Interview: Dr Robert, The Blow Monkeys

The Blow Monkeys

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Robert Howard, aka Dr Robert, formed The Blow Monkeys in 1981 with bassist Mick Anker, saxophonist Neville Henry and drummer Tony Kiley.

Combining the glamour of Roxy Music with the energy of post-punk and the sophistication of modern jazz, the band quickly built a cult following. Their first single Live Today Love Tomorrow was released in 1982 while debut album Limping For A Generation was released two years later through RCA.

The band went on to build a successful commercial career with several hit singles including the breakthrough track Digging Your Scene. They split in 1990 and Dr Robert went solo, contributing to Paul Weller’s debut solo album and co-writing material with artists including Dee C Lee, Kym Mazelle and Beth Orton.

The Blow Monkeys are now reunited and released their latest studio album Feels Like a New Morning through Cherry Red in April.

We caught up with Dr Robert to hear why songwriting is like casting spells and to find out what he’s learned from more than 30 years in the business.

When did you first get into writing songs?
Pretty much when I first got into playing guitar, around age 14, mainly because I couldn’t play anyone else’s songs. I figured the best way to do it was try writing my own. They were appalling attempts at writing early Marc Bolan type stuff. Then I got into jamming and making it up as I went along to try to find my voice.

What’s kept you going back to it?
I don’t really know – it’s just a need. Quite possibly because I’m really not much good at anything else. It’s what I do. I tend to go a bit loopy if I don’t. There’s a need in me to express myself and this is how I do it.

How has your approach to songwriting changed since you started out?
I don’t think it’s changed fundamentally. Obviously you learn things as you go along – you learn not to spend too much time on something that’s not really working. I’m much quicker to spot the kernel of an idea – it can be a lyric or a melody or something that someone says that I know I can turn into a song. You get better at spotting those things that happen around you. I try not to edit myself too much and I’ve got braver. When I was younger I was too worried what people would think. When I listen back now to the very early stuff I did, I realised that I didn’t really know what I was writing about anyway.

You mention ‘kernels of ideas’ – where do these normally come from?
It could be something someone said, something I’ve read, somewhere I’ve been… You can make a song out of anything just as long as you’ve got your eyes open.

What comes first for you? Do you sit down with the guitar?
I don’t have a formula, but mostly it’s the words that come first. To be honest with you, I haven’t really had much problem coming up with melodies or chord progressions. But I have written songs that weren’t based on very much lyrically, and those songs have fallen by the wayside. They don’t have to be messaged songs, but there has to be some magic in there. What you’re trying to do is cast a spell.

How do you know when a song is a keeper?
You just know. I’m lucky I’ve had good friends and people around me. My wife is someone I’ve known since I was 19 so she’s heard so many of my songs over the years and tells me what she thinks. But also you know yourself. I guess playing live is the ultimate test. You get an instant reaction – you can tell in people’s eyes if they’re interested or not. It’s about casting a three- or four-minute spell within a song that captivates people.

Live at Kings College, London in 1984

Live at Kings College, London in 1984

What’s more natural for you – recording or playing live?
Both. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to play live but generally I enjoy the whole process. There’s a real buzz when you’re constructing a song in the studio and you hear it coming to fruition as you’ve just written it – that’s the best bit.

What’s been your best ever gig?
We played the Hammersmith Odeon in 1987 with Curtis Mayfield and that was quite special. Other than that, I’ve done a lot of solo gigs, especially have the band first broke up. Lots of tours with an acoustic guitar, and some of those gigs were magical. I never felt so nervous as when I was doing those – just me and six strings – nowhere to hide!

You’ve done a lot of collaborative work. Do you wear different hats when you’re collaborating and writing solo?
I’ve always loved collaborations and I’ve done an awful lot – with Curtis Mayfield, Paul Weller, Kym Mazelle – they bring something out in me. I just love singing with people. I get a thrill out of the possibilities. I did try to produce more people [than Beth Orton] but that’s not really me. It’s about management and quality control and I’m not so good at that end of it. I’m better just doing my thing. I did an album with a soul singer called P.P. Arnold a couple of years ago and that brought out something I didn’t know I was capable of. We just created magic that I didn’t think we could.

What have you learned along the way?
To do it fast and keep the first takes. Even if there’s mistakes in it – that’s where the magic is. People don’t notice the mistakes but whether they react emotionally with it is often to do with the spirit you first did it in. Every process in between the recording of the music and it coming to you as a finished product sanitises it along the way. You’ve really got to try to protect the kernel of the idea. I learned that by spending too long on records, especially in the eighties because you could. There were very big budgets for studio time and we killed it. We recently did some demo reissues of the early stuff and I thought, ‘Shit man, we should’ve just put that stuff out’. I wish we’d been brave enough to go with that at the time because they’re better.

Beth Orton

Beth Orton

Is that how you reappraise your early albums?
I listen back now and recognise someone that really wanted to be heard! There was a lot of ambition, a lot of fun. I couldn’t listen to the first album for years because of my singing! It’s so mannered and forced because I couldn’t really sing. But now I hear it and think at least it’s original. It’s not great but there are some good moments on it. It’s nice to come back and play those songs again after 30 years.

For a lot of people the eighties was a really significant decade for pop music. Why do you think that is?
We didn’t really notice at the time, but I guess it was. Put it this way, the nineties was a decade very honest in its adulation of the sixties – that whole Brit-pop thing was very connected to that period. Whereas in the eighties people were still making it up as they went along. The big thing was all the hip-hop and house coming through then, which later became the everyday template for pop.

I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing at the time. All those ideas coincided with a time when production values were really tinny and the clothes were terrible – so a lot of people didn’t come out of it very well!