Life & Culture

Interview: Howie B

He started trip hop and produced U2 so he is really close to The Edge


There are two Howard Bernsteins who are regularly in the news. One - a Sir no less - is chief executive of Manchester City Council. Perhaps to distinguish himself from his civic namesake, the other operates as Howie B and is famous for producing U2, Björk, Tricky, Massive Attack, Goldie and Soul II Soul, and for remixing everyone from Annie Lennox to Steve Reich and Simply Red. He was also jointly responsible for the style of music, popular in the 1990s, known as trip hop, so called because he and the genre's other protagonists - such as Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky - purveyed a slow, stoned sort of hip hop-inflected electronic dance music that moved at a pace suggestive of someone tripping along in a narcotic haze.

And now he's releasing a brand new album, Down With The Dawn, a down-tempo after-hours soundtrack, the sort of thing you might put on after a club night. It is being issued by HB Recordings, his very own label, which he set up three years ago. It is his 12th album since he began making music in the early 90s, while 2014 also marks his 30th anniversary as a key player in the music industry.

"Yes," he laughs, "I've been doing this for a long time." Indeed he has. But before his emergence as an innovator on the London scene, he was plain old Howard Bernstein, born in 1963 in the middle-class environs of Newton Mearns, south-west of Glasgow.

"It was a good little suburb," he recalls. "It wasn't rough at all." Post-barmitzvah, he was active in Habonim, becoming a group leader.

"I really enjoyed that. It was a good learning curve for me. I formulated some political, social and philosophical ideas - a lot of inspiration came from me being part of that."

I've had wrestling matches. The studio is not a good place to do it

After leaving school, he lived on a kibbutz in Galilee for over a year, which he found equally inspirational. "My family and Jewish culture are very close to my heart," he says. The Bernsteins have always been proactive when it comes to Judaism - in fact, 11 years ago, his father co-founded, along with Rabbi Mendel Jacobs, Shul In The Park in the Queens Park area of Glasgow. "I'm very proud of him," he says of his dad. "And I think he's proud of me."

In 1981, he quit his psychology degree at Manchester University. "I'd been working on a kibbutz for a-year-and-a-half, doing really physical work. Then to sit in a lecture room didn't do it for me," he remembers. "It was too passive. So after the Christmas holidays I didn't go back."

Following a spell working in a restaurant in Florida, he moved to London to start an apprenticeship as a tape operator in a recording studio owned by Hans Zimmer, the feted German composer of soundtracks for The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight and Inception. Before long, he was working on movie scores alongside Zimmer and Stanley Myers (whose best known work was for The Deer Hunter).

Creating film scores honed Howie B's recording skills and by the early 90s he was producing some of the landmark records of the era and establishing himself, with his own albums, as a pioneer of meditative breakbeat techno alongside Coldcut, DJ Shadow and U.N.K.L.E. This is probably how he got the U2 gig as they were attempting to revitalise their image.

"That was great, a very fond experience," he says of working with the Irish rockers who, with him at the helm, incorporated experimental dance elements on their 1997 album, Pop. He also went on the road with the band, becoming on-tour DJ for their global PopMart extravaganza.

"I worked with them for about three-and-a-half years," he explains. "It was great to see behind the stadium rock veneer, to travel with the crew and lighting people and roadies. It was like a whole village going on tour, including the mayor of the village." Was Bono that mayor?

"Yes," he laughs of the famously self-assertive frontman, "I would call Bono the mayor".

Bernstein was even invited to DJ at the 40th birthday party of U2 guitarist David Evans, aka The Edge, and also attended The Edge's wedding to American choreographer and dancer Morleigh Steinberg.

A no-nonsense type of character, Howie B describes his production approach as "pushing people to be the best they can be. I'm very honest and I don't like walking on eggshells."

Has he ever told anyone off? "Of course, yeah."

Who got the sternest rebuke? He doesn't rise to the bait. Has he ever wrestled anyone to the floor? Annie Lennox, say? "Ha. I've had a couple of wrestling matches. The recording studio is not a good place to do it and I'm totally embarrassed about it now because it went too far. But feelings do get pretty hot in the studio. People are expressing things that are very dear to their heart. It gets very emotional."

Has he ever come out of the studio and walked straight to a therapist? "No, but I've gone into the studio instead of going to a therapist," he replies. "I've done that a few times. Once after coming off a big tour and once after a relationship ended."

Why does going on tour necessitate a shrink? Did you OD on fun? "You're in a bubble where everything gets done for you. Then suddenly after months, even years, you come back off the road and you have to deal with the real world. It's difficult."

Howie B travels more than many. Most years, he spends three months in China working on movies and almost equal amounts of time in America and Europe. This makes keeping in touch with his three children - each from a different relationship - rather tricky. But he generally doesn't like to be away for more than a few weeks without seeing them. The traditional Jewish family unit it isn't. "No," he agrees. "It's a universal family unit."

Having worked with some of rock's biggest stars - and more recently on Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street - Howie B has friends in high places. Would it be easier to say who he doesn't have on his list of contacts? The Pope? "No, I don't have the Pope," he replies. "Why would I have the Pope?"

So what have been the highlights of his varied career? "They've all been highlights," he decides. "It's all good. I'm just doing what I really love doing."

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