An engaging talk about songwriting, influences, and his new rig for the Retro Futura tour.
“My philosophy has always been to use the technology of the time,” British electro-pop icon Howard Jones tells me via phone from the UK. “That’s what I did when I started, and I still really want to be pushing this gear to do amazing things. I always want to give people a real sound experience.”
For over three decades, Jones has blurred the boundaries between pop music and performance art, melding chart-topping hits with stirring visuals and electrifying live shows. From his very first solo tours in the ‘80s to his recent crowdfunded Engage project, the synth pioneer has always sought-out new sonic ground.
This July, Jones heads out with fellow eighties favorites Men Without Hats, Katrina, Paul Young, the English Beat and Modern English for the Retro Futura tour. As he prepared to hit the road with a new keyboard rig (which was still being built when this article went to press), Jones talked to me about the tech and tenacity that continues to inspire both him and his audience.
When I announced on Facebook that I was interviewing you for Electronic Musician, people from all walks of life chimed in with incredible enthusiasm. How does it feel to know that so many of your songs have been the soundtrack to people’s lives?
It’s great that the songs have stood the test of time. What is interesting to me is that people are sort of rediscovering them in the sense of what the lyrics are about. I’ve had so many people write to me to say that they initially loved the sound of the music, and then they came back to listen to it as older people and really got into the lyrical side more.
Why do you think these songs of yours, many from 30-plus years ago, still resonate so far and wide? Do you think it has anything to do with the overall positive message in much of your music?
Yeah. I did set-out to do that. I wanted to make a contribution. I know that sounds a bit highfalutin, but actually I thought that, as an artist, I wanted to say something that encouraged people to really go for the things that they wanted, and to not be afraid to be who they were. That was my struggle; getting to the point of getting a record deal, and so forth. I wanted to put all of that back into the songs so when people listened to them, they weren’t only just about “I love you, baby” and “I’m gonna die without you.” [Laughs.] I thought of that almost like a negative thing, even though there is a place for it. But I wanted to really encourage people to be themselves and to reveal their greatness and their talents, and to not be afraid to go for that.
Where did these philosophical leanings in your music come from?
I was always interested in philosophy, especially Eastern philosophy. I used to read a lot of books. It was just my “thing.” I wanted to ask the big questions, and I wanted to find the answers so I could live life in a positive way. Since my teenage years, that’s what I’ve always been like. And I guess I’m still like that now, so my music and lyrics are a reflection of that.
I read an article recently that proposed the idea that because of the recent decentralization of the music business, we may never see a global phenomenon the likes of you, or other ‘80s bands like Duran Duran, again. How different do you think the musical landscape is now compared to when you were starting out?
It is very different now. As for global phenomena, we do have two at the moment, both coming out of the UK—those being Adele and Ed Sheeran. I think they do qualify as having a global reach, so it still does happen. But the difference is that they are very few and far between now. When I started out, there were scores of bands making albums that were selling well, and they each had their own audience. And there were all different genres of music. You know, people think of the eighties as one thing, but it was really diverse actually. There was the soul side of things with people like Boy George, the electronic side with acts like Human League, then there was indie rock with U2, and there was the glam/metal rock that was coming out of America. And all of these genres were co-existing together, and I think that gave people a real choice about what “tribe” they were going to belong to. It seemed much more possible then to get a record deal, and the record companies would stick with you beyond the first single! [Laughs.]
The upside of what we have now is that artists can establish themselves on their own, through their own hard work on social media and raising money on sites like Kickstarter. So actually, they don’t have to do a big record deal and go through all of those gatekeepers. They can actually reach their audience independently, and I think that’s a great thing. The big majority of the public may never hear about them, but they are making music the way they want to, and they are able to make a living; not a massive fortune, but they are able to do what they love doing.
In your May 1985 Keyboard cover story, you said, “I really liked Keith Emerson’s playing… I see my playing as a mixture of him and Stevie Wonder. I really tried to copy Keith Emerson’s style of playing and Stevie Wonder’s great feel.” I think your description of your own musical style is spot-on.
It’s funny—if somebody asked me the same question today, I would say the same thing. I totally related to Keith Emerson because I had classical training from the age of seven. I played piano and did all of the exams, and I went to music college. And from the age of 14, I was playing in bands as well. Emerson was a mixture of this great classical virtuosity, but he was also a rock star. I saw it in 1970 at the Isle of White Festival when he debuted the Moog modular system with ELP and it was mind-blowing. He will always be my keyboard hero, above anyone else.
But you also related to the kind of deep-pocketed, R&B groove that Stevie Wonder evinced?
Yes, that’s right. I loved bands like Little Feat, too, who were just so groovy with their keyboardist Billy Payne. And obviously, Stevie Wonder—when I did the Grammy Awards, I got to jam with Stevie. We were trading licks and grooves in a studio in Los Angeles, and I realized how much of an influence he had been on me.
Another thing you said back in 1985 was, “People will go to see something that is gripping as a performance—that really gets you going, no matter how it’s presented, as long as there’s some energy emanating from the stage.” It seems you may have predated the whole EDM movement by about three decades!
I’m sure I was some kind of influence. I know that a lot of young men and women saw those early shows and that’s what got them into electronic music and keyboards. Some of them went on to become big electronic [music] stars. One of them who’s become a friend is BT. He told me the story about the gigs of mine he came to that he got excited about. And he’s gone on to become an absolute pioneer in synths and creating his own techniques for manipulating sounds. It’s incredibly impressive.
So, you recognized early on that with the right energy and live stage experience, you could hold people’s attention as just a guy performing with a bunch of keyboards?
Yeah. Because Emerson was my hero, and he liberated himself: He had the ribbon controller for the Moog made specially for him, and he could go out into the audience and make these incredible sounds. He would be throwing his Hammond L-100 organ around and lying underneath it; that whole visual aspect of the “liberated keyboard player” was really a big influence on me. I always thought of the keyboard player as the guy that stood in the corner acting like he wasn’t there. And I knew that wasn’t going to get the audience going. If you’re going to be the front man, you have to be mobile. So, I just developed ways of doing that. I strapped a Moog Prodigy around my neck so I could move around [Laughs.] Any way I could to engage the audience.
You were also melding many musical styles together. I can’t think of many people who can convincingly marry Moog synth solos with funky Motown and slap bass lines!
I was really just following my instincts. I loved music with a groove, and I loved great chord shapes as well. I threw all of those influences together and fortunately, it worked.
There’s a big fascination these days with many of the synths you came up playing. Keyboards like the Roland Juno-60 and Jupiter-8 are especially in demand on the vintage market. Why do you think those instruments are still so coveted?
It’s funny—I’m preparing for the upcoming Retro Futura Tour and I’m working with [Apple] Mainstage. I’ve got all of my Jupiter and Juno emulations, and as good as those emulations are, the sounds that come out of those original keyboards are just astonishing. You cannot beat them. It’s still a thrill to hear those sounds. They’re so responsive, and the filters are so aggressive and punchy. When I did my original one-man show, it was pre-MIDI, really, so I couldn’t layer-up sounds. But just after we started the second album, Dream Into Action, MIDI was around so I could layer sounds together. And that’s always been a big thing for me. I notice that people aren’t really doing that so much now, but these days, I’m working with Mainstage and I can combine six or seven different sounds together. I’ve realized that layering is quite a big part of my style. It gives sounds complexity and movement.
In 2012, you were using an Ableton Live-driven rig, using virtual synths like Arturia’s Jupiter-8V simulation. Is this the kind of setup you’ll be using for the upcoming Retro Futura Tour?
Yes, because I can’t bring all those beautiful synths out on the road. They just won’t take it. I know people really love to see them, but they get destroyed by touring. They’re just too delicate. On this tour, I’m actually using the Arturia KeyLab 88 controller because it’s got all of the faders and knobs, and now I have everything on one surface. I’d been looking for something like that for ages, and finally Arturia came out with it. I’m really enjoying it. Robbie [Bronnimann] runs the sequencing side of things, so he uses Ableton. He also has access to my Mainstage setup, as well, so I create a bunch of sounds for him to play. On this tour, I’m going to give him even more parts to play because I want to be even more mobile. [Laughs.] I’ve got my Korg RK-100S keytar which I can layer dozens of sounds on and change the octave. I can also do things like have one sound play with a light touch, and then another sound kicks-in when you really hammer it. I’m also doing things like running arpeggios and layers. It’s just so flexible. I love it.
To capture the sound of your original gear, are you sampling any of it or are you staying strictly with virtual emulations?
It’s a real mixture. I’ve been able to sample some of those keyboards into [Apple Logic Pro sampler] EXS24, but I also usually layer those sounds with a synth on top to give more meat to the sounds. So, it’s a mix, and I try and update the sounds so I’m not just slavishly recreating the records as they were. I try to push things even further, and make the sounds even punchier. Sometimes I even change them radically. I can go back to those original synths, but I want to be pushing forward all the time. It’s always been about creating the most amazing sounds. The only live mic on stage with us is my vocal mic, so we can get a pristine sound. We don’t have monitors, so it’s a completely silent stage, apart from the drummer tapping on his pads! [Laughs.]
Your recent Engage project seemed to be the natural progression of the work you began so many years ago—capturing people’s attention in a live setting with an engrossing multimedia component. Didn’t you used to have a mime perform with you on stage?
Yes. When I started, [Jones’ original stage performer] Jed was doing performance art. I don’t know if you’d call him a mime, but he would be all of these different characters that would go with the songs. We also had TV screens, too, that would go on the stage, and I had people create computer-ish graphics that ran on VHS tapes along with the songs. If you extrapolate that to now, then you have my Engage show, with two screens and visuals. I’m still very interested in giving people a thrill with a show.
In July, you kick off the Retro Futura tour alongside acts like Men Without Hats, Paul Young and others. Can you talk a little about the impetus for the project?
I’m sort of headlining this tour, so it’s a chance for me to give the “full show.” When I went out on tour with Barenaked Ladies, many of the shows were in broad daylight. We couldn’t run the video or do our light show. And it’s great to play big venues with lots of people in them. I think all of these tours are in a way, an experiment, as in “Let’s see how it works.” I think it’s a real treat for people to see all of these bands, and the variety of music it brings. I’ve just got to make sure I give a great show at the end! I’m playing a lot of festivals in the UK this year, and people just absolutely love it. They hear lots of different music, and they can just relax and enjoy themselves and not worry about the trials and tribulations of daily life.
You told Keyboard in 1985, “The song has got to stand up on one keyboard. Otherwise, if you end up getting off on some fancy programming, you might come back at the end of the day and say, ‘Oh God, the song is no good!’” Words every songwriter should live by!
Yeah. I always encourage young songwriters to pick five or six songs that they regard as their favorite ones of all time, and work out what is going in them in terms of the chords and the song structure, and to really educate themselves on how great songs are written. I think that’s a really important place to start, because I think people can get carried away with the sounds and production. But if you can’t sit down and play a song on a piano and make it really work, then maybe it needs a bit more work. I’m a big believer in “Middle 8s” and key changes and all that stuff. The thing about the pop song is that it’s a beautiful format that people know very well. It’s very familiar. So, what you need to do is throw in something that’s a bit of a surprise, that actually gets all of your synapses firing off. [Laughs.] You want people to think, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that!” When I was working with Phil Collins, he would say, “What I love about your songs is that there are always two or three moments where there’s a very unexpected event!” [Laughs.] And he found that very exciting. That was really encouraging.
What are you listening to these days that inspires you?
I’ve got Spotify in my car, and I was just listening to the new John Mayer album [The Search for Everything]. I don’t know what it is about his records, but they’re so beautifully made. They just sound so good. This one’s got great grooves, but there’s still a contemporary edge to it. I really admire great craftsmanship like that.
But I also really love Bon Iver, which is the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s all about heart and feel and really original. I also love an English contemporary folk artist named Laura Marling. She’s absolutely great. And there’s a Swedish band I love called Dirty Loops. Oh, my God! Their music is like super funky jazz, but from the Pro Tools age. Those guys are amazing.
In these unstable, often polarizing political times we live in, is it true, in the words of your hit song from 1985, that “No One Is to Blame”?
Well, that song means so many things, and you can interpret it in so many ways. You can think of it as “no one is to blame,” or “everybody is to blame,” and we’re all responsible. This is the time where nobody can afford to take a backseat. Everybody’s got to be engaged, and stand up for the true values they believe in and want to uphold. I know it looks like a terrible time, but I’m trying to find the positive angle. And for me, poison has to come to the surface before you can deal with it. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. Good people everywhere now have to get involved and live their lives in a much more activist way. I think that’s really the way forward.
Find-out more at howardjones.com
Retro Futura Keyboard Rigs
Arturia KeyLab 88
Arturia V Collection 5
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar
Native Instruments Kontakt
Panda Audio midiBeam wireless MIDI interface
Apple MacBook Air
Novation 49 SL Mk II
Native Instruments Maschine Mk2
TC-Helicon VoiceLive 2
Porter & Davies BC Gigster