This interview probably requires no introduction, but I’ll take a stab anyways. Al Howard’s bands have kept me busy this past year and I’m eternally grateful for finding his music and the paths it’s led me down. My first attempt at an interview came last February when the prolific artist offered some supremely interesting (and hilarious) answers to my questions. Seeing another side of how the music and projects I love so much have come together is fascinating to me. After Al I kept doing interviews and got to know some other incredible talents in town. Thus, I felt it only fitting to make interviewing Al a tradition. With a (mostly) new set of questions and Al busy as always I was aiming to put this out next month but the over-acheiver sent me these stellar answers last week and I simply couldn’t keep them to myself. Hope ya’ll like it as much as I did. You can catch Mr. Howard in action a couple times this week- Thursday 1/24 at Soda Bar playing with The Midnight Pine with River City and Old Tiger AND Friday 1/25 at Winstons playing with The Heavy Guilt with The Steelwells and Boy King. Enjoy!
1. It’s been nearly a whole damn year since I asked you to be my first interview. What have you been up to since then?
I filled up three El Zarape frequent buyer cards (they exist, but those cats aren’t swift to tell you). Started some new music projects (the Midnight Pine, the Jade Lions if the title stands). I found a couple of gray hairs. Recorded a few records. Moved a record store. Wrote some articles. Rewatched the Wire. Gradually shoplifted a couple pounds of macadamia nuts. Quit sugar. Got pissed at the world about having to quit sugar. Finally got Erik from the Heavy Guilt to watch Peep Show, not a nudie thing, the british comedy.
2. With so many projects going you must be a good mutitasker- I heard a legendary tale of you biking with no hands while eating a burrito and talking business with a fellow musician on the phone. Any other epicness-in-multitasking stories to share?
I once had sex while playing tetris, but that was a long time ago and I had her blessing, we were both curious if it could be done. It can young nerd lovers, it can! I’ve gotten pretty good at biking with no hands and texting, song writing and occasionally booking shows. So far, I got in one accident, it was during the blackout when I hit what I believe to be a time hardened prostitute on El Cajon Blvd. She walked away unscathed, I dented up my head pretty good and lost my phone and couldn’t find it in the dark. I also type lyrics while I watch Dexter cause that show sucks now, but I persist cause I’m a completest, I never write during Breaking Bad because that is sacrilege.
3. The vocalists you work with are some of the best I’ve heard in San Diego. How do you know when you’ve found the right singer for a project? Does your afro tingle when your spidey sense goes off?
I’m a lucky kinda cat I guess. Erik from the Guilt was the first vocalist I ever worked with. It sounds lame cause I’m about to invoke the word “magical” and I think that’s generally reserved for butterfly new age hippies and well…..magicians, but we have a pretty magical bond. A lot of completing each other’s thoughts and shit. I don’t know if I could have broke the ice on this kind of collaboration with anyone but him, but it was a really easy and natural process. Our musical tastes overlap pretty thoroughly and I feel like I get his voice and the kind of sentiment it feels most natural emoting. I met Heather from the Sands and when I heard her voice she sounded exactly like a project I had been dreaming about, some desert twang and dead serious soul. She puts a lot of strength and passion behind her performance and is really inspiring to work with. Then young Shelbi from the Midnight Pine is a special kinda talent. I’m actually up in some redwoods with her right now, mixing the third Guilt record. She let me drive her burgundy Toyota Corolla (same color, model and filthy floored mess I drove when I was her age). We had a “team building exercise” meandering up the 1 this past week. I see a lot of myself in her, that is if I was a ferocious 21 year old girl with a terrifying vocal gift and a passion for ginger chews. Mostly she’s young and hungry and confident, I feel like I get to take her under my broken wing a little. I’m about to start a soul project with Rebecca Jade, another freakishly gifted vocalist. I think they just all have sympathy on me cause I sing like the asshole with ill advised pride at the karaoke bar.
4. I know I’m not the only one excited for The Heavy Guilt’s third album- what can fans expect from this record? And tell us a bit about the recording process the third time around.
I’m sitting in Ukiah mixing it right now with ginger genius Timin Murray. We stayed up til 3:30 watching Easy Rider, Antiques Roadshow and getting ready to mash this shit. If this album doesn’t make me enough dough to eat sushi on the regular, I don’t know what will. I’m so proud of this record. I really feel like we’ve had our own sound since day one, but as all young bands do, we leaned on our influences, you hear hints of Wilco or Dylan (hopefully) cause those cats raised us, but on this record we really shed the weight of our predecessors and did our own thing. Jason Littlefield is the allstar on this record, he did horn arrangements, played violin, mandolin, bowed upright, Rhodes and bass. His lines are so rad and pronounced on this album, just real tasty shit. Josh once again wrote the abundance of music on this record and he delivered great compositions. But it’s unfair to really single out individuals (I’m just listening to Jason plow through “Thoughts” in the background right now and it is epic). The whole band is such a tight unit and this record is a combination of love, the polite tension of 10 extreme days in a studio and in the end, a mutual respect.
5. What are some of your favorite SD venues to play and where do you like to stomp outside of our fine town? Any touring plans or a trip to SXSW this year?
I love the Casbah, especially now that I know there’s a special bathroom for the bands. Belly Up is always fun. I met a fellow birdwatcher there last time we played, that never happens, so I had someone to talk to about the Yellow Billed Magpie I saw yesterday. Winstons is a special place to me, I work around the corner at a record store and OB has a special kind of magic (shit!, twice in 1 interview). Once this album drops we’ll be out on the road, I don’t know where we’re going, but when we do, I’ll tell you.
6. When you write song lyrics do you have a vision for what the song will be/sound like or is that something that comes later? Does the band you’re writing for influence this process or do you write the tunes and then pick which project they will work for?
It depends. I have a long word document of unused songs, you could probably make a longer more boring movie than the Hobbit with all those pages (hearsay, I still have to see it). I send it to Josh and Erik and they put it to music. Sometimes it comes back totally different than I intended it, a soul song in my mind was a Queens of the Stone Age sounding song in Josh’s, other times it’s uncanny that they saw the exact direction I envisioned. Anytime I write with Sean the basic music comes first and we’ll hammer out the rest together. I dig writing different ways. And now that I know the voices of the singers I’m working with, I try to write things for specific individuals to convey.
7. After so many years in music, surely you’ve had discouragements, bad reviews, etc- how do you stay motivated especially with several bands?
Let’s see, I opened for a midget Kiss cover band. Drove 7 hours to get there, played for 7 people, Mini Kiss played for about 600, then drove home. Told my mom. Thought about my life choices. Built a fortress of regret. Literally played for peanuts and Josh’s brother in Carbondale Colorado on a Tuesday night. Played hippie protest rock in some biker bars and had some military gents garner incendiary distain for my antiwar poems. I’ve read some bad reviews, some jaded folks. When I was younger I solely believed that critics criticized what they couldn’t understand and that my art was somehow beyond them. Time revealed that these critiques caught something that I missed. When you’ve heard a song you’ve worked thousands of times, its flaws grow into charms, its faults can escape you, but not someone hearing it for the first time. I’ve learned to read and react to those criticisms with an open mind as opposed to bitter cynicism. I’m a better artist because of it. I also hate every record I’ve ever made, but after each record it takes me a little bit longer before I hate it. I think that this is a sign of growth. I want to be better and I’m not content to settle into the symmetry of my past. Though I’m elated to have framed every moment of growth along the line, until I get old and washed up and start putting out regrettable efforts like the Smashing Pumpkins or any of my favorite bands that didn’t overdose in a bathroom at their prime like they should have.
8. Your new super group of sorts, The Jade Lions, includes some Heavy Guilt, some Black Sands, a Styletone and singer Rebecca Jade of The Jade Element- how did that project come to be and how is it different from your other groups?
I wrote the lyrics for the Jade Element album. It’s a rad record, but when I listen to soul I prefer what was happening on Stax in the late 60s and early 70s, late 70s soul and even later neo soul stuff doesn’t have the tone I long to hear in music. There are two songs that come to mind when I think of what I want the Jade Lions to sound like, Baby Huey Hard Times and Otis Redding I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Naturally, we have some tricks up our sleeves and since there’s 4 members of the Guilt involved, a bit of that is gonna come through as well. This is the first time I’ve gotten to work with Jake Najor who is in about 50 times as many bands as I am and it is a blast. He’s a beast of a drummer and knows exactly what a song needs the first time he hits it. Deep pocket that one.
9. Your collection of bands is as unique, diverse, and ever-evolving as your arsenal of instruments – how do you stay focused in each one of these groups? Any tricks or tools you use to stay in touch with your own voice within a band?
My strength in music has been my inability to play anything or know any theory (and surrounding myself with people with the opposite skillset). I can immerse my ears in anything and nothing really puts me off, and I come into it with a different perspective than someone who knows what they’re doing. I’m a sponge and I listen hard. I work at a record store, I write music reviews, I drive with a soundtrack. It can be Charles Mingus, it can be Fantomas, the Rachels, Tom Waits, I’m open to anything that isn’t modern pop country cause it makes me poo or dubstep cause I’m old and I don’t know what it is. I want to do a little of everything and I think I can write in almost any genre.
10. What’s up next for you and all your music projects?
2013 is going to be a great year. I feel like I’m on the precipice overlooking something great. I feel a pulse behind me and it’s been getting louder on the daily. I feel like something is due to break and I hope the rising tide lifts all ships. The San Diego music scene is ripe with talent and I feel blessed to be a part of it.
11. Last but not least, the Five S’s of Sounds in San Diego
Sound You Love: That quick hiss at the beginning of HBO shows, my shower makes the same noise.
Sound You Hate: I accidentally farted when Erik was driving us home. Planned farts are funny. Someone says something like “Do you know if the Chargers won last night” and you respond with a fart, that shit is hilarious. But if you’re having a conversation about gun control and it’s resulting effects on incessant violence of our oft dyslexicly prioritized society and you get to a red light and a little unplanned air baby slips out and there is a moment of silence where you are unsure if your body’s failure was detected or not. Well, I fucking hate that sound.
Spot in San Diego You Have to See: I took a walk with Shelbi Bennett last week in this off the beaten path Mission Hills neighborhood, the plants and architecture are incredible. I want to squat in a house back there one day.
San Diego Band You’re a Fan Of: I like them Dirty Siren gals. Their drummer is a fucking Monster, I think I saw him with a Lamb of God shirt and he drums like someone who owns a Lamb of God shirt. I really like the new New Kinetics record, they got some tones on that bastard! Podunk Nowhere has a new record coming out and Heather and Johnny (from the Black Sands) write some terrific songs. John Meeks is putting out some new shit too that I’m really looking forward to.
Song That Makes You Smile: I’ve been obsessed with a song called “Shivers“, the Divine Fits version, although it is originally from the Boys Next Door, Nick Cave’s earliest band I believe (though it was written by the guitarist), that song is incredible. I also love that new Tame Impala record. Been listening to the Only Living Boy in New York a bunch too (Simon and Garfunkle), they’re the first real music I ever got into. Sounds of Silence turned me on my head when I was a kid. Made me want to write. Also, the acoustic version of “Not Over You” by Jason Collett and “No Way” by Damnation. None of those songs make me smile, they’re all depressing or full of bombast. Watching some kid I don’t know fall off a skateboard though, that shit makes me smile.