Things Can Only Get Better For Howard Jones

Catching up with the synthpop pioneer as he embarks on a winter tour of the States

Howard Jones 1985. (Photo: Simon Fowler)

Speaking from his home in Somerset, England, electronic / New Wave music pioneer Howard Jones is contemplative as he looks ahead to his upcoming trek across North America, with more than 40 shows from January through March.

“There will come a time when, for one reason or another, I might not be able to do it,” he says of touring. “But whilst I’m still healthy and really enjoy doing it, then I’m going to do it as much as I can.”

And it’s true: while Jones immediately established himself as an electronic music trailblazer with his first four studio albums (1984’s Human’s Lib, 1985’s Dream Into Action, 1986’s One to One, and 1989’s Cross That Line), he has also earned a reputation for being a particularly hardworking touring musician. Those albums certainly earned him plenty of hits to choose from for his shows: anyone alive in the 1980s will probably recognize songs such as “What Is Love?,” “Things Can Only Get Better,” “New Song,” “No One Is to Blame,” “Like to Get to Know You Well,” “Life in One Day,” and “Everlasting Love.”

Jones knows that his audiences expect him to always play those hit songs at every show, but he has a strategy for preventing things from going stale: “When I go out and do a tour, I always like to do something I haven’t done before, so it’s interesting for the audience – and interesting for me,” he says. “I think my fans really love that, and maybe that’s why people still want to come and see me. And it’s also really fun to play, as well.”

For this upcoming tour, that means he’ll present the material in an acoustic format, instead of his better-known ultra-electronic approach. He views this as a test of his songwriting strength, because a song must be well-written in order to still sound good in a stripped-down format, but it’s a challenge he relishes. “I’ve always believed it’s really important that you could sit down at the piano and play the song and it would still work when you take away all the production and bells and whistles. I really like electronic music, but I’m primarily a songwriter.”

For this tour, Jones will play piano alongside Robin Boult on acoustic guitar and Nick Beggs on the chapman stick – a rather rare instrument that is something of a cross between a guitar and a keyboard, and which allows for multiple parts to be played simultaneously, such as the bass line and the main melody. While Jones is thrilled to bring both Boult and Beggs along – “They’re amazing musicians” – he’s particularly pleased about the chapman stick aspect: “It’s the most difficult instrument to play. Not many people do it professionally at such a high level, so it really does bring something completely unique to my music.”

Howard Jones Acoustic Trio Tour poster

Still, even though Jones and his fans are open to ever-evolving interpretations of his material, it’s likely that he will forever be most associated with the synthesizer-dominated music that made him so immediately recognizable right from the start. When his first singles were released – so memorably melodic, with lush arrangements and evocative atmospheres – they became instrumental in defining an entirely new musical genre, electronic New Wave. But, Jones says, he didn’t deliberately set out to be an innovator.

“I was really just following my excitement to be using synthesizers and drum machines and presenting music in a really completely different way to what pop and rock had been doing before that time,” Jones says. “So you think, ‘Oh wow, this is such fun to do this!’ I think that enthusiasm spills over to the audience. Once they started coming on board with me and going, ‘Oh yeah, we’re supporting somebody who’s doing something new and different,’ and claiming it as their music, it’s just a virtuous circle, really.”

That doesn’t mean things have always been easy for Jones, however. He recalls, in particular, how difficult it could be to wrangle the notoriously finicky electronic equipment. “It was bit of a burden sometimes in those early days because things went wrong often. Synthesizers weren’t so reliable. I remember a festival I was doing in Southampton, and all the gear went down. I went with my mike to the front of the stage and started going through all the hits, just a cappella with the audience, and they absolutely loved it. But I thought, ‘I’m running out of hits now, please fix the gear!’” he says with a laugh.

Howard Jones on the cover of Electronic Musician Magazine, March 1986

In the long run, he feels like situations like that only helped him become a stronger performer. “I developed the idea of, you’ve got to talk to the audience and communicate, and that got me out of a lot of trouble when the gear went wrong. I had to learn how to do that. That was good for me. It’s the things that go wrong that help you develop into a ‘characterful’ performer. If everything goes right all the time, you don’t get a chance to move forward. So I’m grateful, in a way, that I had to struggle with the equipment and somehow get through it.”

Another challenge that Jones has overcome was the changing music scene in the 1990s, when suddenly, he recalls, “MTV decided that they weren’t going to really support ’80s artists anymore, they were moving on to the next decade. Which is fair enough. I had my time, I had my 10 years of absolutely amazing spotlight, and I was really happy with that.”

That said, he’s glad that, in the end, his music has endured, and he is gratified to see that his songs still mean a lot to people almost 40 years after their release. Bringing this type of happiness to fans was, he says, always his main goal. “My aim was to write music that could be of use to people, especially when they were going through difficult times, like we all do – music that could lift your spirits and help you get through a bad patch in your life. I set out to do that.”

Now, he knows, a big part of people’s attachment to his songs comes from a sense of nostalgia, and he’s fine with that. “The only thing that we really have is our memories,” he says. “Some of my elderly relatives are losing their memory in a bad way, and you realize that actually, our memories are our treasures, really. And music is so powerful, taking us back to certain events in our life, and reminding us of all the things we’ve done. I think it’s got a huge role to play.”

 

VIDEO: Howard Jones “Beating Mr. Neg”

Still, he admits it’s exciting that, recently, his songs are being played on new television shows like Stranger Things, which is helping him reach a whole new generation of fans. “I’m a big fan of ‘Stranger Things’ anyway, so I was thrilled to have a song in there. And I’ve noticed that now, when I look at my audience, there’s as many people under the age of 40 listening to me as there are over 40. That’s a new thing, this whole new generation of people who get to hear the music. I’m thrilled about that.”

It seems that his fans, new and old, are willing to support his new music, as well. As he proved when he released the studio album Transform last year, he’s not content to rely solely on his past successes. Still, even this new work has its roots in his early material. “I knew that the fans really wanted me to make a new electronic album with loads of synths. So I thought, ‘I’m going to try and think about how I made my first two albums, then just bring it all up to date to the way I feel now and the equipment I have now.’ To be honest, I think it’s one of the best records I’ve made. I’m really, really pleased with it. It got such a good reaction from the fans that I am encouraged, so maybe the next one will be an electronic album as well, but I haven’t quite decided yet.”

He cautions that it may take him a while to release that next studio album, though, because “it’s always a bit of a challenge to work on new stuff. It takes me a lot of time to get everything right, to get the writing right, to get the lyrics right, to get all the sounds and the grooves – I mean, it takes me ages.” Also, he says he’s increasingly aware of another important consideration: “It’s a legacy that I’m going to leave behind. As I get older, that becomes even more important to me. So it’s a lot of effort, a lot of focus, finishing things. But once you’ve done it, it feels so good.”

As he prepares to hang up so he can continue making tour preparations, Jones takes a moment to express gratitude to his fans for giving him such a long, successful, and still-evolving career. “Thankfully, people are still interested, which is nice. I feel very fortunate.”

 

VIDEO: Howard Jones Trio performs “Things Can Only Get Better” at Pizza Express in London

 

JANUARY

29     Portland, OR                Revolution Hall

30     San Francisco, CA      Palace Of The Fine Arts

31     Sacramento, CA          Crest Theater

 

FEBRUARY

 1      Los Angeles, CA           El Rey Theater

 4      San Diego, CA             Belly Up

 6      Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

 7      Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

 8      Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

 9      Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

11     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

12     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

13     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

14     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

15     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

16     Park City, UT               Egyptian Theatre

24     San Antonio, TX           Tobin Center

25     Austin, TX                     3TEN

26     Dallas, TX                     Gas Monkey Live

27     Tulsa, OK                     The Vanguard

 

MARCH

 4      Minneapolis, MN         Orway Center For Performing Arts

 5      Dubuque, IA                 Diamond Jo Casino

 6      Chicago, IL                    Arcada Theater

 8      Three Oaks, MI            The Acorn

 9      Grand Rapids, MI        20 Monroe Live

10     Kent, OH                       Kent Stage

11     Detroit, MI                     St. Andrews Hall

12     Pittsburgh, PA              Jergel’s

13     Ithaca, NY                     The Hangar

14     Saratoga Springs, NY  Universal Preservation Hall

16     Boston, MA                   City Winery

17     Fall River, MA              The Narrows Performing Arts Center

19     Huntington, NY             The Paramount

20     Norwalk, CT                 Wall Street Theater

21     New York, NY              Sony Hall

22     Sellersville, PA             Sellersville Theater

24     Alexandria, VA             The Birchmere

26     Atlanta, GA                   City Winery

28     Miami Beach, FL         North Miami Bandshell

29     St. Petersburg, FL        Palladium

Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover (national), Aquarian Weekly (New Jersey), Stomp & Stammer (Atlanta), Creative Loafing (Atlanta), Jam Magazine (Florida), Color Red (Denver) and Boston Rock, among many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

One thought on “Things Can Only Get Better For Howard Jones

  • February 4, 2020 at 11:38 pm
    Permalink

    Where is the February 28 show in Denver?
    I’ve got a ticket for it!

    Reply

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