Looking for an excuse to stay out on a “school night” and relive some ’80s pop awesomeness?
Howard Jones (HoJo to his legion) will perform his first two albums, “Human’s Lib” and “Dream into Action,” in their entirety on Thursday, July 12, at Mezzanine, 444 Jessie St. (at Mint) in SF.
“Thursday night?!?” Yes, it will be worth being bleary-eyed Friday morning to witness—in a small club setting—Jones perform such hits as “What Is Love?,” “New Song,” “Like to Get to Know You Well,” “Look Mama,” “Things Can Only Get Better” and more.
I spoke to Jones, one of synth pop’s pioneers, in England a few weeks back to discuss the tour, why he is embracing the current electronic music revival and how he is digging recreating his signature synth sounds via his iPad.
Corey Andrew: I saw you perform in San Francisco a couple years ago at the Red Devil Lounge. How do you feel about coming back to the States to perform?
Howard Jones: I’m really looking forward to it. We’re bringing the two-album show back again, doing some cities I didn’t do on the first trip. It’s really enjoyable.
Corey: You’ve done the two albums tour previously. How do you keep it fresh for yourself?
Howard: It’s two and a half hours for me. So it’s really challenging. It requires me to be in top form for the evening. I kind of like the challenge of having to remember everything and get all the lyrics right and remember all the keyboard parts. When I come off stage, it’s very satisfying.
Corey: I bet. Do you change up the order at all?
Howard: No, obviously it’s not the same order that’s on the original albums, because that won’t work as well live. I’ve given a certain amount of flexibility to the hits people know. They may hear the extended choruses and extra audience participation bits. That’s the only liberty I’ve taken with the original formats of the songs.
Corey: What synthesizers will you bring?
Howard: I definitely am not bringing the old, original synths, because they are too delicate and too prone to going wrong—and too precious to me now. Everything has been transferred and sampled into very contemporary gear, which has been a real challenge itself. It’s taken months and months of preparation to get it together. It coincided with us being able to access the original multi-tracks of the albums. I was able to go in and find exactly what the keyboard sounds are, especially on a lot of the layered stuff. We meticulously re-created everything using modern gear. I use a Roland G8, a very powerful keyboard. Then to emulate the Gem 8 sounds, I have software on my laptop. I keep it simple like that.
Corey: When the onstage technology changed, was that exciting for you—when people started using laptops onstage as instruments?
Howard: Yeah. I think I was one of the first people to use a Mac to run sequences on stage, way back in the ’80s. It was great to be able to use the technology. We’ve always tried to create a really, really great sound live. That’s what the technology has enabled us to do, to really get it to its full glory.
Corey: When you went back to listen to the tracks to prepare for this tour, what kind of an emotional state does that put you in?
Howard: It was really fun. I actually invited my producer, Rupert Hine, who produced those two albums and Stephen Taylor, who engineered the albums and mixed both albums. They came over, and we all listened to them together, the individual tracks. It was a lovely moment, actually. It floods back the memories of all the things we did making the albums.
Corey: On this tour, you’re going to be offering for sale the final three Warner Bros. albums that you remastered.
Howard: That’s right. That’s taken the last couple of years to get together. We finally have all my Warner Bros. work available. Strangely enough, records get deleted, and in some territories you can’t buy them. Sometimes you can’t get the full album on iTunes. We spent quite a bit of time putting together some great box sets, some real quality stuff and some rare tracks some people were desperate to get hold of. All my work now is available. So I’m very happy about that.
Corey: It is exciting. Part of the fun for collectors like me is going to the record stores and finding those 12-inches we haven’t heard for a long time, but I’m very excited to hear the remastered version of ‘Everlasting Love 808 Mix.’
Howard: Yes, great. We were able to make them all sound pretty good. I am very pleased with the remastering.
Corey: Are there going to be digital versions of these available as well?
Howard: Our agreement with Warner Bros. at the moment is that we’re only able to make them available in the U.K., but we’re talking to them to make them digitally available all over the world. It’s like trying to turn a huge oil tanker to get record companies to do anything these days. They just have no staff anymore. They’ve sacked everybody, yeah.
Corey: Do you notice big differences between the audiences when you tour over here?
Howard: In general, the age group is the same. People are predominantly in their 40s. But, there have been a lot of young people showing up at shows as well who want to check out those two albums, find out how we’re doing it. There’s a lot of interest in electronic music at the moment.
Corey: Not that electronic or dance music has ever gone away, but there is a mainstream resurgence. What do you think of it?
Howard: It’s really exploded in America in the last year or so. I suppose with the advent of the technology, people can actually be experimenting with electronic music on their laptop now and making a great sound. I suppose that makes it a bit more accessible and demystifies it a bit. That’s probably what happened. With Garage Band and things like that, people can put things together for fun, and that can develop into a more serious career. I really hoped that would happen when I started out. When we started, there were only a few of us who had access to this gear and knew what to do with it. It was very pioneering at the time. Now, everything is available for everyone. I just downloaded an amazing app for my iPad, which is based on the Moog synthesizer, and it’s incredible. I plugged it into my Logic set-up, and I’m having a fantastic time with that. It’s great that people can be making music easily at home.
Corey: Do you hear from some of these younger artists that are making music who were inspired by you?
Howard: There’s a young producer in the UK called Grum who has done remixes for people like Lady Gaga. He’s really keen on working with me. He’s done a remix for me of ‘New Song.’ I worked on a track for him for his new album. When someone raises their head above the crowd and I really like them, it’s great to do the occasional collaboration.
Corey: It seems like you’ve been open with the idea of people remixing your work, with your ReWork Project. Are you still OK with people taking your stuff and putting a new spin on it?
Howard: I’m quite particular. Loads of people send me remixes, and to be honest, most of them I don’t like. But the ones that I do, I get behind. There’s very few. It’s not that I don’t like the genre, but the quality of the work is often a bit shoddy. There was an amazing remix that Eric Prydz did of ‘Things Can Only Get Better,’ and I absolutely adored it. He could never get it together with his record company to release it. You can probably find it somewhere online.
Corey: To me, a lot of the remixes aren’t as high in quality as when the 12-Inch albums were put together. Do you have a longer version or remix that stands out for you?
Howard: Yeah. There’s a great remix of ‘You Know I Love You, Don’t You?’ that Arif Mardin did. He is a real genius with actually cutting up tape. He used to sit there with a multi-track and slice tape up to make incredible remix fun. That’s on the third box set. It’s very cool.
Corey: I’m sure that’s almost unheard of today.
Howard: Yeah, I don’t think anybody’s doing that now.
Corey: You are very generous with what you offer online to fans, free tracks and stuff. What kind of relationship do you have with the fans?
Howard: It’s vital that you look after fans. You try and keep their interest. I guess we were one of the early people to have a Web site. Gradually, we’ve added to the resources available. I’m proud of it. We’ve got all the lyrics up there. There’s lots of sheet music up there now as well. We just put up the early fan club magazines that were available. We’ve got some rare tracks up there. When you dig into the Web site, there’s plenty to keep your interest. I have a core fan base who are wonderful people who stick with me. I try to give them real good quality stuff and look after them. I think any artist in this day and age has got to have that attitude. You won’t survive if you don’t think about the fans and care about them.
Corey: Absolutely. They can also e-mail you directly. Is there anything that amuses you that they inquire about?
Howard: Usually people talk about gigs they’ve been to. They ask me sometimes how I write songs. It’s quite difficult to explain in e-mail. I usually reply to every single one. That takes quite a bit of time. It’s really about building that connection, one to one. Not being a big conglomerate organization that has no face.
Corey: With the remastering project complete, what’s on the horizon?
Howard: I’ve just decided that I’m going to release a new album next year. I’ve started to work on new material now. I’ve decided it’s going to be an electronic album. And it’s going to have a quiet analog sound, though I’m not necessarily going to use the original analog synths. I’m going to use software emulations and iPad stuff. There’s some great new apps coming out. The amazing thing about getting the apps on the iPad is the user interface is very different from a keyboard. You can create sounds in a very different way and I’m very excited about that in the same way as when the synths originally came out and got me so excited about them. As long as you can be excited about making the music, then it’s going to be good I think.
Corey: As I mentioned, I saw you a couple years ago, and your voice is still outstanding. Do you do anything special to maintain?
Howard: I actually found a singing teacher about five or six years ago. He’s become a really good friend of mine. He was absolutely amazing for me. He gave me lots of little vocal exercises to do and showed me how to not trash my voice doing gigs on long tours. I actually think that my voice is much stronger than it used to be, because I’ve been able to do these exercises and learn how not to damage my voice when I sing.
Corey: I’m sure it’s a workout doing two full albums.
Howard: Right. Ideally, you’re not supposed to sing that much each night, but if you keep your voice in shape you can.
Corey: That’s exciting news about the prospect of a new electronic album next year.
Howard: I’m not going to try and compete with anybody who’s doing anything new. I’m just going to follow my nose. Just do music that really excites me.
Tickets for Howard Jones are $30 in advance. Visit www.mezzaninesf.com for more information.