Howard Jones: The Devil's Advocate

For most of 2012, the rock world was nothing but a memory to Howard Jones. Burnt out from nine years travelling the globe as frontman for Killswitch Engage, and suffering from severe depression and anxiety, along with health complications related to diabetes, the singer pulled the plug on his own career. Instead of living for that hour onstage every night, he whiled away his days peacefully on his boat, fishing, before heading home to channel-hop in front of the TV in the slobbery company of his beloved boxer dog, Bruno. As far as he was concerned, his days on the road were over.

“I didn’t think I was really going to do another band,” says Howard. “I was done. I accomplished a lot and I could look back and say, ‘Wow, that was awesome, I had a very fruitful career.’ But I was done. I definitely had a few people reach out that care, and no offence to them but I just wasn’t ready.”

Howard is a fun guy to talk to. Friendly and open, his conversation is rapidly punctuated with a deep, throaty, infectious chuckle that seems to rise up from his belly. But for a long time, there wasn’t much to laugh about. At points, things got very dark indeed for Howard, the singer even admitting recently to a 2009 suicide attempt that was thwarted by the police. Today, with poetic elegance, he describes the illness that millions of people struggle to conquer.

“When you’re completely in the throes of depression, everything is kind of grey,” he says. “You try to enjoy what you’re doing, but there are no bright colours or sounds or any sort of vividness to what you’re doing. Climbing out of it took some time; it’s always a struggle, but I’m doing better.”

So much better, in fact, that at this point he’s full of enthusiasm for They Bleed Red, the second album from Devil You Know, the band he joined at the end of 2012 as he started his road to recovery. At the end of the month, he’ll be playing Wembley with them in support of Five Finger Death Punch and Papa Roach, and wants the band to revisit these shores soon after.

“It’s not nearly enough time in the UK,” he notes. “So hopefully we can resolve that sometime soon.”

Devil You Know (left to right): Howard Jones, John Sankey, Francesco Artusato, Ryan Wombacher

Devil You Know (left to right): Howard Jones, John Sankey, Francesco Artusato, Ryan Wombacher

Despite being a formidable frontman for more than a decade now, none of this was ever the plan for Howard Jones. Becoming a rockstar was never the goal. While his peers spent years in their bedrooms perfecting their crowd-pleasing poses and bashing out ropey Guns N’ Roses covers in their parents’ garages, Howard was certain he was destined to become an English or History teacher. “Doing this for a living was not on the radar,” he laughs.

He was, he says, a shy child, but with a loveably silly streak (both of these traits are still in evidence today), and riddled with anxiety even then. “The first day of school was always the worst,” he recalls. But he absorbed every book set in front of him and is still a voracious reader, hoovering up everything from classic novels to his current page-turner, Joe Hill’s dark gothic fantasy story, Horns. To him, novels have a depth that you can’t get from skimming websites.

“How many people don’t pick up books any more? Everything is so available online. A lot of people don’t just sit down and read. There’s parts of humanity that have just been lost, and that’s very unfortunate… I lived a very fruitful life before the internet, I can still live without it. I don’t need to be online every day. I don’t need to update every single thing I’m doing.”

This literary background goes some way to explain the care and attention Howard pours into his own writing, which is cathartic for him.

“Yeah, it definitely is,” he agrees. “The writing aspect is as therapeutic as being onstage or getting in the studio and emoting all of that. Or getting onstage and flushing it out. You step off and you get drenched in sweat, and you feel completely spent. It’s like that but in a completely different way. It’s basically getting to speak the words that are unspoken.”

The title of the new record came from an observation from Howard’s friend Eddie, who’d read some of the lyrics and observed that they connected with audiences because, whether he goes into details on their meaning or not, they speak of a shared experience. Many fans have locked on to the claustrophobia of Seven Years Alone from their debut The Beauty Of Destruction (‘Fear is the air that I breathe / Imprisoned by hate / Ensnared by my fate / I wish for nothing but to escape’). Even though Howard says “that song means nothing to what people have said that it means”, the fact that they’re getting something personal out of his work means a lot to him.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m writing about others who’ve gone through some of the things that I’ve gone through, who’ve hurt just like I hurt, and they bleed red just like I do,” he says.

This new sense of belonging goes further, too. Devil You Know – completed by guitarist Francesco Artusato, drummer John Sankey and bassist Ryan Wombacher – have become a band of brothers, regularly keeping in touch with each other. Joining the band turns out to have been the best move Howard could have made.

“There’s definitely a kinship there,” he says. “They get it, they get me, they completely understand me and are extremely supportive, so we definitely have bonded quite well. A lot of bands – and there’s nothing wrong with it – they do the tour and say, ‘See you in a month or two.’ But we all talk. Everyone just keeps going – we don’t stop contacting each other.”

What’s also heartening to know is that his friendship with the Killswitch guys continued after he severed professional ties with the band, and still remains today.

“I definitely did keep in touch with the Killswitch guys a lot, and even now,” he says. “But I was pretty deep in my own pit there, so even when they reached out, I just wasn’t receptive. So it was really hard for them. But now it’s fine – there’s therapy, there’s good medication from the therapist.”

So it’s back on the road for the shy boy who just wanted to lose himself in books. There’ll be no library silence for the next few months, but comfort can be found in noise as well. It seems that getting onstage and screaming your lungs out is the most sane thing a person can do – to purge your emotions rather than bottling them up. That’s what makes this music so potent and important to so many of us.

“It’s a great feeling!” Howard says, gleefully. “It looks absolutely ridiculous! A normal person should not be doing this! But it definitely helps get rid of a lot of the frustration and anger issues that you may have. If you want to punch a wall or something after you’ve just got off the stage doing that for an hour, wow, you need therapy!”

And with that, the frontman, dog owner and former wannabe teacher once again dissolves into a shuddering fit of giggles. As Devil You Know hit the road again and head for Europe, you hope that the laughs keep on coming for Howard Jones, and that the world is full of colour once again.

*They Bleed Red* is out now via Nuclear Blast. Devil You Know support five finger death punch and Papa Roach at Wembley Arena on November 28

Emma has been writing about music for 25 years, and is a regular contributor to Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog and Louder. During that time her words have also appeared in publications including Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Select, The Blues Magazine and many more. She is also a professional pedant and grammar nerd and has worked as a copy editor on everything from film titles through to high-end property magazines. In her spare time, when not at gigs, you’ll find her at her local stables hanging out with a bunch of extremely characterful horses.