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HUNTER, COLLECTOR, STORY GATHERER: JACK HOWARD ON THE SLAB


Well of course he called it that.


When Jack Howard - trumpeter/flugel horn player/arranger/songwriter/vocalist, one of the brass section (and none-more-blokey backing singers) which continues to define Hunters & Collectors, and a value-adding element for Midnight Oil most recently on their 2017 world tour – wrote his memoirs of a musical life, he could have gone with some brass-related or Hunters-related, ego-stroking, look-at-me title.


Headline writers would have thanked him. Few would have begrudged him, even if a good number of fans wouldn’t necessarily know him by name but by burly body/bullet head/boss playing. This was the man heavily responsible for the sound which linked the Melbourne underground of the early ‘80s with the Australian arena rock of the early ‘90s, which traversed from the triple r end of town to the triple M one.


(And in case you’ve forgotten, the choreographer – and performer - of the Sharpies-inspired dancing which enlivened the 1984 filmclip for Betty’s Worry Or The Slab.)


But no, Howard called his book Small Moments Of Glory, trying hard to not even be the hero of his own tale, preferring the music and the bands take centre stage rather than the sometimes awkward, often insecure, frequently just-back-from-the-front-of-stage, musician.


A quiet bloke then. Though he’s not exactly been surrounded by them. While Hunters & Collectors, and for that matter, Midnight Oil, began and established reputations, as very masculine, clannish groups where intellect and physicality mattered more than emotions, they each evolved into bands where emotional interactions within and outside the band/gang became vital.


Howard explains in his memoir (and amplifies in his accompanying album, Dog Songs) how that dichotomy and evolution reflected his own growth, from someone who felt almost permanently out of place – the reticent one in a talkative band; the classically-trained musician in a bunch of natural expressers - to someone whose ethos is inclusivity. When did he feel himself comfortable in these environments?


“Even before I was in Hunters I was an awkward, self-conscious kind of guy. I was very defensive, I couldn’t handle criticism very well, I’d get embarrassed really easily,” says Howard, sitting in his home with a thick, fisherman-style blue jumper contrasting with his strong, bald pate. “Hunters was probably like a footy team, or any big group of people, and almost the natural way that people deal with others is to start taking the piss. That’s a universal kind of thing.”

That sounds pretty Australian. None more Australian really. If you can’t take the piss-taking, you’re just not going to cut it are you? That’s how it goes, right?


“It got fairly extreme with Hunters,” he chuckles. “And that was hard work, especially early on. I learned to give as good as I got but you had to be on your game all the time I felt: you couldn’t relax.”


That’s no longer the case. “If you take any of that stuff too seriously now you are fooling yourself, it’s just not worth it.” And at their age, egos have slipped down the list of priorities.


A lot of bands don’t make it because they can’t sort that out, can’t grow past it, or can’t look past it. As a long-time member of Hunters and as a touring observer of the Oils, not to mention his own bands, The Long Lost Brothers, with whom he’s recorded Dog Songs, and Epic Brass, whose cover band territory is the killer brass/reeds songs of Australian music, what has he learnt about how to make that work?


“I think I probably found in both bands there is a certain amount of repressed emotion, that you kinda have to just dampen things down to carry on. If you get upset about all the things, all of the issues that could be going on …,” Howard says.


“There’s a lot you can’t say as part of the collective. You’ve just got to say there’s a job to do and has much as you might be feeling lots of feelings, you’ve just got to put your head down and carry on.”

It really is about sublimating yourself for the greater good, as any team, or band, or organisation - political, social, religious - will show. But learning how to do that is painful and Howard shows that pain and that growth, and also enough self-awareness to understand and admit that his solo work and this book are in their own ways “a call for recognition, something that’s part of me as a musician and an artist in general”.


Interestingly, Howard thinks that the big ticket returns for Hunters & Collectors since their split in 1998 – Sound Relief, the AFL grand final, as well as the now frequent tours - have probably helped cement the idea of the band as a collective, as “that special thing” that wasn’t a standard rock band lineup, “as opposed to Mark [Seymour] and the band”.

The other thing that Howard shows is that while the band presented this very masculine, intense and sweaty public face, the individual members generally speaking were anything but that. If anything, the band were far less like that than large sections of their audience.


“I think that’s a really good point because I don’t feel that any of us were like that at all,” he says.


“Which I guess maybe leads to the question of do you become more blokey when you are in a group, as you might in a football team? I guess that’s the beauty of the band and what makes [hugely successful 1986 Hunters & Collectors album] Human Frailty special: that combination of muscular music and Mark’s lyrics that were heart on the sleeve, vulnerable. The blokiness was tempered by all that.”


In fact you could say that Human Frailty should have been called Male Frailty, or at least Male Sensitivity, and Howard is not afraid to show that in his writing – musical and literary.


“In all the conversation were having about having to develop that tough skin, that thick skin, at the heart of it is still about being able to project that special thing that being a writer makes a point of difference,” he says. “I find that as I get older, my band now, the Long Lost Brothers, there is a decent amount of taking the piss within a but that’s also much more of at the end of the night you go that was fantastic, love what you did in that song, that playing was beautiful, I love your bass playing in that. There is a lot of that, which probably there wasn’t much of in the past.”

Too much sensitivity, too much frailty now? Not for Howard, or the blokes around him in any of the bands.


“I wouldn’t go into the idea that it’s therapy or well-being, it’s very easy to take the cheap shot, but it’s harder to go ‘you were fantastic tonight’. Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe it’s a more open era.”


As the likes of AMP, political parties and media networks and others are recognising, we’re in a world now where putting up with people being monumental shits is not something everyone is prepared to do any more.


Not that people being monumental shits is something you’ll get a lot of in Howard’s book, even as he draws on the journals he’s kept through his life and highlights times when personal relationships, on and off the stage, got a little fraught.


If you’re looking for payback and intra-band gossip, you will be disappointed, as he warns right from the start. That’s just not who he is.


“Maybe I should? In hindsight, having written the book a few years ago, there might be things that I would write differently now, but I don’t think I would ever approach it from that angle. Maybe I’m a nice guy - I used to be known as smiling Jack; maybe I’m scared of offending anybody.


“But I feel like coming back around to the band again, relationships are much smoother and much more benign than they were back in the day. To hark back to shit that happened 30 years ago and describe that as the key to that relationship would be false as well.”


Of course he’d say that.


Small Moments Of Glory, by George Norris and Jack Howard, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.


Dog Songs, by Jack Howard and The Long Lost Brothers is out now, independently.

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