Way back in 1985 (the worst year in pop, apparently)I was lucky enough to discover a group called The Dave Howard Singers , who would become a minor obsession of mine for several years. Their distinctive sound - spiky electropunk combined with strong songwriting and a charismatic vocalist - was at odds with both the hi-tec gloss of mid-80's pop and the guitar-fixated indie noiseniks. Too aggressive for the general public, yet too melodically sophisticated for the underground, the DHS just didn't quite fit in. This was perhaps due to their central figure, Canadian singer/songwriter/keyboard player Dave Howard, who was a somewhat contradictory character. Beneath a stocky, intimidating, slightly psychotic exterior lurked a sensitive, romantic balladeer. Imagine if scientists had managed to successfully gene-splice Burt Bacharach's DNA with that of Henry Rollins and Suicide's Martin Rev. The resulting creature might behave a bit like Dave Howard.
Hardly anything has been documented about the Dave Howard Singers on the web. What little you'll find is either too basic or dangerously inaccurate. With this in mind, Gutterbreakz presents the (for now) definitive history of the group...
Dave's musical odyssey began in the summer of 1970, when a piano was installed in the Howard family home. Within two weeks, at the tender age of 11, Dave had written his first composition. Later he would study music at the Royal Conservatory of Ontario, though by his own admission he was a poor student. The problem was that learning other people's music wasn't Dave's thing. He was too busy writing his own.
Dave's creative instincts inevitably lead to forming a band. By 1979 he'd hooked up with drummer Boris Rosych and guitarist Brian Ruryk as The Diners Club. Brian turned Dave onto the No Wave noises emanating from New York City and before long the trio were introducing their own brand of post-punk mayhem to the Toronto scene. Perhaps most significantly, Dave had begun playing a distinctive sounding electric keyboard, the Acetone Top-5 combo organ, which would become his trademark throughout the following decade.
The Diners Club lasted until 1981, by which time Dave was ready to spread his creative wings and formed the Dave Howard Singers as a vehicle for his increasingly prolific song writing. Only there weren't any other singers - just Dave. For the next three years he performed as a solo artist, accompanied only by his trusty drum machine, which he affectionately christened 'Max'. The Toronto independent music scene was predominantly cassette-based at that time. Dave released a couple of tapes, occasionally assisted by local guitarist/producer Paul Myers (older brother of future movie star Mike). Then, in mid-'83, Dave's new manager Pete Noble decided that, to get to the next level, Dave needed a 'name' producer. So that winter Pete flew to London to look for a suitable candidate. Dave Formula, fresh from recent success with Magazine and Visage, was flown over in March 1984. During his three week stay in Toronto, Formula worked on half a dozen tracks with Dave, before inviting him to come to England to continue recording at Formula's new studio in London. During Dave's first visit to English shores, in the summer of '84, Formula convinced him that, if he was serious about making a career out of music, Dave had to move over to the UK permanently. In October that year, Dave did just that.
Formula also convinced Dave that the solo act had to go and brought in ex-Howard Devoto sidemen Pat Ahern (drums) and Martin Heath (bass) to turn the DHS into a 'proper' group. Although unconvinced by this new arrangement, Dave spent most of the following year gigging and recording in this 3-piece. The next big break came in 1985. Preparations were underway for the W.O.M.A.D. festival. Manager Pete noticed that Canada was not represented on the bill and so, after a few words in the organisers' ears, Dave suddenly found himself representing his country at the festival.
Shortly after, Dave decided to part company with Ahern, Heath and Formula and get back to being a one-man band. However, finding that he missed the punch of live drums, he enlisted fellow dislocated Canadian, percussionist Nick Smash, (ex-Rent Boys Inc., who Dave had known since his days in The Diners Club) to beef-up Max's electronic rhythms. It was this line-up of the DHS that really started making an impact. Operating from his base in Camberwell, Dave began assaulting European audiences with his new brutally stripped-down, rhythm-heavy sound.
Within a few months, Dave had set up his own record label, Hallelujah!, secured a distribution deal with Rough Trade, released his first four track EP, "Who Is He?" (predominantly featuring material recorded with Formula/Heath/Ahern) and appeared on National Television when manager Pete pulled off another coup by getting the Dave Howard Singers to perform live on Channel Four's irreverent pop programme The Tube.
Further exposure came from the British music press. When Melody Maker's Barry McIlheney interviewed the "burly, slightly menacing Canadian who eats and drinks just a touch too much and who sits in at night watching TV and writing songs", he remarked that the DHS would "undoubtedly worm their way into the wider public conscience over the first few months of 1986". It didn't quite happen like that, although a session for Janice Long's Radio 1 show, extensive touring with The Shock Headed Peters and a gig at the Canadian High Commission to promote the awesome "Goodnight Karl Marlden" EP helped to raise Dave's profile further. Recorded live in the Netherlands, "...Karl Marlden" perfectly captured the ferocious energy that the DHS generated on stage at that time. Opening track "Pleasure Of Pain" ("it's about sado-masochism, so if you're into bondage this is for you") was seven minutes of depraved, ear-splitting heaven, with the Acetone overdriven to the limits of endurance. This release also features the definitive version of "Road Warrior", Dave's eulogy to futuristic anti-hero Mad Max, as well as a truly deranged version of "Shakin' All Over". Yet sandwiched between them all was "How Was I Supposed To Know", a tear-streaked ballad which revealed the more tender side of Howard's muse.
Later that year the DHS released the seminal "Rock On" single. Producer JJ Burnell (of The Stranglers) successfully nailed their sound in the studio and the results were terrifying. Inspired by seeing the lyrics in an old kid's pop annual, the DHS mutated David Essex's first hit beyond all recognition, with Max providing heavy duty electro beats, Nick Smash beating the shit out of his tom-toms and Dave screaming his lungs out. "Rock On" surges through a convoluted series of sections before finally degenerating into full-on insanity, with Dave screeching a tirade of obscenities. It's the nearest thing to the sound of a human mind cracking wide open you're ever likely to hear on vinyl.
Even though "Rock On" was the pinnacle of the Howard/Smash/Max line-up, it was also regrettably the last. By 1987 Dave was once more working alone in the studio, creating "Yon Yonson" , the Kurt Vonnegut-inspired quasi-Hip Hop tune that broke new ground and redefined what a DHS track should sound like. Embracing remix culture, Dave produced several versions of the track, culminating in the follow-up 12 inch "Yon Yonson Meets Dr R-R-Ruth" on which, aided by Morris 'The Chef' Gould, Dave created a warped dub-scape that was possibly a decade ahead of it's time.
This was followed by a further single "What Do You Say To An Angel" , after which Dave took a brief hiatus from the recording studio, during which time he tried out various new band members before settling on bassist Bevin Burke and drummer T.Daniel Howard. After signing with indie label Ghetto Recordings, Dave finally got the financial backing to record his first and, to date, only album; the appropriately titled "It's About Time". Recorded during the summer of 1990, "It's About Time" showcased some of Dave's finest, most crafted songs to date. A single was chosen to spearhead the album's release, the outrageously groovy "All My Relatives Look The Same" , yet despite getting an NME single of the week, tragedy struck when Ghetto got into financial problems and folded shortly before the album was due for release - although it did gain a German release, via licencee Intercord.. With no record label and a squandered album, the momentum finally ran out for the DHS. In June 1992, Dave returned to Toronto and was never heard of on British soil again.
So what ever happened to the Canadian maestro? In April last year, I tracked Dave down to his Toronto studio hideout to get some answers. What followed were a series of e-mails in which Dave graciously indulged my curiosity with his honest, forthright comments. With his permission, I've assembled the highlights of our private exchanges and now present the first Dave Howard 'interview' ever published on the web.....
GUTTERBREAKZ: Hi, Dave. I met Bevin Burke (ex-DHS bassist) in 1996 when he was engineering at a studio I was working in, and he told me you'd given up the ghost and headed off back to Canada. So what are you up to these days? Still got that old Acetone organ? And how's Max, the trusty ol' beatbox?
DAVE HOWARD: Max is alive and well and still in working order, technically. Over the years he has altered the spelling of his name. For a while he put an 'E' in front of his name, and more recently dropped the 'E' and changed the 'x' at the end of his name to a 'c', but primarily he hasn't changed much, still the same old Max. Same with the Acetone, though I would never take it on the road again. All of it's dovetail joints have worn away. The only thing holding it together is the fabric it's covered in. I don't know how it got like that because I know I treated that thing respectfully and delicately.
That Acetone was definitely your trademark, visually as well as musically. What first attracted you to it?
What attracted me to the Acetone was its price. I paid $150 for it in '78 after seeing it for sale in a classified ad in the paper. I didn't deliberately seek out an Acetone. I'd never heard of them before and really knew nothing about them. I've never sought out specific equipment. I've always preferred having no expectations about equipment, instead having expectations about the user. With hindsight, I'd say that it has a pure clean tone, so then adding distortion boxes, wah-wah pedals and space echo's just seemed like the best way to get more out of it. When the opportunities came I tried every foot pedal that came along. The organ you'd remember is the Model TOP-5. I also have 2 TOP-3's - the Phenix, (not Phoenix) - one to play and one for replacement parts. One can never have enough Acetone's.
So what are you doing these days?
Mostly I compose here in my studio, which really is what I love the most about music anyway. Writing and recording. The past couple of years I've been writing for one of our national T.V. networks 'Global Television' and for the first time I'm getting regular air play and making 'loads of money', so, next time you run into Bevin you can tell him for me that the only thing I DID give up, WERE the ghosts...I'm not sure what I mean by that, but I mean every word.
I had a nose around on your web-site. You seem to be doing alright for yourself. Actually I'm just really pleased that your still making music and having fun. I had visions of you working for the post-office or even a lumber mill in Winsconsin... actually, that's a strangely romantic notion. Do you remember playing gigs in my hometown Bristol back in the '80s?
Yeah, the old days in Bristol, at 'the Half Moon' and 'the Tropic' - did I remember the right names?.
Yes indeedy. The Tropic is no longer with us, but I've got lots of good memories of that place. I know you played there in the early days, as I had a poster from one of the gigs, but I was still an underage schoolboy at that time, so never got to see the 'classic' Howard/Smash/Max line-up in action. I remember bunking off school to take the bus into town to seek out the 'Goodnight Karl Marlden' EP. I blame you entirely for my less than exemplary exam results...
I remember one night Mark Stewart dropping by in the middle of my set to say " Hi Dave..... your tape loop seems to be spewing out the back of your Space Echo!" I told him it was supposed to, even though it wasn't.
Ohhh, an oh-so-brief meeting of rock'n'roll outlaws. I can only dream what a Howard/Stewart collaboration might have sounded like. Do you still play live, Dave?
The fact is, I don't perform live very often any more. I was in a 'Burlesque' band for a couple of years with King Kurt's guitarist Paul Laventhol. He was my downstairs neighbour in Camberwell, til we all moved over here. He's back there now playing with the band The Duel with our drummer, Keef McInnis. He also produced my album, which was never released in the UK, only Germany.
I tracked down a copy of your 'lost' album a while back. If I'd heard this album at the time, I'd have been seriously concerned for your mental health! The overriding themes of anxiety, helplessness/hopelessness, alienation & impatience suggest that you were not a happy man during this period. Previous DHS releases combined serious endeavour with a sense of mischief and 'fun', but here it feels like 'the last stand': a grim determination and full-on soul-bearing. The single 'All My Relatives Look The Same' provides some light relief and I enjoyed some of the other humorous asides, such as the twisted Beatles cop "The girl that's driving me mad is going insane" but overall this was a bit of a shocker for me. 'Yon Yonson' it ain't!
I thought I always was quasi-psychotic with depressing, sentimental ballads . People were always concerned for my mental health - remember: I said some awful, awful, AWFUL things for 5 minutes at the end of 'Rock On'.
Yeah but that was psychosis of a joyous, life-affirming type. I loved the way you could say "fuck you" (masculine, aggressive) then "squeeze my ass'" (feminine, submissive) then "piss in your mouth" (back to aggressive with perverted overtones) in one long stream of - presumably - improvised free-association. The inherently twisted male psyche revealed in all it's chaotic, obscene glory. Maybe I'M a weirdo, but that SPOKE to me, man.
Well I'll be damned. I guess I never looked at it that way before.
I think I read in one of the inkies at the time that JJ Burnell (producer of Dave's 'Rock On' single ) had some, er, unique methods of getting the best out of you. Didn't he try fighting with you in the studio or something? Whatever, it worked.
Yeah, no big deal or anything. JJ and I had a 'disagreement' about our approach on the first day of recording. I suppose he felt my that my remarks towards him, at one point were disrespectful and that if I "said anything like that again to him he would come in there an beat the shit out of me", or something to that affect. He's very touchy, as am I sometimes.
But, back to the album. I agree that the humour was rare, or perhaps so dark at times that it was hard to recognise. Also, maybe a bit clique-ish/esque and dated, such as,"What if Terry had been sane?", which is about Terry Bickers getting kicked out of The House of Love - remember them? (note: for more details on the Terry Bickers story, and Dave's part in it, go here)
'Sinking Like A Stone' is surely the finest of your 'ballad'-style tunes....listening to the lyrics, it's clear that you were on the verge of packing your bags and heading off into the sunset.
I must clarify one thing, and that is that 'Sinking like a Stone' was actually written in'89,about a good 2 years before I even had an inkling to move back to Canada, honest. It was just about this period of about 2 or 3 months, where every time I took a bath the bloody phone would ring and it WAS a wrong number. The rest of the lyric I lifted off of some obscure Susan Hayward picture from the '40's, I caught on Channel 4 one afternoon. What's also funny is that my oldest friend from here, Paul Myers made a similar comment about 'They won't remember your name', the last track. He asked if I'd written it especially for returning home. No, was the answer. Anyway, I've always had a passion for exploring extreme emotions, especially in my work. Extremely deranged, delighted, demented, deluded, you name it.
Having said all that, you were not far off with your observations. Obviously I must have experienced these things in order to have documented them so well, eh?. It's just that I would hate for you to think that it has something to do with me leaving England in '92. It's because half of the independent record companies all went bankrupt in the winter of '91, that I left. That and the fact that certain family members weren't gettin' any younger and didn't have family close by to look out for them. I'm sure you understand.
Yes, of course. The Bevan/T.D.Howard rhythm section on that album sounds strong throughout and the other real eye-opener is the range of tones you conjured from that Acetone. Sometimes it sounds like a synth, sometimes like a Hammond, other times like some '60s garage thing and then like a wah-wah guitar or a wash of dissonant drone-noise. Amazing stuff! Overall, this is an album I'm sure I will cherish for many years to come, it's just a shame it had such a limited release at the time.
You have to understand, as well Nick, that it was the first time I had ever put out a complete '10 track, 33 r.p.m.,L.P. The most that I'd ever put on an E.P. was four tracks, which is concise in one way, but limiting in another. This was the kind of stuff I was coming up with then.
I think for me the perfect DHS longplayer would kick-off with some of that crazy 'Rock-On' stuff, then alternate intense beatbox whiteouts like 'Nothing To Say' with tragic ballads like 'Sinking Like A Stone' and end up in a post-everything sampladelic deconstructivist garble like 'Yon Yonson meets Dr R-R-Ruth' - a truly visionary piece of work, if I may be so bold. That's probably what a DHS album would have sounded like if you'd had the chance in 1986/87. As I said before,'It's About Time' has been working it's dark magic on me, but we can all dream of what else might have been achieved if circumstances had been different....
That would've been a crazy ride.
I used to have a video of your Tube performance and I remember taping the Janice Long session, but these items seem to have disappeared over the years. Shame, 'cause they were excellent. Will 'Camberwell' and 'Guy Everywhere' ever see the light of day again?!
I'll see what I can do about posting Quicktimes of what footage I have, like the Tube excerpt and a couple of other things. Unfortunately they'd be from a VHS copy, but then that's how we're used to seeing it anyway, right? I might even get off my ass this year and make the back catalogue available again. Who knows?
That would be extremely cool, Dave. I always preferred the Tube version of 'When Will It End' over the vinyl version, which seemed a bit over-arranged with all the tinkly piano and stuff. I blame Dave Formula. Give me that pure, resonant Acetone drone anytime. I think the world needs the DHS again...I seem to, anyway. I've made myself a CD-R of the 12inch tracks for convenience. Hearing all the tracks back-to- back is great, but a properly mastered anthology would be most welcome. Get some of those other forgotten session/compilation tracks on there too. I'd also love to hear some of that pre-England material. I think 'Stuff Me In Your Blender' was done in Toronto...(checks sleeve notes)....yeah, and that's a damned catchy tune. But you also HAVE to include some of those DHS tracks that never got a proper release first time.
Everything that can be squeezed on to a 700mg disc...
I think Bevan told me that the late-model DHS attempted to reinterpret 'Yon Yonson'. Any demos of this in existence?
Finally, here's three randomly selected questions for you:
1) What ever happened to Nick Smash? Did he leave of his own accord or did the Sampler temporarily convince you that real drummers were a waste of money?
Nick quit the act the day before I was to shoot the Rock On video. He had problems with my manager and was also "getting pretty sick of that Acetone". I thought that we were the best version of the DHS beyond the solo act. We had really only worked together for a little better than a year. After, he went and got a job with Island Rec. and eventually signed Dream Warriors. That's the last I've heard.
2) Are you a Kurt Vonnegut fan in general? (Dave's 'Yon Yonson' 12 inch 'borrowed' lyrics from Vonnegut's novel 'Slaughterhouse 5')
Yes. So it goes.
3) It occurs to me that I have no idea what sort of music/artists you like or were influenced by. Any pointers? Around the mid-eighties I discovered the first Suicide album, which seemed like the nearest comparison to your sound at the time - distorted organ riffs, manic beatboxes, no fuggin' guitars, etc.
Even though they'd been around since '72/'73 I became aware of Suicide around 1978 when someone compared my set up to theirs. At the time I was in a three piece called The Diners Club. We were into all that stuff out of New York like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, The Contortions and of course Suicide. I also liked the clean minimalism of groups like Young Marble Giants. And just to totally confuse you, a tiny portion from my list of early influences would be, Burt Bacharach, The Beatles, John Barry, early Genesis, Bernard Herman, Holst, DeBussy and Dean Martin.
The Bacharach connection makes perfect sense. Herman's 'Taxi Driver' soundtrack is a personal favourite.
'North by Northwest', 'The Day the Earth Stood Still', and my personal fav.'Marnie'.
Genesis? I'll pass judgement as I don't know much about their earlier work.
I hope you meant 'I'll pass NO judgement'. Look at it this way. I was between the ages of 13 and 19 when I listened to them, but then Peter Gabriel left the band and I started listening to anything other than 'prog. rock', preferring things like The Ramones and Bebop Deluxe et al. Then, one afternoon, around '89 I was visiting a neighbour, Kevin Hopper (from Stump and briefly with the Dave Howard Singers) who was playing his old Genesis collection. After I stopped laughing and got over the initial shock, that someone from Stump even HAD a Genesis collection, I had to tell him, I had my own collection. I have to admit it but, I kept hearing in their music, ideas that I'd used, big broad chords and things like that. Often the lyrics were ugly, which would "contradict" the pretty music, I'm still into that concept; it was horribly romantic music, which I'm a sucker for; and rather self indulgent at times too, which is, in my opinion, a place every creative person should be familiar with. Balance.
What about the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'? Actually, that's too obvious.
Don't hate me, but I was never a Velvets fan. As it's turns out, through most of my life, most of my friends were fans, so I'm very familiar with their work. Besides My Bloody Valentine, The House of Love, and lest I forget The Jesus and Mary Chain already had that market cornered. I do, however, take great pride with the fact that I got to get drunk in a pub with Nico one night in '84. She was most charming.
Dave Howard, thank you very much...
It's very nice of you to take such an interest in my music and I thoroughly enjoyed reading and then responding to your comments. They were enlightening.
Note: special thanks to Dave for taking the time to help with biographical info...