Back in the 1980s, Howard Jones was a machine, creating an endless stream of perfectly formed UK top 40 hits (well, ok it was 10 over a three year period, but still impressive!), as well as inspiring me to ask the lady from two doors up the road, who cut hair on the cheap, if she could do mine in the style of High Wycombe’s most famous musician. She pointed out that I had short, dark hair, which would make this request rather difficult – I was a tad naive in those days – but, 35 years later, what better way to quell that disappointment than by interviewing the great man himself?
God Is In The TV: Good afternoon Howard. How’s the weather down in Somerset at the moment?
Howard Jones: It’s a bit cloudy…a bit doomy…but not too cold.
You’re always an optimist though.
(This made Howard laugh out loud. I knew this interview was going to be just fine from that moment on!)
Yep. The sun will shine again!
Anyway, first of all, I want to say thanks for having a big impact on my life when you included ‘Assault And Battery‘ on Dream Into Action. I mean, I’d already heard The Smiths‘ Meat Is Murder a few weeks before that, so I was already questioning my own eating habits, but that song, in particular, was largely responsible for my decision to give up meat for good. Now, I know how much grief I got from certain people when I made that decision, and still do now a bit, as a vegan, so, was it difficult, being in the public eye after releasing such a hard-hitting record?
Um…well, I did get some grief, but I don’t think it was specifically to do with that song. I did get grief in the press… you know, I wasn’t kindly treated in general. I don’t really know why that was. ‘Assault And Battery‘… I mean, there were thousands of people who I know became vegetarian as a result of it, so that’s the important thing, and like you, this year I’ve gone vegan as well. If you add up all the people who went vegetarian after hearing that song, with that little nudge, just think about all the lives that it saved, and how it’s benefitted the planet, it’s just amazing. What pushed me to stop eating meat? I remember it really well actually because my brother was at Uni in Liverpool, and he had met somebody who’d worked in an abattoir, and he told him all these stories. My brother relayed that to me, and I literally gave up that night. I thought “I just don’t want to be part….in fact I cannot be part of this anymore” and that was that.
One thing that’s really hit me with the ‘deluxe’ re-issues of Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action is just how fresh they both still sound. Going back to what you were saying before, I read a quote from you… I mean, I know Wikipedia is not exactly the most reliable source for information but you kind of hit on it there anyway, where you said “I never got good reviews. I’m proud of the fact I wasn’t liked by the media. Pop music is so reactionary and bigoted.” I can totally relate to that, because listening to ‘Conditioning‘, it’s not a million miles away from what Thomas Dolby was doing, and he’s an artist that’s critically lauded for the most part…
I’m sorry, you seemed to laugh at that… do you disagree?
No, I do agree with you actually. It’s just that idea of “cool“, which I suppose I was having a go at, even as early as ‘New Song‘. You know, “I don’t wanna be hip and cool,” because I don’t recognise those values. You know, I’m singing about really positive things that are encouraging people to stand up to things that aren’t right. Those are the people in society that we should be supporting, not ridiculing! But the good side of it is that because I didn’t get an easy ride, it just made me more determined to keep going and stick to my guns.
And your work does seem to have endured and garnered a lot more appreciation over the years. Do you think it’s sheer persistence that’s done that? I mean, I interviewed Gary Numan a while back, and he went through quite a lengthy period where he was routinely laughed at, but then one day Trent Reznor came out and said he was a fan and all of a sudden it was cool to like Gary Numan again!
(laughs) Oh, I’ll tell you what – Trent Reznor is never gonna say that about me! (still laughing) I think you can be very confident of that! But honestly, I’m past that point now. I know what I’m about, I know who I am, and I’m used to not being taken seriously or understood, but I know that I’ve been playing the long game, you know? It’s interesting because people have started writing to me and saying “Oh I’ve suddenly got what you were on about with New Song now!” and then Tim Rice described me as a ‘pop philosopher‘; I’m really proud of that, because that’s Tim Rice and he’s a ‘lyric man’, you know? So yeah, it’s the long game – I’m still here, and there are a lot of people who aren’t. And I’m still banging on about the same things in my work!
You’re touring with China Crisis next year. Now, my memory may be playing tricks on me, but didn’t you support them in the early days?
Yes, I did.
So, is this you repaying the compliment?
Yeah, it kind of is. You know, it was my first national tour and it was a massive deal for me. I got to know them then and we’ve been friends ever since. And I absolutely love their music. Plus there is a connection there too because Kevin Wilkinson was my drummer for many years until he sadly took his own life. And in fact, I met (Steely Dan‘s) Walter Becker when I was in LA recording an album, and we talked a LOT about China Crisis and the albums that he’d done with them. He was saying that Kevin was one of the best drummers he’d ever worked with, and this is Walter Becker saying this! And I agree that he’s one of the best pop drummers that we’ve ever produced.
Agreed. Now, on the new re-issues, there’s a real wealth of bonus material, and I was wondering if you had any favourites, with any special significance or anything?
I do actually – the Kid Jensen Session – it just blows me away every time I hear it! Because I never actually was able to hear it. Only on crappy cassette recordings off the radio. But they got the actual masters from the BBC. And I think that’s the best version of ‘New Song‘ that I ever did!
I hadn’t been signed at the time, and it was just me running the machine, singing live with a drummer who’d been working with Trevor Horn quite a lot at the time, so he had one of the few proper Simmons kits. It was proper electronic drums and my rig, and it worked pretty well. So there’s that, and then there’s the Live In Japan DVD. That concert was so well recorded, and so well filmed, plus I’d been touring for a while around the world, so I’d really got that show to a high standard, I think, so that’s great too. And then there’s stuff with me performing at the Gordon Arms in High Wycombe, filmed on a VHS camera, and stuff that I did in my front room, demos… there’s some real great stuff in there actually…
So what you’re saying essentially then, Howard, in answer to my question, is “all of it.”
(laughs loudly) Well, I mean, Glenn Kelly was and is a really good friend of mine – he knows more about me than I do – and I said to him “But look, there are so many mixes, and a lot of them are quite similar“, but he was like “No, but this one has no backing vocals on it, this one doesn’t have any ‘blithe blasts’” – that goes back to the synths – and “the fans’ll be really interested to hear this.” So I kind of went with that. You know, I did question it, but I went with it, and I think he’s right – it is of interest.
You’ve remained pretty active over the years, consistently releasing new albums on a fairly regular basis, and I did hear that recent BBC interview where you said that the next record, Transform, was the next part of a ‘quadrilogy’…so what’s the theme on that?
So, the first one was Engage, as you know, which was like “get involved, don’t be a bystander,” and then Transform is like “we need to reflect on ourselves, and if we want to change the world, we’ve got to change ourselves first,” so that has the knock-on effect of changing everything, then the third one will be Dialogue, which is saying we need to talk, and we need to communicate with heart to heart conversations in order to have a harmonious society, and finally the fourth one is going to be Global Citizen, where as a result of all those things, we need to realise that we’re connected to everybody on the planet, and we’ve got to be responsible for each other.
It’s a huge undertaking, isn’t it? And very ambitious. Was it always planned to be a quadrilogy?
Yes. I made a decision, I suppose, around 2014, that I was going to do it over the next 10 years – it was like setting myself a challenge, really. And the amazing thing is that, by doing it, I’m already thinking about the next two albums and how I’m going to do it! And in the end, I intend to perform them all together over a series of nights.
What’s the most important thing to you when you’re creating a new album? Is it easier now, because you’re writing for genuine fans, rather than having to pander to the commercial top 40 singles market? Or does that make it harder, maybe?
Well, the most important thing to me is what I’m going to say, lyrically. Because if you haven’t got anything worthwhile to say, well, for me anyway, you shouldn’t even bother putting something out. So it’s got to be something that I think could be valuable to people when they hear it. So it starts there, and then I’m trying to stick to a palette of sounds, and of reasonably one genre, so this one’s very electronic and, yeah, it’s all synths. I’m working with BT, the electronic artist on three tracks, so that’s very exciting because I’m a huge fan of his, and he likes what I do as well, so that’s really interesting because he’s from another generation to me.
So is it another kind of ‘Howard Jones’s Musical Self Help‘ album?
Well, yeah it’s sort of like, more than ever, we have to stand up against all the negative things that are going on, and become strong, creative and active, and not just sit by and watch things we don’t like happening in front of us. From my point of view, it always starts with the individual, you know, the hardest thing to change is oneself. I’m not going at it from the political level, I’m going for the personal level.
I don’t blame you! So if you can just pick one moment of your life that always brings a smile to your face when you look back on it, what would you choose?
Well, personally, the birth of my children, but if we’re talking career-wise, I suppose it would be the moment when I got to the chorus of ‘Hide And Seek‘ at Live Aid, and the whole audience started singing with me. It was just sublime.
Wow. That actually sent shivers down my spine just from you saying it!
Howard Jones will be touring with China Crisis in 2019. You can see all the dates here: http://www.howardjones.com/tour_dates.html