Howie B has often found himself at the frontier. Whether it's been at the Africa Centre as Soul II Soul carved itself its place in British soul history. Or manning the desk while Björk became one of the most unlikely pop sensations in decades. Or forging the sound of the iconoclastic Tricky on 'Maxinquaye'. Or helping U2 to embrace bigger, more bombastic beats on their 1997 album 'Pop'. But the minute he can be categorised, or second guessed, that's it, he's off doing something else.
“It's been deliberate,” he says. “As soon as someone defines what I do, I go home and it's like 'Oh is that what I do? Well, I'd better not do that again'. That's what I'm like. For me, definition is dynamite. When I can define what I do or define what I am, well that's the end.”
So that's why these days he's spending more and more time in China, making film soundtracks. Blazing a trail once again, he's been heading out to the Far East for over a decade now, long before the talk of the Chinese film market being set to become the most important in the world. “I fell into writing these scores,” he says. “I don't know how it happened, it's just happened! In the past four years, I've done four big feature films out there. It's a different world, a different environment. Instead of going West to the States to get into the film industry, I went East.”
That sounds about right; Howard Bernstein swimming against the flow. “It's worked, and creatively it's been really good for me, and I've got to work with some really interesting directors. It's incredible out there. It's all brand-new, and they want everything now. Creatively, it's a very exciting environment to be in.”
Not that Hollywood hasn't seen his deft skills at the mixing desk. You'll find one of his latest productions adorning the closing credits of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a track co-penned by the legendary Robbie Robertson, an old friend, and some budding thesp called Matthew McConaughey, who provided the vocal hook. “I rang my mum straight away!” he says.
It all makes perfect — if somewhat anarchic — sense, considering the broad Glaswegian's first break in the music business, arriving in London, holing up in a Limehouse squat and working first as a tea boy and then as a tape operator at film score legends Hans Zimmer and Stanley Myers' Lillie Yard Studios. The wages were pitiful, but the experience was invaluable, and not just because he once got to make Stevie Wonder a brew.
“I think in about three years I worked on about 20 different feature films,” he says. “There were no rules. Emotions change with every frame, and the music has to either support that or not support that, so you get into some brilliant situations, musically. I still love that.”
DOWN TO CHANCE
So whether it's film scores, or his production work for everyone from Soul II Soul, Ry Cooder and U2 to Björk and Tricky, it's often been the travails of others that have to an extent overshadowed his own, whether produced under his own name or his wealth of pseudonyms, the likes of Skylab, Mayonnaise, The Codfather, Skelf, Nomad Soul or Daddylonglegs. “Starting off as a tape op and then an engineer, I was always involved in other people's music,” he says. “But that then grew into being confident enough to express myself, making my own music. Now I'm just spinning. One day I've got my producer's hat on, the next it could be a DJ's hat, then I've got an artist's hat on, then a father's hat on. I'm switching all the time, but that's healthy.”
Being in the right place at the right time has helped immensely, of course. “My life is down to chance,” he says, and he can isolate the point that set him on the path he's currently treading. “I was mixing and engineering Siouxsie and the Banshees. I just went 'for fuck's sake', I could not believe I was doing it. Four years earlier I'd been jumping up on the stage trying to touch her, and then I'm in the studio with her. That was a big moment. Totally amazing. I couldn't fucking believe it! It was a joke!”
London in the late '80s and early '90s was an exciting place to be, musically. He remembers Soul II Soul's sessions at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden vividly. “It was brilliant, unique. It was a mental time for music in London. A total mish-mash of so many different styles. People coming together in so many different ways, whether it was art, music, style, fashion. You went to a club then and it would be a club of misfits. You went to the Africa Centre, there would be Mods in there, there would be 20 different styles, but everyone listening to Darryl Pandy. Then Colonel Abrams, then Kool Moe Dee, then James Brown. And there was no alcohol! It would be like, 'oh, get us a Fanta please'.”
He dissolves into laughter, as he often does. It was thanks to Howie that Soul II Soul got hitched up with Caron Wheeler, the voice that would galvanise Jazzie B's collective, after hearing her backing singing on a Julia Fordham album he was working as a tape op on. “I phoned up Jazzie and said let's get her to sing on that track we've done, and bang, that was 'Keep On Movin''. It was a fairy tale.”
Here's another fairy tale; Bono introducing you every night as the de facto fifth member of U2, while on their globe-straddling PopMart tour in 1997. “It was mental,” he says. “My first experience of being in a bubble, and it was for about a year-and-a-half. We were working every day, it's just the modes of transport and where we were staying, it was not what I was used to. It was not run-of-the-mill. But it was all led by music, and to be better and for me to make them better.
That was my responsibility. Even though we were flying around on a private jet, we were still grafting. Fucking brilliant. I loved it. I was in disbelief, but I didn't let it run away with me.
“It was a big learning curve for me,” he goes on, expert raconteur that he is. “Bono would get up at the end of each gig, and he'd introduce the band, and then he'd introduce me. Four times a week. In front of 80,000 people. I never got used to that. I did two albums with them, and I learned from them the importance of cultivating a signature. And not compromising. They didn't compromise one bit.”
Yet despite that, his flirtations with stadiums and lear jets, it's still the underground which entices him the most. He can still be found at Fabric of a weekend, ensuring that he's up to speed on what's happening in the world of house music, techno and leftfield electronica, something that his latest set, 'Down With the Dawn', released on his new label HB Recordings, attests to. “Craig Richards, to be quite honest,” he says, when asked who has kept the stream of new music coming in. “I'd go and listen to Craig at Fabric on a Saturday night. I wasn't then going and making minimal techno records, but it kept the blood boiling in me. It was my release. I love that club, it really fills me up. All of them, the team there, they're not playing around. They live it, they eat it. It's great. You feel it, and you want to be in their gang.”
DOWN WITH THE DAWN
For 'Down With the Dawn', his seventh studio album and first in over five years, he has brought in a team of collaborators, in-keeping with what he wants to do with the new label, the successor to his influential Pussyfoot imprint, which closed up shop in 2002 after releasing 20 or so albums. He's brought in Gavin Friday of post-punk outfit The Virgin Prunes, Joe Hirst, formerly a protege of his and previously engineer to the likes of Bloc Party and Ian Brown, and Gianni Maroccolo and Riccardo Tesio, also in another of Howie's offshoot bands, the alt-rock outfit Beautiful.
It pinballs between brooding house music ('Frankie's City', 'Master Inch Mile Haunch'), sumptuous downtempo ('Summer's Flower', 'Down With the Dawn') and deep, dubby electronica ('Night Nice'). Evidence of his eastern travels turns up in tracks like 'Ganzi' and the epic orchestration of 'Authentication'.
There's a depth to it too. “It's about the enjoyment of life, the fear of death, and accepting death, and love,” he says. “While I was making the record, two very close friends of mine passed away. So there's a feeling of loss too, which I think I got into the record. That was a big thing for me. I just had to express it. I expressed it socially, with my friends and family, but also through music. So it's the classic 'love, life and death'. It was cathartic, the actual doing of it, it helps to get it out of my system. I'm comfortable with myself and my feelings, as long as I express them.”
The set is to be the springboard for the new label, which will be his main focus looking ahead. It will be a cottage interest to begin with, featuring a handful of hand-picked artists including himself, Hirst, Italian band Ofelia Dorme and Sunny Levine, a Californian songwriter and producer who also happens to be Quincy Jones's grandson.
“The sound is just good music,” he says. “Bringing people in and turning people on to being themselves. That's all I really want to do.”
His forthcoming live performances are something that he's looking forward to, too. “I love the whole troubadour thing, where someone comes to town with a song.” Or indeed a story. And Howie B has got them up the yin-yang.
Howie B on his weirdest recording session
“I think the most bizarre situation was me refusing to go into a cave to record vocals with Bjork, all because of my fear of bats. I said point blank 'I am not going into that cave'. (Adopting his best Björk voice) 'But you shall come in', she was saying, 'we are going to records vocals in the cave'. Well, I'm not, I said.
And it was one of the few times that I have ever said no. That was in Nassau in the Bahamas. And I didn't go in. I'm not fucking going in a cave.”
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