The Only Humans’ blend of folk rock combines the poetically deft lyricism and rustic-ness of a classic American songwriter like Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon, but with a swiftness and ferocity not heard of in the typical fiddle-driven band. For this issue of the column, we sit down with the band’s singer and lead songwriter to ask…5 QUESTIONS FOR TIM HOWD.
What’s the last GREAT album you’ve recently listened to?
The first is an album I just rediscovered, “Dignity & Shame” by Crooked Fingers. Crooked Fingers is Eric Bachmann’s solo project. I discovered him listening to a podcast featuring Conor Oberst and Matt Beringer (of The National), two songwriters/lyricists who I respect very much. When these guys talk about their influences, they basically rattle off all the names you expect to hear: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits. Among these legendary names, they always squeeze in Eric Bachmann, and I don’t disagree with his placement among them. “Dignity & Shame” is just a solid album in terms of songwriting. The song “Twilight Creeps” is a fantastic demonstration of the music of a song serving the lyrics perfectly, and vice versa. The second would be the cast recording of “Hadestown”, which was just released earlier in October. I can’t stop going back to it. “Hadestown” was originally an album by folk musician Anaïs Mitchell, who basically wrote this concept/musical album and recorded all the parts with people like Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco, then she expanded it and actually turned it into a stage musical. Anaïs Mitchell is my favorite songwriter I discovered this year; all of her albums are great. “Hadestown” is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I grew up very much enraptured with Greek mythology and I have a very personal connection to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which keeps cropping up in my life in various ways. The cast on this album is perfect and I’ve never heard a song more heartbreaking than “All I’ve Ever Known.”
What band or artist would you most like to share a bill with?
Craig Finn, probably. I want to say the Mountain Goats, but I think John Darnielle’s influence on my singing and style is a little too noticeable that I wouldn’t be able to share a bill with them without everything just thinking my band was a less-good version of the ‘Goats. That’s shorthand for the Mountain Goats that I just made up right now. Craig Finn, who’s the lead singer of the Hold Steady, is another of the most powerful songwriters in the universe. He doesn’t get nearly as much credit for his solo stuff as he does for the Hold Steady, but I think his songwriting keeps getting better and better, and I think we’d mesh well because we both have that sort-of-folk storytelling thing going on there. I think his audience would be receptive to our music.
What passions and hobbies do you follow outside of music?
This is going to sound really cliché for a person who talks so much about lyric writing, but I am a huge fan of reading and writing in other forms. I write poetry. I’m bad at it. I write fiction, too. Fantasy stuff. I’m even worse at that. I might get better, with time. I’m into all types of science fiction and fantasy. I never played Dungeons and Dragons, but I probably should have. I don’t have as much free time as I used to anymore, but if I did have free time, I’d probably be up until 3 AM every night guts deep into some computer RPG. I grew up playing old school RPGs and for all the things wrong with the world today, there is thankfully a resurgence of indie game developers who spend time making games in the old style, which didn’t rely on graphics as heavily as they did on story. The last game I was in the middle of was “Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky,” which was kind of this Final Fantasy style game. It was amazing. I think by the time this interview comes out, my band will be obsolete because I’ll have quit it to finish this game.
What’s the one thing about the music scene as a whole you’d like to change?
I think I need to be more involved in the scene before I can start critiquing on what needs changing. I guess the one thing I do feel confident on, at my level, is wanting more places who like having musicians. A lot of the time, bars or places will get in touch and ask you to join this bill and sorry it’s last minute but we really need to fill this slot and it’s like, yeah, okay, we’d love to! And you get there and if the staff even knows you’re supposed to be there, they can sometimes be unfriendly, like you’re putting them out with your presence and your multitude of demands (like a place to put your stuff and outlets for your amps). It can feel very Twilight Zone-y. Like: Weren’t we supposed to be here? Didn’t you contact us? The music scene on a global scale? Yes. But that’s a whole other discussion.
At what point did you decide to put together a project to do live performance with? Do you have any tips for anyone, young or old, to aid in the process? (This question comes from the previous 5 Questions interviewee Seth Rohrer of The Band Dennis found here.)
I have always wanted to be a performer. I started out as an actor and took a brief run at being a stand-up comedian. I love theater because I love the stories plays tell, but I think I was less enthusiastic about saying someone else’s words. I decided I’d rather tell my own stories, and I love the concise nature of a song’s ability to do that. A play is one story in two hours; a concert can be twenty stories in the same amount of time. They do different things, but I love the idea of a lot of short stories. I said I like writing; short story collections are generally my favorite. At what point was I serious about it? 2011. The only tip I think I’m confident in giving anyone putting together a live performance act is to study how the people you admire did it. Watch their videos, not just of performances, but documentaries and interviews and behind-the-scenes. VH1 Storytellers, if they have one. Read their books. Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” is flat-out one of the best books I’ve ever read. Frank Turner’s tour diary “Road Beneath My Feet” is a huge confidence builder. If you want to be a musician, reading that book will almost make it seem feasible. He goes from being just some guy playing at open mics to selling out stadiums. The transition is almost unnoticeable. The worst thing I ever hear from local musicians when I ask about their tastes in music is that they don’t listen to too much music, they just do their own thing. Maybe that works for them, but I would not recommend it. Any time of live performance act you do has had a million predecessors. At least one should resonate with you, and seeing how they did it will probably make things a little easier. Also, figure out if you sweat on stage a lot. If you do, maybe don’t make your “thing” wearing a shirt and tie.