Nearly four decades ago, frontman Peter Murphy and his bandmates in Bauhaus recorded what Murphy calls the “‘Stairway to Heaven’ of the post-punk period.” But with the release of that tune, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” Bauhaus innovated a form of avant-garde rock that would influence artists ranging from lo-fi whisperers Xiu Xiu to speaker-busting metalheads Sepultura and, part and parcel with their glam-gone-sour look, would become the foundation for pre-Twilight goth culture. In their initial lifespan, the band released four albums and countless EPs before splitting in 1983, when Murphy’s bandmates formed the alt-rock group Love & Rockets. They reunited briefly in 1998 and again in the mid-2000s, recording an excellent record titled Go Away White that fuses the sounds of Eno-era Bowie with their trademark experimentalism, before breaking up for good in 2008.
Now, Murphy, who has released myriad solo albums and hit singles like “Cuts You Up” and “The Sweetest Drop,” is on tour celebrating Bauhaus’ 35th anniversary, playing an entire evening’s worth of the group’s music Tuesday night at Webster Hall. Although he had recorded a new record called Lion last year with his producer friend and post-punk contemporary Martin “Youth” Glover, who plays in Killing Joke and with Paul McCartney, he has realized that “there’s a big audience that loved Bauhaus, and I wanted to tip my hat and do a tour for them.” To find out more about why he’s celebrating Bauhaus’ legacy now, we caught up with Murphy while he was taking some downtime in the Sunshine State, Florida, which is quite an image for the goth icon. But he’s quick to assure us, “It’s overcast here.” Then, with his typically droll humor, “I’m used to it. I’m British.”
Why are you celebrating Bauhaus’ 35th anniversary?
It was a spur-of-the-moment idea. At the end of the touring cycle for my last album, [2011’s] Ninth, I wanted to put on two shows where we would play my album Deep in its entirety and Bauhaus the next night. Since the end of that band in 2006, the flag was left in my hands and I didn’t know what to do with it. I’d been integrating a few of the songs that seemed to fit into the set, and those songs are just as relevant and very powerful.
The band that I’m working with has been with me for eight years. They can play that stuff and, I know this sounds awful, but they actually play it better than Bauhaus could live. But, that aside, I’ve been the biggest advocate for Bauhaus over the years trying to get them back together and it didn’t work out…twice. So, since the all-Bauhaus show went well, I thought, Let’s do the Bauhaus tour. It is truly something that is genuinely from me rather than being some retrospective.
Do you look back on Bauhaus’ early days fondly?
Yes. I was 21 or 22, and I remember the moment Daniel [Ash, guitar] and I started writing, it was an explosion of the artist I am. It was effortless. I didn’t need or want to be in a band beforehand. It was kind of meteoric. Within a month, we recorded “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” That was my first one. Very exciting. It was just wonderful to be so liberated.
How did people take to you?
Post-punk audiences, in Europe at least, were seriously anarchic. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It was quite a time to be playing music. What we were doing was nothing like punk and it was very beautiful and challenging and artistic. So that was good. I knew we were onto something but I suppose everyone thinks they’re onto something when they’re making music but I think it turned out all right.
Bauhaus is part of my whole history of work and doing it now is very much nicely clear of all of those personal intrigues and associations with the other members of the band. It’s in no way retrospective for me, because we play it brilliantly. It is very much authentic but I wouldn’t be doing this often; this is probably the only time I do this. I may introduce other Bauhaus songs that are appropriate on future tours, but this is where I am now, and it’s really good. I can see the audience like, wistful gazing with that, “Where are the other members?” look, and within five minutes, that’s gone.
Why do you think the band broke up the last time?
It’s sad that the others–I call them Love and Rockets still, because they’ve been together constantly since Bauhaus split–I’m sure the other guys were as worn out with each other and that may have been the reason why we broke up, and I can understand that. They really couldn’t keep up with me, I think, and didn’t have that total clarity of the desire to do it. So it was good that it ended. It was right. They’re being honored, too.
Which Bauhaus songs have you felt were overlooked that you wanted to bring into your set for this tour?
I’m doing “Kingdom’s Coming” and “King Volcano,” some of those more wistful songs Bauhaus never played live. And I’m bringing back the ones that really were anthemic like “Double Dare,” “In the Flat Field” and “God in an Alcove.” But I’m also tracking one song, maybe two from Go Away White. I’m enjoying playing “The Three Shadows, Part II,” which I composed wholly. And it’s beautiful. But the set list can change. The band and I have rehearsed almost everything, so I can draw from whatever.
I’ve read that you stopped singing “Stigmata Martyr” because, after you became Muslim, you wanted to avoid the Christian-referencing lyrics. Do you still feel the same way?
That’s a myth. I stopped playing it in 1998 because, to be honest, I don’t think the other members of the band really got what I was writing about, and the collective intention suddenly became very anti-religious. And that song is not an anti-religious song at all. The message is, really, the dangers of obsession, of almost psychosomatic induction of that masochism. That alone can be an illusion. And it’s way off the mark as to the actual source of the message of any religious God. God doesn’t want you to be in pain and die. It wasn’t ant-ireligious. It wasn’t demonic. It was alluding to the manifestation. Is it truly a mark of the Holy Ghost or is it simply an obsession condition? That’s all there is to it.
When we were coming back in 1998, I basically banned it. No, we’re not doing it. I couldn’t even explain to the band why, I would just not play it. Now I do. I’m clear of those associations of the other members of the band, not that I have any bad energy. It’s a great refreshing space now. I can play my work in a way that is pure of frankly, various worn-out clichés. Last night I played it without singing a note and it was pure instrumental energy, which was actually quite intense. It went well.
How do you assume a mood for a show in order to play Bauhaus’ dark music?
There’s no darkness really, just great passion. It’s very artistic, unique music. We’ve been labeled that, but we’ve influenced Björk, Radiohead and many other acts. I take that with a pinch of salt.
Part of the reason I asked is because of your recent legal troubles, I read that you take antidepressants. Is depression something you’ve been battling with?
No, that was a small period. I actually can’t talk about the legal stuff. Doctors give out antidepressants like Smarties or M&M’s now. It was a small amount, and I don’t really use them. I choose not to. That’s not relevant, really.
More positively, how do you feel revisiting some of these songs is affecting you as a songwriter now?
If you think about the type of musical forms and composition of Bauhaus’ early work, I was forced into creating vocals out of quite oblique arrangements and ideas. I developed a freedom in writing over anything. I can write with three notes. What we all intended as a band back then was a sense of great freedom and avant-garde. We’ve kept that with us. That’s the love.
Finally, what fond memories do you have playing New York City?
I love New York so much. I remember the first time we ever came to New York as a young band. We all shared a room. My best ever memory was when I came down to the hotel lobby, there was a small bar. It was me, the bartender and another bloke watching some sports. The barman says, “Do you want another one, Jimmy?” And the guy said, “Yeah, sure.” I said I know that voice and I turn around and I see Iggy Pop. Come on, if that’s not prescient what isn’t? The first person I meet in America is Iggy Pop? I sit there and have a chat with him and he said, “What are you doing here, kid?” I said, “You should come see my band. We’re called Bauhaus.” I could not believe I was saying that to him. Indeed, it was a storming show and there was one person at the back heckling and right at the end I realized it was Iggy.
He came backstage afterwards with some young ladies. He was glowing. He’s such a nice guy. He said he had a limo out front and asked if we wanted to go out, and we said, “As a matter a fact we’ve got to get into bed.” I was too green to do that. It was great, though. That was a nice induction into America.