A THESIS ON THE BALLAD: Jack Hues Discusses His Latest Musical Endeavors

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Jack Hues has spent the better part of his life bringing his musical magic to the masses as the frontman of Wang Chung. His worldwide chart successes include “Dance Hall Days” (1984) and “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” (1986) and collaborations include Tony Banks (Genesis), Chris Hughes (Tears for Fears) and Eg White (Adele). His movie credits are equally as impressive and include the soundtrack “To Live And Die in LA” (1985) and “Act of Memory” (2011). His songs have appeared in numerous movies including “The Breakfast Club” (1986), “The Fighter” (2010) and in TV series including “The Walking Dead” (2010). In latest chapter in his illustrious career, Hues has ventured into territory which has allowed him to create some of his most satisfying and multi-faceted work to date.

Founded in 2005, Jack Hues and The Quartet grew out of evenings jamming at Hues’ house in Canterbury with pianist Sam Bailey and various other musicians. The band began playing shows in their home town of Canterbury and continued to gain momentum. Gradually, the project evolved to a point where their friend, Chris Hughes, encouraged them to make an album. “Illuminated” was recorded in 2007 at Chris’s studio in Bath and received many positive reviews. After a line-up change, their debut album was followed up with “Shattering” in 2008, which also received notable praise. Jack Hues and The Quartet’s new album, “A Thesis on the Ballad,” is even more ambitious than the group’s previous work. The album is a collection of six songs Hues wrote to poems by Kelvin Corcoran. “A Thesis on the Ballad” is listed as Collaborations Volume 3 on the album. Collaborations Volumes 1 & 2 will be released later this year. Volume 1 is with two other poets, Simon Smith and David Herd, while Volume 2 is with the Canterbury rock band Syd Arthur, who are on the brink of releasing their second album on Universal. 

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Jack Hues to discuss the formation of Jack Hues and The Quartet, the making of “A Thesis on the Ballad,” his evolution as an artist and what the future may hold for him creatively.

What can you tell us about the process of finding your creative voice early in life?

You know, I think I always had a voice. I can’t explain how that is. I started playing guitar when I was 8 years old, which is a young age, but I think it is good when you are a kid that you start to learn music at that time. By the time I was 12 years old, I was writing songs. Writing was the thing that always appealed to me and I was always interesting in writing songs, even at a really young age. I think I was very lucky to have a voice from the beginning!

Was there something that played a role in you pursuing a career in music?

Jack Hues

Jack Hues

It’s interesting. When I was 8 years old, The Beatles were the big thing in England. I think it is hard for people to understand now just how big they were. It really was conscious shifting, what they represented. It wasn’t just another band. There had been nothing like it before. Culturally, I think the history is still yet to be written that fully understands the phenomena they were. I think my dad being a musician as well, may have played a role. When I wanted to be like the Beatles, he said, “OK, we will get you a guitar but you have to have proper lessons.” That was the deal! I went along to this lady and had guitar lessons. From the beginning, I got really interested in the nuts and bolts of what music really was. I can remember taking sheet music to her. Although she was teaching notionally classic guitar, which meant learning to read music and playing from the notes as it were, it was a means to an end for me. The end was playing Beatles songs. I used to take along the sheet music to her and she would help me with that. I was always interested in the chord structures and how I could adapt that to my own leads. I suppose a lot of my early songs came out of not being able to play Beatles songs and songs I liked! [laughs] I kept making mistakes and thought, “Well, that sounds pretty cool!” I would write some lyrics and there was a song.

You have been very successful in your career and, as a result, have been able to explore different avenues. Where do you look for inspiration these days and what fuels your creative fire?

I think I went through a really important phase in the mid-’90s and it really coincided with me working more as a producer than as a writer. I think that freed me up to really listen to two artists in particular, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. They both really inspired me with the spontaneity. The fact they weren’t particularly bothered by getting a perfect end result but were very passionate about what they had to say. I think that really changed my attitude toward music in many ways. The inspiration that has come to me more recently has been out of jazz. Miles continues to be a big inspiration. I recently went to see “Miles Ahead,” which was recently released. It is really cool and really worth seeing! There is also a sort of sway that sort of younger jazz guys have. There is a guy named Brad Mehldau, who is wonderful pianist. He does interesting covers of Beatles songs but also interesting covers of Radiohead and brings a whole musical take on what they do and it is very interesting. He does a cover of “Paranoid Android,” for example, where he takes the central section of the song and re-harmonizes the song in some ways. It brings out this really sort of classical leaning and that is beautiful. Inspiration also comes from classical music, I think, because of having classical guitar lessons when I was a kid. I didn’t really know anything about classical music, per se, but then I went to University and studied classical music and, from then on, that became a big interest. I think my work with the quartet reflects all of my diverse interests, perhaps in a way that is harder to hear in Wang Chung. In the quartet, the classical, the jazz and the sense of modern music gets free reign in that project.

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How were the initial seeds planted that led to the formation of The Quartet?

Initially, it was getting together with Sam Bailey, who is the pianist in the band. To go back a little further, he taught my daughter Violet piano for awhile. When she left home and went off to University, I said to Sam, “We should still see each other and play music.” He came around and bought some sheet music of some Thelonious Monk tunes and we would play through those, me on guitar and him on piano. I really enjoyed that! Then we found this guy who played upright bass and he would come to the house as well. It was a really nice way to spend an evening, playing these Monk tunes, having a glass of wine and listening to other jazz stuff. Then I found myself writing and this music just began to flow out of me. That was great for me because with Wang Chung, I felt like I had come to the end of the road in some ways and had lost my way a little bit with songwriting. In the early 2000s, I started writing this jazz, instrumental, sort of prog music, I suppose it was in many ways. That was great for me. I recorded two albums, before this new one, that if you listened to them you would say, “Yeah, this is certainly jazz.” Whereas, with this new album from the quartet, “A Thesis on the Ballad,” you might think it is more of a folk record in some ways. That, for me, is what music is all about! The genres are just ways into the music and I never like to be defined by genre, so it is great to be able to explore it freely!

Tell us about how the ball got rolling on “A Thesis on the Ballad.”

It was really a project based around Kelvin Corcoran’s poetry. I had heard him read in Canterbury, which is where I live. Sam [Bailey] is a great entrepreneur in Canterbury and two or three years ago he started this project called Free Range where they do a gig every week. He invites people to come and play. A lot of it is around jazz but there are poetry readings some nights and film nights on other nights. Basically, what you are never going to hear is a sort of covers band playing Wang Chung! [laughs] You will hear everything else! The more out there it is, the more he likes it! I heard Kelvin reading at one of these poetry evenings and was really struck by how great his poetry is. He has a very individual voice. He has a sense of deep history. He lives in Greece part of the year and is very interested in ancient Greek poetry and literature but he also has an incredibly modern sensibility as well. He mixes the two in a very cool way. I was interested in working with him and Sam came up with the idea of a project where Kelvin would read and I would write some songs and perform those. That is really where “A Thesis” came from. Kelvin sent me a book of poems that I had on my piano for awhile and I didn’t really get very far. One afternoon, it sort of fell open on “A Thesis on the Ballad” and the first song “Barbara Allen.” As soon as I read the poem, I could immediately hear how the music would go with it. Within two hours, I had written all six songs that comprises this mini-cycle of poems called “A Thesis on the Ballad,” so it comes from a very inspired place. However, I didn’t really have any intention, apart from finishing the songs and then performing them. When people reacted so well to them, and I know it’s good work, I knew we had to record this as well. We did that at my house and having got the recording and knowing it was really good work, I wanted to get it out there and let people know about it as opposed to keeping it as a little project for myself.

How does the songwriting process for this project compare and contrast to what you have done in the past?

I guess the different thing was that it involved my voice. As I said, I have been writing things since I was 12 and I have made made my living, in many ways, writing songs with Wang Chung. I guess it is slightly different because he had written the poems some time before and they are there on the page. The text gives you a lot in terms of rhythm and atmosphere but then you have to find the music. The music was almost downloading or channeling for me. I didn’t feel I was exactly having to write it myself! It felt as if I was trying to write down what was already there. That is a great feeling when you get to that! When you get the CD or, even better, the vinyl, it comes with a booklet with illustrations and with the poems in there as well. I think it is important to look at the poems on the page because the form that the song takes is very different from the form of the poem. That is something I really enjoyed doing. Kelvin’s poems might be three verses with no rhyme, regular meter or song structure per se, so I had to find the song structures and impose them on the texts. I think that creates quite a nice dynamic tension between the way the poems look on the page and the way they sound as music.

What do other artists in the quartet bring out of you as an artist?

They are an interesting bunch of people. Sam has been a long term collaborator. The bass player and the drummer are Liran Donin and Mark Holub. They are still in a band called Led Bib. Over here in the UK, we have this thing called The Mercury Prize, which is a prize awarded to musical projects that are in some way experimental or breaking new ground. Led Bib won the Mercury Prize a few years ago. Their band is very cutting edge and influenced a lot by Ornette Coleman and free jazz, I suppose. Working with these guys is very different from working with Wang Chung or working with rock musicians generally. It’s funny, at one stage I was working with these songs with a bass player, who plays on two or three of the tracks. He is more of a trained musician. His mindset was more of, “Tell me what you want me to play and I’ll play it.” When I sat there with Sam and worked on it, I showed him the music and he was like, “Ah, do we have to work from music? Can’t we just improvise?” With Sam, Liran and Mark, they are all about improvisation and taking the stuff and running with it. If you start telling them what to do, they get really pissed with you! [laughs] Listening to the “Thesis” performances, you will hear there are certain times where the music just goes off on a left hand turn into this other sort of thing. I deliberately created some of the songs with spaces in them so that Mark and Liran would have room to improvise and put their stamp on things. The third song in the set, “The Truth,” is really one with no music written down. It is just a set of instructions, which is for Sam to create chords of his choosing using this technique that he has of playing the piano with eBows. An eBow is a little thing that creates a magnetic field. Robert Fripp and people like that used them and they were developed for electric guitars. They also work on the strings of a piano if you take the lid off and put them on. As a result, you get this really amazing sustained sound. I wanted a soundscape like that, so that song is very free and Sam and Liran do their thing! It is different every night!

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You released “A Thesis on the Ballad Vol. 3.” What does the future hold for Jack Hues and The Quartet? Where will this project take you as an artist?

We are going to release Volumes 1 and 2 in the autumn. What I would love to do is to have the opportunity to perform these things live. Obviously, the jazz aesthetic is all about the performance. These songs are written to be performed live and the recordings are snapshots in some ways. I hope there are going to be a lot more gigs. The other two volumes are really quite different from this. One piece is called “Road Through,” which I did with two other poets. They sort of speak the poetry and the quartet improvises behind them on these fragments. The whole thing is quite avant garde sounding and quite crazy really but it is a very cool project to play. The audiences really get into it, you know. The second volume is a collaboration with a band from Canterbury called Syd Arthur. Syd Arthur is signed to Universal Records in Los Angeles and will be releasing their second album eminently, I think. They are a really interesting band. Basically, I got them and my quartet in the studio together. We had two drummers, two bass players and two keyboard players. We did an improvisation on a tune by Beck, Beck Hansen, called “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” It is a very kind of ‘70s Miles Davis experiment really. We recorded in it in a big barn out in the country and it is a great recording. That is something I would like to work on and possibly do some gigs with the two bands and develop that project as well.

This seems like yet another exciting chapter for you as an artist. Looking back on your career, what are your biggest creative milestones?

Yeah, Wang Chung was a great project to be involved in. The album with “Dance Hall Days” on it, “Points On The Curve,” I recorded with Chris Hughes at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles recorded all of their albums. That was an amazing creative experience for me. I think “To Live and Die in LA” was also a very liberating and demanding creative experience for me. It required a lot of sides of me that weren’t fully expressed in the pop music realm. Doing the whole score for “To Live and Die in LA” meant writing a lot of instrumental music and extended pieces, so that creatively was one of my favorite episodes in the Wang Chung story.

Speaking of Wang Chung, what is happening with the band at this point in time?

Nick [Feldman] and I still do some gigs together. It is mainly gigs at the moment. We don’t have plans to do another record, as of yet, but he and I are always working on stuff, so we may come together and do that. Over the last two or three years, we have been doing regular gigs in The States each summer. I am sort of stepping back a little from that right now to concentrate on The Quartet for a while but I am sure there will be more Wang Chung activity in the future. There is actually a strong possibility of us working on a new project. They are turning “To Live and Die in LA” into a TV series, kind of like they did with “Fargo.” I know [William] Billy Friedkin is interested in us doing the music for that, so that may well be the next Wang Chung project. I know Billy wants it to be really new and modern. He doesn’t want to repeat himself. For me, as an artist, it is not in my nature to repeat myself, so we will find something new but it will be in the “To Live and Die in LA” vein. I have already done a bit of work on it and it is going to be very cool, I think.

You had an impressive career as an artist and you keep moving forward. What is the secret to your longevity?

I think the secret is keeping it fresh, basically. As an artist, you have to move forward all the time. I have been very lucky to have had success with some particular songs and projects in my career but I think it is important to not get bogged down with that stuff and keep creating. When you are musician, music is always a challenge. You never get to the point where you think, “Yeah, I think I have my head around this now!” There is always new stuff you hear, whether it be discovering Miles [Davis] or hearing some new band that just blows you away, like The Books or Radiohead or whatever. There is always new stuff and new ways of looking at things, so keeping fresh is very important. For me as a guitarist, there is always the massive challenges of technique. As a writer, I am always looking for the next writing challenge as well. Keeping fresh is the answer!

With that said, is there musical territory you are anxious to explore in the short term?

Yeah! Kelvin and I are actually talking about writing an opera together, which sounds unbelievably ambitious! I am not talking about some sort of grand opera with a cast of thousands but maybe writing some sort of extended dramatic piece for voices. I don’t know whether it will be an orchestra or a rock band with orchestra. I think now is the time where you can really look at all the different genres and think about how you can break it all down and create some new music that combines everything. That is what I am excited about!

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You have seen the music industry change dramatically through the years. What excites you about being an artist in today’s environment?

I think the great thing is that you can do a project like “A Thesis on The Ballad,” which is a very niche little thing. I worked with different people along the way. A wonderful artist friend of mine did the drawings for it. Working with Kelvin was great as well. You can get it pressed up and I have a box of vinyl looking at me now! You can sort of do it yourself! You aren’t beholden to a record company in the way I was in the ‘80s. Not that there was anything wrong with that. I loved being signed to Geffen Records and in many ways it was great. They took care of everything apart from writing and recording the songs, which was my job! Now, you have to wear a lot more hats but if you are sufficiently driven, it is open for you to get your work out there, find an audience and hopefully develop what you’re doing.

We were all pretty shocked by the recent passing of Prince, another multi-faceted artist much like yourself. Did the two of you ever cross paths.

Yeah, actually we did. I met him in Minneapolis. It would have been in 1984, I think. It was just before he had released “Purple Rain.” He was at his club and we went to see his band premiere “Purple Rain” at the club. It was really amazing. We met him afterwards. We didn’t really say much because he is not the sort of guy who is going to sit and chat about football and all that stuff! [laughs] It was a real honor to meet him and a real eye-opener to see him perform that stuff. I got obsessed with that album when it came out. It is very, very sad that he has passed. He was an artist who continued to develop and work with all sorts of different musicians and bring all sorts of different influences into his particular realm. He was a really impressive person.

What is the best lesson we can take from your journey?

I used to teach songwriting at the University here in Canterbury. I sort of researched how on Earth you do that! Of course, you can’t actually teach it at all! [laughs] I remember coming across this quote from an artist after being asked, “How do you make it in the music business?” I think it was Linda Ronstadt, of all people, who answered this question. She said, “Just learn your instrument and be good at it.” In a way, I really do think that is the case. Get into your instrument, whatever that might be, and really treat it with respect, study it and listen to the people who are great at it. Emulate them and try to find your own voice amongst it all. Ultimately, just express yourself. Be you. I think that is the answer!

Thank you so much for your time today, Jack. It is a pleasure and I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you next!

Thank you, Jason! I really appreciate your time and for getting in touch!

For all the latest news and dates from Jack Hues and The Quartet, visit the official website at www.jackhuesandthequartet.com. Connect with them on social media via Facebook and Twitter.

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