Breaking a prolonged silence, one of the eighties' most successful solo pop songwriters talks to Tim Goodyer about his new home, his new album, and an ever-expanding collection of synthesisers.
Synth composer, hand arranger, pop singer and social commentator. Howard Jones is all of these things, and successful with it. What lessons have three years at the top of the pop tree taught him?
Think of the acts that brought about the establishment of the solo synthesist/synth duo as an alternative to the 'pop group' a few years back, and who do you think of? The Human League. Depeche Mode. Yazoo. Thomas Dolby. Blancmange. And not long afterwards, a solo synth player and songwriter with a neat line in infectious pop hooks and a keen eye for socially aware lyrics, by the name of Howard Jones.
For while other artists were concerning themselves with adding brass sections and extra percussionists to their line-ups, Jones was among that select few who put their faith in their own talents and (notoriously unreliable) technology, in the search for new sounds and greater artistic freedom.
Howard Jones, however, doesn't fall into the category of 'modern pop composer using electronics to make up for inability to play music'.
'I started playing the piano when I was seven', he explains, 'and then I spent 14 years studying classical music. I do value my training and technique, but I admire guys that concentrate on programming, rather than playing, just as much.
'Music comes from the mind and, if you're not restricted by your own playing abilities, then producing it becomes a purely cerebral exercise. Possessing a particular technique inevitably leads you into certain areas; having no technique means each song can take you into a new area.'
Jones formed a partnership with mime artist Jed Hoyle to help with the visual problems of a one-man show, and quickly established an individual musical identity characterised by bright synth sounds, tightly interwoven drum and sequencer patterns, and a pleading, honest-to-goodness vocal.
His first single, 'New Song', made number three in the charts late in '83, and set the pattern for the string of successful singles that was to follow, among them the raunchy dancefloor workout 'What Is Love?', the downbeat ballad 'Hide and Seek' and the irreverently poppy 'Like to Get to Know You Well'.
Two albums, Human's Lib released early in '84 and Dream Into Action a year later, scored similar success both at home and abroad, and did a fine job of demonstrating Jones' skills as solo songwriter, lyricist, performer and teen idol.
A third album, One To One, is scheduled for release in mid-October. Although mixed and produced by Arif Mardin in New York, it was recorded at Windmill Lane Studios in Jones' new home town of Dublin. The move away from High Wycombe was made for the usual 'tax reasons', but Jones has found the relaxed atmosphere and the local traditional music contributory factors to the sound of One To One. And the inclusion of a number of guest musicians also marks another stage in Jones' steady departure from his original practice of monopolising the playing credits.
'Most of the guests on the album aren't famous at all', he says. 'They're local musicians playing traditional instruments I used to inject atmosphere. The opening track actually starts with Sean Potts from the Chieftains playing Irish flutes.'
Also novel on the atmosphere front (an aspect of recording that's always received Jones' special attention) is the inclusion of noises from Max Eastleigh's Sound Sculptures. For the uninitiated, these are sculptures in various materials that combine visual and acoustic art. In each case, the viewer has to interact in some way with the sculpture to produce sound in some form.
'Don't ask me why, but I was watching Pebble Hill at One one afternoon and there was this guy on with all these weird instruments making strange noises. The sounds were so unusual. I found them so fascinating I got in touch with him, and we ended up spending a day in the studio sampling some of the sounds.
'The ones I liked most were the whirly ones, where you have to swing something around your head. There's one called The Bullroarer which I particularly liked; we used that at the start of a song called 'Don't Want To Fight Anymore'. There's another one we used called The Ark — that's like a plank with a hinge in it and a piece of wire strung across it which you can bow or pluck. We modified all the sounds quite heavily, and used them for very short moments to help create atmospheres.'
CREATING A UNIQUE ATMOSPHERE for each song began in earnest with Dream Into Action. Looking back at Human's Lib you'll find a collection of finely crafted songs, with Jones' manipulation of melody bringing the emphasis to rest firmly on commercial appeal. In terms of songwriting, if not saleability, it set a standard the artist failed to sustain with Dream Into Action, on which the songwriting became less finely focused.
'The last LP was a lot more experimental', he explains. 'I can understand why people might not have liked it as much as Human's Lib. It was difficult because, at the time, I didn't really know which direction I wanted to take. So I concentrated a lot on the creation of specific atmospheres for each song. In that respect I think Dream Into Action was very good. Songs like 'Automaton' — that had a great atmosphere to it.
'On this album I wanted to spend a lot of time giving each song its own individual set of sounds. I spent one day just walking around the house collecting everyday things to sample into the Fairlight, things like saucepans. It's amazing how such humble-looking objects can produce such beautiful sounds.'
But Jones' resourcefulness goes way beyond such mundane things as saucepans...
'There's a tap-dance solo in the middle of a track called 'Step Into These Shoes'. One of the ladies that does the cooking at Windmill Lane also tap-dances, so we sampled her and played a solo with her.'
As usual, the creation of distinctive atmospheres is to some extent dependent on modern music hardware. And over the years, Jones has amassed a huge collection of equipment, simply by not selling old gear as he added newer and ever more sophisticated items to his armoury.
'I'm loath to get rid of anything, really. Each instrument has its own strengths — things it will do better than anything else — and I use all the old gear for those things. Whatever instruments you use, you find you become attached to particular sounds they make that can't be replaced by anything else. One thing I'm still very fond of is the Moog Prodigy, because of the oscillator sync sounds it has.'
Right now, Jones' obsession means he has in tow a DX7, Emulator II, Prophet T8, Juno 60, Jupiter 8, Super Jupiter module, and Moog Prodigy... The Fairlight and a Linn 9000 arrived earlier this year, to make life a little more colourful.
'I always swore I'd never buy a Fairlight', Jones confesses, 'but the new Series III has proved to be very wonderful. The quality of the sampling in particular is very, very good, and I've used it a lot on the album.
'I've found the Super Jupiter very good. Having MIDI's great, but in the lower registers it's got a lot more guts than the Jupiter 8 used to have. I always had trouble getting good bass sounds out of that. I've got into the MiniMoog for bass sounds on this album, too.
'Most of the new album was programmed on the Linn 9000. I decided not to use the Fairlight because I hadn't had it all that long, and I'd spent a year learning how to use the Linn. It seemed silly to go into the studio without knowing more about it.
'The recording was all done through MIDI: using 16 channels it was possible to do all the arrangements without using tape. In fact, on some of the tracks there are almost no separate overdubs apart from the vocals. MIDI's fine for that sort of thing, but you do run into problems with the delays. I learned big things from working with Arif: you simply can't assume that everything is going to respond together. The DX7 is bang-on, but the Emulator is always late. And samples don't seem to reach their peak if you trigger them on time, they take a while to build up so you trigger them early. I don't like to edit them, because you risk losing the nice beginning you had.
'We ended up measuring all the inaccuracies and using the SRC to pull everything together. I never realised what a huge difference a few milliseconds can make to a groove. It can totally change the feel of a track; it can make it or destroy it. In that respect we treated everything as an overdub — delaying it or advancing it to fit the part.'
IN THE EARLY DAYS of Jones' one-man career, though, MIDI was a nice idea that had yet to see the light of day. Yet the almost total incompatibility between gear from different manufacturers (not to mention some manufacturers' own equipment) didn't preclude Jones performing live with the kind of spontaneity rarely found with electronic acts. And while it's easy to assume that MIDI is the key to the flexibility of Jones' current live setup, he maintains his on-stage freedom is no greater now than it was at the start.
'I don't think people realised just how much freedom I had then', he says. 'I was using a Pro One for the sequencing with the Juno 60 arpeggiating over the top of it. Between being very careful with arrangements, playing and mixing, I was able to do a lot of things that weren't generally regarded as practical. Some parts would be running throughout a song but would only be pulled in when they were needed from the mixing desk.
'Even now, people think it's all on tape and that I'm just miming, but it's never been that way. I'm just using modern equipment to create something exciting.
'I hate the idea of a song being the same every night. You've got to retain a live element or you stop experimenting and learning. The big difference with MIDI is that it allows you to go into very great detail in the construction of a song.'
Jones has now abandoned the idea of the one-man show, integrating the electronic gymnastics of yesteryear into a fully-fledged band. On his last live excursion almost a year ago, Jones' entourage included drummer extraordinaire Trevor Morais, female vocal team Afrodiziak, and bass-playing brother Martin Jones.
'The same idea of freedom applies to the band as well', Jones maintains. 'Two-thirds of an arrangement will be predetermined, and from then on the song can run free.'
Remembering the last tour, Jones certainly had plenty of freedom of his own. The image is still clear in my mind: a tall, lanky man hurtling around the stage, remote keyboard slung around his neck, firing sampled guitar riffs at a stunned audience.
'It was an Emulator sample and a Yamaha KX5 remote keyboard', Jones reveals. 'I tried to adapt my keyboard technique to sound as much like a guitarist as possible.
You can do it quite well really, and it becomes very expressive. The KX5 is quite good because of the performance controls on the neck; the trouble with it is that it looks like a toy. I'm thinking of customising mine to make it look more mean.'
There's plenty of guitar to be heard on One To One, including a suspiciously 'real' solo from a song previewed on the tour. How much of it is attributable to the Jones/Emu/KX5 combination?
'About 60% of the guitar on the album isn't real', says the artist. 'Nile Rogers played most of it that is.'
And the solo on 'You Know I Love You, Don't You?...'
'...Is a real one, yes.'
Another tour is currently in the planning stage, and is set to begin in February next year. This time, Jones intends to take a guitarist, along with yet another of the Jones family.
'That's Roy. He plays keyboards and sings.'
The Joneses are beginning to sound like the Jacksons...
'...There's another one you've still yet to see', Howard continues, obviously enjoying the moment, 'a fourth brother who plays the drums...'
Although all Jones' work falls under the umbrella of pop, the diversity of his material to date is testament to his versatility as a songwriter. It's not a role he undertakes lightly.
'I like the idea of crafting a song. I spend a long time writing a song: some I write on piano, but most of them are written with all the gear to hand. I prefer it that way so that I can try things out as I go.
'Generally I start with a bassline or a rhythm pattern, but I do try to write in as many different ways as I can. I don't like any two songs to sound the same. I love programming, but I love just sitting and playing the piano, too. The trouble with the piano is that you accumulate cliches over the years.
'I like doing things that surprise, but which still remain within the format of pop. Like the gospel piano that's in the middle bit of 'Good Luck, Bad Luck' (from One To One) — that's there as a surprise.
'And I'm really into intros. Often I'll spend as much time on an introduction as I will on the rest of the song. I enjoy creating one atmosphere with the intro, and then changing it completely with the rest of the song. I suppose I just like leading people up the garden path.'
But don't the limitations of pop represent restrictions to a man of Jones' talent?
'There's a lifetime's work exploring this so-called restrictive framework. In spite of the apparent restrictions, I think there's still so much room for innovation within the pop format. It's nice simply to explore those possibilities, and with the advent of sampling, there's such a huge palette of sounds to choose from.'
Well yes, sampling is one of Howard Jones' current passions. But, in contrast to those artists who jealously guard their sounds against theft, this one regards the 'open season' on sounds as a healthy situation.
'I actually don't sample off other people's records, but I don't give a damn who takes sounds off mine. I do sometimes take sounds off my own records, but I always alter the sounds I sample anyway. I don't think people want to hear the same sounds again — they want to hear something fresh.
'It's different if you're talking about nicking a chord structure or a melody line, I don't go along with that.
'But I think sampling represents the most significant development in music technology for years, especially now it's becoming so cheap. It's almost like the electric guitar being invented all over again.'
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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