It isn’t hard to find something inspiring in Tevo Howard’s long and ragged road to the music industry. If you don’t, you’re just not trying. The Chicago native started DJing back in 1987, and then took a detour to study music, study literature, and study law – and then came back to music, in dramatic fashion, after walking away from an MA in writing from DePaul University in 2006.
On that day, Tevo began building Beautiful Granville Studios, where he’s created some of the most marvelous House Music records of the last five years. Most (if not all) of his records have been on vinyl, released primarily by European labels for the European market. The response has been tremendous. Lacking name recognition out of the gate (and sometimes in his own city – has it ever been any other way in Chicago?), Tevo is now widely considered one of the underground’s foremost producers.
I caught up with Mr. Howard when he was in Berlin, amid persistent rumors that he’s moving overseas. We nipped that one in the bud straight away…
We’re conducting this interview with you in Berlin, and I read somewhere that you’re moving there. Is this accurate?
I am a diehard Chicagoan. Northsider. Would not exchange that for anything in the world. Get sad every time I leave, and angry every time someone says I am from Detroit (no offense, Detroit). Nonetheless, I have spent most of last year and this year in Berlin learning German and traveling on the weekends to cities throughout Europe playing live shows. Berlin is my second choice to Chicago, but I’ll be home in July, y’all.
Everyone that knows your music also knows your bio. Do you consider yourself a kind of philosophical “searcher” and music’s your current obsession, or do you think you’ve finally found your calling?
Honestly, I think of it as a form of communication. It is my favorite love, and I think I am most talented and skilled in musicianship, but I do realize that there are other avenues of communication. I tell friends in Chicago that I am simply telling the world what we Chicagoans have always known, cherished and loved, and that would be the energy and passion of the music and what it says about making great memories.
There are many good ways to communicate the energy from where we Chicagoans are from, and I do intend to explore other avenues at some point. But I have planned between 10 and 20 years of strict study of music. As a musician, I would love to study at some of the most prestigious colleges of music, and as a Chicagoan I would love to study music more intensively, especially if it is of good energy, despite what genre it is.
How important were “transmittal stations” like Gramaphone, Wax Trax and other places like that when you were growing up here?
All of it is priceless, from Medusa’s nightclub to going to Wax Trax to buy my very first copy of “Every Day is Halloween”. This was so valuable to the spiritual growth of my musicianship. At the time, Chicago was embracing an international perspective on music that was unbeatable, and ever valuable to my musicianship.
It occurred to me the other day that someone who lives on Traxsource and Beatport and exists entirely outside of vinyl culture may not have had the opportunity to hear your records. Do you feel like you’ve been limited in your exposure since so many of your recordings have been vinyl-only?
I prefer a high quality recording, and thus vinyl. Also, there is something qualifying about a vinyl record that says, “Hey, this is important. Better listen to this.” A CD or a downloaded file simply does not say the same, nor do they compare in quality.
Why did you make the decision to close down Beautiful Granville?
Beautiful Granville Records had a bit of a rough road – only 10 releases in two and a half years. Most of the rough road was caused by other companies fighting over my work and the distribution of the label. In some way, the fighting ended with Tevo Howard Recordings – which is a label meant for my material. Altogether, though, Tevo Howard Recordings will be a platform that I can use to expand and work with other artists, and not be bothered by nonsensical corporate entities that can exploit.
Listening to “Do What You Have To Do” and “What is Noise?”, I hear something that reminds me a LOT of Martin Hannett’s production style – that sparse and spacious sound from Joy Division but also New Order and the other Factory Records artists. Is that sound an influence?
To me, that is a great compliment. New Order will always be my favorite band.
How did you meet up with Tracey Thorn (from Everything But The Girl), and how was the experience of working with her on “Without Me”? To me, this was a straight-up soulful track. What was the feedback from fans of your deeper material?
Tracey and I met via Rebirth Records. The best thing about this meeting was that she nailed me as an artist, both in the content and the tonal composition of “Without Me”, which is a modal composition in tone. I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job.
As well, some of the underground scene may not be aware that I am a huge Everything But the Girl fan, and have been for many years (as mentioned in early interviews) before my meeting with Tracey.
Your dad is pretty well known in the blues scene here, and your releases together have had a phenomenal response. Do you remember the inspiration, that moment when you thought, “You know, my father would be perfect for the vocal on this”?
It was very natural: he likes my music, and I love his vocal. In all actuality I am following in his footsteps, and not he in mine. My father has always been a musician, and I have as well. So give him a mic and me some drum machines, and it’s a natural union.
When you built Beautiful Granville Studios, what sort of equipment did you have? Was it stuff you just accumulated over the years?
Bought Apple’s Logic and a MIDI controller for starters. People often ask what equipment I have, and my honest reply is that one should use anything they can get their hands on, because it is more about the spirit and composition of the material than anything else. Plenty of people have lots of gear, but can do nothing with it. Sometimes I believe it is better to write a whole composition on one or two drum machines only, rather than seven or eight.
Outside of Beautiful Granville, you seem to have released music almost exclusively on European labels. It’s puzzling. Why do you think this is?
The European labels approach me. I would have no problem with being on a label from the US, but I have had no offers. Also, every Chicagoan knows how tough the times have been lately; the market is bigger in Europe for me right now.
What would you say Chicago’s taught you as an artist? Toughness? Encouragement? The experience of being in close quarters with so many folks who “get it”, even if the popular following isn’t there?
I would say that I have learned all of the above. The depth of Chicago and all that it has offered over the years is priceless. I realize this especially on the road, as on the road one can gain perspective of where they are from and want to go.
I have noted that Chicago is ahead of its time before, and I would absolutely note that here. The average Chicagoan tends to like a few genres while the rest of the world wonders why the House scene isn’t larger in Chicago. In fact, most DJs that I know in Chicago carry what’s called a mixed bag, or a crate of records with more than one genre. My theory on that is that Chicago no longer embraces one specific genre in stylistic choice… Used to be that you were either House, or New Wave, or Punk, etc. And if you were one, then you weren’t the other. Nowadays, there isn’t this sort of cliquing scenario, and people seem to like what they like.
My point, here, is that Chicago’s embrace of an international realm of music in the ’80s is a direct representation of the stylistic embrace that Chicago grasps today. But to a non-Chicago native, that might seem far-far-fetched. We were ahead of our time then, and we are ahead of our time now, in my opinion.
The home for the new Tevo Howard Recordings, with mixes and release news, is tevohoward.com.