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A Short Bio:
Mike Howlett was born in Fiji but spent most of his childhood in Singapore, before moving to Sydney in Australia. Having developed an interest in music from an early age, Howlett tried to master different instruments like the xylophone and ukulele until he managed to save enough money to buy a guitar, at age 11.
One thing led to another, and at 18 he found himself playing bass with a local band called The Affair, a three-piece fronted by a female jazz vocalist, which somehow became the house band in Sydney's Whisky-A-GoGo, the largest disco in the Southern Hemisphere, playing to 2000 people every night. At one point, The Affair won a national band competition, the prize being a free trip to England - which would have been well beyond their means, the plane fares to Europe were huge at the time. In June 1970, Howlett left Australia and never looked back...
Unfortunately, The Affair failed to "make it" in England but Howlett kept busy playing with obscure bands like Quadrille and Highway ("I am not aware of any of the musicians in these bands doing much of note - nor were there any releases I am aware of"), earning his living "selling ice-cream on Oxford Street for a couple of years". In the meantime he became acquainted with various musicians on the London rock scene. "By a stroke of remarkable good fortune the house I first stayed in on arriving off the boat from Australia was two houses down the road from the house which [guitarist] Bernie Holland moved into a few months later. I used to go there to jam and hang out in 1971-73. Bernie had organised a Monday night jam night at The Pheasantry club on the King's Road, of which I was a regular participant. Bernie was also friends with Patto and Kokomo and Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, so I used to meet some of those guys and hang out although I never played much with them".
Then one day in March 1973, at a point when he was seriously considering quitting music, Mike Howlett's life changed when he received a phonecall offering him to join Gong who were without a bass player. "Maggie Thomas, who was an ex-girlfriend of mine, was staying with Gong in the hunting lodge near Sens when the line-up which recorded Flying Teapot dissolved. She was very knowledgeable in astrology, and noticed that the new line-up of Pierre Moerlen, Steve Hillage, Didier Malherbe and Tim Blake comprised the signs of Scorpio, Leo and Aquarius (twice) respectively - these are the "fixed" signs of Water, Fire and Air. Knowing me to be a Taurus, and also a bass player, she suggested that I join as that would complete the four elements and create the Fixed Cross - reputed to have significance. When she called me in London and said to come out immediately, I thought that perhaps they might like to hear me to see if I could play. Daevid Allen was coming to London en route to Majorca where he and Gilli were taking a break, and I invited him to hear me jamming at that club in the King's Road".
During Howlett's first weeks in the band, Gong was undergoing a renaissance of sorts, several important members having just left following completion of Flying Teapot. Veteran Didier Malherbe and newcomers Tim Blake and Steve Hillage were left to organise a new band and repertoire. This transitional phase was known as ParaGong and out of it came a lot of the music from the later Angels' Egg album, to which Allen and Smyth added their distinctive touch after returning from their Majorcan exile. Howlett was credited as co-writer of "Sold To Highest Buddha". On the following album You, compositions were credited to the whole band, although obviously some ideas had individual origins. "I was initially responsible for the bass riffs on "Isle of Everywhere" and "A Sprinkling of Clouds". I would credit Steve for the "Master Builder" riff in its essence. However, the writing situation for this album was unique, and once an idea surfaced, it would be swept around in the collective mind-pool and evolve into the more fixed shape that ended up on the recordings".
During his stay in Gong, Mike Howlett laid the foundations of a unique approach to rhythm, collaborating with a succession of drummers (most importantly, of course, Pierre Moerlen), while Allen, Malherbe, Hillage and Blake added their own blend of spacy sounds on top. According to Howlett, however, his work with Gong doesn't cover the full extent of his rhythmic interests. "I've always had a slight unease with many of the drummers in Gong because my roots are in Tamla Motown and Soul and in that sense I'm not really a true 'Canterbury' style musician - I don't like oddness for the sake of it and I believe that the first requirement of music is to move you emotionally".
The legendary 'Trilogy band' was actually very shortlived, and by 1975 it was history, with the successive departures of Tim Blake, Daevid Allen and Steve Hillage. By the time Shamal was recorded, Gong had turned into a mostly instrumental, jazz-rock oriented affair. Although the resulting music was excellent, these changes seemed very sudden from the outside, and a number of fans were nonplussed by the new Gong. Soon Howlett himself would leave, in May 1976, following a short period when he handled vocal duties as well as bass. "The vocal element on Shamal was largely the result of my efforts to keep some lyrical content in the plot. I also felt a responsibility to those listeners who had stayed with the story so far to leave them with a few clues as to where Zero had disappeared to".
Of Gong's musical journey between 1973 and 1976, Howlett has this to say : "The evolution from Angel's Egg to Shamal was the result of our internal spiritual odyssey - this is, of course, my subjective interpretation, others may have their own view. For me, the trilogy (including Flying Teapot ) is a profound work, inspired by Daevid, and given power by the musicians involved. It is really a re-statement, in modern terms, of the ancient mystery school lesson - a journey of self-discovery which, like all good fairy stories, goes as far as the reader is capable of following. Nevertheless, I am guilty of conspiring to minimise the amount of vocal on it, if only by not resisting those pressures more. In retrospect I believe that You got it right in the balance of vocal versus non-vocal sections. But that balance was achievable only in the context of the preceding two albums. Certainly, it was an album for unspoken communications".
When former Gong frontman Daevid Allen released his solo album Good Morning later that year, Howlett was credited for co-writing "Wise Man In Your Heart", a song that would resurface much later on Gong's 2000 album Zero To Infinity. Its genesis was interesting. "I went out to visit Daevid in Deja, Mallorca in early '76", he remembers. "I think it was just after we finished Shamal, and Daevid played me this song sketch which he had recorded which consisted of a tape loop of Pierre playing drums and marimba - possibly from You but I can't be sure - I played along and came up with the bass riff - there might have been some vocals at that point but I can't remember".
Following his departure, Howlett embarked on vague solo projects. "I had negotiated a few hundred pounds out of Virgin and left to set up a 4-track studio in my girlfriend's attic". Shortly thereafter, Howlett met an up-and-coming singer and bass player from Newcastle, Sting. This was the starting point of a band project that materialised the following year as Strontium 90. Howlett knew guitarist Andy Summers, and Sting was concurrently playing with drummer Stewart Copeland in The Police. Thus Strontium 90 was the first time that Sting, Summers and Copeland were assembled together in a studio or on a stage. Eventually Sting and Copeland asked Summers to replace The Police's original guitar, and the rest is history ! In 1997, a CD of studio and live recordings by Strontium 90 finally saw the light of day, supervised by Howlett and released on Sting's own record label Pangaea.
Following the demise of Strontium 90 after only three gigs (one of which was the Gong reunion in Paris in May 1977, where he also performed as part of the 'Classic Gong' band), Howlett decided that his bass-playing days were over, and turned to record production instead, which proved a very successful career move indeed. He produced Top 10 hits for the likes of Martha & the Muffins, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Blancmange, A Flock of Seagulls and China Crisis, and international top-selling albums for Joan Armatrading, The Alarm, Gang of Four and Fisher-Z among others. In 1982, he received a Grammy award for his work on A Flock Of Seagulls' single "DNA". He was also a founding member of the Record Producers Guild.
In October 1994, Mike Howlett played bass in public for the first time in over fifteen years when he, along with most of his ex-colleagues, appeared at Gong's 25th anniversary concerts in London. This event was a tremendous success and triggered a full-blown reactivation of Classic Gong, with a series of international tours (Europe, USA, Japan) from 1996 to 2001, and an acclaimed studio album of new material, Zero To Infinity, in 2000, which Howlett produced.
After Daevid Allen decided to discontinue the Classic Gong band after the 2001 tour, performing once again took a back seat in Howlett's career, as he embarked on a teaching career conducting master classes and lectures at South Thames College, the University of Glamorgan and Ealing College of Music and Media. Which doesn't mean a total lay-off in the bass-playing department : in 2003, Howlett played with ex-Can singer Damo Suzuki, supporting Acid Mothers Gong at a memorable London concert; and he recently formed House Of Thandoy with guitarist Steve Higgins and drummer Eddie Sayer, which has self-produced a CD of " space-funk psychedelic grooves" in the trio's own words (ex-Gong sax/flautist Theo Travis is featured as guest on a couple of tracks). House Of Thandoy appeared alongside Here & Now and others at the Gong Unconventional Gathering in Glastonbuy on October 23rd, 2004. Since 2006 there have been several Classic Gong reunions, with Steve Hillage back in the fold, working towards a new studio album, 2032, to be released in September 2009. Howlett will participate in future Gong activity as time permits, as he is about to move to Australia to take up a teaching position there.