Godfather of Pop interview: Dr Robert
Bruce Robert Howard was nicknamed Dr Robert, after the Beatles song of that title, while he was still at school in King‘s Lynn. After emigrating to Australia with his family as a teenager, he returned to Britain in the 80s to form The Blow Monkeys, as singer.
Blending smooth jazz and soul with Robert’s politically charged lyrics, the group scored with hits including Digging Your Scene and It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way. As Robert Howard, he and Kym Mazelle enjoyed a No.7 hit with the dance duet Wait.
After several solo albums, beginning with Realms Of Gold in 1994, he reformed The Blow Monkeys in 2007 and the band has continued to tour and release albums including the most recent, The Wild River, in 2017.
Your new album, Down The Willows, is by Monks Road Social, a collective including Mick Talbot of The Style Council, Matt Deighton from Mother Earth and new artists like Pat Dam Smyth. How did it come about?
It was the idea of Miles Copeland, who owns the WONDERFULSOUND label. He asked if I’d oversee it because a lot of the contributors are friends of mine, and I’d reached the point in my career where it felt like the right thing to do. I like producing, I had plenty of songs, and I enjoy having other people do my songs. It’s not just my songs, though. It was really an experiment in collaboration. Everybody just had to drop their egos at the door, come in and be part of the project.
How would you describe Monks Road Social’s music?
It’s pretty varied. Everybody was about putting the song and the music ﬁrst. Many of the players have been through a lot of experiences in the music business and the thing that has kept them alive is the love of the music. So that had to come ﬁrst. There was no attempt to write hits or reinvent the wheel. It had to come from a place where everybody felt good about what they were doing. So although there are different styles, there’s a unity of purpose.
You’re singing on the ﬁrst single, Lost In Rasa. What can you tell us about it?
Rasa is a Sanskrit word for being lost in a kind of ecstatic state of enjoyment where you lose a sense of self, be it through music, art or whatever gets you there. I don’t think we have a word for it in English, because we probably don’t do it as much. So it’s about intoxication in the moment, whatever gives you that feeling.
Will Monks Road Social be playing live at all?
We’re talking to an agent about that. I think it could be great. There’s kind of a core Monks Road house band and we could do something in a small theatre and bring in all sorts of special guests. We have to ﬁnd the right venue and the right time, but I think it’s deﬁnitely something that we’ll be doing pretty soon.
You’ve recently been jamming with Peter Capaldi. How did Dr Robert meet Doctor Who?
Peter’s a friend I met a couple of years ago. When The Blow Monkeys were touring last year with Level 42 we played the Albert Hall and the Royal Court in Glasgow and he came up on stage and played on The Wild River, the title track from the last Blow Monkeys album. He loves music and playing guitar, so I thought, why not? He also came out to Spain, where I live, and I put a little video of us playing together on YouTube. I didn’t make a big thing about it. I just put it up there and let it do its thing.
You also have a solo EP out called Cosmic Mayhem. How do you decide what’s a solo song and what’s a Blow Monkeys song?
With The Blow Monkeys it’s the four of us and I kind of know how the sax and the bass sounds, but with my own stuff I can go where I want. The new EP was written on an old Casio keyboard that I picked up in a car boot sale. Those songs wouldn’t have suited The Blow Monkeys. The Blow Monkeys are more than a beat machine inside a Casio – I hope!
Do you do many solo gigs?
I really enjoy doing them with an acoustic guitar, because it’s improvised and I don’t even need a setlist. I also enjoy just playing with friends here in Spain. They don’t know my history, and that’s not important. It’s the fact that I play guitar and someone else will do the cooking and someone else will bring some wine. That’s the function of being a musician out here and I enjoy that anonymity, rather than having to be a pop star or any of that kind of stuff.
Monks Road Social’s Down The Willows is out now via WONDERFULSOUND