Daniel Ash on Crafting the Lyrics for “Love and Rockets” (Part 1) [INTERVIEW]

This is the first interview in a two-part series with Daniel Ash and David J, lyricists and songwriters behind Love and Rockets, Bauhaus, and multiple other band and solo projects. I interviewed Daniel and David separately, with a similar set of questions. The success of their projects can be attributed, in part, to their distinctly different approaches to writing lyrics and crafting songs. This episode features Daniel Ash (David J’s interview is available here). I spoke with Daniel and David while they were preparing for Love and Rocket’s first US tour in fifteen years. The second part goes live later this week. Below are excerpts from his interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Named after the underground comic by the Hernandez brothers, Love and Rockets announced themselves to the world with their radically unique take on the classic Temptations song “Ball Of Confusion.” This debut proved that they were going to be a force to contend with. It became a huge seller and a popular club hit in the US and Canada, where it also went gold.

The legacy of the band has only grown with more people realizing the extent of their influence and generations of new fans discovering them. The list of artists who cite their influence is impressive: The Flaming Lips, The Dandy Warhols, A Place To Bury Strangers, Jane’s Addiction, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beck, Maynard Keenan, Dubfire, the Pixies and many more.

James Morehead: in a 1991 MTV interview you mentioned, when discussing a solo project at the time, that writing lyrics is challenging compared to the music. I suspect many musicians can relate to that challenge. Given your extraordinary portfolio of songs, created for multiple bands and solo projects, has writing lyrics become easier over time? What advice do you have for songwriters who struggle with lyrics?

Daniel Ash: “Interestingly, I think it has become a tad easier because I have been using a technique that dates back to the days of Tones on Tail and even Bauhaus. For example, in songs like ‘Slice of Life’ and others, I found this technique somewhat accidentally, but later discovered that even David Bowie employed it. It’s the ‘cut-up’ technique, an idea inspired by William Burroughs. I have been using it for a long time, starting from my earliest works, like with ‘Slice of Life’, which I got from a fanzine in New York. I began by cutting up headlines and I’ve continued that practice to this day.

“What I have found is that it completely liberates you because much of the time, the creative process happens in the subconscious. The ‘cut-up’ method, where you take bits and pieces of text and rearrange them, plays into that. My preferred source is the National Enquirer, which has highly dramatic headlines that make for interesting phrases.

“Additionally, I have used Viz magazine in the past, which is a comedic, somewhat crude cartoon magazine from the UK, parodying various societal characters. While in England, Viz was my source, but in the U.S., I use magazines like People or any others available at the supermarket. I’d buy several, cut them up, and spread the pieces across my kitchen table. Often, one of those headlines or a simple guitar riff would inspire an entire song.

“Currently, I’m working on a project called Ashes and Diamonds, where I think 99% of the content was inspired by the National Enquirer. The ‘cut-up’ method helps to release self-consciousness, taking you to creative places that you wouldn’t have consciously considered. Usually, if the inspiration doesn’t strike within half an hour, I move on. But when you have 20 to 30 headlines on the table, sentences start forming.

Photo credit: Frank Prosnik

“It’s somewhat like those word magnets people use on their refrigerators, which I’ve tried, but found limiting as they didn’t provide the sensational headlines I found in the Enquirer. To sum it up, most of my inspiration comes from these seemingly ‘tacky’ magazines.”

James: I’m fascinated by that concept, and it’s similar to the found poetry technique. I recently created a poem out of a transcription of Björk explaining the inner workings of a television. It was surreal and poetic in a distinctively Björk-like manner.

In the song “An American Dream” from the Love and Rockets album “Express” you created lyrics that are inseparable from the music. You wrote:

“Are you confused by the chaos
In everyones wandering eyes
Do you dream of running naked
In warm rain
Are you confused by the chaos
It's no, it's no surprise
We all stand next to Jesus
Close to Satan we're both the same”

Reading those lines it’s impossible not to hear the music. I’m transported every time I hear this song, in a similar way that Led Zeppelin’s song “The Battle of Evermore” transports me. When writing lyrics are you already crafting the music, or does the music come first and drive the lyrics, or a combination of both?

Daniel: “It’s indeed a blend of both. Either a guitar riff or a headline can ignite an idea. You see, it’s a process that connects with your subconscious, as the headline or riff that catches your interest is likely already on your mind, even if subtly. It’s intriguing how certain headlines will strike me and others won’t; I wouldn’t even cut them out of the magazine. The ones that excite me are like catalysts, getting the creative ball rolling. It diverts attention away from oneself, mitigating self-consciousness.

“In the past, I often had to consume a bottle or two of wine to loosen up, to bypass intellectual barriers and achieve a sort of tunnel vision. Alcohol brings emotions to the surface, which is what I was seeking. Without a supportive tool like the ‘cut-up’ method, my analytical tendencies take over when I’m sober. I tend to scrutinize each line as I write, wondering if it’s good enough, which can lead to a creative block. Using the ‘cut-up’ technique helps me circumvent this obstacle and sparks my creativity.”

James: There’s a similarity between overworking dough and overworking a poem. In both cases, the result might not be as good as you’d hope.

Daniel: “Absolutely. I’m a firm believer that the best and purest ideas, including the most successful songs, are often those that come swiftly. Take “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, “Go” from Tones on Tail, or “So Alive” – they were all written in a day. This is akin to automatic writing, when it comes before your intellect can start over-analyzing. For me, the intellect often becomes a hindrance and sometimes even irks me. It turns into a contest of cleverness, rather than letting the creativity flow naturally. 

“It also aligns with the notion of ‘happy accidents’, especially when writing music. Sometimes you might accidentally play the ‘wrong’ chord, but if you’re open to it, that chord can turn out to be even better than the one you originally intended to play. This openness can yield something far more substantial than adhering strictly to your intellect, which I believe is just a way of showing off. It’s ego-driven. With automatic writing or the ‘cut-up’ technique, you’re freed from this and it becomes more enjoyable, more fluid. 

“For me, it’s an ongoing struggle to ward off my intellect since we humans tend to overthink a lot. That’s why I love riding motorcycles – it helps me escape the cluster of thoughts and demands my undivided attention.

James: It seems that when a song or a poem just naturally ‘falls out’ of you, the audience can sense it. It doesn’t feel encumbered, but just naturally present.

Daniel: “Exactly, it just flows. People often say it’s like you’re an antenna for these ideas, but I recently watched an interview with Sinead O’Connor and she offered an interesting perspective. Rather than being an antenna for external influences, she suggested you are an antenna for your own internal ideas. It’s not an external force, but rather tapping into what’s already inside of you. I find that concept intriguing.

“It would be interesting to hear about the methods other artists use to tap into their creativity. For me, the ‘cut-up’ technique works incredibly well. I believe William Burroughs stumbled upon it accidentally when he cut up some of his own text. It simply felt right to him, and there it was, a transformative tool that took ordinary writing and turned it into something extraordinary.”

What do you learn from how audiences respond to the lyrics of your songs, and I’m thinking about those moments when the crowd sings in unison, knowing every word by heart. How does the feedback loop of the audience affect your writing?

Daniel: “Honestly, it doesn’t really impact the process. By the time we present our songs to the audience, they’re already written and set in stone. Whether it’s Love and Rockets or Bauhaus, we used to just be in a room together – the three or four of us, depending on the band – and work things out. For Love and Rockets, either David or I would bring a song concept, along with a lyric and a riff, and then we’d develop it together as a band. I believe that’s how most people work.

“To me, it’s important to have a lyric ready to go, otherwise it feels like you’re just jamming aimlessly. I usually have a vocal melody to go along with the guitar bit, and we take it from there. Once a song is done, there’s no testing it. The audience decides whether they like it or not, and if they don’t, they won’t buy the records. If a song flops, we might consider not performing it anymore.

“However, it’s hard to gauge the audience’s response accurately because there’s so much going on, including the volume of the music. You don’t get as direct a reaction as you would if you were a comedian, for instance. That’s a different scenario.”

James: My Gen Z younger daughter is joining me for the upcoming Love and Rockets show in Oakland at the iconic Fox Theater. I don’t know if you’ve played the Fox before, but it’s incredible. It didn’t take much convincing when I connected the dots from Love and Rockets to Bauhaus. I gave her a playlist covering your extraordinarily rich catalog. She wanted me to ask how singer-songwriters can perform very personal songs, or just songs that have been played many times, night after night, without losing the emotion and energy on stage?

Daniel: “In the past, I used to rely on vodka. I found humor in the saying ‘I drink to make other people more interesting,’ but that’s no longer my method. I’m pretty much clean. The answer is simple—don’t over-tour. Overdoing it can lead to burnout, and that’s when you start reaching for substances like alcohol. We’re performing around 16-17 gigs in this tour, and by the end of it, we’ll be ready for a break. I’ve heard about heavy metal bands going on the road for two years, but that would drive me insane. That’s probably where the culture of drugs and alcohol in the industry comes from—people trying to cope with the monotony and exhaustion.

“Now we have a new, more civilized way of touring. We go on the road for two weeks, take a break for two weeks, and then get back on the road. I did this a few years ago with Kevin from Poptone, and it worked out very well. After about 12 gigs in a row, we’re ready for a break, and when we come back, we’re all refreshed and ready to perform again. So, my advice to new artists would be—don’t do too many gigs in a row. It’s that simple.”

James: As a poet, collections of poems are typically written over years with each poem written as a standalone piece of art. Finding a way to turn individual poems into a cohesive book happens after the poems are written. When writing lyrics, what role does the band you are writing for, and the expectations of that band’s sound, play in crafting the lyrics? And what role does the album you are creating play? 

Daniel: “For me, there’s no difference at all between the two processes. Writing lyrics is a continual process that’s independent of the band’s chemistry. It’s primarily influenced by what I’m feeling inside. While the lyrics often originate from the cut-up idea, they may develop subconsciously in a way that might seem like I’m writing differently for different bands. However, I believe it’s just a stream of consciousness that manifests itself. My main focus is to write good lyrics and create a good song. The band around me can either accept or reject what I offer.

“When I think about my current project, Ashes and Diamonds, with Bruce and Paul, it’s the exact same process. There was this one song, ‘Teenage Robots’, which is about the modern obsession with phones, particularly among young people. As they were playing the bass and drums, I was doing this cut-up exercise on the floor, assembling words together to the rhythm of their jamming. Within half an hour, I had finished the lyrics. It happened quite quickly, but I needed that kick drum and baseline to spark the creative juices. My point being, it would have been the same process regardless of who was playing the bass and drums. The subject matter naturally unfolds based on what I’m going through at that particular time.”

James: I’ve read interviews where some bands mention that they designate certain songs for specific bands or hold onto them for later. This could lead to overthinking, which contradicts your ‘don’t overthink it’ approach.

Daniel: “I know Dave operates that way, but I never have. Whatever’s in my heart or my head at the moment simply comes out. I don’t categorize my work like ‘this is for this project’ or ‘that is for that project.’ I’m just thankful to create anything, and whatever I do produce will go to the project I’m currently involved with. Dave and I are quite different in that respect. I’m not sure how he generates his material; it’s all very personal, and we don’t discuss it. I’m very spontaneous, and I try to remove my intellect from the process as much as possible. Even to this day, a bottle of red wine can assist with that.” 

James: Alcohol certainly amplifies emotions.

Daniel: “Yes, there’s a difference between the first bottle, which you might consume while cooking, and the second one. After the second bottle, you wake up the next day wondering what you were thinking. It can be quite embarrassing, looking back at what you wrote the previous night. It’s often an emotional mess. I don’t do that anymore.”

James: While many Love and Rockets songs have individual credits for words, songs including “It Could be Sunshine”, “Hot Trip to Heaven”, and “My Drug” have shared writing credits. In situations where the writing credit for words is shared is that because two separate songs have been combined, like “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles, or is the writing truly collaborative, or did significant editorial input justify the shared credit?

Daniel: “In the case of Love and Rockets, the shared credit usually means that David or I each had half a song. ‘It Could be Sunshine’ is a classic example; David had the first half and I had the second half. Lyrically, they worked together even though they were written separately. Another good example is “Haunted [When the Minutes Drag]”. David had the first lyric and I had the second one. We thought of trying to join these two separate ideas together, and it turned out they worked well in unison.”

James: Exactly like “A Day in the Life”.

Daniel: “I think we probably work quite similarly to how Lennon-McCartney did. Absolutely.”

James: One thing that I find particularly compelling about the projects you’ve been involved with, especially Love and Rockets, is the blend of very different styles. David, who I will be speaking to separately, has a distinct style in his solo work that often leans towards country. The different styles come together in a fascinating way.

Daniel: “Yes, I used to make a joke about our contrasting styles. I would say that it sounds like David has swallowed a dictionary and that I seem like I’ve never seen one.”

James: “In my preparation for this interview, I went through my old CDs to understand who wrote which songs, and which were blended, because the web doesn’t retain such information well anymore. In a 1992 interview about your second solo album “Foolish Thing Desire” you talk about how you prefer lyrics that are direct and to the point. The song “Dream Machine” from that album, where the distorted vocals perfectly blend in with layers of electronics and percussion, starts with the lyric:

“I know this little boy
That lives inside your head
I know this little boy
That lives inside your head
Just dreams of the bright blue stars
That shine up in the sky
Just dreams of your sorrows
When you live another lie”

Repetition in poetry is used as a device, but infrequently. Repetition in song lyrics is much more commonplace. How do you use repetition when writing lyrics to ensure that in the end you have a great song, not just a great lyric?

Daniel: “Well, repetition comes with the territory and it’s often referred to as a chorus in a song. Most songs typically have a verse, a middle eight, and a chorus. However, there are great songs that don’t change much. For instance, ‘Connected’ by The Stereo MC’s or ‘Go!’ by Tones on Tail. Repetition can sometimes be the strength of the song. When it comes to your question, the repetition in a song naturally works itself out. Unlike poetry, repeating certain lines in song lyrics often works because it forms a chorus or a hook line. That’s what listeners expect in a pop song. I think it takes more talent to write a hit single than anything else. The strategy of following a verse with a chorus is needed and desired in a pop song. It’s an old cliché, but it works. That’s what a pop song is and that’s what people instinctively want.”

Photo credits: Chris Jensen and Kevin Westenberg

James: My parents are both classical musicians and my mom’s a composer. They play and write very complex music in terms of structures and forms. We often debate about the complexity of pop songs. I argue that just because a pop song doesn’t appear complicated, it doesn’t make it easy to create. For instance, song by bands like Automatic, Kraftwerk, and Cabaret Voltaire, are incredibly sparse and simple, but everything is exposed. If something’s out of place, it’s much more visible. So, I agree with what you’ve said.

Daniel: “Yes, simple is often best. There are listeners who appreciate the complexity of bands like Yes and Genesis from way back, but I personally find that kind of music boring. To me, it just seems like a show of musicianship with no real emotional depth, almost like an ego trip on how fast and how many scales you can play on a guitar. It’s a classic example of intellect taking over. It reminds me of the kind of people you’d find at parties, the ones who are stuck in the kitchen arguing about politics while everyone else is having a good time in the living room. In my experience, these are usually the same people who like Yes and Genesis. Conversely, the fun ones, who are having a good time, listen to music by artists like Roxy Music and David Bowie.”

James: Other songwriters I’ve interviewed, and poets who have adapted poems for musicians, talk about needing to make word choices that will work when being sung. When editing lyrics into a song, how does the singability of the words influence what you write?

Daniel: “Absolutely. That’s essentially the flow of the song. The words need to not only flow, but also harmonize with the vocal melody and the music. It’s often the case where I’ll change lines because they don’t rhyme or they don’t roll off the tongue as they should. Even though a line in itself might be great, it often needs to be altered in order to fit into the context of a song, rather than standing on its own as a piece of poetry. That is a different medium altogether. I only write lyrics for songs. I don’t write standalone poetry. I’ve never really connected with poetry on its own. For me, a lyric, even if it is a poem, has to be connected to music.”

James: I recently interviewed an accomplished poet who observed that music and poetry are interconnected, and that the best poetry doesn’t lose sight of that. He believed poetry that loses sight of its origins as a lyrical art form is not the best poetry.

Daniel: “As a kid, we were asked to bring poetry to school, and I immediately picked songs by Marc Bolan from T-Rex. Songs like ‘Ballrooms of Mars’ have beautiful lyrics. It’s one of my favorite songs. The lyrics can certainly be appreciated as a poem, but when I read them, I tend to associate them with the music that accompanies them. Having the memory of the music makes the lyrics much more appealing to me. Some people, however, enjoy the sound of words in a poem and don’t need any music or melody to accompany it. That’s not the case for me; I need lyrics to be connected to a melody.”

James: For shorter lyrics, how does that change the way you approach the song versus a much longer lyric?

Daniel: “We have this one song, which has a dub reggae vibe. Although the lyric is relatively short, the song is substantial in length. There are no rules to it. Take the song ‘Go!’ by Tones on Tails, people perceive it as an instrumental piece with sparse lyrics, but it actually has three or four verses of lyrics. There’s another song, which is a rap and is only about two and a half to three minutes long, but it’s filled with words. So, you see, there’s no such thing as a formula. This reminds me of when Siouxsie and the Banshees were in the studio. They were working with a classically trained musician who had strict rules about what notes should go together. They ended up playing notes that technically weren’t supposed to be played together, but they did it anyway because it worked for their song. I think the more open-minded you are in music, the freer you are.”

James: That’s why I love writing poetry. There are rules if you choose to use them, but there are no rules that you have to use, and you can do anything you want. I love that freedom.

Daniel: “Exactly, there’s no set time for ideas to click. It could be 20 years, 20 minutes, or 20 days before people suddenly appreciate a particular piece. I sometimes wonder how music from different eras would be perceived in other times. Like what would Beethoven make of a song like ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula?’ I find such juxtapositions fascinating.”

James: There were periods where musicians were almost paid by the note, similar to how novelists like Charles Dickens were paid per word when they published serials.

Daniel: “Imagine playing a 1960s psychedelic track to someone in the Glenn Miller era, or a Velvet Underground song to someone in the 1940s. They’d probably think you belonged in an asylum. Back in the 60s, only people on the fringe of society would appreciate Iggy and the Stooges. Now, their music is widely accepted.”

James: Exactly, like the band Skinny Puppy. They don’t follow the traditional chorus-verse structure, but they’re still creating music.

Daniel: “Right. People often question whether genres like rap are music. My answer is, if you can hear sounds, it’s music. The key thing is not to be narrow-minded about it.”

James: Art should be about creation, without putting too many constraints on it.

Daniel: “Yes, being a music snob isn’t productive. I’ve always disliked the elitist mentality found in some alternative rock circles, where if you like Velvet Underground, for example, you can’t possibly appreciate Britney Spears. But why not? A well-written pop song like Britney’s ‘Toxic’ is brilliant in its own right.”

James: I think many of those who claim they don’t like pop music secretly do enjoy it.

Daniel: “I believe they can’t create it, and that’s the issue. Even Lou Reed admitted that his hit ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was an accident. Similarly, our song ‘So Alive’ was also a happy accident. It was just one of those magic moments.”

James: The longevity of your music career is remarkable. Many aspiring artists struggle to turn their passion into a sustainable career. Can you share some key things you’ve learned along the way to achieve such longevity?

Daniel: “Patience with other people and trying to see the big picture, rather than just your own point of view, is really important. I remember Keith Richards once mentioned how crucial it is to control your ego. I’ve worked with individuals in the past who had such inflated egos that they couldn’t allow anyone else’s perspective to influence their vision, which essentially closed all doors to collaboration. Being open is crucial when you’re working within a band, and if you don’t keep your ego in check, it could lead to the band’s dissolution. Ego is often the root cause of many band breakups. Of course, personality clashes can also occur over time. However, having patience, seeing the bigger picture, and avoiding tunnel vision are vital. Otherwise, if nobody can influence your ideas or add something new, the entire project will stagnate.”

To hear Daniel recite lyrics from an upcoming solo project, listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. David J’s interview is available here.

Photo credit: James Morehead

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