Interview with Howard Jones

By Bob Gourley | Published on July 19, 2017
Howard Jones
Photo by David Conn

Long before laptop-based live music became a possibility, Howard Jones was lugging a much larger arsenal of gear on stage for his pioneering ‘one man band’ performances. Emerging in 1983, Jones initially used the Roland 808, Sequential Circuits Pro One and Juno 60 as the core of his setup. These devices had their limitations and quirks, but Jones embraced them and allowed them to shape his early sound. Since then, Jones has expanded his horizons, but now live performance is as important as ever. He recently embarked on the latest edition of the Retro Futura Tour, headlining a lineup of acts who rose to fame in the 80’s. In a phone interview, Jones discussed his use of musical technology and other topics.

You’ve done the Retro Futura tour before, correct? What about it made you want to return?

“I did it once before. They invited me to have the headline spot. I’ve got a band and I think we’re really ready for that now. It’s great to get out and play around America. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I feel really lucky to have been asked.”

You have such an extensive back catalog; is it difficult deciding what songs to perform?

“Well, I’ve got an hour. When I do my own shows, it’s usually 90 minutes or 2 hours. So, I have to choose the set list really carefully, because a lot of people absolutely have to hear certain songs, or they go crazy! From my point of view, I want to play something new as well. I’m always updating the songs and sort of contemporizing the classics that people know. I make it interesting to the people who are going to bring their kids to the show, as well. I want them to relate to it. So for example, on ‘Things Can Only Get Better,’ we go into the Cedric Gervais remix. I’m playing ‘Equality’ from the first album, and ‘Conditioning,’ but we’ve updated and upgraded those. It’s a delicate balance. I planned the set list months ago and have been rehearsing with the band. I think it’s right, but we’ll see.”

What is your approach to updating songs?

“With the sorts of sounds, and the sorts of technology we have available now, I think, ‘If I was going to make that record now, what would I beef up? And what would I add without destroying the essence of the song.’ It’s treading that line between keeping all the essential elements but just beefing them up a bit making them relevant to sounds that people are using now and sounds that I really like. It’s so important not to lose all that stuff. There are certain sounds that have to stay, like the loop at the beginning of ‘No One Is to Blame’ and the lead solo in ‘New Song’ and the brass sound at the beginning of ‘What Is Love.’ But there are sections with room to play. It’s something you’ll have to hear! We’ve been doing some festivals in the UK and we’ve had some great feedback. Fans from way back brought their kids, and their kids are really getting into the tracks as well because they recognize their language in there as well. I’m not a person who is a sort of musical museum. I’m evolving as a producer and a writer and a player. I want to bring that in. But I’ve had a lot of hits, so I’ve got to play them. I make sure I play them in a way that I can still be excited about and the audience can still recognize.”

Do you even find yourself bringing back album tracks that are perhaps lesser known?

“We’ve been playing ‘Equality’ on this tour and I’ve been doing a version of ‘Hide and Seek.’ I don’t think I’ll be able to put ‘Hide and Seek’ into the American tour, as I just don’t have time. We’ve got a great new version of ‘You Know I Love you.’ I’m playing ‘Human Touch,’ which is from the last album, ‘Engage.’ People don’t always know it, but it goes down well live. ‘The Prisoner’ is a track that I wouldn’t call a radio hit but again that’s really fun to play, so we’re putting that in the set.”

You did a big multimedia live show for “Engage.” Do you incorporate any of that into your current live show?

“The videos that we made for ‘Engage,’ like for ‘Human Touch,’ we use that live. For this American tour, the phone app is being used again. What happens is that people download the app and then their phone gets taken over a little bit by us during the show. We broadcast clips that you’re seeing on the screens onto your phone and we can activate the light on the phone. We also give them a special track to download. So I’ve use those ideas from ‘Engage,’ transferring them to the more general touring.”

Would you like to expand on what you did for “Engage” in the future?

“I would love to. It was a big show for me to put on, with multiple screens and a lot of technology going on. I did really enjoy it. Whether I could take it on the road, I don’t know. I’d be nervous about that because I could just bankrupt myself, which wouldn’t be good for anybody! But what I like to do is every 3 or 4 years do a big project that is almost like R&D for me, trying new ideas. I will keep that up. I always have that mindset. I can’t imagine what the next one will be, but there will be one.”

Over the years, you’ve performed completely solo and with varying sized bands. Could you talk about the inspiration behind your original one-man-band shows?

“The one-man-show was really about the fact that no one had done it before. It felt like a pioneering thing to do, and it could only be done at that time. The technology was just arriving that would allow you to go down to your local music store and purchase that technology without needing to have it specially made or anything. Conceiving it as this one-man electronic band was such fun, because it was a new idea. People really got excited about it. I was excited about it. It was dangerous as well. I was totally dependent on the technology working and my command of it. Lots of times, it would go wrong and I would have to deal with all that stuff. It was a pioneering thing and there was a lot of excitement on that. You also get a lot of negativity because you’re doing something new. They say, ‘You’re not rock and roll; who do you think you are?’ That was difficult at the time, but I have to laugh at it now.”

What equipment were you using back then?

“The instruments available at the time included the 808 Drum Machine and the Juno 60, the Pro One, which had a 12 note sequencer. The combination of those instruments together had limitations but allowed me to create. All the songs from the first album were based around the limitations of that technology. In a way, having limits helps you to focus and get things right. It worked in my favor.”

Do you make an effort to constantly keep up with what’s going on with musical technology?

“I just watched Ed Sheeran’s set at Glastonbury, which was absolutely amazing. And I was thinking, he did that on his own. I know what it’s like to do a one-man show when you’re messing with the technology. Obviously, he’s using looping technology, which has its limitations, but he is using it so creatively and also he’s a great writer. I was totally there with him, as I know what it’s like to stand on those big stages and be on your own and having people think, ‘Who does he think he is doing it all on his own; why hasn’t he got a band?’ It’s brave stuff. I absolutely love what he’s doing; it’s amazing.
“We’re constantly evaluating things that are within our budget. We’re always on the lookout. I don’t think there are a lot of people using apps, involving the audience with the technology they are carrying on them.”

Have you been able to track how many people have been using the app at shows?

“At the ‘Engage’ show, there was quite high use of it, especially with the hardcore fans. Generally, it’s probably going to be hard to get to everyone to tell them to download it for free and have the app open at the show and then stuff happens. It’s like word of mouth, isn’t it? It can catch on and then the next thing you know, Coldplay is doing it. I’m fine with that; we’ll just do the pioneering stuff and they can reap the rewards.”

What is the instrumentation of the current live band?

“My guitarist Robin Boult is back in the band, which is amazing. It’s great to have guitar back in there. I’ve got John who has always been my drummer and Robbie Bronnimann who does keyboards and manipulates all the sounds that are going on. And then Emily Dolan Davies is doing electronic percussion. We’ve gone sort of drum-heavy on this tour. Also, Robbie is doing much more on keyboards, so I’ve got more time to be out at the front with the audience, which is what I really love. We’ve got it sounding better than it ever has before. I think we’ve also done it pretty good, but we’ve pushed it further again.”

Does the lineup of a particular tour have any impact on the set list?

“The thing is that Robin and I can do the whole set on our own, even if I don’t play keyboards. So that’s the fallback position. I’ve done all these songs in every conceivable way, really. I could just play the songs on a piano and Robbie could play guitar. I’ve done festivals like that as well, and it’s been fun. I don’t want that to happen, but if it does, we are ready!”

You’ve been releasing music on your own label for a while. Would you consider ever going back to working with a larger label?

“For Warner, I had 5 albums, and since ‘Working in the Backroom,’ I’ve had my own label. I’ve financed and released all the albums myself. But I’m actually with a new record company now. Cherry Red Records bought my catalog from Warner and I’m going to license my Detox stuff through them as well. So I’ve actually got a record company again, and I’m loving it because people are phoning me up and saying, ‘Let’s do this,’ and they have all these great ideas. I’ve got a great team of people working on my stuff and it’s just heaven.”

What are your plans after this tour? Will you be touring again on your own soon? Releasing new music?

“I’m looking to see how the band is received in the States. We’ve been playing big festivals to 15,000 people and it’s been going down really well. I think that live is more important than recorded work at the moment. I think that the whole value has shifted. You can go to a gig and then go listen to the artist’s work, but it’s the gig that creates the most excitement and gives the most value. It’s one of those rare times where people get together and share an experience together and let themselves go and have a bit of fun. It’s becoming rarer in our society that people are doing this as a collective bunch. I feel like putting more effort into the live thing, making it really great and then when I’ve got time to put tracks together, I will. But the priority has shifted for me. To put great shows together that are evolving takes a lot of time and energy. Taking 6 months or a year to do an album—I don’t know if I can do that. I haven’t quite resolved that yet. It’s probably more like I’ll do a track now and again and then once a whole bunch is ready, I’ll put it out. I’ve currently got 3 or 4 tracks that haven’t been released. We’ll see how it goes. It’s a changing world, isn’t it?”

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