Oli Howe Interview
Pianist Oli Howe, 36, is originally from Surrey. SJM editor Charlie Anderson began by asking him what first brought him to Brighton.
“I came here when I was 32 for the music scene, really, and to play jazz properly with people that were good at it, and lots of them. I was living in Horsham before I moved to Brighton. And Horsham at the time seemed to be full of rock musicians, and maybe one sax player that I’d heard of, but didn’t seem to want to play with me for some reason. I was producing music at that time for various things including a record label called Sup Peeps Records, which was based in London. I was producing jingles and stuff for TV and internet videos and that, library music, as well as putting my own stuff out on a record label called Sup Peeps Records, which was based in London. I just got a bit sick of it and of not playing live enough anymore. The only band I was playing with at that time was a function band so I needed to come to Brighton for the scene. I had lots of friends here, Horsham isn’t that far away so I moved to Preston Park first.”
The first time I heard your name was seeing you play at the Crown and Anchor in Preston Park.
“That was my first jazz gig in Brighton. I played there on Sundays solo and then Friday nights I had a quartet. That’s how I met musicians in Brighton, on the gig. I think it was Mike the Mic’s band, Harry’s Tricks actually, that I met. I didn’t know any jazz musicians so it was nice to get on with some guys and play with them and then when they couldn’t do the gig they could put other people on it and then I met them, and it went from there. I’m a full time musician down here now, doing sessions, teaching and gigging as much as possible.”
So what projects are you working on at the moment?
“The new trio is called Howes3. I guess it evolved from the Oli Howe Trio really, which was me trying to develop a trio I really wanted to be different. So I picked songs that nobody is playing and stuff that I find randomly maybe on Spotify and YouTube that I thought would go well with the trio, that I hadn’t heard people do. And it developed into some nice sets. Playing with Pete [Hill] a lot. Me and him have got similar tastes in stuff that we like at the moment. It got me thinking about writing my own stuff again, and all the production that I used to do that I was putting out years ago. I just pulled it all back up and started listening to it in a different way and thought ‘let’s just make that into a trio sort of style’, and it worked. I’ve written some more stuff since. Then we got Andre [Fry] on bass on one gig and it just clicked. Pete was like ‘let’s get some gigs and do original stuff’. And I’d already had the charts written out and the songs recorded previously so it was a really easy transition to just get into playing those songs.”
You were saying about the kind of music that you are into. Who inspired you in the beginning?
“Well, Thriller came out when I was two. That was pretty influential. And then I started playing the piano at four. There seemed to be a lot of jazz on TV at that time as well. Adverts, all the music for game shows was cool, American sit-coms, that sort of thing. Then my dad gave me an Oscar Peterson CD, Nat King Cole and George Shearing, and I think Herbie Hancock as well. And I just devoured it and didn’t stop listening to it until it sunk in. I started learning first all the solo stuff of Oscar Peterson. I’d always played a lot by ear as well as being taught classically but my ear was stronger than my reading at this time. So I worked out as much I could of it and I played it as best I could and learnt jazz that way. And even when I was older, the stuff that I hadn’t tried playing on those records would come out when you tried to play it so it really had sunk in, just because I listened to the same few albums over and over. Like We Get Requests [by Oscar Peterson], I listened to that album almost every day for…decades. So those were my first ones, then I picked up some more and just carried on from there. Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, George Shearing and Errol Garner, those kind of guys were how I got into jazz at first.”
“I grew up in an era of hip hop, pop, funk and smooth jazz and stuff like that though. So those were my influences on top of that, so it’s natural for me to try and stick them both together somehow when I play and write. It makes sense to me. I live in the time that we’ve had D’Angelo and J Dilla. And that’s also a type of jazz to me as well because it’s got massive jazz influences and jazz sampling. It’s just another generation of it and a new progression of that music.”
So who do you listen to at the moment?
“Everybody. It’s kind of hard to stop listening to new people now, because there’s so much available now, I actually find it quite daunting that I’ve got so much access to really good music. And it was less confusing for me when I was younger to just listen to one thing, to get an influence from that, or just a much more select bunch of things to listen to.”
“Now I listen to all sorts. I listen to a lot of playlists on Spotify that are jazz/hip hop instrumentals of stuff. I go through phases of listening from jazz to hip hop, neo-soul, gospel and stuff like that. It’s either that I’m listening to for a period of time and then I’m going back to jazz to listen to that.”
“If I’m listening to jazz I’m listening to Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett and Kenny Barron, just real virtuosic. It’s just so scary to listen to, that you’ve got to. They’ve just got it all: all the language and all the timing that you need, just to let that sink in.”
“And then if I’m listening to hip hop then it’s whatever’s new coming out as well as the usual stuff.”
So you’ve been doing gigs recently up in London.
“We did Jazz Re:freshed at the Mau Mau Bar which was really good. After the first gig me, Pete and Andre did together in Brighton, Pete said ‘Right, let’s do something with it’. He got the London gig and we were like ‘cool, now we need an hour’s worth of original music which we haven’t done yet’. So I was like ‘the pressure’s on’. I’d had six charts written out ready to go and they just needed adjusting as we played them. I listened to a load of old stuff, charted them out then we started playing them on gigs in Brighton. I’m just seeing where to go with it at the moment. It’s not been that long for this band and it’s gone very quickly. It seems to be just developing on its own. Everybody’s chipping in to think of things to do and people are coming to us to offer us ideas and what they think we should do. It’s been really cool.”
“Yeah the Jazz Re:Freshed gig was amazing. We had a great crowd and great responses from videos that came up. I can’t wait to go back and do that one again.”
Have you got plans for the future?
“I’m putting a lot of time into Howes3 at the moment. We have some recording coming up, we plan to do some videos, there’s a lot going on. We’ll see what happens.”
“I just want to keep doing it, keep building up the support for the band and let the universe tell me what to do with it. I’m not going to try and plan too much.”
When you’re writing your tunes, what process do you go through in writing them? Do you just sit at the piano and see what happens?
“Yeah, I sit at the piano and get frustrated a lot and just try and stop myself from changing what I’m writing [laughs], because you start off with something that’s quite good, keep it or you can keep developing it until you go crazy. It’s hard to finish something. But it’s something that I’m used to doing because I used to produce a lot a day and get a lot of songs finished and send them off to the record label, or the library for library music.”
“My taste has broadened and I think ‘ooh, I could take it in this direction or this direction or that direction’ so it’s harder sometimes. But when it comes together it comes together. I sit there and I write for a bit and if it’s really hard and it’s not working then I don’t bother writing that song for a while, maybe come back to it. I found that a lot with the songs we’re using in Howes3. Some of them had been written and not produced but just written down. Some were finished and released under my name Oliloquy at the time. That’s how I like to be: what will happen will happen and what will be will be. If you try and force it then it becomes really difficult. You become really frustrated with it and you just lose the enjoyment. If you’re writing a good song and you’re enjoying that then that’s what will happen. So I just wait until that happens and until I feel good about it. It happens in different ways. I write songs in different formats. It could start with piano, it could start with drums, it could start with an idea, it could start with someone else’s idea and then developing that, it could start any number of ways and I don’t try and stick to any one formula.”
Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
“The people that I’ve met in Brighton have been absolutely amazing. It’s such an amazing place to come to and find a bunch of people that were more like me. They’ve been the reason why I’ve done what I’ve done, because of them and learning from them, those people around me. I didn’t go to a jazz school or anything, I’ve just been playing piano my whole life and doing many different things with it. I started learning piano at 4 and cello at 6, got a music scholarship to Caterham School at around 9, and passed grade 8 at around 16. I was in a band which was signed to a record label called Manic Records when I was 17. When I was 21 I was signed to RCA briefly with a band called Tinks. Then most recently I was signed to Sup Peeps Records with all my production stuff under the name Oliloquy, previously Circle. Then I came here. It’s all very different now but it was definitely the right place to move to. I really wish I’d moved here when I was 21, maybe things would be very different but it is what it is. The universe does that to you, it makes you learn what you need to learn first before you’re ready to go and do something.”
The next Howes3 show is at the Paris House, Brighton on Monday 22nd May, 7-9pm.
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson
Photo by Lisa Wormsley