By Tom Reardon
Just for a little while, let me take you back to a magical time in every boy’s life … his first Howard Jones show.
The year was 1985 and I was just about to turn 16. I had the world in the palm of my hand, or at least that’s what the older folks would tell me on occasion, and a friend of mine suggested that we hit the Arizona State Fair to see Howard Jones. In those days, if I’m being honest (and dear readers, I will always call it as I see it), I was pretty adamant about my personal punk rock-ness, but I did have soft spot for British new wave music.
With one foot in and one foot out of the synth-pop closet, I outwardly shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure, I’ll go, but you’re buying the booze for the ride” while inwardly I was giddy. From the first time I heard Jones first hit, “New Song” during either the end of 8th grade or the beginning of freshmen year, I was hooked. The now 64-year-old classically trained pianist/keyboardist is quintessentially British, handsome, and pants droppingly charming, but also has always just had the greatest energy.
As a younger dude, Jones had quite the mane of spiky, yet fluffy red hair that would bounce around as he would dance on stage and at the Fair in 1985, he was in fine, fine form. There were dancers in lizard costumes prowling around the stage and my not yet hardened punk rock stance quickly melted into digging the Jones groove as he played all my faves, especially “Like To Get To Know You Well” off of his Dream Into Action record that came out that year.
I danced in Veterans Memorial Coliseum that night and I’m not ashamed at all. In fact, I’m glad I did because, in some strange way, I feel it made it justified for me to want to talk to Jones in 2019 about his new record, Transform, and his upcoming show at Celebrity Theater on July 11. While the wonderful red hair is now a dignified, John Slattery-esque, white cut fairly short, Jones is still quite capable of cranking a really damn good record and Transform has a strong nod to his early material without sounding dated at all. Just hearing his voice on the other end of the line was enough to make me smile. Here’s what we talked about.
Echo: So, this might be a strange place to start, but tell me about your band that you have backing you up right now.
Jones: We are a three piece, with me, Robbie (Bronnimann), and Robin Boult on guitar. It’s an electronic show.
Echo: How do you go about choosing people to play with?
It’s just people I work with, you know, in studio and have a sort of a long-term relationship. There are very few people who I’ve actually had in my band, over the years. It’s such a special and important relationship to have and you have to really get on with people, you know, and difficult circumstances and a lot of pressure. It’s so important that the people around you are, (pauses) capable and able to deal with anything and can take pressure. When I find people like that, I just hope they can make the next tour.
Echo: Excellent. I totally understand that. I’ve seen you a few times over the years. In fact, the first time I saw you was at the Arizona State Fair in 1985 and if memory serves it seems like you had some folks climbing around on stage and in lizard costumes. Am I remembering that correctly?
Um, yeah. You know, that was the Dream Into Action tour. I’ve always had like a lot of theatrical visual elements to my shows. You know, right back when I started out with a one-man band thing. We used to have TV screens on stage with VHS tapes playing through them. And then Jed (Hoile) was like a mime artist and dancer who used to play all kinds of different characters.
It was more like performance art than anything else, but that thread is really solid through my whole career and it takes the form of all the visuals that we do now and the films that we make that go to the songs. It’s always been a big part of what I do.
Echo: I was kind of curious about that…if that was something that you, over the years, have had a lot of input in or you’ve had collaborators that you’ve trusted and worked with?
I’ve always been involved with the effort with all the video work. I like to work with people who specialize in things, of course, but I’m always involved with all of the concepts and every aspect of the, of the stage design, I’m involved with and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Echo: When you were first starting out, were you influenced at all by what was happening in the post-punk era in England or were you outside of that?
I think I’ve always been outside of that. I just had an idea, and nobody has done a one-man electronic band before so there was no reference for that. So, with a mime artist on stage and costumes and all kinds of things, so no (laughs). I wasn’t in London, so I wasn’t part of that London scene. So, I was really out there on my own and built my own following locally. I don’t really feel like I was influenced by what was going on in London.
If you compare my music at the time, it is not the same, even though I was using synths and drum machines, it really didn’t sound like anyone else. It came from all my own experiences. I was classically trained and liked to listen to the radio all the time and just take on board all kinds of influences from all kinds of music. So, I don’t know where it all comes from, but it ends up coming out of me.
Echo: I remember when “New Song” came out and I immediately became a fan, so tell me about the new record. Tell me about Transform.
I’d been asked to write a couple of songs for a movie called Eddie The Eagle and the film is based in the ’80s and the brief was, you know, it’s got to sound like it has echoes of the ’80s, but they wanted a brand new song. And I’m thinking, well, “How did I approach writing, and what gear did I use?” So, I applied that thinking to these two songs and they came about very quickly. I really liked the process of doing that, and thought, maybe it could be the basis of an album, so I just went on from there. Also, the fans, I knew they really wanted me to make another full-on electronic album.
I was very fortunate to meet up with BT (American musician Brian Transeau who has also worked with Britney Spears and Madonna, among others) and we started to make some tracks together, and we did. We did three collaborations on this album and that was amazing. So, it was really great. Putting any album together is a big deal. It just takes forever and the older you get; you get more meticulous about it. Sometimes you think is anybody going to even bother (listening to it) but, you know, if you don’t do any new work, you can’t really call yourself an artist, can you? It’s just not right and the fans really want you to do new work. I’m very encouraged by it.
Echo: How has the reception been? I noticed that your current live set is pretty heavy on the new stuff.
Yes, it’s very, very important. I wanted to feature the new album, and it fits very well with the hits. We went back and reinvented the hits, as well, to update everything to bring the old stuff into line with the new album. It was a big long process, but that is the great thing with electronic music. You can do that. You can give things an upgrade and bring them into line with the current thinking.
Echo: I noticed when I was listening to Transform that it really reminded me of your earlier work, and I mean that in the best sense.
I know what you mean. The way I think about it is that it sounds like me. It is what I do, you know, I don’t really sound like anyone else so that’s what it should be. You should sound like yourself, shouldn’t you?
Echo: I agree. One of the songs that really struck me is towards the end of the record, and that is “Mother.” Tell me a little bit about “Mother.”
Well, I started off writing…(pauses) I wanted to write a song about my mother who passed away three or four years ago now. I’d been really wanting to write a song about what I felt about her, and it was a really difficult song to write because of all the memories, you know, of this amazing woman were coming back to me and it was really tough writing it. But then I thought it was really important to do this because I know so many people will feel the same about their mother, even if they may have a difficult relationship sometimes. I know that happens, but still, there are deep, deep feeling there. I came out of it writing on behalf of everyone who was going to listen to the record.
I wanted it to be in the most raw language as I could possibly do. It didn’t want it to be all poetic and full of imagery, I wanted it to be like those raw feelings that we have about our mothers. I will not be able play that song live, ever. I just break down every time I hear it and it brings back those memories so vividly. I think it turned out really well.
Echo: It did. I think everybody will feel something, regardless of the type of relationship that you have with your mom. What about “Beating Mr. Neg?”
I just felt it was a fun way of describing a very serious issue, which is, you know, I believe that we are made up of positive and negative and it’s a battle between the two on a daily basis. You know, we have to fight our negative tendencies that want to tell us that we’re no good or want to take away our confidence and want to stop us from doing all the brilliant things that we’re capable of. I wanted to describe that battle with his song in a fun way. When you see it live, Mr. Neg is there on the screen and I interact with him.
He’s fun, but it’s a very serious subject at the same time. I’m very aware of myself in that I have to battle my negative tendencies every day and make sure that I win. And, I’m sure that most people feel the same to a smaller or greater extent. I just think it’s important to write. I love writing about what goes on and what it is to be a human being and what we have to face and what we all have to deal with. It’s not talked about enough, and I think music is a place where it can be discussed.
Echo: Especially when it’s done well — it’s another one that really stuck out to me. I remember seeing you play with Ringo Starr and his All-Star Band in the early 2000s. How was that experience to play with all those musicians?
I mean, I wouldn’t be in anybody else’s band, but Ringo asks you to be in a band, it’s quite an honor. Especially somebody from the 80s. It was usually guys from the 60s and 70s. Me and Sheila E, though, and Greg Lake. So, I knew I was going to be playing an ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) number. Keith Emerson was one of my biggest influences when I was growing up. We did, as you saw, Karn Evil 9 (from ELP’s prog classic Brain Salad Surgery) and it is just about the most difficult piece of keyboard music ever, to play. The three of us nailed it every night and it was just brilliant fun to do that.
My favorite thing about the show was doing the sound check every night because we’d be jamming with Ringo’s amazing groove. Such a great and lovely man. I really got time to hang out with him, you know, and I have very fond memories of it.
Echo: I was hoping you would say that because it was such a great lineup. Roger Hodgson (of Supertramp) was part of it, too, and he’s one of the most beautiful people on the planet. Also, Ringo doesn’t give enough credit. He’s a great drummer.
Absolutely. I see. I, I’ve always upheld that he is one of the great drummers of all time. He’s never got the credit for it, but he is. Just because he was a jovial character and told a joke or two, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not one of the best drummers ever.
One thing I’ve learned about the music world is that it not merit based. So, that’s the advice I always give to young kids is that you have got to believe in yourself independently of what anybody would say about you because it’s not about merit. It’s some random thing. So, you just have to believe in yourself and just keep going.
Echo: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects coming up after the tour or will you take it easy for a while?
Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I won’t be taking it easy. I just can’t do that. I love to work and be busy doing something, battling with something. I’ve got another two albums planned; Transform is part of a series. It’s the second part of the series, with Engage (2015) being the first introduction to it. There are another two albums. There is a long-term plan now that I’ve told so many people about it that I have to do it.
Echo: Well, yeah, now I’m going to write about it, too. So, I mean just another thimble full of pressure for you. Do you have the music written already for the next one?
No. I just have the titles of the albums, and a sort of guiding philosophy of them, but I don’t know what it is going to be yet. I haven’t quite decided. I’ve got ideas, but probably the next one is going to be another electronic record, I think, because people have enjoyed this one so much and I’ve had such good feedback.