INTERVIEW: HOWARD JONES GETS TO KNOW US WELL

Howard Jones is excited about playing a series of Australian shows this November with his old friend, Kim Wilde. The Upside News caught up with him recently to talk about what’s in store for his Adelaide fans when he hits the stage at The Gov on November 12 – but we actually ended up talking about a much more diverse range of topics than just the upcoming show in our short conversation.

The Upside News: Howard, thanks for making time to talk with The Upside News. You’re coming back to Australia? It’s not been that long since you were last here – you must really love the place.

Howard Jones: Yeah, yeah, I do – it seems quite awhile though since I was last there. It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?

TUN: Well, I used to work with a colleague who once told me that you were her teenage musical hero, and I remember her getting all excited only a couple of years back because she knew you were coming to town. That couldn’t have been more than four or five years ago at the most…

HJ: Yeah…?

TUN: And you toured here once before with Kim Wilde, didn’t you?

HJ: (bluntly) No.

TUN: No? I’m sure you did…back in around 2003?  I read somewhere that there was an 80’s artists package touring around the country back then, and amongst the headliners were both ‘Kim Wilde and Howard Jones’…

HJ: (laughs) Absolutely – and categorically – no!

TUN: Well there you go, you obviously can’t believe everything you read on the net! So then, how come you have paired up to tour with Kim this time? What brought that about?

HJ: Well, we actually meet each other regularly because we do various festivals together. And some of the members of her band and my crew are the same, so we’ve always got that connection.

We thought it would be good to share bands and share crew on a tour so that we could actually get to Australia. That’s always the thing, because it is quite [an issue] to travel all that way with all the gear. So it was quite an expedient way of doing it.

And we’re actually really good friends as well, so we think this will be a great tour because it’s a great bill!

hj-2010-4TUN: And do you each do separate sets, or are you going to perform on stage together? Do you alternate being the headliner each night?

HJ: No, I’m going to do my show, then she is going to do hers, and then we will do a song together at the end.

TUN: Well one thing is for sure, the show is certain to be wall to wall hits, and everyone is going to be pleased with that. I mean, from memory, I think you alone have had 6 or 7 Top Twenty hits in Adelaide. No doubt you‘ll be dusting all of those off?

Do you know what your biggest hit was in Adelaide?

HJ: (tentatively) No…I don’t. Was it ‘No One Is To Blame’?

TUN: No – it was actually ‘Look Mama’.

HJ: Was it? Wow! (incredulously) I haven’t even got that in the set! (laughs) I’m in trouble!

TUN: (laughing) That was your highest charting hit here and the one that stayed in the Top Ten the longest…I was a bit surprised too when I checked that out today. I thought it would be one of your other well known songs, maybe ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’…

HJ: I’m going to have to play a bit of Look Mama then. I’ll just do a sort of vocal and piano version of it. Just put it in there somewhere.

That’s a good ‘heads up’ for me, thanks!

TUN: My pleasure.

Will you be trialing any of the material you are going to be using on your Songs & Stories British tour next year? That sounds like a pretty interesting tour coming up?

HJ: No, that will be a completely different thing – you know, just songs and a piano. This tour is the electronic thing, so there is no relation between them really (laughs) – apart from me!

But I will be playing some of my new stuff. There’s one of the Eddie The Eagle film tracks that I wrote – I’m doing that – and also a track from the Engage album, the last album.

TUN: And will you be bringing any of the multi-media elements from last year’s Engage tour in to your show here? That seemed like it was a big production.

HJ: No…no. (laughs again) It’s just the gritty, stripped down version of the show…

TUN: They’re most often the best!

HJ: Yeah! (still laughing)

TUN: Now, delving back a little into your history, if I can.

You were one of the first people to offer live recordings of live shows straight off the desk. Why didn’t that idea catch on more broadly across the globe? I know that Concert Live over there in the U.K. do it at some shows, and I know Springsteen sold USBs at his last Australian shows so that you could download the show the next day – it seems like a fantastic idea, why hasn’t it taken off more widely?

HJ: (laughs) Well…I guess it has really!

For me the fun was in doing something new. We were manufacturing it ourselves backstage. We took photos at the show, and each show had its own artwork. We managed to get a certain amount of CDs ready for people to take away and then people left their address so we could send stuff on.

I got a really interesting album out of that, because there was like twenty shows and I edited all the shows together – all the best bits from places like, Newcastle, Birmingham and, you know, Coventry – and the actual live recording jumped from all these locations and it was such good fun to do. That is the sort of thing you can do when you run sequences and do it the way we do it. Yeah, it was great.

TUN: I’ve been looking at your schedule, and coming up in the future you get to play in some of the most far-flung places. I see you get to play in places like the Dominican Republic – what is it about your music, do you think, that has such universal appeal? You seem to be able to go anywhere and people seem to know your songs…

HJ: Yeah, but I kind of specialise in only a few places though. A lot of what I do is about the lyrics and about what I play and the stuff in between songs – the chat and such things – so I feel really at home when I’m in English speaking nations. And, fortunately, that’s where I’ve had most of my success.

You know, if I go to Europe there are a few countries there – Italy, Sweden – where I had a few hits, but they’re not like America, the U.K., Australia and Japan, but between all of these places there is enough for me to do…

I’m still responding to your idea that everywhere I go [people know my work well] – you know, I don’t feel that. My main places to tour are those countries that I mentioned so they’re the places that I concentrate on.

TUN: So those more exotic locations on your tour schedule, is that more just you wanting to go there and see them for yourself then…

HJ: (bursts into laughter) Yeah, the Dominican Republic appeals a lot! (continuing to laugh) On the sunshine level…

TUN: Well, I guess it just stood out to me as strange that you are going there…(regaining composure) Going right back, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into synth pop from selling fruit and veg off the back of a truck?

HJ: Well, being a fruit and veg salesman was expedient means, really, to get to where I wanted to be. I needed jobs that were flexible so that I could go out and do gigs during the evenings. Everything – from the age of 14 – everything, was geared towards the goal of making records and being on stage and just doing it…

TUN: So you had that vision from when you were that young?

HJ: Oh yeah! I went to the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970 and saw, really, the iconic gods of rock and pop music play – Jimi Hendrix, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and The Doors and The Who, Joni Mitchell…you know, the list just went on and on.

And I thought this is really what I want to do, and from that point on everything was geared, and orientated towards, getting there. So I worked hard at my piano lessons and all…

Yeah, the jobs I did, like I worked in a factory, I gave piano lessons, I did the fruit and veg round…it was all so I could buy keyboards, do gigs…it was all about that.

TUN: You started out as a classical pianist didn’t you, and then you made that leap into pop music, or was it just a natural thing [to do both together]…?

HJ: No, no. I honestly learnt the piano because Keith Emerson was classically trained, and it just made me a much better piano player to play the music that I loved – which was pop music and rock music.

So it was really to get my chops into good shape.

TUN: Did you get a lot of encouragement at school? Were they supportive of your talent?

HJ: At school? I was absolutely discouraged!

The head of the music department wouldn’t let me take my ‘A’ levels because he didn’t like me. He wouldn’t let me take the A level music course. And when I told him I had Grade eight piano he didn’t believe me – that’s the highest grade you could get – he said come up to the Queens Hall and play me something. So I played him one of the pieces I had played for my exam and he almost fell over! But he did not want me to do music, so I did sciences. (Laughs) And I worked towards getting myself into music college.

So, yeah, I was totally discouraged – but the interesting thing was, it all came round in the end because, later on, I was invited back to the Royal Grammar School, in High Wycombe, to open their new music department with a proper ceremony and everything. And there was a plaque on the wall, you know: ‘Music department opened by Howard Jones’, with the date, and the only other person who had a plaque in that place was the Queen! She had opened the main hall. So I thought that was sort of ironic payback really.

TUN: (laughs) So it sounds like your knighthood must only be a year or two away then?

HJ: (laughs) No! No! I have no interest in that! I mean, honestly, look at the people who get knighthoods!! They’re crooks and criminals, half of them…

I do not want to be honoured in that way. That is just bullshit, and I would never accept it. (laughs)

TUN: You sound like Bob Dylan snubbing the Nobel Prize committee…

HJ: Well, you know what? I am totally with him on that. I mean this is a guy who has stood outside…he’s been a counter-culture figure for the whole of his career. Why would he want to suddenly sign up for being part of the establishment?

TUN: I agree.

HJ: It seems obvious to me – obvious that he wouldn’t even acknowledge it. And good on him.

TUN: Let alone the fact that the prize was established by a bequest from an armaments manufacturer. I agree with you, it seems silly to be making an issue about him not wanting any part of it.

HJ: I think that is interesting. What is it about our times that people don’t even understand that he would refuse that? If you’re a counter-culture figure, you would just not be a part of that. And people just don’t understand it.

It’s just another thing that is so bizarre about the time we live in. It’s like we just have to say yes to everything. Well…no!

TUN: Just a couple more questions.

Can you tell us a little about working with other artists? What’s the artistic payoff of working with others? I know you’ve done some collaborations in recent years – in particular I’m thinking of the Cedric Gervais reworking of your song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’…

HJ: Yeah.

TUN: So what’s the value of having others work with your material – deconstructing it, rebuilding it…?

HJ: With that sort of thing, it’s really choosing the right person. With Cedric, I really liked his work. I get loads of people sending in remixes of my stuff and I absolutely hate it.

I do follow what’s going on, I’m not a newbie who goes, ‘Oh yeah, this is a sort of dance beat, so its got to be good…’ No, there are people who do it really well but there are a lot of people who don’t.

But people like Cedric Gervais – well, I really respect what he does, so working with him is easy.

The bigger question, though, is that it is really important to work with other people, because if you just stay at home in your own studio, with your own thoughts and your own decisions, well, (a) it gets boring very quickly, and (b) other people bring different things out of you.

I’ve recently been working with an amazing trumpet player, who is the lead trumpet in Michael Buble’s band. His name is Jumaane Smith. We’ve been doing piano and trumpet improvisations and, honestly, it has pushed me into this different direction that’s been really good for everything that I do.

So it’s really important to work with people whatever field you are in. It’s hard. It’s always harder, because there will always be something you don’t like and they’ll challenge you. But that is really important too.

TUN: Is it similar to having your songs used in something like the TV show Breaking Bad, where your music is put into a context that you didn’t originally envisage. Do you find yourself reassessing your work through having that sort of experience?

HJ: Yeah. Well, for a start, I was absolutely thrilled to be in Breaking Bad because I’m a mad fan of it. I love that show. I think it’s the best TV ever made.

I met the music supervisor, and he told me that every single song in that whole series was carefully placed because of what each song said.

In Breaking Bad, the scene is that [the character] Jesse Pinkman is in this café, at a crisis point deciding which way he is going to turn – whether he’s going to go back to working with Walter White, or just leave and ditch it all – and New Song comes on and says: ‘Don’t crack up / Bend your brain / See both sides / Throw off your mental chains…’.

I think that’s unusual, that a music supervisor knows songs and their lyrics so well that he can put a song so perfectly into place. And of course, I love that, because it suggests the sort of detailed level that I work at in my own craft.

TUN: Yes, normally they seem to just choose songs for their atmospheric sound rather than the precise lyrical meaning…

HJ: Yes.

TUN: Howard thanks so much for speaking with The Upside News. I’ll be going along to your Adelaide show at The Gov on November 12 and I’m really looking forward to it…

HJ: Thanks, and hey, shout out ‘Play Look Mama!(laughs)…in case I forget!

TUN: Will do!

HJ: And then I’ll just do a little bit of it…

TUN: I will, as long as you don’t call for security and say, ‘Get rid of the heckler!’

HJ: (Cracks up into laughter) No, no, no. I’d never do that!

Howard Jones is appearing with Kim Wilde at The Gov on Saturday November 12. Tickets available through Metropolis touring.

Read Ken’s chat with Kim Wilde HERE.

By Ken Grady
Photo supplied