Howie B. Good
Propaganda Magazine by Geoff Crawford (1995-08-01)
Howie Bernstein worked with kids in Glasgow, formed a punk band and left a course in psychology because the lecturers were talking bullshit. He moved to London in 1983 to get involved with the DJing scene and ended up forming his own record label, Pussyfoot. He has recently finished work on a new album of his own material, inspired by the birth of his baby and called Music for Babies. He has been a key player among the Passengers on the new record as Geoff Crawford found out.
Picture this. You’re an established DJ and remix artist. You’ve worked with Nick Roeg on the music for new wave English films. You were instrumental in bringing the highly influential first album by Soul II Soul to the public domain; the new release on your own record label is regarded by critics as the best thing since…well, just since. You’ve produced and mixed with the Stereo MCs, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Tricky. One reviewer has described you as “the new genius behind Bjork.” You are now in a taxi on the way to the studio to work on a project with the world’s biggest rock band. How do you feel? “The journey to the studio was mad. I didn’t have a clue what I was going into, but I did feel pretty confident.
“I turn down artists every week. I only do stuff I want to do. I’ve worked with big artists and small artists, and I thought the best way with U2 was to be myself and be honest.”
Howie B. takes a breath. A rare occurrence. “That’s the long answer…the short answer is that I was brickin’ it, hahahaha. I was brickin’ it.”
Howie B.‘s involvement with U2 began in March this year when Nick Angel, head of A&R at Island Records, called him to fix Bono’s contribution to the Leonard Cohen tribute album. “Hallelujah” had been recorded and mixed, but nobody was happy with it. Nick Angel called Howie and asked if he would come down and listen to the track.
“It was about half nine in the morning,” recalls Howie. “I put down the phone and thought, ‘Magic, wicked.’ I had a shower and was at Island by 11:30.” The existing mix of “Hallelujah” was played and Howie B. didn’t much like what he heard — except for one element. “There was this wicked vocal track. I did a double take – is that a geezer or a woman or what? – it was Bono’s voice doing this falsetto thing. I’d never heard him sing like that before.”
The track was remixed that afternoon and that was that: “It was the quickest thing I’ve ever done. I thought I’d fucked up. I thought Bono would either understand it or not, but the vibe was that he thought it was wicked and mad. I thought, “Wicked. Touchdown.” Then I waited for another call…”
In the meantime, Howie did a remix of “Angel,” a track from Gavin Friday’s album, and chapter two in the U2 / Howie B. saga began with a call from Gavin asking Howie to do a night DJing at the Kitchen, U2’s Dublin nightclub.
“The day before I was due to go to Dublin, I had another call from Nick Angel to say that U2 had heard I was going over and wanted me to come in and listen to the stuff they were doing with Brian Eno for a new album. Maybe I could give them some new ideas. So I thought, “Yeah, wicked.”
“I arrived at the club and was sitting having a beer, when Bono and Adam walked in and introduced themselves to me. Bono told me how much he’d liked the ‘Hallelujah’ mix. I thought, ‘Wicked magic, but you coulda phoned up and told me, hahaha.’ “
The night at the Kitchen was a great success and Howie B. found himself in the studio two weeks later with U2 and Brian Eno, listening to various mixes the band had done, soaking in the atmosphere and listening to what they wanted for the album. He ended up jamming with Bono, Edge and Eno. “It was just mad. I was jamming not only with U2, but with Brian Eno – the guy who gave me my driving license in musical terms. He was the guy who’d made me realise I make music without having opened a music book. I have so much respect for him, he’s a cricketer.”
Wasn’t working with five people who have worked closely for over a decade intimidating?
“They’re a gang and you have to infiltrate that,” he says, “but they are an open gang; they gave me a lot of space and they had respect for me. I realised that it was them who had invited me so I just started talking.”
On his own label, Pussyfoot, Howie B. has established a reputation for creating delicious spaces in his mixes. He calls it “experimental space-hop music.” It’s one of the reasons he was brought in and he has certainly made his mark on the Passengers project. Eno has said that in the studio the automatic inclination is to keep adding things, “You fill up the gaps. Howie just left huge elements out. Suddenly that’s very refreshing.”
So is the latest U2 project an ambient album then? “Well, I would say it’s in a different stratosphere,” says Howie. “I couldn’t really put a tag on it, but if I had to I’d call it Space Rock, ‘cause there’s so much fuckin’ space there! But what I love about it is that it’s space with bollocks. There’s a saying in Spain: “Grande Bollocks,” and that’s what this album’s got – big bollocks! They’ve taken another step and it’s brilliant.” Despite coming into Passengers at a relatively late stage, it all came together for Howie B. on the first mix.
“It was Sunday and the band were having a party to celebrate the end of recording. It was the first day I’d spent on my own in the studio. I thought, ‘I’m gonna give them something to listen to.’ I was in a crusty studio, thick with dust, boiling hot like a kitchen…good vibe. Great. I finally got it finished and thought, ‘This is it.’
“I phoned Adam and said, ‘I’m on my way.’ I got there in the early hours of Monday morning. Bono and Adam had just come out of the hot tub and they were totally chilled out. I went, ‘OK, sit down, listen to this.’ For me that was it: the moment, ‘cause that really hit them. They loved it. They were so mellow and so chilled after a wicked day and that was the moment they wanted as well.