"I keep pinching myself and going, ‘Fuck’s sake, I’m still doing what I wanted to do 25 years ago!’" - Interviews - Soundblab

"I keep pinching myself and going, ‘Fuck’s sake, I’m still doing what I wanted to do 25 years ago!’"

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

The artists and bands Howie B has worked with read like a bit of a ‘who’s who’ of late 20th century music: Bjork, Tricky, Soul II Soul, Everything but the Girl, U2. As well as a lifetime of producing, remixing and DJing under his belt, he also has a parallel career soundtracking film and TV shows.

But right now, all that has taken a back-seat to the release of his solo album Down With the Dawn, the first to be released on his new label, HB Records. A natural raconteur and garrulous wit, despite audibly suffering from a bad cough Howie is happy to talk at length to Soundblab about myriad topics, from his favourite clubs to why he hates EDM, his early days as the studio teaboy, and why young music-makers should take their headphones off.

You’re new album is quite eclectic but a lot of it seems to be based in moody, atmospheric electronica. Was that your intention when you started recording it?

The intention when I write a song is quite simply what I’m feeling that day, really. Over the last two years, in the time I’ve been making this record, sometimes I’ve been surprised by the result at the end. The intention is to make a song. Whether I go in and say, ‘Right, I’m gonna do something techno, or slow…’ That isn’t really it.

I don’t go in there with ‘I want to do a techno song’, I go ‘I want to do a tune’, and whatever happens, happens. But you’re right, when I look at the tracks, I’m leaning exactly towards what you said: techno, space, electronica. I’m happy with that but that wasn’t my intention.

What kind of feelings do you think you were putting in there?

It sounds a little soppy, really, but it was love, being alive, and the feeling of death. Not my death, but two very close friends of mine died during the process of making this record. The feelings I had were not good feelings, to be quite honest. Making music, for me, was a way of expressing those feelings but in a positive way rather than a negative way.

Did you ever get to the end of a tune, listen back to it and go ‘Oh, that’s what that’s about’?

Yeah, all of the songs on there have a distinct, ‘OK, I know what that was about’. There are two songs there which I couldn’t listen to after I made them for about maybe a month because I’d just start crying. My relationship with the song, what I was feeling when I was making it, getting that feeling out, and then I was happy that I’d got the feeling out. I was like, ‘OK, that’s good, I’ve dealt with it.’ There were two songs: ‘Summer’s Flower’ and ‘Run Always’. Now it’s OK.

That makes sense to me. When I was listening to it there was an oppressive feeling there.

It’s there. It’s very simple: It’s about life, and life is great one day and other days it’s bloody shite, you know.

What made you want to do a new solo album?

I’d just been doing so much work with other people, and also concentrating on doing a lot of film work, composing for various films. It’s been really demanding and really giving. I really felt quite empty as well. I just wanted to fill the cup up again with water. I really enjoyed making the music, it’s very therapeutic. I can go, ‘Yep, that’s what I felt that day’, and then I go on and I do something else.

For the last four or five years, I’ve just been doing that for other people, which is also good. Touch wood – I’ve been making a living from music, I’m 50 and I’m still doing it. I keep pinching myself and going, ‘Fuck’s sake, I’m still doing what I wanted to do 25 years ago!’ I just had to turn myself onto myself again and not have to keep turning other people on, which is what I’ve been doing.

Do you feel like the music you make helps you to understand yourself and discover things about yourself?

Definitely. There’s two things in music which I really love: Starting a song and finishing a song. The in-between is fun as well, but I start it with a feeling and at the end I sit there and I go, ‘Fuck’s sake!’ I’m still amazed that I’m doing it. I actually go, ‘Whoa, did I do that?’

Especially with this record as well, because it’s closer to me. I’m a little bit in disbelief that I actually achieved that. I can hear myself in the music and it’s satisfying. I wouldn’t say it’s anything to do with my ego but my soul is getting fed, which is great.

Musically, was there stuff that inspired you making the new album?

Up until the last six months or so, I was at Fabric very often. I went to Fabric every Saturday night and listened to Craig Richards, Terry Francis, these people. Sat with Keith Reilly up in the office and immersed myself socially with techno. Another thing was I’d stopped playing out so much at DJ gigs, and I started playing out again but this time I went about it a different way. Normally, I wouldn’t think about my set in any way whatsoever but over the last year, I’ve been thinking, ‘OK I’m going to play this record and then I’m going to play that record…’ I would actually plan it out before I went.

Those instances of me going through my records and CDs and listening to it, and then doing the set and remembering it… The biggest influence on the while album is being in the club, which is funny for a 50-year-old man to say! There’s a couple of ambient ones on there and even that I can hear how the influence has come from the club, there are some techno influences on there. The underground, for fuck’s sake!

Do you have a favourite venue to DJ in?

There’s a few clubs; there’s one in Milan that I’ve been playing in recently which is called 65 Meters Squared. My bedroom’s just a little bit smaller than that! And that’s an amazing place to play. Then there’s another place I played in recently which is in Los Angeles called Los Globos. That’s an amazing place. Other clubs I really like: Goa in Rome is incredible; Mix in China; Lantern in Beijing, China, which is great.

And then, of course, Fabric. There’s still nothing which has come close to Fabric, really, in terms of atmosphere, the way you’re dealt with, the crowd, who’s on before you, who’s on after you, that whole thing. Fabric, to me, is still top of the mountain. It’s a difficult place to touch.

My best gig last year was at A Club Called Rhonda, which at this other place called Los Globos, and that’s great. That was an incredible evening. But in terms of clubs to play in, Fabric is a corker.

What’s your opinion on the current state of UK dance music?

I think it’s in a great position right now. There’s a lot of styles happening in clubs, there’s a lot of small clubs opening up. I look at myself and I look at my kids. I’ve got two kids, 19 and 19, Milo and Julie, and they’re out every weekend. Every week, they’re at a different club, loving it. I’m loving it as well. It’s possible to go to a different club every week in London, for the whole year, and have a good night each time.

The quality and the standard has gone up because there’s so much competition out there. In terms of DJs, in terms of clubs, in terms of what the club looks like, all of this… The club life is a good life just now. If you’re 18 to 25/35, and going out anywhere, whether it’s Brighton, Glasgow, Dundee, Bournemouth, it’s quite difficult to have a bad night.

Do you have an opinion on American EDM and the dance music culture that’s really taken off over there in the last few years?

I just cry my eyes out.

Why’s that?

It’s just painfully sore. There you go. It’s got nothing to do with club music. It’s got nothing to do with dance. It has a great relationship with, I would say, trading. The stock market. In terms of having a relationship with people that go there, the DJs having a relationship with the crowd… Nada. Nothing at all. It’s soulless, lifeless… That’s it.

Fair do’s. So you started off working as an engineer at Lilly Yard Studios. Do you feel that experience and that grounding gave you an ethic towards making music which you maybe wouldn’t have got if you’d started off making tunes in your bedroom?

Interesting… In terms of the working ethic, I started off as a tea boy, a runner basically, and moved up. That definitely has and did have a big (effect) on my attitude towards music. But it just instilled an attitude that I already had because I’d been working at farms. I had a few jobs before I started going into the studio.

My whole thing as a kid was energy, what to do with my energy, what to do with my life – not in the future but right now, there and then. I realised that to be productive was a way of enhancing my life, whether I painted a house for a week or dug up a hole - whatever it was, I had to be productive. I got that I think from my family but the studio life, that put it into a routine, and quite a hard routine because I was working a minimum of 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

I did that for quite a long time and I chose to do nothing else. It wasn’t like I said, ‘I’ll choose to be a bit sick today and not go in’ – no, no! I didn’t have any sick days, I didn’t play hooky at all. I'd go, ‘C’mon, give me more work!’ I wanted to learn.

The times I had in the studio are still with me now. I’m up every day and I’m going to the studio. If I’m not going to the studio then I’m going to a meeting. I’m working every day and I love it.

Did it give you the confidence to feel you could do stuff in any style of music? You’ve been involved in so many different genres and styles.

I don’t whether that gave me confidence. I think just interest gave me the confidence. I love music and I’m sometimes surprised by some of the projects I’ve been involved with or even some of the things I actually like. I buy records and then I go, ‘Fucking hell, did I actually buy that?’ And then I listen to it and I go, ‘I really like it!’ Even listening to Radio 4 – ‘How come I’m listening to Radio 4? I really like it!’

I’m open and that’s why I’ve dipped my foot into so many different things. For me, it’s all a part of music. I couldn’t just make techno and I couldn’t just make hi-hat patterns all day. Music for me is a massive fucking rainbow. It’s not just one colour.

I know some people like to stick to their guns, like, I’m doing house, or I’m doing break-beat, or I’m doing two-step and that’s all I’m doing. And fair play, but that doesn’t work for me.

If there’s style of music you haven’t tried making yet which you’d like to?

Yeah, shite.

Shite music?

Yeah! (laughs)

That brings me nicely onto my next question: Is there any type of music which just doesn’t do it for you at all?

It changes. There are some things which I really haven’t liked and now I go to myself, ‘Oh, I really kind of like that’. It even happened with house music. In the 80s, you would not find me near any 4/4 kick-drums at all. I’d be running away from them with a pair of fucking shorts on. But now, I love house.

Like opera – I used to really not like opera but over the last couple of years my mate has been going, ‘Look, check this out and have a listen to this’. I went to a couple as well. I’m getting into that now. I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest thing in my life but I’m appreciating it now, whereas before I couldn’t take it.

Is there any style of music you find yourself always coming back to?

James Brown. Reggae. Dub. R&B from the 70s. Rock from the 60s and 70s as well. And jazz from the 40s and 50s. I go there an awful lot. Sitting at home or in the studio – sometime I’ll go to the studio and just listen.

Do you think you’ll go back to doing film soundtracks?

I am doing that. I love doing film soundtracks because it’s the time that I actually get produced because the director is telling me what to do. Since I started making the record I’ve done about two or three films. There’s a great pleasure in sitting in front of the keyboard and looking at an image, and then going, ‘OK then, how can I support that image?’ I like that challenge.

I read that you’re spending a lot of time in China these days, doing soundtracks. Do you feel like the music over there has influenced the music on your album?

No. The people yes, but not the music. There’s a feeling of friendship. I spend an awful lot of time in China, over three months a year I’m in China now. I’ve got very good friends there. I’ve got a good social life there and that has an effect on my music.

I find it amazing – it’s such a massive nation and it’s still evolving in terms of its artistic front. They’re still catching up, I don’t think with us, but with where they want to be. Musically, they’re not there yet.

You’ve worked with so many different people, big name artists. Is there anyone left you’d still like to work with?

Just the people I’ve worked with before! It’s quite funny. In terms of new artists, I’ve never really been a fisherman. It’s more like, throw out the line and see where it lies not, ‘I’ve gotta go and catch a fish!’ I’m not interesting in the actual fish, I’m interested in throwing the line out.

It doesn’t mean I’m not still hungry – I am. I wanna get up every day and make some music but who I do it with – I don’t really give two hoots to be honest.

Do you have a favourite artist to collaborate with?

The longest collaboration I’ve had has been with a guy called Robbie Robertson, for nearly 20 years now. And I’m in the process of writing with him again now, with a guy called Joe Hirst. I’ve written about five or six songs with them over the last year.

He (Robbie) still amazes me with his lyrics, how he can write. The guy's like 25 years older than me and he’s writing songs today that mean something to me and also mean something to Joe, and Joe’s, like, 33. That fills me up.

The U2 guys as well. I’m in contact with them all the time. Listening to where they are and what they’re doing, and them listening to where I am, and commenting. Once you build up a good relationship in the studio, it’s a friendship that never dies. A good friend is a good friend forever, and it’s the same for me with the people that I’ve worked with. Friendship has blossomed out of the work that we’ve done, and the friendship is rooted in music.

What advice would you give to young music-makers or DJs who are just starting out now?

Take your headphones off and listen. If there’s one thing that really bugs me today, it’s that people are constantly walking around with headphones on. It really gets me because one, it’s not good for you and two, it’s the most antisocial thing you can do, and you’re listening to the most social thing you have – music. The most beautiful thing in the world is to listen to music with other people.

You can be on the tube and there’s 30 different songs going on at the same time. It’s ridiculous! People could be sitting there talking and chatting.

What’s your next project?

I’ve working with Joe Hirst and signing him up to my new label. I’m also working with a band called Ofeliadorme and they’re based in Bologna. I’ve written two or three songs with them and I’m going to go over and produce an album with them and then release that here probably in September this year.

Will you do another solo album soon?

Oh God, yeah! I’ll have one out next year. I’ve started doing it already.

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