INTERVIEW: Howie B discusses producing U2 on 1997’s ‘Pop’ album

INTERVIEW: Howie B discusses producing U2 on 1997's ‘Pop’ album 2
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Howard Bernstein, AKA Howie B, is a Scottish musician and producer who has worked with artists including Björk,  Robbie Robertson, Elisa, Tricky, Mukul Deora and The Gift. When U2 were looking for a new sound for their 1997 electronic-influenced album ‘Pop’, they gave Howie a call. Howie’s involvement on the record included – production, turntables, keyboards, engineering, mixing and vibe master.

‘Pop’ has turned 25, so we thought it would be a great idea to share this chat again with Howie about U2’s most polarizing release.

You first worked with U2 on the 1995 experimental Passengers Original Soundtracks 1 album. How did you get involved with that record, and how did it feel to be working with U2?

Howie B: Basically, it was a phone call with that album. What happened was the Edge and Bono went out to a party at a friend of theirs house who put on a 12-inch record of mine and when they heard it both of them said “who is that?” and the guy said; “that’s Howie B.” That was on Friday, and then on Monday, I got a call from their A and R guy at Island records, Nick Angel. He said, “Howie, I’ve just had a request from the U2 camp; they are recording an experimental album with Brian Eno, and they have come to a little bit of a head, they don’t know where they are or where they are going. Would you like to go over and meet them?” So on Thursday, I flew over to Ireland, and I stayed there for a year and a half.

There are some fantastic tracks on the Passengers record.

Howie B: It’s a beautiful record – for me, it is an all-rounder because it’s got groove, its got ambience, its got depth and it’s textured. There are songs there, but they are not songs in the traditional sense. I couldn’t believe I was working with Brian Eno; it started a great relationship between him and me, and we went on to make other stuff together. It was very quick recording Passengers Original Soundtracks 1. My involvement was 2-3 weeks maximum, but I was working twenty-four-seven, and I even moved into another studio because there was not enough space for me to do what I wanted to do. They were working at their place at Hanover Quay, and I said, “guys come on, let me go and take the tapes and work on them.” So I took the tapes to a tiny funky studio, and they would come and visit me at tea time and listen to what I had done. Larry would come in and say, “I love what you are doing, Howie, can I do some drums?” then Adam would come in and say, “that’s fucking great.” And he would play a bassline.

I would take the stuff they had recorded with Brian Eno, break it down, and build it up again with the entire band. I pretended that they were a record, and I was sampling them. It was great even Eno was coming in and jamming on top of what I was doing. For me, at the time, U2 was a big band, but I didn’t know who or what they were – I didn’t see the essence of the group. I knew Brian Eno’s music very well, and it was a big inspiration for me. Then I got to know the guys really well.

How far was the band into the recording of the Pop album when you became involved?

Howie B: I was there from the absolute beginning. What happened was Larry Mullen had some procedure done on his spine – it’s a common thing with drummers, but they wanted to begin a new record. They said to me, “Howie, we don’t have a drummer just now, and we want to start writing, but we need some grooves.” So I was there from day one, and the whole album took just over a year to record.

What kind of records did you play to inspire the band and for them to improvise?

Howie B: I played everything from Les Baxter, James Brown, Hip-Hop, breakbeats, Jungle and Drum and Bass. Everything that was going on musically at that point and since music was recorded – anything with a groove. I would play grooves and say, “check this out as an idea or just listen to it for inspiration.” Then the Edge would come in and play some guitar licks, and Bono would sing a melody. To get the band going, I would sample something up or make a groove like a kick-snare high hat. And that’s how it went for weeks – we were just jamming.

I read an interview with the Edge, and he said, “Howie B cost us an absolute fortune! He’d encourage us to use all these samples, which we had to clear because we are a big band.”

Howie B: Yes, but that’s okay – I call it ‘sampling sports’; if you can take something that someone else has created and then create something that’s completely brand new from that, then I say that’s fair play. But if you’re doing an exact copy – then forget it that’s a bum steer. All musicians and artists do that, and also U2 could afford it. (laughs) If you look at the Rolling Stones, the Beatles or any great band in the world, you can always backreference where that riff came from. There are only seven notes, and I don’t know how many grooves there are, but there’s not many. It’s just what you do with it and how you make it your own and give it your signature. But if you’re copying their signature, then bye-bye, but if you’re taking something and then making it into yours, then that’s a mark of respect – especially when you pay them.

When Larry was away when you were in that role, did the songs come quickly?

Howie B: We recorded over two hundred hours of music. I had to be respectful to Larry because I knew him. It’s not like id never met him before. I had worked with him on Passengers, and I thought, “whoa! that guy has got a real set of sticks, and his groove is off the mark.” I’m into the groove, but I didn’t overstep the mark. Everything that I was doing during those first 3-5 weeks was with the idea that I knew that Larry was going to come and play those grooves. It wasn’t a case of “I’m doing this; I’m the drummer.” I’m not the drummer, no way! Larry Mullen is the drummer and the fourth member of the band. I was in a writing situation with these guys, and I had not over to step the mark. And that’s down to friendship as well, which was very important to me.

How did your role change when Larry Mullen came back?

Howie B: When he came back, it was a case of me saying to him, “Okay, have a listen to this.” and he picked up his sticks and said, “yeah, I get that.” – Bang! And off he went. It was a dream for me. There is a beautiful thing when a real drummer plays a groove right. You can sample forever, but once you put it into the hands of a drummer who can play and has a groove, then it takes off into another world. Then it was time for me to step back and start producing. I was mixing and remixing stuff that Flood (Mark Ellis) and Steve Osborne was doing and taking it and giving a different slant to music that we had recorded. It was incredibly productive.

As well as introducing me to Brian Eno U2 also introduced me to Flood, and both those guys are now close friends of mine. They have turned me on and pushed me to what I have become far outside the U2 thing. What I learned from Flood is ridiculous – his attitude to sonics and his work ethic is crazy! These guys work twenty-four seven. It’s not like, “we have just got a number one hit, let’s go to bed.” they are like, “no, let’s go to the studio.” I love that; to me, that’s brilliant. Their attitude is to keep going.

What song on the finished Pop album would you say has your stamp on it?

Howie B: I would say Miami. Simply because that song was going to be put in the bin, it was the only song that I didn’t record, but I loved it. There was something dirty about it. It was fresh and disjointed; it was discombobulated, but it had something for me. so I said, “guys give me another room.” So I went off to another studio for three days. It was all hands-on. Even if I were in another studio, we would all meet up for dinner. I came back one day, and everyone was all sitting ready to eat, and I was like, “Guys check this motherfucker out.” and I put Miami on and blasted it while we were eating, and they all went fucking mental! They said, “what the fuck have you done here?” And it went on the record.

I love that song very much – I know some people have got problems with it, but fuck it, it’s what happened – it’s very real that song.

What is your favourite track on the album?

Howie B: My favourite track is the single version of Please, which I produced on my own. We went on the Popmart tour, and we had done four months in America, and I said to the guys; “I think we should go and record ‘Please’ again because you are playing it really well now on tour.” they said; “what do you mean?” I said, “let’s get my mate Craig Armstrong who did all the strings for Massive Attack.” So we had the band in one studio, and in another studio, we had the orchestra. We changed the arrangement and refined the song, and it became a monster!

We recorded it in Holland in twenty-five minutes from start to finish. At that point, they had been on tour for a few months, and they were so tight – it was brilliant. It was such an absolute pleasure for me. I think we did it in the second or third take with no drop-ins, no overdubs, no nothing! It was also experimental because we had two different rooms all feeding into the same tape machine – it was great. So my favourite song not on the album is Please. (laughs)

U2 had famously said that they never finished the album properly After the band allowed manager Paul McGuinness to book their upcoming 1997 PopMart Tour before the record was completed. Was their panic to try and get the album finished as the band was running out of time?

Howie B: Yeah, I think we had three or four deadlines, and between the first deadline and the last one, there were six months. It was going crazy, but that’s where Flood and I hooked up because Flood was saying, “Look, Howie, we are making a fucking record, and we have to have no questions about this record.” and the band was saying the same thing, so that’s what we did.

Yeah, Paul McGuinness (U2 manager) was giving us deadlines. Even down to when it came to mastering the record. We were mastering it out in New York with Howie Weinberg. We are all signed off on the record at that stage, and we all fly out to New York with the master tapes. Usually, to master an album, it takes one or maybe two days – Okay, the first week in (laughs), and I’m close to a nervous breakdown because this job has just gone on and on, and it didn’t seem to end there was no cutoff. One day I was in my room in the hotel, and I got this phone call saying, “Howie, it’s Bono, Howie. I’m not happy with the intro to the album.” I said, “what do you mean you aren’t happy?” He goes, “it’s not dramatic enough.” I said; “Bono, we are mastering it now; what the fuck can I do?” and Bono Said; “I’ve brought the tapes with me.” (laughs) So fuck sake, I’m in the Sound Factory studio the next day. Bono had brought not just the master tapes but the actual multi-tracks, and I’m mixing the intro to the album again – the first track, which was Discothèque under duress.

But then again, what I learned from them and Flood is ‘do not compromise.’ This is what you are, this is what you do, and this is what you will hear every day for the rest of your life, so get it right. It has to be answered if you have a question, so I answered Bono’s question that day.

Bono said, “Pop never had the chance to be properly finished. It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music.” Do you think this would be a good idea to revisit the record and rerecord it, or should it be left alone?

Howie B: Yes! Because they allowed me to play with them on the Popmart tour, they also gave me this other role of producing the show, which meant rehearsing them every day. I was rehearsing them in the weirdest situations, but I got it right down to one guitar amp which Bono and Edge were sharing, and Bono’s voice was going through the amp as well. Then we had a bass amp, a kick-snare and a high hat for Larry. And that was how I would rehearse with them every day. That was the turning point in my relationship with them and their relationship with me. We routined the songs by taking what I had learned from them but then giving it back to them and saying, “Okay guys, let’s play these fucking songs.” So much so they went, “okay, let’s go and rerecord ‘Please.’ which we did. It cost a fortune what we did, but they played it brilliantly. I think we could raise the ante a little bit by rerecording the album, but I would do it differently. I would rehearse a lot and rehearse again and then record.

I think the album has aged very well and is better thought of now than it was when released. I think it should be left alone as it is.

Howie B: Yeah, I totally agree, but I’m not saying it’s going to be better; I’m saying it would be different. I know Edge and Larry have spoken about it doing it again, and I get that. It would just be the band covering themselves. It’s not blasphemy. It would be them saying, “Hey, here’s another take on this.” It’s that simple, to be quite honest. I listen to that album now and think – “fuck, it’s a corker.”

Did working with U2 affect your work afterwards?

Howie B: Yeah. I got the concept of signature from them. The whole point is within four bars; you need to know who the fuck you are listening to. From a musical production tip, that’s the thing that I still carry around with me from them.

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Xsnoize Author
Mark Millar is the founder of XS Noize and looks after the daily running of the website as well as hosting interviews for the weekly XS Noize Podcast.Mark's favourite album is Achtung Baby by U2.

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