For more than 20 years Howard Marks knew no other life that that of trafficking marijuana. One day he was selling a few joints to his pals when at Oxford University, whilst at the height of his ‘career’, he was smuggling tonnes of cannabis in countries such as Pakistan, Thailand, America and Canada. After a world wide operation by The Drug Enforcement Agency, he was busted and sentenced to twenty five years in prison at the United States Federal Penitentiary, Terre Haute in Indiana – the site of America’s only Federal Death Row. He was released on parole in April 1995 after serving seven years of his sentence. These days it’s happier times. Mr Marks is now about to begin a series of theatre show’s with Peter Hook from New Order and Joy Division talking about their lives with questions from the audience and music from the pair. Howard is a successful author, has also written for the likes of the Observer, Daily Telegraph, GQ and The Guardian and has been a star in clubland with his infamous readings and general madness. The interview is set for 2.30pm – I’m awaiting Howard’s call. My local church bells’ start ringing over the road on the dot at 2.30pm, one second later, Mr Marks calls…
Fuck me Howard, I’ve heard of being precise, but that’s ridiculous.
“Ha ha, well you have to be in this business today, it’s not like the other business I was once in when the clock never stopped.”
Well welcome aboard. Where are you living these days?
“I’m up in Leeds, I met a girl from Leeds and so, I moved up here. We’re not living together, but I just like living near my girl. I’m trying to preserve this relationship – I need more than a garden shed to sit in these days…”
A big ‘Unknown Pleasures’ 15 date tour coming up with Peter Hook, I interviewed Hooky the other day and he said you’re shitting it more than him, he said initially he thought he’d feel naked up on stage and was undecided whether to do it or not and then decided to go ahead. – but you’ve been doing ‘An Audience With Howard Marks’ style shows for years, surely you can’t be nervous?
“Dan, I’m nervous every single time. I get stage fright every show, it’s never left me for the twelve years that I’ve been doing it. Adrenalin, apparently is the only drug I can take these days!”
So, born in 1945 and hailing from Kenfig Hill in Wales, a small village famous for producing gearboxes for cars, how does a kid be one moment standing on a sand dune in Wales and then studying Nuclear Physics at Oxford University? What fascinated you about this field of Physics?
“Absolutely nothing at all. I had no interest in it at all. It was just that I was capable at Physics at school, competent if you like. My main interest was just getting out of Wales.”
Do you ever go back home?
“I do, about once a month, I have a few relatives still there.”
Do you ever get mobbed?
“No I don’t, well people just know you don’t they, you never really impress people from your neighborhood do you?”
Your dulcet rap tones will be appearing on the new Freebass EP ‘2 Worlds Collide’ on the Dark Starr tune which will be available digitally on the Hacienda website – fac51thehacienda.com – and stars some proper northerners including Manchester’s Hooky and Tim Burgess and scouse lad Pete Wylie. I understand Mani from Primal Scream suggested getting some contemporaries on board for this record, what’s the tune like?
“Well obviously the bassline is excelent. I love it. A bit dark, but exciting dark, dramatic dark – not depressing dark.”
You wrote your autobiography ‘Mr Nice in 1995, released in 1996 – truly an eye opening book. Huge with the students…
“Through a plethora of media interviews and several public book readings, it became clear that the predominant reason why so many adolescents and university students read and enjoyed Mr Nice was their frustration with the law prohibiting cannabis consumption and trade. Until then, I had no idea of the extraordinary extent of cannabis use by young people today.”
Bernard Rose wrote and directed the forthcoming film ‘Mr Nice’ – the adaption of your book and life story starring Rhys Ifans as you . Quite a colourful career for Bernard that began for him at the age of 9, making films, famous for the cult classic ‘Candyman’ which my girlfriend still can’t watch, ‘Immortal Beloved’ about the life of Beethoven, the gothic horror ‘Snuff-Movie’ film and also worked on The Muppet Show. Why did you chose him to help create what looks like a brilliant film?
“Well firstly Dan, Rhys’s surname is Evans – he changed his name to look cool. Not a lot of people know that. Back to the film, well, a lot of people approached us – investors and Executive Producers who wanted to put us two together. I knew he’d do a great job, which he has done, we got on really well from day one and still do.”
When is the film out?
“It had it’s World Premier last night in Austin, Texas at The South by Southwest Film Conference.”
Did you go?
“Dan, I don’t think they’d have let me in the country, do you? It’s out here though in October, it’s a great film – some funny parts and obviously, some sad.”
You’ve a new book coming out that’s being printed in Welsh, that must make you proud.
“Yes it’s called ‘Cymru’ – basically it’s about myself dying to get out of Wales as a kid and now trying to get back in.”
Have you ever been on tour with Hooky – what you expecting being on the road with him?
“I’ve only done one performance with him at the opening of The Factory club in Manchester, I don’t do the tour bus thing, I prefer the train where I get the chance to have time writing.”
Hand on heart, were you a fan of New Order and Joy Division back in the day?
“New Order certainly, Joy Division less so.”
How did you meet Rhys?
“I met him the same day I met The Super Furry Animals, they’d written a song about me – ‘Hanging Out With Howard Marks’ so I went to meet them. Rhys was there, he had been singing with them but had just been sacked by them. He was sleeping on the drummer’s floor at the time.”
In the mid 1980s you had 43 aliases, nearly 100 phone lines and 25 companies – some legit, some not, most of it laundering money from dealing cannabis. How many were in your team and what was your favourite alias name? My favourite is Anthony Tunnicliffe.
“Well my favourite name out of the 43 I used was Donald Nice, which is real first name. It’s widely reported that I had about 300 people around the world working for me, I’m not sure it was that many though. “
How many tonnes of the drug do you think you have shipped around the world in your past life?
“Well over 100 tonnes.”
How much money do you think you made and then squandered?
“Several million, it’s difficult to work out Dan as there was so much money flying about.”
Why did you start selling drugs in the first place?
“Usual story really. Bought stuff for my mates and myself, bought more than I could smoke so starting selling more, then I just went wild.”
Did you manage to get high inside the Terre Haut Penitentiary prison in America?
“No I couldn’t. There were too many urine tests. I just concentrated on lots of writing, reading and yoga.”
What sort of music were you into as a kid?
“Ha, pre-historic Rock n’ Roll!.”
Famous quote from you, “with taking Ecstasy, I find filling out spread sheets on a come down very easy and vaguely satisfying.” Still take the odd cheeky one?
“Yeah especially when I have lots of spread sheets to work on!”
You were holed up in the wildest hotel of all time years back, The Manumission Motel in Ibiza where you were writing all of the flyers and posters wording – which guest was the craziest?
“One word. Bez.”
Do you think the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis will ever happen in England?
“I think so, whether I live to see it I don’t know.”
Craig Lovato, a Special Agent of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration spent years chasing you and your confederates, evaluating thousands of taped telephone conversations, photographs and documents, playing cat and mouse out in 14 countries around the world. Finally he got you extradited you to America whilst you were in a Spanish prison. Years ago you said that Craig should just be just ignored, like most Americans. However if he walked into your local boozer in Leeds, would you buy him a pint?
“Yeah, I’d offer him one.”
During your smuggling drugs’ days you had connections with The IRA, the Mafia and worked as an informant for MI6 and the CIA – today, the drug trade is probably the biggest business in the world that helps fund wars etc. What’s the story…
“Well I was recruited by the Secret Service MI6 to work for them. As for the CIA I worked with a couple of cowboys who were paid by the CIA so it was slightly different. The Mafia, well that doesn’t really need explaining why I was in with them and as for the IRA, it was a different organisation back then in the late 60s to how they were later in life with all the violence, killing children and everything. It was all about the Left Wing Social Catholic side of it all.
You famously came out and slammed the Tony Blair government and their lack of change on so many polices – you were once asked whether you thought Blair had ever smoked a spliff to which you answered ‘well if he has, it wasn’t strong enough’ which I loved – what do you think about the current government?
“They are shit. I’m really disappointed with them all to be honest with you Dan.”
I hear your Great Aunt a few years back told you that you had some outlaw ancestry going years back…
“My Great Great Grandfather Patrick McCarty was the Half-Brother of Billy The Kid who joined up with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.”
Something in the blood that saw you start breaking the law?
“Ha ha. I’d love to use that as an excuse for my criminal past but I can’t. But yes Billy is in the family history.”
And finally, what is on your tour ryder with Hooky?
“I always ask for a variety of local produce.”
Very rock n’ roll Howard. Thank you dude. Have fun. The dates…
Sun 11 Apr ’10 Birmingham Glee Club 0871 472 0400
Mon 12 Apr ’10 Bolton Albert Hall 01204 334400
Tue 13 Apr ’10 Worcester Huntingdon Hall 01905 611 427
Thu 15 Apr ’10 Milton Keynes Stables 01908 280800
Sun 18 Apr ’10 Middlesbrough Town Hall 01642 729729
Tue 20 Apr ’10 Gateshead The Sage 0191 443 4661
Wed 21 Apr ’10 Durham Gala 0191 332 4041
Thu 22 Apr ’10 Burnley Mechanics 01282 664400
Sun 25 Apr ’10 Cardiff Glee Club 0871 472 0400
Mon 26 Apr ’10 Oxford Academy 0844 477 2000
Tue 27 Apr ’10 Wakefield Theatre Royal 01924 211 311
Wed 28 Apr ’10 Gloucester Guild Hall 01452 503050
Thu 29 Apr ’10 Derby Assembly Rooms 01332 255800
Fri 30 Apr ’10 Norwich UEA 01603 508050
Sat 1 May ’10 Salford The Lowry 0843 208 6000