Learn about Arif Mardin, Glenn Miller, Afrodiziak, DX7s, PCM70s, 9000s, and "One On One".
Is the way of pop songs, sequencers and cold-hearted drum machines, right? Wrong, it's about soul, dance-clubs, Arif Mardin and excellent musicians. Howard Jones explains why his next album will be different. Jon Lewin is the same as always (unfortunately).
HE'S ONLY BEEN doing it for three years, y'know. I interviewed Howard three days short of the third anniversary of the release of his first single, which was August 19th. Funny, but he's such an established star, I assumed he'd been at it longer than that.
This is only his third LP too, not the fifteenth, like some of those old dinosaurs. And it sounds different from the earlier records. "More mature," Howard and I said in unison.
"One On One" was recorded in Dublin (where Howard has been living since March), at Windmill Lane Studios, then taken to New York and mixed at Atlantic Studios, with Arif Mardin producing. It's taken 14 weeks to complete, the longest Howard has ever taken over a record (the last two LPs took five and nine weeks respectively). Not too long, he feels, but any longer and they would have run the risk of losing the excitement.
Arif Mardin is a soul man who's produced hundreds of records, most notably albums by Chaka Khan, the Average White Band, and recently Culture Club.
"I chose Arif because I wanted to work with somebody who was the complete opposite of Rupert Hine (who produced the last two albums), somebody who'd been involved mainly in R&B, and who has a completely different approach. He's 55 years old, but very modern in his output, and he'd be really pushing to make things exciting, thinking of the dance floor, clubs. I just loved his attitude."
"One On One" is a departure for Howard Jones, not only because of the sophistication of Mardin's production, but also by virtue of the number of musicians playing on the record. Although most of the album was sequenced on Linn 9000 and Fairlight, which in turn drove the other keyboards (most of the drums, bass, and percussion were Fairlight, supported by DX7s, Super Jupiters and Juno 60s for chordal parts, and Emulators, particularly for guitar sounds), Howard used "a long list of people" to flesh out the sound. Contributors included Nile Rogers, Steve Ferrone, Phil Palmer...
"They do mainly little bits and pieces, rather than whole sections of songs, because most of it was programmed. They reinforce the sounds and provide the little extra bits... I really enjoyed that side, the getting other people in... trying to get them to think in a different way from the way they would normally play sessions."
The original 19 songs for "One On One" were written and arranged on Howard's permanent set-up of Linn 9000, DX7 and Emulator, a trio of boxes that accompanies him wherever he goes ("just going to the loo for a couple of days, dear"), as do his effects — AMS, delays, and Lexicon PCM70 reverb. Rather than being just a simple collection of chords and vocals, the songs are conceived as a whole, with structure and arrangement an integral part of the writing process. Demos are recorded on an Akai 12-track.
"I would never ever go in the studio without demoing a song at least once... there might be two or three revisions on an original idea. And in the studio, you can keep going back to the demos to refer to the raw elements that made the songs exciting, listening for what might be missing... they were very useful. They have a freshness and excitement that something you labour over can easily lose. They stop you getting overindulgent and carried away with detail."
Each song has to have its own unique set of sounds, says Howard. He calculates that "sound investigation" accounts for about 40 per cent of the effort involved in putting a song together (the other 60 is the writing).
Under lengthy interrogation, HJ confessed that his favourite part of recording was programming the rhythm track, a process known as "getting the groove right".
"I learnt a tremendous amount from Arif about this: the human ear can perceive very small pieces of time, down to around a millisecond. So if you delay something by even a millisecond, it can make all the difference between a song really trucking and grooving... or not. I would never have believed that, but it's true; the track can suddenly come to life."
Using the SRC Friendchip, a hugely sophisticated (and expensive) time code controller, it's possible to adjust MIDI triggers backwards or forwards by very small amounts, allowing very subtle changes in the feel of a song. Howard agreed that great musicians felt and played these changes instinctively.
"We're just trying to analyse their groove. Nowadays, if you take enough care, you can get that groove out of machines, without having to get a drummer to bash away for two days on one track, which can be how long it takes. We did use a real drummer on some tracks — "You Know I Love You"... the only problem is that it's difficult to ask the drummer to play with things that are already metronomically in time. It's easier to get machines to fit in with what you've already done. And it's more fun."
Howard talked about the future, his plans for a tour in the new year, and the problems of making original music — even if it is only three years, a man must progress.
"I would never ever go in the studio without demoing a song at least once... in the studio you can keep going back to the demos to refer to the raw elements that made the songs exciting, listening for what might be missing."
"It's got to be different from what you've done before, but with a thread... you shouldn't repeat yourself, even if that means being less commercial. I go to clubs, listen to records; I keep up with what's going down. But if I feel stuck, I won't put anything out. I think I'm best at writing pop songs, and I don't feel embarrassed about that; there's plenty of room for development in that field."
"This is quite close to the live version; uptempo, very fast and lively. It's got an Irish flute intro, giving a nice feel of Dublin, and almost a Duane Eddy guitar, which is actually a DX7. The James Brown rhythm guitar is me... well, I programmed it. (I hate the word 'programmed'.) That 'chucky' sound in the bridge is DX7s. The guitar solo is real guitar chopped up."
"I think this song is the closest to my original idea: everything works on it, from the intro to the fade. It's got a great symmetry.
It's a kind of real r&b track — in the Arif Mardin sense, not Dr Feelgood — very sparse, a real dance thing... quite funky. It's very dry and punchy, not full of AMS reverb. There's a really big ugly snare in the breakdown section; it becomes even sparser, so there's room for it. I use big snare sounds when I need them, but if you get the groove right, the snare doesn't have to be so loud and aggressive."
"Very similar to the demo. There's only second harmonies, and a 'round' section at the end with interlocking lines. I always loved Paul McCartney for that — he'll have one chord change and four different melodies interweaving around this change, but never getting in the way of each other. On this, the verse melody comes back under the chorus melody. That was all already worked out on the demo — vocal arrangements come very early on in my thinking."
"It's very sparse, very minimal, but everything that's going on is meant to sound very beautiful on its own. There's no drums, just a sidestick, and a sampled fretless bass providing the rhythm."
"The intro is a bit of Glenn Miller — 'Pennsylvania 65000' — and the telephone is actually on the original (that'll make people think the phone is ringing, and that's good — a bit of a trick!). It's got a tap dance solo in the middle by the lady who was cooking for us at Windmill... I wanted a tap solo, and she said she could do it, so we put some sand down, and we recorded it. I took bits, put it in the Fairlight and sequenced it.
I played that sampled bass part very excitedly, then just adjusted a few things; mainly I went for feeling. If you think too much about it, too often you can lose the joy; basically I'm a player, and the things I play onto the Fairlight get remembered."
"The beginning sounds like 'Attack Of The Killer Bees'! It's quite an aggressive song, so I wanted something tough sounding. I just happened to be watching Pebble Mill At One — which I don't normally watch — and this guy called Max Easterly was on there. He makes these whirling instruments which make the most incredible sound. There's a bone shaped object called a bull-roarer on the end of a 12ft piece of string that you whirl round your head; put that noise into the Fairlight, and you can manipulate it even more. He also played this thing called an Arc, which is like a plank of wood, with a hinge, and a long wire, and a pickup on the bottom; he would bow it, or pluck it, or play it with a bottleneck, and all kinds of sounds came out of that. It didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard before. With those sounds, it was more easy to create a kind of mood.
"The song's about pacifism: if we want a peaceful world, it's no good us just being passive about it. You've got to be actively peaceful — you have to do things, non-violent things... talk, boycott things. It's about taking brave action."
"This and 'You Know I Love You' were both done on the last tour, trying them out on the live audience. I'd love to do it more, but you're very rarely in the position to do it, as you're always trying to present the last album. I did start this one on piano, it's a very emotional song. The original ideas was to write a song that was just C Am F G, chords that everyone can play. I tried to make a great song out of it that didn't sound like anyone apart from me. Backing vocals are by Afrodiziak — my mates. They've worked with Elvis Costello, Madness, lots of people. Their part was worked out for the live stuff."
"That's a pretty rocky track; it's got a mad bit in the middle — a manic gospel piano break with clapping, audience, guitar, then suddenly it zooms back into the track. I put that in because it was being a bit ordinary, not quite zany enough. I thought of that in Dublin."
"That's reggae. Afrodiziak said I had to do a reggae track. I love reggae, adore it, and was messing about with ideas while we were touring. It was written as a reggae... sort of prayer. I'm not religious, though."
"A piano song, freeform piano — there's no rhythm. Arif did a string arrangement to go with it, and Gary Burton played vibes. I did the vocal live when I did the piano... so we used the guide vocal, with only one and a half lines of repairs."
Interview by Jon Lewin
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