We’ve Got A File On You: Howard Jones

Simon Fowler

We’ve Got A File On You: Howard Jones

Simon Fowler

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Howard Jones will never forget the day he realized David Bowie knew who he was. The year was 1985 and the ’80s synthwave pioneer was at Wembley Stadium playing Live Aid in London. After Jones met Bowie, he hung out with Paul and Linda McCartney. That year — 1985 — probably represents the pinnacle of Jones’ early career; by 1986, he’d had 10 top 40 singles in the UK, six of which made the top 10. Also in 1985, he played the Grammys with first-wave synth innovators Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.

By the ’90s, however, pop music’s pendulum swung hard in the other direction. Quirky synths were out, self-serious grunge was in, and mainstream music fans seemed eager to forget that they’d ever indulged in kooky computerized-pop acts like Jones and contemporaries like Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Simple Minds. After going platinum with albums like his 1984 debut Human’s Lib and its 1985 follow-up Dream Into Action, Jones felt that cultural decline hard.

Today, it’s easy to forget that synthpop and new wave were ever considered “uncool”; scores of modern-day acts draw heavily from the flashy 1980s for inspiration, such as Chvrches, the Killers, and Future Islands, among others. As for Jones, he’s released multiple albums since going independent in the early ’90s. He’s placed songs in Stranger Things, Breaking Bad, Watchmen, and more, and, this Friday, he’ll release his latest project, Dialogue, which was mixed by longtime collaborator Robbie Bronnimann.

Below, Jones walks us through the peaks and valleys of his decades-long career, which includes collabs with Phil Collins and mime artist Jed Hoile. Jones also tells us about launching a short-lived vegetarian restaurant in New York, which hosted the likes of Madonna and Michael J. Fox — before it caught fire.

Dialogue (2022)

How has the lead-up to releasing Dialogue been?

HOWARD JONES: It’s been good because we’ve decided to release four singles before the album came out. My idea was that people would then be able to focus on each track when they came out — well, one track every month — and that you could really give a good listen to. Sometimes, when there’s a whole album, people don’t always have the time to do that. So I was thinking we can write our own rules now in this new streaming age. And I think that’s worked really well, actually.

How does Dialogue relate back to your last two projects — 2015’s Engage and 2019’s Transform?

JONES: Well, it’s developed into four albums now. There’ll be one after this. Engage, Transform, Dialogue, [and] Global System is the next one. There were a couple of things I was thinking of. One, I felt that I needed to commit to doing four albums in the next decade. To announce that I was going to do it, would mean that I would have to do it. Because I’ve promised my fans and I love them so much — I really can’t let them down. It was a way of me really making myself do this. 

So I thought, I want a theme, and the theme is “Engage.” Don’t be a bystander, get involved. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Be active in your world. And then, “Transform.” If we want to create a peaceful world, then we have to start with ourselves, and work on ourselves, and develop our compassion for other people, and get to know our own head really well.

And then “Dialogue”: What we can uniquely do as human beings is, we can talk to each other. Even if we have different opinions, we can find something that we have in common, our common humanity. And silence is terrible because it causes all kinds of rifts between people. So dialogue is important. And then “Global System” is putting all these things together, realizing that we live on a planet where — and we have to be aware that all our actions count — everything affects everyone else, and that we’re all important, together, to solve problems. So those themes have really helped me deliver the work and also inform what the lyrics are about.

You’re such an integral artist to the popularization of synthpop, which contemporary artists have reimagined so many times over today. After 40 odd years, when you’re writing new music, how important is it to you to modernize your sound, despite that sound being something you essentially created? Is that something that feels important to you, or not so much?

JONES: It’s a great question. I’m always on the lookout for new things and new ways of doing things, and new sounds. I love to hear young people breaking all the rules and doing new things. I mean, the whole synthwave movement… My friend BT sends me loads of bands that I should listen to, and I try to. I can hear the connection with what myself and my contemporaries were trying to do during the ‘80s. I love to hear the way that they take it on and move things forward. I think BT is a really good example of that in the sense that he, to me, is a real pioneer in electronic music, in the digital realm. The way he manipulates sound and stuff that we could only dream of when we started, because we didn’t really have the equipment to do it.

I love that sense of progress. And also, the fact that we may have influenced the direction that they chose to put their talent into. They would’ve seen us live. They would’ve heard the records and thought, “Oh wow. Oh, I can do something with that.” And things like the Stranger Things soundtrack, which is pretty much entirely electronic music. [I love to see] a whole generation of young people who have never really have heard that before discovering [older music]. I’ve got a song in season three, so I’ve seen the effect — this Kate Bush effect that I’ve had on my music. It’s great that people are still discovering music, and then new bands are drawing an influence, and then taking that on into the future.

Performing In First Band Warrior (1972)

I’d love to move back a bit and talk about the beginning of your professional music career. How did you get started playing in your first band Warrior, and how did you eventually transition to a solo career?

JONES: Warrior was when I was still at the equivalent of high school, and it was very much a kind of punk rock thing because I was 15, and I was listening to Emerson, Lake & Palmer and band bands like that. That’s what we were swapping vinyl all at school. So I was writing long pieces that lasted 20 minutes that were extremely complicated and the rest of the band really struggled to play. But there was a poet at school who gave me reams and reams of lyrics that didn’t rhyme, or they were really random, but I learned how to set them to music. Because it was so hard, I always think that really helped me in the future to have my own style. 

So that was the start. Then, I went to music college, I studied classical piano, and I was playing in bands there in Manchester. I was in a band called Bicycle Thieves. We played a few gigs and it was from people from the college. I played on the radio. I did a live spot on the radio during the night from 2AM to 6AM playing covers and some of my own stuff. It was really mixed.

When I came back from music college — I left halfway through the course because I wanted to get on with my own music. I had this idea for a one-man electronic band using primitive drum machines and sequences and play live keyboards. Because I didn’t really know anybody that I could form a band with at the time where my parents lived, which was around High Wycombe in England. I started playing shows, and people got really excited and started coming to them and following me around the country when I played gigs outside.

It was a very exciting time because it felt like I was doing something that maybe nobody had ever done before. Because I was using equipment that you could buy at your local music store. It wasn’t like huge computers or something that your had to have a rich benefactor funding you. I was working in a factory at the time… I think the audience that was coming got that sense of this was something new, and they wanted to get behind it.

What sort of factory were you working at that time?

JONES: You call Saran Wrap in America, we call it cling film in the UK. I was rolling cling film and perforating it into sheets so that you could grab your sandwiches with it, tear it off. That’s what I did all day.

Touring With China Crisis & Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (1983)

What impact did that tour with OMD and China Crisis have on your overall visibility at the time?

JONES: I’d been playing my own tiny shows in pubs and places like the Marquee Club in London for about two years. And I was doing three, sometimes four shows a week after having worked all day in the factory. So when I arrived at venues towards the end of that, I brought my audience with me and clubs really love that. They’ve got the audience buying beer and stuff. I really had worked on that relationship with the audience. 

When I finally got to do a national tour, a few dates with OMD and a whole string of them with China Crisis, I was ready to play to bigger audiences. Everywhere I went, people were really responding to it. It seemed to be the right music for the right time. I got rejected by all the record companies and all the publishing companies. There was only one incredible visionary man who got what I was doing. And he ended up being one of the central figures at Warner Brothers in the UK.

So, I got signed to them and it was like rollercoaster after that, because I couldn’t have been in a better place. I mean, the music press in the UK insinuated that I just suddenly appeared from nowhere and I was a manufactured thing, but it was literally the opposite. I built up my own following from nothing and developed this new concept of how to deliver music, which nobody had done before. But that’s fine, because whenever you try and do something new, it’s always going to be resistance from the status quo, so it’s to be expected. It was hard to take at the time, but now I realize it was a great thing.

Working With Mime Artist Jed Hoile (1979-1987)

How did you end up deciding to incorporate mime artist Jed Hoile into your early performances?

JONES: It happened very organically in a sense that Jed Hoile was a friend. He used to come to all of my early gigs. Some of them where there was just a handful of people there in the very early days. Jed would respond to the music in this incredible way. He would dance with a real original take. I’m looking out from the stage and go, “This guy’s amazing. He should be on the stage with me rather than in the audience.” And that’s what literally what we did. 

We thought, “Right, let’s create these characters that go with the songs.” We had TV screens, we made videos of weird stuff. We had showroom dummies on the stage and Jed would dress in chains, and sometimes he’d be a lizard, and sometimes he’d be a businessman, or a punk, or a robot. We had such fun creating those characters, and I would interact with his characters. 

It was more like an alternative cabaret in the early days. People just loved it and we loved doing it. I did my first TV show — Top Of The Pops — and Jed was there with the chains and the makeup. People just thought, “Why is this?” It really got such a lot of attention and people loved it, but it was a totally natural thing.

As the success came, we elaborated on all that stuff. There was one thing we used to do in the show where we had these costumes hanging from the rig on fish line, so you couldn’t see it. These costumes are hanging in space, and then Jed would be dressed in a white leotard covering his whole body and face. He would then step into these costumes and bring them to life. It was really freaky, but it was like old-school theater. People loved it combined with what I was doing electronically, which people hadn’t seen before. I just always loved that theatrical side of it.

Performing At Live Aid (1985)

Do you recall meeting any musical heroes, or seeing any really memorable sets the day you played Live Aid?

JONES: I was walking to the part of Wembley [Stadium] where the artist could sit and watch everyone. On my way, I passed somebody at the bar and they turned to me and said, “Howard.” and it was David Bowie. And I completely freaked out because David Bowie knows who I am.

He said, “I hear you’re doing really well in America.” I can remember it like it was yesterday, exactly the way he said it. And I thought, “David Bowie knows that I’m doing well in America.” It was so wonderful because of all the artists ever on the planet, he was my biggest hero, and still is. That was the most amazing moment. 

Then I got to hang out with Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney for literally half an hour. It was just incredible. Linda took a picture of me and Paul, which I still have. It’s one of my most treasured possessions today.

Re-Recording “No One Is to Blame” With Phil Collins (1985)

What are your memories around connecting with Phil Collins, who did drums and backing vocals and produced the re-recorded “No One Is To Blame”?

JONES: Yeah, the original version was on the Dream Into Action album. It was quite a stark version of the song, and I’ve always thought that it would be a great song for the radio, but not in that form. I mean, cool bands didn’t want to be on the radio. But I wasn’t a cool band, so I really wanted to be on the radio, because that’s where everyone can hear you.

I said, “Right, we should try and do a different version of this.” I tried it with my beloved producer [Rupert Hine] for the first two albums, and we tried something, and it didn’t quite work. I’d known Phil because I’d done gigs with him with the Prince’s Trust, where we’d raised money for charity. I was in the band, he was in the band. So I knew him, and we got on really well. I sent in the track and said, “What do you think? Would you be up for doing a new version of it?” And he was. 

We went down to Genesis Studio. Over two weekends, we recorded it, and it’s like my second biggest hit in America. It really, really, really worked. It was so quick when we did it. I mean, literally it was two weekends and it was done. 

I love Phil. He’s such a great guy — a very warm man. I had such a great time with him.

Doing A “Synth Jam” At The Grammys With Thomas Dolby, Herbie Hancock, And Stevie Wonder (1985)

The "synth medley" at the 1985 Grammy Awards ft. Herbie Hancock & Stevie Wonder is something to behold 😍

Posted by Fact Magazine on Sunday, July 9, 2017

Will you please tell me how this amazing “synth medley” collab ended up happening at the Grammys? It is the most ’80s thing I think I’ve ever seen. In the best way.

JONES: Yeah, it was amazing. The Grammys wanted to do a piece where it was keyboard players, but the new guys: me and Tom Dolby, coming from a new generation using drum machines and everything. Then the amazing pioneers: Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, from an older generation. It was a great idea actually. The idea was we would do a medley of one of our hits together. Obviously I said, “Yes, I would like to do that very much.” 

Me and Tom Dolby, were waiting in London in Virgin Studios in London waiting for Stevie to turn up to get something written. We waited and waited, and he never made it. So we ended up going to LA and working in Stevie’s studio. Herbie also came, and Tom and me were there, and we gradually pulled together this track — a medley of something from each one of us.

I was hanging out in the studio with Stevie Wonder, an absolute hero of mine. We were jamming together for half an hour, just me and him. The other two had gone after do interviews or something. It’s like, we’re trading lyrics and thoughts. And I thought, “He must be enjoying this because he’s keep on going.” So it was like having a musical dialogue between the two of us, and it was just heaven. 

Then we did the Grammys thing with hundreds of keyboards around us. It was a turning point, really, for electronic music. I don’t know if people realize it, but it suddenly gave what me and Tom and our contemporaries were doing credibility. This is not just something that’s just arrived here, this is an evolution from some of the greatest keyboard players ever.

Stevie was always a pioneer of new sounds. It showed that there was a heritage to it and that nobody needed to be scared of this new way of making music with electronic instruments. It was quite nice to be part of that history being made, really. Because things did change after that. There was much more acceptance of what we were doing.

Launching A Vegetarian Restaurant In NYC (1987)

My editor mentioned that you had a vegetarian restaurant called Nowhere in New York once.

JONES: Yeah. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 21. So it’s always been a big thing for me, and I suppose it’s even more relevant now. We’ve always been banging on about it, that for our planet it’s probably a good idea to eat less animals and all that stuff. So we thought, “Well, you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.” We thought it would be great to have a vegetarian restaurant and show that veggie food could be really great and interesting.

We got great chefs in that cooked amazing stuff. We had a bar there, and sometimes we had music in there. Madonna came down and Michael J. Fox came down, Lou Reed came down, all the British bands, when they came over to New York would come down. It was very successful in its philosophy and the way the people loved it. It’s just that we lost shitloads of money doing it. After two years we had to close it, but I think it helped to start a trend of vegetarian food being fun, and not just carrots and celery sticks and pine benches.

I heard that it burned down? Was a fire involved in the closing?

JONES: Well, there was a fire. [Laughs.] It didn’t actually burn. It was the fire. Funny enough, the original painting for the Human’s Lib album was there and got fire damaged. But we had it repaired, and I have it home now. 

It didn’t burn down, but the fire was a sign that we should move on. Because I couldn’t give it much attention — I’m just on the road and do more music all the time. I only went there about four times, so it wasn’t like I was living in New York or anything.

In The Running (1992) Turns 30

Your fifth studio album In The Running turned 30 in April. It’s also your last major-label album before you went independent. How was it for you to start a new chapter, and what was going through your mind at the time, as it pertained to your label relationship?

JONES: It was a big moment, actually. Because I had a five-album deal with Warner and I really did hope and think that they would want to continue. I’d done pretty well for them and they’d done great for me. I had such a lot more in me to give, so it was a huge blow when they said, “No, that’s it. We don’t want to re-sign you.” And I have to admit, I got very depressed and thought, “Oh, I’m finished now. That’s the end. I had my time and it’s over.” But then I suddenly pulled myself together and thought, “Actually, this is the best thing that could happen to me, because now I can be really in charge of my own destiny. I can set up my own label. I can choose my own time to tour and what kind of records I want to make.” The internet was just emerging, so it was possible now to contact your fans through this new medium.

So I thought, “Oh, actually this is really exciting.” I really embraced it and I’ve never looked back. It’s been wonderful. I’ve done I don’t even know how many albums on my own label now — 12 or something. And the fans have been really happy with that. I’ve been able to set my own agenda. It wasn’t the end. It was just a new beginning. 

I think that also a lot of people had a look at what I was doing and thought, “Oh yeah, well we can do that too. We can have our own label that we fund ourselves, and we can be in control and we can be releasing our own records, whatever we want.”

It sure sounds like a full-circle moment. You spoke earlier on about starting from nothing and generating a fanbase on a grassroots level. It’s almost like you were returning to that place, not with fewer fans but more in terms of cutting out a middleman.

JONES: Yeah. That’s right. I’m not going to say that it was all [good]. There were some rough parts of the road. There was a time when the ‘80s was looked on as the worst, the lowest of the low. I mean, it really was. You couldn’t get gigs, and everyone had moved on to something else. The ’80s was just regarded so badly, but we kept going.

The ’80s was looked at as a really bleak, bad time for pop music, like it was a decade that you’d really want to forget. Of course that’s really hard if you are responsible for it. But obviously time has told a different story. [The ‘80s] actually was a really great era of music. Lots of amazing things emerged, and new audiences are discovering it and loving it. But we have to ride through that difficult patch.

When did you feel that the tide might be turning back in your favor?

JONES: That’s a good question. I haven’t really given that a lot thought of that the exact time, but it was pretty much a decade of not doing very many shows and nobody being very interested. And also, you have to think about the generation of my fans. They were getting relationships going and they were establishing themselves with somewhere to live, and music becomes on the back burner really, during that time. But then once that period as passed, then people have more time for music, and they want to come out and see all their heroes from… The people they grew up with, they want to see them. And so, I think really around the 2000s that started to happen again. And we were back in arenas, and we were playing to big crowds, and festivals were emerging that were just dedicated to ’80s music and people were going nuts for it.

So, yeah, but there was a bleak, I mean, I remember playing a gig in Switzerland to six people, and the year before, or two years before, I played Madison Square Garden, and it was that much of a sort drop off the cliff. And so I played to these six people and I thought, “What’s happened?” And I went out into the audience and I introduced myself personally to each person and sort of tried to make something of it. But things did turn around, and now it’s all great again, but it was quite a difficult time to survive.

Covering Dido’s “White Flag” On British Reality Competition Hit Me Baby One More Time (2005)

In 2013, Dido sounded overjoyed that you’d covered “White Flag.” Did you ever have a chance to meet in person after that?

JONES: No. Actually I did hear that she really liked the version that I’d done, and I was so happy. I’m so relieved and happy that she liked it. It’s such a beautiful song. Every time I sang it, I felt the emotion. That’s what I look for: Songwriters who really move you with their lyrics. So I’m really thrilled to hear that she liked it. I’ve never met her or spoken to her, so maybe we’ll meet at some point.

Rerecording “Things Can Only Get Better” In Simlish For The Sims 2 (2004)

Nowadays, it seems every popular artist might get a chance to re-record a song in Simlish — Katy Perry, Japanese Breakfast, Lily Allen, Carly Rae Jepsen. But you did it in 2004. How did you end up recording “Things Can Only Get Better” in Simlish?

JONES: Actually it’s quite a personal thing because the head of EA Music Group is one of my best friends from the very first time that I went to America. He worked for Elektra Records, and he would promote my singles to radio. I spent so much time with him. I went to his wedding. Then he ended up being head if music at EA and still is. So he asked me to do it, and when your best mate asks you to do something, yeah, of course I’ll do that. 

It was actually fun. It was fun singing those Simlish words. It was crazy hard to do, actually. But I think I hope I got the pronunciation right.

I know practically nothing about gaming, but Simlish is a real language, like Klingon, right? Did they give you the words to sing, or do you just sort of improvise gibberish?

JONES: They gave me the actual words and the pronunciation to sing. So I totally assume that it really is for real and it is a real language. I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that it was.

Dialogue is out 9/9 via DTOX/BFD/The Orchard.

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