Howie B is a record producer, DJ, label boss, clothes designer, artist and well, pretty much anything else that enables him to get his creative juices flowing.
In musicland, his CV highlights include the likes of Tricky, Bjork, Soul2Soul, Skylab, U2, Wim Wenders’ soundtrack ‘End of Violence’ and Pussyfoot Records, while the last 6 months have seen him working with Italian rockers Ego, the resurgent Happy Mondays and Casino Royale, sweethearts of the Milan music scene.
Miloco sat down with Howie in a cafe round the corner from Miloco’s Garden studios, supped tea and talked of astronauts, record labels and almost-made porn films. Here is the Miloco Howie B Producer Interview…
Miloco: Tell us a little about Casino Royale and being in Milan…
Howie B: ‘Well we just spent just 3 weeks recording over 10 tracks and have now brought it back here to mix it. They’re like the home boys from Italy. They were large in the club and live circuit throughout the 90s and did several albums [inc. Soul of Ska, Ten Golden Guns, Dainamaita, 1996: Adesso!]. Then about ’97 they decided to stop performing – they stayed together as band, but didn’t do any live stuff for a while. They spent their time on other musical things: running club nights and DJ agencies, working with Red Bull and promoting music through that…lots of things. But now they’re back as a band and playing music and I’m helping them do the record. It’s good.’
Miloco: And did you come across them via your travels in Italy with U2?
Howie: ‘No, I knew of them before that. But I met them at those two or three U2 gigs I did. But I didn’t really hook up with them properly until about 3 years ago when I did this production workshop in Milan, where I met the bass player and singer. But even then it was just as friends. It wasn’t till about 6 months ago when they got in contact and asked if I wanted to produce the album. And I said “Yeah”…’
Miloco: So do you spend a lot of time in Italy?
Howie: ‘Yeah I’m there quite a lot – this weekend I’m DJing over there – but I’m always over working with bands, or on my clothing line or DJing.’
Miloco: With all your different interests – producing, DJing, clothes design, painting, running labels etc, etc – do you have a particular favourite?
Howie: ‘I think it’s production. That’s what I’ve been doing now for 20 years, so that’s the main thing. But I move about because everything I do in one field helps the other fields too. All the little worlds help everything out.’
Miloco: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic – you certainly have a lot going on…
Howie: ‘Yeah I work all the time. I do like 14-hour days, 6 days a week on whatever project or projects I happen to be on at the time. I do my best to take one day off to spend with my kids but, yeah, I’m working most of the time. But I like it that way. I don’t like to not be working, to be in a city and not have something on. Unless I’m on holiday I can’t sit still.’
Howie is also partway through mixing the forthcoming new album from the Happy Mondays. Returning to our eager ears after years of Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches via a little Black Graping, Madchester’s finest floppy fringed beat-makers have been recording the album with Sonny Levine.
Miloco: How’s it going on the Happy Mondays album?
Howie: ‘We’re only about a quarter of the way through, but yeah it’s going great. Sonny’s produced most of the tracks, I’ve done one or two, and now I’m mixing it. It’s also great when someone’s done all the work – the bricks and mortar are all in place, the tunes are there – now I’ve just got decide how to assemble them. But they’re there. It’s a nice thing to do.’
Miloco: Have you worked with them before?
Howie: ‘No, not really. I’ve worked with Bez before but not with Shaun. And it’s great – the lyrics are great, the music’s great. He’s got a new language going, he really has.’
Miloco: Of all the projects you’ve done and artists you’ve worked with is there any one thing you’re particularly proud of?
Howie: ‘No. I’m either happy with stuff I’ve done or I’m not. I just move on, I’m not carrying stuff around with me. I don’t say ‘I’ve done this…’ or ‘this is what I am…’ I’m bits of everything I’ve done. My style’s changed too. The style of production has got larger but in terms of the music I’m making it’s completely different. There’s stuff I made in ’91 that I can’t even remember!
Miloco: How did you get started in the first place?
Howie: ‘We had an organ in the house that I’d just play the same thing on over and over again. I’d maybe move it up an octave or down an octave but that’d be it. But in terms of being taught anything, no. There was no music played in the house, no encouragement. There was a lot of music around though – listening to the radio 4 or 5 hours a day, that was my thing – and l loved it. I was into the Banshees, Santana, dub, reggae, James Brown – all that kind of stuff. But I guess I just wanted to express myself, so I started working in a studio as a tape op – just the normal steps up the ladder.’
For several years in the 90s Howie also co-ran Pussyfoot Records with Nick Young (Miloco’s operations manager). During its reign the label was home to Naked Funk, Headrillaz, Jacknife Lee and Rodney P. I asked Howie how that all got started.
Howie: ‘Well Nick and I just started it as a hobby. I was working a lot at a studio he was managing. So I just said: “Let’s set up a label together. I’ll do the music and you do the business and logistic side, and let’s just put some records out.” We had no big plans or anything like that. And then all of a sudden it was working. We were selling records, it was a new sound – and a sound that was unique to the label – and we got a good ten years out of it. We did licensing deals with Japanese companies, American companies, French companies, the lot. But in time it became difficult. It was a big thing and we weren’t properly set up for it and there more and more artists and more and more budgets to watch and we were just constantly firefighting. So after a while we just thought, well, this isn’t fun anymore. So Nick pulled out while I carried on for a year or two more and then wound it down. It was a great experience, great for the two of us. I learnt an awful lot, Nick learnt an awful lot, and we made some really, really good records.’
Howie is also always rumoured to be involved with any number of weird and wonderful projects. So MILC stuck a finger in the air and after a subtle preamble asked him, as you do, about outerspace soundscapes and hardcore porn…
Howie: ‘There are always things on the bubble. There are things that turn into things, things that don’t, things that change into something else entirely and then happen, and others that start and then don’t even finish. It’s like that all the time.’
Miloco: And you’re okay with that, having all these separate loose strands everywhere?
Howie: ‘Yeah, I’m fine with that. And if something does come to an end or peter out it’s how it comes to an end that matters. If it ends nicely then fine, but some of them do end quite badly and people get quite rude…’
Miloco: Now then, what’s this I read about your NASA soundtrack?
Howie: ‘Well originally I was working with this Icelandic artist called Hubert Noi, and now it’s ended up coming out through the music school in Vienna. So yes, something that started out with NASA has now ended up in Vienna, which is quite interesting. It’s gone half way round the world! It’s about a day in space, it’s a very delicate electronic piece. It’s something that might be able to happen live in the future, but it’s a studio album at present.’
Miloco: So it’s taken a while for the project to come about?
Howie: ‘Yeah it’s taken about 4 years. It was literally around the time of the last World Cup that we started working on it and I’m only now about to sign the contract.’
Miloco: And did anything happen with the proposed Lars Von Trier [Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Breaking The Waves] hardcore porn soundtrack?
Howie: ‘Unfortunately no, that never happened. It was a shame. It got to script and various conversations and meetings and me flying out there but it never happened. He set up a porn company and is making films anyway, but this was going to be more experimental.’
As well as utilising all the Miloco studios for his various projects, Howie also has a longterm-let studio of his own (Miloco 6 – The Market). I asked him what it was he liked so much about the Miloco organisation.
Howie: ‘It’s great, it’s a community. Nick and Henry have created a community of just, well, like-minded people. People who really care about the work that they do. I like it, it’s a comfortable environment to work in, nothing’s ever a problem and there’s never any attitude from anyone. It’s great to bring a project to the studio cos I know the people who’ll be working with me and there’s that support network from Nick to the maintenance guys to everyone. And the engineers – Joe, Ben, Martin, little Greg, all of them – I worked with them all at some point and they’ve all got their different characters that they bring to the project and talents and specialities. It’s great.’
Miloco: And have the last few years been kind?
Howie: ‘Yeah it’s been busy, it’s been good. And the last few months in particular have turned around and I’m back doing full albums again, which I haven’t done for a few years, and that’s great. By the end of the summer I’ll have done three albums. After we finish this [Casino Royale] I’m back on the Happy Mondays again for a few weeks then I’m off to France to start rehearsing a band. Then after that I’m off to Japan for a little tour with a guy called Craig Richards. And then between all that I’m setting up a new label with Craig as well.’
Miloco: Bloody hell!
Howie: ‘No it never stops. It doesn’t stop.’
Howie B was talking to Miloco in the summer 0f 2006