Howard Jones Talks Synths, Crowdfunding, Composing, And Retro Futura Charlotte

Pulling into the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheater on July 29th as part of the Retro Futura Tour will be none other than The Engl...

Pulling into the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheater on July 29th as part of the Retro Futura Tour will be none other than The English Beat, Men Without Hats, Modern English, Katrina from Katrina & The Waves, and Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin. Synth virtuoso Howard Jones, who was responsible for such hits as "New Song," "Things Can Only Get Better," "Life In One Day," and "No One Is to Blame," will be headlining this awesome '80s tour. Jones was gracious enough to speak with us about the Retro Futura tour, synthesizers, crowdfunding, composing, the songs that define his career, and more.

Tell us about the Retro Futura Tour.
They asked me if I would headline this tour with some other bands. We'll be doing a lot of festivals here in the UK this summer. We'll be playing where there's a lot of artists on the bill. It's either a one-day event or a two-day event and it's really great and people just love it. We'll be playing to 15,000 people every night. This is a way of establishing the same sort of idea for the USA. We're not sure whether it can work in America, but we're giving it a good go and I've got a new band and I really want to try them out in the headline spot. I'm very excited about it and I hope it's going to go well.

As you said, you're the headliner. Did you have a hand in picking the other artists?
No, I didn't really. I know everyone, apart from Modern English who I haven't met. I know everyone so I was very pleased when I heard the line-up because they're really great people. Katrina is lovely. Paul, I've known since back in the '80s. Dave Wakeling, I've met at a few gigs in America actually and I really like him.

You mentioned your new band. What can you tell us about them?
It's a five-piece. My longtime guitarist, Robin Boult, is back in the band so it's great to have guitar back in the line-up. Obviously, Robbie [Bronnimann] is always in the electronic setup. He does sequencing and sound manipulation live and plays keyboard as well. Jonathan [Atkinson], my longtime drummer is still in the band. We're adding Emily Dolan Davies. She's on electronic percussion. It's got more of a drum vibe to it. We've had specially designed drum kits and drum setups that absolutely look and sound amazing. We've had new keyboard rigs designed. It's got a complete new look to it. What's great for me is Robbie's playing more keyboards now so I can go out to the front and really spend my time with the audience a bit more which is what I love.

You toured with the Barenaked Ladies last summer in the US, during which you would perform "No One Is To Blame" with them sometimes. Do you think you'll be dueting with any of the acts on the Retro Futura Tour?
There's no plans at the moment. It could evolve during the tour, but there's no plans at the moment. We need to get it all up and running first. It could evolve that way.

Also last summer, you sat in with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. What was that like?
It was fab. It was amazing to play with them. That's a great band. We just said to them that we'd be up for doing it and they agreed. I did the Good Morning America show as well on the same day and played live outside on the streets of New York. My favorite bit of that with The Roots was rehearsing in that studio, in a tiny little room backstage, and just jamming with them through the songs. That whole brass section was really cool. I loved it.

You've played all over the world and at iconic shows like Live Aid and the Prince's Trust Rock Gala. What has been the most memorable show for you?
I think it'd be hard to beat Live Aid and most of the people who played it would probably say the same. I did the Wembley side of it. There was 100,000 people there. There was a billion people watching on TV. It's got to be the biggest gig that anybody will ever do. I was so pumped up with adrenaline and excitement during the day, I seem to remember every nanosecond of the day and it's burned into my memory. I don't think you can beat Live Aid to be honest. I think that was the ultimate gig and I'm so privileged to be part of it.

What synthesizers are you using nowadays?
Live, it's all software because I can carry an infinite amount of amazing synths with me in one box. I've always been the kind of keyboard player that likes to layer up all different sounds and use different keyboards in combination. I used MainStage software and that allows me to distribute all the sounds across the keyboard and layer them up and put stuff on my mobile keytar as well. Robbie, he can come through my system as well. It's a really great hi-tech solution but it's also incredibly powerful. I think it sounds really good. If I was to take out the hardware synths, they'd just get trashed and break down. That's what I've always done. I've always tried to use the best technology of the time. I'm not into retro gear or anything like that. I like to use what's current.

I know you've used Moog synthesizers in the past. Have you ever attended Moogfest in North Carolina?
We did visit the Moog factory when we were in Asheville. We had a guided tour around the whole factory and it was amazing. Obviously, I used to play a lot of Moogs live and I think I was the first person to strap one around my neck during the Moog Prodigy era. I've always been a huge fan of Moog ever since I saw Keith Emerson use the Moog Modulator in 1970 with ELP. I have deep, deep respect for Moog and loved going around the factory. Maybe they'll invite me to play the festival one day but they probably think I don't use enough vintage gear.

Your last album, Engage, was fan-funded. Do you feel that allows you freedom as an artist to explore different sounds and genres you normally wouldn't?
I just wanted to explore the idea of crowdfunding. I found it very interesting because it opened up different areas of creativity for me. One of things I did was they could come to the studio and see how we put it all together and play it for them in full 5.1 mix, explaining all of the concepts. I also wrote some lyrics out, but I did it in a kind of artwork-based way with watercolors. That brought out another side of me as well. It was great, the crowdfunding, but the thing with that is you feel really responsible for all the people who've put their money down upfront. You really want to deliver something really great. I think we did that, but it was kind of nerve-racking because you haven't actually finished the project when people have already paid for it. You have to make sure that you deliver on time and make sure it's good.

You've got a lot of bosses.
Yeah. It makes you feel very responsible to the fans. It's a good thing, really. I like it. I probably won't do that again because I've actually got a record company now, Cherry Red Records. I'm working with them, so I probably won't need to do the crowdfunding thing.

Have you ever gotten into composing for movies or TV? Or is that something that doesn't interest you?
Funny you should say that because I've just written a song especially for a film coming out in September. It's an animated film called Animal Crackers. It's an amazing piece of work. The director asked me to write a song for a specific event in the film. I've never been asked to do that before and I really enjoyed it. That track turned out really well. It's called "We're In This Together." I can't wait to see it in the cinema. I'm interested in working closely with a director, collaborating. That is what we did for this film. But just taking on a score when you have to deal with committees of people saying this and that, I'm not really into that. I'm so spoiled and used to just doing what I want with my music. I don't want to be compromising every five minutes. I want people to come to me and say, "Look, we want you to do what you do in the context of this film." That's what I got a chance to do with Animal Crackers.

Final question: what three songs from your discography define you as an artist?
I'd have to say "Hide & Seek," "No One Is To Blame." I'd choose four. "Things Can Only Get Better" and "The Human Touch." Obviously, you have to take in account what songs people know and like most, and that was when I was on the radio all the time. I'd choose those four. At this moment.

The Retro Futura concert will be in Charlotte at the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheater on July 29th. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.


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Strange Carolinas is the Travelogue Of The Offbeat, a wry look at the interesting, unique, and offbeat roadside attractions, people, music, art, food, and festivals in North and South Carolina.


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