Howard Jones (due Saturday, October 15, at Summit Music Hall) was one of the most successful and popular synth-pop artists of the 1980s. Jones's songs were uplifting, but never saccharine, and he had a knack for articulating the concerns and hopes of people regardless of age or background.
For this current tour, Jones is performing his first two albums in their entirety. He finally has the equipment to recreate the sounds he was only before able to fully explore in the studio. We recently spoke with the pioneering pop artist about his early success, his influences and how he came to realize his long held dream of recreating his classic albums.
Westword: There's an interesting interview of you on the RL Music website where you talk about how your drummer in Warrior built a synth that you toyed around with in the mid '70s. What type of synths did you use to start composing music and pop songs and what kept you motivated at working at them in those early days?
Howard Jones: That very first synth was actually a kit synth that was in an electronics magazine. The drummer in the band was an electronics wizard and he built me a two oscillator synth from this kit in the magazine. And it uses to go terribly out of tune all the time. But it was a really exciting sound.
Then moving along a few years, the Moog Prodigy, I actually had two of those and a Juno 6 and an 808 drum machine. Then a Pro One. From that combination, I did the one man band thing triggering from the drum machine and arpeggios from the Juno and it started to make a big sound.
That obviously made it easier to compose music?
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Yes, that's right because it was all running live. If you look at the construction of the early songs you can see the songs kind of came out of the equipment. For instance I only had an eight note sequencing in the Pro One which would run around like repeating pattern that I could transpose. You can hear that in some of the early writing.
When you began playing out, you teamed up with a mime as part of the visual element of your show? What was the thinking behind that, and what sorts of visual things did you try to do with that in conjunction with the music?
My aim was to really do something completely different because I realized that I had all these amazing new instruments that were just coming out and it was just possible to afford to buy the Prodigy, the Juno and the drum machine. I knew I was going to be at the cutting edge of that playing it live because mainly people were using this stuff in the studio.
I wanted everything to be very original, so Jed Hoile did some mime interpretations of the songs. We used to have TVs on the stage as well. A friend of mine wrote some visual software on a BBC computer. So I had these sort of these electronically-generated graphics on regular TVs on stage and it was really quite an interesting thing to look at. It wasn't your average rock and roll band and people really got into it and got behind it.
You seem to have experienced some success relatively early on. How did you end up on Top of the Pops so very early in your career?
It seems like it was early on in life, but I was 28 at the time, and I'd been in bands since I was fourteen. I'd been working on the one man electronic show and I'd been doing two hundred shows a year for three years. In terms of pop music, that's paying your dues. But of course the British press, being what it is, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
So many people didn't even understand what I was doing. It was like someone was playing instruments from outer space. Of course everyone understands it now but not then. They wanted to throw me out of the musicians' union. We're talking about the dark ages here. I remember a review in Rolling Stone that said, "Howard Jones doesn't have to turn up at the show; he just sends his gear and somebody presses the button."
That was so ignorant it was laughable. They couldn't understand that it was extremely difficult to do what I was doing, wrestling with the gear. It was very much being improvised live and it was very flexible, what I was doing. I guess I had the last laugh in the end.
Currently, you're touring Human Lib and Dream Into Action in their entirety. I assume you're not doing that because a lot of other people are doing it. What have you discovered or rediscovered about that material preparing to play it all together that you didn't know or fully appreciate in the past?
The reason I'm doing it is because the fans have been begging me to do it for years. It coincided with the fact that I was able to get to my master recordings from Warner Brothers. So we were able to get the digital multi-tracks, so I was actually able to work with the original sequences and recreate the original sounds properly from the multi-tracks.
Since the early days, it's been an approximate recreations of the songs. This time, it was possible to make it authentic. Half of the songs on the album I never used to play live. They were written in the studio for the studio and were never played. For me, it's been the most fun project to put it all together again and get it sounding like it really should. There are a lot of things we had to correct. Some of the sequences were so out of time we had to fix them. It's been months and months of work to do it.
Also, my drummer, he's playing the 24 songs with different sounds and he's taken that on as well. It's a really mammoth project but I'm really pleased with it. It does sound great. We really have gone into detail about everything with the reverbs and delays on my voice. I can definitely sing them better now than I did then because I was just starting out because my vocals are stronger now.
You've cited OMD and Keith Emerson as an influence on your music more so than Kraftwerk early on. What was your first exposure to OMD, and in what ways would you say they influenced what you've done?
I was always into people who were working with synths and drum machines. I used to cover "Enola Gay" in my set when I was starting out, because I loved the simplicity of it and the electronicness of it. When I was fourteen, I saw Keith Emerson at the Isle of Wight Festival, and he played a huge Moog. It was actually the second gig they had ever done, and that was pure synthesizer joy.
That was the first time I'd ever seen anyone use the synthesizer and have it be so intellectual and so animal and exciting. That's what I got from Keith -- he was a showman and a brilliant player, as well. He made keyboards exciting like guitarists did with guitar. I took a lot of inspiration from him.
People like Stevie Wonder, as well, were a big influence on me. Anybody who was a great keyboard player. Not this Germanic side of life. Not Kraftwerk. I missed out on them. I really like them and I've seen them since then. But that wasn't the aesthetics that I was trying to create. That was that machine-like thing. I was going for exciting sounds that were quite organic, and it wasn't sequenced. All the bass lines weren't played. It wasn't trying to be a machine. I didn't come from that school. I'm a player and a kind of orchestrator rather than a programmer, if you know what I mean.
I read that you had no overdubs on Ordinary Heroes, and I think that lent the songs a sense of incredibly intimacy. Were there other reasons you took that approach? In what ways did that approach lend itself better to what you wanted to express than what you've done in the past?
I've been trying to set myself a set of rules for each album. With Ordinary Heroes there was a set group of sounds for every song. Piano, bass, guitar -- only one guitar part -- drums, backing vocals, one voice and string quartet. Apart from one where there's a huge, Welsh, boys' choir on it. I kind of saw it as the next step in arranging. You got this set orchestration you're going to use but you can't break the rules and you've got to make it work with that set. I found it really good fun to be able to stick to that discipline and I'm really pleased the way it turned out.
It seems you've been a man of conscience and compassion for most, if not all, of your life, and it's certainly reflected in your music. What instilled that sort of quality in you, and what sustains it in you today?
I always dreamt of doing my own music and writing my own music and playing in bands. It was always my dream from when I was very young. I studied the piano from the age of seven, and I used to practice four hours a day. I went to music college, and then I ended up quitting college, because it wasn't really allowing me to do my own music. I was having to play classical music. I ended up working on the shop floor of a factory eight hours a day, knowing that music is what I should be doing. I spent my evenings going into demo studios and working on new songs and recording, and I refused to give up on my dream, really.
Eventually, I did leave the factory and spent three years playing all around where I lived in London. I just wanted to put into my music that spirit that, you know? You've got to find the thing in life that you really want to do and don't take no for an answer. Just keep going until you're happy with what you are doing, because life's too short to end up doing something you don't want to do.
So I wanted to put that into music and I sort of stuck to that, really, throughout the years. I wanted to be a cheerleader to put out a bit of inspiration to people when they're feeling a bit defeated by things. Just keep going towards a new day and start again and make it happen: That was my big motivation. At the end of the day, the lyrics are the most important thing to me. Those are the things I want to leave behind -- that positive view of life. You can do what you want to do and you mustn't let people stop you.
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