Howard Jones on Jimi Hendrix, the 1985 Grammys synth medley, and Mötley Crüe
Of all the things associated with the '80s in music, there is perhaps nothing more synonymous than big hair and keyboard synthesizers. Howard Jones embodied that look and sound like no one else. As a true pioneer of electronic music from that era, he can be credited as someone who combined the modern technology of the day with his knack for classical piano and clever lyricism, and turned it into chart-topping ascendancy with songs like "No One is to Blame," "Life in One Day," "New Song," and the timeless "Things Can only Get Better."
Still writing, performing and touring today Jones continues to challenge his abilities and delivered wonderfully with 2009's Ordinary Heroes. A record essentially devoid of the sound he is most known for, he combined his own Buddhist spiritual beliefs and compositional abilities that incorporated strings and a choir to accompany his introspective voice.
On his latest tour, Jones will play his first two records, 1984's Human's Lib and 1985's Dream into Action, in their entirety tonight at the Varsity Theater. Amid a busy schedule of interviews, performing and rehearsing Jones spoke to Gimme Noise and called up some memories from the '80s, talked music that he loves, and filled us in on what to expect from his big show.
Gimme Noise: Hey Howard! How you been? What a treat to talk to you. So you're about to do a big tour of the U.S. What else is on your plate at the moment?
Howard Jones: Well, I'll be playing the Isle of Wight Festival this week which I'm very excited about. I was at the first one in 1970. Saw Jimi Hendrix that year, it was 2 weeks before he died actually.
Wow, that'd been pretty amazing. Who else was there that year?
Well everyone. Quite literally everyone. Though not Dylan I suppose. The Who, The Doors, Joni Mitchell. You name it.
Who would've guessed you were an old-school rocker?
[Laughing] Well it wasn't old-school at the time. I was taking in whatever music there was. I was only about 14 or 15 at the time so it was something really spectacular and defining for me.
Right on. I suppose it definitely inspired you, I mean how couldn't it? You developed your own style, but it had to have informed you in some way.
Absolutely and I always have believed If you're going to be involved with popular music then you kind of need to know the history of it.
I just went back and watched an old video I remember from the 1985 Grammy's, the infamous "Synthesizer Medley" with yourself, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. It's pretty bad ass and kind of ridiculous at the same time.
[Laughing] It was good fun. Well at first it was myself and Thomas Dolby practicing and putting it together. Eventually one day when I showed up it was just me and Stevie in the studio, you know jamming for like a half hour.
That'd be so cool.
It really was. It was a big musical moment for me actually, and something I'll never forget.
I think when you look at that video now it all seems very retro which is ironic since at the time it was presenting you all as on the vanguard of all this new technology that seemed very futuristic.
Absolutely. It was a very cool thing. With those mess of keyboards and all that. We knew that technology will become very important.
So what about now? There's so much electronically motivated music.
It's obviously such a changed environment. There's so much out there that the public doesn't really get to hear so everything seems narrower and narrower. There's great stuff going on you just got to really dig and look for it.
There's so much going on that it's hard to focus on what is really new and innovative. What gets you fired up for music?
Well I love internet radio. You'll hear something like an "Early '80s Electro" channel somewhere and they're playing all these German bands I'd never heard of, and with so much enthusiasm. It's all very very interesting. I really applaud that.
It's been a few years since your last new record Ordinary Heroes but that was definitely something different for you. The sound was much more organic instrumentally and focused on your writing really nicely.
It's a very personal album to me. With a set amount of instruments and strings I wanted it to be quite focused. I'm really proud of that. There's no point in trying to compete with electronic music now. I didn't want to sound like other people. It should sound futuristic but not retro.
Yet, now you are going back in your catalog and presenting these two classic records of yours. How did that come about?
It started off as a one-off concert but then everyone wanted me to bring it to their town.
I suppose, everyone loves the classic stuff.
Yeah, I have to get it out of my system for this tour, then that's it. I did set out to make it interesting for myself by using new gear. I wasn't about to begin by dragging out old keyboards, they're much too precious.
Right, there's a lot of sort of deep cuts as well. People know the hits but you are diving deep into material you probably hadn't played in a long time.
It's not just only like going back in time. It's very new to me. So there was an awful lot of work to recreate it in it's full glory and a much more approximation of what it should sound like.
Tell me about your Buddhist practice.
It's the kind of Buddhism that stresses individual change. That's my whole focus. It's more personal to change one's self and not a top down to change the big picture kind of thing.
I like that. When you change yourself that's when things can only get better, right?
My belief is for things to change individuals need to change. It's much more about the power of an individual to effect their own life.
Speaking of change. I'm looking at some of your old photos and your hair was pretty spectacular in those days. As a pop artist you were really making a trend with that look but it was also pretty prevalent with the excesses of the times. Of course there was all the hair metal bands as well. Did you ever get into that stuff?
[Laughing]Yeah, well there were those blokes on Elektra. They had pretty big hair. Hmmm, I really can't remember their name. I met them backstage, I'm trying to remember.
On Elektra...Mötley Crüe?
That's right, Mötley Crüe! Really friendly guys. Very sweet in fact. You know all those bands they want to come off mean and nasty. But it's all an image really. We were hanging out at some festival and they were rather cordial and friendly. You'd be surprised.
No kidding? They are supposed to be the nastiest. That's sort of their reputation. I mean, it's their name!
[Laughs]You know, it's the same with rappers. It's part of the image they all portray. Rappers present themselves with this real edge. Like they're really tough. But every one I've ever met are quite gentle and nice.
Howard Jones preforms Tuesday June 26 at the Varsity Theater with DJ Jake Rudh. 7pm $30 in advance $35 at the door. 18+
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