The Popdose Interview with Howard Jones

It was my great privilege to interview Howard Jones. Even better, it was great to discover that he is every bit the kind, thoughtful, stand-up guy that he appeared to be. One of my favorite interviews that I’ve ever done, for reasons that won’t leap off the page. He was just so upbeat and happy! My wife will attest: I was positively flying for the rest of the day.

He’s been releasing albums on a fairly consistent basis since the beginning of his career, but for the first time in a long time, it feels like timing is on Howard Jones’ side. There’s a Republican in the White House – just like there was during Jones’ entire chart run from 1983 to 1992 – and the world is in desperate need of Jones’ trademark eternal optimism, which we’re pleased to say has not waned one bit.

Armed with a new album Transform, which features three collaborations with electronic wizard BT, Popdose chatted with Jones about the new album, the American metal singer who shares his name, and the wonderful steps his mother took to make the lives of her son’s fans a little brighter. Jones was quick with a laugh throughout our chat, confirming that he is every bit the kind, friendly fellow that he appears to be.

Are you home right now?

Yes I am, I just got back yesterday from L.A.

What was in L.A.?

I had just been touring, doing my acoustic trio. It’s the first time I’ve done it, actually, with Nick Beggs and Robin Bolt. And we just did eight shows around the States just to try out the idea, and it went really well, so I’m gonna do more.

That was actually the eighth question I had planned, to ask you about that tour, because I was thrilled to see that you had recruited Nick Beggs, because I think he’s a criminally underrated bass player.

[Laughs] Yeah, he’s been a friend for a long time, and he was in my band for quite a while, and he’s playing for [former Porcupine Tree frontman] Steve Wilson, and [former Genesis guitarist] Steve Hackett, for years, and he had a bit of free time, so I thought, “I’ll grab him.” And he had a blast on this tour as well, so he’s up for doing more with me, so I think it’ll probably be next year, that we’ll come back to do it.

I’m just thinking, the chops between the two of you, you could form some synth fusion band if you felt like it.

[Laughs] It feels like one of those old time ‘70s super groups, you know? [Laughs] Robin, Robin plays with Phish, and with Marillion, and a lot of prog bands, so between us, there’s a lot of chops going on, and it’s so great to play with those guys. And when we’re not playing, we have such a blast being together. I call it gentlemen’s touring, it’s very civilized.

I have to share with you the outpouring of love that my Facebook friends sent me when I announced that I was interviewing you. Here are a few of the quotes: “He’s my most favorite,” “I’m such a fan,” “Loooooooove him,” and lastly, “Will you ask him to marry me?”

[Laughs] Well, that’s very nice, that’s a very nice comment, isn’t it.

I also learned that you are not the only working musician named Howard Jones. There is an American metal singer.

Yeah, that’s right.

So you’re familiar, then.

Yes, he used to be in Killswitch Engage. That’s right, we share a name. Sometimes, on my Spotify playlist, some of his tracks appear [Note: Jones is laughing through this entire sentence], and I think it must be a bit of a shock for people. We’re trying to get Spotify to alter that, but I think it’s quite funny.

All right, let’s talk about the record. I’m not sure if anyone has said this to you yet, but the world has never needed a Howard Jones record more than it does right now.

Well, that’s a great compliment, thank you, thank you. I feel the same. People are suffering quite a lot with what they see going on, and we all need a bit of encouragement to stand up and get through it, and to turn it round. I think that’s what this record is about. It’s about facing a storm, and not being afraid, and we can do this, we can be hopeful about the future and not get bogged down with our negative self. Challenge the times, starting with our own behavior. Really, have a good look at that, and work on that.

Tell me about working with BT. I will admit, I worried that his hyperkinetic production style would not be the best fit, but you two work rather well together.

Yes, I must agree, it really was a good fit, to be honest. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, because I see him as a real pioneer of his generation in electronic music. I mean, he’s just incredible, what he’s done, his work, and the standard of it, the new techniques that he’s brought for all of us to use, and the software that he writes, it just goes on and on. I don’t feel like that about many artists, so I went to see him down in Miami, doing an orchestral show combined with electronics, because I thought I really need to be there, and he found out that I was there, and he gave me a name-check from the stage, which was a little embarrassing, but very nice as well. Then we met afterwards, he invited me to his studio, we started messing around with his incredible collection of analog synths, and I said, “Look, man, we really should make a record together.” And we made three tracks. It was basically three ideas, and we made them into three tracks. And I just love the results. 

I’m curious: which songs were recorded first, the ones you did with BT, or the ones you did without him? And obviously I’m not talking about the “Eddie the Eagle” song (“Eagle Will Fly Again,” which originally appeared on the 2015 album Fly (Songs Inspired by the Film: Eddie the Eagle)).

It was really mixed in, it was quite a long period of time…you know, he’s busy doing about ten projects at the same time, and I was working on my other tracks for the album, so it was really all muddled up together. They weren’t added later or started…I was working on those at the same time as the rest of it.

I ask this because I felt like, on the song “Beating Mr. Neg,” his production style had rubbed off on you a little bit.

No, that was well under way before, but I’m sure that [BT’s influence was] an element of that as well, though. I think that when you work with someone like that, with such great sonic vision, everyone raises their game, and my co-producer Robbie Bronnimann is a big fan of BT as well. It was a virtuous spiral, to make the best sounding record we possibly could. I think that’s one of the benefits of working with other great artists – it pushes you to do even better.

My wife has a theory that you planted an Easter egg in “The One to Love You.” There’s a piano bit at the end that she thinks is a couple of bars from “Assault and Battery.” Is she right?

It is, she’s absolutely right. That was BT’s idea, he wanted to put those Easter eggs, and references to my early work, and sounds, and riffs, and they crop up all through the track. And then, at the end, after the bit you’re referring to, there’s a sound track, a field recording, of where BT used to go and listen to my albums when he was 14. He used to take them out with his Walkman, and listen to them in this place where I think there’s a railway in the background, and there’s animal noises…he did an ambient recording there. And I thought that was so cool. I was really moved when he told me. I didn’t realize what it was.

What a compliment that is.

I know, I know. It really is. He’s a great guy.

So the bits that I hear that sound like “Hide and Seek,” that was deliberate as well.

Yeah, and the DX7 bass cropping up, and the brass sounds in there as well, and there’s a bit that sounds almost like the riff in “Conditioning.” Yeah, it’s lots of little references.

This is going to sound like a strange question. You have this old timey piano that pops up at the end of “Tin Man.” What I was wondering is whether that was an actual old timey piano, or a synth replicating an old timey piano.

I played it on a high-end sample piano, and then degraded it so that it sounded old. [Laughs] I’m very fortunate, I have a Steinway in my studio, but because I don’t always have as much control over the sound as I’d like, I usually save that for the more acoustic-sounding records. So that’s the truth, that’s how it was done.

I saw you a couple of years ago when you toured with OMD and Barenaked Ladies. I thought that was fitting, because I feel like technology is just now finally catching up to artists like you and OMD.

It was great doing that tour, because I had to work really hard on that tour, because I was opening up. I’m not used to doing that. So I had to really work [Laughs]. I was playing to a new audience – Barenaked Ladies are from a different generation – so I was having to win [BNL’s fans] over as well as my own fans, bless them for coming. But I think my favorite moment was doing “No One Is to Blame” with Barenaked Ladies in their set. That was just so great, because even though they have a different audience, everyone knew that song. And it was like, “Wow, this is so good.”

You told a story at that show about the factory job, and how your coworkers were telling you to give up the music dream and stay in the factory. I’m now thinking, what is the life of Howard Jones, the cling film factory worker? What is that guy doing now?

I literally took the first job that anybody offered me. I was at music college, and left because I wanted to get on with my own music. Got the job in the factory, first one that I was offered, and was able to earn enough money to establish my one-man band thing. I don’t think that guy would ever have stayed in the factory, because it wasn’t what I was meant to do, I knew that. It was a means to an end. But I’ll tell you what, though, I really loved the people I worked with, they were great to me, and I had a lot of friends there. They didn’t think I would ever leave and do what I did, but I did. I walked out, and I got a record deal [Laughs], but maybe I was lucky, you know. I was at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. You need talent and determination, but you also need a little bit of luck as well to go with it, and if you have the luck, then you’re ready for it.

Is there anything on your musical bucket list that you haven’t checked off yet? I’m guessing not, but I thought I’d ask just in case.

Actually, there is one. I would like to write a song with Paul McCartney. Just one. Because he’s the closest person I feel a kinship to in songwriting.

I can see that.

Maybe that’s a little bit [chuckles]…maybe I’m elevating myself too much there, but there’s certain things that, this sense of melody and song construction. And sometimes I sound a little bit like him when I’m singing, people have said. Not a lot, but a little bit. I think that would be a really great…I mean, I won’t be the John Lennon element, I’ll be the other Paul McCartney. It’ll be McCartney/McCartney. I suppose I’m running out of time for that now, but I’m putting it out there. Maybe it’ll happen.

My favorite sentence from your Wikipedia page, hands down, is “His parents ran his fan club.”

[Laughs] Yeah, they did, yeah. My mother was the driving force, she was amazing. She was the best possible person to represent me, to be honest, because you can imagine the time, the ‘80s, my audience was late teens and just getting into their twenties, so they were writing to my mum with all kinds of teenage problems that they were having with their parents, and relationships, sex, and all that. And my mum would write back to them in the most brilliant, positive way, and she would sometimes quote my lyrics, so she became this global agony aunt for fans, and people still come up to me with, “This is a letter your mum wrote to me,” and it’s this treasured possession. What a great legacy she left! All those people she encouraged all over the world, and thousands and thousands of them.

And I’ll tell you what, what they used to do, so the fans would write to them, and my parents would invite them to their house! And they’d give them tea, and they’d have photographs taken, and they’d show them the memorabilia they had there. And they’d pick them up from the station, people from Japan…they were just amazing. They were incredible.

That is amazing. I didn’t know what you were going to tell me, but that is way better than what I pictured.

Yeah, they’re really, really great.

Years ago, I asked Thomas Dolby about the synthesizer showcase that he did on the Grammys with you, and Stevie Wonder, and Herbie Hancock. He told me this incredible story, but I was wondering if you had an interesting anecdote from that experience.

Yeah, well, I’ve got two big memories from that. Well, there’s three, actually. The first thing is me and Tom were waiting for him in London to come to the studio to start what we were going to do for the Grammys. And we waited and waited, and he never turned up. [Laughs] So we had to re-schedule it for L.A., just before the Grammys were going to be done, which actually was a lot cooler because it was at [Stevie Wonder’s] studio. So at his studio, all four of us were there, and then for some reason, Thomas and Herbie had to go somewhere, so it was just me and Stevie in the studio. So he starts jamming, and I start jamming with him, and we just kept on and on. It’s like half an hour of riffing, and doing grooves, and me and Stevie, yeah! It was a heavenly experience. And I thought, “He must be enjoying it, because he’s keeping on going.” If he had found it dull, he would have ended this about five minutes in, or something. So that was a treasured moment.

The other thing I always remember was, at lunch time, homeless people would turn up at the foyer of his studio, and they would be fed. He’d get food in for them.

Stevie would?

Yeah, that’s right. He would organize it, that these people would be fed. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really awesome.’

[Concerned that I may have interrupted him] That’s…sorry, was there more to this story?

No, I can’t wait to hear Thomas’ story! [Note: we’d sum it up here, but really, you should read it in Dolby’s own words.]

I have never heard that story before. That’s great, that’s a killer.

That is the end of my questions, but since the first press release I got for this record, you added a whole bunch more tour dates. Are those going to be acoustic as well, or is that going to be much like I saw with you and OMD a couple of years ago?

The tour over the summer, it’ll be much more of a production than the one with Barenaked Ladies. It’s three keyboard players, and one of them plays guitar as well, which is Robin Bolt, and then I’m going to play some piano as well – I like an acoustic element as well – but we’re gonna do songs that people know, the old stuff, sandwiched with the new stuff. And we worked on the Human’s Lib-era songs to inject a bit of the sound of the new album into it, so it should feel like it flows from the [laughs] historical document to the new album. That’s what I’ve tried to achieve, and I think it’s gonna work really well, because I really want people to hear the new album, but I don’t want them to have to listen to five tracks in a row. I want it to be mixed in with the stuff they’re familiar with.

I saw Depeche Mode a few years ago, and they opened up their set with six songs from the new record, and I’m like, “Guys, come on!”

[Laughs] It’s a bit tough for audiences, that. I saw Duran Duran do that as well, and they did lose the audience for a bit. But people have gotta do what they’ve gotta do, and it’s great that they’re making new music. They’re obviously very proud of it, and they want people to hear it, but I’m gonna mix it in, you know, so that people have a fighting chance.

I’m not saying this as a guy who doesn’t want to hear the new material from the bands that I grew up loving, especially when it comes to a band like Duran Duran, whose last album, Paper Gods, I loved. But as you were talking about, try and mix it up a little bit.

Yeah, that’s the plan. I did the set list ages ago, so we’re doing all-new video material for it that relates to all the songs, and concepts in the music. That’s been a big project as well. And I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about…sometimes it’s overwhelming, and people almost, like, blank it out, there’s too much going on in the video. What we’re trying to do is just have the video occur at certain moments in the song, so it’s not all about, you know, a visual experience. You’re immersed in the song, and then a few elements will come up on the screen that enhance what the song’s about. That’s what I’m aiming for this time.

I think that’s a good call, because again, going back to Duran Duran, I saw them once [in 2005], and they put this incredible video together for the song “Careless Memories,” and it got to the point where I wasn’t even watching them anymore.

Yeah. If people are just watching the screen, that’s not what I’m aiming for. It’s a live experience with the artist, and the video should be part of the show like the lighting is, so that’s what I’m trying to achieve.

Thank you so much for chatting with us. I wish you the best of luck with the record. I really dig it, and I think your fans will, too.

Well, thank you. Cheers, all the best, bye.

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