Star Scene: Jack Howard’s Epic Brass

Jack Howard has had a busy year. Not only has he been touring the world with Midnight Oil playing trumpet and keyboards, he’s also been playing his own shows when in Melbourne with his band the Long Lost Brothers. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also been seen playing the occasional gig with The Violent Femmes, The Break and countless others. When it comes to brass, Jack Howard, who made his mark playing trumpet in the iconic Hunters and Collectors as an original and continuing member, is pretty much Australian rock’s go to man.

So what’s your scene right now?
“My scene is maximizing my brass playing capabilities!”
Howard’s scene is also to take in some time back in Melbourne now that his stint with the Oils is on hiatus for now, but he’s not resting. Instead, he’s rounding out his musical year as the MD and master arranger of his collective known as Epic Brass. Consisting of a core band featuring Howard, joined by a rhythm section of Ash Davies and Steve Hadley and Nicky Del Ray on guitar, this supergroup collectively known as Epic Brass also showcases a 5 piece horn section as they work their way through the cream of the crop of ‘horn hits and hidden gems of Australian rock’.

So how have you been enjoying your time with Midnight Oil?
“I’ve had a fun role. There’s the big horn songs, the obvious ones. The well told story of how they pretty much rehearsed every song off every record plus all the unreleased tracks that have come out on their complete set. They rehearsed about 160-170 songs before the start of the tour and I’ve had an involvement from the big stuff ‘The power and the Passion’ down to some cowbell in the chorus of the Tin Legs but I’ve kind of got percussion, keyboards, horns, backing vocals. I’m doing a lot of interesting stuff every night and because they constantly change the set there’s probably half a dozen to 8 songs that are getting a guernsey every night and the big ones at the finish but other than that they really flip ‘em around and their obscure stuff still turns up. There’ll be something from one of their later albums that needs a bit of keyboard in the chorus because Jim’s too busy so it’s really fun!”

Tell me more about Epic Brass and the upcoming show at Memo on Friday December 8.

“I think it’s a really good concept. It’s all Australian, there are the big obvious horn songs that we do. We do ‘Say Goodbye’, ‘Know Your Product’ and those kind of songs but I’ve been trying to do really obscure Hunters stuff. In fact we do a song called ‘Rendering Room’ which was a nice historical tie in because it was the first song I ever played on with Hunters and it never actually got recorded. It’s got a great horn line and it’s got a fantastic groove. The rhythm section for this is Ash Davies and Steven Hadley and in fact with John Archer jumping in on bass as well so it’s a rhythm section to die for I’ve gotta say”.

The material Howard has drawn from for this show is vast and from the sounds of it, the set list and the personnel involved the night of music is going to live up to its name. There are some special guests joining the band on the songs that they were originally part of as Howard explains.

“We do a couple of other obscure Hunters ones but we also do Laughing Clowns, we do Wet Taxis from Sydney, Jackson Code, some great brass songs. In fact a couple of the guys in the band are sydneyites. Penny Ikinger and Jason Kane who were involved in Wet Taxis and involved back to Laughing Clowns. “

Having first put the show together earlier this year, this will be the second outing for Epic Brass and it really seems that Jack Howard embodies the saying ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person’. Howard has also been a musician wrangler in this project and has miraculously managed to coordinate rehearsals and arrangements and logistics to pull together this ensemble.

“It’s been a really interesting show to put together actually” says Howard. “I kind of wrote program notes for it as well just to try and track down the genealogy of all the players in Sydney and Melbourne who played on things like ‘Nick the Stripper’ and on the Saints ‘Swing for the Crime’ and all those great songs. It’s been a fun project to do. The launch at Memo was really fantastic. The show needs a bit of scale – there’s oh a dozen people on stage; 4 horn players plus me, and then often an extra guitarist. Nicky Del Ray and Jason Kane play guitar and then we’ve got all the guest singers as well so it’s quite a cavalcade” says Howard.
“There’s certainly a lot to do on the night because I sing a few of them as well and I’ve done all the horn arrangements for them so it’s keeping my 59 year old brain busy!” There’s that word again – busy! It seems that Howard, who is also a music teacher is a master of organisation.
“Ahead of the (Midnight Oil) tour I thought, there’ll be lots of down time so I’ll have all this time on my hands to organize this” he explains. “I get twitchy if I’m not doing stuff. Idleness kills me so if there’s nothing there I’ll think of something else to do of some sort.”

A lot of these songs were born and raised at the time when Hunters and Collectors were just emerging on the Melbourne music scene of the early ’80s. Howard has been a consistent contributor to Australian music ever since that time and is probably playing more at 59 than he ever has and with many and varied Australian acts both old and new. The program includes songs that are important to Howard from a musical performance point of view and also from the perspective of being a fan.

“I’ve had a lot of involvement doing horn section stuff for a lot of great bands over the years including X actually – Steve Lucas’s X. Steve performs (as part of Epic Brass) and we do a couple of their songs which we actually played on back in the day. It’s got a kind of close connection with me as well” says Howard.
“When I first put it together I had songs coming after quite recent bands that I’ve been involved with like You Am I and The Living End that I’ve had brass involvement with so I had some of theirs and I thought going back to like Jo Jo Zep and Turn Up Your Radio and things like that. It seems to have resolved itself into being the post punk era I guess new wave-ish post punk era of the ‘80s into the ‘90s. Oils, Hunters, Laughing Clowns and Saints, X, Painters and Dockers, those type of era of acts. I’ve got Charlie Todd in the band who played with The Wreckery, he plays sax.”

Songs always have a kind of sense memory attached to them and can take us back to a certain time and place in life. A retrospective like this is bound to have the performers and the listeners connect to the songs on multiple levels.
“It’s a really interesting process to go back and look at the songs from the inside, not just go back from the perspective of the listener, but to actually have to dig into them. Obviously I’ve had to do the arrangements from scratch and the band have had to work out the chords and the bass lines from scratch. I find that a really educational process to get inside all those songs and think about the chords for a start and ‘Oh that’s what the lyrics were!’ It’s been very interesting.”

Epic Brass play Memo Music Hall in St Kilda on Friday December 8.

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