Back in the late 90s/early 00s, it felt like the UK punk scene was booming. There were strong scenes in many towns across the country, lots of bands on the gigging circuit and many small DIY labels were releasing lots of solid albums. Of course, I am looking at the era with not only rose-tinted glasses, but also through the eyes of a young teenager, where everything was new, exciting and big.
Ska-punk was a sub-genre that practically took over the UK scene for a few years, probably hitting its peak around the ’04-mark. Buoyed by the third-wave ska bands doing inconceivably well across the pond, the UK ska-punk scene helped define a generation. The obvious bands people cite from that era are the likes of Capdown, Lightyear and King Prawn, but the list of groups realising the horn-fuelled, distortion-cum-upstroke sound was seemingly endless.
Howards Alias were, in many people’s eyes, the black sheep of the scene. That’s not to say they were the only ones doing something a bit different – it’s just that their dark, progressive take on the marmite genre was also quite marmite itself. People either loved it or didn’t really get it.
Incredibly, it’s now 13 years since the band released their debut album, The Chameleon Script. Frontman Matt Reynolds explained what it was like to be part of that special time, how the band differed from their peers and the chances of a reunion…
photo credit – http://ransomphotography.co.uk/
How Howards Alias came into fruition wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary, although noteworthy all the same. “We started in Southampton at the tail end of 1999,” Matt explained. “The ever handsome Chris Murphy and I had spent a few months over summer recording Beatles covers on his dad’s four-track tape machine, after which he came up with the idea of starting a band.
“I’d been in a few bands before with my older brother and he’d taught me the basics of songwriting, so the task of writing the songs seemed to fall in to my lap. We eventually found musicians to complete the band but couldn’t find a singer so I reluctantly decided to take the role. We rehearsed for a while and then recorded our first EP sometime mid-2000.”
It makes sense that Matt believes songwriting came naturally to him – the general quality of the band’s output was always impressive. It was obvious that Howards Alias was an outlet for Matt’s creative side over anyone else’s, both lyrically and musically as, along with multi-instrumentalist Nick Horne, he was the only permanent member of the band. Matt recalled: “For me, Howards Alias was mostly the fusion of my songs with Nick’s writing and arrangement prowess. He played a massive part of the final sound of the band and taught me a lot as a musician and a friend.
“This isn’t to say the other members didn’t play a very big part, every member brought something deeply integral to the band but all of them left the band at some point – usually to concentrate on getting their careers and relationships back on track.”
During the later years of the UK ska punk glory days, a lot of the bands who originally had a more formulaic sound started to take less and less influence from their US horn-tooting brethren. For some bands, it was an awkward lurch into the unknown, but with Howards Alias, every album smoothly yet markedly seemed to follow on from the last – drawing more from progressive, hard rock worlds – it mirrored somewhat Rx Bandit’s evolution.
“I think the main contributing factor to our sound changing was just our natural progression in taste and musicality,” Matt explained. “As I became better at writing songs and we became better musicians, we wanted to keep challenging ourselves and creating something fresh.
“I’m still a big fan of ska and reggae music but at the time the stigma attached to being a ‘ska-punk band’ became very restrictive for us and so a move away towards other genres felt natural and gave me, as a songwriter, a wider scope of influences to be inspired by. We actually ended up starting another band, ‘Skylar’, just to play ska and reggae as the songs I was writing for HA were moving away from it.”
While the band moved further away from their roots, in a creative sense, they continued to play with the same kind of bands. It must be hard for a band who has grown up on a certain scene – but who has somewhat stylistically outgrown it – to know where to go next. Matt agreed: “One of my favourite things about the punk scene in the UK is just how totally outside of the mainstream music industry it exists. This said, that can also be its undoing.
“I’ve watched countless bands grow to become very popular within the punk scene only to then hit a ‘glass ceiling’ and then be unable to move on from that. After a particularly trying tour, Howards Alias broke up in 2005 and then got back together in 2006. After a few long tours to settle back in, it soon became obvious we were not really fitting in with the punk scene anymore. The old songs were going down great but the newer songs were leaving audiences looking confused and at times annoyed! It felt more and more like the punk scene now thought of us as ‘too serious’, whilst just having horns gave most ‘mainstream’ fans and press the impression we were a ‘silly ska band’.
“Because of this, if we wanted to tour at all, playing with same kinds of bands was really our only choice.”
We’ve touched on the musical output of the band, but it’s interesting to note that, despite what seemed like a radically different approach to punk rock at the time Howards Alias’ latter albums were released, Matt was essentially just a regular Weezer fan looking to weave some Pinkerton into his songwriting. “Musically speaking, the first two Weezer albums were always a go-to for inspiration,” he explained. “I’ve always been a massive fan of Rivers Cuomo’s songwriting and lyrics, especially on the first two records. His songs are so melodic and expressive, the kind of songs you know every word to, rather than just the hook.
“Capdown, Alkaline Trio, System of a Down, RX Bandits and Cursive were also big influences!”
The life of an underground rock band inevitably has its ups and downs. After it’s all over, it’s important to give it some perspective, and take what you can from the whole experience. “I think the main thing I’ve learned from my time in Howards Alias is to accept that life is not about the end result, but the journey. I made the mistake when I was young of worrying that every tiny decision I made would have such life-long gigantic consequences. Nowadays, I think I’m finally grasping the perspective that life is the thing that happens while you are worrying about what might. This moment is all we have.
“I try to not have regrets, and although there are things that I can look back on and feel like I made the wrong decision, we were just doing the best we could with the skills we had at that time.”
On the subject of positive recollections, Matt recalled: “I think the most powerful memory I have is of a girl coming up to me before we played one night and telling me that our second record ‘The Answer is Never’ spoke to her in such a way that it actually convinced her to not commit suicide. I didn’t and still don’t really know how to react to that. It’s so sad yet so much of a compliment and so comforting.
“Other than that, there has been many great memories! Jevon pouring vodka in to his eyes and singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ whilst naked on the top of Captain Everything!’s van in the middle of the night. The amazing feeling we had when people sang and danced and cried at our gigs. The amazing months spent in practice rooms and recording studios. I feel so lucky to have achieved what we did.”
Sense of Community
The scene in which Howards Alias were an intrinsic part of inevitably had its previously mentioned drawbacks – punters expecting certain things from you as a band and being unable to shake off certain facets that no longer ring true – but there was so much positivity around in that time, too. “Community was the most positive aspect of the scene, without a doubt,” Matt said. “All the bands in the scene were so supportive of each other – stepping in to replace injured or sick members, promoting each other’s records, lending equipment, wearing each other’s t-shirts, touring together, sharing meals, drinks and beds with each other.
“It really felt like we were a part of something much bigger than just one of us. I’ve made, I hope, lifelong friends from that part of my life.”
There has been a huge shift in the last 10 years in how bands get their music heard and organise gigs, etc. “In terms of the logistics, organisation and promotion of a tour, it’s much, much easier now [to be a touring band],” Matt believes. “The Internet really does make it so easy for bands to get out there and tour – just this year, my friend and I booked and promoted a two-week tour of Western Europe on Facebook, in fact, mostly on my phone! Not only that, but because of the ability to promote music easily online, we both made a good amount of money too. This was not nearly as possible without technology; you were at the mercy of an agent and promoters.”
Refusing to Reunite?
Bands reuniting, whether that be for one-off gigs or with new albums in tow, is certainly a trend that has split opinions. It’s not as if it’s a new phenomenon, but over the past, say, six years, more and more bands who had once decided to call it a day have managed to reconcile their differences and get back on stage together.
The act of reuniting really seems to bring out the cynic in a lot of people. Whether it’s the thought of seeing a bunch of 40-somethings jumping around like they’re still teenagers, or the idea that the reunification might help line someone’s pockets with paltry punk gold coins, some folk just can’t get behind the idea.
So what are Matt’s views? “The thing I love about not just playing music but watching other bands is the feeling that you’re part of something exciting and that you’re creating something fresh/art is being created in front of you,” he said. “When it’s a band that haven’t released anything in 10 years and they just want to relive their glory days, I can’t help but feel it’s a little contrived. There are bands where it seems to make sense to me – Refused as a good example – they made a big deal of breaking up but their music was never really played as it was intended; to big crowds. Watching them at Roskilde Festival a few years ago blew me away. It seemed the chance to play those songs to an audience that size meant the band gave 110% to it and even though the songs were 15 years old, they felt fresh and energetic and more meaningful than ever. Sadly, I think that kind of example is few and far between!”
And what about Howards Alias…? “With our final album ‘Epiphanic’, Howards Alias said everything it had to say. Since then we’ve all become completely different people; all connected by our past but on different paths. I’m in touch with everyone and we’re all still great friends but unless something drastic happens to make it make sense, we won’t be getting back together to relive our glory days!”
These days, Howards Alias’ members are all busying themselves with other exciting projects. “Nick plays guitar in Sonic Boom Six. Stevie has just finished a masters in philosophy. Jon plays drums in Dry the River. Everyone else works a job and/or has a family.
– Andrew Cream