Robert Howard, aka, Dr. Robert, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with The Blow Monkeys, chats with Kevin Cooper about his thoughts on streaming sites, their tour later this year to celebrate forty years together, appearing at The Solihull Festival in September and the release of their new album, Journey To You on 26th September.

Dr. Robert is the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist with The Blow Monkeys, a British new wave band who were formed in 1981.

In 1984 they released their debut album, Limping For A Generation and from their second album, Animal Magic, they released their first chart hit in 1986 called Digging Your Scene. They released a further two albums and a total of eleven singles in the UK charts before the band split in late 1990 shortly after the release of their fifth album, Springtime For The World.

Dr. Robert then pursued a solo career after briefly recording with Dee.C.Lee as Slam Slam. He released a number of his own albums and regularly toured in his own right.

In 2007 the original band members were reunited and they released a new album called Devil’s Tavern which was followed by Staring At The Sea in 2011. 2014’s If Not Now, When? was followed by their tenth studio album, The Wild River.

In March 2020 the band announced that they were heading to the studio to make their eleventh album, Journey To You which will be released in September 2021.

Whilst busy rehearsing for the Solihull Festival and promoting their latest album, Dr. Robert took some 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 am fine thank you. How are you?

I have to say that all is good at this moment in time thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not a problem at all.

And just how is life treating you in these rather strange times?

During the early days of the lockdown, I took the opportunity to get my head down because as you no doubt found, the lockdown was a bit of a novelty back in the early days. So, eventually I got my head back into writing and recorded the latest album. I have to say that I think like everyone else out there, I am over that now and I am literally gagging to engage with the world once again, meet people, play to people and be in a position where we can travel a bit.

On the subject of playing to an audience, we really must talk about The Solihull Festival.

Yes, we really should.

I recently heard that the festival which was due to be held on 24th and 25th July has unfortunately had to be cancelled.

That’s right; sadly, we were recently told that it was to be cancelled. It is always a shame when these kinds of events have to be cancelled but at this moment in time, the safety of everyone involved, the artists, the audience and all the people who work tirelessly to make sure that these events remain safe, is paramount.

However, the good news is that it will now take place on 11th and 12th September, and you will be opening. Are you looking forward to that?

Yes, I am. It’s been far too long since we last played live and I really can’t wait. We played The Solihull Festival a couple of years ago now and we really did have a great time. We have not played for almost two years now so it will be great to be back on stage playing some of the old favourites for the people, together with a few of the newer songs.

At this moment in time, how confident are you that the festival will in fact go ahead?

I do not know, I have absolutely no idea. Obviously, the management will let us know. However I have a feeling that this time it will go ahead even if we play to a reduced capacity crowd and because it is taking place outside, but right now, I simply do not know. As I have said, we are desperate to get back to it.

For you, will it be in and out or will you stay behind and watch some of your fellow artists?

I will stay, watch a band or two, say hello and have a lemonade or two as I always like to stay behind and check out what is going on (laughter). Especially now in these times it will be so good for me to catch up with old friends and be social. It will be so nice for me to meet up with some people and see just how they have been getting on.

Do you prefer festivals or smaller, intimate gigs?

To be honest with you, I like them both. I really do not mind. Right now, I will play anywhere (laughter). As I said earlier, The Blow Monkeys played The Solihull Festival a couple of years ago now, and I have to say that it was fine, it was good, and I have to say that I do not mind going on early because we always have stuff that we need to be getting on with. It will just be nice to be able to play to people again. Hopefully there will be people there; real ones would be better (laughter).

Do you think that the music industry as we knew it, will ever recover?

No, I really cannot see that happening. I cannot see things returning to what we used to call normal. However, things have changed; there have been some good things that have come out of the pandemic, some realisations together with some common sense, but we are just like everyone else, we are just desperate to get back to it and we will simply have to wait and see.

I know that historically, The Blow Monkeys do not tend to rehearse but having not played together for almost two years will you be trying to squeeze in a little rehearsal time before the festival?

(Laughter) yes, we will most probably have to simply because of the new album that we have never played together. I think that we had better do that. As you quite correctly point out, we do not usually do that, but I think that in this case we will most probably have to break the rules (laughter).

You have briefly mentioned the new album, Journey To You. Will any of the new songs make it onto the set list for the forthcoming tour?

I hope so, I am hoping that we will play Time Storm, More Than A Miracle, and I am hoping that we are able to put a couple on there, yes.

I see that you have a release date of September for the album, is it all good to go?

Yes, it is, we are all ready to go. We have a new single coming out in a couple of weeks called Dust At Her Feet, and the album will be released on 26th September.

That is great to hear, and I have to say that it is long overdue.

It is Kevin; I must agree with you and say that it truly is far too long overdue. However, as you know, there have been a lot of things happening in the world.

At this moment in time, I have two go to tracks. Firstly there is Storm, which as soon as I heard it, I immediately thought of (Burt) Bacharach and (Hal) David). And then secondly, More Than A Miracle which took me back to the disco days of 1979 and Good Times by Chic.

Really, right, well there you go, that is your job, and you are a rock critic (laughter). Those names that you mention are not bad and I will happily take that.

Are you happy with the album?

Yes, I am, I am very happy with it. I wanted to do something really strong and try to show essentially what we are all about. Bacharach and David together with soul music, they are all a part of the mix of me really and to be honest with you, I think that we have managed to do that with this album. I am really very happy with it. When I was listening to More Than A Miracle, it sounded very much like a Bernard Edwards bass riff. That is possible as his influences are all in there, but I would not sit down and analyse it to that degree, I just like them. Sometimes I do not find out for years just where I got it from, but I would have to say that is a fair call (laughter).

My heart goes out to songwriters because how do you reinvent the wheel every day?

(Laughter) that’s easy, because that is where I differ, I do not try to reinvent it, I simply keep it turning.

The last time that you and I spoke, you had found your old eight track Tascam tape recorder hidden away in your garage. Have you used it whilst making the new album?

No, we haven’t, not on this album. I did use it on my last solo album because, as you said, it is an old eight track Tascam tape machine that I still love the sound of. But no, this album was a bit more produced, if you like, so it would have been difficult to have made it using the eight-track machine.

How did not being able to get together with one another affect the making and recording of the latest album?

I have to be totally honest with you and say that it was a challenge at first, but we soon developed a way of working; a method that suited us. We know each other well so I personally know instinctively what the rest of the guys are going to play. So, in answer to your question, no, the situation didn’t affect us that much as we managed to get round it. We all have our own home studio setups and I have to say that it really was quite nice to record the album in that way for a change. Having said that, you really cannot beat all of you being in the same room, but this was an interesting and fresh way of doing it.

You will be back out on the road later this year celebrating forty years of The Blow Monkeys. There are fifteen dates already confirmed, will that list continue to grow?

Yes, it will, we are going to carry on doing that for as long as we can. Right now, we just want to keep playing so we are already putting new dates over in Ireland for the New Year, so we will just carry on; that is what we do. The nature of playing live is finite, we all know that everything is finite so I really do enjoy doing it; I want to carry on doing it for as long as I can. We have got ourselves a really good album; we have shown over the years that we can get out and do the business so that is what we want to do.

Do you still enjoy touring, or has it become a necessary evil?

(Laughter) well, it is most definitely not an evil, it is very necessary but it most definitely is not an evil. I love it, and as I have just said I do not take anything for granted, the sound check, the hotels, the travelling, all of the things that people moan about sometimes, I love all of that. I love meeting new people in a venue when I walk in, seeing what shape the sandwiches are backstage, all the things that people moan about, I love now because, as I have said to you before, I know that it is finite. And I have to say that the current pandemic has totally reinforced that idea; you really do have to enjoy it whilst you can.

I interviewed Bill Bailey and he said that he knows when it is time to get out of the hotel and have a walk around when he starts having a conversation with the trouser press (laughter).

(Laughter) well that’s Bill because we do not even have a trouser press (laughter). Bill is obviously operating at a slightly higher level than we do. I get that, I totally get what Bill is saying. Wherever we are, it does not matter if we are staying in a Travelodge, which is on the edge of town or even in an industrial estate, I still like walking around.

What are your views on streaming sites; are you for them or against them?

To be totally honest with you I am totally for them. However, having said that I feel that they need to be a lot fairer as I do not feel that the bands or the songwriters are being fairly recompensed for their contribution. I feel that they invented the system, they are doing really well out of it, suddenly everyone can now access everything that has ever been recorded on their phone, which is fine, but Spotify and the record companies are making a killing out of this and I personally think that we need to re-balance the way in which the artists and the songwriters are remunerated. Someone is making a killing here because everybody is using it, and it is not the musicians.

In which period would you say that you have been the most musically satisfied?

I would have to say now, because we have all the history behind us, together with all the experience which goes with that longevity. We are still searching, and we are still excited about making music, so it will always be now for me.

When you are writing for the band or your solo work, does it require a different mindset?

Yes, it does. I always try to write with the band in mind. I know how things will sound with the saxophone, drums, and the bass, plus I know what we can do live. However, when I am writing my solo stuff, I can literally go anywhere. So, in that case it is very different. I have to say that I like both, I like the discipline of writing for The Blow Monkeys, I love being part of a band, I love the camaraderie, the friendship, and the shared history. Then, whenever I do my own stuff, I can waffle away to an open tuned acoustic guitar forever if I want to (laughter). Whenever I play a solo gig, I will never have a set list because I really do love the improvisation, whereas The Blow Monkeys are not really set up to improvise.

If I may I would like to take you back to 2016 and your solo album, Out There, which I have to say I think is a fantastic piece of work.

Thank you, thank you so much for saying that, although I must admit that it seemed to stay below the radar for some reason. Having said that, I really do enjoy it and it really did feel good at the time. It is very sparse because of the open tuned guitars but that is what I wanted out of that album.

Are there currently any thoughts on another solo album?

Yes, I am always working away on my solo material. I have got a small recording studio set up here, and as you no doubt know, we are pretty much putting out our records ourselves these days so there really is no reason why I cannot do that. So, I think that I will do that with the next solo album which should be good to go sometime in August.

Would we see a solo tour to promote the album?

I would love that; that really would be nice. I may slip that into the schedule and play a few of the smaller clubs, which would be great.

You were twenty years old when you formed The Blow Monkeys; after forty years in the music business, what advice would you now give to your twenty-year-old self?

(Laughter) I would simply say do not listen to your sixty-year-old self, follow your instincts, and keep going. I think that probably one of my main strengths is stamina. You just have to keep going sometimes. Do not stop; keep on going even when the voice inside your head tries to tell you that you are no good, or that things are not working. You simply have to keep going. If you do that you will eventually come to a new understanding or a new clearing, but you have to remember that there are no short cuts, you have just got to keep working.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

I think that would most probably be the last David Bowie album, Blackstar. There was a tune on it called I Can’t Give Everything Away, which was absolutely beautiful. I also loved Lazarus as well. I thought that it was a marvellous piece of work. He knew that it may well be his last piece of work and he gave it his all.

I have always thought that it was a brave piece of work.

It was very brave; David was extraordinary. Also, an album that always gets to me is You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen, which was released seventeen days before he passed away. They both knew that they were dying, so really it was the ultimate gift and also very brave.

Robert, on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been lovely as usual. You take care and I hope to catch you at Solihull.

Thanks, Kevin, it’s been a pleasure to speak to you again, and thanks for all of your support. Bye for now and we will speak again at Solihull.