No matter what else Howie B achieves during the course of his career, people will always want to ask him about U2. It's been seven years now since the Glasgow, Scotland — born, London-based producer added beats and brains to Bono and company's Pop (Island, 1997), but in truth, despite briefly making him a household name, that's really just one entry in an extensive two-decade résumé. Rest assured, Howie Bernstein is always up to something.
U2 isn't the only legend that he's worked with, either. Reggae dons Sly and Robbie followed on Drum & Bass Strip to the Bone by Howie B (Palm) in 1999; Björk employed him on Homogenic (Elektra, 1997; Bernstein doubling manfully as both producer and boyfriend); and Ry Cooder and film director Wim Wenders tapped him for the soundtrack of The End of Violence. Indeed, alongside underground filmmaker Richard Kadrey, he even co-produced a soft-porn flick, Suck it and See, via his Pussyfoot label.
Clearly, Bernstein loves a collaboration — the unlikelier the better, it seems, which helps explain his latest foray into the record-making business as one-third of a proper band, Mayonnaise; its self-titled debut album has just hit the racks. The trio is certainly intriguing: Bernstein; singer Crispin Hunt, who was once in the quasisuccessful Brit-pop band The Longpigs; and Will O'Donovan, who previously manned mixing desks for acts as diverse as Serge Gainsbourg and Goldie.
What's also curious is that, despite two studio talents of Bernstein and O'Donovan's caliber, the record's production is actually credited to two as-yet unknowns: the Van Troys. “We met them after we'd done the album,” Bernstein explains, impressive Glaswegian growl in full effect. “I think they're from Copenhagen. They said, ‘Give us a copy; let us do a little bit to it.’ And, yep, it sounded better. I seriously don't know what they did to it — gave it some space, basically. So they asked for a production credit, and I thought, ‘Hey, I don't care.’ They've got great names, as well.”
Mayonnaise is also a departure for Bernstein in terms of the sound, which is as close to straightforward rock, in places, as his own projects have ever previously come. Then again, stylistic diversity is a definite Howie B hallmark. Starting out as a breakbeat-pioneering studio engineer, he helped Soul II Soul and Massive Attack invent Brit-soul and trip-hop in the early '90s; made catchy, major-label big-beat records like “Switch” later that decade; and moved on to Mayonnaise and the wilfully eclectic DJ sets that he plays out now.
Bernstein is in full set-building mode — his first DJ gig in Hungary is lined up for the weekend — when he arrives at London's Pure Groove Records, which prides itself on covering all bases. In fact, there's more to this shop than meets the eye. Two of the UK's better independent record labels are run from the back room: Tripoli Trax, a big favorite among UK hard-dance heads, and Locked On, the two-step label that discovered The Streets and still handles Mike Skinner's increasingly lucrative publishing.
So they're a knowledgeable bunch, and Bernstein makes full use of it: His method of crate digging, interestingly, involves no hands-on searching at all. “Depending on what type of shop it is, I'll generally go straight up and see what they've got behind the counter,” he says. “Usually, the staff put the new records they like in the racks back there. So I'll have a chat with them, see what's new — I usually come on a Wednesday because the vans drop off early in the week — then grab a pile of about 15 records and start working through them.”
Indeed he does. Bernstein consults with the Pure Groove counter staff, occasionally remembering a specific record that he wants or enthusing at length about particularly enjoyed tracks, then disappears off into his private headphone world. Eventually, he returns, throws a few rotten fish back into the sea, grabs another recommended pile and so on; repeat to fade. A full two hours later, after much deliberation, these are the tunes he goes home with:
“She's at the Club”/“Body Clap” (Southern Fried)
This is DJ Touche from The Wiseguys, on Fatboy Slim's label. “Body Clap” is okay, but “She's in the Club” is a rocking tune and should be wicked for a club. It's hard to describe what it sounds like, more house than big beat, and it's got a nice little bass line on there again. I'm just looking for tunes to play out here. If I was looking for stuff for my own use, it'd be at a different place.
KIKI & SILVERSURFER
“Shake Off” (Crosstown Rebels)
As soon as you see this label, you know it's good quality — good club fodder, too. “Shake Off” is outrageous. I've already got it, but I'm going to buy it again, as I'm wearing it out. It's a vocal-based thing, groove house, not hard, just groove. It's just magic, gorgeous — one of those records where you think, “I can't wait to play this.” I feel tooled up and ready to go now, like a boxer preparing for a fight.
RODNEY P VS. MJ COLE
“Trouble” (Riddim Killa)
I love Rodney; he's a UK MC and used to be on my label, Pussyfoot. This is a different thing for him. It's jump-up music, but then he's done every genre; UK MCs have to. He's a grafter. MJ Cole is kind of a UK garage guy, but I like what he's done here; it's a really simple looped vocal with Rodney raging, “There's trouble about.”
“Girls (Rex the Dog Remix)” (XL)
There are three standout tracks on the new Prodigy album, and “Girls” is one of them. This is a sort of electro remix, and I like it a lot, although I don't know who Rex the Dog is — I suppose it might even be them. I see Leeroy [Thornhill] all the time; he's always out there working and DJing. They might be pretty wealthy, but they don't act rich. They're still working hard.
“Happy” (Sunday Best)
This came out about six months ago, but I've been meaning to get it for ages. I've heard it around, but I've always been too fucked-up to remember what it is. The [Spiritual South] remix has been played out a lot, but the original's the best: really slow and funky. You could drop this at the end of a set, and it'd be really uplifting — bring the whole club down, then up again.
ADAM SKY AND SHAFIQ ETTIENNE
“Larynx” (Crosstown Rebels)
The guys here tell me that Adam Sky used to be Adamski. He's done an electro kind of thing here but also with some groove house going on. Crosstown Rebels is a wicked label; it's Damien Lazarus' new one, the guy who used to run City Rockers. It's a little bit different: The records are more melodic but work magic in the clubs. He's a champion of good records but always forgets to send them to me, so I just go out and buy them anyway.
Switch is a mate of mine, although all I know him as is Switch. He's done some stuff on Wall on Sound before, but “Planetfunk” is straight-up house, a nice little bass line, nice vocals — very simple. Even in a hip-hop club, you could put on a stonking house tune like this, slowed down. Not too much, obviously, or you wouldn't get asked to play again.
“Oxygen (Remixes)” (Novamute)
The original here is a little bit weak, certainly regards playing it out, but the Abe Duque remix is dope. I've no idea who that is, either, but I know the label, so maybe I'll look him up. It's quite leftfield, but there's a wicked drop in it where it just goes whoof, then comes back in, and in a club, it's just going to go crazy.