Robert Howard of The Blow Monkeys: 'You start to put things in perspective'

Zipped up in a thermal fleece as he talks to The Yorkshire Post via video from his home in Spain, it might not quite be the sumptuous “Springtime for the world” that Robert Howard yearned for in a 1990 Blow Monkeys’ song, but the singer and songwriter is in good spirits.
The Blow Monkeys.The Blow Monkeys.
The Blow Monkeys.

He’s just returned from a tour of Britain in March, which included Barnsley and Settle, and will be back again in this region next week for a gig in Sheffield. “I love those kind of gigs,” he says. “Local theatres, 300 to 400 capacity, local-run, good vibe, kind of non-rock ’n’ roll, if you know what I mean, but cool.”

In May, The Blow Monkeys are due to release their 12th studio album, Together/Alone, on Last Night From Glasgow, the Scottish-based indie label with which they’re now working. Howard, 62, seems proud to have returned to his ancestral roots, noting that the record company also shares some of his political beliefs. “They pride themselves on being a kind of socialist record label and it’s not Patreon but they have that kind of model, so there’s no contracts, nothing like that. I really enjoy working with them, so far it’s been great, lovely people, we went up there and played in their little shop. They’ve got a community as well. They put out reissues and new things, it’s a Glaswegian label, it just felt really good to be involved with something like that.”

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He explains that Together/Alone, “like a lot of stuff over the years”, is a reaction to their previous album, Journey To You. “The idea after all this time is not to repeat yourself and to keep it interesting hopefully for us and for the listeners. Journey To You was quintessential Blow Monkeys in the sense that it had orchestra, big arrangements, quite soary. I really liked it, I was very happy with it, but I wanted to to something with Together/Alone which represented and reflected what we’re more like live.

“We’ve done a lot of gigs over the last 10 years with Crispin (Taylor) joining and changing the dynamic. He was in Galliano, he’s the greatest player of what they call the ghost snare beat that I’ve ever known, it’s not just about the backbeat, it’s everything he does in between. There’s a funkiness to it, which has changed our dynamic a little bit, so I wanted to do something that was stripped down.

“Apart from the first song (Stranger To Me Now), that’s pretty much what we’ve got and it represents where we’re at right now and I wanted to have a bit more fun and wherever the muse was leading me just to go with it.

“So there are things like Rope-a-Dope, things that we haven’t really touched on before, kind of doo-wop meets glam. If it’s going that way just take it all the way. So hopefully people will appreciate the spirit in which it was made.”

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Lyrically he says he took as a starting point a quote from Bob Dylan, who said “he was born against his will and he will die against his will and what you do in between is just up to you”.

“I’m in my sixties now, it’s what they call sniper’s alley, you really do know a lot more people who are dropping off the perch, so you start to put things in perspective, what’s really important in life.

“I’ve been in a long-term relationship that’s sustained me, Michele has been a source of so much love and wisdom for me. To see the world through her eyes as well has opened things up to me. But I realise that the journey we’re on together is inevitably going to end, so you come back to those old blues songs like We All Have To Walk That Lonesome Valley by Mississippi John Hurt.

“It’s just about life’s journey – we come in alone and we leave alone – and there’s something liberating and joyful in that, it’s not scary. Those are things that someone in my position as a writer needs to address. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

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“Pop music, I always loved it when you could can anywhere with it. I love those end of life albums that Leonard Cohen made, and David Bowie to an extent, I think one of his most powerful things was Blackstar. I think that was probably in my top three Bowie albums. Nick Cave dwells a lot around there​​​​​​​, although I kind of preferred my Nick Cave when he was devil-worshipping​​​​​​​ – give me Release The Bats any day of the week.”

Howard maintains as keen an interest in politics as when in the 1980s he was participating in the Left-leaning Red Wedge movement and writing songs such as Celebrate (The Day After You) that longed for the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. “I think we’re living through such dangerous – and interesting – times,” he says. “The old certainties don’t really apply any more. Because I live in Spain although the band all live in London and my kids live in London, so when we come back on tour and we go to places, I see it from a different angle.

“I can sort of see that right now the UK feels like an almost failed state, it feels that it’s been totally underfunded​​​​​​​, and when you travel around into the regions, it’s almost like ​​​​​​​feudalism in some places – you’ve got the stately home, you’ve got the rich houses and then on the edge of the town you’ve got the pebble-dashed houses that are covered in Union Jacks. I don’t mean this as a putdown but some of these people have been conned into voting for the very people that are keeping them suppressed​​​​​​​. So it’s an absolute failure of the Left to present an inspiring alternative vision, rather than saying ‘we will massage the system in a slightly nuanced way that’s slightly fairer, but we won’t scare the horses​​​​​​​, we won’t stop bankers’ bonuses, we won’t tax the rich, all that’.

“You just hope that they’re playing a game of bluff but I am interested in it because it’s my kids and my potential grandkids’ world and I think they’re being sold short.

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“I think there is a real open goal right now for ​​​​​​​an inspired Leftist movement that could change things because it needs to embrace all sorts of new areas that have come in since we were doing it in the 80s – the existential crises which are facing us all, climate change being the number one, but it’s not just that. There’s gender politics and the way that mental health has become such a big issue, and these new overlords of the internet that are now running the show – Bezos and Musk and the guys that runs Facebook, Zuckerberg.”

Forty-three years on from The Blow Monkeys’ formation, and 17 years since since they regrouped after a lengthy split during which Howard made several solo records under his stage name Dr Robert, he finds himself savouring live performance. “I love to see the whites of their eyes when we say ‘this is a new song’,” he says with a smile. “That’s what keeps me interested and actually I’m not being funny but we are making some of our best music that we’ve ever made, to be honest. It’s not like we’re kind of spent. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here, but I think that’s true – and it’s not true of a lot of our contemporaries, with one or two notable exceptions, so it still feels very much alive and in the moment, and the best place to do that is live, especially post-Covid where the appetite for real experiences and live music was reignited. That is a human need, and I’d say that is the crux of the matter for me.”

Together/Alone is out on May 24. The Blow Monkeys play at Network, Sheffield on April 12, Wrecking Ball Music and Books, Hull on July 18 and Scarborough Spa on November 30.