He’s one of the creators of trip hop. He collaborated with Soul II Soul on their epochal Club Classics Vol 1. He’s written songs with Björk. He’s produced U2. He’s played bonkers sets of boshing techno. He’s remixed everyone from Placebo to Annie Lennox. Howie B is all these things: a musical polymath in a sea of pop inebriates.
Now ambling past his 25th year in the music business, Howard Bernstein, the Jewish kid from Glasgow, is alighting upon his 7th artist album (and the first on his own new label, Howie B). Over the years, he’s built up an enviable reputation as a go-to producer for everything from experimental to pop and all of this is fed through the Scot’s mincer into his own trademark widescreen albums.
That he has such catholic – with a small ‘c’, obviously – tastes in music it’s no surprise upon learning about his musical upbringing, which featured large doses of socialist Jewish youth clubs with a considerable side order of John Peel. “When I was in secondary school I started listening to Peel. Then it was an awful lot of alternative music and dub. Peel turned me on to dub music something awful. I’d be sitting with a little Philips recorder, ready to record, waiting for him to play something I liked. And those tapes were mainly of the reggae stuff. Then I got into punk, Santana, Journey, John McLaughlin, Gentle Giant, jazz. But it was all coming from Peel: he was the one sewing seeds in my head.”
From seeds grow stuff: alfalfa, broccoli, marigolds and, of course, Howie B. It was a blur of indecision. College? Lasted a few months. Kibbutz? A great year in Israel. America? Oh, go on then. And then back home with no money but a strong determination that somehow Mr. Bernstein’s future lay in music. But no clarinet practice for him. Nor trombone for that matter. A squat in Limehouse became his accidental lifeline to a future in the biz. It was cheap (you don’t get cheaper than free). Six months later after more door knocking than the Plymouth Brethren on a money drive, Howie got a job as a tea boy at a studio called Lillie Yard. “It was slave labour. I was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week in this studio. My first paycheck, which didn’t change for three years, was £220 per month. It was mental. It was great. The only way I could survive was to squat while I did this apprenticeship. And I went from tea boy, to assistant engineer and then engineer. That was it.”
Well, not quite. Lillie Yard, for the uninitiated, was a great studio run by the legendary film composers Hans Zimmer and Stanley Myers (among the many things Myers wrote was ‘Cavatina’ the evocative guitar piece featured in the Deer Hunter). It was a great grounding for Howie – and explains where those broad vistas in his music originate – and gave him access to all kinds of studio wizardry including a Moog/Roland conflagration that was so unique Stevie Wonder dropped by one day for a go on it while Howie made him a cuppa.
Howie’s visits to the Afrika Centre to dance to the Soul II Soul crew brought a joining of minds, ambitious Jazzie B and Howie with his studio access. He recorded Club Classics Vol. 1 and introduced the gang to Caron Wheeler. “Socially I became friendly with them because that was the music I was into: electronic soul, R&B, hip hop and rare groove. So I was getting friendly with Jazzie and he asks me what I do, so I say, ‘Well, I work in a studio.’ ‘Magic,’ says Jazzie. Bang, that was it.” Howie left the studio to go freelance and he’s been working ever since.
He worked with Björk (engineering Post, as well as co-writing ‘I Miss You’ and remixing scores of her tunes), began tentatively releasing his own material under various guises and collaborations, most notably as part of Skylab, before receiving a phone call one day from Island Records. “’What you doing over the next couple of weeks? Would you be interested in working on some stuff with U2, they’re doing an experimental album with Brian Eno?’ Fuckin’ hell!” Indeed. Howie recalls his first day with the quintet. “They played me the song they were working on and they go, ‘Right, what would you do?’ Within five minutes of meeting them I was getting Brian to make a big deep bass sound on his DX7 and he’s a champion on that thing. I slowed the tape down and I was getting Edge to play a harmony on top of the part he’d already played. He was trying to figure out the tuning. Larry was doing a shaker overdub and Adam was quite happy because he’d already put his bass down.” Howie stayed in Dublin for the next two years. It would have been rude to do otherwise.
Inevitably, this rich tapestry of interwoven influences feeds his own music. How could it not? “I’d be stupid to say it didn’t,” avers Howie. “I’m a social being. I like listening to what people say. So all of those things enter into my world of music and creativity. It could be through a recording process, it could be through the bollocks to try something. For fuck’s sake, Bono even got me singing!” He chuckles at the memory.
Lately, he’s been spreading the Bernstein gospel on a variety of projects, collaborating with long-term friend Craig Richards on an album and label project, scoring a show for the Milan Planetarium’s Space event, working with The Band’s Robbie Robertson and Matthew McConaughey writing the closing title music to Scorcese’s ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, writing the soundtrack for a forthcoming Chinese feature film, fronting the crazy alt-rock project Beautiful with members of post-punk act Marlene Kuntz. The list goes on.
Often conceptual (such as his brilliant debut, Music For Babies), never boring, the latest album Down With The Dawn sees him striding towards pastures new (taking time to avoid the muddy puddles on the way). No room for concepts here. “It’s a mixture of different styles. It’s basically me using all the experience I’ve got and all the different things that have happened to me and expressing all of that. It’s an extended diary. Normally, my records have been one style, but this is more schizophrenic than that. I’ve done that because that’s where I’m at. I’ve done some collaborations, more than on any other record I’ve done.” Howie’s also roped in the Great and the Good in the shape of Gavin Friday (Virgin Prunes) and Joe Hirst, the former protégé who’s worked with everyone from Bloc Party to Roll Deep.
Down With The Don, more like.