Howard Jones is best known as the reigning king of synth-infused Brit pop in the '80s, with massive hits like "What Is Love?" and "Things Can Only Get Better." With the revival of that early '80s sound in contemporary indie genre, things continue to get better for Jones. He might've grown out of the bright clothing and magnificent reddish/blond hairstyles, but his best-known records Human's Lib and Dream Into Action play on.
I spoke with Jones over the phone just before his 4 a.m. flight to a show in the Philippines. He'll be at 4th & B on Wednesday to kick off his North American tour.
Nada Alic: You're considered one of the founding fathers of synth-pop music in the '80s. What are your thoughts on current artists like Washed Out or Toro Y Moi re-inventing that sound?
Howard Jones: I think it's great that people are drawing on influences of the '80s music that we did and then taking it somewhere new. It was great to see all the '80s musical influence in the Lady Gaga record, and I think it's great as long as people don't just want to copy it but do it in their own way. La Roux, I think, is getting it right from the U.K. side. Also, theres a band called Hurts that I really really like. They have their '80s influence and have their own sound as well.
NA: What has the response been like from fans when you perform older material from Human's Lib and Dream into Action?
HJ: It's been great. The reason I've been doing it is as a response to the fans who really wanted me to do the whole of the album. A lot of these tracks were only studio creations and were never played out live, so for me it's like playing new songs live. And the technology wasn't available in the '80s but now it is. It's a very interesting exercise for sure. I've had to really learn how to sing songs -- one's I'd never sung since the '80s -- plus we've been developing the technology to be able to play the songs in the way that they were on the original album, to recreate them in a contemporary manner.
NA: As I was going through your discography, you've got so many hits! Are there any songs you'd rather never perform again?
HJ: [laughing] Yes, there's one song, the title track on Human's Lib. I find it difficult to sing the lyrics because they're crazy, so I say to the audience, "OK, this song I'm singing with irony, so I kind of make it into a bit of a joke." It is quite difficult to play -- I would never write those kinds of lyrics now. But you know, "What is Love?," "Things Can Only Get Better" ... all the biggest hits I'm totally happy with. I can sing those with complete conviction. I feel very lucky to be in that situation.
NA: The Featured Artist Coalition: Can you tell me more about the work that they do and why you think it's so important for artists to have that kind of support?
HJ: In this digital age, there's a lot of things that are being ... a big change in the music business. What we're trying to do is represent artists and make sure that we have a voice. Because a lot of deals have been done with artists with what are called NDA -- "non-disclosure agreements" -- so then artists don't even know what their music is being used for or how much their record company is making from it. With new things like Spotify and all the different ways people are accessing music, it's very important for artists to have a place at the table so that we can stand up for what artists need to carry on. It's becoming much, much, much more difficult for artists to make a living, and we don't want it to be the case that great artists have to have part-time jobs. They need to have at least a reasonable income. We're also involved in education -- helping people with different ways of getting their music out there.
NA: You've been really open with the importance of Buddhism in your life. How has Buddhism influenced you musically?
HJ: I've been practicing for 18 years. One of the most valuable things about Buddhism is to take responsibility for your own life. So whatever happens to me, it is my life, there's no point in me blaming anyone or society -- this is my life, so I'm going to take it on. So Buddhism has taught me that I can create value out of everything that happens, even when difficult, horrible things happen. Through this positive way of life, you can create value out of it. I'm not saying i'm great, but I'm getting better at it. If I want things to change, then I've got to change something in myself. I think it's a very empowering thing, and I would like to get that across to people.
NA: Can you tell me a little bit about Rework Howard Jones Remix project?
HJ: Because we managed to get the multitrack tapes back from Warner Bros. for the first five albums I did for them -- when we were actually putting this show together, the two-albums show -- we were having to really dig under the bonnet and find all the constituent parts of the song, so we thought it'd be great to make it available for fans to come up with their own remixes. And so far we've done two. People have been doing amazing things with it. There was a track called "Automaton" on Dream into Action, and it's a very electronic record, and somebody just took the vocal and did an acoustic version of the song.
NA: As the music scene has evolved over the years, have you embraced these changes, like social media?
HJ: I always try to keep up with the latest thing, I try to use technology in a way to bring people together and create more friends, and create more social cohesion in the world rather than the opposite. You know, everything, all technology, has the potential for being destructive as well as constructive, and you just have to find ways to make it good for people.
NA: What's the secret to being able to tour over decades?
HJ: I still love doing this. I love playing, I love singing, I love putting bands together and working out how to make music sound amazing live. I just love to get involved in all the details -- it's still my passion. It's a way of meeting people! it's great to get out there and meet people, it's a way to find out how people respond to what you're saying. For me, the artist has a role to play to contribute to society in whatever way they can -- posing questions, being a cheerleader, music can be so powerfully effective, and I like that aspect of it.