Howie B: Interview

Text message: “Can we wait until half time ?  I’ll call u in 20 mins”.  It’s a finely balanced 0-0 at the Vicente Calderón stadium, so you can understand Howie B wanting to see out the first 45, hoping that Chelsea can keep Atlético at bay.  With the break safely reached, he’s straight on the phone.  

What do we know about Howie B ?  He’s one of those people who has been involved in some pretty amazing things during his career, but just a step back from the brightest limelight.  He’s worked with U2, Soul II Soul, Sly & Robbie, Bjork, and Tricky, amongst others. Not a bad roll call.  Howie B: engineer, Producer, Mixer, DJ, Artist, writer for films, shorts, advertisements, label owner; he’s also voluble, with a winning giggle, and an inspiring passion for music whenever, wherever and in whatever form.

Howie’s latest solo record (“Down with the Dawn”) has only been out for a couple of months but to hear him talk about the future it might as well have been a couple of years ago.  He’s already working with a “brilliant singer” called Tiffany and looking ahead to recording a band that he heard on recent travels, not to mention having moved on to thinking about his next solo release. “I’ve already started doing the next thing”, I have “to keep at it and keep going, I get annoyed with myself if I don’t keep productive.”

He’s uncompromising when it comes to his work:  “if there’s still a question in the track, I won’t play it to anyone until it’s right”. When “Down with the Dawn” was being put together it went nowhere until he was satisfied with the whole package.  And when the work is ready there’s no compromising – there might be discussions about how to release it and promote it, but not about the content.

The new record is about 3 main feelings, “love, life and loss”, the latter the response to the deaths of two “very close friends” with whom he had been working for 25 years.  “I had to express that, to express those feelings of loss.  I’m getting older and this is what is happening; I had to think about how to express those emotions, and not in a dumping way, more to express the joy that was also there.”  With his own music, Howie has been almost exclusively instrumental – perhaps part of the control that he expects to have over his output, but also because expressing his emotions through the music is what works for him.  That expression is “enough” without worrying about words and vocals.  Having said that, when it comes to “Summers Flower”, with vocals by Gavin Friday, Howie “totally surrendered to changing the song” because “I trust this guy !”.

Over the years, his ways of working haven’t really changed, although technology has definitely made music “cheaper to make”, particularly when it comes to electronic music.  He does, however, think that a lot has changed in general with even the “poppiest of pop music” being stuck in an “addiction to loud”.  “Since the early 1990s” Howie has noticed a progressive movement to what he calls “loud is proud” resulting in the “disappearance of dynamics” and a declining “use of space”.  As far as he’s concerned it’s “down to inexperience” in the art and professionalism of making records.  Howie B clearly has the credibility to talk about this, having worked his way up through from the bottom of the rung in a studio to where he currently stands today.

It isn’t necessarily what we might think – that some people are just born with the right ears to do this kind of job.  For him it’s all about “patience and learning how to express yourself, learning how to patiently work towards balance”.  When he’s pressed on music that embodies what he’s talking about the first touchstones are Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, whose records are where you can hear and feel that “different attitude to mixing”.

One thing he has always done is to travel extensively – playing and DJing, yes, but also enjoying everything that the world has to offer.  He recounts an experience in Sarajevo in 1995 when he was there with the UN.  He was being driven around at a time when “the shit was really starting to hit the fan” and his driver was determinedly manipulating the radio, “as soon as something melancholy came on it lasted a second … in that situation, he just wanted to be lifted” and that’s what Howie is looking for around the world.

He’s just back from Japan and China where he was on a “little tour”, taking in Tokyo and Beijing where he came across Chinese psych rock band Whai.  He saw them on the Thursday, had lunch with them on the Friday, gigged with them on the Saturday and in June he’s back out there to record them, “bringing them into the fold”.  He recounts excitedly how they “literally blew my pants off, and it has been a long time since that has happened to me !”  The way things in are developing in China is hugely interesting to him, a place where they are “so hungry for talent,where they are beginning to be able to express their talent, where a lot of restraint is slowly lifting.”

Having acknowledged that he is on a constant quest for the new (“I’m still looking for the music I love – I’m looking for the people I don’t know”) there are some sounds that he comes back to, things that are still as good as the first time he heard them.  He lists Norman Whitfield, James Brown, Sly & Robbie and the already-complimented Zep as amongst the acts making up “his musical home”.  That said, they’re not records that are ever-present: “all of a sudden you can’t listen to [that favourite song]” until one day some time later, “you know the moment when you need that record again.”

Howie’s long-term plan “creatively is to stop travelling”.  He “sometimes feels like an airline pilot” and would like to get into the studio (that he’s building), and “put up a sign saying ‘this is where I am going to be for the next 5 years’, work there, and see what that does to me”.  This doesn’t mean that he isn’t still keen to branch out – I mention the idea of working on some of the exciting developments there have been in theatre in recent years, such as the Punchdrunk productions. He would love to work on “modern theatre” citing experimental Sheffield group Forced Entertainment as the kind of people that he would like to collaborate with. He wants to make more albums – “camping out for 3 months with a band, getting into that album bubble” – he has an eye on musicals, and doing more on art installations. I wonder whether or not he’s attracted to working on a large-scale TV project but aside from the demands of being involved in something for so many years, “it would have to be something pretty special” and he’s not interested in the idea of being asked “OK, here’s a wedding scene, give us a feeling of joy !”

It’s not just that there’s been a lot of travel, it’s also about being a father.  His children, who are 19, 19 and 8, are clearly immensely important to him, and he gets an incredible buzz from the way that they respond to music, including his own output.  He remembers his daughter, when she was younger, asking him as they walked along Upper Street “Daddy, have you ever heard of Aretha Franklin ?”.  He laughs, telling the story, “I jumped with joy, it was the most beautiful thing she had ever said to me !”  Last June, all three of his children were there while he was DJing, his youngest son standing behind him dancing and the other two in the audience – “it was a gorgeous moment – one of the biggest highs of my whole life.”

With that, we draw the conversation to a close.  The football’s finished and he’s kept his dog outside with him for long enough to be confident he isn’t going to piss in the house again this evening.  There’s every chance that the first thing he is going to do when he gets back in there is make more music.

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