Above all else, David J is three things: a fearlessly honest storyteller, a prolific artist and “tenacious as fuck.”
The cofounder and bassist for seminal English post-punk acts Bauhaus and Love and Rockets recently spoke with Oklahoma Gazette about his memoir, Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, as well as his Feb. 18 master class at the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma (ACM@UCO) and Feb. 19 concert at ACM@UCO Performance Lab.
The 58-year-old also shared anecdotes about current projects with Portland western-folk act Federale and 11-piece Detroit jazz band Theatre Bizarre Orchestra, as well as his solo work and possible studio time with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips.
He said he will debut a new song at the Feb. 19 show. He wrote it when he learned about the death of an idol, David Bowie, and after the bittersweet breakdown he had as he listened to the final track of Bowie’s recent album, Blackstar.
OKG: So, you’re coming to Oklahoma; you’re going to do your master class and a concert. I was wondering, because I’ve been to a few of the master classes at ACM@UCO and the format’s usually really open and flexible; I was wondering, what drew you to doing a class like this?
DJ: I was invited basically by The Flaming Lips; specifically, Scott [Booker], their manager [ACM@UCO executive director and CEO]. He thought it’d be a good idea. It sounded like a good idea to me.
I asked him if he wanted me to present, do like a talk, but he said no; it’s got to be more like a Q&A based around my memoir, and then I’ll sign the memoir. So, as you say, it’s very open and kind of free-form, which I can go along with.
I’m interested in the whole event.
OKG: How did you get connected with Scott and The Flaming Lips?
DJ: I’ve been into the band for years. I first met Wayne Coyne when they played at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago. He told me that they, as a band, were very influenced by Love and Rockets and the band.
Maybe that was the seed there, because we sort of spoke about, well, maybe one day we can collaborate or share the same bill or do something.
In fact, there’s a possibility I might be going to studio with Wayne following this master class and my show, but he’s very busy and we’ll see. But that would be great. He said, “Let’s go in and do something crazy; we can pull time together.”
I’m up for crazy. I’m always up for crazy, especially with somebody as crazy as Wayne Coyne.
He has a standing invitation to join me for the gig as well. So we’ll see if that transpires.
[Editor’s note: After the interview, David J called Oklahoma Gazette back and left a voice message saying the Lips covered Love and Rockets song “Kundalini Express” on the 2009 compilation New Tales to Tell: A Tribute to Love & Rockets, which also featured covers by Puscifer, Frank Black, The Dandy Warhols, A Place to Bury Strangers and others.]
OKG: Everything that your memoir, Who Killed Mister Moonlight?: Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, covers — this sounds counterintuitive to say, but it took a lot of courage to write about the good and the bad. You also have a sense of humor through it all. How has your sense of humor helped you through your career?
DJ: A sense of humor has helped me through life. A person can’t get through life without a sense of humor — that is absolutely vital, you know. The whole thing is couched in a certain dry sense of humor, sure.
As far as telling the good with the bad, well, you got to tell a whole story or there’s no point in telling the story because it wouldn’t be the story without everything. It has to be the truth. Even if it’s not particularly flattering to others or to myself, I have to put it out there because that’s the truth and that’s the only — I care about books too much.
I’m in a room now that’s surrounded by books, and books are very dear to me. I love writers who are honest. To me, that’s such an important aspect for — you’re not a writer unless you’re honest. I mean, I can look at [Charles] Bukowski and Nick Tosches, just all these writers. I’m not saying — I’m not on that level, but they’re honest, and I endeavor to be honest in the book.
OKG: How does that honesty translate into all the art you do, whether it’s visual art, music, producing other acts, DJ’ing a set or writing a screenplay?
DJ: It’s really important to have an authenticity, to be authentic. I think it’s the most important thing. In all the bands I’ve been in, we’ve always had that attitude of that’s the main thing, to be true to yourself and be real, be authentic and not pander to any kind of commercial consideration at all.
I mean, Flaming Lips — great example of that. And I think it’s the most important thing. And I think the public are really perceptive to picking up on whether that’s present or not. They suss that out real quickly.
You don’t want to fool yourself, and you certainly don’t want to fool the public. You have to be true to yourself and do what turns you on and what you feel is real.OKG: Related to that, in your memoir, you talk about a run-in with David Bowie and how you respected him for treating you like boys in a band instead of the characters everyone else saw onstage. That humility, that honesty, is it something you learned from him, or did that experience just reinforce what you already believed?
DJ: That was always there, right there. Pre-punk, it was there, but when punk came along, that was the reinforcement. That was the confirmation like, yeah you’ve got to get real and talk about how things really are and just express yourself as an individual.
That’s one thing that was so misunderstood about punk; it was, in fact, about being an individual and not being just part of this same-looking scene. It was asserting your individuality but being real about it, and that was very inspiring.
You mention that story about Bowie, which is in the book, when we were on the set doing The Hunger, filming The Hunger [a 1983 vampire film starring Bowie] in our little area — Bauhaus' area was adjacent to his dressing room, and that jukebox was just outside.
To reiterate the story, because you had the follow on it, which is new. I was just out there on me own, just downtime, and looking at this jukebox, which was great. It was stocked with all ’50s and ’60s tracks. I became aware of this presence behind me, and then I hear this voice — “Do you mind if I pick one?” — and I turn around. It’s Bowie, in that blue sharkskin suit that he wore in the film. And I said, “Please. Be my guest.”
So he deliberates and then presses whatever, A56. And it was “Groovin’ with Mr. Bloe” by Mr. Bloe, which is an old ’60s instrumental that features harmonica. There’s a harmonica part that I always thought was very reminiscent of the track off of [Bowie’s 1977 album] Low, “A New Career in a New Town.”
So, anyway, Bowie starts dancing in front of me, which is very surreal, I’ll tell you. He starts flashing that smile, and I’m nodding along and I said, “This reminds me of something.”
He goes, “Oh yeah? What’s that?” and he doesn’t break a step.
I said, “It’s one of yours.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
I say, “A New Career in a New Town,” and he just put his finger to his lips and smiled and carried on dancing. It was a beautiful experience.
Just recently, I got his new album [Blackstar] the day it came out. I always buy Bowie records when they come out, going right back to Ziggy Stardust. I set aside time to play the album; it was two days after, when I had a gig in Seattle and another one of these living room shows.
I was staying in the house where I was playing, and they had this great bunker, this subterranean cellar, which is where I stay. It’s like sensory deprivation. I’m going to go down there, put on headphones and really go into this world of the Bowie record, which I did, and was knocked out by it.
And then the next day, I go to Portland, and he dies. I wrote a song that night called “The Day That Bowie Died” and recorded it the next day. It just poured it out of me.
After I had written the song, I played the album again on headphones and I had a completely different perspective of it, of course. What just made me lose it was the last track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where right at the end, he alludes to that same phrase, that “Groovin’ with Mr. Bloe” harmonica line.
It’s just the whole thing of what I think he was saying on that track — he knew he was dying; I know that for a fact — and “A New Career in a New Town.” The new town is the afterlife, and the new career is whatever the hell he’s going to experience there.It’s a very canny, very deep reference, and also it’s very personal to me because we had that meeting. That was my Bowie meeting, so I just wept. It’s the very last thing on the album, so I was devastated. I was up all night that night.
OKG: That gave me chills.
DJ: We recorded the track the next day. It turned out great. The only reason I had the studio booked was because I was going in to record something else with this band Federale that I played a gig with a couple nights before — actually, the night before the Seattle gig. I said, “I’ve also got this new song. Would you be up to recording it?” and they said yeah.
They hadn’t heard the song before; they just came in and played. Everybody nailed it in one take; really great band. Then one of the guys, Collin Hegna, who owns Studio Revolver, he’s in The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and he played it to Anton Newcombe from that band, and Anton loved it. He’s going to put it out as a ten-inch single. Actually, we’re rushing that through now because it’s going to come out pretty soon.
OKG: Do you have a release date for that?
DJ: Not a date; just as soon as we can get it out there. I’m going to play this song live at the gig in your city, a stripped-down version.
OKG: As far as influences go, you’ve inspired an army of musicians that have come after Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. Do you feel a responsibility to teach or to mentor?
DJ: I really love doing that. I love it. This upcoming master class gig, it’s appealing to me, very much so, on that level. I think it’s really important to encourage — not just for musicians but anybody who has untapped potential or has potential that is not fully realized.
Also, you can draw on your experience and be something of a guide.
A beautiful thing about being a mentor — mentorship and teaching — is that in the process of it, I find that one learns a lot just by listening. It’s not a one-way street at all. I’ve learned that because I’ve got a son as well; he’s in his 20's. That’s part and parcel of that as well. I’m teaching him to play bass at the moment, and he’s good.OKG: Is there a lesson that you’ve learned in the process of mentoring and teaching that you’ve been able to use in your career or in your personal life?
DJ: Yes: Be tenacious as fuck! Because you can have all the talent in the world and you can have all the ideas in the world, but if you are not tenacious and you don’t see things through, then you could fall by the wayside and those ideas can fall by the wayside.
No flowers will bloom from those seeds that have not been planted and not been tended. You have to tend your seeds; you have to be a tenacious gardener. It’s really important. You have to stick to it.Never say die.
OKG: I don’t know if this is related or not, but I have read about you when you were a child; you kind of carried around a melancholia. Is that accurate?
DJ: When I was a child? A child of 21, yeah. I got more melancholic when I was a teenager, but everybody does. Any teenager worth his salt has got to be melancholy.
Then, you grow out of it, but you hang onto it, or you retain a little something of that melancholy because there’s something poetic and beautiful about it, but you have a different perspective on it. It becomes much deeper and much more fragile and more beautiful as you get older. It’s a bittersweet sensibility.
OKG: I think a lot of times artists are able to connect with that more than other people, but—
DJ: Sure. It’s a deepening, a deepening of that experience as you get older. It’s because of mortality, because it’s not going to last forever.
OKG: Well, what can people expect at your concert when you come in?
DJ: Well, I’m going to bring along two players from my band … and maybe a little guitar and some backing vocals, and the main thing will be multi-instrumentalist Chris Vibberts, and he plays everything.
But for this, he’s going to play the lap steel. That’s a really bittersweet instrument, I think — really melancholy instrument. And maybe a little sitar. I tell you, he plays everything. So they’re going to color the songs, and the songs will be drawn from right across the board like — several solo records, of course, and quite a lot of Love and Rockets tracks, and maybe a Bauhaus track or two and the odd cover.So, it’s drawing all across my career.
OKG: And then the new song that you just wrote in reaction to David Bowie’s death?
DJ: And the new song. Yeah, I think we really should play that. It’s very close to me at the moment, of course, so yeah, there’s a very good chance we’ll play that. I’ll say it now: We’re going to play it.
OKG: I remember Bauhaus. I was in grade school/middle school. We didn’t even know the word “goth.” Such a thing didn’t exist. We just liked the color black and The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Ministry, stuff like that. Bauhaus is often called “the first goth band.” And later with Love and Rockets, and even with your solo stuff, everything got a label, a genre, a niche.
What do you think about putting labels like that with music? Because you mentioned earlier, punk really stressed individuality, yet there still seems to be a uniform that goes with some of these titles, like expectations to sound, act or dress in certain ways.
DJ: It’s very limiting. As soon as you put a label on something — especially a label like that [goth] — it’s very limiting. I’m always interested in evolving and expanding and drawing from all over the place. It’s limiting, and that’s not healthy.
But within all those movements, there is individuality; you’re a member of that club, but you can still be an individual. I do see that quite a bit — individual expression — but there are always the sheep, and there’s a black sheep, I suppose. Although then again, that’s contradiction in terms because they wouldn’t be black sheep because if they were, then they wouldn’t be doing that.
OKG: You’ve done so much, from resident DJs, screenplays, books, live performance music. I believe that if you like an artist, you should learn about who influenced them, trace the roots back. Who has most influenced your work?
DJ: It’s possibly Bowie — back to Bowie again. Second, probably second would be Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale.
OKG: Like, J.J. Cale or John Cale?
DJ: John Cale from Velvet Underground. But Dylan’s huge for me.
OKG: How did he inspire you the most?
DJ: He’s such a romantic singer for me. He’s kind of the embodiment of the troubadour, the poet troubadour in the romantic tradition, the guy who just keeps going and who haunts the shadows. Like Bowie, he's always sort of mutated and changed and is very hard to pin down, very elusive, very mercurial and fascinating because of it.
Dylan has a brilliant mind, a very romantic figure, and a brilliant songwriter and lyricist, a great storyteller. I like storytellers.
More and more, as I go on, I like to tell stories, and the songs must become more story-oriented. My presentation of a story is I like to tell stories behind the stories. And then there’s the book, and the same with the screenplays. It’s all telling stories. I think it’s the Irish in me.
Stories are really important in the world. I think stories are the fabric that holds the world together.OKG: So you say you’ve been recording, you’ve read some new music. What’s next? Do you have another album planned?
DJ: I’m working on an album at the moment.
This is a completely separate project with an 11-piece jazz band in Detroit called the Theatre Bizarre Orchestra. They’re really great players. Ages range from mid-’30s to mid-’70s.
These guys are really top-notch jazz players, and we’re doing an album that’s an evocation of the Theatre Bizarre and an event that’s been held in Detroit for, well, about 20 years now. It used to be completely underground and totally illegal and very dangerous. It used to be held outside in this waste ground, but it was closed down by the city.
Now, they hold it in an amazing building. It’s basically a city block. It’s an old Masonic hall, but it’s huge, labyrinthine place, and they call it The Greatest Masquerade on Earth, and it really is. It’s the most amazing event I’ve ever been to in my life, and I’ve been to it like three times now.
How this project came about was that this band is basically the house band, and I was DJing there the night after they were opening the gala, which is more like the high ticket opening event. I was invited to it, and I saw that they were playing, and I was in touch with them. We came up with this idea of me coming on and doing [Bauhaus song] “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” for them, but doing it like Cab Calloway style, wind orchestra.
I thought that was great, and I was sort of riffing on this idea of going down to Chinatown to kick the gong around, and all these characters. We had one rehearsal — well, soundcheck rehearsal — and then just did it, and it really clicked. And so there’s actually a good film of it, a really good film online.
But then afterwards, the band members came up to me and they said, “This cannot end here. We have to do more.” I agreed, and then that became an album.
The album is an evocation of this event. It’s the Theatre Bizarre, but there’s a bit of a story thread through it, and it’s like the carnival of the damned, Something Wicked This Way Comes, very autumnal; it’s that magic, that dark magic of the autumn/the fall.It’s really coming together great, and that’s going to be released in October this year by Starry Records. I’m singing on this, and I’m writing the lyrics. The arranger, Joshua James, is doing the music, so it’s a great collaboration. It’s a thrill for me to play with these musicians. It’s amazing for me. I’ve never played in front of such a big band who are just nailing it.
OKG: It really seems like no genre at all is off limits for you.
DJ: Nothing’s safe! Why limit yourself? I just go intuitive, like this feels right. I’ve turned down lots of things, but it’s the things that I fall in love that I want to do because life’s too short not to do things you’re not in love with.
OKG: And if there was one thing you could change about your career, what would it be?
DJ: I’d like to get paid more. That’s it. That’s about it. I’d like to travel first-class on flights. In fact, I should be doing that by now, but I don’t. That’s all.
OKG: And is there anything you’d like to add that I just haven’t asked?
DJ: Been pretty comprehensive, I think. I can’t remember when I’ve played, if I’ve every played in Oklahoma. Have I ever played in Oklahoma? It’s not really on the map. It’s an interesting place.
I think there’s some kind of parallel between a place like Oklahoma and Northampton [England], which is where I come from. It is fermenting a bunch of freaks like The Flaming Lips because it’s kind of isolated. It’s not on the circuit. It’s this kind of isolation that makes beautiful monsters.
I’m looking forward to coming.
Print headline: ‘Never say die’, David J, co-founder of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, brings his career into focus with a master class and solo gig at ACM@UCO.
Editor's note: The online version of this story was edited Feb. 15, 2016, to update and clarify the interview transcription.