The Secret Of My Success
UK chart success may have been elusive of late but Howard Jones' continued popularity in the States has brought its rewards — an SSL-equipped 48-track home studio. Interview by Paul Tingen.
What distinguishes the truly successful from the ever-trying-but-never-arriving? Howard Jones ponders the question, then his answer comes back, sharp and cutting: "It's because these successful people have to do it. They don't have a choice. You don't start out saying to yourself, 'I'd like to be a successful songwriter or pop star.' It's not like that. It's more like, 'I f***ing well have to do this.' There isn't a choice, there isn't any option. When you meet somebody who has that kind of drive you know that they're going to make it. You know that they'll achieve at least part of what they want to do. It's like an obsession. With people who don't make it there's always a plan B, an alternative career to fall back on. And if there's a plan B, then forget it. It's that simple."
Jones leans back and smiles. It's obvious that he didn't have a plan B, and the proof is all around us. His hermitage is in many ways typical for the made-its: a gorgeous, 300 year-old farm house set in a small estate delineated by Victorian walls. The estate lies within a stone's throw of the M4, a few dozen miles west of London. Although motorway traffic can be heard, there's nevertheless a very soothing, rural atmosphere permeating the whole of Jones' residence and grounds. It probably reflects Howard Jones' own character. He's friendly, open and relaxed, ever prepared to listen as much as talk. His early 80s punkish, blond hairstyle has given way to a more conventional look, and as he answers questions, he's seems a long way from the familiar world of rock'n'roll star cliches.
Howard Jones' image in Britain has been very much that of the nice, idealistic, if somewhat naive and lightweight, pop singer. But thoughts on what it takes to make it, betray a self-confidence and single-minded determination which has led him to manifest his plan A. His achievements are abundantly illustrated in the former garden shed, which has been transformed to house a comprehensive digital recording studio. The hardware is impressive: an E-series 48-channel SSL with total recall; Westlake BBSM10 and NS10 monitors; a recently acquired Mitsubishi 850 32-track; 24-track Studer A800III; Studio 3 synchroniser; Sycologic MIDI Matrix; Studer A820 2-track; Technics DAT player; Macintosh II computers; a whole range of effects, including Lexicons, AMS, Focusrite PSU121, Teletronics LA24 limiter/compressor ("they're like gold dust. It sounds great on my voice"), SPX90s and so on.
As if this isn't enough, Jones' collection of sound sources is breathtaking. Inhale deeply for an (incomplete) overview: Fairlight Series III; Yamaha TX816 rack; Akai S1000; Roland Super JX, MKS50, D50, Jupiter 8, Juno 60, D550, and MKS20 digital piano; Korg Wavestation; Prophet T8; MiniMoog; Vocoder VP330; Yamaha KX88 and TG77; and somewhere in a corner his old 808 drum machine. Still there?
'Well, yes,' some of you might be saying, 'but this Howard Jones, we haven't heard much of him recently. He doesn't really classify as successful anymore, does he?' As a matter of fact, he still does. Odd though it seems for an artist with the typically British talent for short and catchy pop songs — exemplified on his first two albums, Human's Lib (1984) and Dream Into Action (1986) — he's since had his greatest successes in the States.
His third album, One To One, produced by Arif Mardin, did less well, but the largely self-produced Cross That Line (1989) generated two major hit singles in the States. We might put forward another hypothesis about the successful, namely that they often have or had a stable relationship supporting them in their way up, as well some unusual strokes of good luck. For Jones the two went hand in hand, although 'luck' is perhaps not the most appropriate word in this case.
"It's not a very nice story really. My wife Jan and I had a fruit and vegetable round in the early 80s and I was also giving piano lessons to make ends meet. We were in serious financial trouble. One night we were parked on the road and a drunk driver smashed into our van, which rolled over Jan, damaging her back. We got insurance compensation for that, which all went into equipment for me. I also remember us getting a council grant to improve our house and spending the money on gear. But it all payed off. (Laughs) I don't think my wife minds now." Quite. Yet her dedication to and belief in her husband at the time is still admirable.
Today the Jones household is hardly in financial trouble, with investments of hundreds of thousands of pounds in property, building work and a recording studio. The latter came into existence 5 years ago. It was built from the revenues of Jones' first two albums, while he was working with Mardin on One To One in New York. Jones explains why he decided to make the investment.
"Until that time I wrote anywhere, on any kind of equipment. Dream Into Action I wrote in my manager's front room in his house. I just put some basic gear in there and came out once I had enough songs. But I realised that if I was going to be serious about making records for a long time, I just couldn't afford to rent commercial studios anymore. I would never be able to experiment as much as I felt I needed.
"I see myself as a songwriter first, a keyboard player second and thirdly as a singer. Songwriting is something that develops over years. To make a great album you have to start with great songs that you're really convinced of and that you have lived with for several months, still liking them after all that time. So I decided to build my own place and go for it and put proper equipment in there which hopefully would stay current for at least five to seven years."
Jones did indeed go for it, with a studio on a par with many commercial facilities. His last album, Cross That Line was recorded and mixed at the studio, affectionately called The Shed, and for his forthcoming album, which will probably appear this autumn, he's spent 18 months writing and experimenting.
"I could have written more quickly, but it wouldn't have had the same quality. I'm convinced that for me this working method enhances the quality of my writing. I don't have to worry about the bill; I can afford to spend two weeks demoing a song and then see that it hasn't worked. If you'd spent thousands of pounds in studio time you might be tempted to keep it. In fact my studio has already paid for itself."
The singer/songwriter admits, however, that working on your own in your own studio can have a very limiting and numbing effect. For this reason he decided that he didn't want to get involved in the engineering side. He preferred to remain blissfully ignorant about the multitude of toys in his possession.
"I don't know how the studio side works, and that's the result of a conscious decision that I made very early on. I knew what would happen if I got involved in engineering. I would be stuck up here forever, my mind cluttered with technical details.
"Songwriting is something that develops over years. To make a great album you have to start with great songs that you're really convinced of and that you have lived with for several months, still liking them after all that time."
"Instead I decided to concentrate on my songwriting tools — my keyboards and the Mac with Studio Vision software. When I get into songwriting mode, I'll get an engineer in for the morning to set me up on the desk, so that I only have to work the big faders and a few effects. For the actual songwriting process I need to be on my own. But for demoing and tracklaying I need people around me to bounce ideas off."
His experiences with Cross That Line taught him that producing as well as writing, arranging and playing, was too much to handle. For the new album he's enlisted the full time helping hands and ears of engineer and producer Ross Cullum, who's worked with Paul McCartney, Enya, Propaganda, and Tears For Fears. (Cullum also co-produced two tracks on Cross That Line, together with Chris Hughes and Ian Stanley). The new album will feature the blending of his own sequenced music with live playing by session musicians, as did his two previous albums. Jones spent part of December and January in studios in Los Angeles, recording players like Ritchie Hayward, Steve Farris, Dean Parks and David Lindley.
It illustrates his belief that artists' home studios will not mean the end of commercial studios, as he's still using commercial studios himself. Also, as he says, "The high end of the studio market will always have equipment that you can't possibly afford." He mentions the Q-Sound system as being a case in point: "I'm really interested in it. I've got the Madonna and Sting CDs, and I think it sounds great. It sounds really panoramic and exciting. It's bigger and louder. It might be difficult to go back to ordinary stereo after you've heard it."
Nevertheless his own studio is eminently equipped to cope with all facets of the recording process, including the mix. Cross That Line was mixed at The Shed, and apart from the Q-Sound processing, his new album will be mixed at home as well. Jones' reasoning behind buying the particular pieces of equipment he owns is — as is to be expected from a man who is a self-pronounced studio illiterate — remarkably simple and straightforward. The SSL is there because it's familiar: "I've never worked on another desk before. I know people are getting into different boards these days, but the SSL has always been good to me. I have no complaints."
His recent acquisition of a second-hand X850, replacing his beloved Studer A800 (which is up for sale), has a bit more reasoning behind it. "My main two reasons for getting the Mitsubishi were firstly that it's 32-track, and secondly that you can bounce with digital as often as you like without loss of quality. I can't categorically say that people will be able to tell the difference between analogue and digital on a finished CD, but I like the fact that things come back on the 850 very accurately. I have Apogee filters on them which make the high end less crunchy and the stereo image more correct. It's most noticeable when you do a lot of bouncing. Apogee filters are acknowledged as being superior filters and all new Mitsubishis in the States are now equipped with them. Here it sadly hasn't caught on yet."
Studio gear is definitely not Howard Jones' greatest interest, but computers or keyboards are another matter entirely. In this respect he is a true techno-buff, who will talk for hours about the intricacies of his hi-tech toys. The Macintosh is his main love at the moment: "It's just brilliant. I'm a great fan of the way it works. You don't have to know anything about computers to get into it. It's all very logical and in plain English, and when you get stuck you only have to look at the top and ask for help and you're away again."
His passion for the Opcode's Studio Vision software is understandable, because its two audio tracks, which run alongside the MIDI data, allow him to work most comfortably with the hybrid of live and sequenced playing which is his trademark.
"I can put a whole track of live performance in there and have it running alongside the sequence, and move things about, repeat these 16 bars because I like them, and so on. There might be a bit of chorus that's fabulously played and that you want to come again. I use it as an editing tool. Without having the multi-track running I can check out the live performances in conjunction with all the MIDI data. I find that very exciting."
Jones asserts that this working method, rather than leading to sterile, studied perfectionism, enhances the joys and spontaneities of live playing. "The players I recorded in LA were playing to some basic guide sequenced tracks, and what we're doing here now is compiling the best of those sessions with Studio Vision. Knowing that we can edit things later means that we can keep the spirit of live playing, yet still have the control afterwards. It means that you don't have to be so microscopic about details or mistakes which often take all the fun out of live recording. I think that's a great development. It will make records sound more interesting because there will be much more variety and not everything will be so locked and quantised."
Jones goes on to brand quantising as "boring". Contrary to popular misconceptions he's never been such a quantising exponent anyway. "When I program drums they're pretty much locked. They're like the foundations and they have to be solid. But that's all. The rest of the stuff I play live, including basslines. On One To One I did quite a bit of quantisation, mainly using the Linn 9000, but even on my first two albums everything except the drum machine was played live. There were a few 8ths and 16th motor rhythms, but the rest was performed live directly on to tape. That gave it a kind of spirit."
Obviously Jones' classical keyboard training proves pretty handy when it comes to playing unquantised parts, as it did when he conceived of his one-man-band concept for live concerts at the start of his career. Unlike many of today's one-fingered keyboard heroes, Jones actually played all keyboard parts himself, the bass with his left hand on a Moog Prodigy, lead parts on another Prodigy, and chordal parts on a Fender Rhodes. The rest of his live set-up at the time consisted of a TR808, which triggered the odd arpeggio from a Juno 6. (He had to load these arpeggios in manually at the beginning of each song.) This was also the basis of the sound of his first album.
Today he has of course moved a long way on from those almost legendary days of primitive pop technology. (Strange to think that that was only seven years ago...) Live, he runs a Mac for the sequenced parts and plays additional parts on any of his impressive array of keyboards. Two of his present favourites are the Yamaha TG77 and the Korg Wavestation.
"My new album will be a kind of post-modernist album, not trying to be new or modern for its own sake, but drawing from the great things from the past, whilst putting them in a modern back drop."
"The TG77 has a very firm, well defined sound. It's got some great string sounds too, which are a sampled front and an FM tail. They're just very clear sounding, very high quality with a lot of top and bottom. The Wavestation is great because you can chuck all these bits of sounds and samples and waves in there and get these amazingly complex sounds developing through very different curves. You can create very special sounds which provide some interest in the background. Also you can trigger the rate at which it goes through its waves from a MIDI clock, so you can make it play different sounds at different positions. It's a very exciting synth."
Jones uses the Fairlight for his sampling work. He finds the S1000 "dead crunchy and also very fiddly to work. I wonder why nobody has come up with a Macintosh front end for it. I just can't bear all these tiny buttons. It's utterly user-unfriendly, whereas on the Fairlight it's really easy to see what you're doing." As with his synthesizers, where he finds it important to use his own sounds, he still takes the trouble to record his own samples.
"We have whole days during which we just sample things. It's important to keep that side up." Some interesting samples on Cross That Line included the sounds of his teeth, rustling hair, and skin being rubbed, in the song 'Guardians Of The Breath'. "That song had a very conceptual approach. I used body sounds to create the idea that you're inside this big body."
He's also rather fond of sampling or creating guitar sounds and playing them on the keyboard. Again on 'Guardians Of The Breath', he's credited as having played the guitar solo. "That was a DX7 sound played through a distortion box on a KX5 portable keyboard. I actually spent a lot of time playing that, because it's not so easy. I get quite irritated when I see people posing with a KX5, because they're very hard to play when you strap them on. It's got small keys and requires a whole different technique of playing, with your wrist almost at a 45 degree angle to the keyboard. It's like a completely different instrument, with the added bending and modulation controls."
Sampling guitar sounds is also an important part of Jones' preparations for his new album, for which he's re-exploring his roots."I'm looking back at the last 25 years of music and drawing inspiration from that, bringing it in a modern context. I've been listening to the Beach Boys recently, the Pet Sounds/Smiley Smile era, and found a lot of inspiration in Brian Wilson's production and writing. I've also gone back to old Hendrix and Free records, all those classic things. There's a lot there to be learnt from, and also from the way those records sound and from their spirit. I'm amazed at how records that I used to listen to when I was 15-16, sound even better to me now than in my memory, even after all my experience with recording albums."
Jones emphasises that this is just a new phase in his career, and not a reassessment of what he himself did in the past. "I'm not distancing myself from anything that I did in the past. I still stand by them. A lot of the things I did with Rupert (Hine, who produced his first two albums) had a strong sense of purpose and identity. We wanted to make two albums without any guitars or real drums. That was the whole premise, to do something different. But now that's almost the status quo, so for me there's no excitement in exploring that area anymore.
"I think that now it's about getting a sense of classicism in songwriting and also in the way records are made. That's why I've taken such a long time over writing my songs this time, and it's also why we're bringing in all kinds of old guitars and amps, and sampling some of those classic sounds. Without trying to be pretentious, my new album will be a kind of post-modernist album, not trying to be new or modern for its own sake, but drawing from the great things from the past, whilst putting them in a modern back drop."
Again, without trying to be pretentious, Jones sees his new album as another attempt to change the perceptions of the British public of him as a rather lightweight artist. "It would be helpful to me to be viewed as a serious artist and serious songwriter in this country. But it takes time to earn that kind of recognition. The people who're there now, like Gabriel and Winwood and so on, have been doing it for a long time and didn't come out of the early 80s explosion of electronic dance music that I came out of."
Still, he realises that the particular niche in which he's now stuck is largely of his own making, a by-product of his single-minded determination to get to the top.
"When I started out I wanted to have hits, because I saw that as the only way to enable me to do what I wanted to do. I looked at what was around at that moment, what framework I could fit into to achieve my ends. You do something which is fashionable at the time, but in your own way. At least it will get you on the radio and give you a start. The Police are a prime example of that. When they started out they came across as a punk band, which is not what they were about at all. But the downside of that approach is that you have to live with the image you've created for several years, which is what's happened to me in this country. But it will change."
What Howard Jones is about, something which America has started to recognise, is not teenage dance music, but writing meaningful songs. "My music is not functional. I want to move people and share the feelings that I have about things. Music can put these things across like nothing else can."
Nevertheless, he reiterates, he has no regrets and he feels proud to have been part of the musical movement he came out of.
"The early 80s will be re-evaluated in the future as a time of great experimentation and great songwriting. Groups like OMD, Ultravox and The Human League wrote high quality songs and developed an exciting new sound."
Where exactly Howard Jones fits in, then or now, is hard to tell. But he looks set for the next stage towards the full realisation of his dream. A fruit and vegetable round is obviously not a viable plan B.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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