In some ways, the sound of John Howes, who makes music simply under his surname Howes, is a fair reflection of Manchester where he resides having moved there from Newcastle for university. It’s pretty much always overcast or raining, but within its sodden, post-Industrial shell lies a heartbeat of culture and a city bound by its love of music. When we managed to catch Howes perform his analogue live show at the Eagle Inn in Salford a few months back, a red brick pub which sits oddly beside a modern day industrial estate, our interest was piqued. His music, while unquestionably in the realms of drone and ambient, has flickers of techno and club music throughout. With his fantastic LP 3.5 Degrees coming out on Melodic Records on 15th January, we decided to have a chat to John to see how the record came about and he kindly sent us over ‘Zeroset’, one of the record’s choice cuts.
Tell me about your musical background/influences. “When I was about 12 or 13 my sister would bring back CDs from uni, and she played this Bugged Out! Classics compilation in the car and it was just full of total weapons of the time. That one compilation kicked off so many different strands of stuff. There’s some really cheesy tracks on it looking back but it had “The Sky Was Pink (Holden Remix)” and that was my favourite track for about 10 years. When you’re a kid you listen to some shit hand-me-down music, but I was pretty lucky that mine was quite good. That led me to all sorts and by the time I was 14 or so I guess I started to form my own taste. By 15 or 16 I was rinsing albums every day and digging through Discogs and linking up artists, labels and discovering loads.”
So how did you get towards where you are now, with the more ambient side of things? “[William Basinki’s] Disintegration Loops was one of the big ones I caught onto then and that lead me onto Kranky and Tim Hecker and you hear those kinds of sounds creeping into club music. By the time I was 18 and I was going out a bit and it all sort of fell into place. Being in Manchester at that time was pretty good because you’d go to Joshua Brooks and you’d have Joy Orbison and Objekt play within two weeks of each other. I was aware of Ostgut Ton but I just listened to stuff like Shed’s albums at home. Then I went to their night in Store Street at the Warehouse Project and that was the first time I’d really heard that stuff in a club. Hearing that made me start making house/techno and I started to DJ occasionally which lead to the making of the tracks on the first 12″ for Melodic. I’d go to these great nights then you’d go home and listen to really weird stuff with your mates. One of my favourite records from that time is [An Electric Storm LP] White Noise. I found myself getting more interested in the more experimental stuff rather than straight up club tracks just from listening to those weirder records after going out.”
Let’s talk about your forthcoming LP 3.5 Degrees. How did these influences lead you to that? “After the first 12″ I was getting contacted by labels saying that if I made a really good club record they’d put it out. So I spent ages trying to make this perfect record but I just couldn’t do it and I began to get really frustrated. I’d lost interest in most club music by then and took a lot more pleasure in just making stuff to listen to at home. A lot of the tracks on the LP are just a result of me coming home from work on a Friday night being really, really stressed out and to chill out I’d just make modular patches. I’d start patching something on Friday, switch if off and go to bed and start working again on it on Saturday morning and see it through the end of the day and by the end of the weekend I’d have this one big idea for a track. Then because I was so familiar with the patch on Sunday night I’d record five minutes exploring it and then 6 of the 8 tracks on the record are just those recordings. They weren’t made with the intention of making an album or anything, it was just made to chill out and get away from everything you know? There’s so many moments where everything links up and I’d just leave it playing and enjoy listening for a bit. It’s just a completely different process from trying to make a really good club record. You’re just sitting there programming drums and then you EQ them and do all this shit and you’ve got this perfectly compressed EQ’ed drum sound but there’s no idea for a track. The way I make stuff now it’s constantly running, it’s constantly on the move. You don’t have time to question yourself and refine things you just do the best you can. It’s made purely for my own pleasure and if other people enjoy it too then that’s amazing because there’s a kind of direct connection there between my instinctive taste and the listener’s – rather than creating a perfected version of an idea, this stuff has all my failures and mistakes on show. That’s why it’s really nice to hear when people like the record, because this is just stuff that plays in my house when I’m doing chores or whatever.”How was the record produced? Is it mostly analogue? “Yeah it’s nearly all done analogue with some Max/MSP bits on certain tracks, that stuff allows me to add extra LFOs or sequencers when I can’t afford more modules. I’ve been refining this setup for years and I’ve got this really personalised system. The box that I used for my live show is what most of the tracks on the album were made on. It’s got 3 voices but only one sequencer so you have to be creative with the patch to get around those limits. Most of the tracks come from semi-random setups where you instruct each voice but it’s also got a degree of flexibility or its own decision making system patched in. One of the reasons I like making music in this way is that you lose control of certain parameters which you can choose to work with or against. It’s cool because you can create this really complex music making device on the spot and you decide which bits you want to influence and which bits you let go. I did the live show [supporting Loscil] and that was the first time I’d played a live set like that, but after the gig I’d practised with that system so much I got sick of it I dismantled it. That live set was recorded and it’s hopefully coming out on videogamemusic in March.”
How long did it actually take for you to get your head around all the analogue stuff? Do you find it more straightforward to work with? “For me the focus isn’t on the analogue aspect of the equipment its more about personalising a work flow to fit exactly with my way of thinking. For me Max and the modular works best because the ideas I want to explore aren’t possible with most plugins or normal synths. If you gave me someone else’s synth I wouldn’t know what to do with it and at the same time if you tried to sell my synth as it is nobody else would want it, only me. It’s set up basically to suit exactly how I want to approach making sounds. Modular stuff is a lot more accessible than it used to be but if you start out by going on forums or whatever you just end up building this system that isn’t tailoured to you. For me the reason to get into it is so that you find your own way of exploring your own individual ideas and expressing yourself – something I can’t do on keys or other instruments.”
You said you had that tape coming out on videogamemusic, have you got anything else lined up? “Well me and my mates do this label called Cong Burn Waves. We share a studio in Salford and every weekend we go in there and record stuff, we just get loads of amps and mics and synths and pedals and stuff and just bash out tunes and record. We had Dave McLean come in last weekend and play sax and jam and hopefully that’ll lead to something. It’s not like a band or anything but we just make music together and put it out however we want – like the mixtape or some compilations we’re getting together at the minute. The whole reason for doing it is my close mates are making such good stuff and the tunes were just sat on hard drives. None of us make similar sounding stuff really, but we’re all totally into each other’s ideas despite having quite different tastes. Like there’s club tracks and drone stuff and full band recordings – but they all have the same approach in which is everyone doing their own thing and supporting each other in whatever we decide to do next.”
3.5 Degrees is out on Melodic Records on 15th January.