David J Interview: SXSW 2014 and new album ‘An Eclipse of Ships’; post-punk icon discusses 2014 plans and musical legacy.
The 2014 SXSW lineup is as impressive as ever, and for post-punk aficionados one name stands out in particular. That would be David J Haskins, former bassist and co-vocalist for Love And Rockets and Goth legends Bauhaus.
But Haskins has had a long and fruitful solo career as well. This year will see the release of his newest solo album ‘An Eclipse Of Ships.’ And later this year will mark the début album of his new group Stellarum, of which he plays bass, as well as produces.
I had a chance to speak to him in advance of his SXSW show, where we discussed all of the above, as well as his outlook on the record industry in the internet age, his musical legacy, and more. He was gracious, and quite witty, not nearly as solemn as one might expect from a man associated with such dark and moody music. Enjoy the Q&A that follows:
SLIS: So first off I wanted to ask about your new album ‘An Eclipse of Ships.’ I was reading about it on your Kickstarter page where you’ve described it as a “journal of the heart and a celebration of women.” So tell me more about the inspiration for the album and how that got started?
DAVID J: Yes, as I may have mentioned on that same site; I’ve had this album inside me for a long time. Because, I’ve had an abiding love of women for a very long time (laughing). These songs have taken a long time to bubble it, but bubble up they did. When I have these (if you like) concept ideas, I never come up with a plan to make a cohesive concept record…it’s like the last one which was about death basically. I didn’t have a plan and it just kind of came together…and it’s same with this one.
The first song I wrote was called ‘Excruciating Allure’ which is about a young lady of my acquaintance…it had a certain flavor to it, that I haven’t achieved in the past in the studio…it had a certain feel and it suggested that it was an ongoing unraveling of this process, this flavor.
Because when I went in I just thought maybe it was just a one-off song…but there was something about the sound that made me think this was like the first step. And I wrote a song about another lady and I thought okay (chuckling) there is something going on here, so I continued the theme.
SLIS: I know that you funded this with Kickstarter and your last album as well. What do you enjoy about that process vs. working for a major label?
DAVID J: It’s like night and day. The great thing is I love the personal contact with the supporters, and they are real supporters. I just love this idea of everybody sort of chipping in to make something happen. And I’ve been on the other side of it as well, supporting friend’s projects and I just love that kind of community. And it’s totally cutting out the middlemen, the ones that don’t care about music.
Which is certainly the case with major labels…the executives didn’t care about music, they just cared about the units and the figures and all that, it’s very hard and cut and dried y’know. But obviously with something with Kickstarter and sites like that, it’s all about love and support of whatever the art project is, music in this case, and I also really like that it carries on after the campaign is over.
I’ve actually met some really good friends through past campaigns and they come to the gigs and we stay in touch. It’s just a very positive generative process and I think it’s a great thing.
SLIS: I wanted to follow that up with I was reading that for higher pledgers, you do private shows and meet and greets. Do you enjoy doing that? Is that something fun for you to do, or is it ever awkward to perform in someone’s living room vs. a regular club gig?
DAVID J: I love doing those private shows. They’re so special and intimate and also really relaxed. It’s going to be obviously unique, it’s away from any kind of corporate consideration. I really enjoy that intimacy, and the warmth of that.
SLIS: Do you ever miss the more lucrative days of major labels or do you prefer this model going forward if you had to choose between the two?
DAVID J: On the whole definitely, yeah, it’s much better. It’s glowy; you know what I mean? There’s some compassion there. I mean it’s hard to do a tour and get things going on the road without what used to be referred to as “tour support”. Which in the old days the record company they’d put the money up and of course you’d pay them back down the line, but at least you’d have that money so you were up and running.
And with this, that was part of this Kickstarter campaign was to support the tour, and it’s great to be able to do that to a degree. And hopefully it’ll be a bit of a snowball effect and word will get out that the gigs were good and then we’ll get better offers. Because at the moment, to be honest with what I’m getting from these club gigs, if I didn’t have this support behind me, I’d be just about breaking even. So it makes it more feasible having some support money there to get the thing going.
SLIS: So will this be your first time to play SXSW?
DAVID J: It’ll be my first time there; I’ve never been to it.
SLIS: Are you looking forward to it?
DAVID J: Definitely, oh yeah. It’s really good timing because of the record coming out and I’m going to have the band that played on the album. And this particular instrumental line up is stand up bass, violin, percussion, and acoustic piano, although we’ll probably have electric piano, but if there’s a real piano in the house, fantastic. At SXSW, the violin will be played by Aubrey Richmond, a great player.
So that band is going to come with me just for this run for SXSW.
Then when I go on tour in April it’s with a completely different band, it’s more of a full sounding rock band. Although there’s a lot of contrast and dynamics in it. We call it The Gentleman Thieves. It’s a great band to play with; it’s one of the most accomplished bands I’ve ever played with. They’re all really good players.
SLIS: So besides yourself, who’s all playing on the album?
DAVID J: My old personal standby stalwarts; Tony Green on the bass, his wife Susan Green on the keyboards…they’re both magnificent players. I also have Mathias Chaidez and Meredith Yayanos playing violin on different tracks. Brett Joseph played Sax on the album and Mark N. Miller, slide guitar. But the core band was Tony, Susan and a really great percussionist/drummer David Raven.
And I’m playing acoustic guitar. A lot of open tunings on this record, which is always fun. And my friend Michael Berg, who played multiple instruments, lot of Fender Rhodes. He had a really nice vintage 1974 Fender Rhodes which is featured quite a lot on the record.
I also should mention Rick Kaestner who played some lovely mandolin and Chris Lawrence who played pedal steel.
SLIS: Would you consider this to be your must lush record to date? I say this because there’s such a wide range of instrumentation on the album.
DAVID J: I wouldn’t describe it as lush exactly, but it has a certain tone to it. But it’s a very much acoustic based record.. It puts me in the mind of someone like John Martyn. With reference to the general sound & feel of my album. Always loved his work, especially ‘Solid Air’.
SLIS: Obviously your SXSW set-list will heavily feature tracks off your new album, but will you be revisiting any older material as well?
DAVID J: It’ll be a mix, yeah. I’m probably gonna feature the tracks from the album; initially I might just play like 4 in a row. And then I’ll play some songs from my past.
SLIS: And do you have an official release date for ‘An Eclipse Of Ships’?
DAVID J: We’re shooting for April the 15th. But there’ll be a single called ‘You Suit A Rainy Day.’ It should be released in a couple of weeks. We just did a video for that, which I’m really pleased with. We actually finished it this morning.
It’s a very simple idea, but nicely executed. It’s mainly…clouds. I just wanted to have a very simplistic graphic. And so I was in a plane a couple of weeks ago and it was stormy weather, and there were all these magnificent stormy clouds. So I just stuck my phone up at the window and filmed that and basically it’s that. And there will be some images from the album sort of fading up and fading out.
SLIS: I was looking at the ‘Eclipse of Ships’ album artwork you put up on the Kickstarter site. Are you always that involved as far as your album art is concerned? Is that something that you’re as focused on as the music?
DAVID J: Definitely. And with all the bands, with Bauhaus and Love And Rockets. I mean it’s not just me. But with the bands it was mainly me and Daniel (Ash) who would then contribute to the artwork. I’ve always considered that to be really important.
SLIS: And today, with the advent of digital downloads, there seems to be less of a focus on packaging and artwork. Do you miss that emphasis or is that something that you’ll always just keep on doing, and the people that will get it, will get it, and that justifies the effort?
DAVID J: Exactly the latter yeah. But, yeah, there’s nothing like a 12-inch album, esp. the gatefold. But it’s nice that there’s a renewed interest in vinyl you know. The new generation is really getting into vinyl, and that pleases me a lot. This is certainly gonna come out in vinyl y’know. As Neil Young once said; “if it’s not on vinyl it doesn’t exist.”
I’m very much looking forward to his presentation at SXSW for his new, he has this system that apparently …somebody in the inner circle told me…I don’t know if out’s in the world at all yet, but there’s a new system he’s invented which basically makes the digital sound like analogue.
And so he’s going to unleash this on the world. So I’m very intrigued by that, because he’s a very clever chap.
SLIS: Well that will definitely be interesting. And I was on your SXSW bio page and there was a song featured on it called ‘The You Of Yesterday’. Is that from ‘An Eclipse Of Ships’?
DAVID J: “The You Of Yesteryear”, yes.
SLIS: I really liked it. It was very pretty. It had an old-country style feel. Is the rest of the album in that same vein?
DAVID J: It’s representative of the album, that song, yeah. I wrote the music in a music store when I was trying out nylon string guitars…Spanish guitars, and I picked up this one guitar…which I really love. It had this really sweet tone. And I’d keep going back to the shop. And every time I picked up that guitar I’d play those chords. And I realized that I was writing this song. And I only played those chords when I went to try on that guitar, and I ended up buying the guitar and ended up finishing the song on it. And I recorded it on the record.
SLIS: And I had some of my readers submit requests for some questions for you, and the first one was when did you decide to play a fretless bass?
DAVID J: Really early on, pre-Bauhaus actually. It was the late 70’s and I wanted to play bass and prior to that I had a really cheap 6-string electric guitar, and I took the top two strings off and I used that as my bass. So I was trying to buy a proper bass and I saw this fretless Fender P on the wall in this music store and I loved the look of it.
That’s what attracted me to it, and I picked it up and everyone was saying, “You can’t play that! It’s really hard, y’know, there’s no frets!” (laughing) But I just immediately took to it and I loved the feel of it, and so I’ve been playing it ever since.
SLIS: Yeah, I was wondering how hard that would be to master, just remembering where to put your fingers, I would imagine that being really challenging.
DAVID J: Well yes, it is, but I just loved the tone, and you just sort of get the notes in-between the notes if you know what I mean? But sometimes that’s not always a good thing.
( both laughing).
SLIS: So if you had to pick just one instrument. Would it be the bass, or electric guitar, does it not really matter to you as long as what you play serves the song? What’s the one instrument that you just feel the most at home playing?
DAVID J: As far as just purely playing an instrument, the bass. I always gravitate to the bass, yeah. I mean I don’t consider myself to be an accomplished guitar player. I mean I know enough chords, and I’m always discovering new chords, esp. with open tunings. I mean it’s great in that open tunings open out whole new worlds of musical discovery. But yeah, the bass is my instrument.
SLIS: So if you had to pick (I know it’s difficult) your signature bassline, from either your solo work or Bauhaus or Love And Rockets, there one where you just feel ‘like this is my favorite to play’? Could you pick one, or is that too difficult to choose?
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DAVID J: I liked a lot of the work that I did in Love and Rockets, because it was more melodic and I was more of an accomplished player by then. I mean, I started in a punk rock band y’know? So in Bauhaus, basically a post-punk rock band, and we were still learning to play, and we were stretching, really outside of our ability, which makes for very exciting, edgy music when that’s happening. When by the time L&R started, I could play much better.
And I listen back to those bass-lines now and I’m pleased with the work I did. It’s quite influenced by Paul McCartney …I hear that now…having been away from it, you hear it in a very objective way. And I can really hear his influence, esp. his playing on “Revolver.” That period. I love the bass playing on that. It’s very melodic, but it’s still driving and ballsy.
I had…an interesting experience last year, talking about basslines (laughing). I was at a party in Portland, and somebody was playing just a mix of music, and this track came on and I was loving it, I was loving the bass-line, and I said to my friend, I said ‘yeah I love this, what is this?’ And he thought I was out of me mind because it was Love And Rockets it turned out!
SLIS: (laughing) …That’s great!
DAVID J: It was ‘Too Much Choice.’ I had partaken of an interesting cookie before this revelation, which probably aided and abetted the experience.
SLIS: That is hilarious.
DAVID J: That really came at me from an odd angle…like yeah, I like this; I like the bassline.
SLIS: Now this is out of left-field, but I recently did a list of most Underrated Rock Albums. Albums that, to me, were unfairly overlooked, and I think ‘Hot Trip To Heaven’ was an amazing album. And I always thought that didn’t get the recognition it deserved. Do you feel that same way?
DAVID J: I really agree with you (laughing.) We were all so proud of that record. Cause we really did take a leap in the dark. At the time we’d had a big hit with ‘So Alive’ and our American record label wanted to put a lot of money into us going into the next stage of playing arenas y’know and they wanted an album of pop rock guitar music, and they got that. And they did not know what to make of it.
But Rick Rubin really liked it, so that’s why we signed to his label, American Recordings. And he wanted to bring it out as a white label and not say who it was. But we were so proud of it, that we thought, well, if it didn’t work, and then nobody would even know that we’d made that leap, and made that record y’know? So we wanted our own name on that record.
But in retrospect, I think that was a pretty smart idea of his. You know, send it out to DJ’s, and then if it got a buzz, then its like ‘well guess who this is? It’s Love and Rockets! But we had a great time recording that, it was very liberating.
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SLIS: There were so many bands back in the mid-90’s that were trying to do the techno-rock hybrid, but ‘Hot Trip To Heaven’ felt very organic, and very natural. It didn’t feel like you were trying to shoehorn something into something else. I still listen to it quite a bit. So just wanted to get that in there that I loved that album.
DAVID J: That was influenced by when we were in London recording the eponymous album, the one with ‘So Alive’ on it. There was a lot of music we were listening to on these pirate radio stations where they started playing acid house, and we’d be listening to these repetitive tracks that would go on for ages and were very hypnotic and we got into that. And we also went to some very early raves there, and we’d have a bit of time off and we’d go to these raves and it was the very early days of that scene, but we were very aware that there was something very exciting going on y’know?
And actually there was a track called ‘Bike Dance’, which was a remix of a song called ‘Motorcycle’, which is very influenced by acid-house. Which pre-dated Hot Trip, and I think that is the link between those two albums.
Click here to see where ‘Hot Trip To Heaven’ ranks on our list of Most Underrated Alternative Rock Albums
SLIS: I loved your recent reinterpretation of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ that came out a few months ago. What was the inspiration to put that out?
DAVID J: Well it was Jill Tracy who I collaborated with on that…she initiated the idea of having this rather post-classical piano introduction. I mean the introduction is a composition in its own right. It’s beautiful. And that really set the tone for what follows. And we recorded that all in one take vocals and all.
SLIS: Well it sounds gorgeous. I love it.
DAVID J: Thank you very much.
SLIS: So I have to get your take on the recent cover of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by CHVRCHES. What do you think of it? Have you had a chance to hear it?
DAVID J: It’s very controversial in the Bauhaus camp.
SLIS: (Laughing) Yeah, very much so! Lots of internet chatter.
DAVID J: I like it. I think it’s fresh sounding. And I like them. I like that group.
SLIS: I do too.
DAVID J: I mean, obviously it’s aimed at a certain demographic. I haven’t seen that film yet but I can see it connecting with the audience that they’re aiming for, I guess the early 20’s, mid-20’s audience.
SLIS: And there’s so many bands like CHVRCHES that are still drawing upon the sound that you were in the forefront of in the 80’s and late 70’s. Why do you think that new bands keep mining that sound?
DAVID J: Because I think it had a lot of integrity, those bands were the real thing y’know? They were making music to please themselves, which is always a good thing and that always, usually promotes longevity.
SLIS: Speaking of new bands, I was reading that you’ve produced and are playing bass in a band called Stellarum?
DAVID J: Yes, it means ‘of the stars.’
SLIS: How did that come about?
DAVID J: Well I knew the singer Susan Dumett under the name of Vox Vespertinus, and she sent her music to me in the past and I was really impressed. She has an amazing voice, a four-octave range. And I was doing a solo gig in Seattle, and I invited her to sing with me on ‘Bela Lugosi’, and she was feeding her voice through all these effects pedals, and it was great.
And then we just stayed in contact. And then she wanted to make her first real record. So she contacted me and was asking for my advice as to who’d be a good producer, and she was very serious about the record and she just felt like now is the time and I said, “well… me!” (laughing)
And she hadn’t thought of that but she said ‘really? You’d be into that?” And I said “yeah! But send me the songs y’know?”
So she did and I was really knocked out by the quality of the material, so I went in there, and said I’d like to play bass on this as well, so I did that. And all of us connected in the band. It was a great session; we recorded up in Portland with John Neff, who was David Lynch’s main sound guy. He built Lynch’s studio in L.A., which is an incredible studio. He’s just a great engineer, and worked on several of Lynch’s films as an engineer and sound designer.
He turned out to be the right guy for this because it has sort of a Lynchian quality to it. It’s ethereal. And we just did a version of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’.
SLIS: Yeah I heard that, it was great. It’s funny you say Lynch, because I thought it had kind of that dark lounge feel like Julee Cruise (who Lynch produced in the 80’s and 90’s).
DAVID J: We just got some very nice feedback from Debbie Harrie and Chris Stine on that.
DAVID J: Oh really? That’s great. That’s kismet.
SLIS: Yes, very serendipitous. So will the rest of the album have the same dreamy sound as the Blondie cover?
DAVID J: Oh yeah, but it’s all original. There’s just some gorgeous pieces of music on the record. A lot of space in it, which I really like and it gives Susan some room to set sail there vocally.
SLIS: I can’t wait to hear the whole album. And I was also reading that awhile back you did something with Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde). Has that ever been actually released, or is that something that you’re still working on?
DAVID J: We streamed the tracks on Soundcloud so they’re out there yeah. And there was another guy called Shok, so it was us three (known as Tres Vampires). So yeah, that work turned out great. We were hoping it’d be used in a movie, maybe it still will. That’s what we had in mind, because it was kind of cinematic, the same with Stellarum, it’s very cinematic music.
SLIS: A lot of your music feels very cinematic. When you write music do you ever look to cinema for inspiration?
DAVID J: Well I’ve always loved film. Sometimes the inspiration is more uppermost, and sometimes it’s subconscious, and you realize afterwards, ‘oh yeah I can see where that’s coming from’. But yeah, sure. I mean with Bauhaus the big influence on us was German expressionist cinema, and the atmosphere and the style of those films. So it has always been there.
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SLIS: So the SXSW show will be held March 12, 1:00 AM, at Valhalla Tavern?
DAVID J: Yes, and we have another one that’s been added on Friday the 14th at Ginger Man’s Pub at 3:15. It’s a great lineup. We’re followed by Suzanne Vega, and some members of Wilco playing, and I think Peter Buck is going to do something. It’s a good lineup.
And then we’re doing a show called Balcony TV, which I think is based in Ireland, but they’re going to be in Austin. And we’re going to do that on a Sunday. So we have those three gigs.
SLIS: And any further tour plans confirmed for this year?
DAVID J: It’s already booked on the East coast in late April. We have some dates in Canada and then we go back and play L.A. And we’re adding dates here and there, and they’re selling well.
SLIS: Well thank you so much for taking out the time to do this interview. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Are there any other projects or comments on ‘An Eclipse Of Ships’ you’d like to mention before we finish?
DAVID J: I think it’s my strongest album so far. And very pleased with the artwork actually. We were talking earlier, about the artwork…I came up with the concept and my friend Scott Saw shot some great sequences of images for this thing. It’s just coming together very nicely and very cohesive. And I think it will make a pleasing package. And I’m very much looking forward to playing these songs live.
SLIS: Excellent, well I look forward to checking out your set at SXSW! It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
SXSW attendees can catch David J Saturday, March 12th at 1:00AM at Valhalla Tavern, and at 3:15pm on Friday, March 14th at Ginger Man Pub. You can keep abreast of all the latest David J news via his official website, davidjonline.com