Interview with Howie B
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
As a producer, label boss and artist in his own right, Howie B has always stayed true to himself throughout his 35 year career. In that time he has delivered nine albums and produced and engineered the likes of U2, Soul II Soul, Ry Cooder, Siouxsie and the Banshees to name but a few. For the last quarter of a century he has run his own Pussyfoot Records label which has delivered some of the most sublime and forward thinking music of its time. Last year the label returned from the wilderness with the epic concept album Space is the Plaice which featured an incredible 35 tracks and artists. We talked to Howie about his forthcoming projects and the return of his label as well as to find out who out of the many great names he has worked with had the biggest impact on him.
Why did you decide to revive Pussyfoot Records after a 16 year break?
The main reason was just turning on the radio. Unless I'm listening to podcasts or Sunday night Radio 6 the music is really quite sad. The intention now is to showcase new and old acts that are not getting the attention they deserve as we can't hear them anywhere. I said to Nick Young - who I started Pussyfoot with - that we should get it going again. We don't need lots of money, we just need good artwork and music and let people know about it.
Space is the Plaice is an excellent return, and clearly has a concept behind it, how did that come about?
The album came about as it's the anniversary of the moon landing and I have always been fascinated by space and the cosmos. I have been involved previously in space themed projects with Skylab and an album called Music for Astronauts and Cosmonauts. The premise of this album is that it is an open theme and people could do something with it. There are so many great references and songs relating to space. It's not like asking my mates to do something with the theme of football, they would just say "Fuck off Howie, what do I know about football?" I just got on the phone and started talking to people about making tracks for the project. We have soul, folk, dub and electronic 'fucked up where the hell is that coming from', and film music that are all connected to space. We wanted people to create original music and unique to the project and over six or seven months we started getting these great tracks. I'm really, really happy with it and it showcases new acts we want to work with and created a platform for people to make music they wouldn't normally do. Rui Da Silva made a beautiful song which I don't think he would have done if I'd not given him a call. He said this is great, I can get out my modular system and not use a drum machine. It was amazing being able to work on a track with Norman Reedus from The Walking Dead. We have artists from Japan, America, Italy, Denmark and the established artists were really pleased to be bringing along new acts.
It very much feels like Pussyfoot 2.0 in that the tracks are fresh and modern but really have that Pussyfoot feel about a lot of them. How did you feel when you started compiling the tracks from the artists as you've got quite a lot on there?
I don't tell people how to make tracks, I give them a brief and they get on with it - I wouldn't tell an artist how to paint. With Pussyfoot the first time round there was something different about us, we're a free label and as an artist you're free to express yourself. We make sure we have the best artwork and best mastering and we don't compromise with anything. We were genre-less which was a bit of a problem at times but it is part of the Pussyfoot world. We are an indie label but we don't operate like an independent as we don't restrict ourselves by saying it has to be like one kind of music at a set BPM. At present there are three of us involved in running the label, there's me with two people running it full time. Chilli is running the office and media side and Nick is looking after the contracts and management of the artists. Every week we have a group meeting for two to three hours and we set ourselves the agenda for that week and work through what artists we have and what we need to do. We're doing this for peanuts but the joy is what we actually put out and give people that little leg up. We're moving towards wanting to develop artists and invest in their future and music career, this is what we have learned from last time. We had some great acts first time round who went on to bigger things when major labels came calling. I'm not the kind of person to stop people moving on with their career, we want to help develop the artists with Pussyfoot.
You've just released The Lionshare by veteran producer Ian Simmonds, is this the first time you've done anything together.
I have known Ian from Sandals and from his other music, he lives in Brighton and Nick lives in Brighton so they knew each other. We are releasing an album from him in a couple of months and he's now part of the family. We worked with him on his artwork and in the end it was two photographs he had taken himself as he's an amazing photographer who regularly posts on Instagram. He has a band over in Germany ready to go and we're going to organise a tour in Japan and Asia as that is where a lot of his fan base is.
When I saw you at Houghton Festival you performed a couple of live sets. How much of those were prepared back in the studio and how much were improvisation?
It doesn't start in the studio as it's not a studio based project. I go into a rehearsal studio which is a completely different type of set up as I stand in front of a big PA and play. I've got a couple of live collaborations going on right now and one is with the contrabass player Borgar Magnason. Basically we start with a key like C and then he starts jamming and I join in, 20 minutes later we've usually got something going. What I do in the rehearsal studio is that I prepare sounds and then I build patterns and I string them together as part of the live performance. When I'm playing I keep things moving forward and progressing. Last year when I played in the bell tent at Houghton it was really beautiful and one of the highlights of my 35 year career. I had rehearsed for three days in London before that gig and on my last day one of my sequencers broke which looked after the rhythm. There was no way I could fix it so I decided I could just do the gig without it which meant I did an ambient set. It was more ambient than I could even imagine and I loved it! I'm going to be doing that tent again this year which is really great.
There does appear to be quite a mischievous side to your character in your music and personality. How important is it for you to project that into your production and the label?
Laughter and humor really works for me, I'm a light hearted guy and I like making people laugh. Humour is in art and it's in cinema and it's what you do with it that counts. I love coming up with a humorous title and making the music make sense as part of that. Sometimes I come up with the title beforehand and when it's there it gives the music a face and character.
You collaborated with Craig Richards again in 2017 with the Old Boys 7 inch and you played back to back at Houghton, have you got any other plans to collaborate with Craig or anyone else in the future.
We have an album in the making and we meet to finish that off in the middle of March. We've got a six or seven day session to finish that off in a studio in Bournemouth. We've been working together for about 14 years and in that time and because of our various projects and work we've done about three releases. Craig is starting on the artwork and that is the deal that I'm not coming over until he's done the artwork. He is a great friend and excellent to be in the studio with, we have a great laugh and you'll hear it all in the music. It will have folk, techno, classical - all of the things that you would hear us play out. It is totally sample free and I think it pushes us as artists. We have a gig lined up to play together in Rome in March and we'll try and finish the album beforehand so we can play out some of the tracks.
You've worked with some very notable and groundbreaking artists, who left their biggest mark on you and who would you say that you left your biggest mark on?
My intention is never to leave a mark as a producer, my intention is to bring out the artist's mark. I learned that very early on as that's why I make my own music as I don't make an album with Robbie Robertson or U2, my role is to help them make their music. U2 wanted me to go on stage with them on the Pop Tour and I said 'no way! It's your band and your tour, I don't want to be in the band'. Ry Cooder left a massive mark on me it was a big turning point as the bands I was working with were getting bigger and bigger. I had no references as I was coming from a film and engineering background, not a rock background. I spent two weeks with him in Los Angeles with him in 1995 and just being with him and hearing him play the guitar was incredible. It was in between the takes that what he said to me and the conversations we had that were just really good.. I asked him for advice and he gave me some nuggets on to how to get the best out of a performance. Another piece of advice I liked was from Brian Eno which was if you can't write a song in a day then go home and leave it. The U2 boys attention to their own sound signature is also just incredible, if you turn on the radio you know it's U2. Whilst Siouxsie and the Banshees were a massive turning point as they gave me respect in the studio and they were twice my age. Me and U2 still talk all of the time and they send me their demos to ask what I think and whether it is worth pursuing.
In 2019 what excites Howie B the most? Making your own music, producing other people's work, running your labels, DJing?
Yes to all of them. I'm really interested in what me and Craig are doing and I'm writing my own album at the moment and have four or five songs. I'm enjoying looking for artists to collaborate with and really enjoy where I live which is on a small island off of France on the Atlantic and not being in a city anymore. The intention is for me to express myself more than I've done in the last few years and one way to do that is to perform live more and push the label and artists on Pussyfoot to help them fulfil their dreams. DJing I've cut down to about three or four choice gigs a year. I just want to be productive as an artist, producer and label owner first and foremost.
Space is the plaice is out now on triple vinyl, double CD and digital download
Ian Simmonds The Lionshare is available as a 7 inch and digital download
twitter.com/howiebpoems Get the next music like Howie's first with Trackhunter