3 Jan 2022
Music producer, Howie B (Howard Bernstein), talks about his many adventures from travelling around the world for work and the variety of cultures he’s experienced.
Born and raised in Glasgow, Howie grew up listening to a great multitude of genres, ranging from rock to groove, from soul to reggae. With all this exposure, he developed a strong admiration for music and aspired to be a part of the industry. “I wanted to work in music. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I thought it would be best for me to learn producing and start that way”. Howie explained that there were only three studios in Glasgow and if they denied his entry, there was nowhere else to go. Recording music back in the day required you to have access to a recording studio because there were no computers. It was almost impossible to have a home studio as it would require so much extra machinery. Which is why almost all records made up until the late 90s were made in recording studios. Therefore his best option was to move to London to begin his music career.
Back in the 80s, London had around 500 studios. So the likelihood of Howie finding any sort of opportunities were much higher. Howie describes leaving his hometown at the age of 17 to come to London as the “best thing I did”. In a small town where you know everyone and everyone knows you, one can easily get bored. Howie notes that he didn’t go back to Glasgow for years, but now loves to go back whenever he can. He explained that everyone from outside London just wants to go to London. And that was already a big dream of Howie’s from a young age. Even more so in knowing that people travel from all over the world to London to make music. After two years Howie eventually found a job in a studio in Fulham where he worked as a runner for a couple of years. For the most part, Howie would make around 400 cups of tea or coffee each day for the engineers and musicians, but was also able to learn as he was allowed to sit in the studio during production. After a year and a half he was then allowed to be more hands on, and work set up. It was around a three year apprenticeship. “During those three years I was like a sponge” Howie stated. “All these different people were coming in and I’d just watch and ask questions where I could”. Howie got his big break one day when an engineer didn’t turn up and so he was asked to take over. And that was that – Howie was now an engineer.
Beginning to explore even further, Howie moved around America for some period in the 60s. For the most part he stayed in New York and Los Angeles, working in studios such as Village recorder – what Howie describes as a beautiful old school studio in LA where every well-known band around in the 60s/70s would go to record. In travelling to America, Howie got to work with the likes of Robbie Robertson and Ry Cooder. When Howie was only 12 years old, he was a huge fan of The Band. So imagine his excitement when “one of the top 10 guitarists in the world” called him up to work together. After hearing Howie’s early work with Bjork and Tricky, Robertson invited him over to America to experiment with new sound. The Band guitarist introduced Howie to rock (folk) and even into film music. Robertson lived and worked with director, Martin Scorsese, in New York in the 70s. “The stories this guy has got are like WOW” says Howie. The two went on to make 3 albums together. Howie states that Robertson and Cooder made his LA experience – “I saw a different side of America than we see, than we know. Than I knew before”.
Gradually, Howie began to work in Europe. Whilst producing in Iceland for Bjork, he described the environment to be “crazy... It’s only like a three hour flight from London, but is completely different. The landscape, the food, the language. Everything.” What Howie found most interesting was the importance of reading and education. Such studious tendencies would all comes into the conversations had in the studio as this mentality was a motivator for the artists in Iceland. Once in a studio, an artist explained to Howie that the album would be based on a book and told him he must read the whole thing within the three weeks he was staying there. This way of working was completely new to Howie. Something he noticed would recur when working with different cultures.
Howie began to work in Asia, whereby he would have to alter in production strategy based on what country he was working in. He would travel to Japan three or four times a year.
“That was just another world” he explained. And there was nothing about it similar to London. The first hotel he stayed in was so completely abstract. All the furniture was moulded together. “Even the chair was part of the room”. There was nothing to do with comfort, everything that was there was an essential. Though the experience was not uncomfortable for Howie, what was expected of him in the studio was different to usual.
The standard process would be that band sends a demo for Howie to ultimately expand on. The first band Howie worked with in Japan was a jazz band. Whenever Howie would put forward an idea they would say “that’s not like the demo”. This response was given for about two days, by which time Howie realised they just wanted him to record and make no changes.
“They wouldn’t allow themselves to deviate from the path they had chosen. And that was a big learning curve for me… I had a different hat on for those three or four weeks and just told myself to get into the culture. And it was a really interesting experience because at the end of the day I just did an engineering job, I didn’t do a producing job”
Now whenever offered a project in Japan, Howie ask specifically what they want from him. When working with western bands, it’s easier to know what is expected of him, but in Japan he has to ask the question: “Do they want me to just replicate what they’ve done, but with my touch on the side? Or do they want the full Howie B trip?”.
China was a completely different experience. Howie first started working in China during the early 2000s and would go back three to four times a year. All up until COVID. “I love the culture”. When working in China, Howie has quite a big creative license as “they will let me go there, and I rise to that”. He also does a lot of film work: produced a song for the Indie film ‘Double Exposure’ produced by Lee Yu. Howie and Yu went on to do more projects together. But ‘Double Exposure’ was a very important film to Howie due to its focus on mental health issues, particularly in China where it is a rather taboo topic in (as it is for most of Asia). “I was sonically and musically experimenting with mental health”. The film became a box office hit and did a lot for raising awareness for mental health in Asian communities.
Howie has now been going to China to work for over 20 years. Whilst working there Howie had to wonder “how do I put my skills into their music but with respect… you have to be graceful”. This helped him thrive musically. Howie never experienced the side of China that is portrayed in western mass media. This idea of dictatorship and control is not nearly as prevalent as expected in the actual country.
Howie b working (image 2)
Now moving on to Thailand, where Howie produces for around six unsigned bands across two months at a time. He explains that the whole plan of working there is “for the plan B to become Plan A”. The bands are made up of kids between the ages of 17 and 22 that are still at school, but know they want a career in the music industry. Howie gives them that chance to get into the recording studios and make a start. “To work there is fantastic”. In Thailand, Howie gets to experience a completely different side of music. There’s such a great variety of genres, from classical and traditional Thai folk music to rock and techno. This type of diversity is what Howie has found most satisfying. Giving bands that opportunity to take the next step
is so freeing. Howie explains that some of the younger members feel that they need to stick to one thing, however, Howie persuades them to “bust it open”. The point is to express yourself in music. To try new things – try some writing. Music is an open book.
When it comes to working with others and being in different countries, Howie feels that the experience is all down to the people. For example, Howie and Instinctive Behaviour producer, Major, have known each other for about 30 years and still work quite closely to this day. Howie explains that staying in touch with others you work with in the music world is for the most part based on the social aspects. The two producers met in Swan Yards Studios in Islington. They were working on similar styles of music and began to conversate outside the studio over a smoke. Howie then invited Major to come down to his writing room on Marittima street to hang out or work. To which Major then turned up the next morning. “He was hungry” Howi
e stated. Major was introduced to Howie’s two friends, Toschi and Kudo, who had a studio next door. The two didn’t speak very much English but taught Major how to do some things. After about two years of hanging around, Major then decided to start producing his own music. Howie released a few songs of Majors under his label and had him aid in some engineering jobs. “We’ve been in each other’s socks for some time now”. The two have ultimately remained close in music because of the bond built on the social side of things and similarity in taste.
“In the studio it’s a different world. I would not go into a kitchen with Major to cook, you know. I mean, we’d probably have a good laugh, but would we cook? No. Nevertheless, I value Major’s opinions so highly and he values mine as well”.
Howie explains that there have been many times where he may work with someone and make amazing music, but never end up going into the studio with them again. That balance in compatibility is key when building a musical relationship and a friendship.
Howie now lives on an island in France, where him and his son have been for around five years. He explains that he left London simply because the city no longer inspired him. The overdrive for materialism had become a weight which the producer found to be overwhelming. By moving to France he was able to free himself and also give his son a better life – getting him out of pollution. His son now attends a creative school which he thoroughly enjoys attending and receives no homework! “I’ve lived in the biggest cities all over the world and had to live very quickly. Then when I came here it was so different. I’m living in nature which is great, and the closest airport is a two hour drive away so if I’m travelling, I’m doing so with purpose”. Howie now works peacefully and remotely with the Atlantic Ocean in his front garden. Being in lockdown has had little to no effect on Howie’s work routine as he was already working in his home studio beforehand.
Howie b’s view from home in France (image 3)
Howie is currently making his own album and producing two others from home. One with a band in Iceland and the other with a band in Milan. All of which he’s been working on for nearly a year. Since he’s been working remotely for so long, Howie plans to visit these bands once lockdown restrictions on travel are lifted. Then he hopes to travel back to Thailand.