By Lindsey Borders
Composer, artist and musician, The Howard Hughes Suite, is just as cool as his moniker suggests. The mysterious gentleman behind the music is a humble illustration from an interesting background. He creates an instrumental soundtrack emulating various moods and rhythms. He also channels various film and television sources to blend his own personal touch to create “the soundtrack to the movies in your head.” Stream his sounds via his:
Bandcamp page at: http://thehowardhughessuite.bandcamp.com/
How do you set-up your arrangements?
That depends on the desired outcome. If I’m composing a more traditional song, I’ll more than likely have created a chord progression as the starting point. I’ll play the progression on either guitar or keyboard to find a tempo with a natural feeling. Once I’ve found that I’ll lay down some drum and percussion loops and then build the arrangement from there.
Sometimes I’ll start with a drum pattern or an atmospheric loop and groove with that or I create a melodic guitar line or keyboard pad and just let it take me where it wants to go. I also enjoy sonically manipulating guitar or keyboard phrases and letting these be a catalyst for new creations.
If I use vocal samples from sources such as films or TV shows I like to create a narrative from the different elements. It tells a story to me and I hope the listener will discover one too; even if it’s different to my own personal interpretation. On the whole I don’t have a fixed approach; it’s whatever works for each new track. I try not to have too many formulas for working as these can become restricting. The best thing to do whether you’re composing a new piece, remixing or doing production work is to try and add whatever the song calls for (always serve the song!) and be as spontaneous as you can and capture the performance.
I love the whole process and it’s truly magical when something previously unimagined reveals itself.
It’s also a unique and valued experience to be able to lose yourself in the moment when creating, be it a piece of music, a painting or drawing, etc.
What draws you to a song in particular? The tone and mood it sets, the wording, or both?
I’m invariably drawn to the feel and sound of a piece of music. The atmosphere and groove are always very important. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, it’s just a reaction on a purely gut level. The instrumentation, arrangement or production comes next. Something reaches out and grabs my attention, or just simply moves me. The words are generally the last thing I home in on. As soon as you start listening to the words it becomes an intellectual exercise as opposed to a visceral listening experience. I can’t read music, so it’s always on an instinctive level that I listen and work.
How did you get involved in music?
Looking back, I realise I was interested in music from a really early age, before I even started to learn an instrument with any real dedication. I grew up in a very musical household. My dad played drums in various bands and at home he had a beautiful tobacco-sunburst semi-acoustic guitar (kind of like a Gibson 335), various keyboards, a twin neck lap steel, an autoharp, harmonicas and various other instruments. He can get a tune out of pretty much anything! He had a lot of hi-fi equipment – a nice turntable and amp, tuner, reel-to-reel recorder (which he’d record stories for us on and add sound effects, etc…) and a great record collection. To name but a few of the artists we’d hear, there would be a mix of anything from Paul Simon (so immediately you’re hearing Steve Gadd and his sublime drumming!), Kraftwerk, Vangelis, Kate Bush, Gerry Rafferty, Joe Egan, Joan Armatrading, Fleetwood Mac, Tomita, George Harrison (there was a really rare album where George called himself Harry Georgeson – I’ll have to dig that out of his collection) and countless other superb bands and artists plus a large dose of country music (hence my love of the pedal steel guitar) and there was always music playing in the house. Even on trips to the shops music would be played in the car and if there wasn’t any music playing then dad would be drumming rhythms out on the steering wheel to some tune in his head. I had a great education musically at home and to paraphrase Rainer Ptacek – someone taught me without teaching – and that’s continued with pretty much all the musicians I’ve ever worked with.
My earliest musical memory, when I was maybe five or six, is being transfixed by the title sequence to the TV programme The Persuaders. I must have enjoyed listening to other pieces of music before that, but I distinctly remember that was the first time I was taken out of myself and moved by music. It still does the same to me whenever I hear that track now.
I find it a very moving and powerful composition and I think it’s interesting that it is in many ways a melancholic piece as I’m still drawn to music of a melancholic nature.
I do remember that on visits to my dad’s parents’ house that I couldn’t wait to play on this really old-fashioned harmonium that my grandmother owned. It was made from some lovely wood and had all the push/pull stops like you see on big church organs, it was a really ornate and beautiful instrument. Only one of the pump-pedals worked, but the sound was fantastic.
I wish I’d been able to record what I was doing back then, because even though I never learnt to read music or had any formal training, I’m sure what I was creating by ear was harmonically-sound. I would just create shapes on the keys with my right hand and when a certain shape was pleasing to my ear I’d then add bass notes with my left hand. My keyboard style hasn’t really changed much since. My grandfather also played the bones and harmonica, so music and rhythm is in my blood.
I was really into rhythm from an early age. I had a very rudimentary ‘drum’ set-up. I’d have biscuit tins and ice-cream tubs for my snare and toms and a heavy pillow for the bass drum all laid out before me whilst I used a pair of my mum’s wooden knitting needles for drumsticks. I’d play along to music on a small mono tape recorder. I don’t remember specific tracks from this period, but I do recall they usually had a thumping beat.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I took up an instrument with any real intent. I’d become side-tracked with art and so music was put on hold, but it wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that happened.
I got my first guitar for Christmas just before my 16th birthday. It was a Kay student-size steel strung acoustic. My dad showed me some chords and once I’d mastered a handful I began to learn the usual songs, such as ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Streets of London’, ‘Moon Shadow’ by Cat Stevens, etc. After a while I’d attempt to play along as best I could to all sorts of records and I’ve never looked back.
I worked through the next summer holiday washing dishes in a local hotel and bought my first electric guitar which was a Kay Les Paul copy. I was given an old reel-to-reel to use as an amp, but also with this I could record stuff as well. Speed things up, slow recordings down and reverse stuff too.
After a year or two of practicing and playing along to records I got together with Lee Cann, a good friend from way back when, who had just started to learn to play the drums. We were both just starting to learn our respective instruments and would spend days rehearsing and jamming together. He’s a great musician with a distinctive playing style all of his own that I’d say was closest in feel to Manu Katche.
For a long time after starting to learn the guitar I would listen almost exclusively to guitar based music, but at some point I heard the music to the opening of the Arena arts programme. I looked into who composed the piece and discovered it was a track by Brian Eno. I bought the album (Another Green World) from which it was taken and this opened a whole new world to me which led me on to a whole new universe of artists and producers to be inspired by. I’ve always loved being turned-on to new music and artists and also turning other people on to new stuff too. If you take the time and look closely enough one artist leads to another fresh discovery. It’s never ending and the internet is a wonderful tool for finding original and exciting material that might easily have gone un-noticed.
I played for many years in a whole host of different bands that covered a really wide range of styles which was fantastic experience for when I got into session work. There were many, many gigs all over the country and from time to time we’d get the chance to go to a studio to record. I fell in love with the recording process when I first messed about with 4 track recorders, but each and every time I went into a real studio I felt really at home and much more comfortable than playing live. I think that without a doubt the studio is my natural environment. I’ve worked with some great musicians (too many to mention here, but you know who you are), producers and composers including Steve Marshall, Roger Bolton and the late Martin Rushent.
When I was doing session work there were a lot of different TV programmes I worked on including, ‘Bugs’ which was a British spy series on BBC TV, ‘Excise and Customs’ for Granada TV and the ‘Extreme Machines’ series for the Discovery channel. A very distinct memory from this period was from working on a cue for an episode of ‘Extreme Machines’ which was about the stealth bomber. As we watched the rushes for a scene of the aircraft sitting shimmering in the desert heat, I thought ‘I have the perfect piece for this’. I had recently composed a short track on Dobro that was inspired by the music from the movie ‘Paris, Texas’. I played the track and asked Roger if he’d like to base the cue on this. He liked the composition immediately and after recording the track at his studio, we took the completed piece to Coach House Studios in Bristol, where the band Massive Attack were based, to record the Bristol Philharmonic adding some extra magic. This was my first experience of hearing an orchestra in full-flight and as Roger conducted, I sat listening and watching. The original cue was played through the amazing studio PA system and the track starts with my solo Dobro and then the orchestra builds and merges with the bottleneck guitar. It gave me chills then and does to this day if I listen back to a recording.
The track can be found Here: http://soundcloud.com/rogerdecomposer/discovery-stealth
I think my favourite out of all the session work, was an album I did with a friend of mine, the producer Steve Marshall, for an artist from Senegal called Laye Sow. The album was called ‘Djamano’ and it got superb reviews (including a wonderful quote for my playing from the late, great Charlie Gillett! ). I did a few gigs to promote the album too and played at Liverpool Cathedral for an edition of BBC3’s ‘The Late Junction’ which was broadcast live, Marlborough jazz festival (which is my old home town), Momo in London and Glastonbury twice in one day.
In the afternoon we did material from the album just with Laye Sow and a couple of other musicians and then in the evening I played with his band ‘Jelitara Futa’ and did the whole set from start to finish without having previously heard any of the material. I was just told the key of the track before we started each piece. As I recall I held my own. There’s a video recording of it somewhere that I’d like to watch if I can ever track it down.
Steve and I collaborated on an album for ‘The Howard Hughes Suite’, which is yet to be released, but you can hear a small sample of it here: http://soundcloud.com/stevemars/sets/the-howard-hughes-suite/
About 7 years ago I decided to stop the session work and concentrate on my own compositions and to improve my production skills. I’m now getting close to the sound I’m searching for, but I know I’ve still got a long way to go and loads to learn. I’m pleased to say that I don’t think you ever stop learning.
You seem to be very much into photography; how do you think pictures and music correlate?
I think that without fail they both enhance each other in so many ways. If done correctly they marry beautifully, create moods and stir emotions that watched or listened to on their own, just wouldn’t happen. Also, just as a good musician ‘listens’, so a good photographer or painter ‘sees’. It’s all part of the same creative process that utilizes different senses.
Whatever art form you’re working in is just a way of trying to give emotion form or substance.
How has growing up in the UK and it’s culture influenced your choice in music?
I don’t think it has, or at least, to any great extent. When I was growing up I was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on most albums I wanted and if it was a rarity or difficult to get hold of my local independent music shop would always track it down or import it for me. If for some reason they couldn’t then I’d make a pilgrimage to London.
What are five albums you can’t live without?
JJ Cale: ‘Okie’. (This was the first album I bought of his work, but you can never go wrong with any of his music. Deceptive simplicity and groove that’s always in-the-pocket).
Brian Eno: ‘Apollo’. (Stunning and beautiful from start to finish. I could listen to this album on repeat forever).
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘Smash Hits’. (My first trip to London and I bought this. Not his best album, but it holds wonderful memories; not least, listening back to it and being suitably blown-away and inspired!)
Bob Dylan: ‘Nashville Skyline’ or ‘No Mercy’. (Sorry can’t decide! Both have great tracks.’ Nashville Skyline’ for its country slant and ‘No Mercy’ for its production.)
Tomita: ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’. (Childhood recollections and Debussy, what’s not to like?).
What was the first album you ever bought on vinyl and/or CD? Cassette too?
It was a compilation of Bond movie themes on vinyl at a school jumble sale. So I was obviously destined to get into soundtracks. I hadn’t even realized the John Barry connection between that and The Persuaders’ theme tune until now!
What was your first concert, and your favorite?
My first concert was Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall in ’87.
My favourite was Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Hammersmith Apollo in ’89.