Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Robert Howard, aka Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys chats with Kevin Cooper about his 8 track tape recorder, his solo album Out There, The Blow Monkey’s latest album If Not Now When? and their forthcoming tour of the UK.


Dr. Robert is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with The Blow Monkeys who are a British new wave band that formed in 1981. They subsequently enjoyed a successful career with several hit singles and albums across the 1980’s before splitting up at the beginning of the 1990’s. Their hit song Digging Your Scene was released in 1986. They had four albums and eleven singles in the UK charts from 1986 and 1990.

In late 2007, the original band members reunited and they remain together, releasing albums and touring.

Dr. Robert also has a successful solo career, having released his own albums and touring in his own right.

Whilst busy preparing for a tour with The Blow Monkeys, interspersed with some solo dates, he took the time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.


Robert good afternoon how are you today?

HI Kevin I’m fine thanks how are you doing?

I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

It’s no problem at all.

So how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Well really I suppose (laughter). I’m ticking over and still alive so I really do have to be thankful for that.

So you are in a happy place at the moment?

Yes I am enjoying life at the moment. It’s good.

I have been looking through some old memorabilia this morning and it was back in 1986 when I first saw you and The Blow Monkeys. It was here in Nottingham and you were part of The Red Wedge Tour.

I remember that really well. It was a great night and I really did enjoy those Red Wedge gigs, they were good fun. They had a really good vibe to them.

As I recall Neil (Kinnock) couldn’t make it over that night but Glenys did.

I remember Kevin but Glenys was a very good public speaker so all was not lost (laughter).

Yes she was and everyone in attendance had a really good time.

We had some great times on that tour and I still have very fond memories of those times.

Moving on I have to say that I have been playing the latest Blow Monkeys album If Not Now, When? and I think that it is a great piece of work.

That’s great Kevin, I am really glad, thank you.

I think that your voice is sounding better than ever.

I have to say that I think so too. It took me a long time to find my voice if you know what I mean. I can’t listen to some of our early records because of the singing. To me it sounds like someone else and it is someone else. Back then I was just learning really. My whole journey has been a slow burn to just try to get to the essence of whatever it is that I have got inside me as a musician and as a singer. I am still on that journey which is all about finding your voice and I am quite happy to be getting closer.

Did you have any trouble with the title of the album as there is an album by US rock band Incubus and also a novel by Primo Levi which have the same title?

(Laughter) that happens all of the time Kevin so no, we didn’t have any problems with the title. All is good. If Not Now, When? was the title track off the album which I felt worked really well. Although we are primarily regarded as being a band from the 80’s we have made four new albums in the last six years. So the album is very much about what we are doing now.

Were you happy with how the album was received?

Yes I was really happy. It received some really good reviews, our hard-core fans seem to really like it, and more to the point I really enjoyed making it. It included music from my own influences, my own teenage heroes. The only thing that I wasn’t too happy with was the fact that the single hardly received any airplay at all. It is almost impossible for a band like us to get anything new played on Radio 2 these days. I was hoping that Ok! Have It Your Way may have cracked through that but I still think that even for Radio 2 it was still too raucous. So there you go but I am honestly well over those years where my whole life is dictated by whether Radio 2 play our records or not, thank god (laughter).

I really do love All That Glitters and Shadow Boxing, I think that they are fantastic.

Really, well I am really pleased because both of them are in the new set (laughter). The thing is that they are all good fun to play live and they all felt good to play while we were recording the album. It would have been nice had the album received a bit more coverage but in the end, when I talk to people such as your good self, everyone seems to like it so maybe the album will be a long term grower.

What do you think the reason is as to why Radio 2 refuse to play artists such as yourselves?

They do still play us but the constantly play the old songs not the new stuff. I think nowadays Kevin it is simply down to the luck of the draw. Whenever you put a new record out, if the right people hear it at the right time then sometimes everything just clicks. It is always down to luck. You can never just sit there and try to construct a record simply to get it played on the radio. So if we do make something on the next album that does breakthrough I will be delighted but I am not going to let that be the be all and end all. Things have changed and there are now so many other ways to get your music over to your fans.

Are you disillusioned with the current state of the music business?

No not at all. But then again I am not really part of the music business to be honest, so in that respect I don’t really have anything to be disillusioned about. For me it is very simple, I write songs, I record them, I put them out there and I go out on the road to play them to people. That’s all there is, it’s very simple. The way of recording and putting music out there has changed so much over the years that it is now actually easier. I am enjoying it immensely. I love what The Blow Monkeys are currently trying to do plus I am working on some new solo material so I am currently busy with both and I am really enjoying that.

It is very hard to make a living out of selling records or downloads, more so now than ever before. The figures are so minute and there is a whole generation of people who have grown up listening to music on Spotify or whatever who are not really expecting to pay for it. And you simply can’t fight that, you just have to adapt and do things differently. We love playing live and we do make a special effort to make nice vinyl and CD versions of the albums for the hard-core fans, but I do know that the rest of the people are going to get the music for nothing and you just have to go with that.

I think that a major part of the problem is that the Chief Executives at the major record companies sat blinkered as to what was happening within the music industry and now all that they can do is try to play catch up.

The problem is that the kids are always one step ahead of the Multi Nationals and they always will be (laughter). The major record labels are good at doing the X Factor boy band thing where they will gladly throw millions of pounds at the artists for marketing etc. So really the record charts mean absolutely nothing anymore; they no longer have any cultural significance anymore. Whereas when I was growing up it was important what was in the top twenty and it was important that you saw Top Of The Pops. Back in the day twenty-five million people would all be watching Top Of The Pops. It was a cultural event.

That does not happen anymore. The whole industry is more fragmented. However change is inevitable; things don’t get frozen in time. The 60’s and the 70’s were a golden time when I was growing up with music. Music was a very important thing culturally but I don’t think that music has that same level of importance anymore Kevin. There are still people out there who are making great music and if you are into it you can get anything.

You mentioned Top Of The Pops, how did you feel on your first appearance?

I think that our first appearance was with Digging Your Scene in early ’86. I just remember thinking that the whole thing was rather regimented. You had to be there at the BBC at nine o’clock in the morning, you were made to do a number of run-throughs then you would stop and have lunch. I remember that after lunch you were made to do even more run-throughs. However the whole event was exciting because it was Top Of The Pops. It was amazing but all very BBC if you know what I mean (laughter). Luckily Jimmy Saville wasn’t on our episode so we didn’t have to deal with any of that kind of thing (laughter).

What surprised me was that there was only an audience of around forty people in there. The crew just used to move them around the studio and put them in front of a camera. The bizarre thing was that you were miming. Although I grew up watching Top Of The Pops and I was used to that, it was still a slightly weird atmosphere.

The Blow Monkeys are preparing to get back out on the road touring. Are you looking forward to it?

We head out on the road in April and we will be touring almost throughout the whole year with Festivals and other dates as we go along. For me the whole job is about touring, it still is that. The live thing is a work in progress as I really don’t like to rehearse too much. As we are the four original members then luckily we don’t need to rehearse too much. I like to throw in plenty of new songs whilst trying new ways to play the old songs. I always try to keep it alive and keep it in the moment. But I have to say that for me touring is the best part of being a musician. I still love that buzz of just stepping out onto the stage. Singing and playing just make me feel better. It is a relief for me (laughter).

I am not naturally an outgoing gregarious sort of person. I would much prefer to just sit and read so touring gets me out of the house (laughter).

When The Blow Monkeys split in 1990, looking back, was that the right time?

I think it was; I think that we had reached a point where taking a break was the right thing for all of us to do. When we recorded the Springtime For The World album it actually felt like a solo album to me. At that time I was really getting into Techno and House and it just felt like we had come to the end of something. There were a whole new bunch of bands coming up such as Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, and that kind of thing. I simply wanted to do something different. We had moved out of London and into the country and I had started writing more acoustically and there were a whole load of reasons but yes, it did feel like the right time.

On 18th November 2007 the four of you announced the reunion of The Blow Monkeys. What was the reason for you getting back together?

To that question I would have to say that I really don’t know, you tell me (laughter). You are fast-forwarding a generation there Kevin. It was an eighteen year gap where all of our kids had been born, were now grown up and had left home, or supposedly left home (laughter). I just felt that it was time for me to get into a band again, get out and tour and do all of the things that I enjoyed once again. It all just happened at the same time plus we all thought that we had some unfinished business that we needed to take care of. The whole remit was that we were going to be making new music. We made a conscious decision that we would not just do the nostalgia circuit. So yes I think that it was the right time to get this thing back out there.

And collectively do the kids like their dads music?

I think that they do but they won’t say it (laughter). They discover certain pieces that we have done in the past on the internet which I sometimes get asked about. I think that what we did back then has become more acceptable as they have gotten older. I think that initially it was an embarrassment. I’m half joking but you do these things for the TV and videos back in the day, never ever expecting anything such as YouTube to be invented, but suddenly everything that you ever did wherever in the world is suddenly there.

For example I can remember us doing the Tom O’Connor show in the 80’s and I was just taking the piss. Sure enough it now turns up on YouTube and the kids are asking me what the hell I was doing and just what was I thinking. You didn’t know that the internet was going to be invented and that these things would haunt you for the rest of your life (laughter). Never mind.

On 2nd May you are releasing your new solo album Out There. You will be out on the road with The Blow Monkeys whilst releasing your solo album. Does that cause any problems or conflict?

Not at all Kevin, there certainly isn’t any conflict with the band. To be honest I have got enough energy to be able to do both. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t do anything anymore so I have now got lots of time on my hands and lots of energy. I really did want to do this new album.

Is it true that you recorded it at home on an old 8 track tape machine?

Yes that’s right. I am now living in Spain and I have a recording studio in the house. I found my old 8 track machine which had been in storage for over twenty years and I never expected it to work, but to my amazement it did. At that point I just thought that I would be able to record a lovely acoustic album in my studio at home with the help of a few local musicians. I had seen some guys who were busking in Granada and the whole thing came together really quickly. I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no reason why I couldn’t run both projects together.

Did using your old 8 track machine give the album a different feel, almost as though you had gone back in time?

It a way it did because it took me back to the sort of equipment that I used to use. I wanted to do this album live and in one take. It was totally different from using a computer where you can get in there, clean everything up and make everything in time. With the 8 track it is all about capturing a performance and the 8 track sounds great when you are using acoustic instruments which is all I used. It sounded fantastic. It was rather like going back to the future really because it sounds great. My son who is in his mid-twenties now and who is well into his computer music, was fascinated by the whole process of getting everything down on tape. Its old school, it sounds great and it does have a quality. There is a physicality which you can’t deny.

What can you tell me about the album?

Not a lot really (laughter). One thing that I tried to do with this album was to take myself out of my comfort zone. I detuned all of the guitars into strange tunings so that I couldn’t use the chords that I used to use. I wanted to challenge myself and get that feeling that you get when you are just sitting around in the kitchen, playing just for the fun of it. That was the whole thing that I tried to do and that is what I tried to capture and I think that I did. I certainly don’t expect Radio 2 to be playing this one (laughter). The thing is to surprise yourself and to keep it interesting. I think that the people who have followed my solo career will like the new album.

Will you be able to get out and tour the album?

Yes I will and I am adding in gigs at the moment. Actually a gig in Nottingham came in for me today. I will continue to push through and do both. I will just put my guitar in the boot, get myself into the car and go. I like that it makes me feel like a troubadour.

Will you be putting the album out on vinyl?

Yes I will, in fact the albums are being pressed up as we speak.   The artwork for the vinyl has just been completed and all is looking good. We had to get it done quickly because the rush starts soon, as everybody will be trying to get items pressed up for Record Store Day. There will only be a limited run of around five hundred but it will look really nice. I can’t wait as I haven’t done vinyl for years; it will be great fun.

Are you always writing?

Yes Kevin, just in case, because you never know when you might have a period where your ideas simply dry up. If you have got your eyes open then there is always something happening, there is always something to write about. Plus whilst it has never as yet happened to me, touch wood, you never know when your inspiration may dry up. I just store little fragments and then when it comes time to put them all together I sit down and work them out. I am always singing weird little fragments into my phone and writing bits of lyrics down (laughter). That is what I do.

Do you find the whole writing process easy?

I wouldn’t say that it is easy, I have had to work at it over the years. I have been doing it for a long time now, so there is a certain amount of craft. I am at the point now where I am not trying to repeat myself, I am trying to surprise myself which includes changing the methods, taking risks and more importantly not being afraid to fail. Writing is a process that I really do enjoy. The best bit is coming up with a new song and then playing it my wife, my family or whoever, realising that you have invented something new.

On the subject of creating something new, have you ever spent time working on an idea only to realise that it is something that you had done before?

Yes I have, I have done stuff and thought that this is no good because I am just repeating myself a bit here. So they go into the drawer to come out later to be deconstructed and put back together in another way. You have to feel a spark of excitement about what you are writing.

Who has inspired you along the way?

There have been lots of people Kevin. When I first started out that would have been Marc Bolan and then later on in life it would have been the whole punk scene. People like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller bought politics into music whilst (David) Bowie was always there. I loved Bob Dylan because he leads you back to the blues. I have always liked to do the archaeological digs in order to find out where they got it from so I have spent years just listening to everyone who ever played in Greenwich Village over there in America.

Also in there would be lots and lots of soul music which I had grown with and in particular Curtis Mayfield. I love every sort of music with the exception of heavy metal (laughter). Heavy metal is pretty much the only thing that I have never managed to get into. I was never a fan of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath or any of that stuff; it was never really my vibe. Apart from that I listen to most things.

I’m an old soulie, I just love everything Motown.

When I was growing up the whole northern soul thing was really big in Kings Lynn which is where I lived. There was a well-known record store there called Soul Bowl which was a massive import place. My friends at school were really into northern soul and went to the all-nighters but unfortunately I was too young and I wasn’t allowed to go which for me was really frustrating. But it was all part of my upbringing, listening to the music that they would bring into school. Listening to soul music is a massive part of my DNA.

When I was growing up as a kid in the 60’s my elder sisters were all massive music fans and they would listen to lots of soul together with (Bert) Bacharach and (Hal) David. Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Petula Clark, Sandie Shaw, Dionne Warwick all of that sixties thing was always being played in our house. There is something in me that is always drawn towards that melodic singing style. I have often tried to do that Bert Bacharach type of song but I can’t, because musically the man is a genius.

Another of the great writers is Jimmy Webb who wrote Do What You Gott’a Do which was recorded by Nina Simone.

And I remember the Four Tops recording it too.

Yes they did Kevin but what a great, great song.

I have to admit that I know Soul Bowl really well, it was on Portland Street as I recall.  John Anderson took quite a lot of money off me during the mid to late 70’s (laughter).

Really, well all that I can say is that it is a very small world Kevin don’t you think. I know that my school friends spent hours and hours in there just looking at all of the records that they had for sale.

On the subject of records, what was the first record that you bought?

That would have been Ride A White Swan by T. Rex which still sounds as good now as it did back in 1970. It’s a great song because if you listen to it there are no drums on there, just a tambourine and a pulse beat. I really do think that Ride A White Swan is the best record that Marc Bolan ever made. The guitar sounds fantastic. Bolan was a very important figure for me as a teenager because again it was a magical world of Top Of The Pops together with that music. After I bought this I went straight out to Woolworths and bought My People Were Fair And Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content To Wear Stars On Their Brows which was the very first Tyrannosaurus Rex album. I once read that Marc liked The Incredible String Band so I went out and bought their album (laughter).

Who did you first see playing live in concert?

When I was fifteen years old I went to live in Australia for five years and the first band that I ever saw was Jethro Tull in 1976. It was just when everyone else was getting into punk, and I was totally pissed off that I was twelve thousand miles away (laughter). At the time I knew nothing at all about Jethro Tull and to be honest I didn’t really like it. It was at the time that they were touring the Songs From The Wood album which I found to be a little weird. It was all about standing on one leg whilst playing the flute.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Oh god Kevin that is almost impossible for me to answer simply because there have been so many. I don’t really look at it like that. If I am being honest one of the things that has been the biggest thrill has to be being given the opportunity to sing with Curtis Mayfield. We just set up in the studio sitting opposite each other; I was twenty-five years old and a massive Curtis fan. I remember trying to do my best Curtis Mayfield impression and there is the man sitting opposite me doing it. That was a surreal moment for me. He was such a lovely guy and he reaffirmed everything that I thought about him and people like him. You don’t have to be an arsehole, the ones who are really truly the best are also the most humble. Curtis Mayfield was like that.

On that note Robert let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me.

No problem Kevin, it’s been a pleasure. You take care and thanks for talking to me today. Bye.