A New Tale to Tell
Love and Rockets has achieved an almost unheard-of feat with its new album Sweet F.A.: The three-man band has created a near-perfect alternative makeout record. Sweet F.A. boasts sensual, shimmery soundscapes punctuated by twangy, languid guitar lines and ultra-sultry rhythms. Listening to the hourlong set is like taking a swim in a warm sea on a moonlit night; its musical currents caress your legs and torso and head, while its words engulf the listener in matters of love, lust, and need.
Over the past seventeen years, Love and Rockets -- guitarist/vocalist Daniel Ash, bassist/vocalist David J, and drummer Kevin Haskins (David J's brother) -- has undergone numerous musical transformations, moving from the striking, Gothic dirges of Bauhaus (the British band from which L&R evolved) to the pumping, conventional hard rock of 1989's self-titled album (which boasted the primal megahit "So Alive") to the moody, glimmering Sweet F.A. And while the new album certainly marks yet another musical departure for the band, perhaps just as important it finds Love and Rockets at a career crossroads, testing its relevance with the Nineties record-buying public.
"We don't know if we have a future at this moment, because the album isn't doing that great," Daniel Ash confesses in a telephone interview from his hotel room in Toronto. "It's nothing like it was in '89; we have to climb up that hill again. We don't know if we're going to be considered something that was happening in the Eighties and have had our day or not. It's not a case of proving ourselves, really, but of surviving and carrying on, because you have to sell X amount of records to have a deal, to be a viable product. And there's also the way you are perceived by the audience: There's the possibility we are perceived as something that happened in the Eighties and are no longer relevant."
Although sales for Sweet F.A., which hit stores two months ago, have been slow so far, Ash notes that the band has enjoyed excellent attendance at shows during the current leg of its U.S. club tour, which began in Pensacola on May 11 and wraps up on June 23 in Salt Lake City. This tromp follows a 28-gig, four-week tour in April, during which almost all dates were sold out. Additionally the band played two sold-out shows last month in Mexico City, where Love and Rockets are considered legends among the denizens of that city's thriving Goth-music scene. The band is also looking forward to playing a number of festivals in the U.S., Canada, and Japan over the summer.
Sweet F.A. represents a departure for Love and Rockets in that the group stripped down everything musically. "We went right back to bass, drums, and guitar," Ash explains, "and for us that was really refreshing, going in and recording everything, sometimes even the vocals, in one take. It's probably our most honest record.
"If anything, the songs on this album are more simplistic. The lyrics are much simpler, as direct as possible. In the past we've done a lot of philosophizing, but on this one the subject matter is mainly about lust and love. Some of the other records have been more spiritual, more religious, whereas this one is more in-your-face, more of a direct rock and roll album, with sex as a core that follows through. I've always been a big lover of Fifties rock and roll and the simplicity of the lyrics at that time. We tried to do that with this record, and whether that's going to connect or not, we don't know."
The disc opens with the title track, a delicate, acoustic meditation on the significance of an individual life, then gives way to the dark guitar blasts and bleak strummings of "Judgement Day," which looks at materialism and spiritual loss. "Use Me" is a spare, moody number reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, while "Fever" and "Sweet Lover Hangover" (the first single) are finger-snapping numbers with snaky guitar lines. The shimmery love ballad "Pearl" borrows its cool, choral vocals from the Church, while "Natacha" is a psychedelic, Beatlesesque dirge. A distinctive Southwestern twang runs through "Sad and Beautiful World," and "Shelf Life," while the techno-industrial "Here Comes the Comedown" and the dissonant, Gothic "Spiked" close the disc with a burst of intense energy. Throughout, Ash's sultry whisperings and languid wailings convey sexy images that rise out of thumping dance rhythms, coiling electric guitars, and lush acoustic strummings.
While the music may move from folkie pop to dance-y grooves to postindustrial grind, it still retains the influential Goth flourishes that Ash and David J virtually invented as members of Bauhaus (Ash, J, Haskins, and vocalist Peter Murphy), which recorded four full-length studio albums between 1979 and 1983. Shortly after Bauhaus dissolved, Ash and Haskins formed the artsy Tones on Tail with former Bauhaus roadie Glenn Campling on bass, releasing three albums (Pop, Night Music, Tones on Tail), while J put in a stint with English pop eccentrics the Jazz Butcher and pursued a solo career. Before long the three musicians reunited to form Love and Rockets, releasing the diverse, melodic Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven in 1985. That was followed by the atmospheric Express (it featured their dance-hit remake of the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion") in '86, and '87's dance-y, acoustic-based Earth Sun Moon, which included a remake of Jethro Tull's "No New Tale to Tell." The three albums were well-received and spawned a sizable cult following.
But with the release of 1989's Love and Rockets and the hit single "So Alive," the band attained enormous commercial success. In fact they were on the verge of launching an arena tour when they realized they were burnt out; rather than forge ahead, they decided to take a break. "The popularity thing in '89 was wonderful, the fact that we had people buying our record was great, but it was a case of needing to get away from each other," Ash remembers. "The plan was to have a year's break, which turned into two years. Everyone seems to think it was five or six years, but it was just 24 months."
During this respite Ash and J produced solo albums (Ash: 1991's Coming Down and 1992's Foolish Thing Desire; J: 1990's Songs from Another Season and 1992's Urban Urbane). Ash says these solo projects were a gratifying experience, but in retrospect they paled in comparison to Love and Rockets' best material. "Once David and I were doing an interview together and we both said the exact same thing, that we are at our most powerful when we use the chemistry of the three of us. We came to the conclusion that if we just let go of our egos and just realize that fact, we could get on with it. What's great about doing a solo project is that there is no compromise, like in a band situation, and at the end of the day the sense of achievement you feel is great. But on reflection it was best when it was the three of us."
In 1994 the band released its first album in five years, Hot Trip to Heaven, a collection of acid house, techno, experimental, and ambient music that was deliberately uncommercial and inaccessible. Love and Rockets recorded Hot Trip for the RCA label, but Ash contends RCA didn't understand what the band was doing with the project and released them from their contract. Rick Rubin's American Records picked up Love and Rockets shortly thereafter. "Hot Trip is something we were really pleased with -- it took two years to finish and it was really crafted," Ash explains. "It's not the sort of record we can take out on the road, but it was quite a departure for us. That's one I think we are going to be proud of in ten years."
Hot Trip was a studio-heavy, carefully constructed record, whereas Sweet F.A. was recorded mostly live, with few effects or overdubs. "What we tend to do is react to the last album in order to keep it fresh for us," Ash explains. "Say we do an electric guitar-oriented album; the next will be an acoustic album. It was a reaction against Hot Trip to Heaven to do this essentially organic album. The writing style hasn't really changed as far as writing a song and then presenting it to the band, but studio technology has helped to evolve the sound of each record. If you listen to a Bauhaus album and then go on to, say, this last album, we hope its sonically superior to the older albums."
Love and Rockets spent more than a year working on Sweet F.A., beginning with rehearsals and demos in San Francisco, then moving on to London and eventually Los Angeles, where all three members have relocated from their native England. One night in April 1995, while the band was recording at an L.A. home studio owned by Rubin, a fire broke out that not only destroyed virtually all of their equipment and some already recorded tracks for Sweet F.A., but also forced David J and his friend, Psychic TV's Genesis P-Orridge (founder of the band Throbbing Gristle and considered by some to be the father of industrial music), to jump from second-story windows in an effort to escape the flames. David J landed safely, avoiding injury, while P-Orridge sustained several cracked ribs. Interestingly, the setback caused by the fire injected the Sweet F.A. project with new life, as the trio proceeded to record four tracks in the garage of a friend's L.A. home.
"It cost about $300 a day and we just got down to it for a couple of weeks, no fucking around," recalls Ash. "We were doing the drums in the living room, the bass in the kitchen, the vocals in the toilet. It was last summer in L.A. and it was baking hot, and it just brought us together as a band. What came out of that was very honest, and we think it's a solid record." (Just before releasing Sweet F.A., Love and Rockets issued an EP in Britain called The Glittering Darkness. It features songs that literally wouldn't fit on Sweet F.A., including "Ritual Radio," an eighteen-minute improvisational demo that narrowly escaped the fire, as well as some older, previously unreleased cuts.)
With Sweet F.A., the members of Love and Rockets seem more determined than ever. "This is a crossroads for the band," says Ash. "This album will decide over the next year or so what we'll be doing next. We're thinking already about the next album and using a name producer, which in the past we haven't done.
"It's hard to know if you're in tune with the youth of today," he continues. "We don't analyze that because it's the kiss of death to try and figure out what's going on and trying to fit in there. We just sort of comment on what's happening in our lives. We have no answers. All we do is make music, be honest with ourselves, and do the best we can. We're just crossing our fingers and working our asses off."
Love and Rockets will perform Friday, June 7, at the Rezurrection Hall at Club Nu, 245 22nd St, Miami Beach, 535-9016. James Hall opens. Tickets cost $18. Doors open at 8:00.
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