David J on Crafting the Lyrics for “Love and Rockets” (Part 2) [INTERVIEW]

This is the second 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. Today’s episode features Daniel Ash with David J’s interview coming later this week. I spoke with Daniel and David while they were preparing for Love and Rocket’s first US tour in fifteen years. Below are excerpts from his interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast (Daniel’s interview is available here).

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: I get the sense that writing lyrics is something you enjoy doing, not something you have to do as a responsibility for a band or as a solo artist. In your book “Who Killed Mister Moonlight?” you mentioned being “astonished by the incisive beauty of the poetry” of Jeremy Reed and later working with him in a recording studio. What are some of the influences that sparked your interest in writing, and helped shape your approach to crafting lyrics?

David J: “When it comes to poetry, the first poet who truly captivated me was Dylan Thomas. I was still in school at the time, and his work really arrested my attention. I was so enthralled that I started emulating Thomas, but my English teacher took issue with this. One time, I wrote a poem that I was particularly proud of, but it sounded too much like Thomas, with lines like ‘Bible black this & crow black that’. So he called me out on it, saying, ‘This is Dylan Thomas, not you. Be yourself.’ I spoke to him afterward, and I understood what he meant. But that experience had a significant influence on me.

“Mr. Elder, my English teacher, was quite influential as well. He was a bit of a maverick, someone who marched to his own beat. He wasn’t popular with the other teachers because he went off the syllabus and introduced us to things he believed we should know, even if they weren’t directly related to literature. For example, he taught us about how to wine and dine a young lady, which is indeed important in life. He also introduced us to war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But sometimes, he would literally throw the assigned book across the room and bring out something else, like D.H. Lawrence or some explicit poetry with artistic merit.

“One time, he surprised us all by setting up a record player on his desk. It was extraordinary; we had never seen anything like it. Without saying a word, he played a Bob Dylan record and then The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Afterward, he asked us to take our Dylan Thomas books and turn to a specific page. Then he explained the connection between the two records. The Beatles were heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, especially in their lyrics. And without the gentleman who wrote the book we were about to read, Bob Dylan wouldn’t have influenced The Beatles the way he did, since Dylan himself was likely named after Dylan Thomas. This experience completely brought literature to life for me, and I read Dylan Thomas with fresh eyes.”

Photo credit: Pedro Figueiredo

James: I consider myself fortunate to have had a similar experience in 10th grade when my creative writing teacher introduced me to e.e. cummings and other contemporary poets. It completely changed my perception of what poetry could be. It wasn’t this rigid, unrelatable thing anymore; it had a myriad of meanings and textures. So having the right teacher in high school can make a tremendous difference by breaking away from the standard and exploring new territories. Starting with things that haven’t been done a million times is a good place to begin. It’s not that the classics aren’t good, but they may not be as relatable.

David: “Absolutely, I agree. My best friend in that class, Steve Turner, who later became the guitarist in my first punk band, was a very intelligent and rebellious kid. He introduced me to Rimbaud and Baudelaire when we were around 15 or 16 years old. He was highly influential, and then there was Leonard Cohen. Later, Patti Smith came along, referencing Rimbaud, which added another layer of color to the French symbolists. I saw connections between rock and roll and those poets, and it was incredibly exciting.”

James: That leads me perfectly into my next question. It’s almost as if I knew what you were going to say, but your lyrics often have a storytelling quality that reminds me of Bob Dylan. When I was writing these questions, “Bound for Hell” from the self-titled Love and Rockets album came to mind. The lyrics go:

“The engine with human blood was damp
The headlight was her brimstone lamp
And then for fuel I shoveled in bones
and the furnace roared with a thousand groans.”

I love how the song is so vivid and imagery-driven, like a story. What are your sources of inspiration, and how do you approach blending personal experiences with pure invention and intertwining them?

David: “Well, with that particular song, it’s actually a case of appropriation. It’s an American ballad from the 19th century. I came across a book of American ballads while on tour, and I was really captivated by them. I elaborated on one of those ballads, added my own invention to it. The first part of the piece is my own creation, written to lead into the already conceived and written ballad. I made a few changes here and there, but it’s definitely an unusual case of appropriation.”

Photo credits: Chris Jensen and Kevin Westenberg

James: Songwriters as the original remixers, the poet version before sampling and everything else.

David: “Yes, especially with ballads. It’s a form that has been handed down for decades, and it stays alive by being cast in a contemporary light. The fact that these ballads still resonate and are performed today is a testament to the strength, power, and potency of the original form—the ballad.”

James: Absolutely. It’s a very powerful poetic structure. In fact, I recently interviewed Dana Gioia, the former Poet Laureate of California, and he mentioned how he used a ballad to tell the story of his relatives. It allowed him to convey the story in a simple, straightforward way with built-in momentum, making it perfect for setting to music.

David: “It reminds me of another ballad that sparked my imagination: ‘Froggy Went A-Courtin’.’ It’s a traditional folk tale, and there’s something about the lyricism of it. I was very young when I first heard it, around eight years old. These kinds of things just stick with you.”

James: I’ve had a couple of my poems set to music and a few transformed into short films, but in those cases, the poems remained largely unchanged. The artists I collaborated with reinterpreted them. I’m fascinated by the process of crafting lyrics into songs, something I haven’t directly done myself. I’m curious about how lyrics influence the music and vice versa. How do you find the balance between lyrics and music?

David: “It’s often the case that the lyrics come first, and they usually flow out like a burst from a dam. The first line often sets the meter and rhythm, and I just run with it. Once I have that form, I’ll pick up the guitar. I rarely sit down at the piano for this process. It’s the form of the lyrics that dictates the structure and form of the music. It’s easy for me to add the music once the lyrics are in place. Then I go back and refine the lyrics, polishing them like burnishing. Sometimes, when you introduce the music, you realize certain things need to change for it to work as a song. It could be changing the tense from past to present or future, or it could be altering the small words in sentences, like ‘but’ or ‘then.’ These subtle changes influence the context. That’s what I mean by ‘honing’ the lyrics.”

James: Speaking of refining and perfecting songs, I’m curious about how you learn from audience responses. Unlike stand-up comedians who can workshop their sets and modify jokes based on audience reactions, musicians often have a locked-in version of their songs once the album is cut before going on tour. So, do you find that you can actually learn from the way audiences respond to your music and make any adjustments?

David: “Absolutely. One song that comes to mind is ‘Goth Girls in Southern California.’ I recorded it shortly after writing it, but it has evolved since then. For several years, I played a lot of house gigs, intimate concerts in people’s living rooms. I loved those shows because they created a deep connection with the audience. You can hear even the most subtle reactions. One thing I really enjoy is getting laughs, and I sprinkle many of my songs with bittersweet witticisms. ‘Goth Girls in Southern California’ has a comedic element to it. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment during those intimate performances, I would change a line and observe the audience’s reaction. If it got a noticeable laugh or response, I would think, ‘Yes, that works.’ That would then become the fixed, new lyric. In some cases, songs have mutated so much over time that we’ve gone back and re-recorded them. One example is ‘Crocodile Tears’ from The Velvet Cosh.’ It started as a bit of a put-down song directed at someone else, but later on, I didn’t feel comfortable with that approach. So I changed it to be self-reprimanding, incorporating self-deprecation. I felt more comfortable with that form. The song ended up being about both someone else and myself, coming full circle but with different lyrics. It’s a prime example of a song mutating over the years.”

James: That’s fascinating. So it seems like songs can really benefit from being tested in front of a real audience, even before they get locked in. Finding ways to do that can be valuable.

David: “Yes, let me tell you about the song I mentioned earlier, ‘Goth Girls in Southern California.’ The inspiration for that song came when I had to pick up a guitar from Taylor Guitars in San Diego. I had an endorsement deal with them, and they had given me a couple of guitars. However, one of them had some issues, so I had to go down and get it fixed. As I was driving there, I saw this striking image—a cute goth girl in Southern California with a black parasol, wearing a little funeral dress and booties. It was quite charming. The idea sparked in my mind, and the title “Goth Girls in Southern California” came to me. I was just filled with inspiration. When I arrived at Taylor Guitars, my guitar wasn’t ready, and they told me it would take about half an hour. They said, ‘Amuse yourself in the green room.’ So, in that green room, I sat down and wrote the song. The lyrics and the music came together. By the time I got my guitar back, the song was already complete. I recorded it a couple of days later. It’s a perfect example of that sudden flash of inspiration and how it can shape a song.”

James: I can relate to that feeling when a poem just falls out of you, like it was cooking subconsciously and suddenly it’s ready to be taken out of the oven. My Gen Z younger daughter will be joining me for the upcoming Love and Rockets show in Oakland at the iconic Fox Theater. It’s an incredible venue. I’m actually going to see you guys tomorrow, and I’m recording this the day before the Cruel World Festival, which will be fantastic. It didn’t take much convincing to get my daughter to come along when I connected the dots between Love and Rockets and Bauhaus. I gave her a playlist that covers a subset of your rich catalog. She has a question she wanted me to ask: How do singer-songwriters perform their songs night after night without losing the emotional connection or getting tired of them?

David: “That’s a really good question. It’s about mentally tapping into the state of mind you were in when you wrote the song. Sometimes, I carry around the original lyric sheets with me, and there’s something evocative about them. I see coffee stains or words crossed out and replaced with others. It serves as a mnemonic device that firmly brings me back to the state I was in when I wrote the song. If I feel like the connection is slipping away, I pull out those lyric sheets from a folder and study them for a while. It helps bring back the emotions. Other times, it’s a matter of mentally revisiting why I wrote the song in the first place. The context of a song can also change over time. What was originally personal can become a conversation with someone who has interpreted the song in their own way or applied it to their own experiences. Hearing their stories provides fresh experiences to draw from and keeps the song alive. So, there are different ways to keep the songs alive and maintain that energy and emotion in each performance.”

James: Let’s shift gears and talk about the songs that take a different direction. Your songs “The Unreliable Narrator” and “Sacred Monster” on the Night Crickets album and the song “Mosaic” from the album “Missive To An Angel From The Halls Of Infamy And Allure” are examples of spoken word poetry backed by an instrumental track. What was it about these lyrics that worked better as spoken word?

David: “It’s something that becomes very obvious to me. The form of the lyrics often dictates the method of delivery, and it’s not something I have to deliberate or overthink. It’s just clear to me that these particular lyrics need a spoken word interpretational performance to convey their message effectively. Sometimes, you have a song where a section incorporates spoken word while the rest is sung. Again, it just becomes apparent to me what form it should take. It’s one of those things that’s hard to put into words and explain fully. It’s a matter of intuition and experience. After doing it for a while, you just have a sense of what a song needs and how to best bring it to life.”

James: As a poet, collections of poems are typically written over years, with each poem standing as a standalone piece of art. It’s usually after the poems are written that the challenge arises of figuring out how to bring them together into a cohesive book. When it comes to writing lyrics, how do the expectations of the band and its sound, as well as the expectations of the fans, influence the crafting process? And what role does the album being created play in shaping the songs? I personally still appreciate the concept of albums and hope it never fades away, even if the physical forms like vinyl or CDs have evolved. There’s something special about a contiguous block of songs that fit together in some way.

David: “It doesn’t impose on the material. The material itself determines its ultimate destination. Once the song is there, or even when it’s in the process of being created, it becomes clear where it belongs. Whether it’s for a solo record or a specific band, or even a completely new project where I have to find the right band for that session. It all stems from the form of the song itself. I don’t sit down and consciously think, ‘I’m going to write a song for Love and Rockets.’ I simply write what comes to me. Then, it becomes apparent whether it fits with Love and Rockets or if it’s better suited for a solo project. It’s a matter of intuitively understanding the essence and nature of the material, whether it’s personal or more aligned with a particular band’s sound. So, ultimately, the songs guide the process, rather than external expectations or considerations.”

James: That makes sense. Once you’ve written songs, they naturally find their place in one project or another, or sometimes even inspire a new project altogether. Can you give an example of how that happened with the creation of Night Crickets?

David: “Night Crickets came about during the pandemic when we were all in different locations. We wanted to find a way to work together, so we decided to experiment. We started with a couple of tracks that came together quickly and turned out really well. We decided to continue the process, taking turns in trading files and working on the songs until we all agreed that they were complete. This approach was different from how we had worked in the past, where it was usually more spontaneous, often decided on the day of the session or the day before. It involved scraps of notes, half-written lyrics, newspaper headlines, articles, and snippets of conversations I had heard on TV or the radio. It was a kind of montage, bringing all these elements together. That approach just felt right for the Night Crickets project.”

James: Love and Rockets has created some incredibly beautiful songs, and one of the things I appreciate about the project is how it combines distinct styles. You and Daniel have different approaches that blend seamlessly. One song that comes to mind is “Rainbird” from the album “Earth, Sun, Moon.” The poetry, melodies, sound structures—everything about it is magical. The lyrics you wrote:

“Rain bird swoops through the
Chimney pots and rain
Rain bird flies to the edge of a gilded cage
Hiding in the spotlights
Of a famous stage
He tries to become invisible
Whilst stealing the front page”

can stand alone as a powerful poem. Yet, they are also inseparable from the music. There are other lyrics that, in the absence of the music, may lose some impact. But reading these lyrics, I can immediately hear the music in my mind, and they become richer. So, can you talk about how you approach the sound and creation of these hauntingly beautiful songs, knowing that it’s not an easily answerable question?

David: “That song, ‘Rainbird,’ was written about Daniel Ash and his hesitation to continue making music, despite his ongoing desire to do so. We had made two successful albums as Love and Rockets, and there was uncertainty about making a third. I wrote that song without even letting Daniel know it was about him until we made the album. As for the process, I usually write the lyrics first and then immediately pick up the guitar to compose the music. It’s rare that the music doesn’t come to me. The lyrics are fresh and newly conceived, and they are very present in my consciousness. That consciousness translates into the way I play the guitar. I don’t consciously think about what I’m doing or try to analyze if something will work. I simply start moving my hands on the fretboard. Sometimes, I experiment by tuning the guitar differently, using an open tuning. It’s quite random, and I rely on pure instinct. I don’t know exactly what I’m going for, but I know when I hear it. I listen to what emerges from the guitar and fine-tune it. The beauty of using an open tuning is that the chord shapes no longer make sense in the conventional way. The same shapes produce different sounds because of the altered tuning. It adds a freshness to the process. I don’t know the names of these chords, if they even have names. I just know when I’m playing the right chord. For example, ‘Rainbird’ has a unique rhythm that I had never played before. It’s a challenging rhythm to play, especially while singing. But it just came out naturally. The chords and rhythm felt right. It’s a symbiotic process that I can’t fully explain—it’s just how the music comes together.”

James: What I find really fascinating about your approach is the symbiotic relationship between your words and the music, how they seamlessly come together. It’s different from other songwriters I’ve spoken to where lyrics and music are treated as separate entities. For Love and Rockets, it seems completely organic, where the lyrics and the music naturally complement each other. Moving on to the writing credits, I’ve noticed that some Love and Rockets songs have shared writing credits for the words. Is this because the songs are truly two separate pieces that have been combined, like “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles, or is it more collaborative with significant editorial input, or is it a mix of all those factors?

David: “It’s a mix of all those factors. There are indeed some Love and Rockets songs that can be compared to The Beatles’ process of combining separate pieces. For example, ‘The Light’ was one of those songs where Daniel and I came to rehearsals with half of the song each. We were both enthusiastic about bringing our own songs to the band, so we laid our lyrics on a table and thought, ‘Hmm, these could work together.’ We simply started playing, as we always did. Sometimes, I would come to the band with chord structures, and the songs would mutate as the band worked on them. But with ‘Haunted [When the Minutes Drag],’ there was no preexisting music. We just began playing, and I imagined my lyrics fitting with the chugging rhythm we were creating. It all fell into place perfectly. There was a nod of agreement, and we continued in that direction. Eventually, Daniel grabbed an acoustic guitar and said, ‘I haven’t finished this, but it could work.’ We tried singing the lyrics I had with his music, and it immediately clicked. Then the whole band joined in, and it was a very organic process of how things came together. In other cases, either Daniel or I would have written most of the lyrics, but the other person would chime in and make changes. It’s important to be open-minded and not too possessive in order for successful collaboration to happen. When that process unfolds, you recognize the value of everyone’s input.”

James: What advice do you have for emerging or even established bands that struggle with lyric writing? They might view it as a task rather than a joy. You’ve mentioned your rich exposure to various forms of poetry from an early age, which presumably helped open your mind. However, not everyone has had that experience. So, what advice would you offer bands that are doing everything else well, but struggle with lyrics? 

David: “My suggestion would be to get someone in the band who is genuinely interested in lyrics. If the band is really struggling with writing lyrics, it might be a sign that they need a dedicated lyricist. It doesn’t necessarily have to be someone within the band, but someone who can write lyrics effectively. I understand that this might be an unusual approach, but there are successful examples like Bernie Taupin, who is primarily a lyricist. In essence, find someone who writes lyrics, and that’s my advice.”

To hear David recite lyrics from an upcoming solo project, listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Photo credits: James Morehead

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