Interview with Dylan Howe
Interview with Dylan Howe
Dylan Howe is one of those enviable musicians who can do everything. Not only is he a highly respected drummer, he is also a bandleader for his own hard bop quintet, plus a composer and arranger. He has played for many diverse artists, a few of which include Paul McCartney, Courtney Pine, Nick Cave, Gabrielle and Ray Davies. In 1997 he joined Ian Dury and The Blockheads and subsequently played on the soundtrack for ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, which received a BAFTA nomination for ‘Best music’. On Dylan’s own label, Motorik Recordings, he has recently released a duo album for drums and piano of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite Of Spring Part 1’ with pianist Will Butterworth.
Dylan grew up in very musical surroundings and still plays for his father, Steve Howe, guitarist for ‘Yes’.
You come from a very musical background – describe how you first got into playing drums and the influences that you had around you.
I started playing when I was 10. There was a nice 1970''s Ludwig Super Classic kit upstairs in my dad''s home studio that he got through Alan White (drummer for ‘Yes’) for £70, so I was curious and began messing around on it after school. Once I could play a bit I would have jams with him on the weekends. We''ve been playing together on and off ever since, in various lineups of his groups, most recently with his Hammond organ trio with myself and Ross Stanley.
A few years later, when I was 13, he took me to Ronnie Scott''s to see Buddy Rich with Carl Palmer, which was a real life-changing moment for me; I had never seen anything like it, or since. Dad talked to Buddy''s bass player between sets and the next day he came round to the house and we had a trio jam together! I could only really play one beat (Level 42''s ‘Hot Water’, I think) but it was fun for me and hopefully not too bad for the others. I suppose that was the first time I played with double bass, come to think of it.
Influence-wise I was really lucky. Not only did my dad have a huge and very eclectic record collection; Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Otis Redding, James Brown, Sex Pistols, Joni Mitchell, you name it. I also got a chance to see up close from a very young age great drummers like Bill Bruford and Alan White, who both gave me a few mini-lessons over the years. The American drummer Jonathan Mover gave me a lesson in the mid-eighties on his huge 16-piece kit. When I asked him about jazz he said, "Ah it''s just this; ting ting ta ting bu bap, anyway back to this...". What followed sounded like a prolonged explosion at a biscuit tin factory - I left it at that!
In what ways do you think your father and his peers have affected your approach to music and it’s business side?
I suppose the main thing was the early proof or belief that you could make a living playing music and how to make it happen. Also that it''s important to be versatile and into all styles of music, how that can shape you to be a complete musician and how you never stop learning or with work, improving.
With regard to business, I suppose that''s related to the above; being professional and working hard at it, taking it seriously. I think you really only learn how not to be ripped off or how much you''re worth through first-hand experience. I didn''t really get a lot of advice in that area, I just tried to watch and learn and get a feeling for managers and record company folk, positive and negative!
What work have you been involved in with Ian Dury and The Blockheads and how did that happen for you?
I was called by (Blockhead organist) Mickey Gallagher out of the blue in 1997 to fill in for drummer Stephen Monti on one gig with Ian and the Blocks in Nottingham. I think either the original sax player, Davey Payne, or Chaz Jankel had recommended me; I had done a session with Chaz a few months before and played with Davey with Chris Jagger''s group. I did two days rehearsal and then that gig.
Afterwards Ian sidled up to me in his inimitable way and said, "How''d your dad have such a funky little bastard like you, eh?". I took it that it had gone alright as that gig then turned into a 13-year stint; three years with Ian up to his death and then 10 with the Blockheads without him. It was such an honour. I had known when I was young that the Blockheads were always regarded as very good players so to be accepted by them was a real compliment. Also, Ian and I got on well and I learnt so much from all of them.
I''m on Live concert for Channel 5 (released soon I think), Ten More Turnips From The Tip, Brand New Boots And Panties, Straight From The Desk 2, Where''s The Party?, Staring Down The Barrel, Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll (OSR).
You’ve played on several film soundtracks. How does it differ to other playing that you do and how do you approach it?
Mostly, the tracks I''ve played on that were for films were usually with a group or bunch of musicians that I was already with so it was like a normal studio session. I haven''t done much where I''m part of an orchestra or nailing charts but I suppose that with incidental stuff that has to be a specific length, that takes more of a micro approach and you have to be very focused because you''re trying to get a lot done in a short time; very good experience for concentration.
You’ve played for a huge variety of high profile artists, ranging from Paul McCartney to Nick Cave, Courtney Pine and Damon Albarn. How do you cope with situations like those mentally, to avoid nerves etc?
Good question. I suppose it''s something like ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. Cliches come from fact, however worn out they sound. Also punctuality; giving yourself enough time to get places, set up etc and not saying too much.
The most important thing I found was perspective; to imagine your life after this big gig or session. Everything carries on and all this stuff is important but it mustn''t take over your life. The ''stars'' or important musicians are just like anyone and they''ll relax and respond better musically and socially if they feel like you feel on a level with them. Going and looking at the sea or a mountain really helps; you see how tiny all this stuff you''re worried about really is.
Finally, a little bit of detachment helps too. Some of the best playing I''ve done is when I feel like, ‘I love this and I''m going to do my 100% best but it''s not the zenith of my life so far. Everything won''t stop or crash if I make a mistake’. It''s then that the real music making starts. Keep it tight but loose and enjoy it.
Tell us about your role as bandleader for your quintet and plans that you have for the group
Being a bandleader is unlike anything else; I don''t think I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time as I did with this. It''s made me a better sideman/session musician for it. I finally get to see what it''s like on the other side of the fence and although it''s a hell of a lot of work, I feel really lucky to be able to create a platform tailored exactly to what I''m into.
The role of leader is a combination of five other peoples jobs but the main thing is really just the same as in any other group or situation; make the music and the rest of the guys on stage feel good and everything else will fall into place.
I’ve just completed a 25 date UK tour with a quartet lineup of Brandon Allen (tenor sax), Ross Stanley (piano/synths), Tim Thornton (double bass) and myself on drums. My next moves are to finish an album of my David Bowie (Berlin period) adaptations and release that maybe this year and to complete writing an album of original material. Also, I''m working on releasing two live DVDs; one of my London dates from my recent tour with the quartet at Pizza Express Dean Street, Soho, and another of a specially filmed performance of my duo with Will Butterworth playing The Rite Of Spring.
I first heard Stravinsky at a very young age because the finale of the Firebird Suite was Yes'' intro music and I had wanted to do something with it at some point. I started playing with gifted piano player Will Butterworth and we often played duo together to practice so it felt right to see if we could adapt The Rite Of Spring and Firebird together.
We spent a year on it using the original orchestra score, the Two Hands reduction score and Leonard Bernstein’s 1950''s recording as a definitive version. I really like where we went with it and I think the new DVD will show how it has evolved even from our recent 2010 recording. We''re also working on expanding it with a quartet or quintet this year so it''s quite an organic thing; very challenging and inspiring.
What are you working on at the moment?
The stuff I mentioned above, regular practice, putting together a new tour and my gigs with Wilko Johnson. Wilko has a big UK tour in September/October as well as other dates before that and recording for his new album.
Dylan uses Zildjian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Gretsch drums, Pro Racket and Hardcase cases. Visit www.dylanhowe.com for more information and to buy his music.
Interview by Gemma Hill
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