Howard Jones was the first keyboard player to successfully exploit the new technology to the full by regularly performing solo concerts with nothing but MIDI instruments as his backing band. In this rare interview, Brian Jacobs talks to Howard about his music, recording, his decision to produce most of his new album himself, and his growing admiration for an instrument he once said he would never use.
It seems hard to believe that it is over five years since Howard Jones first hit the top 3 of the UK charts with his debut single 'New Song'. What followed was a period of remarkable success for an artist who has emerged as one of modern music's most gifted talents. In under three years Jones notched up six top 10 and nine top 20 singles in the UK alone, with platinum albums on both sides of the Atlantic and sellout world tours, culminating in 1986's 'No One Is To Blame': his first American No.1. His instinctive ability to blend commercial sensibility with the latest keyboard technology has made Howard Jones one of rock's most successful and respected musicians. His love of technology is well known. In fact, Howard Jones could justifiably be called 'Mister MIDI', for he was the first keyboard player to successfully exploit the new technology to the full by regularly performing solo concerts with nothing but MIDI instruments as his backing band.
In the late summer of 1987, after completing the American leg of his last world tour, Howard Jones ducked out of the limelight and into his home studio to begin work on a new album. Some 18 months later and Cross That Line, his long-awaited fourth studio album, has just been released. In this rare interview, Brian Jacobs talks to Howard about his music, recording, his decision to produce most of the album himself, and his growing admiration for an instrument he once said he would never use - the Fairlight.
Why has there been such a long gap between the release of Cross That Line and your previous album One To One?
"It's two years since the last record was released. A year of that was taken up with touring One To One, and the last 18 months has been preparing this album. I wanted this album to be the absolute best I could do, really my best shots. I did not want to rush it in any way. When you're producing yourself you need time to sit back and detach yourself from what you're doing. You have to live with the tracks over a period of months to know whether they are any good. So, I was really giving myself time to get it right."
Is there any concept behind the album?
"No, there's no concept. All I can say is that the ideas are drawn from what happened to me during that period of two years, and what was going on around me. Everything in the album is reflections of that."
There are many environmental references in the songs: air, water, etc?
"Yes, I think Side 2 seems to refer to air a lot, but that's mostly by chance. 'Guardians Of The Breath' is about the ecological future of the planet. 'Wanders To You' is about someone going through complete delusions about their life, and a period of addiction to drugs or drink and all the allusions that surround that. There's a song called 'Those Who Move Clouds', which is based around the INF treaty, which was signed about the time I wrote this song, so I mixed in some dialogue from Gorbachev and Reagan. That song is about men who have enormous power to affect the future of all of us. There is another song about someone going through a divorce and a period of regretting a lot of things. All these things were happening to people I knew around me during the recording of the album, so I suppose it's almost like a diary."
You also played a solo concert in Moscow's Gorky Park, at the invitation of the Soviet Peace Committee?
"That's right, that was great. It was fantastic to go to Russia and see for myself what it's like there. I was very much impressed with the warmth of the people and the excitement over the changes that are going on and are in the air. It felt as it must have done during the '60s when so many changes were going on here in this country."
This album has far more of a 'band' type of sound - less of a solo effort. Would you agree?
"It's only when you look at certain tracks, because they were all done in quite different ways. There are tracks where I wanted a live band sound - it just seemed to suit it. 'Cross That Line' was meant to be a very clubby, intimate sound, and the drums are really loud and all the mics are open. It's meant to feel as if you're in a small club with a drummer, singer, guitarist and bass player. The vocals are very dry and up-front, the subject matter of the song seemed to warrant that, so it just draws you to that kind of instrumentation. I chose whatever seemed appropriate for the material. That track started out life as very programmed, and gradually I replaced everything and got more live playing, so that in the end it's all live playing."
Do you think your voice has changed since the last album?
"No, I think I've just been singing a lot more, and it's another two years of singing practice. So your voice does change, and hopefully gets stronger and more agile than ever."
What's the theme behind 'The Last Supper'?
"The story is that two people realise their relationship has come to an end, and they've got to split up for their own sanity. Instead of having some sort of acrimonious ending where they hate each other and fight, they decide they want to end it in a really civilised way. The song's theme is the realisation that relationships don't always work out and that they can end in dignity and affection for the other person. Looking back on the past not with regret but seeing the past as affection, and looking forward to getting it right in the future. I realise it's a bit idealistic but I know some people do achieve it."
On the instrumental track 'Out Of Thin Air' you play a Steinway piano. What sort of image were you looking for?
"I wanted one track on the album that was purely improvised, straight off the top of my head. All the other tracks had been so considered, and so much thought had gone into them being recorded over a period of months and years. I wanted one track that was just me sitting down and improvising but with a set of themes I'd been working on over a long period, to ensure there was some form to it. I had the idea of a loose structure to the piece, so it wasn't just ideas all stuck together, there is some form. I recorded 15 improvisations and chose the one I thought had the most emotion. So it is a spontaneous performance."
When you play live, will you include an improvisation like that?
"Probably not. I don't know if I could play that piece again. It really was a one-off."
On your previous albums, the synth brass sound has been very much your forte, but it isn't in evidence on this album. Were you looking for a new type of sound?
"You don't want to repeat yourself and you don't want to become cliched. I wanted this album to sound different, not use the things I've done before. Try and approach it with new sounds. I'm sure people like to hear new things and fresh sounds that you've worked on rather than re-hashing what you've done before."
Where did you record your new album?
"It was recorded at home in The Shed, the studio I built in my back garden with a 48-track SSL, 24-track Studer, and all the toys. I wanted to spend a long time over this album, because I produced eight of the ten tracks myself. I needed time to get things right and be able to sit back and consider if I was doing a good enough job. Studios cost so much these days, it works out to be quite economical."
The way you say 'back garden', it sounds very ad hoc?
"It used to be a gardener's shed, hence the name. One of the studio walls is the old Victorian kitchen garden wall. I had the studio completely soundproofed, put in air conditioning, and made improvements like that. There's natural daylight so it's very pleasant to work in."
"One of the drawbacks of demoing songs is that you always tend to lose some of that original excitement when you come to record properly."
Technically, how did you record the songs?
"A lot of the equipment was running live with the sequencer, so it was mainly the vocals and live performances that went onto tape. As well as the control room, there is a small room for vocals and a big barn that I had soundproofed, which is used for drums. I have a Steinway concert grand piano in there too."
The new album seems to have a more natural sound than the previous one. Is that a result of the new studio?
"I was trying out all different types of new things for the album. Some of the tracks are completely programmed and use mainly samples, and three tracks are completely live playing with live drums and live performances from several musicians playing together. So I was experimenting with different things and ideas. The three tracks with live performances are 'Cross That Line' - the album title track; a solo piano performance called 'Out Of Thin Air'; and 'Wanders To You'. The drums on 'Fresh Air Waltz' are actually Linn 9000 drums, but I put them through a speaker in the vocal booth, with the curtains drawn, so it's very lively. That was miked up and that gives it a real live sound. I think that worked quite well, that type of natural acoustic."
You used real brass on some tracks. Do you prefer that to synthesized or sampled brass?
"It just depends on whatever seems appropriate - the best thing for each song. On a track like 'Wanders To You', I wanted a very lush brass sound with lots of swells. Very chordal, not stabby brass sounds. You can't replicate that chordal, swelling, rounded sound with a keyboard, so we spent a whole day with the brass section getting that type of sound. Sometimes, sampled brass is very appropriate and works well for a more up-tempo track where you can just have brass stabs. For something very chordal and lush, you really need to get the boys in."
The processed brass sound on the album is reminiscent of flanging. Did you use a special effect to achieve that?
"There is a facility on the Fairlight called the Flanging page, and you can put samples in there and it has parameters to give you that very flanged sound. Like the vocal on the start of the 'Everlasting Love' 12", which uses that technique. Then you store it as a new sample - it's not an effect as such, it actually changes the waveform. I don't think we used it on the brass though, that's just really double tracking."
Is it a real or sampled saxophone on 'Wonders To You'?
"It's a soprano saxophone solo."
For samples, how do you go about choosing your sounds?
"There are various different ways. On the album track 'Guardians Of The Breath', which is about ecology, the earth and the Geyer concept of the earth being a whole organism, I wanted to give the impression that the listener was inside a huge body and was a small part of that body. I thought the way to do that was to record a lot of close body samples - skin being rubbed, nails clicking together, teeth being hit, hair being rubbed, the sound of swallowing; all things that are very quiet, but when you sample them you can get them to sound loud. For the bass drum and snare I used the sound of a hand hitting another hand, with one of the samples detuned, the other tuned up high. The track is made up almost entirely of sounds that came from the human body, and then I just sequenced that in the Fairlight to generate a rhythm. That was great fun to do. That track features a lot of water samples, too - water being hit and running water - so it gives a fluid, organic type of sound to the track. It seemed a very appropriate use for sampling."
Did you compose much of the album on the Fairlight's RS sequencer?
"I've got a Macintosh II system, so I didn't do very much RS programming. I mainly used Performer software for this album. In fact, I only recently began using the RS page on the Fairlight, because I had found it a bit cumbersome in the past. Now I realise that for detailed work it can be very good indeed. But I mainly used Performer, and that was synced to tape. I find it very good for writing and composing because of the cut and paste facility, the ease of transposition and note editing. I found it very easy to use and quick - great for getting ideas down fast. It doesn't limit you in any way, it's a very natural way to work. You can bang in your parts very quickly and shift them around. The ease of use makes the music evolve quite naturally."
There seems to be a unity about the sounds on this album?
"Often, each sound would be an amalgamation of perhaps three or four different types of sound. Perhaps a sample to give you a nice hard hitting front-end, or perhaps an FM sound from the TX or DX rack. Then an analogue sound - maybe from the Super JX, which we used a lot on this album - to give it warmth, and then a sample to add to that. So you create a really distinctive sound each time. It's not a preset but an amalgamation of a few things, which takes a lot of honing and fiddling about. That was especially evident on 'Everlasting Love' and 'The Prisoner'. Those two tracks were done with Chris Hughes, Ross Cullum and Ian Stanley producing."
After your last album One To One, when you worked with Arif Mardin, you said you would produce your next album yourself. Did you prefer working this way?
"I enjoyed it very much, because you are the bottom line. You can't blame the producer - you are the producer! You've got to come up with it all. I found it really interesting because it taught me a lot more about making records, about what you have to get right. You have to think of everything yourself. I don't think I will produce a whole album myself again. I'll probably work with a few different people, because I enjoy that. I'll probably produce some tracks myself and for the rest choose certain people I'd like to work with, because it's just more fun working with other people than being on your own. The pressure feels too much if it's just you. But there is one great benefit of working on your own: you know that the tracks you produce are an exact representation of you and your musical thoughts only. It's straight from your head. It isn't a collaboration and it isn't an amalgamation. It is you, the artist, direct."
The 'Everlasting Love' ('808 Mix') is the opposite of that. So how did that work?
"The song was already written and recorded to quite a high degree. The groove, the rhythm side of it, wasn't quite right. So I asked Chris Hughes, as I was working with him on 'The Prisoner' at that time, if he would help me on 'Everlasting Love'. He listened to the track and agreed to do it, and so it was mainly a matter of him sorting out the rhythm and the bass line and getting all the sounds involved in the song to be really great. Each sound was worked on for days to make sure it sounded really glorious and honed. Ian, Ross, Chris and myself all chipped in with ideas, it was great. That mix was a collaboration between all four of us plus Mike Roarty, who engineered the album."
Would you like to work with them again?
"I certainly would like to work with them again, because I enjoyed it."
Are there any other producers you'd like to work with?
"I'd love to do an album with Mutt Lange, but there's no-one else who really appeals to me. Mutt Lange's work is in a world of its own, it's quite remarkable."
"The track is made up almost entirely of sounds that came from the human body, and then I just sequenced that in the Fairlight to generate a rhythm."
It sounds like you used a real organ on the album?
"Yes, I used a Hammond C3 with the Leslie. I don't think I've ever done that before on any of my albums. It was great, that growling dirty sound, and the stereo swirling effect is wonderful. I used the C3 on the track 'Powerhouse'."
What other equipment did you use?
"The Fairlight Series III was a big part of it all. That handled all the major sampling and occasionally some of the sequencing. It was used on every track. I'm a huge fan of the Fairlight. I know it gets a lot of stick from people for not working properly but I actually think it's a fabulous instrument, which still hasn't been surpassed in the sampling area and the ease and manipulation of samples. For keyboards, I used the Roland Super JX a lot with the sequencer - I think that's a superb synth.
My TX rack I used quite a bit. I MIDI'd my MiniMoog and that is fabulous. It really sounds great, and the MIDI on it is really fast. My old Juno 60 is still there, which isn't MIDI'd at the moment but I plan to get it done. The TR808 I used, which is MIDI'd, and a bit of the D50 - there are some good guitar-type sounds in there. I also like the Roland MKS50, which is a rack-mounted analogue synth module. The Korg SG1 piano is very good, and has some excellent sounds, and obviously the Mac. For effects I used the Lexicon 224 digital reverb, AMS, Yamaha SPX90, Klark Teknik reverb, Korg digital delays... the usual things, nothing exotic."
Do you have a favourite studio effect?
"No, although I do like the very close chorused sound of the vocal in the verses of 'Last Supper'. Those vocals are dry as a bone, and the chorused effect makes it feel right in your ears; there's no depth to it."
You appear to have used more reverb on this album than on previous ones?
"Only on certain tracks. Songs like 'Cross That Line' are very dry and close, and the drums use only the natural room sound. But on the bigger tracks there is a lot more reverb - combinations of the different reverb units I used."
You have used more outside musicians on this project than previously. Who played on the album?
"Basically, it was Trevor Morais who did the live drums. He played on 'Cross That Line' and 'Wanders To You'. My younger brother Martin played bass on those tracks, and he also plays bass and guitar on many of the others. Phil Palmer played guitar, and Andy Ross played guitar on 'Everlasting Love' and 'The Prisoner'. Claudia sang some backing vocals with me and Inge Hooper from Swimming With Sharks. The Kick Horns did the brass — I was very pleased with them. I heard them on Flaunt The Imperfection by China Crisis, which Walter Becker produced. That album contains some beautiful brass sounds and I really wanted that type of sound for some of the tracks on this album, and that turned out really well. That was basically all, it was quite a small nucleus of people for the live work.
"Another great thing about the Mac was that I worked out a lot of the brass parts beforehand on the keyboards, entered them into Performer, and then put them into Composer so that I could get a printout of the parts for the brass players to work with. That was really useful. In fact, there's a muted trumpet solo on 'Cross That Line' that I wrote on the Fairlight with a sample, put it into Performer, printed it out on Composer, and then Roddy Lorimer played it note for note. That was fantastic, he made a great job of it. To me, that's a great use of the technology."
Was he a bit surprised?
"He was very surprised, and I was blown over when he actually played it to me, as I didn't think it was a feasible part. It was OK to play on the keyboard, but was it alright to play on the trumpet? Roddy did it brilliantly, and obviously added a lot of expression."
Have you had any formal training in orchestration techniques?
"No, I haven't, but a good friend of mine has, so I consult him if I run into problems."
There's a very nice strings arrangement on 'Fresh Air Waltz'.
"I'm rather proud of that, it's all Fairlight strings. It seems odd to say this but nobody thinks it's keyboards, everybody thinks it's real. I used all 16 voices on the Fairlight with a mixture of sampled violins, violas and string harmonics to create the lush sound."
Did you rely on classical influences when doing that?
"I really don't think like that as I'm doing it. I heard the kind of tune I wanted in my head, so I put lots of samples together to construct the sound I thought was needed."
Did you do much preparation work, demoing songs, before you started recording this album?
"It was different with this album because I was writing as I was recording, but I've always demoed before. One of the drawbacks of demoing songs is that you always tend to lose some of that original excitement when you come to record properly. So this time I bypassed that by doing everything at the same time, and almost mixing at the same time, so keeping the sounds as you wanted them in the desk. I found that worked pretty well, because the initial excitement was maintained. Not all the tracks were done in that way: the first two tracks were demoed, but the rest of the album was written and recorded at the same time. It was all done straight into the SSL. The desk was worked by Mike Roarty, who has worked with me since 1982, and he engineered and mixed this album. He's my right arm, I couldn't do it without him. Mike also does the Fairlight operation - the cutting up of samples and all that work. I don't do that."
Does Mike do the programming for you?
"No, I do all that myself, because I feel it's my work and I enjoy doing it. On 'Everlasting Love' and 'The Prisoner', Chris Hughes did the drum programming, but the rest of it was me."
What are your plans for the future?
"I want to get this record off the ground, I want it to be a big hit. Then I'd like to tour during the summer, with as much of the line-up on this record as I can afford. I'd love to take the brass section on tour with me, and I'd love to take Phil Palmer, in addition to Trevor and Martin. But it all depends how much I can afford, because it's very costly to take a big band out on the road."
Interview by Brian Jacobs