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article imageHowie B's 'Down With The Dawn' a portrait of loss and life Special

By Cate Kustanczy     May 31, 2014 in Entertainment
Scottish DJ/producer Howie B. is perhaps best-known for his work with U2, Bjork, Tricky, and Ry Cooder. But he's also a gifted artist in his own right. His latest album offers a wide range of sounds, and references deeply personal experiences.
Howie B. has many titles: musician, DJ, producer, engineer, film composer. But somehow, the titles feel too limiting for the Glasgow-born artist, whose relentless quest to join the new, the old, and the beautiful into one gorgeous sound over the course of his three-decade career has lead him to some inspiring places. The man (born Howard Bernstein) is, to quote Dazed and Confused, "one of the most influential figures in electronic music for nigh-on twenty years."
His work betrays a mischievous, beguiling mix of the symphonic and the synthetic, the orchestral and the ordinary, the cinematic and the self-aware, so that listening to a Howie B. record (and he is an artist who still believes in the concept of the album) is a fully integrative experience between old and new, head and heart, yin and yang.
Balance seems to have been created out of the sheer diversity of his interests and pursuits. Getting his start at London’s Lillie Yard film studio (owned by legendary film composer Hans Zimmer), Howie has become revered in the music industry for his fearless experimentation and dedication to his craft. He’s worked with big names — U2, Tricky, Bjork, Hal Willner, Sly and Robbie, and Ry Cooder to name a few; along with his own releases, DJ gigs, and extensive remix work, Howie’s also worked as creative director for Italian fashion House Fornarina, been a part of bands Skylab and Beautiful (ambient electronic and alt-rock, respectively), recorded an astronaut-themed album with Icelandic artist Húbert Nói, and scored numerous television, film, and commercial projects — including a porn film. "We had such a laugh doing it!" he told Time Out Hong Kong in 2009. "Every time one of the girls came over to London they’d call me up. So, for about two years after I made the film, I’d get a call once every three months from an American porn star."
This past spring saw the release of his first solo work in five years, Down With The Dawn (HB Recordings), an eleven-track, cinematic, word-free but deeply lyric sonic landscape infused with a deep sense of lived experience — highs, lows, and all the awkward, sometimes indefinable moments in-between. For all of Howie’s soundscapes and visual inspirations (he’s friends with the photographer Rankin), the cinematic quality of the new album is accidental. Herald Scotland called Down With The Dawn “a diary in musical form.”
“I think it was more emotional rather than visual ” Howie says of  Down With The Dawn ’s inspi...
“I think it was more emotional rather than visual,” Howie says of 'Down With The Dawn'’s inspiration. “In the last two or three years, I've lost two very close friends who I've been working with and have been collaborating with in various ways for years, and so that's what’s coming out for me on this album.”
Rankin
One very close friend to Howie B was Run Wrake, a visual artist and animator, whose work incorporated aspects of street and pop art with vibrant animation and graphics. His celebrated 2005 film “Rabbit” was nominated for a BAFTA; Wrake also did extensive work on commercials, album art, and live concerts visuals for bands including U2 and Oasis. Wrake and Howie B. worked on a number of projects together, with Wrake doing a short film related to Howie’s first album, Music For Babies, album artwork for Howie’s many releases, and animation for the title track from Down With The Dawn, which turned out to be the last music video he worked on; Wrake passed away in 2012 following a battle with cancer. It’s a loss Howie still feels.
“It was… ugh, I don’t know…” the DJ says, haltingly. “It was really weird, and it’s still difficult to get to grips with, to be quite honest.”
This sense of loss is frequently expressed in the sonic poetry that colors the album, perhaps most keenly in the symphonic leanings of the epic, Glass-meets-Reich orchestral majesty of 2014’s “Authentication”, a song, says Howie, that came to him organically.
“It was, ‘Okay I want go in and do something Eastern-European, with a touch of Western, I would say, modern classical in there at the same time. I want strings, nothing else in it -- just violins, cellos, basses, contra-basses.”
The eight-minute-plus piece provides a strong, thoughtful contrast to the many other sounds on the album, though it’s one not totally out of place with the overall feel of Down With The Dawn. Joy mixes easily, freely, fearlessly with more mournful sounds, the happy and the sad making for a beguiling sonic impression that stays with the listener. That feel, says Howie, is the result of single-minded focus, of working for and pleasing himself alone. He told the BBC’s Gilles Peterson recently that he was “fed up giving… I just want to give to myself again.” It’s a sentiment he echoes to me.
“For, like, the last five years I've just been giving and giving and giving, so much, and even in terms of emotions, sociability, even fatherhood,” he explains. “There’s been a lot of demands from me in the past five years. I just wanted to turn something onto myself. Even some moments in the album that don’t sound that happy, I was very happy expressing being not-happy, if that makes sense.”
A track where one feels that spark — and flame — of hot inspiration is Down With The Dawn’s closing number, “Summer Flower”, featuring Irish artist Gavin Friday. Integrating Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 and a dreamy bassline by longtime Bernstein friend and collaborator Gianni Maroccolo, it is, according to Howie, “a beautiful, beautiful surprise.” With contributions coming from Italy and Ireland, and Howie based in London, it is a tune reflecting “three different countries, three completely different feelings, and three completely different personalities... and we came out with something totally beautiful!”
Equally inspiring is the music collection he did with Maserati last year, called “Seven Notes,” in which he used the seven distinct notes of Maserati V8 engines as a basis for compositions. The result gorgeously incorporates hardware, software, humanity and technology into one seamless, strangely spiritual-sounding work.
“There’s something quite special about that, isn’t there?” He giggles. “I think it’s like a baby still waiting to be found. I don’t think a lot of people heard it. I wish they had — that’s not out of ego but out of experimentation. I think it’s really beautiful what happened.”
Perhaps the richness of the experience stems from Howie’s embrace of challenge? “I like being put in a corner,” he confesses, “it’s a good thing for me creatively… it gets me going. That's when I start surprising myself and other people as well.”
Howie B has happy memories of working with U2 on their 1997 album   Pop . It marked a distinct depar...
Howie B has happy memories of working with U2 on their 1997 album, 'Pop'. It marked a distinct departure from the super-band’s more straight-ahead rock and roll style, one they've not repeated with such creative ferocity since. Would Howie work with U2 again? “Of course I would! I love working with them. Definitely. It’s just waiting for the right time and the right thing to come along.”
Rankin
For the last few years, Howie's kept a hectic schedule composing soundtracks in the East; he’s in China at least four months every year, and just finished scoring a short film called Honey Moustache there. (“I get more freedom in the east than the west,” he says simply, “complete freedom to do what I want.”) DJ gigs still happen too, roughly ten a year now.
“I love DJing, it’s great, I love the club environment,” he explains, “but I can’t. I’m 51 years old — I’m not 19 or 31, I’m 51! I’m happy going and being there, but I don’t want to spend my whole life in a club. I’m happier in the studio and being with my kids.”
Still, Howie’s first choice for DJing will always be vinyl. “It still sounds the best in a club,” he states. “You can hear a big difference when someone puts on a record or a CD, especially if it’s a good recording. You go, whoa. It’s at another level.”
This belief in the power of analogue extends to Howie’s own work methods, which wholly embrace older technologies. In a 2002 interview with Sound On Sound, he remarked that “Digital turns something absolutely beautiful into a block of numbers. It is crazy that we have accepted that as being really good and the norm.”
He still believes that, twelve years on. “I hear digital and it still is a problem for me,” he says, “and I still hear this collection of numbers, though I play with it now."
Analogue isn't just for DJs, though. "If there’s budgets there, I love working on analogue, and recording bands in analogue. For me, it’s the best way to record a band. It’s the best way to record music… everything about it, the warmth, the depth, the harmonics... (and) you have to focus much more. You’re aware you’re recording to take, it’s not this endless thing going round and round. It pushes you into performance. (Analogue) has its own dynamic about it, which is, for me, still the top of the recording chain.”
 Down With The Dawn  has a decidedly analogue-leaning cover that reflects the  proclivities of its c...
'Down With The Dawn' has a decidedly analogue-leaning cover that reflects the proclivities of its creator. The album art directly references monochrome computer monitor displays of the 1980s.
HB Recordings
Mat Cook, a graphic designer with over two decades in the field (he's done promos for Razorlight and The Prodigy, and tour visuals for Faithless and Robbie Williams), responsible for the album's design and cover art, recently told Creative Review: “Hopefully, it captures the ethos of the record, which has a retro feel, but could only have been created using today’s equipment.”
Keeping one foot planted firmly in the past while winking at the possibilities of the present, Howie suspects the recording of Down With The Dawn wasn't solely an expression of loss, but a vital reminder of his own creative potential as an artist.
“I’m doing things which I haven’t done for a long time,” he says, “it’s put me in a good place, it’s created another routine where I’m making music in my own room rather than writing music for other people: ‘Okay i’m doing a song today for myself not for anybody else’ — that’s a great space to be in. It’s something I've been missing. Maybe something has changed by putting this album out."
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