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An Interview with Poptone: On Touring, Nostalgia, and the Future of the Band

Photography: Bryan Yalta

Poptone, the retrospective project of Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins and his daughter Diva Dompe, played their last show of 2017 on Sunday, December 10th at Trees. Ash and Haskins are known as members of Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets, from which they selected certain songs to perform. Opening for them was avant-garde act Geneva Jacuzzi, who put on a performance mixing interpretative body movement and heavy synthpop. She started out onstage sitting on the floor, holding a circular flashlight inside an uninflated ball, creating the image of a plastic monster slowly growing as the ball inflated with menacing music.

It wasn't soon until she fought her way outside the ball in a dramatic fashion and made her way towards the crowd, creeping through the floor and flashing her light at random audience members. At one point, she made the crowd create a hall-shaped space in the middle of the venue so she could dance her way to and fro the ends. Eventually making her way back onstage, she continued to dance in an evocative manner, fitting the music like the light fit the mood. Involving the audience with her performance made her set seem more like an interactive art piece than a live music show--a different way to take the audience away into a surreal environment.

Poptone's set started with "I Feel Speed," a Love and Rockets song that slowly built the pace of the show like a ride that was just beginning. The thunder-colored neon lights directed face-up at the band resembled the lighting of an 80s arcade onstage. Mixed with the fog, however, the stage felt more theatrical--and theatrical it was. Ash donned white glasses that glowed purple along with the lighting. Diva Dompe had on a large, white Poptone shirt that did the same. Haskins looked slightly hidden in the back of the drums but nonetheless kept that cloak-and-dagger aura that held the band together. Playing songs mostly from Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets, the sounds Poptone translated live sounded very close to how they are on record. It seemed like a reminder that those songs still sound contemporary and could pass as modern songs.

In between songs, Ash would engage the audience by doing things like playing a Spanish riff he had just learned to play and talking about the California fires that recently occurred, which hit close to where they currently reside. Near the end of the set, he said it was someone's birthday, which prompted the band to look for them in the audience. Apparently, there were multiple birthday celebrations happening, so Ash asked one of the birthday persons if they were a Sagittarius or a Capricorn. When they responded, Ash merely said, "Sag, nice. Free spirit," and then went on to play the Bauhaus song "Slice of Life," and end after with the Love and Rockets song "Sweet F.A." Perhaps the show ended soon, if only because there was so much more to cover. It seemed like part one in what could be a two-part tour that might fully include the main material from Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets. Of course, that'd be asking for too much, but a person can dream. After waving their goodbyes to the crowd, after all the drumsticks were given to audience members and all the thank you's were said, the curtains closed and marked the end of Poptone's tour until next year. We phoned the band days before the show for an interview looking back at how the project has been received, how revisiting these songs has changed their view on them, and what we can look forward to next year. Below is the transcribed interview:


Uncanny Valley: Dallas marks the last date of Poptone's tour for 2017, so I was wondering if you guys feel worn out. How do you guys feel about the overall reception the band has received since starting of?

Kevin Haskins: It’s really been, I think, way beyond our expectations. I’m not sure if it’s because they didn’t expect us to tour again and are very grateful or that we haven’t toured for a long time. One piece of feedback we’re getting a lot is, ‘cause we’re playing a lot of Tones on Tail material, people definitely didn’t expect to hear that live again. A lot of people missed out, because we only did one short tour back in the ‘80s. So, people have really responded to that.

U: Most of the setlist is made up of songs from Tones on Tail, so I was wondering if there was a conscious decision about adding more songs from that project than, say, other projects like Love and Rockets?

K: Well, there’s one song called “Burning Skies” that is a big favorite. We’re going to add that sometime next year. There’s a Love and Rockets song called “All in My Mind” that we’re thinking would be a great asset to the set. You know, there’s still quite a lot of material to draw from, and that’s a really wonderful thing. A lot of the material has stood the test of time, so that’s really beneficial for us, obviously.

U: I’ve noticed that you guys haven’t played most of the “hits”. Was there a reason why?

K: Well, Daniel [Ash] only wants to perform songs that he wrote or sang on primarily, and I can understand that. So, that’s kind of put a certain restriction on what we do. But, even so, we’re finding that even with that restriction there’s a lot of great material.

U: I was wondering if there is a certain effect that the setlist structure is supposed to cause. Did you think about structuring the setlist chronologically or maybe dividing it into individual sections of songs from each project?

K: No, we’re very weary that it’s important to structure the set in a certain way. I can always remember—I think it was Ian Dury from Ian Dury and the Blockheads—he was talking about set structure in an interview and he said that you always need to put a big hit in the middle of the set. Anyway, we kind of knew this from experience; how to pace the set, fast or slow. So, we go more with feel and impact, taking people on a rollercoaster—there’s a peak and then a valley and then a peak and then a big ending. It actually didn’t take us too long to put the set together back in April. We’ve pretty much stuck to the same format, because it just worked really, really well from the get-go. I think that’s part of the success—the way we’ve structured the set.

U: Has revisiting these songs made you seen them in a new light, like maybe thinking about different ways they could be musically arranged whether through sound, structure or lyrics?

K: Certain songs, yes. I’m a big believer, especially, with what we’re doing. For other people, there’s a nostalgia element to it. When I go and see a band whose material I’m very familiar with, I prefer to hear it very close to what it’s like on the records. That’s primarily what we’re doing. I’m even triggering lots of samples off the records or I’ve remade sounds that are close to what was on the record, so people can identify with the songs as they have been used to hearing them. Having said that, there’s a song by Tones on Tail called “Happiness,” for example, where we have—there’s an organ part in there, and instead of using an organ sound we started to do it with vocals, and it really works well. So that’s different from how it is on the record, but primarily we’re close to the recordings.

U: You said you guys worked off of mood earlier on, so how do you feel about the mood the band currently has in terms of performance?

K: I’m not sure how to answer that [laughs].

U: In other words, how would you judge the chemistry between all of you?

K: Oh, ok. It’s great—on and offstage. Offstage, obviously I get on with my daughter—or maybe that’s not obvious—but I get on with her really well. Daniel and her have bonded and formed a really good friendship. We really have a lot of fun most of the time. We really enjoy each other’s company, so that’s great. Onstage: same thing. Diva—I didn’t realize how good a bass player and musician she is [laughs]. I was actually playing a band with her, you know? And I recognized it when I would go and see her, but it’s really brought it home to me that she’s a really great bass player. We locked in as a rhythm section really well and that might not be a surprise, because we’re, you know, related. It’s working incredibly well, and it’s also great to have—Daniel and I, we’ve never had a female element as a band member before and also someone younger than ourselves. Also, Diva’s got a very beautiful spirit and she brings all this—it’s all kind of a new thing for us and it’s working really well. It works on so many levels that I’m really so very blessed to be having her in the band and be able to tour with her.

U: Would you say that this positive chemistry you guys have is possibly able to create new material in the future?

Diva Dompe: Hello?

K: That’s really weird, Diva. I was just talking about you, and just as I finished, I heard the ding and then you joined the conversation. U: Oh, is that Diva? K & D: Yeah. U: How are you doing Diva?

D: I’m pretty good.

U: We were talking about the chemistry between all of you guys and I was wondering if this positive chemistry that Kevin was talking about could possibly create new material? D: Um, I don’t know. Dad, were you about to answer that? K: It’s something we’ve been discussing on and off, and we haven’t grudged that yet. We just don’t want to force it or rush into it. I think we want it to happen organically, when it shows like it’s the right time, but I’m hoping. It’s something I’d want to do, and I’m hoping that that happens next year. So we’ll just see what happens really.

U: I've heard you guys have had a stable tour schedule, where you guys tour for two weeks then take a week break and repeat. Has that helped the creative juice flowing? D: I don’t know. Ideally, it would, but I think there’s been—there’s a lot to do on the breaks. We think, oh we have this big break coming up, but it goes by really fast behind the scenes and the business side of things. I feel like the more we do it, the more we learn how to do things efficiently. So, hopefully, we’re getting better at that talent of the breaks and the tour time and there being real time off to cultivate creativity.

U: Kevin, was it difficult to get into the mentality that you guys might've had when making these songs, considering you might have a different mentality currently? Diva, how was it getting into these songs and trying to put yourself into that mentality? K: It wasn’t difficult for me at all. I was excited to get into it. Like I mentioned before, I’ve been using lots of samples, so I spent a few weeks working on finding those sounds and recreating them and I love doing that kind of stuff in the studio. So, really I just fell into it really fast, and it was like riding a first bike. It felt very natural and seamless to me. D: What about the emotional aspect?

K: Yeah, I mean, it’s very much nostalgic. With “Love Me,” when I play it onstage, it always takes me back to playing that when we played huge auditoriums outside. You know, some songs lend themselves to being played outside at night [laughs]. I guess that makes sense. There’s definitely an emotional aspect that’s pleasant. It takes me back to good times.

U: What about you Diva? D: I really get into this style of music and these songs. When I was an adolescent, it really spoke to me. So, coming back to this music now, I feel like I’m in a different place emotionally, but I’m still able to reach it from that place in myself—it’s still a part of me from growing up. Also, just through the audience and the fans, seeing how it inspires them, I feel like a lot of these songs are vehicles for liberation, and that’s something I’ve really gotten into. These shows, they feel very liberating for people and these songs are very liberating and that I can relate to and resonate with and get inspired by, especially feeling it through the audience. It’s been nice for me to get in touch with the emotional aspect of these songs, because it’s something I’ve kind of drifted away from in more recent years, but they all hold deeper, important emotions that are sometimes on the shadow side of things that we don’t always confront. I feel like music does that. Musicians are usually in touch with their emotional side more than people who don’t gravitate towards that role. Music helps people who aren’t able to access their emotions as readily feel them and process them. So I’ve been able to connect back with those kinds of emotions and maybe processing that I wasn’t doing.

U: So you’re really feeding off the crowd in a cathartic way.

D: Yeah, I just feel what they’re feeling and I can get into it through their emotions.

U: Was there a reason why you guys decided to delve into this retrospective project this year as opposed to, say, five years from now or five years ago?

K: Daniel and I—we always kept in touch on the phone, and we’d usually have a conversation once a year about doing something like this. We’d go through the pros and cons, and, actually, one thing that always put us off was the idea of doing long touring; being away from home and just flogging around and getting burnt out. So last year, we were DJing a lot and we did a new year’s eve DJ event; we always have fun doing them and hanging out. And Daniel said, ‘well let’s do a DJ tour next year’ and I said yeah. Then, a few days into the new year I just thought, well, if we’re gonna go through that trouble at all, why don’t we play? This is my story; Daniel has a different story [laughs]. So I texted him and said, ‘hey why don’t we do the band thing?’ Then, there was no response and he was sending me photographs of motorbikes and different things. I was kind of a bit irritated that he hadn’t responded to my text, you know? At least say yes or no. He loves sending me photos of motorbikes.

U: From where did he get his infatuation with bikes?

K: Well, I’ll get on to that, but anyway, a couple of days after that, he said ‘who’s gonna play bass?’ So I was like, oh my god, he wants to do it [laughs]. So, then I called him up and he said yeah, let’s do it. So that’s my story. Daniel’s story is completely different. He was listening to music late at night on YouTube, but he fell asleep. Then, he was woken up at 4AM with the “Ace of Spades” blasting through his headphones and suddenly had this feeling that he should go out on the road and play music. I kind of semi-joke that the spirit of Lemmy visited him and said, ‘Danny, you should get out on the road, man!’ So, that’s his side of the story.

U: So this is kind of like a tribute to Lemmy.

K: Well, Daniel knew Lemmy. We all ran into him from time to time. He was a great character. Daniel and him got on well and would hang out. But, yeah, I don’t know where Daniel’s infatuation with bikes comes from at all. He struggled with a mod and would ride scooters. I don’t know if he got the bug from the scooter thing and then it parlayed into bikes. U: Was this a recent thing? When did this all start? K: Um, in January 2017 and then we started. We auditioned for the bass player spot. Diva didn’t just walk into it. She had to do six grueling auditions, and then she won out. She’s amazing and wonderful. We rehearsed like crazy for several weeks, and then started playing live in April.

U: Do you guys think the material from Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail fits with the modern music scene?

K: That’s a good question for you, Diva.

D: Yeah, I do think so, especially Tones on Tail ‘cause it’s such a unique project. I love Love and Rockets, and I think those songs still resonate with people now, but at times, you can kind of tell their era. I feel like Tones on Tail stands alone, and it has timeless music, because it’s so unique. So, yeah, I think it has a place in modern music.

U: If these projects were to have originated post-2000s, do you think the reception would have been differently than they were initially?

K: [laughs] I don’t know. I really do feel that—and it’s hard for me to be objective—but I do feel the music being contemporary to me. Most of it. I don’t know. It’s a difficult question to answer how it would be interpreted. What do you think, Diva? D: It’s always hard to know how people are going to interpret music. I feel like you can never really predict it. U: There’s a rise in electronic music and Tones on Tail and Love and Rockets would seem to fit perfectly with that. K: Well, certain songs, like “Performance,” are very electronic, and even with “Slice of Life” from Bauhaus, I use a mixture of 808 drum sounds, which are very electronic and very retro but also very modern. Those 808 sounds just seem like they span decades of time. We are getting young kids coming to the shows as well, and they’re reacting very positively. So, I think in general, the music has a timeless quality, which is a very wonderful thing, obviously. So, yeah, I think it does work now pretty much as well as it worked back in the 80s.


Many thanks to Kevin and Diva for taking the time to talk to us about Poptone. The Dallas show was the last tour date of the year for the band, but you can relive the night by checking out more photos from the show below.

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