I caught up with David J. Haskins, a member of the influential bands Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, during a book tour for his new memoir, Who Killed Mr. Moonlight? Besides spending numerous years in the studio as an artist, David has also acted as a producer for Jazz Butcher, Renata Youngblood, Intra-Venus & the Cosmonauts, Vinsantos, Darwin, and Stellarum. His most recent solo album, An Eclipse of Ships, came out in 2014, and was recorded with Tony Green.
The song, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," defined your band, Bauhaus. It's the first thing that Bauhaus recorded, right?
It was the very first song that we wrote together as a band, and we recorded it a couple weeks after writing it. It was out pretty quickly as well.
That's the version we all know, with the dub effects and everything?
It's the opening story of my book. We did it in one take. As I say in the book, that was the very first time Peter Murphy had ever sung into a studio mic.
He did a fair enough job, then. Where did you find the studio for that? Was it local?
It was a wonderful studio, now long gone, alas. It was Beck Studios in Wellingborough [Northamptonshire, UK]. Derek Tompkins [the producer/engineer] was a fantastic character, a very outspoken, interesting man. He was a very inquisitive, closet intellectual really, but he was also mad about motorcycles. He had an old Vincent from the '30s. He was in his fifties when we were in our early twenties. We liked the fact that he was so removed from our world. He had such an acute ear. He could really discern the subtle tones that were necessary to make a good record. He was confident enough in his ability to be very outspoken and tell us, "No, you don't want to do that. That's rubbish!"
Which is what you need when you're young and gung-ho.
Right! "Do it this way, and you'll thank me."
You brought him back in to do later albums, didn't you?
The third album by Bauhaus, The Sky's Gone Out. We later brought him back to do [Love & Rocket's] Earth, Sun, Moon, even though he'd retired.
The Sky's Gone Out is a pretty epic record, as far as the scope of it and the variety of tunes.
Yeah, it was ambitious. We were glad to have him there to reign us in a bit. We were pretty out there at that time.
On the first record, In the Flat Field, you took "Double Dare" from a BBC session and incorporated that. It wasn't just separating that project from the performance on the first album. You were able to say that was a better performance.
Well that's the reason. It was a John Peel session. We tried to re-record that in the studio, Southern Studios in London. That was our benchmark, because we thought it was one of the best things we'd ever done. As is often the case, those Peel Sessions were the best work an artist did. We figured out that it was because we didn't have time to overdo it. You'd have eight hours to record four tracks and mix them. You've got to bang it down and just finish it. There's a vitality to that process that's really great. We applied that to ourselves by self-imposing limitations. We'd just give ourselves two goes working on a track and, if it wasn't not happening, we'd move on. We couldn't get it to sound as good as the Peel session, so we had to negotiate with the BBC. They wanted to have a Bauhaus Peel Session EP, but we wanted to have that on our album. There was a lot of going back and forth, as well as legal negotiations. It actually delayed the release of the album. We were on the road, touring to promote the album, but the album wasn't available until a couple of months later. It still went to number one on the alternative charts!
One of the studio experiments I loved was your "Exquisite Corpse" song on The Sky's Gone Out, where you're passing tracks on and not hearing each other, but just adding things and seeing what you came up with. How did you apply that in the session?
That was my idea. I don't know if it had ever been applied to music before. I was very into the surrealists, and obviously familiar with the Exquisite Corpse. That is where you folded a piece of paper and passed it around the table; each artist would draw part of a body and extend the line of the neck down the first guy. The next artist would draw the body, and the next person would draw the legs and feet. Often people would write a few words and it would become a poem. That's where the Exquisite Corpse comes from.
Like a William Burroughs cut-up, in a way.
Yeah, like that. "The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine" was the first line of the assemblage. I thought it would be very interesting to apply that technique to music. You can't continue the line, as it were. But if we each had a minute allotted, and the only thing we decided on was a key and a beat, and we all had the same beat (we could change the beat and fuck with it... it's just the time signature basically), and then we just took it in turns. Something super simple. Three would go out, and one would stay with the engineer. We'd be limited to four tracks each. We'd lay that down, and then the next guy would come in. Then there was a fifth minute where everybody just had two tracks, and that had to allude to what they'd done on their first tracks. Then we'd put it all together. It was so exciting to sit there and roll tape to see what happened.
Was everybody playing over the whole piece, or just their sections?
No, just their section. Actually, I think we had eight tracks each on the first one, and then just two on the very last one. But we didn't listen until the very end. It was uncanny how it gelled; especially the fifth element and how that all fit together. It was a successful experiment. We did it two times.
Most bands on their third album would hire a producer, bring them in, and then record songs they wrote on the road. What was the impetus to be in the studio experimenting like that?
To put ourselves on the edge and to keep things really vital, alive, and exciting. We never toed the commercial line. Quite the opposite, you know? I mean we had a track on Burning from the Inside called "The Sanity Assassin." It was a rocking track, very catchy. Martin Mills from Beggars Banquet [record label] heard it and thought it was a hit single. He said we should start off the album with it. We told him, "Martin, it's actually not going on the album." He thought it was a joke, but it wasn't. We thought it was too rock. It wasn't weird, or avant-garde, enough. We released it in an edition of a weird number, like 447 7-inch singles to our fan club. We gave it away.
My friends and I used to try to find all those damn Bauhaus records in the '80s.
They're hard to find, especially that one.
When Bauhaus quit the first time, you started making solo records.
I'd actually already started recording that while the band was still extant. I just carried on and finished it.
The first record [Etiquette of Violence]?
Yeah. Prior to that, I'd done a single ["Nothing/Armour"] with René Halkett, who was a student of the original Bauhaus [art school] from Weimar, Germany, in the 1920s. It was a one-off single on 4AD, one of their first releases. I was always looking outside of the group. I had very eclectic leanings.
Love and Rockets surfaced later with three of the four original Bauhaus members. Was that something you brought in through your brother, Kevin Haskins? He was drumming with Daniel Ash in Tones on Tail.
Daniel had a falling out with Glenn Campling, who was the bass player for Tones on Tail. Apparently (I only found this out recently), they approached Peter Murphy to re-form Bauhaus. I didn't know about it until this year. I'd seen the story that the three of us contacted Peter and he didn't even bother to turn up for a get together, so we had nothing better to do than carry on as a trio and that's why we did Love and Rockets. That wasn't my story. Daniel and Kevin came to me and said they couldn't get on with Glenn, so they were going to start a band and wanted to see if I'd like to join, just as a trio. I said, "Yeah." I was in the Jazz Butcher at the time. I could see that as great fun, but I could also see its limitations. We just needed that little break, the three of us, for it to be exciting again. We got back together, and it just clicked.
It feels like such a different band.
Yeah, when you just take that one element out. I think a good comparison would be Joy Division / New Order. Similar situation.
The Love and Rockets records are some beautiful '80s productions. What were your sessions for the debut album, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven, like? Who'd you work with?
John Rivers, at Woodbine Street in Leamington Spa. He'd worked with The Specials and did the song "Ghost Town." He's a great engineer and keyboard player. He did a lot of the keyboard parts. We had a great rapport with him. He knew what we were after and he was able to use his expertise to achieve that. We wanted to make it rich and lush, very cinematic, very psychedelic, and multi-layered. Bauhaus had been really stripped down, bony, angular, and jagged. It just felt natural to us to go in a direction that was more sumptuous, sonically.
Those records probably did better, at that point, than Bauhaus had done.
Oh yeah; especially in America, leading up to a number two hit single.
I went over to visit with Tony Green. Those records you've done over at his place have been really organic, playing in a room together, or sometimes on the piano in his house there.
Yeah. He's a great bass player and a really good engineer. I've mastered those two records, and the mastering engineers had both commented that it was so well recorded and that it made the job a real joy. It's great to hear that. Again, I have a great rapport with Tony. He knows what I'm after and gets it really quickly. There's a great collective of musicians there who come in and play. Dave Raven, a great percussionist, a revolving door of fiddle players, and his wife, Susan Costantini Green, on the piano. You've been to the studio. There's a very relaxed atmosphere.
It's a beautiful spot, looking out over the canyon there.
Yeah. We take breaks to go out there and gaze on the view for a few minutes before going back in. I'm really happy with both of those records, An Eclipse of Ships, and, before that, Not Long for This World.
You've made a lot of different-sounding records, going back to "Bela Lugosi...," the lushness of Love and Rockets, the angular Bauhaus, and some of the solo projects you've done with other collaborators. Is each recording project a different vision for you?
Yeah. It comes naturally from the flavor of the record and what that's suggesting. I just intuit that; it becomes pretty obvious which way to go, and which players to have on board.
No, I haven't. We thought of approaching Eno at one point for Love and Rockets, but we never actually went there. We all loved Eno, but we just thought that he would put too much of his stamp on it, assuming he'd be interested in the first place. Tony Visconti [Tape Op #29] wanted to make a Bauhaus album in '98. He was keen to do that, but it never came to pass. I think that would have been really intriguing. That last Bowie record [The Next Day] was great.
Tony's great. He can be stern, if needed.
That's what we needed! We needed that. If he had been part of the set up, maybe we wouldn't have imploded. I don't know though. It was a very volatile chemistry.
Did the band implode during studio sessions?
Yeah, more like explode in 2005 while recording Go Away White. We split up and reformed about three times in the making of that. It came to physical blows at one point, which is pretty ridiculous for 45-year old men.
You produced some of the Jazz Butcher records in the '80s.
Right. That's also with John Rivers, who did some of the Love and Rockets sessions.
Where do you feel your role resides? Is it in picking songs and tightening up the band? What things do you see?
I'm very intuitive. I need a really good engineer who's very quick on the uptake and can interpret my ideas for the band, as well as where I want it to go. I know what the desk does, but I don't want to get stuck on that. I just want to be free-thinking. It's a very intuitive thing, just minute by minute. A big thing, for me, is being aware, having the antennae up and tune into what some people might consider mistakes or malfunctions. Again, going back to Eno and his Oblique Strategies card, "Honor thy error as hidden intention." I'm a great follower of that. I think that magic comes through those little moments that someone might perceive as everything going wrong. That's actually an opportunity to take things in another direction. Maybe it's like the Leonard Cohen line, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in" [from "Anthem"]. It's great. I'll give you an example. I was asked to do a track for this film called What is Art? by the artist Steven Leyba. I went into the studio with this spontaneous idea. I had the melody and the atmosphere, and I turned up in the studio in East L.A. The guy next door had this huge industrial generator going. The engineer was freaking out, saying, "We can't record!" He's apologizing and everything. I'm like, "No, this is great. Drag the mics outside and record that!" We recorded it, and then that took us in a new direction. I used that as the basic driving beat, amped it up, put some reverb on it, and abandoned my previous idea. I detuned the guitar to go with the tonality I was hearing from this generator, and I played this Velvet Underground "Sister Ray" thing. That's an example of having the antennae tuned into the extraneous, the weird, and the wonderful.
Like the single with René. You're more creating a soundscape, or place for the person's voice to sit.
Yeah. That one. I had a little pocket calculator and was working out some sums. I did a couple of figures, and it made this little melody. I thought that was great. It became the melody. I actually put a mic on that pocket calculator. It's all around us, there just to be seized. If you're not tuned in, it's just noise. But the more you tune in, the more you hear it.
What other records have you produced in the last decade or so?
I did Vinsantos' A Light Awake Inside at Tiny Telephone Recording [Tape Op #10] in San Francisco. It's a great place. It's very off-kilter, strange, beautiful, broken, damaged art. He's actually gotten more into visual art. He moved to New Orleans and is selling these box art pieces for quite a lot of money. We'd finished the whole album, and we wanted to do this cover of Syd Barrett's "Golden Hair."
James Joyce's poem [from V]?
Yeah. Syd had just died, so it was a bit of a tribute. We lit a candle for Syd in the vocal booth, and I showed Vin this exercise that an Indian sacred singer had taught me. It's a breathing technique based on the om. I was showing him this thing, and we were doing it together. As I'm doing that, I'm thinking, "This should be on the record!" I said, "Hey, Vin; let's just go in now and record this blind, you and me together." We did it seven times. It's eerie. It's beautiful. He loved it. Another album I produced that I'm really proud of was The Side Effects of Owning Skin for the singer-songwriter Renata Youngblood. She's so talented and has a great way with melody. She really embodies the song. She was very young when we did this, like 25, but she had a maturity that was way beyond her years. I recorded it in L.A. at Swing House Studios. That was a great session. The band was pretty much the same that's played on my last couple of albums, with Dave Raven and Tony Green. That was a great session.
How do projects come your way?
It's usually really random. Renata was down in San Diego and her previous producer had called me up, wanting my opinion of this new artist because he thought she was a star. He'd recorded a couple of tracks, so I went down and met her. I was really taken with her personality. She played me a few things on acoustic guitar, and then they played me the tracks and they were overproduced. As delicately as I could, I made comments. They thanked me, and I didn't see them for a long time. One day I was walking down the street, and I was in a really bad state of mind. I was really broke, and things were not going well. I'm walking down this street at night, and I heard this female voice calling my name. I couldn't see anyone. I was looking around, and then she appeared underneath this streetlamp. "Renata! What are you doing here?" She lived just up the road. She told me that she knew I was right about thinking the old stuff was overproduced. She'd written so many songs and wanted to make a record. We met up and she played me the songs. They blew my mind. I told her we had to make the record, and we did. She was the angel who pulled me back from the abyss.