Keyboard Maestro Howard Jones Transforms Once Again

Photo by Simon Fowler.

For iconoclast keyboardist/vocalist Howard Jones, things can only get better (and better). The venerated British songsmith/composer helped lead the synth-centric new wave exactly 35 years ago this June when he released his debut effort Human’s Lib, a stylish collection of electronic earwigs that helped define the midpoint of the MTV Decade. Indeed, Human’s Lib shone brightly with such positively catchy tracks as “New Song,” “What Is Love?,” and “Pearl in the Shell.”

Numerous chart hits followed through the end of the decade — “Things Can Only Get Better,” “Life in One Day,” and the Phil Collins remix/revisit of “No One Is to Blame” among them. But as the millennium turned, rather than milk the basis of his past glories, Jones continued to expand both his performing and recording palette, culminating with 2015’s multimedia experiment Engage, and most recently with the May 2019 release of Transform (D-tox/BFD). Transform is the kind of album that builds upon the artist’s classic sound by way of cleverly deployed contemporary flourishes, as witnessed by the shape-shifting directive of “Beating Mr. Neg,” the otherworldly shimmer of “Tin Man,” and the funky underbelly of “Stay With Me.”

It’s a vein Jones tapped back into when, at the behest of Take That’s Gary Barlow, he wrote and performed “Eagle Will Fly Again,” a soaring, letter-perfect ’80s-influenced throwback for FLY, the soundtrack of 2016’s prime period piece, Eddie the Eagle. “I was imagining it as if I was writing the song in the ’80s yet bringing it into the now,” Jones confirms, “and it got me thinking about doing more music in that way. You’ve described the album perfectly, I think.”

As Jones envisions it, Transform is the second part of a projected four-album series whose core purpose is to inspire listeners to go from being passive in their daily lives to instead become more active in helping to change modern society. “We’ve all got to get involved here. We can’t be bystanders as the world goes on around us,” Jones believes. “Transform is about, if we’re going to change the world, we have to start by changing ourselves, and transform the way we think.” (No time like the present, I’d say.)

Jones, 64, got on the line from his homebase in Somerset, England to discuss the genesis and evolution of Transform, his love of vintage gear and surround sound, and why he’s all-in when it comes to mastering his music for vinyl. I got to change what’s in my head, have a new take on the world. . .

Mike Mettler: Right off the bat, the first track on Transform, “The One to Love You,” has a parallel vibe to the lyrical intention of “Eagle Will Fly Again,” not to mention a great electronic bed track to boot. What kind of gear did you use to make the album? Was it all vintage stuff, or was any of it new?
Howard Jones: It was a mixture of software emulations and a lot of my original favorite synths like the [Roland] Jupiter-8, the [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 12, the [Moog] Sub Phatty, Synclaviers, and using the hardware interfaces as well. At the end of the day, give me any synth and any sound, and I’ll spend an exorbitant amount of time trying to get a good sound out of it. (chuckles heartily) I just love it when it all sounds just right, you know? It sounds different than what you may have heard of before.

But as I also discovered with the [ARP] Odyssey II [keyboard synth] that you’re able to plug your hardware into it, and the software emulates what you’re doing on the actual keyboard. For me, it’s the best of both worlds. You’re working with the software, but you’re also working with the hardware that you like to twiddle the knobs with. I did quite a bit of work using that setup.

Mettler: We’re also at the point of the 35th anniversary of Human’s Lib [which was released in March 1984 in the UK and in June 1984 in the U.S.]. When I listened to that album back-to-back with Transform, I could hear the evolution of an artist who set up a template back then as something to build upon, rather than just mimic or mirror it.
Jones: Oh great, I’m glad you think like that. And you’re right — I want to take it forward. I suppose the most important thing is to get the tunes, the chords, the arrangements, and the riffs all working together so you can’t get them out of your head. I mean, I love doing that.

Mettler: The two Transform songs that have remained in my head the most so far are “Beating Mr. Neg” and “Tin Man.”
Jones: Oh really? It’s interesting you say “Tin Man,” because I had this idea for an A.I. identity, like an artificial intelligence robot that was desperate to be human and to experience joy, experience pain, dance the bossa nova, and all that. I used a lot of vintage drum-machine sounds on that one. It has a South American rhythm, but it’s slightly awkward as well. (chuckles) I tried to create that slightly unhinged rhythm so that it would go with the story of the song.

Mettler: I also like the way you manipulate your vocal throughout the song, where it transforms a little bit as you work through it. That makes you want to listen to it again and again so that you continue to connect with the differing character elements you’ve added to it. The other thing I like in that track is you have that nice piano break about four minutes into it, which gives it another movement in the middle of things.
Jones: Oh yes, good. The other thing about “Tin Man” that’s a bit unusual is I really only play two chords in that song — and I never do that. I always will go somewhere two or three or four times. But for some reason, that song just really suited going back and forth between E and A, and that just felt right for the robot. He couldn’t really go anywhere else.

Mettler: That makes a lot of sense to me, given the robot’s limited worldview at that stage. He doesn’t have enough language or information skills yet to do much more. And “Beating Mr. Neg” is another magical part of the journey. You start out with a more whispered kind of vocal that’s not really sung, so you had to make an artistic choice to start that one a bit differently.
Jones: The whole idea of the song is the negative voice in everyone’s head that is constantly telling you that you can’t do something, or you’re no good, or this is the wrong thing to do. I wanted to represent him by having his voice in there. I did quite a lot of manipulations with the voice to achieve those things. I’m really pleased with the way that one turned out, actually.

Mettler: You also give the line “takes me up” a nice falsetto vibe as it carries through, and about four minutes into it, there’s another piano break that makes us feel like we’re under water to some degree.
Jones: Yes, with that phasing feel to it. I also wanted to do those Queen-like vocals with the thick harmonies and lots of layers.

Mettler: That’s another nice parallel too, since you and Queen both share Live Aid appearances [during separate sets on July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London]. When did you first get into Queen?
Jones: I actually picked up on Queen right around the first time they got on radio, when they were struggling to break through. I had heard “Seven Seas of Rhye” on the radio [the full version, from March 1974’s Queen II], and I thought, “Oh, this band really has it! They’re so original, and so musical.” That era of Queen is still my favorite, I think.

Mettler: It’s nice to see everyone come around to their power, thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody. If you got asked to cover a Queen song, which one would you do?
Jones: Well, weirdly enough, when I was at music college back in Manchester in the late-’70s, I used to do this spot on the radio between 2 and 6 in the morning and I had to play a live song every 20 minutes, so I decided I was going to learn “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (laughs) I spent a long time learning it — all the harmonies and everything — and I played that one live on the radio. I don’t have a copy of it, unfortunately.

Mettler: Wow, well, that would be something worth hearing, I think.
Jones: I think my college roommate might have it. He recorded it on his reel-to-reel. I must hit him up for that! It would be quite good for people to hear it.

Mettler: I think you have to do it. I actually have a few reel-to-reel players in my house, including a vintage Akai. I still love that format.
Jones: Oh really? I used to use an Akai to run backing tapes when I first started — not on all the songs, just one or two. The rest of it was running live with the drum machines and all that, but I used the Akai for a long time. Of course, you always end up having to sell it, because I couldn’t afford to hang onto it when I needed new gear. (chuckles) But it was a really important part of the show back then.

Mettler: What songs did you use the Akai on in those early days?
Jones: There’s a song called “I Am Mad” that never made the first album [i.e., Human’s Lib], and another track called “What Can I Say,” which didn’t make the first album either! (laughs heartily)

Mettler: You didn’t include either of them on those mondo box set reissues you did for your first two albums [the aforementioned Human’s Lib and March 1985’s Dream Into Action], did you?
Jones: No. I didn’t let through “What Can I Say” because I just hate the lyrics now. It’s something I can’t really stand by, but it’s probably up online somewhere, because it would have been on one of the early cassettes I’d released.

Mettler: I have to say, I really do appreciate that you’re releasing these big, historical box sets. I like all the added material and bonus tracks, as well as what you include on the DVDs. But you didn’t remix any of the videos in surround sound, I see.
Jones: No, we didn’t. There is talk about doing a 5.1-mixed DVD later on. These things were found in the Warner Bros. archives, and there was just so much stuff, honestly, for those first two albums — an endless amount, really.

People sent me all the possible choices, so I spent a lot of time on them and went through everything over and over. I started thinking, “Would people really want to hear ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ [his No. 5 hit single from Dream Into Action] without the mixed horns and without the backing vocals?” But I was convinced people were, because you can hear a bit more of what’s going on under the bonnet, as it were. I had never let it through before, but people seem to be pleased with it.

Photo by Will Stead.

Mettler: Count me in as one of them. I’m an archival kind of listener who’s always interested in hearing the evolution of material like yours, especially because you now play a lot of these vintage songs live with different feels and different arrangements — like the way you did in the Engage show a few years back in that multimedia format. I also think those first two albums are perfect for surround sound, something we’ve talked about before — especially since Stephen W. Tayler, who worked on them originally, is a great surround sound mixer.
Jones: I know, I know! That’s a conversation I’ve been having. I really want Stephen to do it, because he’s the one who actually recorded it, and he knows that music inside out. It’s definitely on the list. Once we’ve got all the Warner Bros. albums released with all the extra material, we’ll go back and think about 5.1. It’s definitely something that we will do.

Mettler: I’m going to hold you to that! Transform is an album that could be in surround too. You could take us into another dimension with it.
Jones: It would be great to do this one in surround, yes, and also because I worked with BT on three tracks [“Transform,” “The One to Love You,” and “The Speed of Love”].

Mettler: Right, he did a great album in surround himself [2006’s The Binary Universe].
Jones: That’s right! I’ve been a fan of his for years. He’s such an electronic pioneer. His work is so meticulous and amazing sounding. When we finally met and realized we had so much in common, I said, “We really should do something together.” We’ve actually gone and done it, and we have those three tracks on this record together, which I’m so happy about.

Mettler: You’re quite passionate about getting the vinyl done just right for these releases.
Jones: Yes. I’ve spent a long time getting the vinyl to sound right. I’m really lucky, because in the town that I live here — it’s called Taunton, in Somerset — there’s one of the best vinyl mastering studios that’s kind of renowned. It’s called LOUD Mastering, and it’s 15 minutes from my house. I went there often and had a total education about how getting vinyl to sound good is a real process. I’m sure you know this, but you have to carefully select what order the tracks go in because as you get towards the center of the record, the top end drops off, so you might have to add a little bit more top end as you go to compensate for that.

I just learned so much. We spent the time to make the vinyl really work, so I hope people enjoy it when they hear it. When I listened to the test pressings, they sounded really good to me. And obviously, they don’t sound like the CD, because it’s another thing. Vinyl has its own character — and that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? It’s warmer, and it doesn’t have sharp waveforms. (chuckles) They’re sort of rounded off by the process. It’s much nicer on the ear.

Mettler: The vinyl you approved is probably much closer to what you heard in the studio. Did you have to revise the running order on the vinyl to accommodate any of the sonic changes you wanted to make?
Jones: We did, yeah. One of the things we did was put “Beating Mr. Neg” as the last track on Side 1, because it’s got that long piano section at the end that isn’t so demanding from the grooves, and it benefits from being quite “vinyl-ly” at the end. (laughs)

Mettler: That’s a really good way of putting it! And it’s all at 180-gram too.
Jones: Yes, and obviously on black vinyl. Some of the colored vinyl can sound a bit noisy, I’ve found.

Mettler: It’s very collectible, but maybe not much else.
Jones: We did a bit of that with the box sets, but I’m 100-percent totally convinced with my own ears that the black vinyl is the best one to use. This has all made me realize that if you want your vinyl to sound good, you’ve got to put the time in. You’ve got to go down to the studio yourself. You’ve got to listen to everything, you’ve got to do test cuts, and you’ve got to make all of the little adjustments to make sure you get the best out of the vinyl. And that applies to the volume as well. It has to be nice and punchy.

Mettler: Vinyl is not just a collectible item for a lot of people. They actually sit down and listen to the music with their full attention. Because you had to interact with the medium of delivery, you have to pay attention to what’s going on. Oh, and I meant to ask you this — at the end of “The One to Love You,” what kind of effect do you have going on there? Where did you get that idea?
Jones: It’s a really interesting story, what that is. Having spent time in the studio and working quite a bit with BT, we got to know each other quite well. Mine was one of the first concerts he ever saw when he was 14, and he was crazy into Dream Into Action and Human’s Lib. There was a place he used to go to listen to all his favorite music near his house, which I think was near a railway line. He went out and made a recording of that spot — and that’s what you hear at the end. He made this recording when he was really young, and I was so moved by that, actually.

And I don’t know if you noticed, but under the bonnet of that track are all sorts of hidden references to my earlier work, and he worked in some of the sounds that I used. It’s really cool! And of course, at the end, there’s the motif from “Assault and Battery” [Track 6 on Dream Into Action].

Mettler: I thought that’s what it was. BT put a lot of good Easter eggs into that track.
Jones: Yes, that’s right, that’s right! (chuckles)

Mettler: There are also some volume swells at the beginning of that track that must have been handled quite carefully, as well as the stereo stuff that goes on there too.
Jones: Yes, we were particularly careful about that. Vinyl doesn’t always like those kind of top-end swoops, but it’s translated really well, and we didn’t compress it as much as we did for the digital release. That way, the vinyl had a chance to breathe! (laughs)

Mettler: You also probably had to QC all the “woos” you did during “Take Us Higher.”
Jones: Yeah, you have to be careful with the sibilance, and be aware of that very “toppy” stuff. Obviously, it isn’t there in the digital, but you have to watch it for the vinyl.

It’s an artform in making the vinyl sound good. What usually happens is the artist doesn’t even get involved in it, and they just send you digital files. And you can’t do that, really. You’ve gotta be there — otherwise, you’re going to get something back on vinyl that you didn’t intend. I learned that lesson bigtime, with this record.

Mettler: And if you’re not able to be there, you need someone like Bob Ludwig there in your stead, someone with a pair of ears you trust as much as your own.
Jones: That’s right. You have to absolutely get used to the room, and the speakers in the room. They use very flat speakers with a fairly flat response, whereas the speakers I have in my studio give you a “big” and exciting vibe, you know? But in the mastering room, they’re much more flat and you don’t listen to the stuff loud, because it can just mask things when you do that. Once you get used to the room, you can start making good decisions about taking compression off, or moving tracks around. (laughs) Obviously, I’m totally into it now. I’m sold on it.

Mettler: That’s good to hear. Does that make you think differently about the other catalog material you’ll be releasing on vinyl?
Jones: Yeah, and it was interesting with Dream Into Action and Human’s Lib because, in a way, those records were made for vinyl, so Steve was mixing them in a way he knew would sound great on vinyl. And that’s different from now, since we’re mixing for it to sound great on digital.

When I heard the vinyl for Human’s Lib, I was shocked at how good it sounded — but I now know why, because it was mixed for vinyl. We didn’t have to do any major tweaking to it in the cutting room.

Mettler: And now we’re at 35 years of Human’s Lib. As an artist, did you ever think about having work that lasts that long in the pantheon like that?
Jones: I never would have thought that when I was starting out. It took me so long to get to the position where I could put out records that I was just trying to write the next album so I could keep it going for one more record! (chuckles)

I’m actually really happy where I am in terms of the place I am in the music world, because it’s almost like I’ve been allowed and able to get on with my own work without the distractions of being some sort of huge celebrity — which wouldn’t suit me at all.

My fans have stuck with me, thankfully, and I can just get on and do the work — and that’s a very fortunate position to be in. I mean, I’m not hounded by the press — they have no interest in me (laughs), and I can just get on with the music — and it’s a great place to be, really.

It’s great that the work has really stood the test of time. I really feel quite proud about that — that people still want to play it on the radio, and they like how it sounds. And with my new music, I’m trying to keep up with that, and keep the quality as high as I possibly can.