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Introducing Poptone: The music of '80s cult faves Tones on Tail is undead, undead, undead

Wendy Geller
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Any fan of Goth music — or even simply alternative rock in general —  is familiar with what is probably the genre’s most famous cornerstone, the iconic English quartet Bauhaus, which created an entire theatrical/musical movement over four years before disbanding in 1983 and metamorphosing into the hitmaking trio Love and Rockets.

However, in between the Bauhaus breakup and the formation of its even more famous successor there laid the gem of a lesser-known project: Tones on Tail, which has now spawned Poptone, a new project playing  Los Angeles’s Gothic Cloak & Dagger festival this coming weekend.

Consisting of Bauhaus’s Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins, plus art-school friend Glenn Campling, Tones on Tail put out merely one full-length album and did one tour before disbanding in 1984. Ash and Haskins then reunited with Bauhaus bassist David J. for a lengthy run as Love and Rockets; the success of which was so overpowering that it somewhat placed the Tones project in the realm of being of interest for serious fans only.

However, few bands packed as much quality into a brief two years than Tones on Tail. Taking a complete departure from their goth origin (to the point of even performing live dressed in all-white), Tones on Tail spat out a collection of thoroughly unique songs that managed to dance equally between testosterone-edged muscle and carefree airiness. As Ash himself puts it “They’re all toe-tappers but sound like they’re from another planet.”

They’re also as ageless as Ash himself, who turns 60 this July, but still exudes a wiry, tense energy belying his years. After a long period of swearing off playing live, the guitarist/vocalist abruptly decided this year he wanted to hit the stage again – and resurrect the Tones on Tail catalog, the band he says was “my favorite out of the three” he’s played in.

“Tones were asked to do Coachella about five years ago,” he recalls. “I did contemplate it. We were offered an extremely large amount of money to do it. It was quite healthy. But I thought about it and I went ‘No, I’m not feeling it.’ I didn’t want to play live. I was jaded and just thought I couldn’t do it anymore, on lots of levels—I thought I was too old, and it felt a bit ridiculous putting a guitar around my neck. It felt stupid to me, I felt ‘I’ve done that’ and it’s silly for older people to do that.

“With art, with me personally, I could never fake it,” he adds. “Whatever—if it’s a painting I’m doing, or whatever. If it ain’t right, I can’t live with myself if I’m faking it. And it never felt right.”

So Ash—who did play Coachella with both Bauhaus and Love and Rockets in previous years—put the request aside and continued with a semi-retired routine, which included DJ-ing locally, riding motorcycles, and caring for “a tankful of tropical fish on the top of my refrigerator.”

But, earlier this year, Ash was struck with a revelation. “I had this thing that happened to me,” he notes. “I woke up around 4 a.m. with my headphones on, just slumped over the computer, because I like drinking wine and watching videos—who doesn’t? Anyway I fell asleep and I woke up and it hit me like a bolt of lightning: Oh my God, I should do this live thing. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make money and survive within the arts for years, struggling at this doing DJ jobs, struggling struggling. And it hits me at four in the morning, just go out and play guitar, play live, it’s the answer. And it wasn’t a negative anymore.

“To back that up, I heard somebody say “Oh U2 are going out and doing that Joshua Tree thing,” he recalls, referring to the band’s tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of their 1987 landmark release. “Of all bands, I have no interest in U2 at all, completely cold. But they’re exactly the same age as me, and nobody’s saying anything. Nobody’s even thinking about it. So that little stupid hang-up I had about that went right out the window.”

He decided to give the idea a go: “A couple days later I was thinking ‘How am I going to do this?’ And I started playing and it was instant. My fingers were a bit sore for a couple days but that was it. It all came back just like riding a push bike.”

Ash didn’t have to look too far for a collaborator for his latest project. He called on the obvious: Haskins, who took to the idea with alacrity. Having two daughters active in the music scene, the drummer knew there was an audience—and not just a purely nostalgic one–curious to explore the Tones on Tail legacy.

“I had an inkling, from having young daughters and meeting people of their age group,” Haskins says. “Over the past few years, occasionally Tones on Tail would come up. So I kind of knew there was a fascination and an intrigue for kids that weren’t even born [when the band was active]. And also, a lot of people didn’t see us because we only did one tour. So I knew there would be a lot of interest in this.”

The only issue remained of whom to play bass—Ash, who wanted to perform not only Tones songs but also his own compositions he wrote for Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, didn’t feel right asking David J. or Campling to hop on board. Haskins agreed.

The pair considered options—including Sade/Sweetback bassist Paul Denman—before hitting on an ingenous idea. Why not try out Haskins’s older daughter?

Diva Dompe, a multidimensional solo artist who had her own band, BlackBlack, for several years, was well versed on her father’s catalog (she recalls Ash bought her first bass, and that she mastered the Bauhaus classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at age 13). Despite this, she was forced to prove her mettle.

“I had to audition like five times,” she says wryly. “I’m not one to really learn songs. It was kind of a process for me.”

As it turned out, she was a more than just a good fit. “A shot in the arm,” Ash affirms. “It’s allowed us to do all three bands, plus whatever else we want to do, without it being confined, because she’s neutral.”

“Beyond that,” adds Haskins, “Diva has brought such her own thing to this on so many levels—her female vocals, female energy. Her style, her age. I’m so glad to have this and not just because she’s my daughter. I feel it adds a new element.”

Dubbing the new unit Poptone to give it its own identity, the trio got to work establishing an initial tour schedule – one that would accommodate Dompe’s role as a mom of a young toddler – and rehearsing a set list of what turned out to be 70% Tones on Tail, with the rest select Love and Rockets songs that Ash wrote and sang on, plus one song from Bauhaus’s fourth studio album.

Ash was adamant that Poptone refrain from “obscure, arty-farty” selections, and was careful to choose tunes he knew the audience would want to hear. “No f***ing about, right?” To that end, favorites from the Love and Rockets catalog such as “Mirror People,” “Love Me,” and “No Big Deal” became touchstones amid the Tones archive.

Ash admits the initial rehearsals were a mixed bag at first, and some of the material was more challenging to revisit than he expected. “There were little things I was doing wrong in every rehearsal,” he admits. “It’s weird, there were certain [songs] over the weeks that I was sort of semi-dreading, and they turned out to be the easy ones. And then something else that you thought was a breeze, you slip up on.

“The acoustic numbers… some days, playing that 12-string acoustic is like playing something with barbed wire,” he says. “I was dreading [Tones on Tail’s] ‘Twist.’ The guitar riff on that is so exposed and I can’t hide behind echo and feedback. I’m going to stand there and play it, actually play it, rather than make a mistake and put the old echo machine on to bluff it and cover it up. So that’s a scary one.”

All pain was forgotten, however, during the band’s debut in late April at a Los Angeles rehearsal space, trying out the set for an intimate crowd of hardcore fans before launching their official tour several weeks later. Adrenaline kicked in (“I had pulled a muscle at the gym earlier,” Haskins relates. “On stage it went away”) and the screaming, swaying audience responded to the songs on a level likely equivalent to that of Bauhaus’s famous and rabidly anticipated reunion tour in 1998.

All three members of Poptone nod at that comparison, with Ash admitting he was “amazed” at the glowing reception to the show.

“The really good things most often are a natural process, where they’re not really thought out so much consciously,” he analyzes of the serendipitous origin of his latest project. “It’s like the idea if you go back to the start of the whole thing: How did us four, as in Bauhaus, all meet up? We all knew each other from school or art school. I don’t want to be pretentious or presumptuous, but the acts of the Beatles have been the ultimate example of that. Out of the whole planet, those four individuals get together to make that music, because it wouldn’t have been that music without those four people. It’s a collaboration and it creates a specific chemistry.

“So [Poptone] has been a natural thing and it’s almost like it’s out of our hands. Look at it as a faith thing, or not–it’s working out perfectly.”

As for the future of Poptone beyond its initial run of dates? Will the trio collaborate on new music, record an original album, continue touring? Ash is noncommittal.

“I don’t really like to think about anything, about how it’s going to be, because if you keep it totally neutral you can be pleasantly surprised,” he concludes. “If it does flop you’re not disappointed, and for me – I’d just go back to riding my bikes.”