David J on the Creative Process and the Inner Flame of Inspiration

Former Bauhaus and Love and Rockets bassist shares his personal archive of home demos

David J (Haskins) first entered the public consciousness in 1978 as bassist and collaborative songwriter in Bauhaus, the influential gothic rock band from Northampton, England. When that band went through its first split, J and band mates Kevin Haskins (J’s brother) and Daniel Ash formed the more pop-oriented Love and Rockets. Over the following decades – punctuated by periodic reunions of both of those bands – David J established a solo career, writing and recording songs as well as scoring music for the stage.

And along the way, J amassed a substantial backlog of original songs, many of which have never been heard by the public. A new three-disc, career-spanning collection changes all of that: Tracks From the Attic was released May 3.

Photo by Raymond Ahner

The 34 recordings featured on David J’s expansive Tracks From the Attic represent sonic snapshots of particular moments in his life. Nearly all of these spare and informal recordings feature only voice and acoustic guitar. Never intended to be shared beyond J’s coterie of musical collaborators, these musical sketches offer a fascinating window into the creative processes of this remarkable and prolific artist.

Some songwriters create songs on demand; they sit down to write a song, and then they just do it. David J is not that sort of artist. “I have tried to do that a couple of times in the past,” he says, “and it just didn’t work.” He says that songs have to come to him unbidden. “And sometimes that’s a bit of an inconvenience,” he admits with a chuckle. “Especially if you’re seized by an idea in the wee small hours of the morning: you have a [lyric], and you think, ‘Oh, I can remember that.’ And then another line comes: ‘Oh, no, it’s started!’”

When that happens, J says, there’s but one thing to do. “Make a cup of tea and light a candle.”
Songs often come to him fully formed. And when they don’t, he still finds that he’s able to complete them. “Quite often, if I get an idea and it’s an arresting one, I’ll write the lyric out in one flow,” he says. “And then I go back and hone it. But the basis is there.” All that can happen without an instrument being at hand. “Later, I get access to a guitar – or on rare occasions, a piano – and then the music comes really quickly,” he says. That happens, he says, because the lyrics come to him with a rhythm and syntax already established. “That form of the lyric dictates – or at least suggests heavily – the form of the music,” J says.

David J’s lyrics span the range from direct to oblique. Sometimes he writes in a reportorial, near-documentary style, as with “The Long Ride Home,” a vivid story and highlight of Tracks From the Attic. Other times, he might write a song thinking that it’s about one thing, only later to discover that it is – or becomes – about something else altogether. “That’s the subconscious coming into play,” he says.

The Bauhaus track “Who Killed Mister Moonlight” is a standout song on the group’s 1983 LP Burning from the Inside. J says that the track was originally written about the death of John Lennon. “But then, in my mind, it came to be associated with the demise of Bauhaus,” he says. “And there’s also a whole other mysterious, beautifully surreal level to that song as well, the meaning of which remains elusive,” he teases.

Tracks From the Attic initially came about as a personal archival project. A “mad Hungarian” friend named Gabor offered to digitize J’s trove of cassettes. “I shipped them over to him in Budapest,” J recalls. “He did some mastering of WAV files, and they came back really nice.” That might have been the end of the story, but not long thereafter, J was approached by Independent Project Records head Bruce Licher, who was interested in releasing some of his music. “He asked if I had anything that was obscure and demo-y,” J explains. Serendipity resulted in this new limited-run three-disc (digital, vinyl or CD) set, lavishly packaged and featuring artwork by J himself.

David J is mounting a tour in support of the release. “But it’s not going to be just a conventional set of music,” he explains. Each evening will begin with a Q&A session, followed by a screening of three videos J has produced. “And then I’ll come on and play,” he says. “I’m going to recreate my writer’s room situation, which is the kitchen with a candle.”

Pausing to consider the safety regulations he might encounter at concert venues, David J amends his comment. “If they let me have a candle, that is. I might have to have an electric candle.”

An edited version of this feature appeared previously in SPIN.