Daily Telegraph : Howie B Featurejeudi 18 mars 1999
Source : Daily Telegraph
From The Daily Telegraph :
HEADLINE : The Arts : ’I’m here to make sure we all have fun’ From U2 toBjork to Ry Cooder, pop’s biggest names want to work with Howie B. Butwhat exactly is it that he does ?
by Neil McCormick
I FIRST met Howie B in San Francisco in 1997, sprawled in the back of along, black, luxuriously stocked limousine in the company of U2 singerand global superstar Bono. But that is about as rock ’n’ roll as thisstory gets.
Instead of indulging in celebrity vices, our decadent itinerary includeda visit to a wonderful independent book store (Bono bought some Tolstoyessays) and lunch with maverick American record producer Hal Willner,who has made recordings with an astonishing list of counter-cultureicons, from Lou Reed and Sonic Youth to William S Burroughs and AllenGinsberg.
Bono, who has either a gift for - or an irritating habit of - decidingwhat other people should be doing with their lives, was intrigued aboutthe prospect of getting Howie and Willner together. Throughout the meal,he kept gently hinting that they should collaborate, an arrangement that(at first sight, at least) seemed completely ludicrous.
Willner was a heavily bearded, unfashionably attired, somewhat academic,middle-aged eccentric, who had built his reputation on comedy andspoken-word recordings, while Howie was a shaven-headed, funky littlemixed-raced Glaswegian (dressed for the occasion in tartan trousers),regarded as one of the leading lights of the British underground dancescene.
Bono’s efforts evidently paid off. Last year, Willner made his firstsolo album, a bizarre but compelling audio collage of grooves andsoundbites entitled Whoops, I’m an Indian. "That was the most outrageousalbum of the whole year," Howie enthused when I met up with him in aLondon studio recently.
He might well have been expected to be approving, since it was he whopersuaded Willner to go into the studio, paid for the recording andreleased it on his own independent label, Pussyfoot. But there wassomething about the way he added, "It was magic !" in a dense Scotsbrogue that made his enthusiasm so convincing.
So what was the connection that Bono had spotted between these twoapparently very different individuals ? "Just a love of music," declaredHowie. "Music is a fire for both of us, but completely differentfamilies of music. So it was interesting to see what would happen ifthese families met. It was quite a mad wee meeting."
You get the impression that Howie’s life is full of these mad weemeetings. He has worked with an impressive but extremely eclectic listof people, including pioneering club posse Soul II Soul, veteran punksSiouxsie and the Banshees, multifarious dance ensemble Massive Attack,avant-garde rapper Tricky (Howie was co-writer and producer ofPonderosa, the track that kick-started the whole trip-hop genre),experimental pop star Bjork, ambient boffin Brian Eno, drum ’n’ bassoutfit Headrillaz, stadium rockers U2, guitar hero Ry Cooder, RobbieRobertson of American roots rockers the Band, legendary reggae rhythmsection Sly and Robbie, and he is completing an album with Frenchtroubadours Les Negresses Vertes.
Exactly what part Howie plays in these various collaborations, however,is exceedingly difficult to define. He started out as a DJ, trained asan engineer, got involved in programming, graduated to production,established a reputation as a ground-breaking artist in his own right,and became head of his own innovative label.
But in modern recording the distinction between these differentfunctions has become increasingly blurred. And how do you describe a manwho considers things such as "taking the band out for a day at the zoo"and overseeing mealtimes to "make sure everybody eats well and theconversation is good" as part of his job ?
For his work with U2, Howie was credited as "vibemaster", a role thatincluded introducing the band to music that they weren’t aware of,laying down beats for them to compose with, co-producing and engineeringthe album Pop, acting as DJ on their world tour and operating as a kindof renegade sound terrorist on the mixing desk during the band’s liveperformances.
"I wanted to do something that’s not been done before," Howie explained."I was creating things like little bass earthquakes on stage, delayingthe whole band, dubbing them up. I wanted to make them smile, to getsomething extra out of them. I’d have engineers who had been doing thesound for 20 years physically pulling me away from the desk saying ’youcan’t do that’, and I’d be hanging on, trying to distort something,saying ’I’ve just did it !’ "
You can’t say can’t to Howie B. It may be a reaction to his Jewishbackground (the B stands for Bernstein) and what he considers the manyarbitrary rules imposed on him ("not riding my bike on Saturday, notgoing out on Friday night, which in this day and age makes no sense"),but there is a sense in which his entire musical ethos is about defying,or at least questioning, convention.
"The biggest fight is against the rules," according to Howie. "I do mybest to look at rules, work out why they’re there and ask ’is this justa safety net ?’ That’s what the challenge is. Not to do something justbecause everybody else does it, but to say to yourself, is there anotherway ? Just by allowing yourself that question a lot of interesting ideascome up."
Between working with other artists, Howie periodically releases his ownrecordings. "I get squeezed empty and then I have to fill myself up.It’s a choice of checking into a hospital or checking into the studio.Making music is giving something to myself."
It is music that places him at the furthest frontiers of modern pop, across-pollination of genres that defies categorisation, combining loops,grooves and snatches of found sound to consistently surprising effect."I don’t know what you could call this music I make," Howie cheerfullyadmitted. "Cause it’s different every time I go into the studio."
Howie’s latest solo album, Snatch, is released on Pussyfoot this week.In a dance scene currently boosted by the success of Big Beat music,Howie has perversely turned out something that might be described asTiny Beat. It’s a determinedly minimalist affair, textural as much as itis musical, all low-end noises, impossible rhythms and weirdinstrumental balance. Either a work of genius or completeself-indulgence (or perhaps a bit of both), Howie gleefully describes itas an experiment in "moving air".
IN HIS diaries, Brain Eno suggested that what U2 wanted from Howie was"his weird sense of space, his ability to leave things alone and let thelistener do the work". Which is certainly part of it, but there is muchmore to him than music.
In person, it is easy to see why he has come to be valued as a kind ofcatalyst by so many different artists. With his ever-present smile,infectious chuckle and eternal optimism, this bundle of intellectualenergy simply radiates positivity. He is a genuinely inspirationalfigure, a creator, as his U2 credit suggests, of good vibes.
"There’s nothing worse than listening to a record and hearing a load ofpeople hard at work," says Howie. "It’s like listening to hammers andscrewdrivers. You wanna hear people enjoying themselves. That’s my job:making sure we’re all having fun."