Howie Reeve is an acoustic avant-pop solo bass artist from Glasgow. We recently reviewed a show he played with Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp. At the show Louder Than War’s Andrew Neal caught up with him. The interview that resulted from their meeting is below.
The path to solo status has been long and winding for Howie Reeve. He first came to my attention as the bassist with frenetic duo (plus drum machine) Sedgwick in 1992, a fascinating band determined to cram as many riffs and ideas into as short a time span as possible. Relocating to Glasgow later that decade, his CV has included bass roles in Shlebie with author and Long Fin Killie frontman, Luke Sutherland, and Dawson guitarist/vocalist, Jer Reid; a spell with Maxton Granger, described on Coronation Street as “Glaswegian post-punk, alkaline jazz”. The scene in which some of the younger characters were going to be seen listening to the band was cancelled due to an actor’s illness, the scene could barely have been any more unlikely had it been Emily and Norris tapping their feet to the Iberian and Balkan folk-flavoured Tattie Toes.
Equipped with an acoustic bass and initially only 5 songs, Howie has been performing solo since August 2012. He has already released 2 albums and has songs written for his third. When I first saw him in solo guise at the Four Narratives Festival in Bradford, December 2012, it was notable for a few reasons. Rather than have a set running order, each song had been designated a number and audience members were invited to draw which song he would play next, an acoustic bass FA Cup. Howie takes up the story:
“I stole that idea from Drew of Wounded Knee. He had a ball bag so he’d be like “who wants a rummage in my ball bag?” He has lots of songs so you would draw out number 44. I only did that 3 times.”
Now, he always has a set list but, “I’ll always veer from it. There are a couple of sure fire ones I play which I almost always put at the end and connect with but the rest of the set is more exploratory. If I’m playing a lot of gigs, it might change.”
It’s partly a case of judging the mood in the room, but there are additional factors. On the day we spoke, “this will be my third night of playing with Orchestre(Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp) and I want them to hear some different songs. I’ve written 38 songs of which I still play over 30 so there are still loads I want them to hear. It’s hard getting certain songs that I still really like into the set that often.”
A benefit of getting the audience to select the set is that it is a good way of developing interaction but even at the early stage of his solo career, it was notable how comfortable Howie appeared as the focal point on stage, even though he had not been a vocalist in his previous bands. It is worthy of comment because there are so many gigs where bands don’t look comfortable in between songs, whereas Howie looks as if he could chat to the audience for the entire evening if he didn’t have to fit in so many songs.
Howie admits there are a rare few occasions where he is nervous but, “that’s usually because there’s someone in the audience who I have a too high opinion of and I want to impress them. It’s worth mentioning Sumshapes in this respect as they’re a very similar age and don’t have anything to prove which is a very different thing from being complacent. It’s not (this is me again),’ I’m going on stage, I have to win you over.’ I want that affirmation but it’s a more mature and sharing orientated mindset. I am comfortable on stage. I need to do it and I do value it. The last 3 days have been really pleasurable.”
One way in which Howie’s sets have changed is that the early performances and the first album, Friendly Demons, were primarily instrumental. In contrast, We Are In Repair, has 11 songs out of 13 with vocals, and the third release will have words for all 12 tracks. “It was literally finding my voice. What I find now, when I write a song is that the words form what I am going to play. Sometimes the words come first but it’s the context for the piece.”
Considering how compelling his lyrics have proven to be, it is startling that he has spent 20 years in bands just concentrating on the music. Initially, I picked up snatches of words and it is only when looking at We Are In Repair’s lyric sheet that I became aware that it might not be fragmentary but more developed ideas pared back. As Howie explains, “There is an element of pruning. I hope there is a depth to it even though it seems elusive and oblique at times but I don’t want to be obfuscatory. It’s oblique because it’s personal but I don’t want to be over-protective and I do want people to get their own impressions. I attempt to do that with some generosity. It is all personal but I want to share it.”
Dragon’s Eyes, one of the few songs on Friendly Demons with lyrics, induced laughter with the delivery of the lines, “Look into my eyes, tell me what you see, ..nothing”, followed by the realisation of how poignant it sounded. Howie has a simple explanation. “ It’s so mundane on one level. I was in the old housing benefit office and there were a couple in there. They looked as if they liked each other but he had tiny eyes. She was saying, “I cannae see your eyes”. Later on the song is about something completely different. I’ve got a song which I will probably do tonight but it’s delivered in a melancholy way. The first line is “a one-footed pigeon pecks on a battered sausage”. It amuses me even though it is sad. I played that song not so long ago and I heard someone in tears when they heard that lyric. I didn’t know whether to start laughing myself or continue with the melancholy. It’s a pleasing image.”
This brings to mind a line in Wedding Day Photograph about giving refrigerated meatballs to a dog. “That was a true situation. It was a large dog that was still just about able to walk about. Who knows what happened to the dog. I opened up the meatballs and left. It’s hard to think about that dog trying to survive in a rough area. I imagine it got taken by dog catchers.”
The lyrics do reflect an ability to pick a colourful observation and link it in to a deeper theme, again exemplified in Wedding Day Photograph which is “about me digesting the death of my mother 20 years ago. I’m very aware of it as I’m playing the instrumental bit at the beginning. The last 2 verses relate to my mother.”
Pumped Up My Bike Today and a line in Musty Flannel about not wanting to get out of bed reflect a theme of trying to maintain optimism in trying circumstances.
“To be hermetic in this world because it is hard to deal with but at the same time having a big loving heart. In Buddhism, there’s a thing called the Refuge Vow. It’s thinking you want to stay warm and cosy. One of the ways to get what you want is to approach the world with open arms but in this toxic climate that’s a very difficult thing to do if you’re sensitive. I’ve got lots of songs that are variants on that. You need a psychological suit of armour to go out on the streets when there’s so much poverty and begging and things not being as people-centred as they should be. I find that painful but there’s guilt about your passivity. We all buy into that but it’s a very controlling apparatus, an insidious device. To tackle things head on isn’t the way. I’ll read about austerity and just feel despairing but I do care about this subject. But I do want to put things into action and one way of doing that is getting out and doing these DIY gigs. I’m in the middle of a tour at the moment and it is sharing the love. It’s not just the gig you play, it’s the people around that put you up. It can be a celebratory, autonomous model despite the pain which is always there.”
The DIY gigs in which Howie is involved do feel like acting out on more controllable, microcosmic stage ideals and on how the world should be rather than how it is presented.
“It’s happening more than ever as a solo performer than it ever did within bands but it’s because you’re fighting the same fight, you’re on the same side. You want to express yourself and do it away from industry and commodification”, Howie agrees.
An advantage of being a solo, acoustic performer is that it makes house gigs more practical. “There have been no problems with neighbours as I’m acoustic. The joy of house gigs is that you’re usually sat with people for an hour or 2 before. By the time you play, a good relationship has been built. You’re already well disposed to each other and the dialogue is already there. With the songs there isn’t any improvisation. If there are any mistakes, and I don’t worry about making mistakes, it’s part of how I play that I’ll get distracted. The ideal contiguity is that you are touching the people in the room. I’ve played a few bigger ones but eye contact is good. I don’t like the lights to be too bright in my face because I want to see the audience. Tonight it’s The Glad Café which is a small venue but there’s plenty of room for dialogue or interaction.”
Whenever I have seen Howie perform, empathy has seemed an especially important aspect, both in his relationship with the audience and the other performers. I have been privileged to see him on some extraordinary bills, opening for such unique acts as Richard Dawson and Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp. When I ask Howie of other performers with whom he felt a real sense of empathy, he mentions, “It happened with Father Murphy who are an Italian duo, a man and a woman. We met before we played and before either of us had gone on stage, I’d felt an immediate strong bond. One of the things was we knew the same people who are lynchpins of the DIY community in Europe. It makes you allies. You’re doing things for the same overlapping, contiguous reasons. You don’t have to be the same. Father Murphy are totally different to me but when you see them, it is so totally honest, passionate and sincere. I really like seeing new things. You’re here to learn and to discover; at 49 I’m hungry for what’s ahead and that makes my stuff current. My past feeds into it, my childhood as much as musical roots. I always hit the fretboard and think : Is that expressing how I feel ? ”
I slightly embarrass Howie by referring to a comment from a Sedgwick interview I conducted in 1992 in which he stressed the importance of not down-playing your talents and aiming for mastery of his instrument so that the possibilities would be endless.
“The faults in my playing, my idiosyncrasies are such an integral part of it. I don’t really think about how effectively I play, it’s more about how effectively I’m expressing myself. I still don’t know what a fifth or a seventh is. There are pitfalls to not being a trained musician but it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Certainly, Howie does explore the whole length of his bass and the rhythmic possibilities of tapping at its wood as well so the music can sound jarring on first encounter but further listening reveals the digressions, side tracks and progressions to be more fluid and organic.
“It’s the result of having a short attention span but I have learnt the patience to stay with something. Going back to that song, Wedding Day Photograph, I’m musically proud of its sparseness and that I didn’t put too many notes in there which I often do. It’s all credit to Tattie Toes. Those musicians were all from less time changey stuff than me and I took on board that thing of going with something and letting it build to have an impact so I’m grateful for that. There was a band before Sedgwick and repetition was completely out. We wrote 5 songs and how do you follow it. There’s a thing about self-acceptance which is a big ingredient and it’s far from an easy thing to have self-acceptance and self-love. The one British characteristic of being self-effacing is a very different thing to humility. I’m not too big for my boots but I do think I am valuable and worth something and I want to transmit that message and get people to feel it about themselves. I don’t mean I want to convert anyone. We live in a world where people are so disgustingly down-trodden that I find it painful. I’m emotional even thinking about it. The world we live in is not the world I want to live in but I feel quite passive and useless in the face of that because it’s so overweening and macrocosmic and you feel how do you deal with it, especially the internet.”
24 hour news media with its constant repetition of doom is also part of that process.
“Psychic assault, it unequivocally is. There are these crocodile tears for a moral code that is so vile and so disingenuous and as social beings we imbibe and respond to it in a fearful way towards others. It’s grim and unjustifiable but it’s our modus operandi on a wider scale.”
Another means of taking control has been funding the first 2 records through Kickstarter rather than waiting for a label to put up the money. I asked whether it had been choice or necessity.
“It’s the first way that came into my head. The last one came out on a label. Sam from Product Records put quite a bit of money of his own into it. The next one, I’ll hopefully have a label but I’ll contribute something through Kickstarter. You have so much control over what you’re doing that way. I earn so little money but if I had a grand in the bank, I would use it towards that but I never do. I have no qualms about it. I have funded 3 or 4 peoples’ projects. The first was funding Yowie, the St Louis band to come over and do a European tour. Let’s get them over so we can see them because I think they’re unique. That’s the good side of crowd funding, the people who fund me care. Of course, Kickstarter take a percentage, as do Bandcamp. Some of my friends just pay me when the record comes out but I’d rather lose the pound and get that nest egg before it comes out. You realise who your friends are. The last one was two thirds friend funded or people I knew but a third of it was folks that I didn’t know, people from Spain because I’d toured there.”
Mention of Spain led to a discussion of the merits of the DIY scene in various countries.
“You’ve got to take each country on merit. The Dutch would say it has deteriorated but Holland still has a punk ethic culture that is a little more vibrant but I’ve been touring the UK and meeting people who’ve got semi-legal, police tolerated initiatives/venues and been really inspired by folks over 20 years younger than me who are so switched on. When you go to Spain, you’re really aware of how the economic situation has hit them worse than us and you’re aware of the referendum parallels of what Westminster does to the provinces and inner-city, working class London, the Spanish government does the same to everyone who’s not the equivalent of the Westminster elite. It does break down nationalities for me. Many of us are going through the same stuff; you don’t get that through the news but you see it when you go over there. I spent quite a bit of time in Catalonia and the struggles over there are more acute than here and it’s shit here.
“It’s hard because you want to get behind it. You have to be realistic about idealism. I know that sounds like a contradictory statement. I passionately voted Yes but the nebulous idea of hope is not enough. With freedom comes a great deal of work and responsibility. It’s a heft of a challenge because it’s a big paradigm shift from the way things are run. I’m reading An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin which suggests that we have inherited a servile mentality and a lot of people want to stick with that. It’s just perspective shifts. It’s not just the grim facts of austerity and corporate corruption which is just overwhelming.”
This led me back to his song Wounded Animal Reflex with lines about seeing on his phone a mushroom cloud in Syria and going back on line to buy a Cardiacs T-shirt, a mix of overwhelming internet content and passive but enthusiastic consumerism.
“We live in an environment where we feel our compassion and humanity is dulled. A classic example was seeing the Metro free paper laying sprawled out. The back page was a full page ad for oven chips. The front page was a pulchritudinous couple a la Kate Middleton or Posh and Becks going to some function that I’m not interested in and Michael Le Vell, the actor from Coronation Street, and the headline was something like, “So and so, aged 6, says ‘I held my teddy bear while he raped me” and he was acquitted, proved to be innocent. Oven chips, pulchritude and paedophilia all on the same page. It’s no wonder our moral compass isn’t just all over the place, it’s been broken. You know, people in a zoo filming a woman being attacked by a polar bear rather than saving her but we’ve all got a bit of that in us now; the voyeurism of watching people suffering. Socrates would spin in his grave is a similar lyric (from Musty Flannel) reflecting on what is public and what is private is congealed in a fucked up way. You’ve got people confessing really private stuff on the internet which is their choice. What it is all about is love and dignity. It’s not even human beings, it’s being on an equal plane with animals and the earth. Let’s have more respect for everything, we’d be happier. I know I’m speaking simplistically but it doesn’t need aggrandising in big, cerebral terms because it’s a practical application, it’s as functional as that.”
All words by Andrew Neal. More writing by Andrew on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.