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How Howie B became one of Scotland's best music exports

Okay.

NoT SLOWING DOWN: Howie B was born in Glasgow but left for London to find studio work as a teenager before his career took him all over the world.
NoT SLOWING DOWN: Howie B was born in Glasgow but left for London to find studio work as a teenager before his career took him all over the world.

Today's topic of discussion. Which Scottish music type has had a hand in the greatest number of great records? Elizabeth Fraser? Roddy Frame? Edwyn Collins? Lulu? Alex Harvey? Jack Bruce? Annie Lennox? Bon Scott? Mike Scott? KT Tunstall? The Bay City Rollers?

You could make an argument for all of them (okay, most of them then), but they're all wrong. Here's my answer. Howie B.

Howie who? Howie Bernstein, as he was known in his first 17 years on the planet, which he spent in Glasgow. After that he headed south to pursue his desire to work in a studio and was soon working on some of the seminal records of the day.

Count them up. It was Howie B who told Jazzie B (no relation) that he should get Caron Wheeler to sing on Soul II Soul's Keep On Moving after hearing Wheeler sing backing vocals on a Julia Fordham album. It was Howie B who helped produce Tricky on his debut album Maxinquaye and Bjork for Homogenic (which contains the Howie B mix of Bjork's gorgeous All is Full of Love) and engineered her album Post.

That means he helped write and produce three of the greatest albums of the nineties (no, that statement is not up for argument. We're saying it's fact). He's also worked with U2 on their album Pop and the Passengers project, which, some of us think is the good U2 record.

He's also worked with Robbie Robertson and legendary American producer Hal Wilner, remixed Annie Lennox (and New Order and Garbage and Leftfield and, umm, Simply Red) did film work for Martin Scorsese (you can hear his work on Wolf of Wall Street) and Wim Wenders, been commissioned by the Milan Planetarium to provide music for a space show. And Pepsi in China have also been on the blower looking for input.

Oh yes, and now and then he makes records himself.

The latest is called Down with the Dawn, his first for five years, which mixes up dub and House and electronica with Nymanesque strings - on Authentication, though don't tell him that: "It's very cyclic," he admits, "but it's as close to Nyman as I am to a hymen". Also in the mix is Shakespeare - William provides the lyrics for the album's closer, Summer's Flower, though Gavin Friday comes in to sing them - and, oh yes, kazoo on Kazoo.

"It was just an idea," Howie B says cackling as he sits in his London studio when I mention the last of those. He has a distinctive cackle, like a motor engine with a rattle. "I don't know if I had an early memory of playing a kazoo and I had to find that one again. I kept buying plastic ones but I couldn't get the right one. Eventually I said 'I'm going to have to go to America'. I found this kazoo company down in Dallas. It had a brass kazoo. I sent off for it. Guess how much it cost? Two bucks."

When it arrived he played it and loved it. "The joy of getting the right kazoo is that song. I just recorded that song there and then."

Kazoo is the comedy interlude in a record that is often midnight blue, a reflection of its creator's recent biography.

Howie B has now entered his sixth decade on the planet. Close friends have died; he's the father of an eight-year-old boy. All of that life experience, he says, fed into Down with the Dawn which is a diary in musical form. "I'm a normal guy and I was expressing normal things. Love and loss and putting it into music. That's my trait."

The title doesn't suggest he's slowing down much though. Shouldn't he be spending his downtime watching Antiques Road Show by now? "I can't do it! I've tried. In terms of walks and things, yes. But in terms of things like garden sheds? Not yet."

The legend has it that he left Glasgow aged 17 because as a Scots Jew he couldn't find any purchase in a city riven by sectarian divisions.

But today he offers a much simpler explanation. "I wanted to work in studios up in Glasgow. I knocked on two or three doors and they said no. I had to move."

It was to be the making of him. He found himself in London as dance music and indie music began to get off with each other. He soon proved a successful matchmaker.

Of all his collaborations, I wonder, which was the most fun? "The biggest laugh I had was being on tour with U2, going round the world and opening up for them and then also producing the live show as well. That was hardcore fun."

"They were totally serious about work, but we had great meals, we had great holidays, we had great visits to museums and zoos.

"I ended up spending an afternoon with William Burroughs in a Winnebago eight months before he died. I spent four hours with him in Kansas City, just me, the Edge, Bono, William Burroughs and his son.

"It was just the most surreal and beautiful moment."

Writing for films, he says, requires a different mindset entirely to the rest of what he does, "which I love," he says "If someone says 'I want the colour red and only the colour red for five minutes it's a challenge."

Is music still revolutionary for him?

"There's a revolution happening right now in music. I still get revolutions when I buy a record from the sixties that I've never heard of before and I put it on and go 'Oh my God'.

"I think that's the beauty of music, of art, of literature. You come across things that seem as if they were done right now and they are 300 years old.

"The lyrics to the last song on the album are Shakespeare's lyrics and they sound like somebody wrote them today.

"The challenge to me is not to rest on your laurels. Alright, I've done something and I love it but that doesn't mean to say that's it. It means do it again."

The man (possibly) responsible for more great records than any other person born in Scotland cackles again. His engine rattles on.

Down With the Dawn is released on HB Recordings on Monday

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