Sunday, March 12, 2017

Howie B

cover story for The Wire, 1995

by Simon Reynolds

   Howie B is in New York on a two day mission devoted solely
to buying records. I hook up with him late at night, after
all the used record stores have shut, in a crowded downtown
cafe on St Mark's Place. He's already spent $400, picked up
so much vinyl he had to buy a bag just to carry it, yet he's
planning to cram in several more hours of shopping tomorrow
before his flight back to London. Howie describes it as "pre-
production" for U2's new album, even though he isn't actually
the producer. He's been asked in as a "player", which in his
case really means "programming and playing records" and
generally working up a "vibe" with the official producer,
Flood.  Work starts a week from now.

     Drinking coffee and smoking Marlboro Lights, and
accompanied by Michael Benson--his longtime friend from
Glasgow who's written the stories that go with his
forthcoming solo LP "Music For Babies"--Howie is still
buzzing from the day's research. "I was in all the different
shops, flipping through the albums on headphones, dropping
the needle and thinking 'Fuck, that's a corker, I can take
that and fuck it up'". I've picked up everything from mad,
mad techno to New York musicals to old Herbie Mann stuff to
Latin music".

     What will he do with the 80 +  hours of music he's
already acquired?

    "I'll take anything, it can be as small as a triangle
hit, and I'll spread it across a [sampling] keyboard and turn
it into a tuned piano. Or I'll take a timbale recorded in
1932 on this Latin record and make it into a percussion
pattern, or snatch some vocal and take it four octaves down
until it's like a lion's roar."

     What exactly does Howie B do for a living?  Examine the
small print beneath the manifold projects with which he's
been involved through the last seven years--Soul II Soul's
first two albums,  Tricky's "Ponderosa" and "Abbaon Fat
Tracks", "I Miss You" on Bjork's "Post", the Skylab album, U2
and Eno's "Passengers: Original Soundtracks 1", plus the heap
of tracks he's released via Mo' Wax and his own Pussyfoot
label--and you'll find Howie credited in different ways. Most
of the time he's down as "engineer", sometimes he's credited
as "programmer" too; elsewhere, he's promoted to "co-
producer", and now and then he gets to share the publishing
credit as writer. At what point does engineering bleed into
production? Where do you draw the line between producer and
creator?  These distinctions, admits Howie, are pretty
arbitrary, and largely dependent on the generosity of his
employers.  Money and ego are at stake.

     The nature of modern music--the popularisation, through
ambient, trip hop and jungle, of music without lyrics or
conventional song structure; the  all-pervading
commonplaceness of the studio-as-instrument aesthetic
pioneered by Eno and the early '70s dub-wizards--has smudged
the border between composition and the technical side,
writing and recording, art and craft.  In such a confused and
contested soundworld, it's easy to see how a figure like
Howie--with no musical training in the conventional sense,
and few instrumental skills--can slip and slide
between different levels in the music hierarchy, while
basically doing the same thing: "creating a vibe".  With so
much of today's crucial music, it's sound-in-itself--the
timbre and penetration of a bass-tone, the sensous feel of a
sample-texture, the gait of a drum-loop--that's the hook, the
sales-point, not the sequence of notes that constitutes 'the
melody'.  Howie B's career is just further proof that we need
to start thinking of the engineer as poet, as weaver-of-
dreams.  Another example: "Timeless", where engineer Rob
Playford shares the publishing credit with Goldie on more
than half the songs, and jungle's faceless abstraction co-
exists uneasily with the record industry's demand for
marketable stars.

     This struggle between stagefront and backroom has been
a latent subtext of pop for decades. I've long thought it
unfair that Jagger/Richards get the credit for "Satisfaction"
when it's Charlie Watts' drum bridge that's the song's killer
hook, and the same goes for whoever came up with the
heartstopping bass part on The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be
There)".  Howie offers Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" as
another example: "the guy who did the bass on that, Herbie
Flowers, for me that bassline is the 'boom!'"-i.e.  the bit
that blows your mind--"but nobody knows he played that 'line.
I didn't until Brian Eno told me about five months ago."

     Howie's rise to the top has followed an almost quaint
path; he literally started out as a tea-boy, graduated to
tape operator, then assistant engineer, and so on. For three
years, he worked in the film industry "creating atmospheres
to go with visuals", as an assistant to veteran soundtrack
composer Stanley Myers.  Together, they worked on Nic Roeg
films like "Track 29" and "The Witches".  It's ironic that
someone reknowned for working in a field (ambient/trip hop)
that often prompts the hack cliche "a soundtrack for a non-
existent movie", actually started out making sounds for
existent movies.  Completing the circle in a weird sort of
way is the fact that he recently worked on U2 and Brian Eno's
"original soundtracks" for mostly fictitious films, and that
Howie's own album "Music for Babies" is going to be
accompanied by an animated movie.

     *         *         *         *         *         *

In the beginning, Howard Bernstein was a fusion freak.  It's
quite refreshing to meet a musician in his early thirties
whose seminal, life-changing musical experience wasn't seeing
the Sex Pistols live, but a different kind of 1976 gig
altogether: Santana, supported by Earth, Wind and Fire, when
Howie was only 13. As a Jewish boy growing up amidst the
Protestant versus Catholic sectarianism of Glasgow, Howie was
an isolated adolescent who divided his time and passion
between '70s kosmic jazz-fusion and radical pyschoanalysts
and mystical thinkers like RD Laing, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky.
(After school, he actually studied psychology in
Manchester, but quit when he realised that the only thing in
which he was qualifying was "taking drugs and partying").

     Young Howie was into Stanley Clarke, Return To Forever,
Herbie Hancock's "Manchild", even that dismal Santana
offshoot Journey. "Through Santana, I got into Alice
Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and the whole Sri Chimnoy Zen
philosophy side of it. Music became something I could grab
things off, follow as a route." Like fusion-headz old and new
(e.g. the Beastie Boys, the Mo' Wax milieu), Howie tends to
talk about what he does in terms of  vibes ("mad vibes",
"getting a good vibe", "vibing off each other"), of "learning
curves" and "opening up" and "giving". With his spiritual
leanings and vague positivity, it's perhaps no surprise that
he eventually fell in with the hippy-dread scene in London,
becoming friends with Jazzy B and Nellee Hooper, and
eventually supplying them with enough 'dead-time' in the
studio where he worked to enable Soul II Soul to record their
debut album.

     In 1990, Howie and his engineering partner Dobie got a
deal with Island as Nomad Soul. They released one single,
then "spent quarter of a million without realising it-- I
wasn't sitting there with a calculator, y'know--on an album
that mashed up hip hop, soul and jazz, and is still sitting
on a shelf at Fourth and Broadway". The vocalist was Diane
Charlemagne, later to sing on Goldie tracks like "Angel" and
"Inner City Life".  In fact, in '91 Howie actually worked
with Goldie, on music that never saw the light of day, back
when the Metalhead was part of the Hooper/Massive Attack
milieu and hadn't yet flipped out to 'ardkore rave.

     After the crushing blow of Nomad Soul, Howie drifted for
a while. He collaborated with Tricky and with Japanese B-boy
crew Major Force, amongst many others.  The first time most
of us heard his name was in connection with Mo' Wax, for whom
he's done five or so 12 inches as Howie B. Inc and Old
Scottish. Most notable is the Major Force collaboration
"Martian Economics", a wacked-out, Sun Ra-meets-The Orb
affair they knocked up in five hours. "We took it to James
Lavelle and said "what do you think?'. Five weeks later I was
in a club and I heard it, thought "Fuck, what's going on?!"
James'd released it without telling us!"

     Howie then started his own, Mo Wax like label,
Pussyfoot, putting out tracks by himself, sometimes using
the alter-ego Daddylonglegs, and by likeminded friends.  But
perhaps his best work prior to "Music For Babies" was with
Skylab.  A new label called L'Attitude invited him to jam
with Matt Ducasse.  "Matt played me all this stuff, mad loops
and crazy noises.  There was no material as such, just sound,
but it was like a licence for me to go mad. We went into his
attic and started making music, me vibing off what he'd play
me.  I got Tosh and Kudo from Major Force in on four or five
tracks.  I'm very proud of that record, it's a mad album: no
rules, full of peaks and troughs and emotions, and with no
A&R telling us what to do".

     "Ghost Dance", one of the best tracks on "Skylab
#1", is highly reminiscent of the fidgety art-funk rhythms
and chromatic smears of David Byrne & Brian Eno's "My Life In
The Bush of Ghosts". Back in 1981, that album was dissed by
many as an academic, coldblooded affair, an egghead's
appropriation/dessication of black American and African beat-
science; in retrospect, what with its influence on everyone
from Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee to artcore junglists
and ethnodelic trance units like Loop Guru, "Bush
of Ghosts" can be seen to have been uncannily prophetic.

       "That was a very important record to me," admits
Howie. "I was living in Manchester when I first heard it, and
I'd get stoned and sit in between the speakers, out of my
head, and just sit and write to the rhythms. Freeform words.
It opened so many little doors for me."

     Which makes it especially cool for Howie that he's been
accepted into the Eno/U2 fold. The association began back in
February '95, when he was called in to salvage Bono's cover
of 'Hallelujah' for a Leonard Cohen tribute album. Four
months later, he was invited to participate in the
"Passengers" project.

     "It was the maddest, mad, mad time," says Howard,
emphatically. "A mad exchange of ideas. They gave me all this
space and I just went, 'boof'"--another little verbal tic of
his, evoking someone exploding all constraints--"I opened up
totally. It was like walking into a little dream, these great
musicians, all these wicked twenty minute grooves for me to
take and fuck up".

     Eno and U2 didn't, however, tell him anything about the
"original soundtracks" concept. "All they said was that their
ideas were 'it's a late night album, and it's blue, the color
blue'.  When I got the promo, that was the first time I
realised it was about films." Howie co-produced three tracks,
including the very "Bush of Ghosts"-like "One Minute
Warning", and co-wrote another, "Elvis Ate America".  This
lurching, ultra-minimal slice of swamp-funk, vaguely redolent
of Alan Vega's post-Suicide solo LP's of robotic rockabilly,
was knocked up by Howie in a few hours, the night before the
album's final deadline. Bono had handed him his daft doggerel
(sample lyrics: "Elvis/Ate baconburgers and just kept
getting bigger") a few days earlier.

     How did he find Eno as a co-producer?

"It's just a totally different ball game. It's like when you
think a stone is a stone, and all of sudden it turns into a
butterfly. That's how I'd describe Brian. To be quite honest,
I was shitting it when I first met him." When I ask him later
if there's anyone out there he'd like to work with, Howie
cites Eno as his dream collaborator (alongside Cissy
Houston!!). They've already had a bit of jam session earlier
this year, "just me and him in his little studio in Kilburn,
three hours, no preconceptions.  I turned up with my record
deck and an echoplex." 

Later in the year (see The Wire #139),
Eno would cite Howie's use of this effects unit as typical of
a new preference for lo-tech, antique, task-specific
equipment as opposed to state-of-the-art hi-tech with a bewildering number of options: "Howie B, if he wanted could have all sorts of
digital processing boxes, but
he wants that.  He's focused on it and he's used it with such
taste and skill."

     *         *         *         *         *

And now, bearing the very Eno-esque title "Music for Babies",
here's Howie B's debut album, a concept record about
"the joy of having my little girl, Chilli, who's now a year
and a half old." From the itchy, corrugated riffs of
"Allergy" (inspired by Chilli's milk allergy) to the idyllic
tone-and-timbre poem that is "Here Comes The Tooth", this is
virtuoso sampladelia. But what does the person who inspired
the record make of it?

     "I've played it to her, and there's something going on
there, she's moving to it. Sometimes she goes up and turns it
off, then she turns it back on again."

     If Massive Attack's "Protection", with its accompanying
"Eurochild" exhibition of sculptures, wasn't
proof enough that trip hop is the new art-rock, "Music For
Babies" is a unified package combining text and design, and with
an accompanying film in tow.  "Toshi from Major Force, he's
on the cutting edge of graphics, and he's working with
Michael's stories and two paintings that this Icelandic
artist Hubert Noi has done. And an animator called Run Wrake
is doing a wee film to go with it."

     Swilling back herbal tea straight from the pot to soothe
his sore throat, Benson takes over to explain how his stories
and prose poems became part of "Music For Babies".  "I'd met
this woman who was really fucked up on drugs and yet she'd
written a whole novel. She explained that she'd done it by
writing a page a day.  I started doing the same thing, but
every page was so different I could never make them link up.

 This stuff that comes with the album is a sample from that work-in-progress.  Some
stories are inspired by the shape of particular tracks, so
that the text'll be cut up into different sections, or it'll
be a thin strip of words, like a thin strip of sound.
Sometimes it worked the other way round: Howie'd read a story
and then start a track from that. But lots of them have fuck
all to do with the music!

    "The novel and the fiction market are very much alive,"
he continues, "But at the same time people I know very rarely
phone me up and say 'I've got this wicked novel!'. So for me,
the idea is to stick fiction in places where you don't
usually find it, the sort of places where I get excited. I
love buying records, so that's where I want to put my work."

     *         *         *         *         *         *

Despite his lack of conventional musical training, Howie B is
very much what used to be called a 'muso'. When asked if,
despite his apparently all-gates-open eclecticism, there are
genres of music he just can't see the point of, he
disappoints me by emitting the cliche "Just bad music".  And
like your true muso, he hates categories and labels. One in
particular irks him: you guessed it, tr** h**. Yet when
pressed to describe the Pussyfoot sound in a label profile,
he came up with the phrase "experimental space hop"--which is
just an ungainly synonym for trip hop!  Why does the term
offend him so much?

   "I don't know where it came from," Howie grimaces. "I was
involved in that whole vibe and then all of sudden people
from outside think they can put a phrase on it, explain it.
But for me all that we're doing is making music.  When you
pigeonhole something, as soon as I do something ouside those
walls it becomes a problem for people."

     A lot of people share Howie's annoyance with 'trip hop'.
Some think the music's great but are incensed by the term,
regarding it as racist, a spurious wedge driven between
what's happening in the UK and US rap.  Personally, I think the term's okay. It's a handy signifier for a phenomenon--instrumental,
abstract, midtempo breakbeat music; hip hop without the rap
and without the rage, basically--that if not totally UK-
specific is at least almost totally out-of-step with US hip
hop, where rhymin' skills and charismatic personalities rule.

No, my problem is with the music: too little of it lives up
to the psychedelic evocations of the name, too much of it is
just pot smoker's muzak, or acid-jazz-gone-digital.  Out of
this weed-befuddled, cooler-than-thou mire of mellowness,
three names stand out: DJ Shadow, Wagon Christ, and Howie B.

     For Howie himself, "it's just groove-oriented music. Hip
hop is trance-like as much as house or techno are,  you get
locked onto the groove.  Because there's no vocal in my
music, I have to create a soundscape for people to travel
through.  Maybe I don't pick up the mic' and express myself
through words, but it's still my form of expression. I do see
the tracks as songs, there's feelings and emotions, and it
can be just as frightening as hip hop, or as wicked as hip
hop.  I see it as hip hop, as music, as a collaboration of
ideas.  'Martian Economics', that was like me doing a tune
with Jimmy Smith, even though he wasn't there."

HOWIE B                           
Music For Babies
written for a publication whose name i have forgotten

     "Howie B" sounds like a rapper; "Howard Bernstein" sounds more like a TV executive. In fact, the real Howie is somewhere between B-boy and backroom boy. An engineer and studio whizzkid, Howie's a prime mover in the mostly faceless world of trip hop. Like his pal Tricky, Howie is one of a new breed of musician: he doesn't exactly possess instrumental skills, but he's expert at using sampling computers and the studio mixing-board to transform borrowed beats, licks and atmospheres into gripping grooves.

Howie B is what you might call a scientist of "vibe".  As such, he's an in-demand engineer/producer, working with such luminaries as Soul II Soul, Bjork, Passengers (U2 & Brian Eno), and Tricky himself.  Howie is also the soundscape-shaper in the ambient outfit Skylab, and he's released a heap of solo 12 inches on ultra-cool trip hop label Mo' Wax, and via his own Pussyfoot imprint.

"Music For Babies", his first solo album, showcases Howie's best work outside Skylab. A sort of abstract concept album inspired by the birth of his daughter Chilli, "Babies" is entirely instrumental, but it manages to convey eloquently a spectrum of emotions and moods, from the itchy agitation of "Allergy" to the idyllic anticipation of "Here Comes The Tooth". (For those who miss lyrics, there's always the CD booklet's collection of one-page stories by Howie's chum Michael Benson).  There are tunes here, but this kind of  ambient/trip hop is really about texture and timbre: sounds so succulent and tantalising you want to taste or stroke them.  Tremulous with the wide-eyed wonder of the newborn, glowing with the joy and gratitude of her parents, "Music For Babies" is sheer enchantment.                                                                                                                  

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