By Charlotte Gay
The singer-songwriter Ben Howard has been surfing since he was 11, but his intricate guitar sound is more John Martyn than Jack Johnson. Aged only 24, Howard has secured himself a strong fanbase mainly by word of mouth (although BBC Radio 1, 6 Music and Radio 2 have now come on board in a big way). There is something about his guitar sound that recalls Nick Drake’s complex tunings, while every so often you expect his gently gruff tones to start warbling Martyn’s Bless the Weather. This Devonian musician caught up with our very own Charlotte Gay to exchange a few words before performing at The Old Firestation in Bournemouth.
So is this the first time you’ve played in Bournemouth before?
Nah I’ve played in Bournemouth quite a few times. I played in 60Million Postcards before with Ashcrome World and also played at The Winchester a couple times.
So has Bournemouth got a good music scene that’s made you want to come back?
Yeah it’s always a good vibe down in Bournemouth, really cool crew [girls scream outside], obviously a lot of students, as you can hear outside. But it’s quite nice; students are always up for a laugh and a bit of fun. There’s a cool little surf crew down in Bournemouth as well so always had a lot of support down here.
I was going to say, are student gigs some of the best gigs to play to?
Yeah sometimes; it always just depends on the people in general. Like sometimes you’ll play a student gig and it’ll just be a bit too ruckus for our sort of music but then sometimes it’s really vibing and they’re really behind you. Sometimes you get a really great crowd that are really in it for the music and sometimes you get a bunch of people in there who just want to get pissed.
You’re obviously a really keen surfer, so is that where your fan base started?
Definitely started through playing surf gigs and I used to play a few open mics.
So were you more into your surfing before your music took over, because you seem to be associated with both music and surf when people talk about you?
Well I’ve always tried to keep them quite separate. I’ve always played music and I’ve always surfed but I think people pick up on it quite a lot and link the two together. I’ve played music ever since I was a kid and I’ve surfed ever since I was about 11, they’ve always been a part of my life.
Have you got quite a musical family then?
Not really. My sister plays a bit of music – she used to play the piano and sing quite a lot. We’ve always listened to a lot of music. My mum and dad have always been really keen music lovers, always listened to a lot of good music.
What would you describe as good music?
Anything with a bit of heart and soul really. I listen to anything where people obviously make music because they love making music rather than because they want to succeed in music. There’s a big difference between people who make music to chart, make money and have a career playing music compared to people who play music for free. A lot of people I look up to, and aspire to, are people who you can hear it in their music that they love playing and that they love doing it. We were just talking about it outside: it’s a really selfish pursuit – you love playing music, and so to be able to do something that you love is quite a privilege.
So would you say you respect people more if they were say musicians rather than just singers? Say that they have more musical skills and abilities?
I don’t know, it’s a difficult one. Obviously it’s all opinion based in music because there are so many times you say ‘Oh that is fucking shit’ and it’s not. Technically it could be brilliant or emotionally it could be touching. There are some really simple songs that strike a chord with me and with anyone really.
I’ve got respect for anyone who really plays music and plays it to the best of their ability. I think there is a lot of flash in the pan stuff, which I don’t know if I respect it less… there’s certainly a few things I see in a few music strands that are questionable in terms of technicality and really don’t strike a chord with me and people who really aren’t in it for music. They’re in it for money and fame. A lot of people nowadays are really obsessed with the idea of fame. The idea of being famous means you are cooler than people or you have an upper hand with stuff. For me, fame is the down side of playing for a living and having people buy tickets to your shows.
I have little respect for people who play music because they want to be famous.
Obviously you’ve down quite a bit of touring over the summer, did you have any bands that you particularly enjoyed seeing?
Yeah quite a few actually. We’re really lucky, we’ve got a girl called Daughter supporting us next month, she’s on the label Communion.
We saw The Eagles, that was pretty class. We saw them at Hop Farm, and we saw The National at Latitude – that was probably one of the highlights of the summer. Also saw the Foals, they’re just flawless – live they’re probably one of the best bands in the world.
So definitely recommend going see the Foals then?
Oh a 120%, it’ll be the best gig you ever go to.
So have you got any funny festival stories, because I swear something crazy has to go on?
Bestival was pretty ruckus. We took a lot of drugs, drunk a lot, we got a bit stuck. Yeah we played a gig, I was wearing a pair of girls jeans, a pair of wellies and an anorak. It was weird, it went from the worst gig in the world – we really weren’t up for playing, I was smashed – to the best gig in the world.
We had a stage invasion, everyone was going mental, and the crowd were just the coolest bunch of people ever. I actually stopped halfway through, I was like I’m really sorry I’m just struggling and stuff. But then the entire crowd got behind us and were like COME ON, PLAY SOME BEN! Ah, it was incredible, a real incredible experience. A low point and a high point that festival.
I think Bestival’s a weird one for people, they put you in this valley on an island, just let you do your own thing and everyone is awol.
I’m from North Devon. You’re from South Devon. You said before that there seems to be a bit of a North Devon – South Devon divide. Do you still think this?
Oh, really nice to meet you. Nah, there’s just this sort of divide that no one ever migrates. Generally the vibe between Devon and Cornwall is strong and people always play on that. I’ve got so many friends in Cornwall and a lot of the surf scenes down there and they’re real nice guys. The only animosity I’ve had was in North Devon. I went surfing in Croyde and he was like ‘Yere mate, go ‘ome! Where you from?’ I said ‘Devon’. He said ‘But which part?’ and I was like we’re splitting hairs now!
We travel so much, but to go home is a real treat at the end of the day.
Are you going anywhere international over the next few months?
Yeah, we’re doing quite an extensive run in Europe in November. This Christmas I might go on a little surf trip to Mexico, and then March we do the States.
So have you had much response from Europe and the US about your music?
Nah, I’ve been playing in Europe ever since I’ve been playing the UK now. I got quite lucky with a couple of support slots and when out to Europe when I was about 21, so we’ve got quite a cool following.
Do you ever look out into the crowds and see people who you recognise as regular followers?
Yeah, especially at the beginning you meet so many cool people. I find people who come to the gigs are often people I get on with; I guess we’re into the same sort of music. You meet so many people every day and you know you know that person but you don’t know it was because you were drunk or what. The word mate comes in very useful.
So finally, what bands are you listening to right now, what bands are catching your attention?
I listen to a guy called Arthur Russell quite a lot; he was apparently part of the disco scene in the eighties over in New York, but he’s dead now. He plays real quirky little love songs, a lot composed on cello, it’s real weird but listen to it, it’s catchy.
I also listen to quite a lot of James Blake. I think in terms of musical style he came out with something that was completely original, there wasn’t anyone really doing anything like that and I still don’t think there is really.
Ben’s debut EP Every Kingdom is out now.