Thursday, September 25, 2014

"It's almost time, kids!"

Thursday, September 18, 2014



The brilliant S. Clay Wilson will be making a rare appearance this Saturday 9/20 at Mission: Comics & Art along with author/comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz! If you're lucky they might even sign your copy of PIRATES IN THE HEARTLAND (part 1 of Rosenkranz's incredible biographical trilogy). I can't make it myself, so do me a favor and show 'em some love!


Monday, September 15, 2014



Dennis Dread: I want to talk about Halloween 4 for a moment because I think it’s one of your more underrated scores. You did some really interesting things with Carpenter’s basic themes, but people don’t seem to mention it with the same reverence as, say, Halloween III.

Alan Howarth: Well, Halloween III was considered a box office flop and because of that John Carpenter and Debra Hill wanted to stop making them. But [Producer] Mustapha Akkad said, “No, no, no, no! There’s still life in the franchise!” So they made a deal and Debra and John stepped away and they elected to make The Return of Michael Myers. When they gave me a call about doing the score I was actually in the studio working on Big Trouble in Little China and I remember saying, “Hey, John…what do you think?” and John said, “Man, do what you wanna do…go ahead!” So with John’s blessings I went ahead with it. Mustapha asked me to use the iconic themes, but I had my chance to stretch out and really do Alan Howarth’s version of Halloween. I really opened up the stops on the electronic atmospheric stuff. By then we had digital samplers like that opening scene, y’know, I took my time, I didn’t start out with da da da da da da [hums Carpenter’s Halloween theme]. I had this great affected sample on the Emulator 2’s that was infinite cymbals, it was basically the sound of a cymbal looped in sort of the peak of the vibration so it created this sort of [makes a white noise sound]…which I could play on a keyboard and do my own thing. It really worked well. It was my chance to stretch beyond the framework of what was already established in Halloween and step it up several notches. Again, by then we had MIDI stacks and samplers and all the other tools we talked about earlier that were in Big Trouble in Little China. It was the same studio, same gear, so it was just a matter of firing it up! 

Bad movie. Good soundtrack.

You added percussion to the original theme that gave it a sort of militant urgency. 

Yeah, that actually happened unintentionally. The original Halloween score had no percussion in it, it was just synth stuff, but when I did the album for the Halloween soundtrack in 1982 [four years after the film’s release] there was a pulse track which was John’s click track. I brought that track up and that sort of established the idea that there could be a kick drum that made it even more intense. 

It almost has a plodding rock feel to it…but it’s still moody and effective as a horror score. 

My rock influences are King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that, so I kept that kick drum in and added other elements on top. Eventually, by Halloween 6, I was using a full rock kit with rolls and fills and everything. It just kept growing from this rock ‘n’ roll influence that I had from all my old bands and the jazz influence from my work with Weather Report. I integrated all that stuff and became….me

So what can fans expect from your concert in Portland? 

Well, I’m definitely gonna perform a couple of the Halloween III cues, especially the two opening themes. Then I’m gonna do a sort of tour de force of John Carpenter scores and some of my solo scores that came up later. I’ll do Escape from New York, Christine, Big Trouble, Prince of Darkness, They Live, a little bit of The Thing…and certainly touching down on Halloween II, and some of Halloween 4, 5 and 6

Can you do Kill a Whole Family so people can hear the track you contributed to Whispers Through the Black Veil

Yeah, I can do that. And I’ll do a couple from other movies I did, one called Retribution and another called Brutal, which is by a filmmaker named Michael Patrick Stevens who lives up there in Portland. 

Michael is a really nice guy. I’ll make sure he’s invited and we’ll give him a place at the merch table so people can buy his DVD. I actually haven’t seen Brutal yet, but the score is great. That track Police Report scares the hell out of me every time I’m driving! It lulls me into calmness and then those sharp Night of the Electric Insect strings come stabbing through and, even though I know they’re coming, they always get me! You’ve done terrific big budget sounding work for very low budget movies. 

Here’s the thing, when I sit down to do my thing I don’t turn the meter on. I don’t say I’m only gonna do so much because this is how much I’m getting paid. I just do my thing, because it’s me and my name is on it. I’ve done several low budget scores on the cheap. That’s fine by me. I’m there. I’ll do it. 

That’s what makes you Alan Howarth, man. Your relationship to your work is what makes you such a fan favorite. You give your best regardless of the quality of the film, or its staying power or even its budget. You seem to genuinely love art and movies and music, and you seem to really apply yourself at every opportunity. 

I appreciate that, Dennis. From a filmmaker standpoint, no matter how much you’re going to spend on your movie, you get more bang from your buck from the music than any other element of the movie. I’ll just make a generalization, music is usually 5-10% of the money you spend on a film. The other 90% is the actors, the filming, the editing and all the other stuff. But when you finally play the movie, music is somewhere around 40-50% of why it works! John Carpenter once told me, "Music is the director’s velvet glove." Which was his way of saying that music is how you touch your audience without them knowing you’re touching them.

The other guy in the room… 

Yeah, music steers the audience in the direction of what they’re supposed to get from any particular scene, whether it’s love or hate or fear or excitement or whatever. It’s the underpinning. Another Carpenterism is this: when your actors are really acting and it’s working, shut up and let the actors act. In other words, don’t go wall to wall with music just to "pump" the movie up, because eventually the effectiveness of the music goes away if it’s always playing. 

I would attribute the staying power of a film like Assault on Precinct 13 almost entirely to the music. If you think about it, that movie is very slowly paced and without that amazingly simple score I really don’t think it would hold up very well at all. As it is, it almost predates conceptual music videos. 

Yeah, that was his first legitimate movie. Before that was Dark Star, which was a college movie and kind of a spoof and it was never really intended to be anything but cool, even though it turned out that there was a lot of players on that film who went on to be Hollywood filmmakers. Tommy [Lee Wallace] was on that crew too and they eventually got a release on it. You never know which way this stuff is gonna go. So, like I said, I always give 100% to every film I’m on. Why would I give any less? Why would I give any less just because they don’t have the budget? You never know when some new filmmaker finally steps up to take his shot – and he deserves his shot – because it just might be that that person turns out to be somebody who should be making movies. And, y’know, we’re all caught up on doing our day gigs, whether it’s working at the store or the shop or fixing up things or doing houses or whatever. I mean, I remember one time I was with one of my buddies Sergio Mendes – I knew Sergio because of Weather Report – and I was at his house and he pulled out this picture of all these people who had built his studio out back and he says, “Look at this crew that built this studio.” This was probably 1980 or 1981. He goes, “Recognize any of these people? Look at that guy right there…” And I go, ‘Holy shit! Really? He was your carpenter?” 

Who was it? 

It was Han Solo! 

No way! Harrison Ford was doing construction gigs in 1981? 

And that was after Star Wars

 "Somebody in this camp ain't what he appears to be..."

Well, I have to say, after such a long career in the film industry you come across as someone who is genuinely pleased with the way things have turned out. You don’t seem as embittered as John Carpenter, who has essentially turned his back on the whole thing. 

Yeah, well it’s back to that smiley face thing, y’know? Shit happens. It’s either gonna get to you or it’s not. I remember a great quote from Deepak Chopra that says there’s only two states to any situation: there’s the pleasant and the unpleasant. Personally, I’ll choose the pleasant. I mean, stuff happened. John Carpenter made The Thing and it was considered a box office flop. He made Big Trouble and it was considered a box office flop. That burned him, because it shouldn’t have been that way. But this is now the business of film distribution and studio marketing and all this other stuff…and they screwed it up! In his opinion, the people who run these studios have their heads where it don’t shine, y’know? They just don’t know what’s going on. 

It seems like it’s even harder these days to push a project through with any real vision or vitality. 

When you think about it, you’re the guy working at the studio, y’know, you got the gig at Universal and you’re looking at new projects and what’s your primary word? It’s, “No.” You say no to everything! And it’s up to the new filmmaker to convince them why you should convert to, “Yes.” Cause what happens? If that guy says yes and it gets produced and it’s a flop…he loses his job! So there’s a dynamic in the studio system of no and negativity. It takes a director with real chutzpah to navigate those waters and get their film made and then a stroke of luck to get it marketed properly. The Thing is one of the greatest monster films of all time and at the time it was considered junk. They thought it wasn’t worth the effort so they pulled it, but it continues to run and it became a cult favorite. Universal Pictures released E.T. and The Thing at the same time… 

Bad idea. 

It was a train wreck. You’ve got the cutest monster and the meanest monster and all the sudden E.T. is on the cover of Time Magazine and all your attention goes to E.T. and [Steven] Spielberg and he’s the new darling and he gets his new Amblin suite built on the lot just to have Steven come to the studio if he wants to because he made them a billion dollars. 

Meanwhile Rob Bottin put himself in the hospital working so hard on The Thing… 

People were dyin’ on The Thing…and they delivered! It’s one of the best monster movies ever! I remember going to a 70mm screening of The Thing a couple years ago and just sitting there watching the movie in 70mm – the big show, the really big show, even beyond HD at least for now – and the movie looked great! The only thing that said this move was from the early 80s was the technology. They had these clunky cell phones and the computers were clearly from Radio Shack, but other than that, y’know, the acting, the costumes, the helicopter, the exteriors and the monster itself completely stand up. 

Academy Award winning FX master Rob Bottin on the set of The Thing.

Well, we should wrap this up. 

Ok, Dennis. Well, I’m really looking forward to coming back to Portland! It was great to meet you and the kids that were with you. We’re gonna do a great show...and then let’s have some fun afterwards! 

For sure, man. You can count on it.

Monday, September 08, 2014



Dennis Dread: Suddenly you’re in Hollywood… 

Alan Howarth: Yeah, so I got involved as a sound FX specialist for Star Trek and the picture editor – a fellow by the name of Todd Ramsey – his next assignment was Escape from New York. I had given Todd my musical tapes just to show him I was doing something and it turned out John Carpenter always collaborated with someone to run the studio [for his soundtrack recordings] and he was having a falling out with the guy that had done The Fog and the original Halloween movie. So the door swung open a little bit and Todd suggested that John Carpenter come over and meet me. My studio had grown a little bit by this time, I had an 8-track recorder and some more synthesizers, so he came over for an afternoon and I played him some sounds and a little music and after a couple of hours he said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” 

A life changing moment! 

That was it. New career change. Now I’m working with John Carpenter creating the music for Escape from New York! I mean, what a blessing! Of course, he’s John Carpenter and at the time the credit was ‘music by John Carpenter in association with Alan Howarth,’ which means it was John’s music and I helped out. But the creative environment was more like Lennon and McCartney. Anyone who wanted to do anything was allowed to do whatever because one of the rules that John told me at the beginning was, “There’s only one rule: there are no rules!” Most of the themes in the Carpenter scores are John’s because that’s his talent. He created Halloween [hums the Halloween theme]…his father is a professor of music and he learned that stuff when he was a kid. I was sort of the other guy in the room.

Yeah, but being the “other guy in the room” is sort of your art. I mean, when I listen to your music I almost forget I’m listening until I suddenly realize I’m having an emotional response. That’s the highest art! 

My job was to just make sure the light was on and the tape was rolling. But when it came to the synthesizers and the sequencing and making stuff happen with the machines, that was my department. 

Escape from New York poster art detail (1981).

It’s interesting that you started out as an aspiring visual artist who gravitated toward sound and music, while John Carpenter started out thinking he would be a musician and then shifted into the visual medium of film. 

I think it works so well because I was already a visual artist before this journey down the musical trail, so if you ask me to make sounds or music for an image I can immediately combine the two. That’s where I excel. It’s automatic, it’s not a struggle in any way. I mean, the word synthesis means to combine various elements into something new or something different. Eventually you’re gonna tell a story, that’s what it comes down to, however you tell that story in whatever media supports that process. Art is a communication. And movies are a combination of all those things. That’s why movies are so powerful, because movies combine multi disciplines and because movies have the ability to be done “off line” a little piece at a time and then assembled like a puzzle. It can be worked on to the point where it’s perfect, whereas live performance – y’know, fox running – every second counts and you’re just doin’ it! So it’s two different things, it’s theater vs. movies as far as I’m concerned. Y’know, you get up there and perform and take enough takes to get it right, however many that is. I was really drawn to that and between Star Trek and Escape from New York I had a new career! That led to being a sound FX and sound designer on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Poltergeist and we got Academy Awards for Hunt for Red October and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I eventually did seven scores for Carpenter and another 12 on my own. And here we are, fast forward to 2014, and those Carpenter scores still hold up. People still come up to me today and say, “Hey, that’s fabulous stuff!” I’ve been doing conferences and horror shows just to meet the kids, but at the time we did it I never thought that 30 something years later I’d still be talking about this stuff and it would be so popular. But I’m thrilled! It means it worked, right?

Big Trouble in Little Portland.

When we met you told me that Big Trouble in Little China was your favorite of all the scores you've worked on over the years. Can you explain some of the reasons why? 

It was sort of a nexus of things that came together on that score. The technology had grown in synthesizers from analog synths that were connected with what we call Control Voltage and Gates – very simple switching – to the introduction of MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface. What that means is you could play the keyboard of one synthesizer and have it connected together to a bunch of other ones and then from one keyboard have like nine other synths play at the same time. That was one of the features of Big Trouble, we had all that MIDI stuff going on so we had these big stacks of synthesizers being performed on every track instead of one track for the Prophet 5, another track for the Prophet 10, another track for the Prophet 5 on a different sound, etc. You still had the limit of 24 analog tracks on the tape recorder, so you maxed out at 24 tracks, but now if you take 24 tracks and you put nine instruments on each one, the textures get really thick. Additionally, we had digital sampling and we added an Emulator 2 and a Kurzweil 250 which both had nice digital recordings of real instruments so the tone quality of the score went up a notch because now we had choruses and drums and stuff like that – digital recordings of real stuff so it wasn’t just an analog synth score. It got more orchestral. It started approaching this hybrid thing. And then also that particular movie’s time table was such that John and I scored it and then it had some issues with the visual effects, etc. so it was taking a little longer than we expected, so we had time to literally go back and re-score the entire score and fine tune it and take elements from the ending and put ‘em back in the beginning. Usually when you’re doing this stuff you’re cranking out reel one, you turn it in, you go to reel two, you turn it in, you go to reel three and there’s no going back! But in this case the thing sat long enough that we probably had about 14 weeks to score it. Normally you’ve got about six weeks, so it was almost double the time. And then in addition Big Trouble had a lot of different filmic elements as opposed to a Halloween or an Escape from New York or Christine, which were all focused in one area musically. We had rock ’n’ roll, we had orchestral elements, we had Asian influences and we actually had a song that John wrote called Big Trouble in Little China… 

The Coup De Villes! 

Yeah, which was Tommy Lee Wallace, Nick Castle, John and then I played a lot of the guitar. 

Wait. Is Nick Castle the same guy who played Michael Myers in Halloween? 


Wow. Duly noted.

We actually made an album after that independently called Waiting Out the 80s, which is an unreleased gem of John Carpenter work that’s out there somewhere. So it was just the technology, the production and the content of that movie which gave us a chance to really hit it out of the park.

You mentioned Tommy Lee Wallace, which is a perfect segue to talk about Halloween III. Wallace was with Carpenter since film school and Dark Star and he was actually the Production Designer on Halloween – he was responsible for transforming a sunny southern California city into autumnal Illinois by strewing fake leaves all over the sidewalk and streets – I think he also helped edit the original Halloween. Of course he went on to write and direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is essentially why we're talking today. What do you remember most about working on the score for Halloween III? 

Well, remember, there was the original Halloween in 1978 that was before I knew John Carpenter so I had nothing to do with that one. Of course Halloween II was the sequel… 

Picking up precisely where the original film left off. 

Yeah, exactly. The very next moment and we’re just gonna continue on with the rest of the night. At that point John was committed to directing The Thing, so his attention wasn’t there and he also wasn’t that excited about the sequel – he thought he was done at the end of the first one – but he agreed to make the score. So I remember being in the studio with John somewhere near the end of the Escape from New York sessions and he said, “Oh by the way, we’re gonna do a sequel to Halloween and you’re gonna do that one.” He just assigned me! “You do Halloween II, I’m too busy.” So I did Halloween II and it did what it did [at the box office], so then they wanted to do part III and Debra [Hill, writer and co-producer] and John had this idea to expand outside the fixed item of Michael Myers and do Halloween as a broad topic so each year we could do a different kind of movie and have an anthology of Halloween themes. In fact, if it wasn’t called Halloween III and was just called Season of the Witch I think it would’ve done a lot better than it did. But as it turned out, when it hit the box office and got out there everyone was like, “What? What happened to Michael Myers? I thought this was Halloween?” 

"It's almost time, kids!"

I'm sure Moustapha Akkad [Producer] insisted on tacking Halloween on the title to keep the franchise rolling. 

Exactly. So when it came to the score, I remember sitting down with John – at that time we had videotape so we could literally jam while watching the movie or sort of offline watch the movie a little bit and then jam and come back and watch the movie – so we sat and listened to some inspirational records, we put on the latest Tangerine Dream record because we really liked their synthesizer work and we really liked The Police so we listened to a little Sting just for inspiration. We sat down and John said, “This is gonna be real easy. What we’re gonna do is just rip ourselves off.” Which was code for, “Whatever we did on Escape from New York, I like that! Let’s do that again!” So we started with that opening scene, the chase that’s now called Chariot of Pumpkins, and I dialed up the sequence that’s the backbone of that thing on the sequencers. It was kinda Halloween-y but it was also its own thing, so John liked that a lot. And then we just built the layers on that and I actually went back and played the lead theme and we just went off. Well, Halloween III the movie was not so successful, but here we are 30 something years later and the Halloween III score comes up on the top scores of all time. 

It’s brilliant. 

Of course, we weren’t thinking we were brilliant at the time. We were just doing what we were doing. But, again, the test of time has come back and sort of certified it as one of the best scores ever. 

I think enough time has passed that even the movie has been reassessed by critics and it’s now something of a cult favorite in its own right. Viewers seem to understand the context and “get it” now. It’s a very strange and very entertaining film. I remember being disappointed as a kid when it came out because of the Michael Myers thing, but a few years later I came to really enjoy it. I still do! There’s also a fun satirical thread running through it that seems to allude to the commercialization of Halloween, both the franchise and the holiday, and some of that winking critique of mindless consumerism that is echoed later in They Live. 

Yeah, there was a scope. Tommy was the director, but John was there looking over his shoulder and making sure everything was on track. Do you remember the silly commercial? 

Of course! That’s Tommy Lee Wallace doing the announcer’s voice, right? 

Exactly. I remember getting a call from Debra and she said, “What I want you to do is use the melody from London Bridge is Falling Down. I don’t want any copyright issues on this stuff so we gotta use something that’s public domain!” And if you think about it, that’s exactly what it is [hums the Silver Shamrock jingle]…It’s really a public domain thing. Tommy told me the name of the piece that inspired the little piano exercise that became the calliope sort of silliness playing behind it and then the vocals are Tommy and myself singing into the tape recorder chipmunk style. The idea was to slow the tape recorder to half speed and then speed it up. It was one of those insane ideas – kinda nuts – but it certainly works for the story point that you play the song and it triggers the Stonehenge chips that are in the masks that triggers the bugs that make the kids all die… 


And we had the bug man again in Prince of Darkness! So, as you said, there were actually a lot of elements in Halloween III that were harbingers of things to come.

When we met I told you how cool I always thought your studio looked in that photo on the back of the soundtrack record. I imagined this magical place where Alan Howarth and John Carpenter sit around smokin' doobies and making creepy music! Funny thing about that studio… 

Yeah, that was just my little rented house in Glendale, California. It’s on Adam Street and the house is still there, but that studio was just set up in my dining room. It just happened that the room had some nice artistic features, it had those curved windows and also, because one of the gigs I had was setting up synthesizers and later I was a retail rep for Arp synths, I was good at making set ups. I had the artistic flair for making a really cool looking set up no matter where it was. We just moved the dishes.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014


Legendary soundtrack composer, sound designer and pioneering synth maestro Alan Howarth contributed a beautiful track to my forthcoming compilation LP Whispers Through the Black Veil. We knew we had to do something very special to celebrate the occasion, so on Wednesday October 1, 2014 Howarth will appear at Portland, Oregon's historic Hollywood Theatre for a 35mm screening of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), followed by a recital spanning more than three decades of his cinematic work. Over the next few weeks I'll be publishing our recently recorded conversation in three installments, exploring all aspects of his creative development. Born in New Jersey, Howarth relocated to Ohio with his family in 1962 where he eventually gravitated toward rock 'n' roll before pushing onward into terra incognita. His early experimental band Pi Corp is widely considered to be one of the first Midwest electronic bands and their sound, a nebulous bridge between Hawkwind and Throbbing Gristle by way of total LSD psychosis, preceded the early development of noise and industrial music by several years. In 1979 Howarth landed in Los Angeles, California, where he continues to reside today, and soon embarked on a successful career in the film industry through an unexpected string of very fortuitous synchronicities. Along the way he would encounter cowboy accordion creeps, sock hops, Jaco Pastorius, murderous androids, Stonehenge, the Starship Enterprise and enough supernatural menaces to swallow humanity. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...


Dennis Dread: The track you contributed to Whispers Through the Black Veil is beautifully understated and haunting. It perfectly captures the taut minimalism and eerie textures I associate with your finest work. 

Alan Howarth: Thank you, Dennis. Kill a Whole Family is derived from the film score for Basement Jack. The music was created to underscore a scene where the serial killer “Jack,” who has been killing members of a small town by hiding in the basements of their homes until he feels it is time to strike, slices up an entire family one at a time and poses the dead family watching TV. It was composed while watching this scene playing synchronous to the composition, with every hit emphasized by the musical phrasing. John Carpenter composed all of our scores in the 80s pioneering this method, which he called an “electronic coloring book.” 

We’ll get to your legendary partnership with John Carpenter a bit later, but let’s begin with your earliest interest in music and your formative musical experiences growing up in Ohio. 

Ok, let’s go to the way back machine! In the way back when I was a kid, my first interest in music was actually a small accordion that I found up in the attic at my parents’ house when I was about five years old. I just remember sitting up there, not even picking the darn thing up yet, just kinda putting it on the edge of the table and letting the bellows move and pushing the keys and thinking, “Hey, this sounds cool! I like sound!” So I begged my mom to get me accordion lessons and the particular teacher she selected was a local cowboy TV star who also gave lessons. In his own way he was a somewhat handsome and virile guy. Anyway, I had about three or four lessons and at that time it was all about playing polka music...[hums a German waltz]...and the big trick was to finally get to the point where you could keep that going with one hand so you get two hands going. I remember going over to his house, mom took me there, and I finally got it together to where I actually had one song I could play with both hands. So I went down to the guy’s basement and I’m sitting there practicing before he is supposed to come into the room [hums simple polka rhythm]…and I’m waiting, and I’m waiting. Finally my mom comes in the room and she goes, “We’re leaving!” And I go, “But mom! Mom!” and she says again, “We’re leaving!” And we left. That was the end of my accordion lessons. I never knew what was going on, but eventually I asked mom. “Son, he was very inappropriate. He tried to put the moves on me!” So that was it. At five years old I was gonna be a budding accordion player, but the cowboy teacher put the moves on my mom. That killed that. 

Sounds like your first lesson in rock 'n' roll too. 

Exactly! So fast forward to about fourth grade when they gave the students a little musical aptitude test and the idea was to start a school band. So a letter came home and I remember putting that in front of my mom and going, “Ma! Ma! See? I’ve got some musical talent! Will you support me on this?” And she said, “Yes.” This was the 1950s and I remember looking at the entire school band instrument selection and the two things I really wanted was a guitar and a piano but that wasn’t in the band. The next coolest instrument was the saxophone, so I started out on the alto saxophone and eventually got it together and stayed with it from fourth grade on through high school. But my real thread through high school was being an art student. I was gonna be a sculptor/painter guy. I always had talent drawing and fooling with materials so I was thinking I was gonna be a visual artist. I was the president of the art club and was one of the favorites among the art teachers as someone who was really gonna do it. And this girl in the art club named Kathy said, “Hey, Alan, I hear you play saxophone. My buddy Dave has a band and they have a gig at the Catholic girls high school doing a thing called a sock hop,” – back to time warps, there was a time when the gym floor was this highly varnished thing that you weren’t allowed to walk on with shoes, so in order to have an event in the gym, like a dance, you did it in your socks. Hence the sock hop! – So I played this gig with them and it was a lot of big band stuff like Canadian Sunset and stuff like that. But at the end of the night he paid me $80…and my eyes went wide! I said, “Forget this art thing, I’m goin’ with music!” That started the whole thing. 

Howarth with mom Margaret, sister Bonelle and Cleo the cat in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1967.

Dave’s sock hop band started you on your path. 

That’s right. Dave wanted to have a rock 'n' roll band beyond the sorta Glenn Miller sock hop band thing, but he needed a bass player. So I pestered mom to buy me a bass guitar and I got a Pennington bass guitar, sort of an off-brand but decent enough that you could play it, and a Sears Silvertone amp and that was the beginning of rock 'n' roll! Now I was in! I quickly figured out how to play the bass and wound up in one of the most popular bands on the west side of Cleveland. We were one of the first of what they called “Beatles Bands.” Remember, this was 1959 to 1964 so most of the bands were what we called “Greaser Bands” and they would play Jerry lee Lewis and Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and stuff like that and their hair was slicked back. All of a sudden we were gonna wash our hair and not put any grease on it and play Beatles music and Rolling Stones and all the British Invasion stuff. This was a band called the Tree Stumps and we would actually do dances back at the high school and get 1,000 kids! We were the rage, man! I went through a series of variations of the Tree Stumps and then myself and the singer, a guy named Woody Leffel started a band called The Renaissance Fair and we were into the San Francisco thing and played The Doors and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish and kinda went off in that direction. Eventually the original Tree Stumps got a new fellow named Michael Gee who later became Michael Stanley and they got a record deal with a producer named Bill Szymczyk who produced our later band called The Silk and another band called the James Gang which was of course Joe Walsh. Szymczyk went on to produce the Eagles, so there was this waft through northeast Ohio and we all made records on ABC Records. We opened for The Who on the Tommy tour and we opened for Cream on Wheels of Fire. At that time I thought I was there and we were gonna be rock stars but, still, it’s always back to did ya make anybody any money? Our record wasn’t a hit and eventually the band broke up and it all dissipated and that was the end of my career as a performance rock guy. 

So at this point if The Silk was opening up for The Who on the Tommy tour are we talking 1974 and 1975? 

1971 and 1972. Original line up on the first Tommy tour. 

Ok, right. I was thinking of the Ken Russell movie, but I guess that came out quite a few years after the LP. That must’ve been a wild time! 

It was great! It was just great. I got to meet those guys. [John] Entwistle was my hero and he gave me my first set of Rotosound bass strings. Before that we used Flatline strings and it was like [makes a dull plodding sound] and all of a sudden Entwistle gives me the Roto strings and, “GWWWWAAAAAAAA!!!!!” All the other bass players were going, “Man, you sound like a giant guitar! That’s not a bass sound!” And I would go, ‘Nah, but it’s so cool!” 

The Motorhead bass sound! 
That’s what everybody uses now. But I was always into being sort of a visionary or pioneering kinda guy. I eventually went through a long period of not doing anything but my own original music, like, “I’m not gonna do those silly [cover] songs anymore.” That’s when I got into synthesizers. I worked at a music store and became a specialist in instrument repair, both electronic and physical. I could fix guitars and I learned how to work on synths. I had two bands during that period and one was called Braino which was sorta like early Pink Floyd. We actually performed in quadrophonic. Our sound guy Brian Risner had tape queues of explosions and effects and we played in this little club in Cleveland called the Smiling Dog and they had all these jazz acts playing. They would book them during the week because in Cleveland you could grab an act going from New York to Chicago and get ‘em on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during the middle of the week. They’d stop in Cleveland for a couple of nights during the week and then go on to the bigger gigs on the weekend. Braino became the house band of the Smiling Dog Saloon and all the jazz greats played there [like] Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis and one of the bands that played was a band called Weather Report. And because Braino was the house band, we had our quadrophonic sound system with echoes on it and stuff like that and we did a number for Weather Report that really sounded good one night and it was really beyond their normal experience. At that time they had no roadies, all the guys were setting up their own stuff and so the owner of the Smiling Dog kinda promoted us, “Hey, y’know we’ve got these two guys Alan and Brian, man. These guys really know what they’re doing, you need somebody like this out on the road with you!” And they thought it was a good idea so they invited us out. I had a job at the music store but Brian was a little more free, so Brian went out and became the first roadie for Weather Report while I continued on with my original bands. Braino continued to modulate into another band called Pi Corp, I thought that was a cool name as I was fascinated by music and mathematics, so we did Pi Corp and then eventually we started a studio that was called Pi Corporation and that modulated into a retail store and we became the synthesizer specialists for northeast Ohio. 

Howarth jamming with Pi Corp.

So how did you get on with Weather Report? 

Weather Report continued to grow and they got a bigger touring thing and Brian invited me to go out on the road with them in 1976 when the Heavy Weather album came out. I went out not as a musician but as the tech to keep all the synthesizers operating all around the world. Remember, all this stuff is studio equipment so it’s not meant for the road. So they needed somebody who really knew how to take it apart, keep it working, and tune it every night and deal with power and all this sort of stuff. I traveled the whole world with those guys! We went to Europe, all over North America and South America and China and Japan and Australia. It was a really cool time to be out there. 

What was it like traveling with Jaco Pastorius at the height of his improvisational prowess? 

It was interesting because, remember, the two founders of Weather Report, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, are a couple generations senior to us guys. Jaco was the kid and Peter Erskine was about the same age, so it was like the young guys were doing all the partying and a lot of the hangin’. Wayne and Joe were a little more [seasoned]…they’d done it before so when the gig’s over they’re gonna have a little glass of wine and go to bed. We christened Jaco “PK” which stood for “Party King.” Jaco was into the all night hang every night! Let’s face it, he was the Hendrix of the fretless bass guitar. He was the guy that picked that darn thing up and really did something that was beyond anything anyone had imagined before him. I was a bass player, [I thought] basses were basses – y’know, riffs and rock stuff. But here’s this guy playing this lyrical vibrato lead instrument on the bass guitar and still being really funky. When he was a young kid in Florida his early experience was playing with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and [Cochran] was sort of the white James Brown. Jaco had super funk. He was very talented! I remember working on his bass when I first met him and what he had done was taken an old ’59 Fender jazz bass and literally pulled the frets off and filled the gaps with Bondo to make a smooth neck out of it. It wasn’t a fretless, it was a fretted that had been modified to be fretless. The interesting part is he still had the fret marks in Bondo so there was a map of where the frets used to be, but he could play on top of it. It was kinda really clever that it worked that way! And I remember that I modified the electronics because normally the way a guitar works, if you were to turn the volume of one pick-up off it would shut the whole guitar down, so you always had to keep one pick-up on a little bit and then the other one would be louder to adjust the bass and treble. I found a way to invert the way the ports were in there so he could turn one off completely and have the sound of another one, so it gave him a little more tonal range. Later we brought in an MXR digital delay, which had a phasing sound, which became a part of Jaco’s signature sound. He was using an acoustic 360 bass amp with twin heads and double bottoms and it had some fuzz in there and then we also had a little digital looper in the MXR so he could begin to jam a little and then have it play back so a lot of his bass solos were Jaco on top of Jaco! It was really cool stuff! 

Jaco Pastorius jamming with Weather Report.


The way Weather Report did it – since they were all great instrumentalists – was that each guy got a solo somewhere in the set, so there was always a Jaco bass solo and some of that stuff actually got recorded. I have cassettes off the boards of Jaco doing stuff that nobody’s ever heard and it was just amazing. I was on the road with him for probably 300 shows and no two shows were the same! I mean, there was a framework for a song – there was a riff and then they do what they want to do and then they go back to the riff or the bridge and then do an ending – but it was different every night. I think that really enhanced my ability to be improvisational when I got to do film scoring. It was never written down. It came out of your head and it came out of the instrument and that was it. You composed on the fly, so that makes it easy for me to sit in front of a movie now and just kinda tap stuff out while watching the movie. Touring with Jaco was a set-up for where I wound up later. 

What happened next? 

We went through this period on the road from 1976 through 1980 and then they were going into a long studio period, so there wasn’t a lot of work and the oddest career change occurred. The incident involved a big burly biker buddy of mine named Pax “Slim” Lemmon From Cleveland who was in Los Angeles working for Paramount Pictures in the transfer bay and he was just making copies of tapes from one quarter inch to the other for the sound FX editors and there were these two sound FX editors standing behind him – a fellow named Richard Anderson and a fellow named Steve Flick – having this conversation about how they were working on a movie and they really needed to find somebody who knew about synthesizers and Pax turns around and he goes, “Aw man, you gotta talk to my buddy Alan Howarth! He knows everything about synthesizers! He works for Weather Report!” And Steve and Richard look at him and go, “Weather report. Is that the one at 7 o’clock or 11 o’clock?” 


They thought he was talking about the local TV weather report! But they called that night and I went down there and they go, “Listen, we’re doing this movie called Star Trek: the Motion Picture and we’re looking for someone to create sounds for us. Would you be interested?”

You must’ve flipped, man! 

Yeah! They asked me to do an audition tape and they said, “Why don’t you make us the sound of the Starship Enterprise going from Warp 1 to Warp 7,” ‘cause there’s that one scene in the first movie where they had to get this big acceleration. So I went back in my little studio where I had my Prophet 5 synthesizer and my little TX 4-track and a little Sony mixer and I dialed up this sound on the Prophet 5 using the Poly-Mod section that I thought was a good sound for the Starship Enterprise. I turned in the tape and…guess what? That became the sound of the Starship Enterprise! I got the gig! All of a sudden I went from the band business to the movie business! 


Monday, September 01, 2014


THE STARS ARE RIGHT! Today I unveil my guerrilla label and action propaganda division: WYRD WAR! Why does the world need yet another micro record label? To put it as simply as possible, I've been involved in a lot of great records over the years - and I'm proud of every single one - but until now I've never had the opportunity to create projects with absolutely no restraints and no compromises. WW will release only a few carefully selected records each year with an emphasis on the strange and the beautiful and the unsung. In other words, you will be gravely disappointed. And I will soon go down like Icarus in a blaze of commercially unsound decisions. In the meantime, I invite you to "follow" the WYRD WAR Facebook page, which is where I'll primarily be conducting business until I get around to creating a more viable platform. I don't do anything in half measure so you can bet your pretty ass I've got an arsenal of surprises up my sleeve. Strange days have found us indeed. FTW!