Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

31Aug/140

Interview: Howard Jones On Retro Futura + Continuing To ‘Engage’ With His Audience

hojo2013For fans of ‘80s pop music, the current Retro Futura tour is a dream bill, featuring a lineup of Katrina (from Katrina and the Waves), China Crisis, Midge Ure of Ultravox fame, Howard Jones and Thompson Twins frontman Tom Bailey. I had the chance to see the tour when it came through Cleveland last week (at the Performance Arts Center at the Masonic Auditorium) and it’s probably the best genre package tour I’ve ever seen. It was a thrill to see Howard Jones touring with a level of production that you usually only get to see if you’re seeing one of his shows in the U.K.

Beyond that, when you consider that it’s been 27 years since Tom Bailey has sung any of the Thompson Twins hits live, it was a real treat to hear him revisit that catalog. He sounded great and the nine song set (which ran about 45 minutes) was perfectly chosen -- a great mix of the hits you would expect and even a couple of album tracks. From the reception to Bailey's set, it was very clear that the audience was very happy to get a chance to finally hear those songs live.

The 45 minute running time of Bailey's set was certainly a good enough teaser that made me hope his current touring with Retro Futura will lead to an eventual headlining run (with a longer set) in the very near future. I bought an advance copy of a new collection of Thompson Twins remixes and rarities which will be released in September and listening to that set certainly brought back a lot of memories and generated thoughts regarding additional songs that I'd love to hear him play live.

There’s about a week’s worth of tour dates left on the Retro Futura run, so check out the upcoming tour dates and get out there to check out a show! You didn’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to go and check out the show -- I’m a longtime HoJo fan and knowing that Bailey had “If You Were Here” in the setlist, well, that’s a moment that I wasn’t about to miss.

I spoke with both Bailey and Jones in the weeks leading up to the Cleveland show -- a large part of my conversation with Bailey was unfortunately lost due to a troublesome phone connection, but here’s the full chat with Howard Jones for your enjoyment.

How did you get involved in this Retro Futura tour? It’s a great lineup of folks.

Actually, we were asked last year to try it out with Andy Bell and we had a string of dates mainly on the West Coast. It went really well and we had a really great time, so we were thinking of who we could do it with this year. Because you know, it’s like trying to get the right combination of people. It was suggested that Tom Bailey be involved and I know Tom from the ‘80s. So we went for an Indian meal in London and I persuaded him after 20 years to come back out on the road. [Laughs] I know he’s really excited about it and he can’t wait to play these shows.

It’s just staggering to think that he hasn’t toured those songs in more than 20 years. That’s unbelievable with the catalog that he has.

Yes, that’s right. Exactly. You know, I’ve always been a big fan, so it’s great to have Tom back out there again.

Can you recall the first time that you crossed paths with Tom and the Thompson Twins.

Um. Ooh, no, I can’t. I’m sure it was one of the TV shows here in the U.K. But I also was rehearsing the band for the One To One tour in Dublin, Ireland and we went to see Tom and Alannah at their mansion in Auckland. So I remember that occasion very well.

You have managed to maintain a career over the years, continuing to record albums and play shows, touring internationally. But it’s important to note that you made the transition from being a major label artist around the time of the In The Running album to being an indie artist in the mid ’90s. Now, as the music business continues to in a sense, crash and burn, if you’re in a band it’s almost an automatic that you’re probably better off taking the indie route. But it wasn’t a normal thing at the time that you did it. How easy was it for you to make that transition at the time?

Well you know, it was kind of a natural thing for me. My major label, which was Warner Brothers, didn’t want to continue with me. They didn’t want to re-sign me and I’d done five albums for them. So it was really like “Okay, what am I going to do, because I still want to do this. I love making records and I love touring.” So I formed my own label and started booking my own shows and never looked back really.

Then I really sort of embraced the internet as a way to communicate with the fans around the world and to really look after them and develop that relationship. So it was kind of a natural thing for me, actually. I mean, it’s always a struggle to keep going and coming up with new ideas and try and make everything work. [Laughs] You know, [finding a balance between] being ambitious and at the same time, not bankrupting yourself. I’m always juggling that. But you know, it leads to an exciting life.

When you released the Working In The Backroom album, was that kind of your way of testing the waters a little bit?

Yes, it was. I did that album in about six weeks and it was like “I can’t sit around being depressed -- I really must get on. So that was a flurry of activity and Working In The Backroom was done and I toured with it and started to sell it on the road and that sort of independent idea was born.

You did an acoustic tour in the early ‘90s that resulted in the fantastic album Live Acoustic America. Obviously, you’ve done a variety of acoustic gigs since then, but at that time, it had to be a bit daunting to go out there with just a piano and a percussionist, right?

Yes, it was. Because it was a really completely different direction from what people had known me for. However, piano is my first instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was seven and I went to music college and really, I’m very, very at home at the piano. So in a way, it was quite natural for me even though people might have thought “What’s he doing?” [Laughs] Interestingly enough, people really love those shows and I still remember them really fondly. It was great.

Technology seems like it has really caught up. It’s gotta be great for you these days being able to replace what would have been a huge rig to travel with, with a MacBook flying in a lot of the audio. I had the chance to see you play in Dayton, Ohio a few years ago doing your electric set and it really was amazing to watch how you were able to recreate the sound of your songs with such a minimal setup.

It is exciting that the technology has caught up with your imagination and your dreams, really. I think you saw it there and I’ve made it even more compact now as I run all of the synths through Mainstage, which is on my MacBook Air. The most exciting part of it is that I’ve always been an advocate of mobile keyboards, right from the early days when I strapped a Moog Prodigy around my neck. [Laughs] Now, it means my mobile keyboard for starters is completely wireless and it also allows me to access any sound and spread it across the keyboard and so that’s really liberating now. Because I was never able to that before. That’s a recent thing that’s really great.

Who’s going to be in your band for this tour? I’m guessing Robbie will be there and you’ll have a drummer as well, right?

Yes, that’s right. Robbie’s now running Ableton and doing all of the live processing and putting stuff on my voice and you know, he manipulates all of the sound and the sequencers. Jonathan Atkinson is doing the electronic drum kit, which we’ve kind of developed over the years and that’s become quite formidable now. So yeah, it’s always moving forward and developing and always on the edge of breaking down. [Laughs]

But this stuff probably breaks down less than your gear did in the ‘80s.

[Laughs] It was a regular occurrence then. I still get stuff happening, because you know, when you push it, you’re always pushing to do something that’s a bit new. We did a festival on the weekend and I had like five minutes where I had to cover while they rebooted the Mac. [Laughs] I did five minutes of choral work with the audience. It was fun, but inside I was panicking. But we got the computer running again -- it was fine.

With your 30th anniversary shows last year, you took an interesting approach, writing new songs to play at the gigs, without as you said in your words, worrying if it was going to be heard on a CD and things like that. That’s an interesting exercise. While things have certainly changed a lot, there was a time when it was really hard for an artist to let go of the fact that a song and songs needed to be attached to an album before they could be out there. What got you thinking in that direction with the songs you were writing at that point?

You know, it came from the thinking that really, we have to be realistic. People aren’t so keen on buying albums. If they do download a track, it may be one track -- it won’t be a whole album. Certainly, people who grew up with me, they probably are not going out there buying huge amounts of music. But what they do do is they want to go out and see live shows and they want to really enjoy that.

So I thought, “Well, I’ll go write something that is about that experience and imagine myself in the audience and what I want to see.” I was thinking that on a big scale, you want to see great visuals and you want it to be cinematic and dramatic. So I wrote a whole suite of pieces that really followed that thinking. I also included all of the things that I loved, which I like contemporary dance and ballet and I thought “How can I weave that into my work,” so that’s what I did.

I didn’t know how people would take it, but they went mad. Honestly, I’ve never heard such a reaction to new work ever in my life. So I thought, “Well, this must be the key then for the future.” So I’m really hoping to take that on the road next year and at least play in London again. But my ambition is to take it around.

I saw a reference to you working on some choral material on your Facebook. so I’m guessing you’ve continued to write since those anniversary shows. What’s the long-term plans for this material. Is there an album or is it going to be more for a show like you’re talking about next year?

It’s based on the idea of a show, but we are going to release the music, because people have been absolutely clamoring for it. It will be a DVD of the filmed show which comes with a CD of the music, so that will be the release. So it’s really an audio/visual release -- I don’t even know if you’d call it an album. So yeah, I’ve changed my thinking about that and I’m going to probably base writing in the future around the live experience.

One of the things that we did for the show, which is called Engage, I wanted the audience to be very involved. So they had parts to sing and they had things to do during the show holding up visuals on apps that they could download and [they could] have colored gloves and wear fluorescent makeup. I mean, it was a whole thing that the audience were invited to take part in. I think that was maybe the most successful part of it, because people felt so involved.

That’s got to be exciting for you too. You hear so much about crowdsourcing and it’s like you’re crowdsourcing input on your music and obviously as a creative type, you can then change and mold that music based on what you’re getting back.

Yes, that’s right. I think people when they go to a gig, if they’ve got a role to play, it’s that much more exciting when you arrive at the thing and you know you’ve got stuff to do at a certain time and there’s countdowns on the screens for when you do things. [Laughs] I mean, it just makes it so much more engaging and that was the whole idea of the Engage project.

It’s the 30th anniversary of your Human’s Lib album. What are your memories when you look back at that time period?

Obviously, it was very exciting. I never dreamed that I could get that far. I just wanted to make records and do some gigs. But it went a lot further than that. It was just a whirlwind of stuff. When that first single was released, my life changed forever. I’m so grateful that it did and I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to continue to do what I do for all of this time and still be excited about it.

I’ve heard you tell stories in concert about how your perception of some of your songs has changed, specifically lyrics that perhaps you no longer agree with. Songs are in a sense, a time capsule and you’ve accumulated an interesting collection of them. How easy is it for you to maintain the connection with those songs as a songwriter and as an artist.

Well, you know I regularly go back through my catalog and review things. When I do my own shows, I will bring some new songs into the set and sometimes I kind of bring them into another song so there’s a kind of medley going on. So I’m constantly trying to keep on top of all of the songs that I’ve written. Sometimes you find that as you get older, they actually mean more to you and you can actually sing them better because you’ve developed as a musician and you can actually give them more power than you did when you wrote it.

How long of a set will you get on this tour and will it be mainly hits or will there be some new material?

Well, it’s 45 minutes and I have had a lot of hits in America, so people really don’t like it if I don’t play them. [Laughs] But I’ve got a slot each night where I’m going to play something that is not a hit, like I’ll put in “The Prisoner.” I’m also thinking of putting in a brand new track from the Engage set, which is called “The Human Touch.” I probably won’t play it every night, but I’ll alternate that sometimes. It’s a very, very electronic but really cool track that I think people will like.

Final question: You got to tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band -- what was it like working with Ringo?

It was great working with Ringo! He’s such a lovely man. He was a great influence on me -- he said “Look, I really want to live a long time,” so he was really meticulous about his health and what he ate and you know, no drinking and [he was focused on] healthy exercise and a really healthy diet. So I found that to be a very good inspiration. He’s a lovely man -- I’ve got nothing but good things to say, and he is such the best drummer ever! People don’t realize it! I mean, Ringo, it’s just heavenly to jam with him. It really is. He’s great.

Image credit: Duncan McGlynn / HowardJones.com