Howard Bernstein – aka Howie B – is a man of many talents. Starting as a sound engineer in college (after dropping a psychology major), he went on to become a well-regarded DJ and music producer for a diverse cast of stars, from U2 to Bjork to Skylab. He’s done comeback records, movie scores, art exhibits and, most recently, campaigns for Maserati. Ahead of his appearance with Daddy G at Mao Livehouse, Bernstein discusses groupies, aging and a few hard rules.
You’re from Glasgow originally and have mentioned being in an “unenviable position” as a Jewish child in the city’s sectarian divide – can you explain further?
It’s not a beautiful thing about Glasgow. There are big problems between Catholics and Protestants. You’re divided socially – who you go out with, drink with, go to school with… It’s the only city in the UK that works like that and it had a big effect on me. In the end, it’s what drove me away.
Did music help you through those times?
Yeah, I didn’t really fit in with anybody. As I got older, my friends got more radicalized and into their religion and I ended up staying home listening to the radio, making little cassettes and mixers and buying records.
You’ve done extensive work as both a DJ and producer; do you prefer one over the other?
DJing is more a hobby, even though I take both seriously. Producing demands more creativity from me. It’s not just a thing that happens in nightclubs. Plus, I can work in recording studios and it’s more social.
Do you find it lonely being a DJ?
Yeah, it’s a weird loneliness. Ten years ago, I used to travel with a friend just to have someone there, but now I don’t. I think it’s my age. At 49, I don’t really need to anymore.
Is it ever weird to think that now you’re probably older than the average clubber?
That’s why I don’t think I’m doing it as much. [The upcoming Shanghai show] is a special case. It’s going to be quite a special evening and I don’t think the party will be as young.
You’ve worked with such a variety of artists, how do you tailor your strategies?
Some are interested in being commercial, some are interested in writing the best song, some want to do something new – there’s always a quirk that turns them on. That’s what makes music so interesting. My rule is always the same, but my method for each is different.
And your rule is?
My rule… the most polite way to put it – I don’t want to deal with a motherfucker! Sometimes I get a bit tense and I’ll really push artists.
What has been the most difficult project you’ve worked on?
U2. I did two albums for them and then went on tour, so it was a three-year job in the end. But it was very good hard work, I enjoyed it. We went to some brilliant cities and made some brilliant music.
What is it like following around megastars?
It depends on the country. England, it’s fine, you can go have a hamburger. In Japan, it’s difficult to move, you’re swarmed by so many people – the same in Italy and Spain. Mediterranean and Asian countries get a little hardcore! It’s also quite dangerous, with kids climbing up hotels and trying to get onto the balcony. I feared for my safety most in Warsaw though. We were getting crushed and I thought, “Oh dear.” I was worried I would need medical treatment.
What projects do you have in the works now?
I’ve got a new album set to release in three months – Down With The Dawn– on HB recordings. I haven’t had a record out for three years. It’s a little bit different… a definite progression. There’s a few guests on it as well, I’m very happy with it. I’m also doing a new campaign for Maserati. They’re launching a new car and asked me to be the creative director.
Really? What’s it like working for the corporate world?
It’s the same really – a collaboration. I find it very difficult to compromise. When a company asks me to do something, they don’t know what they’re going to get, but they know what they’re getting into and give me a pretty free hand. They say, “Howie, what can you do to this?” Not “We want you to do this.” I’ll be doing a road trip across Italy with them, and will collaborate with [seminal Chinese rocker] Cui Jian.
Is the Chinese market a big focus of yours?
Of course, it’s everyone’s big market. It’s brilliant. Even for me. I’ve been going to China since 1999, spending more and more time there doing interesting work, like film scores.
What films have you worked on?
Quite a few. Last year, I composed the score for Double Xposure and worked with two composers on Lost in Thailand.
Do you go to certain places in your head to get in the mood to compose?
I do, definitely. For my happy place, I think about my children – the two of them are my inspiration. For an unhappy place, I probably think about missing them. When I’m away, I miss them more than anything.
// Catch Howie B, playing after Daddy G, at Mao Livehouse on May 17, 10pm. RMB180 presale, RMB200 at the door. 308 Chongqing Nan Lu, by Jianguo Dong Lu (6445 0086)