UK synth icon talks new album Transform, collaborating with BT and more

"I'm very excited about it actually. I’m getting a good reaction from everyone who’s managed to hear it,” synth legend Howard Jones tells about his new album Transform via phone from his home in the U.K. Featuring collaborations with electronic music pioneer BT, the album is both a celebration of Jones’ signature sound, and an update of it some four decades since it hit the worldwide airwaves.

Just days before leaving for a U.S. tour, Jones spoke to me about the gear and gravitas behind his new release.

I had a conversation years ago with Nick Rhodes about a record that Duran Duran had done. He said it was a revelation to go back to some of the sounds that had inspired him in the beginning. I felt that way about your new album. It doesn’t sound like you’re trying to recreate what you did in 1985, but it does seem like a celebration of the sound you are known for.

You’re right. It’s me, just a bit updated I suppose. This comes from a combination of things. Gary Barlow asked me to write a couple of songs for the Eddie the Eagle film, which was based in the ‘80s. He wanted it to be ‘80s-related, but brought up to date. I was like, “Yes. How will I make a record like that with my current thinking?” I wrote two tracks really quickly thinking about, as you said, the sounds that really inspired me and the instruments that inspired me in those early days.

At the same time, Cherry Red were putting out the Human’s Lib / Dream Into Action remastered box sets. I was listening to all the demos and I was listening to things like the 12-inch mixes and the mixes that they left the brass off of [laughs]. So I was immersed in all of these things at the same time. Also, the fans have been asking me to do a sort of “full-on” electronic record for a long time now. I think that’s where this new record was born, really.

When you were writing music for the film, what kinds of gear were you surrounding yourself with? Your old Roland Junos and Jupiters?

Yes, absolutely. I had the arpeggios going on in the Juno, and the [Sequential Circuits] Pro One playing a short sequence. And then I played bass lines on my [Moog] Prodigy, and I would play the chords on the Jupiter-8. I just thought, “Right. I’ll set myself those limitations.” The songs that came out of that were “Eagle” and “Hero in your Eyes.” That inspired those two tracks, but I didn’t stick to that plot entirely on the new record. Obviously, I worked with BT on three tracks. He had just done a record with his band All Hail the Silence, which is amazing. He recorded entirely in an analog studio with analog synths. That’s where he was coming from, funnily enough as well. So it was an amazing time for us to collaborate.

I read a quote from you about the new album where you said the inspiration was the idea that “If we want to change the world for the benefit of everyone, first we have to start with ourselves.” It sounds like you’re still optimistic about the future, despite the crazy world we live in!

Yes. We’re living through a really difficult time, aren’t we? The only chance we’ve got is to be hopeful about the future. We’ve got to make a contribution and take a stand. I really tried to address all of that in the album. It really is about us, me included, making those changes because that’s where it’s got to start. We can’t just be saying, “The government’s got to change. This person has to change. Everyone else has to change.” If we don’t change, we can’t start the process. That goes back a lot to my Buddhist practice. It’s very much about transforming one’s view of the world. As you can hear on the record, I refer to that a lot. Also, I’m really worried about so many young men and women being so depressed and so lacking in hope about the future. On the song “Transform,” I say, “We could drive Lewis Hamilton’s car, get new teeth veneers, be a successful YouTube influencer, etc. But we are still the same ole’ me.”

That’s the thing that’s got to change. It comes down to making that change and it then being reflected in our actions towards other people and how we treat them.

The album opens with the song “The One to Love You”. That one sounds like a throwback to some of your earlier songs and sounds.

This is really interesting because that’s the first collaboration you hear between me and BT. Because it was the first one that we did together, he wanted to reference my early albums by using things like the [Yamaha] DX7 mixed in with the bass. And he put in little quotes from my songs. The most prominent one is at the end where there’s a bit from “Assault and Battery.” There are also little bits where he’s referencing “Conditioning,” and the bass line from “Pearl in the Shell.” I was just blown away by that. It was so cool. And then, right at the end, there’s a very moving scene that he did. He used to listen to Human’s Lib / Dream Into Action at this place near his house, so he did a recording of the environment where he listened to those albums. It’s got a little bit of train noise and birds singing and just the ambiance of that place. When he told me, I was really moved by it. There are all kinds of instruments on that one. I don’t know how many analog synths he has in his studio – probably around 50 and they’re all wired up and plugged up and working. He’s way more of a synth guy than I will ever be!

What’s interesting is that unlike many of the storied keyboard players that I talk to, you seem to have kept a lot of your old gear!

I’ve kept the ones that were really important to me. In fact, I was using them today because we did a video for “Hero In Your Eyes.” I brought them all down to the studio – the Pro One, the [Roland] TR-808, the Juno-60, the Jupiter-8 and the Prodigy. Those are the ones I kept and I do use them, but I also use the amazing emulations that we have now as well. I know those synths really well and I know how to get the sounds I want out of them. BT said to me he’s going to turn up my house one day with a soldering iron and a big van of keyboards that he says that I’ve got to have back in my arsenal [laughs]. I know he’s serious about it as well – those are the sort of things he does. He’s got a much bigger collection than I do. It’s like a paradise for keyboard players going into his studio. He got a Fairlight CMI Series III that he’s had re-coded, and it’s all working perfectly with new software. It’s quite inspiring to see all that, because one of the first gigs he ever saw was me doing my one-man show in the U.S. I think that was quite inspiring for him. I’m a huge fan of his work. I hardly ever collaborate with anybody, but he is somebody I really wanted to do that with.

Did he reach out to you to collaborate?

It’s an interesting story. I’ve been a huge fan of his work just independently, thinking that he was one of the electronic pioneers of his generation. We went to see him do a show in Miami where he was using an orchestra and electronics together. I was just ending a tour in the States, so I said to [bandmate] Robbie [Bronnimann], “Let’s fly down and see this.” So I bought tickets, and BT found out I was there and he gave me a “name check” from the stage, which was a bit embarrassing! Then we met afterwards. We said, “We must get together.” He invited me to his studio. We started working on some things on his Eurorack. I said to him, “We really should make some records together.” He said, “Man, I would die to do that.” It was a very mutual thing and we did it. We didn’t just talk about it, we actually did it.

Did you work together in person or did you send things back and forth?

We sent things back and forth because I’m here in Somerset in the U.K, and he’s near Washington in the U.S. I went over for the last part of the mixing and the last few keyboard parts. We were in the same room together at the end putting the final touches on the tracks.

What kinds of things did you learn working with BT? Did he have any tricks up his sleeve that made you say, “Oh my God, I never thought of doing that!”?

Well, there are so many that I don’t know where to begin. He’s such an innovator. He’s at the cutting edge of things, because he codes himself, as well as programs and scores for games, and more. In “The One To Love You,” he does an amazing thing where he sidechained dozens and dozens of tracks, so that the bass and snare could sit beautifully no matter how much density was going on around. He also used this software called iZotope RX by the people that make Ozone. He would go through every track and take out a specified amount of low end. Then he would go in and erase any kinds of clicks or artifacts that accumulate sometimes with tracks. The program is like an AI thing and it fills in the gap with what it thinks should be there. So those were two major things he did.

The song “Beating Mr. Neg” has a really interesting chord sequence. There are times where it goes to places that you don’t expect. When you’re writing, are you consciously trying to take people away from where they imagine a song will go?

Yes. It’s one of my things. I think that the pop music structure is a wonderful structure. I really respect it. I want to take people to a place they didn’t quite expect. You think it would go here, and then I take them to another place. For me, that’s the fun of working with it. When I worked with Phil Collins on “No One Is to Blame,” he said, “What I love about your writing is that you go places people don’t expect.” There are key changes and unexpected sections that come in. I think that’s what I love about great music of any kind is that it’s sort of based on your expectations and then it takes you off somewhere else. It’s really exhilarating for your brain. So that’s what I like to do now.

The song “Hero In Your Eyes” has a great synth riff at the front. What keyboard was that played on?

It’s actually based on the Pro One – the mono synth. But mine is not working 100 percent as this old gear tends to, so I think I used a Juno in the end to do that.

It’s interesting that with all the modern emulations and plugins available these days, you often still reach for your original gear.

Yes. Well, it does have that sound. It’s punchy and great, and then you can do work with it inside a computer as well. I tell you what I really enjoyed using on this album was the new [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere 2, where you can use your hardware to interface with a really accurate emulation of that keyboard. Every note on your hardware corresponds to movements that you do in a software, and so you can be working like you would with your hardware synth.

You’ve got all the benefits of it being digital and then being able to record every single movement that you’re doing and even if you’re doing two things at the same time, it records all that, and then you can edit it. I think that’s a brilliant way forward, because it’s such fun to actually get your hands on all the knobs and the sliders, but then have all the benefits in digital realm as well. I was really impressed with that.

Is that a sort of template for how you’re going to tour some of the new material live?

Yes. We tried it in [Apple] MainStage thinking how we could use it live. Rather than taking the analog feeds from the real synths, we just plug a USB cable in to three instances of Omnisphere and then manipulate it with the hardware. It’s all coming out digital and I keep everything to two or four channels coming out of MainStage. We tried it and it worked absolutely flawlessly.

The last time we talked, you were building a new rig for that tour. Do you rebuild your rig every time you take a new project on the road?

Yes. We sort of build on what we learned before. I’m always trying to create a bigger and better sound and working in new ways, because it keeps everything fresh. What we’ve done for the new tour is with the heritage songs that everyone knows, we’ve gone back and reworked them to include some references that are occurring on the new album. Not to make them unrecognizable, because that will be stupid of course, but to just upgrade the sounds and take in some current thinking into the old tracks, so that they fit. When I play the new track in between songs that people really know and love that that it feels like a continuum. It doesn’t feel like you’re jumping three decades.

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What will be your main keyboard on tour?

Well, I’m going to actually play more piano in this set, because like yourself, I love playing piano. For the U.K. tour, I’m hiring in a Yamaha AvantGrand. It’s got a proper wood action in it with hammers and then from there, it’s digital. For America, it will be a Roland RD-2000, because I can’t really cart the big one around.

I remember as a kid looking at you with your many racks of keyboards. Do you think that the sheer availability and affordability of gear these days has diminished the excitement of making electronic music?

I think the more sophisticated the gear gets, and the more people who are making those instruments and plugins and software, the easier it is for somebody just starting out to get things sounding really good, pretty quickly. People like us have to work 20 times harder on our sounds, on our arrangements, and on our mixing to be able to be worthy of a position of putting out records. Because you can’t just use what comes out of the box. You got to spend a couple of days on a bass sound and to get something original and different that works in the whole picture. I think it’s a virtuous circle, really. The more stuff there is out there, the more that young kids can get excited about it quickly, but then we’ve been around long time. We should work harder to make those original sounds and great sounding things.

In the bizarre, fractured world we live in today, do you still think that, as your classic song says, “Things Can Only Get Better?”

Yes, I absolutely do. I think whatever mess that we confined ourselves in, if we can create the mess, then we can un-create it. My example of it is, at one time, London was just smog the whole time from people burning coal. It was so bad that people were dying of lung-related diseases and we cleared that up. The towns were so polluted that fish just completely died. Now, salmon has been found in the Thames. That’s the environmental side of it. We can use our amazing ability to create technology to sort out so many things.

I’ve always believed that in a sense, music has always been driven by technology, developing right from pianos and when the harpsichord came along. When the piano was invented, people said, “It will never catch on.” People used to say to me, “Your music has got no heart because it’s made with synthesizers.” It’s like, “Hang on a minute. Isn’t that what they said when the piano came along, when the harpsichords was superseded?” I’m more passionate now than ever about what I’m doing because I have a platform to say things in my work, which is to encourage people to not give up on changing things. We can do this if we start really respecting ourselves, others and the environment. That goes a long way. It reverberates out through everything.

Transform is out now. Get more from Howard Jones at his official website.