular though were a bridge there. there was something going on that was a rejection of pomp rock and overblown superstars just ego-wanking on guitars. there was something in the air and pub rock was prescient in that it suggested what was to come. but of course when punk did happen, it happened quickly.
i used to see john lydon at kilburn and the high roads gigs. i would see mick jones at all those pub rock gigs. joe strummer came out of that with the 101ers. that was the lead-in. it was an explosion in 1976 when the sex pistols came on the scene and all the bands that followed.
mh: it is interesting to see the speed at which subcultures gestate. it's hyper now. there's so much technology that we get everything so immediately. i wonder what was it like 40 years ago in the mesozoic era when everything couldn't be immediately broadcast.
dj: there was a mystique to punk rock when it first started because it the only thing we had to go on were flyers taped up on pub walls. fanzines- there was only one fanzine, sniffing glue. and word of mouth.
mh: why was the british punk rock press so petty and vindictive compared to the american music press?
dj: yeah. i think there was a kind of exclusivity abroad in england. a snobbish attitude. they would be very arrogant and full of themselves, and they would demand to be on the guest list to go to gigs. one thing we [bauhaus] stipulated was, "no, they're not going to come in for free. they've got to pay like anybody else have got to pay." we imposed that and it did not go down well at all.
i think we were genuinely ahead of our time, and also in a way we were provocateurs. we enjoyed playing that role.
going against the grain of what was the currently accepted kind of way to be which was a kind of anti-theatricality following punk rock. the press liked a very sort of humble working class...they hated what they termed "pretension." i believe that sometimes you can be pretentious and be more true to yourself than if you were not being pretentious because, i think, in a lot of cases that pretentiousness is the lie that tells the truth. you can create your own persona based on what you really feel, deep down, is you at your core, and become that. i think that's great when that happens. and i think some of the greatest artists have embodied that, from tom waits to iggy pop.
mh: you all named yourself after the early 20th-century german design movement. did you/bauhaus the band intentionally express the bauhaus design manifesto of simple, clean design in your music? could you describe ways that you guys did that?
dj: that kind of aesthetic and attitude was present before i came up with the name. i joined the group last so they'd already gotten together, and they had another bass player. daniel and peter had written about four or five songs. and they were really stripped down. when i first heard the band, it struck me that it was really minimalist and there was nothing superfluous.
it was actually the opposite of the gothic movement, ironically, where everything is over the top and ornate. in bauhaus, everything was stripped down. sound was function. i loved that. it was just down to the bare bones of this really stripped down, minimalist music. it occurred to me, this is like bauhaus architecture or bauhaus ideology. that's why i thought of the idea, and then i suggested it to everybody, and they liked it. and then afterward, once we'd taken on that name, i think because we were aware of the association, it did play into where we went with the band after that, to a degree.
mh: in terms of wanting to continue to express that design aesthetic?
dj: yeah. to keep it really minimalist. just stripped down, you know? daniel really didn't play a guitar solo. he could do, but he chose not to. it was just more texture and just sound. i really like daniel's approach to the guitar as it's very unconventional. it's just, this is a bit of wood with some strings on it, and some electronics in there, and it's nothing to do with playing chords or scales. as he would say, "fuck that." it's like, what can i make this thing do that it isn't supposed to do, but sounds really exciting? there's so many examples of that. [he's not kidding. listen here, here, here, or here.]
mh: we live in an age when bands don't break up anymore, where economics and media seem to dictate that they keep reforming, whether or not they have anything new to say. if culture were a football match, would it read, "capitalism 1, punk rock 0"?
dj: i think it's more like play is stopped, the match is postponed due to a riot and hooliganism in the stands. i don't think that that match would ever be completed.
[touche, mr. j!]
mh: three words to describe life in la for you.
dj: you know i don't live in la. but i have spent extended periods in la. three words?
mh: so then california, i will broaden--
dj: no, no, no, no, no, no, that's a very different thing. you cannot do that. you've said la. three words. [pause] beautiful. tarnished. dreams.
mh: i give you a fur-covered bass guitar. what happens next?
dj: i get flea treatment for it?
mh: what's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you on stage? the saddest thing?
dj: they're probably the same incident.
when bauhaus were playing a gig in london and we were starting off with bela lugosi's dead. as was always the case in those days, it was pitch black apart from just a flickering strobe light. kevin starts playing the bossa nova and then i was looking-- i had no cable. i had my bass guitar. i had no cable. and i'd had a few to drink in the dressing room, which didn't help. and so i'm calling over to the roadie who happened to be glenn campling [future bassist with tones on tail] "glen! i've got no fuck - as we say in england, lead - no fucking lead."
"no fucking lead."
he couldn't hear what i was saying because danny was scratching away, this cacophony was going on, and the crowd were making a bigger noise. it was a really high stage, the lyceum. a very high stage.
so i'm going down to the monitor guy and saying, "i've got no fucking lead." i couldn't see the edge of the stage, and the next thing i know i'm on my back. i just plummet, and i'm just on my back and i can hear this bossa nova, and danny was scratching, and the crowd, and it's just taking forever, and i started cracking up. i started laughing because it was just so absurd.
i had the bass on, and i'm on my back with the bass and i was just cracking up. and then two other roadies picked me up, put me on the stage, and glenn finally found the bloody cable, and i just plugged it in and went, "dnnnnnng."
the saddest was our very last gig in portugal, where we were headlining this huge festival. we knew the band was over, and playing that gig, in particular, all we ever wanted was everything, and the crowd singing "oh to be the cream." the irony of that, knowing that we would never play together ever again. and we stopped playing and just let them sing. it was so poignant and sad.
mh: yeah, because that seems like it's a very autobiographical song, of your ambition to ascend.
dj: yeah. daniel wrote those lyrics, and it's based on us being in a factory town in england, northampton. and wanting to shoot out of it. to break out of that.
mh: being a popular musician seems like it brings a pretty dynamic changing set of economic circumstances. selling a lot of records, not selling a lot of records. how that might affect the process of songwriting and creativity? the actual process of writing and thinking about art?
dj: i can speak for everybody in bauhaus and love and rockets. we have not made that much money, believe it or not, merely because we don't own our songs. we only own a few songs. bela lugosi is one of them, which is a great one to have. but there's only a few other songs we own because we signed a really bad contract when we were kids and didn't have a lawyer or a manager. we signed that and it spilled over from bauhaus into love and rockets and we didn't own the songs.
we get a tiny cut and that's still the case today and that's been sold on down the line. it's owned by universal now. there was a brief period in the late 80s when we had a hit with so alive where we did make some money on tour and that was great. it was very liberating but it was only a brief period that lasted and then after that it plummeted again. we made very uncommercial records, ones we knew were uncommercial but we felt we were really artistically valuable, and that's always been the main thing for us. we never made anything with the intention of it being commercial, so the hunger remains.
sometimes we might get a placement of bela lugosi's dead in a movie and we might get $30k to split between the four of us, which is nice but it doesn't last that long. and then i'm out hustling, constantly hustling, doing gigs. so i've never been in that position where i'm so loaded that i'm not hungry anymore.
but i don't know if it would change me anyway because i don't really think about that. i'm really on fire with creativity and i can't not do that so i don't think it would make that...i'd like the opportunity to find out [laughter].
mh: do you still make abstract music like the gospel according to fear and some of the early music that's on your first solo album etiquette of violence?
dj: yes. it's more like sometimes that kind of sensibility will color a song. it will come into the production process. and sometimes i'll apply it to other artists i produce, which i love doing. and really confuse them [chuckles].
but it's always there. sometimes in a live situation, i'll have the set that i intend to play but then i'll just completely abandon it if i feel like it. if i just get like a wild hair on, and i can just drop the set and i'll just play a chord into my little sampler echo unit, and i'll just make a loop and then just do like a repeat loop on top of that and go very abstract version of a song. i'm fortunate enough to play with musicians that are so great that they'll go with that, they'll go with me. that's really liberating when that happens.
mh: do you have a song that where you can objectively say "everything really came together"?
dj: yeah. well, i'm not wanting to blow me own trumpet but there are many examples of that.
mh: blow away.
i was on tour and staying at somebody's house up in the woods. she had this sampler and i was mucking around with it. i just stuck this cd in, just a band i liked. i put a track on at random and set this loop into effect, and it just made this fantastic loop. i recorded that.
the woman i was staying with told me this story about a murder that she was convinced had taken place in the woods that surrounded her place. she was convinced that her former boyfriend had killed this young girl and buried her in the woods - llana lilla. and then she left me alone in the house.
there were these motion lights all around the house. this house was a circular house in the middle of the forest, in the middle of nowhere. and the lights would come on and light up the forest very dramatically if any creatures came close. so i had this lyric "the motion lights will catch you. you can only limbo so low. you're under the radar, but you can only limbo so low, limbo so low."
so i started writing this story of llana lilla and that she was under all these roots and scratching to get out. so i had this lyric and i had this loop.
then i went into the studio with musicians i had with me on tour when we passed through la. cellist joyce rooks, slide guitarist mark miller, and percussionist chris crowe. so i said "we're gonna wing this guys, i want everybody just to go into this zone here." so we started with the loop and everybody just playing together. it's making me shiver now thinking of it because it was spooky, there's spooky action going on and i felt i was communing with spirits.
there was something about it that just came to me as i was doing it, spontaneously. the musicians just gelled with that and it's magical. i knew it was a bit of magic.
mh: the one where you say that his voice "rearranged the architecture of the building."
dj: reconstructed the architecture of a building. a cathedral made of light. i was very inspired when i wrote that piece for jeff. and i felt again there was this communing going on. it becomes very psychic and spiritual. theta waves kick in big time. i wanted to improvise the music. i had damien youth, who's i think one of the greatest songwriters who's ever lived. he's from new orleans and he happened to be in la, so he came in. he came up with the main guitar riff, which is perfect. there were other great players on that piece.
i was doing the vocal, but we couldn't get it. we couldn't get the feeling. couldn't get deep enough, so i called a break. there was a poet who was just passing through the studio, and i got talking to her, and i told her about this dilemma. she really didn't say that much, but it was just her aura that inspired. she said, "take your time. just take your time." that really sunk in. so we had this break, then i said, "okay, everybody go back in, and let's do that. let's take our time. just forget the last thing that we did, and let's just go really deep with this." then we did that in one take, and it was three times the length of the original piece that we tried, so we really had taken our time.
and we got it. i knew when that was going down it was magic. it was the thing that you're talking about when it all comes together. we did it and, you know, that was the end.
mh: i would like to hear a christmas album between nicki minaj and the bubblemen. you might, too. what would that sound like? if language is even up to the task of describing it.
[long amused silence]
dj: it'd be pop music from the parallel dimension, covered in a sparkly layer of snow.
mh: i was talking to a friend of mine who writes for mad heiress and it occurred to me to ask him whether he'd still write if he were really satisfied. he guessed that he wouldn't, that a satisfied system would instead maintain the equilibrium of its satisfaction. which is not to say that we create because we're dissatisfied but maybe that it's partly a process of working out an irritant in the system.
dj: i think that's true. i think it's like an oyster with a grain of sand in it, and that's what creates the pearl.
mh: you've got a single-use time machine, there and back. where might you go?
dj: what immediately came to mind was new york city in 1966 to see the velvet underground in warhol's exploding plastic inevitable.
mh: we're on the same wavelength there. i'd like to see them in summer of '68, by which point lou and sterling were better guitarists, they had white light/white heat under their belt, and cale was still with them.
mh: what fictitious universe would you like to inhabit?
dj: you mean a pre-existing one? i think the swinging '60s exemplified by the avengers tv show with miss peel, and i'd like to be in the company of miss peel for the duration of this sojourn.
mh: so diana rigg was your first crush?
dj: she was my first turn-on, my first, like, female crush. so i'd like to go there. i'd like to be beaten up by mrs. peel.
mh: if you lost your voice tomorrow, what kind of art would you make?
dj: silent art.
mh: i set myself up for that one. what makes for an interesting song or protagonist in a song?
dj: what makes for an interesting character is a character that's broken but in a beautiful way.
mh: do you have any favorite anti-heroes?
dj: yeah, i have many, many favorite anti-heroes. i really liked the character that jack nicholson played in one flew over the cuckoo's nest. mcmurphy. his courage to stand up to draconian fascism.
i think it was very beautiful that, after mcmurphy's lobotomy, that the chief executed the will that jack nicholson was flying the flag for. by throwing the water while escaping. he smothered him, yes, which was a mercy killing, and then escaped and ran off into the night.
and by association, the wonderful real-life anti-hero without whom cuckoo's nest would not exist is ken kesey. he's a great anti-hero. i spoke to him on the phone once. i loved that man and when we [love & rockets] did the album - the hugely commercially unsuccessful record that we love in the band - hot trip to heaven, i sampled the merry pranksters on the track body and soul. it's ken kesey's voice that you hear saying "you can become enlightened," which is like, "ah!," and then the track kicks in.
i wanted to get his permission to use that. i got his address from genesis p orridge, and so i sent him a copy, pre-release, and gave him a call. so i'm chatting to ken kesey, and he's just so cool. he checked it out. "what did we do to get permission? do you want a contract, or do we have to pay you?" he says, "oh, no. no, no, no, no. it's to be sent out into the universe." he said, "i can dig it, and it's cool. like, send it out, man. it's cool."
he was so cool about it. it was beautiful. it was like a blessing from ken kesey. "send it on into the universe, man."
mh: what makes john cale so interesting?
dj: he's a very complex person. he draws on his welsh heritage, he's steeped in that working class welsh culture. so one part of him occupies that still and will always, but also he really is the epitome of the avante garde, i think. and he's explored that with the greats of that genre, and is schooled in it. but he can also come up with a beautiful melody and he can marry all that together. and he has a very strong assertive personality yet he's very sensitive and poetic. yeah, his complexity in and of itself makes him very interesting.
mh: and he seems to have very catholic tastes in the sense that nothing's off limits.
dj: yeah, and i think he has something in him that's very dark and dangerous and on the edge. and i think now it's channeled much more. there used to be a lot of rage there but it's all coming from the same place. and you get a feeling with him that it's truly dangerous.
mh: just ask any chickens.
dj: yeah. yeah. that danger's still there, it's still there. although it's sublimated, but it's still there and i think any great artist has got that. it's a kind of fire. lou reed certainly had it. so putting those two together, that was very explosive.
when i covered his song antartica starts here, he sent me some lyrics, some new lyrics that he wrote for me. but i didn't use those lyrics because i really liked the original lyrics, but actually, in retrospect, looking at those lyrics, i prefer them. one thing he changed was it was not "her summer house mind," but "it was her school house mind." it was so surprising and wonderful that i got this fax from john cale himself, you know?
mh: that is awesome. that is a great song. it functions similarly to after hours on the third velvet underground album, in the sense that it's like a post script. the lights are low, the house is empty, everyone's gone, stereo's off, the guests have left, and it's just you with your thoughts.
dj: yeah, yeah. very evocative. and i love that it pertains to one of my favorite movies, sunset boulevard, and it's sort of like an abstraction of the world of that movie, and he's very good at that.
mh: yeah. i like your cover of fear is a man's best friend.
dj: yeah, very minimal, really stripped down. when i was producing an album by the artist renata youngblood, i was in the same studio that john cale was in. he was rehearsing to go on tour. so i would see him every day when i went in and at that time, i was just starting to write my play about edie sedgwick. i chose my moment and i asked him if i could ask him about somebody from his past.
"who's that, then?"
"edie sedgwick," i said.
"there's a name i haven't heard in a long time. what do you want to know? why do you want to know?"
i explained i was writing a play. as soon as i said i was writing a play and told him a bit about where i was taking it, that it was based on the myth of persephone, with edie as persephone. of persephone's journey into the underworld. i said, "the factory is hades, is the underworld, and hades himself is andy warhol. i have the three-headed dog, cerberus, with the three heads-- paul morrissey, chuck wein, and ondine."
that engaged his interest. then he was very forthcoming and told me some wonderful things. some of which went straight into the play. he said, "well, you know she lived her life like evita, only in reverse." so in the play, edie says, "i lived my life like evita, only in reverse."
and he said she was very manipulative, "but then she learned from the best, you know." meaning andy.
mh: it must have been incredible to be in the factory then, to be around that nexus of talent. but i think that to think about and study that is also a way of undervaluing or underestimating what's going on now.
dj: just be aware of a similar nexus when it's occurring, because these things can happen and then it's like, "whoa, now i see like five years ago that was happening. that was really interesting." but it's like, be in the moment of that thing when it's happening and be aware of what it is."
david is currently performing as m.c. nightshade with the theatre bizarre orchestra in carpe noctem. see them if they perform near you!
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