While sleet, high winds and plenty of rain battered my adopted Lancashire and Spanish intruder Storm Jorge followed in the wake of his pals Brendan, Ciara and Dennis, I found Robert Howard, aka Dr Robert, at home near Granada, enjoying ‘another boring sunny day’.
He’s not due back to the UK until April, but there are plans for a new Monks Road Social album, a third in 18 months (also due next month), in an ongoing project brought to life by Richard Clarke and curated by Robert, having already seen contributions from the likes of Mick Talbot and Steve White (The Style Council), Matt Deighton (Mother Earth) and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation), following its founder’s vision of creating an environment where musicians, poets and artisans can celebrate and be celebrated for their craft.
“At the start, when Richard asked me to put something together, I turned to a few people I know like Crispin (Taylor) and Ernie (McKone) from Galliano, and Mick Talbot, and it grew from there really. It started as a vehicle for my songs then expanded, with everyone bringing their songs in and getting involved. It’s just about doing something for the sake of music really. But you need somebody to oversee and organise it, and that fell to me, and I was happy to do that. Yeah, we’re pushing on, I’m really enjoying it and it feeds into everything else I do.”
That’s a point in itself, because listening to some of those recordings and back to the most recent Blow Monkeys LP, The Wild River – the band’s 10th album, and their fifth since returning in 2007 after a 17-year lay-off – you can tell you’re enjoying your music and you’ve rediscovered that early soulful fire you had back in the day. There’s certainly a great vibe to both that and the side-project.
“Yeah, I guess so. It was the first album where I’ve fully gone back to our soul thing, and while these moves aren’t really calculated I’m really happy with that album – it seems to have done quite well and it’s translated well live. We’ve put quite a few of those songs into the set and enjoy doing them.
“And I’m currently writing the new one, which will hopefully be ready early next year, in what will be our 40th anniversary year … which is kind of mad! We plan to have a new album and do a proper tour then. But yes, I’ve been writing a lot, and I guess it’s from a good place.”
With Robert (guitar, vocals) still aided by fellow originals Mick Anker (bass guitar, him of the bowler hat back in the day) and Neville Henry (Saxophone) plus afore-mentioned more recent recruit Crispin Taylor (drums, percussion) there are a handful of dates in the coming months, including those on my patch in the North West. Will they involve a mix across the albums?
“Yeah, that’s kind of what we always do, but we are playing quite a lot of new stuff and we play the old stuff in a way that’s comfortable now. I haven’t put together a set-list yet, but it’s certainly not just about nostalgia.”
That doesn’t surprise me. I can’t see you going out as a tribute act to yourself.
“Well no … although we’d probably do better if we were – that’s how people seem to work these days. But I can’t seem to get the motivation to just go out there and do old stuff. There needs to be something new going on. We need to keep it fresh for ourselves.”
You’ve always looked to moving things on, which reminds me how I was watching a BBC Four re-run of Top of the Pops the other night and saw you and Kym Mazelle performing ‘Wait’, in itself a big departure, reflecting your love at the time of house music and all that.
“Yeah, in some ways we were moving too fast for our audience, to be honest, just three years after ’Digging Your Scene’. People knew where we were then, but by the time we got to 1989 … and ‘Springtime for the World’ the following year was almost Balaeric. And that mind of ostracised a few people. But that’s what I was going through, living in London, sharing a flat for some of that time with a DJ and exposed to all sorts of things that were going on, and I wanted to reflect that in our music.”
Thinking of that collaboration with Kym, I was wondering how it must have been for you to get into the studio with one of your heroes, Curtis Mayfield, pinching yourself that you were really there with him.
“Yeah, I definitely thought that. When we sang that song, we did it together in the studio, I was facing him and doing my Curtis Mayfield impression, and there was the real man right there! But he made me feel really relaxed and was everything you expected someone like Curtis to be. He was a lovely man. You do get those ‘pinch me’ moments, but then you find out that they’re all just flawed human beings like everyone else, and usually the talented ones are the most modest.
“Curtis taught me a lot, and I’d grown up with his music, which was so informative to my life.”
It’s clearly an influence that stays with you. You only have to listen to the wonderful ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ on The Wild River to hear that, both Curtis and his previous band The Impressions springing to mind.
“Well, The Impressions was the one for me. I soaked up everything they ever did, buying all the singles and so on, retrospectively, as I was obviously too young at the time. I remember talking to Curtis backstage about the Impressions, getting out my guitar and playing rare B-sides to him, asking him about them. He’d forgotten half of them. He was just churning them out and was so busy at the time, producing albums and all sorts in Chicago. He was a one-man factory. Yeah, I love The Impressions, those three-part harmonies and the simplicity of the songs. Just the purity of it all. It’s lovely.”
As you mentioned that 40th anniversary not far around the corner, when you go back and listen to really early Blow Monkeys tracks like debut single ‘Live Today, Love Tomorrow’, what do you think now, with added perspective?
“I haven’t listened to that particular song for a long time, but I just hear someone who was very young and wanting to be heard, trying to break out and find his way. I wasn’t particularly schooled in songwriting and didn’t come from any tradition of that. I was learning on the job. I was keen. You’re not really sure what those songs are about at the time, but in retrospect I see a little bit more … without getting too deeply psychological. I was just trying things out, and still am really. I think the biggest fear for me would be the fear of just repeating myself. But I hope I would be honest enough to stop at that point.”
It’s good enough for many artists from that era.
“Sure, and that’s fine. I could stop writing and just play those songs, but I don’t want to do that. The biggest thrill is still starting off with a little pearl of an idea and seeing it evolve into a song, then listening back to it, and with other people hearing it if you’re lucky enough.”
What would you say was the first song you wrote of which you felt, ‘Bloody hell, this is good!’?
“One of the early songs we did was ‘Man From Russia’, a rare co-write between the bass player, Mick (Anker) and me. He had this little riff and I felt, ‘This is good’. And people started to react to that live, way before we were signed and way before we recorded a version of that on (debut LP) Limping for a Generation.
“And I guess for me I’d go way back to when I started busking, when I was a teenager and lived in Australia. I could never remember the words to people’s songs, so started ad-libbing my own songs. You’re standing there all day, and if just one person stops and listens to you for a while … that’s when I got hooked, I guess, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
That was in Sydney, I seem to recall … at Circular Quay, as reflected in the song of the same name on your splendid 1994 debut solo LP, Realms of Gold. I have great memories of that place myself from my own travels at the turn of the ’90s, but wasn’t there quite as long as you.
“Well, I was only there four years, but they were my teenage years and were four very informative years.”
Robert moved to Australia with his Mum after his father died, following his sister out there, having lived in King’s Lynn in Norfolk from around the age of six.
“King’s Lynn was where I went to school, where I grew up and where I first listened to music. Yeah, a funny old place, the Fenlands.”
Absolutely, and an area you paid tribute to on your Flatlands solo album in 1999 on the tour where I finally first caught you live. And you convey that feeling of landscape very well.
“Well, that was a challenge. I wanted to write about the landscape and the area and the place where I grew up. As a kid I wanted to get away, but when I went back in later life, I saw it for what it really was. That was the starting point. And I’m quite fond of that album. I really did it on my own on an eight-track, and it was the first time I’d not gone into a studio, not had a record company and not had any other musicians. And I think that gave it a certain something.”
I agree, and it’s an album I was thinking about again recently when fellow WriteWyattUK double-interviewee Neil Sheasby, a core partner of the afore-mentioned Neil Jones in Stone Foundation, wrote online about the importance to him of Realms of Gold.
“Ah, yeah, he does a great blog, and they’re doing really well and deserve that. They’re pushing on, aren’t they.”
True, and you’ve played a part in that story, one of many big-name contributors guesting with them live and in the studio.”
“Well, a little bit, but of course Paul Weller’s helped an awful lot. He’s been very generous, and they deserve it. And the two Neils are true believers, y’know.”
Agreed, and talking of Paul, have you done anything with Mr Weller of late?
“No, but I bumped into him at a Stone Foundation gig a couple of years ago, it was great to see him, and we WhatsApp a bit here and there. He’s been listening to the Monks Road and I always listen to whatever he does.”
“Sure, Paul’s always moving, and you’ve got to respect him for that. He doesn’t play it safe and never gives his audience what they think they want. He always goes where he wants to go, and I think that’s real integrity.”
Before we wrap up for now, I’ll return to Blow Monkeys territory, and your North London early days with Mick Anker (bass) and Neville Henry (sax). Remind me how you got to know each other.
“When I came back from Australia I answered an ad in the back of Melody Maker, then went up to Jacksons Lane Community Centre in Highgate, and there was Nev with a couple of others. And within a week we’d pretty much sacked off the rest of the band and decided that we wanted to form our own band. So we got Mick in, and there was a young kid hanging around playing drums, called Angus, who became our original drummer. And from that point on we just went for it.
“This was 1981 and we decided everyone was going to give up their jobs, we were going to rehearse five days a week, and it was full on. Those were the days when we were on the dole and you could live on the dole, it was like a safety net. A lot of bands couldn’t have existed without that, we didn’t get a deal for another four years and gigs were hard to get. We didn’t know anyone. It’s about starting right at the bottom, but we got a strong bond because of that.”
Well, we could quite easily get on from that to what this current generation of emerging bands face now, with changes afoot with regard to crossing borders following the dreaded B-word, throwing away our EU membership and the like. But we’ll save that for next time, right?
“Yeah, yeah, that’s another discussion!”
For the previous WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Dr Robert, from March 2016, head here.
The Blow Monkeys play Altrincham’s Cinnamon Club on Friday, April 3rd, Lytham St Annes’ Lowther Pavilion on Sunday, April 12th (01253 794221), the Robin 2 in Bilston on Thursday, July 9th, Wigan The Old Courts on Saturday, July 11th, and The Atrium at Tower House, Douglas on the Isle of Man on Friday, July 24th. To keep up to date with the band’s plans, you can find out more via their website and Facebook, Instagram and Twitter platforms. And for more about Monks Road Social, including a Monday, May 11th live date at Camden’s Jazz Cafe in London, head here.