Innerviews, music without borders

Howie B
On the Prowl
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1999 Anil Prasad.

Howie B

In some ways, DJs are 20th Century spiritual leaders. Their choice of music, tempo, beats and volume have the power to inspire and move us at cerebral and physical levels. And in an age bereft of genuine shared experiences, they give us reason to congregate and interact in an environment of joy and celebration.

For awhile, these sonic shamen were fringe characters in the grand scheme of music making. After all, conventional wisdom told us that musicians make records and DJs simply play them. But recent years have shattered that preconception. Names like Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, DJ Spooky and A Guy Called Gerald are among the surging tide of DJ-based acts making some of today's most interesting music. And while you can count Howie B in those ranks, there are some notable differences.

Whether by fluke or fortune, the Scotsman formerly known as Howie Bernstein has catapulted to levels of fame and wealth unheard of in the DJ realm. He’s performed in front of crowds of 165,000. He’s been praised by minimalist pioneers Brian Eno and Steve Reich. He’s produced U2, Robbie Robertson, Sly & Robbie and Björk. And his now-expired relationship with the latter Icelandic pixie even splashed him all over the tabloid press. To top it off, last year saw him get very publicly kicked out of the USA on drug-related charges.

In some ways, Howie’s public persona has squelched the fact that he’s made three impressive records of his own. His latest, Snatch, was just released on his own label Pussyfoot. It’s a postmodern pastiche in the truest sense of the much-abused term. The disc is a non-linear, genre-less concoction that merges skewed beats, ambient waves, low-fi keyboards, highly-manipulated samples and world musics into a decontextualized whole.

Howie took a break from mixing the new Les Negresse Vertes album to speak to Innerviews about Snatch, his production and DJ work, the intricacies of running an indie label and record collecting. Hungover, bleary-eyed and raspy-voiced, he’s yet to recover from a late-night DJ set the previous evening in Birmingham. But even in his groggy state, his strong opinions about artistic autonomy and sense of humor remain firmly intact.

Compare the production process to what you do as a DJ.

I think DJ-ing and production are both the same. It involves a lot of music basically. That’s what it is for me—loving the whole vibe and just being around music. So, if I can do it with musicians, it’s great for me. It’s my way of expressing my love for music. One way is pretty passive and one way is pretty active. Me making my own records, me walking into a studio, me listening to music, me just sitting and making a cup of tea are the same as the desire to be a DJ. It’s coming from the same place. It all walks hand-in-hand for me. I love it. That’s it.

What philosophies from the DJ realm do you take into the production arena?

That anything goes. For me, that’s the way that I work. During my DJ sets, I move about in a fairly eclectic manner and it goes everywhere. Whenever I produce, I have the same outlook and intention of not necessarily going everywhere, but at least having the potential to go everywhere—the potential that you could be in Bali one day or Vladivostok to record something the next using a Russian male voice choir. That idea blends into everything I do, even when I make food for my little kid. It’s an openness to basically taking on or not taking on rules to be free as possible.

Snatch seems much more based in collage than your last disc Turn The Dark Off.

That’s because the core source for Snatch is much wider than Turn the Dark Off. With Turn The Dark Off, the source was mainly Christmas records—"Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer" and things like that. The source material for Snatch was loads of different things from Mexico to Tokyo. There are different musical styles and sounds of planes and physics classes. It’s much wider.

You’re obviously very careful about how you manipulate the samples because they’re generally unrecognizable.

To me, there’s no point using something if it stays the same. There’s no point in making a piece of music that’s already been made. If I take a piece of music, I have to make it my own. It’s like what you do when looking at a painting. You look at it and it doesn’t really sit with you until you can imagine yourself painting it or having painted it. That’s when these things become yours—when you have a relationship with art. For me, it’s the same if I come across a sound and put my signature on it. I have to make it different and challenge myself. And often it is unique and I have to try and make it more unique.

To me, Snatch sounds like the result of creative happenstance, not a deliberate process.

There’s no deliberate process at all. I wanted to take away all the rules—even the sonic rules—that I had given myself and start again from scratch. The rules of sonics, the rules of attending the studio at particular hours—I changed everything to give myself a new platform to jump from. It worked in some ways, but not in others in that it wasn’t a very social experience. I became very anti-social. No-one could talk to me. Music-wise, it came out quite social which I’m quite surprised about. It’s quite funny.

During this anti-social mode, where did you draw inspiration from?

I was getting it from myself. There were a few social things happening to me that I wasn’t happy about. I just finished going out with a girl and I had just finished a big job which wasn’t by my own choice. I was heading to a big crash, if not already in one. I wanted to use me as the fire and not bring any other musicians in—or anybody else. So, the main focus for Snatch was me and to get myself back on the tracks again.

So, making Snatch was music as therapy?

Yeah. It was a choice of whether I wanted to check into a hospital or to check into a studio really.

Was being forced to leave the U2 Popmart tour DJ gig the job situation you were referring to?

Yeah. I wasn’t kicked off the tour. Basically, I was kicked out of America. That’s what happened. The authorities said "Bye-bye. It’s time for you to go. This place is too big for you." It was a drug-related problem.

There’s a real minimalist influence at work on Snatch. Have you listened to much Terry Riley or Steve Reich?

Yes I have. I would say that might have had some influence on my music but I wouldn’t say directly. Steve Reich has handed his music to me in my hands. I listened to it and said "Wow, I could have done that." And when you have that feeling, it’s magic. That’s when the distance between the creator and listener disappears. I’ve had that a few times with Reich’s music and that must have had some influence. But for me, it’s more of a case of getting to the essence of what I was getting at. It was more a challenge for me to have less in there and it’s saying what I want it to say exactly. Snatch was about raising questions for myself rather than smother and smother and smother. I chose to open it up and if anything was going to be in there, it really had to put up a bloody good fight—whatever it is, whether it’s sounds, tastes, smells or textures. The whole thing had to give a little fight. It was a little boxing match between those and other sounds and melodies. It was a good dynamic for me because I was limited by the amount of keyboards I let myself use. There’s a little bit of the sampler too. But I really had to push things to the limit—things that were actually audible. It was quite good for me. It focused me very well.

You reworked Reich’s "Eight Lines" for the Reich Remixed release. How did that come about?

They contacted me and then I tried to get in contact with him. They sent me 52 takes of the tapes of that particular song. I wanted to find out which take they used. It turned out they used a few of them by editing them together. When I listen to that piece, I feel I was a part of it even though I wasn’t. That’s a very interesting feeling to have. It’s outrageous.

Has Reich given you his opinion of your remix?

Yeah, he really loved it. He liked that I was the only guy who kept the time signature of the original piece. [laughs]

Speaking of minimalists, you’ve spent a large amount of time working with Brian Eno. Has he affecting your musical thinking?

I wouldn’t say that he’s changed my ideas on music. Working with him has just been bloody great fun and exhausting. I couldn’t say what working with him has done for me apart from laughing a lot. It’s really difficult to say what working with someone has done to you. Every time I’ve walked into a studio or had a meal with him, I’ve had a really good time. And the fact that’s he’s still doing it. Look at the place that he’s at, yet he’s still excited about working in the studio. He’s still got a big fire. He still gets up every day at 6 o’clock and goes to the studio.

It’s clear that traditional ideas about music history, theory and genres mean little to you. Do you have any logical basis for threading together unrelated musics?

The logic is give it a shot and see if it works—that’s one thing. The other thing is follow your instincts, which isn’t logical. So, if I’m listening to someone sing to me and while I’m listening I also hear a Klezmer band in the background in my head, I go and pick up the phone and try to make that situation happen if I can. If I’m hearing someone playing the violin and I think "Wow, I hear someone tap dancing in the background," I’ll try to hook her up with two tap dancers. So, I just go for it. The fun of going with your instincts is never having to say "I should have done it that way" later.

How did you cultivate that intuition?

I think it started quite early on. It was just a case of looking at music and looking at what the biggest fire was and realizing there’s an openness to music that doesn’t ask anything of you other than to listen to it. And with instrumental music, there’s no language problem and it gets really universal and it’s just outrageous. I’ve just got to have an open door policy to it. When I was a kid, I realized that closed doors are not interesting things. That’s what it’s about really and where it’s coming from.

How would you respond to a critic that says your music is an uninformed, artificial or invalid construct?

I would laugh at them first of all. It wouldn’t really bother me because that argument’s got nothing to do with taste or feelings. It’s got nothing to do with expression. It’s got nothing to do with what the essence of music is. It’s got nothing to do with creativity. Art is not a science. Art is something in everybody. It’s how you express it. If I choose to express myself one way, who is that person to turn around and say to me that I’m doing it wrong? That’s terrible. It’s fascism.

Several reviewers are intent on comparing your work to that of late-'60s Miles Davis. Do you consider that accurate?

Well, what I love about Miles Davis is that there’s something quite enchanting about him. He’s full of signatures—not just vocal signatures, but soul signatures. That’s just very interesting. There’s only a few people around that have been able to do what he did. He literally took a feeling from his soul and let us hear it and it’s incredible to me. And especially with Snatch, it’s a case of taking some very simply feelings from me and putting them into some sort of musical form. In some ways, Miles Davis is a massive inspiration because of his simplicity, confidence and the way he expressed himself.

Do you have a lot of jazz in your record collection?

Yeah. Last night I was listening to Archie Schepp. I love jazz. I love the freedom of it. The really free jazz really freaks me out.

How big is your record collection?

Between 30,000 to 40,000 pieces of vinyl.

Where do you put it all?

Various places—mainly in storage in a place in Camden. I’ve also got some in my studio and at home. I’ve got it dotted all over the place. And every day, I get a new addition. Yesterday, I got an album I’ve been looking for a long time—the Kung Fu soundtrack. I’ve been looking for the music because there’s some gorgeous little poems and string pieces on there. It cost me 80 pounds! [laughs] Every day I come across something that is different. They’re all special in their own way.

When you listen to a new record, do you automatically think about it as potential source material for your own work?

As soon as I hear anything, it becomes a source—whatever it is, even your voice. Everything is constantly inputting. I’m like a sponge the whole time.

Describe your behavior when you first go into a record store you haven’t been to before.

I was in one last in Paris. It was a magic second-hand store. I had only 20 minutes before a meeting. After walking in, within two minutes I was literally on my hands and knees. [laughs] I was pulling creates from underneath shelves because I was searching for a piece of music by Debussy called "Le Mer." I can get it on CD, but I’m looking for it on vinyl. So, I was at this place with this guy laughing at me because I told him I’ve got five boxes to get through quickly. I didn’t find the record, but I found a really brilliant 10" vinyl of narration to a story called Le Petit Prince in French. That was gorgeous. So, through this Debussy obsession I found this beautiful album.

Do you have a specific visceral or emotional reaction to vinyl itself?

Yeah, it’s outrageous. [laughs] Just holding on to it. That piece of vinyl—that little Petit Prince thing is magic. There’s a great feeling of "this thing is mine." The idea that you own it and it becomes yours. You can really feel the weight of it. It’s crazy. Just crazy. [laughs]

You’re possibly the only DJ out there that’s worked crowds in soccer stadiums. How is that different from playing for tiny club crowds?

It’s a completely different thing. Then again, every gig is completely different in some way. In the last few weeks, I’ve been doing maybe four gigs a week all around Europe because the album just came out. Every one of them is completely different. The biggest was 165,000 people in Italy. That was like "For fuck’s sake!" [laughs] It was the biggest gig U2 had and it was just mad. It was in this field in the North part of Italy and there were people as far as you could see. That’s a completely different ambiance. And the smell is different—the smell of 165,000 people is totally different from the smell of 400 people. When DJ-ing in front of a crowd that big, I’m not attempting to get those 165,000 people to jump up and down. That’s the last thing I intend to do. The first thing is to play music, turn them on to music and create some kind of a joyous atmosphere—that’s what I concentrate on. In clubs, the focus is to make people move and nothing else—to make them enjoy themselves through dance. Last night, when I was in Birmingham, I was looking at people straight in the eyes and as soon as something’s on that makes the move, I work that groove and change it. I’ll jump back and forth three or four decades in style. I’ll turn them on to things they’ve not heard before. But I’ll do that through dance, whereas at a stadium, I’ll do it through song.

Tell me how you read a club crowd beyond watching them leap about. Are there any universal cues you look for?

I just look for the general vibe. Are people happy? Is there a lot of talk going on? Are people shouting at each other? Is the music too loud? Is it too aggressive? There are loads of things I think about. The main thing at a club is to see if the atmosphere is one of happiness and not one of "What am I doing here?" That sometimes happens because not every gig is a good gig. I’ve been to some gigs where I’ve thought "This is the wrong place to be." And then, there’s nothing you can do about it no matter how good you are at reading a crowd.

How have crowd reactions changed since you became a known commodity?

They probably expect more from me. They probably want to be impressed by either style or technique. So, usually when these things happen—when I’m put in these sorts of corners—I usually do the exact opposite. I’ll go for simplicity or be very unstylish.

I caught one of your DJ sets last year and one technique you often used stood out. You turn off the turntable motor and manually spin a record as fast as you can. Then you let it slow down on its own. Where did you pick that technique up?

Just through doing it really. There’s something really interesting about doing that. You have constant sound going on and it’s going so fast. So, rhythm is not a problem, but high end is. It is a great thing though because you can play with tone. And people know exactly what’s happening—they can actually visualize something spinning really fast. So, there’s a visual element and an audio element happening. Plus you can do some really mad rhythmical things as well. You totally don’t know what’s going to happen because sometimes you can spin really fast and the needle will jump off and land somewhere else. So, I use spinning a lot. I just like it because it’s very active. It’s a good technique. On Snatch, I use it a lot too. On "Trust" I spin like that for the whole track and slow it down at the end. I also do a solo of the record on its own. It’s a beautiful little solo that makes me go "wow." It freaks me out.

There seem to be two camps on the DJ scene these days: the turntablists and conventional DJs that simply play records. There are some outspoken purists on each side that deny the importance of the other. What’s your take?

What difference does it make? This has nothing to do with the essence of DJ-ing. To me, the most important thing is not the person, it’s the music. It’s what you’re playing. And that’s it. There’s no point in closing doors. That’s not healthy. That’s not life-giving. Don’t tell people not to make music or play music. D’ya know what I mean? And it’s the same with people who make rock music. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean other music is not music. It’s very snobbish. People are expressing themselves which is brilliant. It’s great. It’s really healthy. That’s what’s great about electronic music of any sort. But to turnaround and say that a person is not making music because of their technique is stupid.

Why did you feel Snatch was more suited for Pussyfoot rather than going toward fulfilling your Island contact?

It was obvious to me that this album belonged on Pussyfoot. It just had this vibe—it had Pussyfoot written all over it. It’s something I wanted to have. I didn’t want to give it away—I wanted to keep it. Pussyfoot is my company, so I thought I could put it there because they’ll care for it. I wanted it to be looked after properly.

Is that in reaction to how Island handled Turn The Dark Off?

No, but I know I would have been unhappy with the way they would have handled this one. I’ve got no complaints about what went on with the first and second albums. There are growing pains and that’s fine, but Snatch was of a completely different nature. It’s not a commercial album. It’s not going to jump into the charts. It’s not going to have any great commercial success. So, there’s no point. I know what Island and Polydor want from me. And I want them to be an asset to me as much as I’m an asset to them. I don’t think Snatch would have been an asset to them, but it is an asset to Pussyfoot because of its size and nature.

My assumption is that Chris Blackwell hooked you up with Sly & Robbie.

Yeah, he phoned me up and said "Look, wanna work with Sly & Robbie?" And I said "Yeah, too right." [laughs] I went right in there. That was a great experience. I went out to Jamaica for eight days with three other guys—a guy called Johnny Rockstar, Jeremy Shaw and Will O’Donovan. We just had a mad time. We jammed with these guys for eight days and it was outrageous. It was really, really precious time for me. It moved very quickly and we threw down lots of ideas. We didn’t go back and work on anything that was a problem. We just kept moving forward and forward. It was just a very instinctive thing for us all to do. I brought the tapes back to London and took three weeks to mix, arrange and cut-up everything and put it back together. I added a few keyboards and other little things and that was it.

To me, Strip To The Bone sounds more like a Howie B album than a Sly & Robbie release.

That’s quite a difficult one to address because it was a producer producing two producers. So, it was quite an interesting sort of scenario. They just gave me total carte blanche to do whatever I wanted and I did. So, there you go. [laughs]

What was it like to work with these elder statesmen of dub?

It was outrageous because they can do what they actually do—they’re doers. They make grooves like there’s no tomorrow. Some of them are really, really good and some of them are really not. It was a case of getting the good ones and it was just outrageous—the bass that came out of Robbie’s fingers. The melody in the bass is what freaked me out. I can’t believe how much melody he was putting in them.

Your label is called Pussyfoot. Your new album is called Snatch. The first single is Jugs For Sale. The Sly and Robbie album is named Strip To The Bone. You have compilations out titled Suck It And See and Pussy Galore. Do you have a porn fixation?

Me? Uh… [pauses] I don’t have a porn fixation! [laughs] I love women, which is something people think to call pornographic, but there’s nothing pornographic about it at all. I don’t have a porn fixation. It’s a love of women, simple as that. It’s fairly, fairly simple. My intention for these things is that you have a little laugh. The word "snatch" is quite a funny word. I don’t seem to have offended anyone which is great. I’m not out to offend. I’m out to be social, not anti-social. For instance, Suck It And See is full of humor—even at its hardest point where there’s a real sort of coarse piece that Naked Funk did. There’s a bit of phone sex happening and it’s the most un-sexy thing and un-pornographic thing in the world. [laughs] To me, Naked Funk’s recording is just genius. What the band did is brilliant—a magic, gorgeous piece. You listen to it and you laugh.

How involved are you in Pussyfoot’s day-to-day business?

I’m at the label one day a week, but I’m on the phone to Pussyfoot all the time. Every decision that’s made is usually between me and Nick Young [Howie B’s label partner]. So, I’m very much involved. It is a business d’ya know what I mean? If it wasn’t working as a business, it wouldn’t be there as a business. We’re not getting any outside funding. It funds itself, so therefore it’s successful. It’s working because we’re making great music. The most successful titles have been Headrillaz, Suck It and See, and Pussy Galore.

Describe your A&R approach.

Do I like the music? That’s it. We get tapes sent to us all the time and at every gig I do, I have someone giving me a disc or tape or something. I get about 15 to 20 tapes a week. I listen to them all, whether it’s in the car or wherever.

You have a significant Internet presence between the Howie B and Pussyfoot websites. How important is the web to the marketing of your music?

Not at all to me. But it’s really important to Nick. [laughs] I’ve got nothing great to say about it. I find the Internet really boring. What does it encourage? It encourages you to stay in your bedroom—and not for the right reasons. [laughs]

You once said "the best language for me is music." If that’s the case, what makes up the alphabet?

Position one, position two and position three.

Howie B