Bauhaus, Bowie, and the troubadour tradition: An interview with David J

A Q&A with the former Bauhaus and Love and Rockets singer and bass player.

David J. Haskins.
Photo credit: Photo by WILLIAM LANDERS

David J Haskins, the writer, artist, and bass player best known as a founding member of seminal British post-punk and alternative rock bands Bauhaus and Love and Rockets comes to Atlanta for a two-day stand. On Tues., Feb. 23, Haskins is reading from and signing copies of his memoir, Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus Black Magick and Benediction ($19.95, Jawbone Press) at A Cappella Books. Start time for the signing is 6 p.m.

On Wed., Feb. 24, Haskins plays an intimate Living Room show at Electron Gardens Studio in Avondale Estates. The Living Room show is sold out.

Read more about David J's Atlanta visit.

Before making his way to Atlanta, Haskins took a few minutes talk about his time with Bauhaus, his love for David Bowie, and his songwriting process.

Tell me about the Living Shows that you've been doing lately. How do they work?

Well, the hub is my website. My manager Darwin Meiners is the agent, but sometimes they come directly to me — that's been the case more and more  often— just via Facebook. And it's been a real snowball. We started doing them about three years ago and it's really picked up. It's gone international. Recently I did one in Tokyo. And before that I played some shows all over Europe. I love doing them, and they're not always, strictly speaking, "in a living room," although often they are. The host finds an appropriate venue: For example, this one in Atlanta is in a studio. The demand was a bit too big for a living room. But we do cap them at 60, so it always is that intimate.

It’s really great to meet the audience on a one-to-one basis, and hear their stories about when they first heard my music. It’s very genuine, it means a lot, and it encourages me to bring more to them as a performer. It also cuts out the middle man, which is a good thing in my book. No promoters. I’m dealing directly with the fans, and it is, overall, a mutually gratifying experience.

And it's just you with an acoustic guitar?

Yes, exactly. Just me with a Spanish guitar — a nylon stringed guitar. I find that works perfectly for these intimate, Living Room shows. I can get really deep, deep inside of the songs with that.

You strike me as a good survivor: You're always trying something different. You don't fall back on Love and Rockets or Bauhaus, you've released several solo albums, written plays, you wrote a book, and now you're interacting directly with your audience. What drives you to keep moving forward?

It is a drive, but it’s not really something I think about. I follow my passion. It’s intuitive, and it’s coming from a real place. I think that authenticity communicates to the audience. I’m not really going where the money is. Although, I find that if you follow your heart and your passion, you’ll make enough to more than get by. And, you know, with any of the bands I’ve been in, we never pandered to commercial considerations, at all. We never tried to make a hit. It's always nice when that happens, but it's always happened accidentally. We never actively sought that, and the same goes with myself and my own albums. I just go with what excites me, and what I fall in love with.

You grew up in Northampton, which is sort of isolated from a lot of Britain's major musical exports of the '70s — namely punk. Did being isolated help you and your bandmates develop a more singular approach to your music and your overall aesthetic?

Yes. Sure. And even within that sense of isolation we were isolated ourselves. As the members of a band called Bauhaus we were outsiders in an outsider's town. We were even more alienated unto ourselves, and caught up in our own little world. I think that sort of thing gives you a lot of strength when you do finally go out into that bigger world. That was something that felt very right in the end. In 2006, when we did that final tour, just having that sensibility, and being like a gang from this weird and very tough little town, a factory in the midlands where they make shoes. That sensibility was still very much present.

And on this visit you're playing solo?

This one is just me playing solo.  I had a gig booked in Oklahoma at the invitation of the Flaming Lips — to go there and do a talk and Q&A — they call it a "master class." And they wanted me to play a solo gig as well. But I'm taking two guys from the Thieves band for that. And so, I knew I was going to be out that way, and I knew Lisa King in Atlanta. We had been in touch via Facebook, and she has supported me in the past. So we tacked on this Atlanta show along the way to play another show in New Orleans. That's quite often how these shows happen. I get one booked and I look around and think, maybe I could do a show in this city as well. You do three or four gigs in a little run.

Do you play a pretty comprehensive set of songs from throughout your career?__

I draw from all over, yeah. I do quite a lot of Love And Rockets songs, especially the songs from the period of Earth, Sun, Moon — the ones that are a bit more acoustic oriented. I do a lot from my solo career, and the odd, curveball cover version here and there. A couple from Bauhaus. So it’s right across the board. Sometimes what I really like to do is bring local musicians up to play with me. Not that I’m doing it this time, but quite often local players turn up, whether it's a saxophone player, a violinist, a piano player, cellist, whatever. They come in and join me. So it changes it up every night, keeps it fresh. It’s continually evolving and mutating. So those old songs are imbued with new life for me when I bring in new players like that. And it's just for that one night, so you only get to experience it in that one evening. It's not like a regular tour.

It sounds like it's done in an old world, troubadour kind of style.

Yeah, it is kind of like the troubadour tradition, picking up players. It's very casual, but all of the players that play with me are top notch. We don’t even rehearse. They just come in and play. It’s very alive.

I would describe your latest album, An Eclipse of Ships, as Dylan-esque. Are you a Bob Dylan fan?

Huge. It goes right back to when I was 14 or 15 years old. I’ve got practically everything.

I am aware of that side of your songwriting. But I've always thought of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets' song as being more abstract and psychedelic. Do you see yourself as a "Songwriter" with a capital S?

It’s story telling. They are all stories from my own life, very immediately. And yeah, it does fit into that more traditional songwriter, storyteller mode. When I was having those experiences I was aware that I was in songwriter mode. I’m always in songwriter mode, but I was intensely in it while I was writing songs for the album, and it had a feeling of women. I would meet women and I would have these experiences. It’s a strange thing because I have an antenna that’s up, and always ready to pick up a good line or a phrase when I’m in conversation with these people. So I’m functioning on multiple levels. It’s like just a normal regular exchange. That’s always the case, but it was more highly attuned because I was in the middle of writing that record. And it had the feeling of ... I was lucky enough to entertain the circumstances which inspired the consummation of the feeling.

Do you feel like it's a bold approach, or maybe more honest and direct than what's been on a lot of your previous records?

I felt like the writing of the record is sharply honed. But it’s just an evolution of something that’s always been there. It was there with my first record, Etiquette of Violence, and on Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh. Lyrically it's a bit less abstract. There is a degree of abstraction, but not that much.

Looking back at all of the records you've released do you have a favorite one?

That changes over time. Depending on what I’m doing, where I am, who I’m with. Those records, like any record in your collection by other artists resonate at certain times. Some come to the fore and then recede more than others at certain times. There are always those records that are like a mainstay, and that you’ve always got. You mentioned Dylan. Blood on the Tracks is one of those albums for me. But from my own stuff, one that’s kind of a hardy perennial for me is that Earth, Sun, Moon record from Love and Rockets. And, at the moment, An Eclipse of Ships, maybe because it’s the newest record. I still feel close still to that one.

Do you see parallels between Earth, Sun, Moon and An Eclipse of Ships?

Yeah, somewhat, in the musical style. There is an acoustic, folky element. Stripped down, plaintive ... There is some resonance there. And when I play those songs back to back with songs from the new record they compliment each other. It makes for a good flow.

Do you talk with your old bandmates much these days?

No, not really. Only through our lawyer, and just on business stuff and things like that.

So Love and Rockets is pretty much a closed chapter for you?

Yeah, for sure. We have told that tale. And even more so with Bauhaus. You have to go where the fire is, where the passion is. And you know, the passion is just not there with those bands anymore. Although it was very much there, always, back when we were playing together. But nothing is more sad than bands getting together just for the coin, and there’s no passion there — they're just going through the motions. That would be completely counter to our ideology for both of those bands. It has to be the real thing. Otherwise, forget it.

That's sort of what I was getting at when I said you strike me as a good survivor. You have the ability to move on. You've done a lot of different things — you're not one to dwell on the past. 

Yeah, well that is true.

The title for your memoir, Who Killed Mister Moonlight? Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, encapsulates the concept and the context of the book. Did you hold back on writing more about your Love and Rockets' stories? And do you intend on writing more about those chapters in your life with another book?

I only touched on Love and Rockets when it was germane to the story of Bauhaus. I am currently working on notes for a new book that will be much more Love and Rockets-centric. There are many great tales to tell!

Why did you write this book?

I felt compelled to write it. It was partly cathartic but more than anything, I simply love sharing stories and this is one that I lived and is a very good tale indeed! The following is from the afterword which I added to the second edition:

I had no agenda (when writing the book) other than to tell the truth from my point of view. I am aware that some of the content is sensitive and harrowing in the extreme, but if you do not tell the whole story then, well, it is simply not the whole story. It is my sincere hope that the compassion and empathy that I know informed the telling will come across to the reader, and, by book’s end, the complex dynamic that existed in this seminal band of beautiful but damned brothers will be understood in a clear new light.

I have to imagine that writing non-fiction is a much different exercise than writing songs, plays, or anything else. What was it like switching gears, as a writer, and settling in for the book?

I had to adopt a fairly strict regimen where I would start writing at noon, continue for two hours then stop. Take a break and resume work for another hour from 4 to 5 p.m. Then have a stiff drink!

Why did you choose Who Killed Mister Moonlight that as the title?

It is the only Bauhaus song where I sang the lead and so is identified with me and also for Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy and myself, the character of Mister Moonlight took on a new meaning and became representative of the band itself, in particular the beautiful, romantic side. It sounds like the title of a murder mystery / whodunit? and in a way that is what the book is.

I imagine that writing a memoir is a very introspective process. What became important for you as you put it together? Simply telling the stories? Or was there more?

To tell the truth and to endeavor to do so with empathy, insight, and depth. To make the telling engaging through language, pacing, and a certain amount of leading momentum.

And what did you learn about yourself along the way?

More than learning something new about myself there was an affirmation of something that I already knew which is that I am compulsively confessional and basically honest. There are many incidents described in the book where I do not exactly come across in the best light and of which I am not proud but I am proud of telling it like is / was.

You pressed, An Eclipse of Ships on vinyl ...

Yeah we did it on vinyl. The CDs are completely sold out. And I’ve only got a few of the vinyl copies left. It was a really nice mastering job, and the heavy, 180 gram vinyl sounds so good — much better than the vinyl in the '80s. That’s for sure.

I write about a lot of music that comes to me as a download or a stream. If I like it, I buy the record, and it always catches me off guard. Listening to the actual record is like night and day — it hits me in a totally different way.


It sounds like a cliché to talk about — people will scoff if I say that on Facebook — but it’s a real thing.

Well, it’s a waveform. It’s a completely different beast, you know? It’s enveloping. You can listen to vinyl a hell of a lot longer than you can any digital format. Because, in the end, that just gets very wearing. It’s scientific. It’s not pleasing. Vinyl: That’s a waveform. A lovely, pure form of reproduction.

It’s a rare story these days: Bands often talk to me about their new album. There’s a lot of build up, and then they send over a Bandcamp or Soundcloud link, and say "Here it is!" And that’s the end of it. The conversation then turns to how it’s not worth it to press CDs and records.

Well, there is an appeal for the artifact. That hasn’t gone away. It’s very encouraging that vinyl is having a something of resurgence, especially among young listeners. Kids in their 20s are really into vinyl. It’s all part of the artifact, the artwork, and the tactile experience of picking up the record. You can’t beat that. And, as you say, when you put it on, the listening experience is very pleasing.

There’s a new single that’s coming out on Anton Newcombe’s label — from Brian Jonestown Massacre. The day that David Bowie died, I wrote a song that night called “The Day That David Bowie Died,” and recorded it the next day. I was on the road and I happened to have some studio time booked in Portland. One of the guys, Collin Hegna from Brian Jonestown engineered it, and it turned out so well. It’s very pure and spontaneous — one of those things. Anton heard it and immediately wanted to put it out as a 10-inch. They’re mastering it now. That will be a nice addition to the catalogue.

There is that saying: If you take more than 20 minutes to write a song, you’ve taken too long. Have you had songs just kind of come to you like this before?

Nearly always. The lyrics comes to me slowly, and then the music comes to me really quickly after that. And then what I usually do is hone the lyrics. That can go on for weeks, and that’s really important to me. I think it’s a good sign if you can write a songs really quickly. But there’s nothing about that that means you can’t also take a really long time to write a song. I know that Leonard Cohen takes years to write a song. He hones his lyrics — that's what he's doing. He might have the basic song done in those 20 minutes. But then he’s honing it and honing it, and he fills notebooks just for one lyric, and then he'll distill that done to the essence. To me, his songwriting is matchless. It’s just a different process.

With this one — “The Day That David Bowie Died” — I changed two lines the day that we were recording it. The first line was given to me as a gift. Because when I started writing it I was literally on the street corner. There were these boys spilling out of this nightclub, and they were singing the Bowie songs and being raucous. I just wrote down: “The boys are singing on the corner.” And then I had a text message from a friend of mine who owns a club, Lovecraft. I think it was gay night, actually. It said “The boys are crying in the nightclub. So I changed it to that. That’s the first line in the song, and it fits in with the rest of the lyrics.

It sounds like the stars just kind of aligned for you to write this song!

Yeah, and it just flowed. I had the musicians come in. They hadn’t even heard the song. They just heard it once. I recorded basically with just me on an acoustic guitar. And then everyone came in: Piano, beautiful pedal steel, drums, trumpet, wonderful female backing vocals. Everyone heard it once and did their part, first take. So it’s like a revolving door. All of these great players came in, the bass player from Mercury Rev, Paul Dillon put some lovely bass on it. It’s a very poignant, sad, but joyous — tears on the playback — beautiful session.

Were you friends with David Bowie?

No. I met him once on the set of The Hunger. I had a great experience. I'll tell you. The story is in my book, but his dressing room was adjacent to Bauhaus’ area, where we were hanging out. And there was a 1950s jukebox in that area. I was there, just on my own, looking through the tracks. It was well stocked with great cuts from the ‘50s and ‘60s. And then I was aware of this looming presence by my shoulder, and then I hear his voice: “Do you mind if I pick one?” I turned around and it was Bowie. So I said “No, please. By all means.” He had on that dark blue, sharkskin suite that he wears in The Hunger. And so he sort of deliberated, and pressed A36 and then “Groovin’ With Mr.Bloe” comes on, by Mr. Bloe. It’s a little obscure. It’s an instrumental that features a harmonica.

And then Bowie starts dancing in front of me. It was so surreal. It was just him looking at me and me looking at him — I was sort of nodding to the music, and he’s doing that Bowie dance. I got up the nerve to be a bit cheeky, and said, “This reminds me of something.”

When Low came out, out I always thought that the track “A New Career In A New Town” was pretty much inspired, by if not, perhaps, stolen from “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe.” Especially that harmonica part.

He kept on dancing, and he didn’t break a step and he said, “Yeah, what’s that?”

"It's one of yours."

"Which one?"

"It's off of Low."

"Well come on then, which one is it?"

"It's 'A New Career in a New Town' ..."

And with that, he put his fingers to his lips and kept dancing and smiling and gave me a wink. It was a magic moment.

That sounds like a dream sequence!

Yeah, somebody said it’s sort of like a David Lynch scene. I’ve bought practically every David Bowie record on the day it came out. I bought Black Star on the day of one of my Living Room gigs in Seattle, the day after it came out. And there’s this basement where I was staying, it was the perfect place to listen to it through headphones, with all the lights out. Which I did. It knocked me out, the quality and the depth of it. Then the next day I go to Portland and he dies. I played it again that night with a completely different perspective on the album. And when it got to that last track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” and he alludes to that same phrase from “A New Career In A New Town,” with that harmonica part. And when that came on I completely lost it. I blubbered my eyes out. It was poignant to me because it brings back personal memories as well. It was very intense. And then afterward I thought, he’s being so clever and candid with that. What he’s saying is — he knew he was dying — a new town, that's the afterlife. The new career is whatever that happens to be in that new place where he’s going.

After that, the song, “The Day That David Bowie Died,” just poured out of me.