Music: Zowie! It's Howie and Robbie
Howie B, producer, remixer, engineer, record label boss, has worked with the bands of the moment. But Robbie Robertson? Fiona Sturges uncovers the secret of pop's unlikliest combo
The 34-year-old Scots DJ, producer, remixer, engineer and founder of down-beat record label Pussyfoot has instead invested his profits into a studio in Fitzrovia where he has now holed up for a lengthy recording session. "I'm working on my new album at the moment. I've finished four tracks and I've got another two on the go," he explains, his diminutive frame twitching with excitement. "I'm also putting on the finishing touches to the Sly and Robbie album. Oh, and I'm doing the musical direction for a Dazed & Confused programme on Channel 4. It's magic."
"Magic" is his favourite and most frequently used word, and is symptomatic of his unwavering enthusiasm and energy. It is this and his irrefutable talent that has made him the music industry's cardinal collaborator and has prompted the likes of Brian Eno and U2 to enlist his help, while this week sees the release of the single "Take Your Partner By the Hand", the result of a seemingly incongruous collaboration with Sixties survivor Robbie Robertson, of Bob Dylan's The Band fame.
Howard Bernstein (Howie B is the hip abbreviation) grew up on the south side of Glasgow where his musical experience constituted faithful listening to John Peel's radio sessions, the root of his eclectic disposition. "He took you through the whole alternative punk-reggae-jazz thing in one afternoon," he remembers. "When I got a cassette radio it was magic as I could record his show. That was when I started making my own tapes and playing around with music."
He moved to London in his early twenties where he got together with Soul II Soul's Jazzy B (no doubt the inspiration for his own condensed name) and started playing records with him. At the same time he was brushing up on electronics at evening classes. At 24 he eventually got into a studio as a tea boy. ("I've even made tea for Stevie Wonder") where he watched and learnt. "As sessions would finish I would stay there and play around with the equipment. It was very much trial and error." He later became the in-house engineer, working with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Swing Out Sister. By the early Nineties he was involved with Massive Attack and pre-jungle Goldie. He was also was causing ripples with his mesmerising 12 inches on the early trip-hoppy Mo'Wax albums.
The ripples turned to waves as he was drafted in to twiddle knobs on U2's 4.5 million selling Pop album in 1995. He also took up dance duties on their "Popmart" tour and was recruited to play records in place of a support band ("In front of 165,000 people - magic!). He co-produced Tricky's seminal trip-hop track "Ponderosa" and was the brains behind the beats on Post, Bjork's second album (Bjork is Howie's current partner). He was also snapped up by Brian Eno for the dubious Passengers album. Eno later wrote in his published diary "The thing they want from Howie is his weird sense of space, his ability to leave things alone and let the listener do the work."
With such glowing references, it's no wonder that they're queuing up to work with him. "I don't go fishing," he assures, "but when I meet new people involved with good music I am quite often in the studio with them within a couple of weeks." Robbie Robertson approached Howie with his plans 18 months ago. In case you have lost track, Robertson is now 55 and, since his days with The Band, he has been re-discovering his native American roots and pursuing a rather fluctuating solo career. His 1994 album Music of the Native Americans was a grave disappointment so, for the next album, Contact from the Underworld of Redboy, Robertson decided to get some outside help.
"He sent a beautiful letter saying he was about to embark on this journey," Howie remembers. "It was about this relationship with the native American Indian. He wanted to know whether I wanted to join him. "When Howie accepted, Robertson almost immediately got on a plane to London where they cooked up "Take Your Partner By the Hand". "After I suggested it, Robbie disappeared for a couple of days and then came back and said `Howie, I think I've got something - but it's a bit mad but here it is.'" The result certainly is mad, a spoken-word excursion into the nether world of Robertson's Indian- obsessed imagination. Howie's dark, rhythmic bleeping provides a bizarrely seductive yet eerie backdrop to Robertson's rumbling Clint Eastwood tones. The song features on both their albums and even stranger remixes are soon to released on Howie's own Pussyfoot label.
Howie is now determined to get on with his own album. His positively gleaming reputation as producer and collaborator has always rather eclipsed his solo career, though he refutes the idea that he has spread himself too thin. His minimalist debut album Music for Babies - inspired by the birth of his daughter, Chilli - was applauded by the like-minded minority but panned by purists for being too abstract. The daft samples and hip- hop grooves on his latest album Turn The Dark Off have proved more popular - bits have already been absorbed into the DJ sets of Laurent Garnier and Norman Cook - though its unruly loops and suppressed rhythms still bear his distinguishing stamp of discord.
As a club DJ, Bernstein is also doggedly experimentalist. "I go mad in clubs as a DJ and I clear dance floors regularly," he states proudly. I can verify this, as I remind him, after an evening at The End club in London a couple of months ago. Howie's arrival on the decks brought the bouncing throng to a standstill as he downed the tempo, sharpened the breakbeats and then dropped in some industrial clanging for good measure. The disco divas left clutching their heads as well as their handbags, while the more resolute simply shuffled around the dance floor self- consciously. "Yes, it was a strange evening", he concedes. "Definitely the wrong crowd for my tunes."
So what could possibly come next? "I'm always on the lookout for something fresh and interesting to do. A few days in the studio in the studio with Brian [Eno] would be magic. But I want something fresh - anything. How about Polish folk music? Now, that would be mad." Mad yes, but entirely possible. With Howie, at any rate.
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