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The Doctor Will See You Now: The Blow Monkeys’ Robert Howard Talks To Tootal Blog

Welcome back. Now you’re living in Spain, how does it feel coming back to London?

It’s still my favourite city in the world and it’s the people that make it. My father was from Hounslow, all his family came from there, for generations back but I was born in Scotland. Didn’t stay there long as you can tell from my accent. I moved around a lot.

If there’s anywhere that I call home its Kings Lynn, of all places, where I grew up in the Seventies. I left there when I was 15 and went to live in Sydney, but Kings Lynn was really my formative years, the late Sixties through to ’77. Everything that infected my psyche in terms of music, clothes, fashion; those really important teenage years were spent in Kings Lynn. It was what was known as a London Overflow town but it had this funny thing; it had this Soul thing. There was a place called the Soul Bowl, which was an import record shop. It was like a Mecca for Northern Soul fan. It was mail order but it had a little shop too. So there was a Soul vibe there and there was a music vibe there but it was a tough old town. It was notoriously, how shall I say it… ‘Violent’ is the word I’m looking for.

Can you recall the first record you bought?

Top Of The Pops Volume 13, 1970. Just 99 pence from Woolworths.

Probably T. Rex ‘Metal Guru’. My sister, who is ten years older than me, had bought me ‘Deborah’, which had been reissued at that time. And I think I’ve got one of those Top of the Pops albums, because I did love ‘Band Of Gold’. Back in 1970, I used to go to football; Kings Lynn FC, Southern League, half time, freezing cold, nil-nil; ‘Band Of Gold’ would come on and I’d be transported. It was one of those songs that was the gateway to soul music for me. So, I bought the Top of the Pops version, which is nothing like it because they were just copies, weren’t they? Pickwick, or something they came out on. You’d get them in Woolworths for 99p.

What were you wearing on the terraces at Kings Lynn FC?

You know, this is probably a faux pas, fashion-wise, but you know those long army coats… it wasn’t from Millets but it was something like that, some Army surplus store. I wanted one of them. It’s cold in Kings Lynn. You get the Siberian winds coming across the Fens.

You worked as a music journalist in Australia. Any tips for Tootal Blog?

I didn’t actually interview people; I reviewed records and gigs. I had a column in Rock Australia Magazine, RAM, which is like the NME of Australia. I did a Talking Heads gig and I did a Ramones gig, and I then I moved up to Darwin, in Northern Territory. From there I wrote the singles column for the Darwin Gazette, or whatever it was. This would have been 1979. In Darwin at this point you were talking about East Coast American music, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil. And I was writing about a band called The Laughing Clowns. I saw them in Sydney and they were the blueprint for The Blow Monkeys. The drummer was like Gene Krupa – a Jazzer. They had this brass section that was slightly out of tune; like Fela Kuti. And then they had Ed Kuepper, who is a genius, and he’s not very well known. He had been guitarist in The Saints, and was playing this Ramones Punk-ish stuff. And the mixture of it; I thought that’s what I’m going to go back and do. Which is why I needed a saxophone. Of course, we ended up nothing like it ‘cause my DNA comes from Pop and Soul.

The music industry has changed a lot in the 35 years since the first Blow Monkeys release. For better or worse?

The Blow Monkeys: The 2015 Model.

I’d say it’s worse in the sense that the music has become less important to people, in terms of its cultural cache but it always boils down to the same thing in the end, which is a good song. However you want to package it, however you want to sell it. Whether it’s digital, analogue or pidgin, it doesn’t really matter. In the end it’s still about making something that moves people. That’s still the desire, that’s the aim.

In the world of streaming where every song is a single, I guess you don’t have to think about B-sides anymore?

What you get is bonus tracks now. It’s not the same though. ‘Metal Guru’ had two B-sides on it. It had ‘Thunder Wing’, and was it ‘Lady’? On a seven inch! Just chucked two gems like that away. Value for money. ‘Jitterbug Love’, the B-side of ‘Children Of The Revolution’ – now that’s a tune. That’s Danny Baker’s favourite T. Rex tune; it’s a classic.

The Beatles were great at their B-sides. Elvis Costello, The Jam… they always had brilliant B-sides. I love a singles band. In fact, The Jam, some of their B-Sides are better than the A-Sides, in a lot of people’s opinion. ‘Tales From The Riverbank’, ‘Dreams Of Children’… There was a great Style Council one, ‘I Do Like To Be B-Side The A-Side’. That’s Mick Talbot. He played on our new record. In the studio where we overdubbed the strings, I recognised his keyboards. I said to our engineer Ernie (McKone), “Is this Mick’s stuff?” He said, “Yeah, he’s down the road, I’ll ring him up”. Mick came down. He played on about four songs. Absolutely amazing musician.

In addition to Mick you seem to have a lot of links with the Acid Jazz, Young Disciples, Galliano scene?

Yes, Crispin Taylor, our drummer, was in Galliano, for example. That comes from late Eighties, being friendly with Paul Weller, obviously, and then people like Marco (Nelson) turning up at the studios. Young Disciples started demo-ing at a studio we were hanging around in and it ended up that was their album. We would just play on each other’s things; it was that kind of music scene. Always in and out of each other’s house, nicking each other’s milk. I guess there was a little community and I did end up knowing a lot of those guys.

You crowd funded your new album and it seems there were packages available to suit all tastes.

You can offer anything you want with these things. I’ve just spent all day wishing I hadn’t agreed to write out all the lyrics to this album by hand. My arm aches; I’ve forgotten how to write. I had to do loads of them, and it’s quite wordy this one. I’ll have to change that; do an album of instrumentals next time.

You have donated a percentage of the album profits to Wintercomfort, a Cambridge homeless charity. Why them?

We lived briefly in Cambridge before we moved to Spain, and we got to know them quite well. We did a couple of things with them in the past. And the ‘Cambridge Two’ were these two care workers who got arrested because they were helping some homeless people who were Heroin addicts. And there was a kink in the law that meant the people that were trying to help them could be prosecuted. So my wife, Michele, put on an event to support the care workers and we played at that. We became quite friendly with the Wintercomfort team. And I’ve had quite a bit of homelessness in my family. It’s something that I’m quite close to; I understand it.

On YouTube there is a 1986 interview for Japanese TV, in which you said you wanted to change the world. Do you still harbour that ambition?

The Blow Monkeys in 1986 (Photo by Fin Costello)

I still want to change my world. I think it’s a good ambition to have when you’re young. And I feel it’s probably incumbent on me and my generation to change the world for the next one. In a good way. It doesn’t seem to be going that way but I do think that is our role.

There’s one song on the new album called ‘An Act Of Faith’, which was inspired by something Michele said, because she’s a big gardener. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was planning trees. I said, “But you won’t see them”, and she replied. “It’s not for this generation it’s for future generations”. That’s the way to think about things, and we don’t think like that.

In the Eighties The Blow Monkeys were supporters of the Red Wedge campaign. Can you imagine a collective body like Red Wedge existing now?

Of musicians? I think it’s more likely they would coalesce around single issues, like raising money and awareness for things like Grenfell; things which are really, really important.

The weird thing is, everything that Red Wedge fought for might be coming true with someone like Jeremy Corbyn who, it seems to me, has appeared almost like Peter Sellers in Being There. It’s as if, at last, authenticity has broken through everything else. They can throw what they want at him but the one thing that they can’t do is to say he’s a liar, or he doesn’t believe in what he says, because he’s always been, in my opinion anyway, on the right side of history. I remember him protesting outside South Africa House in 1981. He’s not a great communicator though he’s getting better. He should drop the ‘Geography Teacher’ look, but how important is image? (Laughs)

The bands who were associated with movements like Red Wedge – The Blow Monkeys, Style Council, Billy Bragg, Madness, The Housemartins – were vilified by the tabloids at the time yet their music has endured.

It definitely didn’t do us any favours in certain quarters. It’s that whole Billy Bragg thing of “mixing Pop and politics”. It would be an excuse for radio stations not to play us, at a time when they had so much power. They were such divisive times, to just sit on the fence didn’t seem an option. That’s not what I got into music for. It was a way of self-expression. It was something where you didn’t have to put a suit on and go to work and kowtow; demean yourself in order to pay rent. You could go out and express yourself, and as you went along you just sing and shout about the world as you see it. And you try to change it. I’ve always thought that; left or right, it doesn’t matter, as long as you express something; tell the truth.

Apart from having three additional opinions how does your approach to a Blow Monkeys album differ, compared to your solo albums?

I definitely have in mind the fact that I’m going to make it with these guys. So, there’s a certain sound, and a feel and a groove. There’s a certain key that I know the saxophone player plays in… things like that I take into consideration. In retrospect some of the albums we made when we first got back together, are probably more suited to my solo output. The thing with this one is, in terms of the direction, we’ve found our mojo again. I almost thought maybe I’ll make this a solo album but when I started to demo it and listen back I thought, no, this sounds like ‘us’. This is what we should be doing.

Collaborators used to figure large in the Blow Monkeys catalogue – Curtis Mayfield, Kym Mazelle, Eek-A-Mouse, Mickey Finn, Joe Brown, Sylvia Tella, Cheb Khaled. Is there anyone left on the collaborators wishlist?

Mavis Staples. Linda Womack. I’ve already worked with P. P. Arnold. She’s a proper ‘A-Lister’. An amazing voice; it just comes out of her. She’s got that authentic voice of the Southern Baptist Church thing. It was a joy to meet her, get her to come and make the album. It didn’t get the press it should’ve but it was a joy to do. Unfortunately the record company we did it with went bust two months later. We reissued it last year on vinyl and I think it’s going to be out properly again early next year.

I think I’m suited to doing those kinds of things, because I write a lot more songs than I use and sometimes they suit that kind of relationship. I’m thinking the next thing I do might just be an album of duets. I saw the album Van Morrison did, Re-Working The Catalogue. I quite fancy doing something like that if I can make it work.

This will be the first Blow Monkeys album since Springtime For The World (1990) to be released on vinyl. Are you glad to see the vinyl revival?

New At Ten: The Wild River and 30 years of back catalogue.

Yes, I’m a sucker for it. I kept all mine. It was a pain in the arse every time I was moving, because Michele’s got loads as well but we just kept them. There’s still something about the ritual for people of our generation. The CD is the format that went, and of course you get the Download code in the vinyl, so you can still put it on your phone, play it in your car.

We really, really went to town on the artwork this time because we knew we were doing vinyl. We did blue vinyl, put little secrets here and there on the sleeve; everything I used to love about it. Vinyl is an event, isn’t it?

The new album starts with ‘Crying For The Moon’, like a laidback version of ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’.

I get the comparison because it’s got a similar kind of chord thing. For me it’s more inspired by Darondo, the Soul singer. I really tried not to edit myself on this album. I sit round the kitchen with my guitar, a little iPad, and I record whatever has happened and later on I listen back to it. If I don’t edit myself it’s usually better. I just thought, well this is what’s naturally coming through to me. I don’t want to over think it; I’m just going to go with it.

Can you look back across all ten Blow Monkey albums and see an obvious thread?

I can a little bit. There’s a big gap between Springtime For The World (1990) and Devil’s Tavern (2008). It’s just constantly trying to find something new to say, and not repeating myself.

I can hear what I went through in the early ‘90s when the band stopped and I was making solo acoustic records, because I did a lot of listening then. I had to educate myself about a lot of music that I wasn’t aware of – that whole Greenwich Village scene; people like Fred Neil. That leads you back archeologically like a dig towards the beginning of recording and you end up listening to Son House, or Robert Johnson. I needed to do that. I think it’s important to know your subject. I always used to think about those New Romantic bands; they’ve grown up listening to David Bowie but they haven’t gone any deeper. David Bowie knew everything about music, going way, way back. The guy was soused in it. But if you’re only copying the guys from one generation back… I needed to educate myself.

The thing about Paul Weller is he knows his shit; he goes a long way back. His version of Modernism, which I found out when I spoke to him, is a philosophy on life. It includes Debussy; it includes Alice Coltrane and Edward Hopper. I love ‘Hopper’ on his new album, that’s my favourite tune on it. I love it when he draws on things like that. You’ve got to go deep to draw out something original.

You seem to have struck a comfortable balance between albums full of new songs, and the occasional 80s festival. Is that just you being pragmatic?

The Blow Monkeys: “Here’s another new one…”

We haven’t done many because I don’t think we fit the revival bill. But when we do them we are the only band that goes onstage and says, “Here’s a new one”. And you can see people going, “Oh…”

I’ve seen the Human League play them, and they are brilliant. They turn up at the soundcheck, plug the machines in and then its hit after hit after hit. We’re a bit too spikey for that. There’s just the four of us, it’s not high production. It’s a bit Punky. We do new things, and even the old things we might do them in a new way. In the end the equation is you’re playing to a field full of people who want to hear the music.

Does style still play a big role in the Blow Monkeys presentation?

Less. In terms of clothes and things like that, I think its less mannered and less thought out, and probably less important. At some point Mick’s bowler hat just felt like nostalgia, and we didn’t want to do that.

Do you look back through photos or records sleeves and think, “I shouldn’t have worn that”?

Very early on I wore a few things that I shouldn’t have worn but in general we used to get our things made. Although there were a few haircuts that were a little bit dodgy but we didn’t wear too many of those big shoulder pads and things like that. There were a lot worse, put it that way.

The Wild River, the new album from The Blow Monkeys is out now on CD and Vinyl, and available to Stream.

For upcoming tour dates and all other information visit www.theblowmonkeys.com

Wintercomfort supports people who are homeless or at risk of losing their home in Cambridge.

For more information visit www.wintercomfort.org.uk