We can’t figure out whether Dan Howls is a wolf in sheep’s clothing or just a straight-out wolf. He’s charming, animated and full of tales of adventure and misadventure, some of which are too raw and honest to share. And, boy, can he play guitar and sing! So much so that Around The Sound was moved to speculate that he should bring back the extended guitar solo in our little write up of his recent Fairbridge Festival appearance. C’mon, Mr Howls, we know you’ve got it in you!
Howls has a sackful of stories … and, if even one in ten turn into songs as monstrously good at ‘Down And Out’, he’s going to go far in this business.
What Howls definitely does have in him is a mess of the blues. Not just any old blues. He’s aware of his heritage, for sure, and he definitely spent a lot of time rummaging in his Mum and Dad’s (both musos, of course) record collection when he was a kid, so he knows his stuff. But there’s more to Howls than meets the eye. Layer upon juicy layer just waiting to be peeled back.
As a muso, he’s probably pretty early stage careerwise, but Howls has already built a reputation as a fearsome live performer who leaves his audiences feeling hot, sweaty and guiltily satisfied. There’s always something in the air when Howls takes the stage. He calls it voodoo magic and who are we to disagree?
You don’t get to be that good live this early in your career without paying your dues. Here’s where Howls began to spin some yarns, some of which we’re pretty sure were true, some of which he may have embellished just a bit and some we simply couldn’t repeat.
On the ones we can’t repeat, all we’ll say is, Howls can drive long distances without a break, do a pretty passable Swedish accent, once watched a video with a drug counsellor, and can find a place to stay in just about any town he stops into. Read into those anything you like.
Back to the music, though, and Howls started by reflecting on where it all began for him.
“I started out doing soul-crushing gigs because I needed a bit of cash, so I was taking what I could get. That gives you a lot of adventures, silly stories and stuff. Once we decided to take it more seriously, I started talking to people and it kind of just evolved from there.
“All those hard early gigs really build a lot of character. I remember one time, in Broome, at the Roey (Roebuck Tavern), doing this gig where there were just two really rough dudes playing pool in front of us. We were on this tiny, weird little stage and mid song, I’m singing, and this dude comes up and asks me for a lighter. So, I thought, ‘Why not? It’s not like anyone’s actually watching,’ so I handed him my lighter.”
Howls didn’t elaborate on whether he kept playing while completing this transaction, but we’d like to think he did. With Howls, the music never stops, even through the worst of times.
“My music does stem a lot from travel. I got a few shows in Europe a while back and from there we just ended up doing this ridiculous string of shows. We did 21 shows in 30 days in something like 17 cities. We didn’t have a car, so we were travelling on buses. We’d play shows at night, go to the bus station in the morning with a bit of a hangover, sleep on the bus and then someone would meet us at the next city so we could do it all over again.”
Howls then went on to relate a post gig incident toward the end of that tour which ended up in an argument between him and his bandmates. Too much time on the road is never a good thing. “In the end, I punched a wall and I remember walking away from the campsite with these two bloody hands, and I go to the cliff where we’d had this lovely wine drinking session at sunset the night before, and I have a little nap on the cliff and wake up the next morning and my hands are over my chest, but they’re still bloody. And there’s people going for morning jogs and I think they thought I was dead (laughs). And, when I came back, we all just laughed about what a stupid night it was.
“That spawned a song we perform live and will be releasing later this year, called ‘Down And Out’.”
Howls has a sackful of stories like that and, if even one in ten turn into songs as monstrously good at ‘Down And Out’, he’s going to go far in this business. That is, if he can look after the hands that play that guitar the way he does.
“I’ve never been a fighter, but I do punch walls sometimes,” Howls said as he paused for breath. Maybe get some insurance, young man?
Every artist has their quirks and passion barely hides itself under Howls’ skin. He’d be a handful all right, but in this age of PC homogenisation, we need more characters like Howls. He’s the king of good-natured swagger, with just enough unpredictability to make him feel the right amount of dangerous. He’s a rock and roll animal. Lupine!
When we finally get around to talking about the new single, ‘King Si’, Howls started by talking about the recording and the sound and then rips into another story.
“We went for a bit more of a polished sound on this one. We still have the dirty blues thing going on, but it’s a little more refined. I think we did 15 or 20 takes before we got there.
“The cool thing about it, Julia (Weller, guitar and vocals) and I did a bit of travelling and we were up in Far North Queensland and it’s based on a guy we met up there. There’s a five-star abandoned resort on the beach, and they have the most beautiful palm-tree beaches up there, and they need caretakers. Cape Tribulation is where people would go to … there’s not much law up there or anything. Once you get across on the ferry it’s just deep jungle and very small towns.
“We wanted to check it out and we drove in there and there’s a sign saying just ‘Cooee’ if you get here and come and have a look around. We get in there and the pool is turned into a wet compost and he’s got fish guts in there and everything. The restaurant’s been gutted, and he’s got beds in there on rollers and the mezzanine is where he lives.
“He looks pretty much like a real-life pirate. Backpackers can stay there if they go out into the jungle and get lawyer cane from the jungle, which is really horrible to get, you get spikes and everything, and then he weaves it into these hanging baskets and sells them to the fancy resorts up the road.
“You feel like the world’s kind of ended there and there’s this kind of like overseer king running the place with all his minion backpackers.
“The song’s kind of about him, but just reimagined.”
Another story, another fucking great song!
Asked what he was doing in Cape Tribulation, Howls replied, “We just went there,” like asking why was a faintly ridiculous question. This man is a traveller and his art thrives on his experiences.
After all that, ‘Where to next?’ is the inevitable question.
Howls speculates: more touring, more writing, more recording. But, rest assured, he knows where he’s going and how to get there, he’s just not sure of all the details quite yet.
“I write a list every three or six months or so. It’s a bit addictive, just constantly working on new goals and trying to stay creative at the same time. People call me a hybrid, because I can do both. I think I’m a bit of a freak.”
Yeah, maybe so, but this is one freak who’s going places, and he’s taking his music with him.
Dan Howls launches new single ‘King Si’ on 25 May at Mojos in Fremantle with support from Jack Davies and The Psychotic Reactions.