British pop icon and electronic music pioneer Howard Jones had a string of memorable hits in the ’80s including “Things Can Only Get Better,” “New Song” and “No One Is to Blame.” You might think he’s faded in obscurity or retired – not so. The 61-year-old is still making records, including last year’s scintillating “Engage.”
Jones is on the road this summer with Barenaked Ladies and another British synth pop act from the ’80s, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) for the longest tour of his career. The “Last Summer on Earth” tour makes a stop at Maine State Pier in Portland on Friday night. Jones’ show will be as a trio, with Robbie Bronniman who runs the sequencers and does all the sound manipulations and plays extra keyboards, and Jonathan Atkinson on electronic drums. In a telephone interview from the road, Jones spoke about his career, the tour, Buddhism and the origins of one of his famous tunes.
How is the tour going so far, and how was it playing at Red Rocks in Colorado the other night after such a long hiatus from that venue?
It’s going really well. We had an amazing show at Red Rocks. It’s one of my top three venues in the world, and it’s an amazing place just to physically be at. The last time I played there it was 1987, and I have such great memories so it was brilliant going back. It’s a very harmonious tour, all the bands are getting on really well together and it just works. You wouldn’t think that this would necessarily be a lineup you’d put together, but it works very well.
During this tour, do you play a keytar and also a stationary keyboard?
I have both. I have the keytar and my main keyboard. But what I’ve trying to do on this tour is spend as little time behind the main keyboard as possible, so I’ve programmed it so I can play most of the show from the keytar, which is great because it gets me out and about a bit more. I feel more mobile.
How heavy is the keytar you use on the road?
It sort of weighs the same as an electric guitar. The one I’ve got at the moment is made out of wood mainly then all of electronics inside. It feels like a good weight. I don’t like the mobile keyboards that are so big that they look ridiculous.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I’m engaged with the start of a four-part thing. I don’t know what to call it. Somebody’s taken up with the title quadrilogy (laughing). I mean it sounds a bit pretentious. I’ve set myself a goal of doing a four-part collection of work. I’ve started the second one, and I’ve got 10 pieces ready to go to record for release next year. It’s called “Transform.” So the whole theme of the album will be about transformation, and if you know if you want to change the world then we’ve got to change ourselves first. So that will be reflected in the music and the films that go with it. “Engage” was the start. We all have to be involved; we can’t be bystanders in life.
I’ve read that you have been a practicing Buddhist for more than 20 years. How does that inform your worldview and your music? And do you have a meditation practice?
I’ve been practicing since 1993, so that’s 23 years. I chant (the mantra) Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo in the morning for half an hour and then 10 to 15 minutes in the evening. The way it informs my work and my life is it’s a philosophy that says very much that every single person is worthy of respect and everybody has potential in their life to do extraordinary things, whether it’s manifesting at the moment or not. It’s a very positive philosophy, and it’s really based around believing in people. That really has gone well for me, because my early songs were always about that sort of thing. Really, I found the philosophy that goes with it.
Are you able to carve out time for meditation on the road?
It is more difficult on the road, but I always make time to chant in the morning. Then, just before I go on stage, I chant for the success of the show and that people will really get something from it and they’ll be energized and feel more optimistic about life.
You’ve said that “No One is to Blame” is about unfulfilled desires. Do you remember where you were or what was going on when that song came into your brain?
I do remember the moment when the idea was triggered. I was doing record company promotion in San Francisco with this great guy from Elektra Records, and we were just doing all the big stations in town and he turned to me and he said, ‘Hey Howard, what do you think of all of the amazing women here in San Francisco?’ And I said, ‘You know, they’re wonderful. They’re great, like women all over the world. They’re brilliant. But I’m very happy. I’ve got my Jan, and we’re sorted.” And then he said to me, ‘You can look at the menu, but you don’t have to eat.’ I’d never heard that expression before, so I though there’s definitely a song there. I suppose a lot of people interpret it as being about fidelity really and the dangers of messing around. It does mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
When you start the first few notes of that song and you see the eyes in the crowd light up and the cheers, does that still move you after all these years?
It does. It really does. I’m actually doing that song with Barenaked Ladies in their set. They’ve invited me to play with them, so it’s a lovely version of it with the band. It just gets such an amazing reaction. I can’t help but be very moved.
WHERE: Maine State Pier, Portland
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: $25.75 to $75.75
MORE INFO: waterfrontconcerts.com