Few artists get as many musical lives as David J has already lived. He was the bassist for the gothic rock band Bauhaus, and then just as successful with his next band, Love and Rockets. He's currently in yet another band, The Gentlemen Thieves, and in 2014 released a mesmerizing solo album called An Eclipse of Ships.
To the black-clad kids at the mall, he's celebrated for the Bauhaus classic "Bela Lugosi's Dead." When David wrote the lyric to that one, he never imagined it would become a touchstone of goth culture, or that he would someday watch his lead singer Peter Murphy sing it while hanging upside down at Coachella.
David J: Well, that is probably dictated by the subject matter, which is the female gender, mainly, and my affection for same. So it naturally evoked a more gentle approach, because one has to be gentle with the ladies.
Songfacts: Were there any particular experiences that prompted you to move in this direction?
David: There were many. A lot of which are documented on the album in the form of songs.
Songfacts: Who were some of the females that inspired you? I know that you've done work surrounding Edie Sedgwick. Does she play into this album at all?
David: No. These are all women of my immediate acquaintance.
Songfacts: And will they see themselves in the songs or do you disguise them?
Songfacts: Are you a Los Angeles resident?
David: No. I just work here. It's a work hub. I have spent extended periods of time here but no, I'm not a resident at the moment.
Songfacts: Well, here in Los Angeles, your band Love and Rockets seemed to be much more popular than Bauhaus. How do you feel about that? Does it make you proud that the band made such a big impact here on the West Coast, or does it disappoint you a little bit that maybe Bauhaus didn't break out as big as they have in other regions of the world?
David: Well, Bauhaus did when we re-formed in '98. We had a sold-out tour and we were adding additional dates right across the country.
In 2005 we were one of the headliners at Coachella, and by that time it seems that the reputation of the band had gained a lot of attention, especially with the younger crowd. A lot of the audience were coming out to see us, most of which were in their early 20s, so that was really gratifying.
And none of it disappoints me. It's just some music connects at the certain time. Sometimes it takes time for that music to be seen for what it was and is, and with Love and Rockets, we just had an initial success in America and Canada and we were getting great offers for gigs, so we just decided to really mine that one field. We were getting offers to go to Australia and play in Europe, and we knew that we'd have to take a real back-step, so we just decided consciously to focus on the States, and America was very good to us.
Songfacts: I got the sense that Love and Rockets was almost your way of being able to just do straight-ahead rock and roll, whereas Bauhaus was very much an artistic pursuit. But Love and Rockets, the sense I got was that you had a lot of fun playing that music. Did you see it that way?
David: We were definitely having a lot of fun, yeah. But there was still an artistic development to Love and Rockets. But it was more rock and roll and we loved playing that.
It was more psychedelic, as well, than Bauhaus. And it's really representative of the common interest of myself, Daniel, and Kevin. Peter in Bauhaus wasn't that into, certainly, psychedelia. And that came out more because the three of us were.
Songfacts: When you look back at what you did with Love and Rockets, are there songs that stand out as favorites that are sort of your proudest moments when you look at what you created with that band?
David: The Earth, Sun, Moon album, that's definitely a favorite, and that's more of an acoustic record. In fact, I see a relationship between that and my new album An Eclipse of Ships. There was definitely some power that was there.
Songfacts: Is there ever talk about getting back together and doing more music as Love and Rockets?
Songfacts: Door's closed?
David: We all feel like it's really had its moment and that was great, but it's time to move on and do other things.
Songfacts: And why don't I go ahead and just ask you the same question about Bauhaus. I imagine you get offers to tour again as that band, correct?
David: Yeah, we do. The same thing applies. And also that was a highly volatile situation. That is something that's hard to contain.
Songfacts: I think it was 2005 that you played at Coachella. And correct me if I'm wrong, is that the tour where Peter came out hanging from the rafters?
David: Yes, that's right. He just did it that one gig.
Songfacts: Was there any trepidation on his part: I hope this works, I hope that nothing goes wrong?
Songfacts: Was it the song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" that he sang when he was hanging?
David: Yes, of course.
Songfacts: And that's a song that you wrote, correct?
David: I wrote the lyrics. We all wrote our respective parts. It started with the lyric. I gave that lyric to Peter and he interpreted the lyric - he came up with the vocal melody and interpretation. It was very much a group effort. It's actually the first thing that we all wrote together.
Songfacts: Really? So that was the first song that Bauhaus ever created?
David: Yeah. All together, all four of us, yeah.
Songfacts: How common was that as a band? Did you collaborate on a lot of songs together?
David: Yeah. It was very collaborative. Usually it was Peter or myself that would write lyrics. Peter wrote most of the lyrics, actually, and Daniel wrote the odd lyric. But what we all brought to it was the instruments that we played.
It was a very open arena. If anybody could bring anything to the party, then it was deemed good or not.
Songfacts: That song I think really helped inspire what became the whole gothic scene. Did you have any idea that your creative efforts would spawn such a wide-ranging musical scene?
David: No, of course not. It was only representative of one aspect of that band. If you look at the whole catalogue, it's pretty diverse.
Songfacts: For the words to the song, were you inspired by those old movies?
David: Yeah. It was very simple. There was a series of old vampire movies showing on TV in England, and Daniel and I had been watching them. We were on the phone arranging a rehearsal, and we just started talking: "Did you see that one last night?" "Oh, yeah, that was a good one. Yeah, Bela Lugosi."
And we were talking about other actors that played the part [Dracula], like Christopher Lee and Max Schreck. It was in my head the next day, that conversation and the film, and it was just the easiest thing to do.
That's what I found with songwriting: I don't try to write a song, they just bubble up. It's always the words that come first.
I came up with that first line, "White on white, translucent, black capes back on the rack." And it was like, "Oh, this is interesting." It's so descriptive - it is about the vampire. It's also about the actor - it's about retiring from the part, but then he sort of plays with the idea. A vampire can never retire from being a vampire, because that's for eternity.
It came out very quickly. It was that night that we had the rehearsal and I just handed that sheet to Peter. We all just launched into it as if it was pre-formed, and it was pretty much as it is on the record. We recorded it a couple of weeks after that first run-through.
Songfacts: That must be an amazing feeling as a musician when you're all on that wavelength at the same time. You have to think maybe this is coming from somewhere else, because the inspiration like that must be amazing.
David: Yes, it's a mysterious process and you do feel sometimes like a channel. And certainly that band, we were very simpatico creatively, for the most part. It was a kind of telepathy. We didn't talk that much about what we were doing, we just did it.
Songfacts: You said that the words came first, which almost always happens. Is that how you generally write? You come up with the words before the melodies?
David: Yes. And the meter of the words and the rhythm of the words dictates the rhythm and the feel of the music. And the music comes very quickly. Once I've got the lyric, it becomes very quick.
Again, it's being received almost as if you just become an open channel. You become receptive to the muse and it comes through you. In a way, I love the high. You enter into another state of consciousness for sure, and it's electrifying.
Although, I still don't try to make it happen, because I know that is not the way you seduce the music you write. You have to wait for her to visit. I think if you try to force that endeavor then you're in danger of killing it.
Songfacts: Can you remember when you wrote the first song that you really thought to yourself, Wow, this is a good song. I have a talent for writing songs.
David: I can, but the song is lost. I'd got a guitar and I learned four chords. Then I changed the chords a little bit to make them sound more interesting, and I wrote the song, which interestingly enough was about another old movie star. It was about Bette Davis. I had a fixation - I suppose a crush - on Bette Davis when I was 14. [Laughing] And yeah, I wrote the song about her.
I remember playing it to my mom and she was quite entranced by it. But as I say, that song, the lyric and everything, it's a very base effort. It's haunting, actually, because I can remember a vague sort of ascending line musically - a chord pattern - but I can't remember any of the lyrics.
I remember there was a poignancy to it, because at that time, she was quite an old lady, especially for me being 14. I fell in love with her in a younger incarnation, just watching her movies. I was fixated by her eyes. And then of course, there's that song, "Bette Davis Eyes."
Songfacts: Well, I don't think you're the first person nor will you be the last person that's enchanted with Bette Davis. There's something when you watch her on the screen. They say that certain actors and actresses are larger than life. Easily she's one of those.
David: And then later on, seeing her in interviews, I appreciated her personality. What a great character. She didn't give a damn, you know?
Songfacts: Well, it kind of leads me to my next question and that is, How big is film on your style as a writer? Because if you're inspired by these iconic figures, do you think that your music generally has a cinematic quality to it?
David: Yeah, I think it certainly does, and it's romantic. Certainly, this new album is romantic and cinematic in that way. I do see that also atmospherically. Yeah, very influential.
Songfacts: Your new band is the Gentlemen Thieves?
David: Yeah. Well, I have two bands at the moment. I've always had several different bands and the Gentlemen Thieves is more of a rock and roll band, basically, and a very good one. That's the band I'm rehearsing with at the moment.
The other band is the band that played on the album, which is much more acoustic and more along the lines of Americana in a way, but sort of like an English chap's version of Americana. We had a great little run. We had a really good response, so I do want to do some more touring with that band.
But at the moment this band, we can play some from the album reinterpreted to a degree. And also it's very good at playing Love and Rockets. We're going to play a lot of Love and Rockets, maybe one Bauhaus song, a lot of tracks on my previous solo records. It's a very powerful band. It's a big band. They're a four-piece.
Songfacts: So, is the Gentlemen Thieves going to record albums as well?
David: Possibly. At the moment it's just a live thing, but we have thought about that. And Tommy Dietrick, who's the guitar player, he's got a very good studio here. That's where we're rehearsing: a recording studio. And he's a very good engineer, so it's all kind of set up for it.
And we have been thinking about doing that, yeah. I'm very busy, though, for the next two years with various projects, so I don't know when that would happen.
Songfacts: Well, tell me about your projects, so that I can look forward to what else you're working on.
David: Okay. Well, the big one is I got a book deal with Jawbone Press in London to publish my memoir about Bauhaus. It's called Who Killed Mr. Moonlight.
And then I have a stage production in the works. It's a play that I put on. I'm writing plays with music these days, and this is a play with music about the Black Dahlia murder mystery.
Songfacts: Well, the Black Dahlia murder, that's definitely one of the greatest Los Angeles mysteries. How did you get interested in that?
David: I was invited to put on a theatre production and I didn't have anything in mind. I just went to bed one night thinking, and I sort of set my subconscious at task of conjuring up the subject matter, and I woke up with The Black Dahlia in my head. And synchronistically, I went to the computer and I had one email from a friend, and it was about the Black Dahlia murder. It was a news item - it was an obituary of this woman, Madi Comfort, who was a jazz singer. She'd just died, and on her death bed she'd made this revelation that she knew the murderer and Elizabeth Short, and she named him as George Hodel, who was her lover. Hodel fled the country at the time of the murder, and he was one of the prime suspects. But she said she had to get this off her chest, because she'd lived with it all her life, and she'd denied it - she was grilled by the DA at the time. I thought, "This is a gift to me here."
I was only slightly familiar with Madi Comfort and I didn't know that was a connection. I thought it was just the crux of a play here, like, her police interrogation, so I just ran with that. There's very little on record. It's just a few lines that also possibly have been altered so that she was saying the reverse of what she was actually saying. But I made up the main dialogue for this drama, and then I wrote the song cycle around it.
But prior to this, I was working on a film. It's a very obscure film about the Black Dahlia. So I'd started investigating the subject for the film, but I felt the true realization of that investigation was this play. It was a kind of work in progress. I put it on in LA a couple of years ago, but I think it's very exciting taking it to The Vortex Theater Company, because they do such great work. Bonnie Cullum is the director there. I'm going to hand it over to direct it, but I'm going to be there playing the music live.
Songfacts: Well, you definitely weren't kidding about having a busy schedule.
David: I'm writing screenplays as well. I've been doing that for a little while now, and we have a very interesting project with me and my screenplay partner, Don C. Tyler. It's a very exciting project, and I'm also writing songs for that.
Songfacts: It sounds to me that you don't ever suffer from writer's block.
David: Well, I don't see it like that. There are periods where I'm not writing and I'm quite relieved not to have to do it. I never force it and I just have this attitude: if it's meant to come, it'll come. It usually does come, and I must say the last four years, the force has been on full and it's been flowing, which is great. Sometimes it's inconvenient that you're tired and you're literally in bed, and you just want to go to sleep, but she cracks the whip and you have to get out, and you then have to do her bidding.
It's buzzing high at the moment. And one thing about being the age that I am now , one has perspective that's only gained through living this long. And so I think if you can lend that perspective to your work, then the work becomes deeper and richer.
Songfacts: There's something to be said for the voice of experience. I mean, I love youthful enthusiasm in art. But you take somebody like Leonard Cohen, who seems to only get better, right?
David: Yeah. Great example.
Songfacts: Who knows how great he can be, because he's still growing as an artist. So be like Leonard.
David: Same with Dylan. His voice is what it is, but it suits the world-weary man of a certain age, and I think his lyrics are as good as ever and he still has that creative force there.
October 23, 2015
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