Austin Howard

“It was one of those songs that was born really quickly to be honest. We didn’t realise the waters had broken until the crown of the baby’s head was there! (Laughs) We were like: thank God we were all there to catch it as it kinda dropped out!” – Austin Howard

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

During 1987 to 1990 Austin Howard was an integral part of quirky and innovative UK-based British pop band Ellis, Beggs and Howard. As lead and lyricist, alongside his fellow cohorts, Howard went on to gain a modicum of success in Continental Europe supported by their debut album ‘Homelands’ Although ‘Homelands’ failed to ignite the consciousness’ of the UK buying public, it was their distinctive sounding first single ‘Big Bubbles, No Troubles’ which broached the UK charts peaking at Number 41. Nowadays Austin has numerous projects running parallel with one another. He is an in demand backing singer and has supplied vocals for various movie scores. Currently Austin is in the studio with good friend, music producer and former Central Line core member Steve Salvari working on his debut solo album. Michael J Edwards sat down with a stylishly dressed Mr Howard prior to his supporting vocal role for the aforementioned Mr Salvari at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club to discuss the past, present and future of one of UK’s music’s most enduring yet underrated vocal talents.

Michael J Edwards: Mr Austin Howard, formerly of Ellis, Beggs and Howard, it’s a pleasure to link up with you.

Austin Howard: Yeah, cool man Great!

Michael J Edwards: Pure music connoisseurs will remember you as the front man for UK Pop/Funk band ‘Ellis, Beggs & Howard’. The actual names of the band members were?

Austin Howard: Nick Beggs, Simon Ellis, and myself Austin Howard. Nick Beggs was our bassist, Simon Ellis was a keyboard player and programmer, Robbie France was a drummer, who sadly is no longer with us, and Paul Harvey was our main guitarist.

Michael J Edwards: How did the band come to fruition?

Austin Howard: That was part of the eighties collective, a group of friends got together in a studio in Camden. I’d been working with them for some time and they’d been developing some acts, and I had been working for them on the outskirts. Then Nick (Beggs) came to the studio one day, like a lot of other artists did to sniff it out, because it was beginning to be quite successful as a management company. Simon (Ellis) had also been working there with them, he had been working on a couple of acts that they were developing, and we just kind of socially got together at the studio complex. It was one of those things, when you’ve got a lot of musicians hanging around together, before long they start being creative I suppose; and that’s how that sort of came together. Very quickly we put down an album, ‘Homeland’ which was released at the end of 1988.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

We had three different singles out at the same time actually; and RCA found the album quite difficult place, because it wasn’t indicative of ‘Big Bubbles, No Troubles’ which was a relative success. It happened to be the last tracks we had written on the album. It was one of those where we said, “We love that, let’s go with that!” Meanwhile, France and Germany had gone with two other singles – ‘Bad Times’ and ‘Where Did Tomorrow Go.’ In fact ‘Bad Times’ was our first video, ‘Big Bubbles…’ was our second video. So we were in a little bit of a dilemma at the time, which meant we had to work really hard to actually placate all three markets at the same time.

Michael J Edwards: That’s a happy dilemma in a way, isn’t it?

Austin Howard: For sure. We had been working every day for over six months in a church tower studio in Camden Square. Recording and rehearsing 8 hour days and many nights to bring the album and live shows to market. It was a matter of a few months and all hell broke loose. We were on every relevant TV show and chart across Europe. It’s like finding yourself in the middle of an ice rink and you really haven’t got any skates to skate on. I remember coming back from the South of France after receiving a Diamond Record & an Award for best New Group Video, to getting a “Fax” from Michael Jackson’s promoters asking if we were up for being support act on the Spanish leg of his tour in 1989. In answer to your question… Yeah it was a great dilemma to be in. How we handled it is a whole other thing (I’ll leave the rest for THE BOOK!).

Michael J Edwards: How was the track Big bubbles, No Troubles birthed in the first instance?

Austin Howard: That track was written at the end of the album ‘Homelands’. We’d already struck a deal with RCA at the time and we were the latter stages of the finishing the album. It was Nick Beggs, the bass player out of Katchagoogoo, who had this instrument called the Chapman Stick. It is a ten stringed instrument which is tapped; you tap it rather than pluck it… He used to bring all types of instruments into the studio, he was one of those types of muso people. During his warm-ups this was one of the instruments he brought out. The moment he started tapping his rhythm, myself and the keyboard player Simon Ellis just literally sat there thinking, “Is this a joke?” Then we started scrambling around to get the drum machine up and running, and Simon started pressing buttons on his stack of towers and we literally came up with the idea for the song. It was one of those songs that was born really quickly to be honest. We didn’t realise the waters had broken until the crown of the baby’s head was there! (Laughs) We were like thank God we were all there to catch it as it kinda dropped out! (Laughs raucously)

Michael J Edwards: Why the name?

Austin Howard: Why the name Big Bubbles, No Troubles or why the name Ellis, Beggs and Howard?

Michael J Edwards: Well, I believe Ellis, Beggs and Howard is self-explanatory?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Austin Howard: It’s just that people used to say we sound like a firm of solicitors! My mum used to ask “Why is your name at the end?” Regarding ‘Big Bubbles, No Troubles,’ funnily enough the idea for that came from Simon (Ellis), he came up with it. He came from Bradford and, and at that time there was this thing if life is shit or it’s getting you down, don’t worry about, life ain’t nothing but Big Bubbles, No Troubles. Just brush it off your shoulder kind of thing. And it just kind of landed with me… I just connected with it somehow, and it just seemed to fit the local landscape that I had for the song. It was the song that chose me and I’m really proud of it I have to say.

Michael J Edwards: Would you say it was a song of its time in that it reflected the economy and people’s feelings at that time, or do you see a more timeless tune?

Austin Howard: I think it’s one of those songs that kind of straddles time. One of the great things about being a songwriter and working with musicians is that we all come to work with all our ammunition, but sometimes things just happen that you can’t explain and that can come from anywhere or anybody at one time; and those are the moments when I believe the real genius or magic happens… I believe it was one of those tunes that was a little bit ahead of its time, with me sort of rapping on there. It wasn’t in the plan for a black singer singing in a Rock band if you like to start rapping, I just thought that would be a bit too eclectic for people’s imagination; but it just worked!

And for me and for the rest of us we were absolutely and utterly dumbfounded when the BBC heard it and A-listed straightaway. We just couldn’t understand why, really, we were just pumping our album of twelve songs and nobody seemed to be paying attention in this country (UK) especially for the rest of the album, they just loved that (Big Bubbles, No Troubles). People in France and Germany had already gone off with two other tracks from the album; so actually at one point we had three different songs out in three different territories at the same time! We were one of those bands who were a little bit ahead of time, and people didn’t know quite where to pigeon-hole us. You know what it’s like, RCA in this country felt that they needed something a bit more suited to the market that they felt it was easier for them to market and promote us in – ‘Big Bubbles…’ came under that kind of neo-soul kind of genre if you like; back when Neo-Soul was a term.

Michael J Edwards: Where was the video filmed?

Austin Howard: The video was filmed in Barcelona and we actually filmed it literally months before they started making Barcelona apart to develop it for the Barcelona Olympics. A lot of people actually didn’t realise where it was, because it kind of looked like New York, it kind of had an anonymity to it, I think that’s why. It was great fun and we did have a fantastic time I must say.

Michael J Edwards: What year was the video filmed?

Austin Howard: It was filmed in April/March of 1989

Michael J Edwards: You look quite stylish in the video, were you always into fashion?

Austin Howard: Well yeah! When I first came to London I kind of found myself in amongst this kind of fashion fraternity, and because I was lanky and tall I was given a few opportunities to do a bit of catwalk modelling. It was a way to make money; I wasn’t really into it, which was a bit of a downfall for me really because people didn’t take me seriously as a model. I’ve always wanted to work within music; it was just a way to finance that really. But clothes and fashion have always been a part of my psyche. My father was an amazing dresser; he always stood out in a crowd. I always remember thinking, “I can’t wait to be like him when i’m his age.” So clothes, fashion and style have always been very much a part of who I am and what I’m about.

Michael J Edwards: What’s the story behind those distinctive glasses you wear in the video?

Austin Howard: Again it’s a case of why be like everybody else. I absolutely love the style of them, they stand out, they’re very individual, and I like that very much. Also, those glasses are the ones I still have. If you look at my first with Ellis, Beggs and Howard, ‘Big Bubbles, No Troubles,’ they are what I’m wearing, and the same pair of glasses I’ve had many many years. Their Victorian glasses basically.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Where did you buy them?

Austin Howard: I bought them in a second-hand shop in Kentish Town actually. I was doing the ‘Big Bubbles…’ video and I just wanted a pair glasses. And my manager, who was German, he had a pair of these little round glasses… I just think they stand out, and as much as I love fashion I’m not a slave to fashion…I just love clothes. So yeah, I do spend a lot of time in those kinds of vintage shops from time to time to find little special pieces. But regarding those glasses, they’ll stay with me forever, and I think I’ll die with them.

Michael J Edwards: Where are Nick Beggs and Simon Ellis now?

Austin Howard: Simon Ellis is still in the UK and is part of Simon Fuller’s management. He has MD’d for East 17 and The Spice Girls to name a few…The last I heard of him, he was working with Simon Fuller; that was about a year ago for so. Nick (Beggs) at the moment, he’s working with Steve Wilson. He’s always been a prolific bassist, and we speak from time to time. They’re all doing really, really well

Michael J Edwards: When did Ellis, Beggs and Howard disband?

Austin Howard: Ellis, Beggs and Howard disbanded around 1992/1994, because then I was involved in a band called’ Black Male’. Then, in between all of that I was diagnosed with cancer, which kind of set me back and took me out of the industry for a while; as well as having a kid and getting married and all that. So it’s quite a difficult time; but since then I’ve been treated well.

Michael J Edwards: With the current fad for eighties band comeback tours, do you ever see Ellis, Beggs and Howard reuniting?

Austin Howard: It sounds like a cliché, never say never, but I’d love to work with those guys again. They are amazing musicians and they allowed me to express myself as a writer in a genre that I think was really important at the time. I would say Seal, and I think he would say that he was inspired by us and me as a black Rock artist/performer. He learnt a lot from myself and the band. When we split up he actually auditioned Simon and Nick to be in his band! But I don’t think anything came of that. Ellis, Beggs and Howard was a fantastic experience, and that experience for me is second to none.

Michael J Edwards: Regarding your personal journey; did you grow up in a musical environment?

Austin Howard: I’ve always been around musicians I was in that band of my four brothers at the age of twelve. I begged them if I could be the singer in there. It was a kind of tribute band; we used to play a lot of covers, we were more of a covers band. Anyway, I asked if I could be the singer in the band and they said no, I had to wait until I was at least fourteen.

Michael J Edwards: Where were you growing up at the time?

Austin Howard: South East London, in Woolwich, Plumbstead actually. I was going to school in Abbey Wood. Coming from a very West Indian background, I was lucky enough to have that diversity. I went to a very white school; I was able to tap in all the different types of music; at that time a lot of my friends were into Pink Floyd, David Bowie and all that kind of stuff. Obviously when you’re coming from West Indian background, it’s very interesting. Lyrically, a lot of those artist were one off’s.

Michael J Edwards: Is it true that every West Indian family has at least one Country and Western album, more often than not. Jim Reeves in their record collection?

Austin Howard: Oh, absolutely! Jim Reeves, Andy Williams and all that kind of stuff. The pile of records of black artists was about three foot high, but there was always this three inches of Caucasian or white artists. But I’ve since realised, after been to Jamaica, that actually if you listen to Jamaica and radio at least forty percent of Jamaican radio is Country and Western music. I think they bought that over with them and in a way it was maybe a bit of comfort of what they were listening to at the home.

Michael J Edwards: Was there any other career that you entertained before venturing into the music business?

Austin Howard: Well I always wanted to be in the music industry in some form or another; I just wasn’t sure as to what area. I suppose the band thing with Ellis, Beggs and Howard landed in my lap because we shared the same management company.

Michael J Edwards: So you didn’t know each other beforehand?

Austin Howard: No, we didn’t know each other, but we knew each other socially within the Park Management social scene. There are a lot of different musicians that were coming in and out, using the studios and so on; so it was always a very vibrant place.

Michael J Edwards: Who are/were some of your vocal influences?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Austin Howard: Of course there’s your Duke Ellington‘s, you’re Marvin Gaye‘s and your Little Richard‘s. And then on that crazy kind of tip there’s George Clinton; then you make that transition to David Bowie’s and your Marc Bolan’s. Then there’s your Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and also Living Colour. Female singer-wise you’ve got, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox is a great one for me – there are just so many! My background of music growing up was listening to the Jackson Five, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and all the greats. But then as you start to grow into it a little bit, you become a little bit more meticulous about the artists that impact upon you. I mean David Bowie had a huge effect on me…He definitely was a 360° view – Left-field artists if you want to call them that. I love pushing the envelope and I love those artists that make my hair stand up on end, or just bring that element of danger.

Michael J Edwards: Do you do session music?

Austin Howard: No, I don’t do session music. I’m doing this gig here tonight Pizza Express Jazz Bar for my good friend Steve (Salvari).

Michael J Edwards: So how did you meet tonight’s protagonist Steve Salvari?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Austin Howard: I was introduced to Steve by a friend of ours, who was a manager of mine for a short period of time, called Jack Stephens. Jack and Steve knew each other. Jack put us together at one point, but it didn’t work out for one reason or another. I think at the time, I was going through some testing times. Then I saw Steve had put his video up of ‘Golden Lady, and I looked it and I thought, “Wow! Steve man you look so cool!” So of course I called up him straight away and said, “Man, that’s really cool! And he said, “Well, you know I’m just doing my thing.” So I said, “If I can help, I don’t mind doing backing vocals.” He said, “Really, but you’re a lead singer!” I said, “What’s that got to do with it, I want to be part of what you doing. I feel energised by what you doing. And it gives me a backseat view of the life and times a great musical Soul producer. And also writing songs together with him, that’s also one of the bonuses for me. Steve came up with an idea for a song for me, which I’m absolutely enamoured with, and that I’m just in the process of writing the lyrics to. When we finish this gig, hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll get back into the studio and get on it.

Michael J Edwards: You’re talking about his Moondance Studios? Have you been there?

Austin Howard: Yes, but I haven’t been there as yet though.

Michael J Edwards: What else have you been working on in the interim period?

Austin Howard: I’ve worked with people like Joss Stone and I’ve also written for the movies and recorded a tune called ‘Heaven Knows’, which was the theme tune to a movie called, ‘Rise of the Foot Soldier’, which was an underground sort of cult classic gangster movie. It was just one of those things that comes your way and turns out kind of good. I was lucky enough to be brought into that, and to date we’ve two million plus views of the video on YouTube.

Michael J Edwards: Thanks very much for filling in the gaps, connecting the dots and bringing us up to speed. It’s great to hear that your career is in the next phase as well, onwards and upwards. Definitely looking forward to getting their heads up when the Steve Salvari collaboration project is done.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Austin Howard: Well there will be some more, it will be coming out very soon. We’ve got one track in the can, although it’s not finished as yet, but hopefully something is going to be quite special. So I’m really looking forward to getting in the studio and working in that. I’m just allowing him (Steve) to enjoy and then get over his special night. (Laughs) It’s such a great vibe working with that guy and the band he’s put together is just stunning, absolutely stunning! You know, I’ve wanted to kind of re-immerse myself back into the Soul scene if you like, having been very much in the Rock ‘n’ Roll scene. My biggest wish is to produce can write a solo Soul album for myself… So that’s my big challenge for 2015 and onwards; it’s to come up with an album that is expressive of a UK black Soul artist if you like. I like to interpret things with my voice. I’d like to brighten the exposure of that, so that’s what I’m looking forward to. So keep your ears to the ground and your eyes peeled baby! (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards

Essential Website:
http://austinhowardmusic.tumblr.com/

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

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