Synth-Pop Pioneer Howard Jones Continues to Innovate

Synth-Pop Pioneer Howard Jones Continues to Innovate
David Conn
Even with a hefty stack of '80s hits in his arsenal, songs like “Things Can Only Get Better,” “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One Is to Blame,” synth-pop pioneer Howard Jones keeps moving forward and continuing to release new music. That was one thing that was attractive to singer-songwriter Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies when the band was looking for support acts for this year’s edition of the Last Summer on Earth tour, which comes to Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica on Saturday.

For Jones, it will surprisingly, be the most extensive tour of the United States he’s ever done. “I’m playing some places that I really haven’t been to before, which is very exciting for me and some venues that I haven’t played. America’s so big,” he says with a laugh during a recent phone conversation. “You know, to cover the whole place, it’s really [difficult]. You have to travel a lot.” We spoke to Jones a few days before the tour kicked off to get caught up with his latest activities.

I was interested to see on your Facebook page that this is the longest North American tour you’ve ever done. That’s surprising, considering how popular you were in the '80s.
I have done loads of gigs in my time, but I don’t think I’ve ever done like 45 shows in one continuous row.

You’re on a bill with Barenaked Ladies for a lot of these shows, but also OMD and that’s another great thing about this tour is it’s been a long, long time since OMD has done any sort of real tour here in America. I know you’ve got some history with those guys, what are your memories of crossing paths with them in the '80s?
You know, it was in the very early days. I opened up for them. I think there was a gig in Cardiff, and I’m not quite sure where the other one was. But I think it was 1983, before my first single came out even — it was really early days. So I got to meet them then. Funny enough, just recently, I’ve been involved in this Eddie the Eagle film. I wrote a couple of songs for it and Andy was also involved in writing something for that film as well. We met up at the launch and we still get on really, really well, so I think that’s always on a bonus. When you go on tour with people that you’ve got a history with, it’s great. I suppose we do have a bit of a crossover audience as well.

How did you get involved with Eddie the Eagle?
Gary Barlow, who was putting the original songs together, gave me a call. Because the film is set in the '80s, his idea was to write some new songs, but really use the sonic language of that time. That really appealed to me, especially when he sent me the script, which was so good. And it was such an inspiring story of Eddie “The Eagle” [Edwards], that I jumped on it, really and wrote two songs very quickly. I was hoping to collaborate with Gary Barlow on it, but we were never on the same continent. [Laughs] I was doing a lot of touring and he was doing a lot of touring, so in the end, I just did the tracks and sent them to him and he just loved them. I would have liked to have worked together on something. Because I’m a great admirer of his work.

How did this current tour come together?
I was invited to be on it. The Barenaked Ladies selected people that they would like to have on the tour. I think looking at the lineup, it’s not an obvious pairing, but I think the great thing about that is that we get to play to a new audience, both of us, you know, [including] the Barenaked Ladies. That’s always fun, because it’s always fun to open up the music to new people and it’s challenging. I think it’s going to be a great tour and I hope to do a song with Barenaked Ladies in their set as well, which is very cool.

The Barenaked Ladies toured last summer with Violent Femmes and Colin Hay and I’ve heard some folks talk about how the pairing for this year, as you alluded to, seems like kind of an odd match, but it makes good sense to me, because those guys, they’ve always seemed like they’re big music fans to me. It’s not hard to see how it would come together this way.
Yeah, you can tell they’re really into music and they’re very knowledgable about music. Some of the comments that I got back about, “Which version of the song would you like us to do?” [Laughs] I was like, “Wow, you know all of the details!” I think it’s going to be a very harmonious tour. I think there’s going to be a lot of laughter and fun.

Can we count on you to bring out the keytar for this tour?
Yeah, actually, what I’ve been trying to do is use the keytar more than I’ve ever done before on this tour. My idea was to be as mobile as possible, so I’ve tried to not be stuck behind my main keyboard — in certain things, I have to. You know, when I’m playing piano-related stuff, I’ve got to have two hands on the [keyboard], but there’s a lot of stuff that I can do mobile, and I’ve tried to work that into the show, so I’m going to be moving around a lot more on this one.

Is there any sort of fun story behind that keytar and its personal history in your collection?
It’s very interesting to talk about, because back in 1983, I used to strap a Moog Prodigy around my neck using a guitar strap. When they finally brought a proper keytar, which was the Yamaha KX5, I jumped on that straight away, you know, anything that could make me more mobile, I was really into. It’s been really part of my history going back to 1982. I think I must have been one of the first people to use keytars a lot.

And currently, you’re doing your part to keep the keytar out there. If it went away, you’re bringing it back.
 [Laughs] The only thing that I would say is that most of them that you see just look ridiculous on people because they’re so big and they just look like they’ve got this ridiculous appendage strapped to them. I’ve always gone for the ones that have got the small scale keys so that they look more like guitar-sized. They don’t look like you’re wearing a wardrobe when you’re coming out there.

When I saw you this past year at the Trinity Cathedral here in Cleveland….
Oh yeah, I loved that show! That was so great!

It was such a cool and intimate space to be able to see not just you but also, the overall electric set. 
I’ve watched the footage of it back, because they filmed it that night and I thought, “It’s such a strange mix” because with the screen and everything, it is the full show, but it’s surprisingly intimate at the same time, because I’m right in there with the audience and everyone’s dancing at the front there and it’s in this amazing space. I really enjoyed that gig.

One of the most recent things you did musically was the Engage project and when we spoke in 2014, you told me how you were viewing it as more of an audio/visual release than an album and how you were going to “probably base writing in the future around the live experience.” I wondered if you could talk a bit more about where your head is at with all of that presently, because as I understand it, you’ve got a few things in the pipeline that you’re working on album-wise.
I really enjoyed working on Engage, because it was challenging and I was trying to pull a lot of things together, you know, with the visuals and the dance elements and the ballet. As you said, think of it as a live experience that people are going to have. So I started the new album and I’ve got 10 tracks ready. I haven’t finished the lyrics and all of the melodies yet, but they’ve been started. I’m thinking from the point of view, how do I present these tracks live? So I’m already thinking of how I’ll structure the recording to [be able to] present it in an interesting way live from what I’ve learned from Engage. That will be the second part of the….I’m calling it a quadrilogy. There’s going to be four albums — Engage was the first and there’s going to be another three that will all have a lot of visual elements and there will be films. It will be an experience live and then there will be another two after that. I hope to sometime in the future perform them all together consecutively.

How did the experience of mounting the Engage project shape where you’ve gone with the music that you’re working on now?
I sort of freed myself up with Engage to really do much more experimental things, like the “5 Pianos” piece, which was a tribute to [composer] Steve Reich, really. And then there was the sort of classical “Sister Brother,” which was a classical piano piece, really. It’s a real eclectic mix of all of the things I love. I thought for this next project, I would actually write songs this time, but the way that I orchestrate them and reveal them will be based on a kind of build, maybe from just a single voice at the beginning, to the big full on electronic dance rave thing at the end. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to turn out, but I’m thinking of the live show, how it would look.

The Engage project seems like something that must have been really fun for you because it was really shaped in real time with the help of the audience.
Yeah, I mean, I would have loved to have toured properly with it, but it was just too big of a show for me to manage with the audiences that I can draw. So really in the end, we only did four or five of them. But the thing is, when you do something new like that and you put that on, you learn so much and it just gives momentum to all of the other work. I see it as that, it’s like [research and development] for my development as an artist and as a performer.

It seems like you’re really fortunate, working independently as you have since the '90s. It leaves you wide open to pursue these projects in the way that you want to. But you also have to look at the things that you’re doing from a business side. How hard is it for you to find the balance?
I just think it’s being realistic. You know, to be able to fund projects like Engage, it’s entirely funded by me. [Laughs] Because I don’t have a record company and I don’t have a sugar daddy in the background. That makes you be very practical about how to achieve great things. I think it really makes you more creative. There’s some gigs I do, that I do more to get money, so I can fund these projects like Engage. But it’s really investing and you know, it’s just being realistic. Because there’s so many artists who don’t have an eye on that and they end up not being able to do what they want to do. My idea is that I always want to be able to fund great ideas and present them to my great supporters and fans and thrill them with something new.

What do you think about the whole crowdfunding side of things? Because you’ve done some of that as well.
 I think that’s great. We did that with the Engage project and what that does is it connects you even more with the fans. You know, you feel very responsible to deliver. They’re believing in you and they’re putting their money up front to fund the project, so you really feel a great responsibility towards them. But at the same time, you think, “Wow, it’s really worth doing this, because people really want me to do it.” It’s not just me, it’s like they’re saying, “Go on Howard, do it, do it.” I really think it is a great model and I’ve been encouraging young artists that I know to go that route, especially for their first album. It’s a very real thing — they make that connection with the fans and then they’re able to fund their first album. Those people who have been part of that project will probably be with you for your whole career. I’m actually a big fan of the crowdfunding model as long as the artists aren’t flaky about it and they make sure they deliver what they say they’re going to do. [Laughs] So yeah, it’s good.

You probably like having a chance to give back to those young artists, some of the knowledge that might not have been there for you when you were starting out.
You know what? It’s very interesting, because the world is changing so fast that I don’t even think the experiences I had in the beginning of my career are even vaguely relevant. The only things I think that are, are the philosophical elements. If you want to have a long career, then you must look after your audience and your fans. You must care for them and you really must build them into your thinking. How you do that is according to the technology available at the time or the thinking that is available at the time. Also, always stay true to what you want to do as an artist and don’t be persuaded to go and do things that are totally not you and totally are against your values. I can say, “Oh, well, I played the pubs and clubs and I sold cassettes,” but that’s not relevant now. In this day and age, it’s not. But still, the things that are, you know, look after your fans and care about them and then they’ll stay with you and you can continue to do what you do.

You’ve been in pretty close communication with your fans for a long time. Certainly, you were pretty early on the whole internet side of things. It must have been interesting for you as an artist to see that feedback become a lot more instant once you got online.
 Yes, it is. I sort of only wish I could do more, but you can’t do as much as you’d really like to do, because you’d never get anything done. I try and do as much as I can to keep in touch. My main thing is Twitter, which is like, short, sharp comments and information and replies and then I have somebody who helps me with Facebook. It’s almost like one of the things you should have, if you’re forming a band, one of the band members should be the social media guy or girl. [Laughs] And that’s all they do. They haven’t got time to play an instrument! They’ve got to be doing the social media stuff 24/7.

I know you were a big Keith Emerson fan. What did you take away from his music early on?
I’m still feeling devastated about his passing and his suicide. I followed Keith from the time he was in the Nice. I learned to play “Hang On To A Dream,” you know, the piano solo, on the early Nice album. I was there at the Isle of Wight festival when ELP did their first major gig and I was totally blown away with it. Keith came to my house to interview me and spent a whole day with me and we just had the most amazing time. I was actually speaking to Carl Palmer just before I left. Carl’s organizing a tribute to him in the U.K. I know he’s doing one in America as well, but I’m going to be part of that one in the U.K. I definitely want to pay my respects to such an inspirational man. 

He was a true trailblazer for sure.
 Absolutely. Interestingly enough, Jimi Hendrix was on the same bill [at Isle of Wight, in 1970, the same year that Emerson, Lake and Palmer played], so he’s like the king of guitar and then Emerson was the king of the keyboards. It was amazing. Two giants in the same place.

What were the circumstances that Keith came to interview you? When was that?
I think it was in the late '80s. It was for Keyboard Magazine. I think I was just releasing the Cross That Line album. He came to hang out and talk to me about the album and we played keyboards together. It was just….it was great. We got on so well. I suppose it’s not surprising really, I don’t know, it’s the same sort of DNA, I guess. You know, a keyboard player who was the frontman. I suppose there’s not many of them, so we had that in common and the fact that he inspired me so much and also, that was the first time I’d heard the Moog, a synthesizer, on stage and being a fan, that was so amazing. That was a huge thing too.

As I understand it, you had a prog band pretty early on and did some pretty epic stuff. How did you eventually rein things and shift towards the more pop-driven songwriting? What kind of stuff was driving you in that direction?
 I suppose I really found what I really loved. I loved the pop song form and how useful it is. It’s a very familiar shape, but there’s all kinds of little twists and turns you can give to it and surprising things that you can do with it. I think that three or four minutes is a wonderful amount of time to work with. I really put all of my efforts into that. I had done the 20 minute compositions that changed time signatures and keys. I’d kind of done all of that in my early days and then I realized actually what I was best at was melody and drawing lyrics together with melody and
chord shapes and structures, so that’s what I concentrated on.

It always seems like you felt free to explore things musically and stretch out. Something like “Hide and Seek” is one that comes to mind, but there’s a lot of that stuff sprinkled throughout your catalog.
Yeah, but that still has a pop song structure. It is expanded, but you can condense it down to a very tight verse/bridge/chorus/middle 8 and I love all of that.

How much time did you spend tinkering with those old songs? It seems like it was probably really fun to put together the structure of all of those songs, whether it was a song like “New Song” or “Always Asking Questions” or whatever it was.
 The songs on Human’s Lib were really written with my one man band rig that I had started to play live with. I had an eight note sequencer, so I could have that doing an ostinato and I could transpose that. That was a limitation, but it led to the way that those songs were constructed. I had pads that I could play with my right hand, I could play bass with my left and I could do solos like the “New Song” solo with my right hand. I had arpeggios going and then the triggers from the 808 drum machine. That was my instrument. Those songs are very much written according to the capacity of the gear at the time, and I think that’s why it sort of sounded quite unusual.

It really did, which is why it seems like it must have been interesting to come up with those sounds. You talked about the capacity of that gear. How well did what you want to do creatively and musically translate to the records that you ultimately made in that time period?
I basically set up that live rig in the studio. It was right in between the speakers and then I was fortunate to work with Rupert Hine and Stephen Taylor, who were at the cutting edge of technology themselves. There was primitive sampling available and then Rupert’s great sense of structure that he taught me and how to build a track, you know, don’t give it all away in the first verse. [Laughs] I had a masterclass from Rupert on how to make great, great records. It was a combination of that, you know, coming in with all of the material ready to go and then Rupert and Steve taking it to another level.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Music News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.