He’s been described as ‘one of the defining figures in mid-80s synth pop’, and a constant tinkerer and musical innovator since his debut chart topping album ‘Human’s Lib’ 35 years ago. Howard Jones sits down to tell me how, with his new album ‘Transform’ he’s gone back to his roots.
Less than 10 minutes into our conversation Howard and I stumble onto the seemingly inescapable topic of ‘The Internet’. “It’s had a bigger effect than anything that’s happened in my life time,” says Jones, 64 from his home in Somerset. “It’s a very interesting time for the human race to see how much destructive potential there is as well as all the amazing things people are doing. The communities and relationships that form online and people that stand up for causes – it’s opened a whole Pandora’s Box of what human beings are.”
New album ‘Transform’ touches on the everyday struggles of personal identity in an ever switched-on and mobile modern society. Howard references the possibility of becoming a “YouTube Trendsetter” or having “40 million twitter followers” but it will still be “the same old me.” Yet unlike bleaker albums that strike similar themes (think Radiohead’s OK Computer or Bowie’s Diamond Dogs), Howard’s aim with this new record is to encourage.
“We can actually affect change ourselves,” he says passionately. “We can take the lead and become active and engaged. I think that I was very much aware of that with this album, everyone needs a boost. Whatever situation we’re in in the world nobody else is going to change it or do it for us, we have to take the lead.” Howard has been practising Buddhism for 26 years now, and I ask if that has influenced not only his thought process but also his musical one. “I think so yeah,” he nods, “I’m up at six and chant for an hour and I engage in this battle with my own negativity every day. Buddhism has really helped me with that and helped me realise that every single person has this amazing potential inside of them.”
Sonically, ‘Transform’ is Howard “returning to [his] electronic roots,” well-crafted pop songs enriched with his signature synth laden arrangement. “I’ve done lots of albums that have been experimenting with new things,” Howard says, referencing 2009’s ‘Ordinary Heroes’ which focuses heavily on piano and strings, “but it feels very comfortable to be back with synths. There’s a desire from my fans to do a real synth album again so I think I subconsciously responded to that and I’ve had brilliant fun doing it,” he smiles. The album opens with a sucker-punch of positivity ‘The One To Love You’, ‘Take Us Higher’ and fantastically titled ‘Beating Mr. Neg’ kick off ‘Transform’ with pounding synths, “loud and proud” riffs and uplifting lyrics, “I wanted the album to be very upbeat and there’s only really two ballady type tempos in there,” he explains. One is the beautifully lush ‘Mother’, the other is ‘At The Speed Of Love’, both which really explores Howard’s range as a vocalist.
The production on ‘Transform’ sounds crisp and defined, and Howard has fully embraced modern technology on the new record, using his vintage analogue synths in tandem with new software and hardware. He’s also teamed up with American contemporary producer and Grammy nominee BT, who Howard says is a great “inspiration and influence” to him – and the modern sensibilities on their tracks really shines through.
“I use anything I can get my hands on really,” he laughs. Howard is deeply knowledgeable on all things electronic and one imagines a room stacked with endless modular synths and wires as he rattles off the various makes and models in his collection. “It’s a really exciting time to be a keyboard player,” he exclaims. “I’m always trying to move forward but I’m not trying to compete with the amazing new electronic musicians,” he pauses, rather modestly “but I can keep it exciting for myself and that’s what I did in the early days.” Howard was one of the first solo artists to fully embrace the one man electronic band, pushing the boundaries of what one can do with drum machines and keyboards. “I guess the difference is I‘m not trying to compete with anyone else, I’m just trying to be the best version of me, you know?”
When ‘Human’s Lib’ came out in 1985, Howard did more than a good job at competing with his fellow artists. He dominated airwaves and charts and in the span of 3 years had amassed 10 top 40 singles in the UK. Songs like ‘New Song’, ‘What Is Love?’, ‘Pearl In The Shell’ ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ and many more were staples in the electro clubs of the mid-80s and Howard built up a dedicated fan base that still support him 35 years on.
“All the hits have been upgraded and brought into the sound of the new album.” Howard is visibly excited for the chance to test the new tracks and sounds on the road. “I want it to be a real visual feast and the best possible sound we can make, we’ve got special videos being made that I’m very involved with which will play on an screen right behind the band and it will form part of the light show as well as having visuals!”
It’s clear that Howard has put a lot of his own time and energy into the plan for the live experience, as well as running his own label which Transform is being released on. “Hopefully,” he laughs, “it will all come together and be mind-blowing good – that’s what I’m aiming for.” It’s a tough ask, but from all his successes, if there’s anybody that could pull it off – it would be Howard Jones.
Transform is released May 10th on Detox Records and Howard’s UK tour starts on May 23rd.