Features Interviews

Bobhowla Interview: “I’ve always experimented with throwing imagery into songwriting”

With their debut album, “Everything’s Wrong, But It’s Alright” fresh from the pressing plant, we sit down with Bobhowla’s Howard Doupe.

Howard Doupe‘s Bobhowla project has been active for well over a decade now.

Initially presenting these songs as a solo artist, Doupe expanded the Bobhowla dispatch, enlisting guitarist, John Brindle, and bassist, Graham Fletcher-Hill, who now operate as a three-piece.

The songs that comprise of Bobhowla‘s debut album, Everything’s Wrong, But It’s Alright, are better for it. Brindle‘s effortless guitar licks and subtle ranges of tone (Million $ Man) along with Fletcher Hill‘s driving bass lines (Music Keeps Calling) adding a fresh backdrop to Doupe‘s storytelling, culminating in beautiful fashion with the tender closer, Own Ghost.

The Southport collective made their way up to Edinburgh’s Post Electric Studios to record the album with Idlewild‘s Rod Jones. No stranger from behind the soundboards, Jones adds the necessary sprinklings of fairy dust to these songs which complete the journey of Everything’s Wrong, But It’s Alright.

And that’s exactly what it is – a journey. A collection of heartfelt songs leaning on the influences of folk but with the added mortar of melody and a fresh aggression through well-crafted instrumentation.

Due for release at the end of October, Everything’s Wrong, But It’s Alright was shifted to a February release due to Bobhowla striking an 11th hour record deal with new local label, 9×9 Records. A label run by 81 Renshaw Street‘s Neil Tilly.

In the lead-up to the initial release date, we spoke to Doupe in the last week of September. During the easing of lockdown, we began in town, watching Doupe‘s beloved Everton (who won 2-1 on the day away to Crystal Palace).

Basking in his victory, Doupe suggested we carry on, which ended up being a hopscotch, albeit socially distanced, around the available haunts, finishing up in our local watering hole down in Aigburth before last drinks were called at the lockdown-friendly time of nine-thirty.

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Sun 13: Sail Down the Water was released early in 2019. Did you write the bulk of the album after that?

Howard Doupe: “The bulk of the album… I don’t like to use the term ‘old songs’, but many are songs that were already written that have been revisited and rejuvenated.

“The purpose for me is that the tracks have new stuff which people will hear. It was a case of wanting to take songs that we play live and seeing how we could present those songs in the best form they can be.

“I recorded them at home as the rough demos and I wanted to see what happened if we put them in the studio with a producer. It’s almost like having your own children and having them put their best foot forward. Like a bookend. Let’s give these songs a send off up to this point.”

S13: Like a parent sending their kids to university…

HD: “Yeah… Out you go into the big wide world. We’ve raised you, we’ve moulded and formed you and put the sprinkling on top.”

S13: Did you revisit the lyrics in that time?

HD: “No, a lot of them were set in stone. It was more about recording techniques and presentation and a sprinkling of magic. The lyrics and the structures weren’t really messed with.

“However, there are some exceptions. Like Million $ Man. It’s an old song that I’ve played and presented the same for a very long time. It’s being completely ripped apart in terms of sonic structure. Not in song structure but in terms of sonic presentation and arrangements. So it’s been an interesting exercise, like scattering the cards, throwing them in the air and seeing how they land.”

S13: Given that these songs have been around for so long, you must have a lot of confidence in these songs.

HD: “To me, it’s almost like I want to put our best foot forward. So when I look back over the catalogue that I’ve written, I’ve cherry-picked what I think are the stronger ones and made them the strongest they can be and that’s it, we’ll move forward from here. There’s a lot of new material in the process, but I wanted to give this final group a kind of send off.”

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S13: Recording in the studio has been quite a journey, too. You’ve been going up to Edinburgh to Post Electric over a large period of time. That adds more to the story of these songs.

HD: “I do agree with you on that. From what I can gather, a lot of bands in Liverpool, even bands with a wider vision and a larger demographic for how they want to appeal and project themselves, the focus starts in Liverpool. They write and record here, they might cut their cloth in Liverpool and use it as a springboard. But for me, it’s always felt like the city hasn’t given me a lot to go off.

“I’ve benefited from the fact that it’s a musically thriving city and that has given me impetus and confidence, but in terms of following, the majority doesn’t come from the city.

“So to me whether I recorded this album in Liverpool, Manchester, London, Edinburgh, Toronto or New York, it’s irrelevant to me. It’s about where I would go to get the quality out of the songs and not having some allegiance to sit on this fertile springboard and see where my roots can go with it.”

S13: So there’s an outsider culture attached to it?

HD: “Yeah, I think maybe coming from Southport, as you know, you’re not deemed a Scouser, you’re on the outskirts, so it doesn’t feel like the city owes you anything or it’s there to wax lyrical about you, either.

“It’s a weird juxtaposition because I’ve played in Liverpool for years, I’ve hosted gigs in here, this is where the bedrock of my musical background has been, but I don’t feel… I’ve kicked against the city and I don’t think it has shown me an awful amount of love. But that’s true to a lot of artists. I don’t feel any sort of bitterness towards that. I feel like I’m in the majority.

“I’ve seen bands over the years, lots and lots of bands come through Liverpool and they all have an opportunity, to some degree, but never get anywhere and I think for every band from here that gets airplay, or gets an album out and gets a major deal, it’s one percent of what the city churns out. The 99 per cent has to go elsewhere and has to find its path and I wasn’t prepared to sink with the landfill. I wanted to find my own path and whether that meant I had to go outside of the city then I was more than happy to explore that.”

Bobhowla (photo credit: Warren Millar)

S13: Liverpool has always done its own thing. It subconsciously kicks against what’s in vogue and while that’s a great thing, I think that’s to its detriment sometimes, too. I think that’s a big reason why a lot of bands don’t get out of the city. Their affiliation with the city is so strong that anything else is secondary.

HD: “I can only go off my own experience and I’ve seen far too many artists in this city that never get anywhere and the one’s that do are few and far between. They often have a sizeable local following and they go from there. Talking back to The Coral and The Zutons, that’s what they did and you can’t deny that. That was their springboard to move onto greater things. If you’re not in that niche market, then what the fuck do you do? You either decide ‘I’m not going to go elsewhere’ or ‘fuck it, I’ll give it a go elsewhere’.

“I’m not saying that this album is going to blow up or reinvent the wheel. It’s just us having our own conviction and trying to give it as wide a platform as we can. If it doesn’t fit into a scene or a niche that exists before you come along or before you leave, then that can’t be the be-all and end-all, can it? It can’t be the only justification for making music.”

S13: Again, that feeds into outsider culture and it’s refreshing to hear that you don’t sound embittered about not getting a lot out of the local scene.

HD: “What I’ll come back to–and you know as well as I do–the amount of bands that are big in Liverpool have their local following and they are happy about that. There’s an insularity to it and I would have taken that, anyone would, but it didn’t happen.”

S13: Where success for a lot of local artists over the years is concerned, there maybe an element of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. What do you think about that?

HD: “I think it’s built into the psyche. If you look at the position where we are right now, there are a lot of revered bands in Liverpool from the ’80s that are put on pedestals. We have festivals that, I wouldn’t say the old timer stage, but have like the classic stage and it’s all these bands that were big in the ’80s parading around and they are revered as gods in Liverpool. You walk 20 miles down the road to Manchester and no one gives a fuck about them.”

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S13: Does anyone east of Warrington know who Mick Head is?

BH: “That’s the classic example. Which is a shame because I look at someone like Mick Head and I absolutely revere the songwriter, but obviously he’s had his own trials and tribulations and limitations to success and I applaud that he’s back up and running, his latest live set-up is second to none, but I just think it’s a shame that the strive seemingly was never bigger.”

S13: How did the Rod Jones connection come up?

HD: “Keith, a good friend of mine, told me about Rod and his studio, which I wasn’t aware of. I looked into it as a possibility to record there, so I reached out to him to see what his situation was in terms of working with bands outside of Edinburgh – I was aware that a lot the artists that he worked with were local.

“It was just a stab in the dark. A risk and a chance to go up there and see what happens, which started off with us recording the single [Sail Down the Water] in 2019. From there, I just saw it as a natural progression to do the album and having discussed that with Rod he was glad to accommodate.

“It’s funny because people say that the relationship between us must be going well, but I think it was a case of him wanting to see these songs progress. I don’t think a lot of artists have travelled that far to go and work with him. So as a total project, he was keen to facilitate it.”

S13: You’ve suffered from Haemophilia all of your life. What are your first memories of it?

HD: “My first trip to Alder Hey Hospital was apparently when I was two months old, so I’ve been a life-long subscriber to the services of the NHS. My childhood was coloured with problematic joints because of the Haemophilia, spending a lot of time at Southport District Hospital, however the Haemophilia Centre was at Alder Hey. So it was almost like a big brother operation, I would go to Southport but routine checks at Alder Hey. My first experience of coming to Liverpool was going to Alder Hey with my parents.”

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S13: How much has your condition influenced you to be a songwriter?

HD: “Massively. I think the reason for that is as the majority of children are physically very active, a lot of my joint problems came from being physical. I was constantly encouraged to have a calm and docile lifestyle, which ended up with me tapping into things that didn’t require running around the place. I was never allowed to do sports or have an active childhood.

“I can remember vividly my parents continuously discovering the next hobby that would occupy my time that didn’t require physical activity. Once I found music, I kind of threw myself into it.

“As a teenager, I was obsessive. I’d get the albums read the lyrics from the linear notes and listen over and over again. More so than anybody else in my peer group at the time because they were busy doing other stuff that I wasn’t allowed to do.

“One primary school memory was sat down watching my peers having their P.E. lessons. I was allowed to choose a friend for each session to come and sit with me. I’m not too sure what the parental opinion would have been at the time, but that was my experience.”

S13: You don’t let your condition hinder you at all. A lot of people would have sunk in your situation…

HD: “You say that, but that’s probably the default response and perception. I can wholeheartedly thank the people whom I’ve met that suffer from the same condition. We’re a tenacious bunch and the majority won’t let the condition dictate. You’d be very surprised at the positive attitudes fellow sufferers have – in fact, anyone with a long-term health condition. Advancements in treatments mean that it’s now possible for sufferers to live fairly regular lives, with the physical activity.

“Having a condition like this makes you have a go at things. The future in life is so uncertain, you take what you can when you get it.”

S13: Has Haemophilia played a direct role with your songwriting?

HD: “I think a couple of the themes have come through. I wouldn’t say it’s anything directly that I’ve referenced. Probably more so as an experience from my personal wanderings through life and it might have come out in that way shape, or form.”

S13: What was your entry point into music?

HD: “Nirvana. What grabbed me–the universal appeal is why Nirvana ended up being revered and Cobain put on the pedestal he was–there was a fragility about him, which I’m sure you’ve seen yourself. I remember being younger and watching on T.V. – like that hair metal in the ’80s and Faith No More in early ’90s, I couldn’t relate to that. But all of a sudden there seemed to be this physically weaker stature of a man that had this delicate side to him.”

S13: Yeah, there weren’t any artists around at that time mixing that fragility with such aggression, for sure.

HD: “Yeah. So Nirvana was the entry point and the ground zero of the journey.”

S13: Your set opener, Fear of the Same, has been a live staple for some time. Easy choice to open the album with?

HD: “It’s almost the biggest anthemic sounding song we have. Even though we went into the studio with that in mind, it reassuringly turned out to be that, too. It doesn’t deviate very far from the original version of the song – it’s been beefed up and magnified further. I’m a big fan of albums that start with a bang and this one does. It’s got that rumbling train feel to it, a sense of drive and determination. A true mission statement, so I was keen to start the album with that.”

S13: Thematically, it feels quite close to Million $ Man. I found with these two tracks that they are referencing your health struggles…

HD: “Aye, I can see that. Million $ Man is one of our oldest songs, which may be a surprise to you?”

S13: That is a surprise.

HD: “That song is well over 20 years old, but it has undergone a radical transformation. It’s one of those songs that because it’s liked as a live favourite, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt of exploring it in the studio. It wasn’t one that I initially thought would be on the album, but I wanted to see what journey it could go on.

“When it came to doing that, it completely got ripped apart, from the building blocks up. The finished version is 100 per cent different from how I’ve played it live for years. So that kind of invigorated an excitement for the track and a renewed sense of ownership of it.”

S13: In that case let’s talk about 1963 because I know that’s an older song of yours, as well. That’s had a facelift, too, right?

HD: “Yeah, or an injection of steroids (laughs). It’s been given a bit of an increased tempo. It’s a track that a lot of people have commented on over the years, so it definitely had to be included in some form.”

S13: Seeing you live and I’ve heard people in the crowd specifically shout out for that song.

HD: (Laughs) “There you go. Proof is in the pudding. What do they say, the customer’s always right?”

S13: Definitely.

HD: “A lot of people think it’s our best song, but I have to say, in the studio it didn’t prick the ears of Rod at the time, but after the feedback we previously got, we had to go with people’s opinion. You can’t be arrogant and dismiss popular opinion. It’s important.”

Bobhowla - Everything's Wrong, But It's Alright

S13: A lot of people who are close to you and your music have reached out to you asking about the lyrics to Midnight Fears. Care to divulge?

HD: “I’ve always experimented with throwing imagery into songwriting. Linking imagery and phrases to music was always a benchmark in the craft, a skill to aspire to.

“To me, the songwriting process is very much two separate entities. You’ve got the music and the lyrics. I’ll write the lyrics and find a backlog of sounds and match them up where I can. It’s almost a case of when I write a song musically, I’m flicking through words to match, like ‘do I stick in these words or those words?’ and once I do that it’s like marrying. It’s a done deal. I wouldn’t say you’ve wasted those other lyrics but once the one’s chosen are associated to that music then it’s done.

“So with Midnight Fears, the imagery there is… You know in films where people fall asleep and they enter a dreamscape?

S13: Yeah.

HD: “That’s the imagery I was going for. The real person you enters this freedom, this playground into a wider domain and what I was getting at is people in their everyday lives and communications, we all know this, you don’t always get to the core of somebody, multiple facets are outwardly shown. But when you’re asleep is where you’re at your most vulnerable and what links into this is that your real self can escape.

“So in that domain, people may fear that they are asleep because the real version of themselves comes out and they have no control of their conscious and the honest truth of their existence is exposed. That can be scary, a midnight fear. When you’re asleep anybody can get to you, the real you and that’s your fear.”

S13: It’s funny because the subconscious version of someone could actually be the real version of themselves

HD: “Most definitely. Everyone is trying to put on a front all the time, it’s basic psychology. Everybody has multiple faces, whether it’s your family, your parents, close friends, siblings, lovers, acquaintances, colleagues. We all have a different face for these different people.”

S13: Stick With Your Baby sounds like the song that Rod’s had the most influence on. There’s an Idlewild vibe there.

HD: “I probably say the way that song’s turned out is the closest one to the original demo. It’s the one example of the songs where we reigned it back in. The original version had an old friend playing trumpet on it, another reaching for the high backing vocal lines, someone else doing lead guitar lines. There was a small (big) brass band feel to it with a few extra sprinklings, xylophone and a plethora of percussion instruments backing it up, but we completely stripped it back.

“It was almost a Sergeant Peppers‘ ‘Mr Kite vibe, but this version is more of a straightforward three-minute pop number. Rod almost got the feeling that it didn’t need over-egging, so that’s why we left it as sparse as it is. It’s interesting you say that because it’s nice to hear someone’s fresh take on it, now it feels like that’s how it should have been all along. In my mind it was a lot busier, so to hear you say that is a relief.” (laughs)    

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S13: Tell us about Tiptoe. That song really jumped out at me…

HD: “It’s interesting that. The original version of that featured on a demo I put out years and years ago. It was one of the fastest tracks I’ve written. I remember writing it in bed, to be honest with you. It was kind of a meandering track, the original version.

“I can’t put a finger on as to why I wanted to revisit that one. It just jumped out at me as one of the earlier tracks and I know a few friends I’d spoken to about the album were really surprised. Even as a band, we’ve not played it. We sliced it down [from the original version] and made it a lot shorter. It’s one of those little ditties of a track, but the fact that you’ve highlighted it must mean that there’s some sort of appeal there.”

S13: Out Of Sight (Not Out Of Mind) has a mariachi vibe to it…

HD: “Yeah, a traditional western vibe.”

S13: It’s a contrast to Tiptoe. Was shoehorning that into the tracklist a hard thing to do?

(Long pause)

HD: “It was one of those songs we battered around as a band and were pleased how it turned out as a live track, so because of that we wanted to throw it in there. It represented our live sound well and we wanted to showcase that on the album as much as possible.

“You’ve got to remember now that we’re a band, we want to showcase how the songs have evolved from being presented from a singer-songwriter form. I think that song emphasises that particularly well.

“The back end of the album, with Stick With You Baby to When Love Stops A-Lovin’, broadens the eclectic mix and feeds into the fact that these songs have been written over an extended period – a showcase of what Bobhowla can do, holistically. Tiptoe is a part of that, almost like it’s not a Bobhowla song…”

Bobhowla (photo credit: Warren Millar)

S13: As soon as I heard Own Ghost it really felt like a proper closing track.

HD: “It is, yeah. When I came to doing the tracklisting, I knew the last track and the first track and the rest fell into place.”

S13: What inspired that song?

HD: “It comes back to imagery. Musically, the early demo of that song is a cross between Joy Division and The Twilight Sad, a very intense driven guitar song. I took that into the studio and it became another example of breaking things down and turning the song inside out. We put some block piano chords on the song and all of a sudden the emphasis shifted, so it ended up being what it is now.”

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S13: It’s an emotional song.

HD: “Lyrically, for me, it creates the image of somebody whose life is in a bit of a rut or has worn them down so much that they are relating it to something that’s passed, contextually. The imagery I had was inspired by cartoons or films when you see someone who dies and you have that spirit float off… It was bringing that into real life, so it was the person admitting that their life was so bleak or at a standstill that in effect they are seeing their own ghost.

“So it’s a song that, quite morbidly in a way, you need to give yourself a kick up the backside to pull yourself out of whatever quagmire you’re in because you’re seeing your own ghost. You’re not having a fruitful, productive, engaging life. It just stemmed from that concept.”

S13: We spoke earlier about your entry point into music. What about songwriters today?

HD: “I’ve always been drawn to songwriters that deem to… It comes from the depths of, as a musician or songwriter, something you almost can’t control or contain or tame. Like it’s a curse.

“So, I mean, when you talk about ten to a penny bands that come along, what are they doing now? All these bands, landfill indie, what are all those bands doing? Are they all living other lives, or are they in their spare rooms with a guitar writing songs? Or has music become a sideline and they have some half-arsed career at Homebase or some corporate firm and music is a distant memory, like, ‘I was in this band when I was a teenager…’

“I’ve always been curiously drawn to the people who have been ‘cursed’ by music, there’s always been some perverse fascination. For example, can you imagine Jason Spaceman doing anything else?”

S13: No.

HD: “There you go. And he releases an album every three or four years. What’s he doing for three years? He’s not like fixing someone’s hedge fund or giving someone financial advice. Or working on the checkout in ASDA. I can imagine him burrowing away.”

S13: Probably escaping heartbreak.

HD: “Yeah!”

S13: Yet again…

HD: “The thing that’s recurring is the music. It’s almost like I’m drawn towards artists that without music they wouldn’t survive and it’s their crutch. There’s something pure about that. Your engaging in music that is an art form for pure reasons.

“I can’t find any other way to describe it. There’s people that come up in your life and music doesn’t feature at all. It’s almost like they are different breed. Forget colour, race, credence, gender, social class. If people don’t have music in their lives, it’s a stark observation! I’d almost feel like… Is there a concept musicist?”

S13: (Laughs) I don’t know…

HD: “Judging people by their musical landscape and musical compass is something I’ve probably done for most of my life. Rightly or wrongly, surely resoundingly wrong. It’s a strange one. I know people who, maybe music isn’t a big part of their life. There’s a certain level of respect for them, but it doesn’t go much deeper. There’s like a cut off. So I have respect for them as a person. Maybe they have good morals, had a good upbringing, raise a family, maybe they have a good job that brings in money but if they don’t like music, they don’t break the fourth wall, they stay on a level. That’s the importance and the resonance I base on music.”

Everything Is Wrong, But It’s Alright is now via 9×9 Records.

Purchase digital copy from Bandcamp or physically copy from 9×9 Records.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

5 replies on “Bobhowla Interview: “I’ve always experimented with throwing imagery into songwriting””

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