“Do you feel scared? I do, but I won’t stop and falter.”
So, sang Howard Jones in his smashing 1985 hit “Things Can Only Get Better,” which in my opinion perfectly framed Howard’s ethos. The Englishman is unflappably upbeat and optimistic, and he makes fantastically irresistible music still today.
Of course, Howard has been touring more than recording, and his latest journey finds him headlining the Retro Futura Tour, which stops locally at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 30. (Retro Futura, the traveling retro festival, launches on July 18 in Los Angeles. Find a date near you on the Retro Futura website.)
Howard has retooled his catalog for the touring event, where he will perform with a five-piece band that welcomes the return of his longtime guitarist Robin Boult. Joining Howard Jones on the bill are the English Beat, Modern English, Men Without Hats, Katrina (formerly of Katrina and the Waves), and Annabella Lwin (formerly of Bow Wow Wow, standing in for Paul Young on July 30).
Parklife DC recently chatted with Howard about the importance of touring and why he’s doing so much of it, the power of optimism in music, and perfectionism and creativity in performance, particularly with his synthpop collaborator Robbie Bronniman.
Mickey McCarter: You’ve had several years’ association with the Retro Future Tour. And I’m wondering how it all came about and what can we expect to see from you on the tour when it comes to Baltimore.
Howard Jones: There’s no real story other than my agent in the US wanted me to headline a tour and put a lot of other bands on it! Well, it seemed like a good idea, and I’m really excited about doing it.
MM: I recently talked to Dave Wakeling of the English Beat, and he was really looking forward to the tour. And one of the things he really appreciated was that when you tour with artists like, say, Howard Jones and such, you find new fans because you have all these people in common across overlapping spheres discovering each other’s music. And then your fans, for example, will come and discover the English Beat and become fans of them also. [Read a Parklife DC interview with Dave Wakeling, who discusses his new songs and politics.]
Do you find that sort of thing happen yourself when you go into one of these large package tours?
HJ: Absolutely! I toured with Barenaked Ladies last summer, and I toured with them for that reason. I thought, this is a generation of people who probably know my music, but they don’t know me very well. I made so many new fans on that tour — people who had never seen me before. I got to do my song “No One Is to Blame” with the band during their set, and there was a fantastic reaction. And it was great. It’s great to play to new people, and that cross fertilization is a great thing.
Watch the official music video for “No One Is to Blame” by Howard Jones on YouTube:
MM: You know, touring in general — you have been a touring machine lately! You’ve been all over the world in a short time. Did you wake up one year and say, man, I have to get back out there?
HJ: I have been touring for the whole of five years now really. I felt this was the time to really go for it because I’m enjoying it more than ever and I’ve got such a great band. And I’ve got a really great team around me. So, I feel like I should be out there doing it while I still can. I’m really at the top of my game, and I should be doing what I love doing. That’s been my philosophy, and it’s been really good fun.
We recently played in Japan and then went back to America, and I did an acoustic tour of the UK. Now I’m doing festivals. It keeps you energized — and alive! As long as I’m really enjoying it, I’m going to try to keep this up for another three or four years.
MM: One of the reasons I think that you are able to tour so well is because your songs sound so fresh. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you a few times in the past few years, and I’ve heard you comment yourself on several occasions that you always wanted to be forward-looking and optimistic in your music.
HJ: Right from the beginning! I started my career in an era where there were quite a lot of bands singing quite depressing lyrics. And I know there’s a place for that, and I know there’s a place where people can relate to going through a bad time. But what I wanted to say was, look, things may be bad, but you must have hope for the future. However bad it gets, you can always turn it around. And you can live your life to the fullest. I wanted to put that in my work.
That’s probably why America really embraced my music. They really liked that positive outlook. Over the years, I’ve had so much feedback from fans about how songs affected them. And so, I really feel that’s my role. Other bands have other roles to fulfill, but mine is to provide a positive, hopeful attitude toward the future. We can create a great society for ourselves and everyone else.
MM: That really carries through on your new work as well. I quite liked your latest album, Engage. It was quite good. Were you happy with that album yourself? Were you satisfied with its reception? And are you working on anything else new right now?
HJ: I was happy with Engage because I challenged myself to do something ambitious and different — and to not treat it as a normal studio album but to think of it as a concept that would be performed live and involve the audience and have lots of visuals tied very closely to the music. And I also embraced all the different kinds of music that I loved. There’s a classical piano piece in there, and there’s music inspired by film in there as well.
I think it was a bit confusing for people though because it comes as a CD and a DVD, and really the DVD was the main thing because it was a visual and a sound experience. We really tried to capture that on the DVD. I learned so much by doing it. I worked with choreographers, and we did a ballet piece. I felt like I was pushing myself, and when you do that, you learn so much.
MM: Anything new in development at the moment?
HJ: I seem to be involved in writing songs for films recently! I wrote a song for the film Eddie the Eagle — I actually wrote two. One hasn’t been released yet, so I have that in the can. And I’ve just written a song for a new animated film, and it was specifically written for a part in the film, which is called Animal Crackers. That’s in theatres in September. I’m really proud of it. It’s sort of a funk track. I’m really enjoying writing for a specific purpose and a specific reason like the narrative of a film.
So that’s where the new work is coming. I have lots of ideas ready, but I’ve been very consumed with putting the tours together. I have a new band coming out on this tour. It’s a five-piece band, and we have reworked a lot of the songs, and it’s very exciting. I’ve got my long-term guitarist back in the band — Robin Boult.
At this moment, live music is so important to people. And that’s really what I’ve been concentrating on. Hopefully, I will have a window where I can get down all of my new ideas, but it’s proving difficult.
MM: Understood! You’ve struck on something that I’ve observed in a lot of interviews and that is there is this *appetite* for live music. Wow, people can tour and sell out shows and do very well, and it seems to me to have taken the place of selling records. To me, when your career started, it seemed that the record companies called the shots and the goal was to get on the radio. But now it’s all about the live shows. There’s been a shift.
HJ: I must agree with you. I think it has to do with the way society is at the moment. So much business is being conducted through email and through social media. And people are craving that live experience where you have to be there. You can’t watch it on a video; you have to be there. You have to feel what is going on and experience it with a whole bunch of other people. People are realizing that is such a great thing to do, and I’m going with that really. I’m going with it.
MM: You mentioned the Eddie the Eagle song — “Eagle Will Fly Again,” and I wanted to say you performed it the last time you were here headlining in DC [at The Hamilton], and people loved it. It went over very well.
HJ: That’s right. I wrote it very quickly. I had a deadline, and I was touring at the time. Sometimes when you have to do something quickly and you’re really focused, it works. The film was set in the ‘80s, and I thought about how I constructed my song in those early days. I applied that process to that song, and it came very easily.
Listen to the official audio for “Eagle Will Fly Again” by Howard Jones on YouTube:
MM: One of the reasons that I bring it up is that I’ve had the opportunity to talk to the great Midge Ure a few times. [Read a Parklife DC interview with Midge Ure.]
HJ: Midge is a great friend of mine.
MM: He always has wonderful things to say about you! He shared a story one time inspired by the fact that we were chatting about David Bowie. And he said, oh, I only ever performed with David Bowie one time and that was during the Prince’s Trust Concert in 1986, when he and Mick Jagger showed up unexpectedly and said, we would love to play “Dancing in the Streets.” I was hoping to solicit some memories from you of that day. Midge said he grabbed you and you had to learn the song on the spot.
HJ: That’s a great story. It was all a bit last minute. Mick Jagger came down into the dressing rooms and into my dressing room. I had a little keyboard in there, and he said, oh, can you just go through the song with me. So here’s Mick Jagger in my dressing room! We went through the song for a bit and with Jagger wearing my headphones, plugged into the keyboard. So, I couldn’t hear the keyboard, but I knew the chords. He had the headphones on and we went through the whole song! I cannot believe that I had that experience with him.
Jagger is one of my heroes. I absolutely and totally admire him. And so that was fabulous.
I’ll always remember that show because at the end of it there were a million guitarists, and they all came on with their guitars at once. Honestly, it was about a dozen guitarists all playing the same thing. It was amazing. Those things were very fun if not a little scary because you had to learn a lot of stuff. Of course, as the keyboard player, everyone expects you to cover everything — the string parts, the brass parts, the piano parts. It’s quite a lot of pressure, but I quite enjoyed it.
MM: Speaking of David Bowie, I like to ask folks about the musicians that have been passing away lately, and some of them your peers. We’ve lost Bowie and Prince and George Michael in a very short time. You were sharing the charts with these gents. We are losing a lot of talent right now. Has any of this loss affected you in any sort way or have you had any thoughts about the loss of these folks?
HJ: All of those people — it definitely does affect you. I’ve met those people, and I loved their music. I was a fan, and I’ve played with them. I feel a real connection to it.
It makes you think — right, there’s no time to waste! To get back to your very first question, that’s one of the reasons that I’m out there doing it. There is no time to waste. Don’t leave anything in the locker room. Don’t sit at home when you could be out thrilling people with your music because people genuinely love it. So, go out and do it while you still can.
That’s what I’ve got from it.
Watch the official music video for “Things Can Only Get Better” by Howard Jones on YouTube:
MM: Getting back to the touring, when you came back and embraced synthesizers, and you were fully electronic again some years ago. Your bandmate Robbie Bronniman was a big part of that. When I first saw your retooled fully electronic show, Robbie was very good on the synthesizers, and he has continued to be. Is he still involved in the show?
HJ: Robbie is always always always working with me. He’s like a brother. I’d work with him on anything. Robbie’s quite unique in his command of technology. He’s also a brilliant producer. He’s obsessive like me about detail and making sure that every sound and everything you do is the highest quality. We share that obsession! So, we keep setting ourselves higher goals and higher standards on how to present the show and how to make it sound absolutely incredible. It’s very exciting. I’m very fortunate to work with Robbie, and I’m so grateful that he still wants to work with me! So, he’s always going to be part of my plans until he wants to do something else. He’s busy doing film scores and other projects all the time. But he always gives some time to me because he loves touring, and we both love putting together the shows.
When you’re working with new technology, there are always massive problems to solve. Things that work and they are compatible suddenly aren’t compatible any more. You’ve got to upgrade everything; you’ve got to keep on top of that stuff. We go mad trying to get it all right. But in the end, we love it. The sound gets better and better, and people really enjoy it.
MM: The first time I ever saw him perform with you, he had these… sticks? I don’t know what they were! I had never seen that before, and I haven’t seen it since. Do you know what I’m talking about? What was that?
HJ: It was an idea he came up with. They were just triggers really — MIDI triggers that work when you bang the sticks on the ground. It’s a very simple idea really, but it looks quite cool. We should bring that back, shouldn’t we? Thanks for reminding me. I am going to suggest we bring back the sticks.
MM: It was *so* unique. I had never seen anything like that before, and like I said, never seen it since. The experience was so — what was that? That was amazing!
HJ: That *was* cool.
MM: Well, I’m about to say goodbye, but before I let you go, I wanted to let you know that you were my first official concert. I didn’t start going to shows until I was old enough to pay my own way, and as a young undergraduate at the University of Delaware, I saw you in 1992. And it really was the perfect thing because I grew up watching you on MTV and your songs always very much resonated with me. So, I just wanted to say thank you for that first show and for all of the shows since then.
HJ: Well, thank you very much, Mickey.
I have to say, with me and Robbie, we are trying to do is to use the technology of our time. Many bands in rock n’ roll have done amazing things with traditional lineups, and it’s been wonderful and great. But we want to use the technology of the time and make it great. And make it very creative and very moving. That’s our Holy Grail really.
MM: Great! We are looking forward to seeing the show in July when you come around with Retro Futura.
Retro Futura Tour
w/ Howard Jones, The English Beat, Modern English, Men Without Hats, Katrina, Annabella Lwin
Pier Six Pavilion
Sunday, July 30
Show @ 7pm