Life on the Margins of Commercial Breakthrough
On Past, Present, and Future
As we speak, Tod Howarth is wrapping up work on his latest project — a promised new musical direction for him. After more than 20 years in the music business, he has seen it all from top to bottom, and is still moving on as ever before, still aiming towards challenging both himself and his fans.
Tod Howarth is probably best known to most from collaborations with several of the big names — notably Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Ace Frehley, and 707. He first hit the big time with Ace Frehley’s post-Kiss band Frehley’s Comet, with whom he recorded two albums and a live EP. Here, as vocalist, guitarist, keyboard player, and songwriter, he made a name for himself and looked set to join the major players — until he suddenly decided to quit the band. Howarth was an important voice with the Comets, and to this day he is recognized and respected among the huge self-appointed Army of Kiss fans. He still regularly visits the Kiss Konventions, talks about the old days with Ace, and promotes his own music in the process.
Howarth has, however, done a lot more over the years than co fronting the Comets. Playing with power-pop giants Cheap Trick, recording and performing with Nugent, and playing with FM-hard rockers 707 (who recently reformed, without Howarth), and for the last decade, making his own exciting solo albums — all this ensure that he has left a solid stamp on the music industry. And yet, as the story goes, he still can’t get arrested.
Howarth may rightfully be dubbed one of the true hard working craftsmen in the music business — his 20 years of recording with a long line of musicians have proven him to be an extremely diverse and adaptable musician. And although he’s worked in very different musical settings throughout the years, there are certain factors that seem to bind all his albums together: Musicality. Craftsmanship. Devotion.
Howarth comes from a school that highlights classic songwriting, harmony, and tonality. No shock, then, that he cites The Beatles as his first musical influence: “I never really heard any other music until that night back in 1964 when they played The Ed Sullivan Show,” he says, while also mentioning The Rolling Stones, T-Rex, 10CC, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Steely Dan — all of them bands or artists combining melodic skill with a hard, more direct rock expression.
However, those of you familiar with his last solo albums have probably noticed his love for the “grunge” movement. In addition to the “classic rock” acts, Howarth feels a close affinity with major ’90s bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots — as well as nu-metal acts such as The Deftones, Godsmack, Korn, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park.
His craftsman-like approach to music hasn’t only got to do with the way he construes melodies and arrangements, but also with his working manner — his is beyond hands-on, even. He plays most or all instruments himself, as well as writing, arranging, and producing his own material for the solo albums. The road to such artistic control hasn’t been an easy one, as his first solo album, Silhouette proved:
“It was dome on my digital eight-track, so I was limited to how I could overdub with some real studio savvy — the final sound was, for my ears, not very powerful or full production sounding… in other words, kind of weak. Second, the music was very dated by the time that I had put it out, and I was already listening to new stuff and getting into this fresh type of ear candy. So in comparison, I was thinking ‘wow, how eighties can I get?’ As a songwriter, I have a definite style, and the fans have come to like it. At the same time, I have to grow and experiment with new methods of ‘tunesmith,’ otherwise I truly start to feel old and boring.”
Not only did Howarth do a better job at producing the next album, he was also more readily willing to experiment with his songwriting. The result was Cobalt Parlor, an album that is regarded as a minor masterpiece by many AOR-afficionados. Howarth went through an emotional period at the time of this album, and had the guts to let this state of mind shine through on the songs, turning them into touching commentaries on love and loss.
“When I started to write this CD, I was headed for what it would turn out to be,” Howarth says today. “A departure from the old style and into some fresh new-influenced grounds. It wasn’t going to be so blue but what was taking place in my personal life — my relationship at the time — was a major influence to the melodic and lyrical tone of the whole project. It was a very hard CD to do. Today, I still think that it has some of my best lyrical content overall.”
Howarth sees his last album so far, West Of Eight, as a continuation of its heavy, grunge-influenced predecessor: “I still like the CD today,” he says. “In fact, I just listened to the whole thing on the way back from dropping off my youngest daughter at her home. Of course I would have done a few things differently now especially that I’m using 16 tracks instead of just eight!” This time around, he also received help from outside musicians, using the band he had put together for the tours that followed the release of Cobalt Parlor. “This CD was written for a band to do. Live was the operative word here, and the band that I had put together for Cobalt Parlor did this stuff pretty damn good.”
With the exception of this latest album, his solo efforts are completely sold out and impossible to get hold of. Still, he has no plans to re-release them: “It wouldn’t be very cost effective. Although it would make some fans happy, it isn’t very cost productive for me, and I’ve already taken a big financial hit over the years in my continuing quest to bring my solo music to the people. This kills me. I’d really just love to be very wealthy and just give away my music to the fans that really want to hear it… yes, this is a fantasy!”
Howarth has always been surprisingly honest in stating that what he does is, in fact, a job, and not purely a means of artistic expression. The economic aspect of it was his main reason for quitting Frehley’s Comet — the record company wanted to focus exclusively on Frehley, as he was seen as the band’s main selling point. With no guaranteed songwriting income, Howarth realized he couldn’t live from concert tickets alone. Since then, he has played with Cheap Trick for several years, as well as recording and touring with his own solo albums. Not where the big bucks are, for sure, but Howarth doesn’t regret his choice of a career.
“I love playing, writing, singing, and will continue to do so as long as I can, but it’s a shame that inevitably the need to survive gets in the way. I guess I don’t regret my decision to go into the music business, I don’t think I could have helped myself anyhow, for it was in the head, heart and blood. Hindsight, of course, is great. If I knew then what I know now, I may have made the decision to go into the medical field — more precisely, plastic surgery. But with anything, it’s going to be hard, so go for what you want but don’t go crying when you get your ass continually kicked all over the proverbial musical block!”
Howarth has big plans for the close future, and has already finished recording an upcoming album. “New music has already been written, recorded, and sent out to new prospective record companies, producers, and publishing companies, so I’ll soon be seeing what happens with that.”
The future, he says, holds a new direction for him, although he doesn’t want to completely erase his own musical past. “The new material is ‘experimental,’ in the adult contemporary area — a departure for what I’m known for, but none the less very much me. A few fans have heard it, just to test their response, and surprisingly enough — to even themselves — they loved it, even though a few of them said they were ready to hate it because of how I categorized it. It passed the rock fan test. I’m not fooling myself, though, I know that other fans may not care much for it, but I can’t make a living off of old and increasingly fewer hard rock fans. Rock isn’t dead for me just yet. I’m just not going to limit myself anymore, and I have to think musically smarter now, not later.”
“Everything is tough these days because there’s just so many great artists out there trying to do the very same thing that you do — and many of them are doing it better and appealing to younger crowds, as it should be. I’m just starting to think that most of my fans and fans of my age group are getting (a little) older and wouldn’t mind hearing what I can do besides light up my Marshall 100 watt and Steinberger and belt it out.”