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Howie B. and Leifur Bjornsson

Howie B. and Leifur Bjornsson

Producer/Artist collaboration
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Howie B.
Leifur Bjornsson

With live performance and studio collectives on hold, many musicians have turned to online collaborations to maintain their creative outputs. Grammy-nominated Howie B, the musician, producer and DJ who has worked with U2, Robbie Robertson, Soul II Soul, Bjork, Massive Attack and many others, increasingly works with young unsigned talent, sharing his vast experience with a new generation of artists who grab his attention. His Icelandic connections, gained during his work with Bjork, led to his meeting prolific Reykjavik musician and composer Leifur Bjornsson, formerly of the band Low Roar and currently working with vocalist Klemens Hannigan, of Icelandic postmodern band Hatari. Several Skype calls later, a new project was taking shape, with Aston microphones playing a major part in the forthcoming album’s sound…

U2, Robbie Robertson, Soul II Soul, Bjork, Massive Attack, Low Roar
Howie and Leifur are using these Astons;
Spirit
Stealth
United by Skype

Leifur: “Howie and I met was through a mutual friend in Iceland who is making music under Howie’s label, Pussyfoot Records. I’ve been in the studio with the singer Klemens [Hannigan], we sent Howie some demos and we just really hit it off. He wanted to produce the project with us. He was the producer on Bjork’s second and third records so he’s been here in Iceland quite a bit and he knows a lot of people out here so he has some connections. We have been recording drums for this project with Sigtryggur of the Sugarcubes, who also played on the Bjork records.

The current project has taken a completely different direction since Howie got involved. We wanted to make something very obscure, like electronica bass super underground, but Howie stepped in as producer and it’s made a transition into way more of a mainstream classic ‘poppie’ project. We had to re-think the framework of it all.”

Howie: “I’ve worked with Bjork a lot. That was my first entry into Iceland. I fell in love with the culture, started working with Icelandic bands and I’ve had a strong connection with the music and art scene there. It’s a very interesting place. The creative output from such a small community still totally amazes me.

I got the demos from Leifur about a year and a half ago. A friend said: “You’ve got to check these kids out, they’re knocking out a tune a day, it’s crazy what they’re doing and they need some direction.” I could hear the songs were really great but there was something totally dysfunctional about them, like an unstable pyramid. So I Skyped and met them and saw this enthusiasm and hunger there. They didn’t have a deal, they had no recording company, management or budget and I thought about it for a few weeks and then when we went into lockdown I thought I may as well get involved. I spent two weeks with them Skyping in the morning, Skyping in the evening. We’ve been working since March, it’s been brilliant.”

The old-fashioned way

Leifur: “We’re doing a lot of Skype back and forth. Klemens and I have a studio set-up together and we’re there doing a lot of the overdubs. We bounce it back and forth off Howie and chat on Skype every day we’re working. The songs will come to a point when they’re ready for Howie to do a board mix. The album’s in the final stages of recording and hopefully we’ll be able to release a single and a video in early summer.

It was a lot more electronic in the beginning; we were spending time on programming loops and beats and stuff like that which have for the main part been scratched. There are still some traces left in there but it’s come down a much more traditional route of instrumentations and soundscapes so we’re back playing the old guitar and drum kit! The old-fashioned way - it’s very refreshing, it’s fun.”

Howie: “We’re working on Logic. I get the whole project online and it’s actually good because I’m really getting inside their heads! I’ve never worked that way before, I’m always in the room. It’s like they’re doing like a crash course in engineering and programming. For them it’s brilliant, they’re loving it and it’s also it’s very practical, everything I’m saying to them, like “Your EQs are really weird because you’re playing with the compressor after the EQ. Try it the other way round and see what happens” and they go “Wow!” Then we talk about reverbs…

It’s been really good for me and I think it’s got them more involved with their sound, especially with the mics, and even to the stage that they booked a really beautiful studio for two weeks and felt confident enough to engineer it themselves, which was brilliant.”

At home with Stealth

Howie: “They were using just Aston mics in the beginning which was great. Leifur has been in the studio an awful lot, Klemens also, but as an artist, not actually behind the desk. In the beginning they were just working at their own studio, that’s where I heard your mics for the first time and I was really shocked actually, which was really good for me! They were using them for amps but whenever it was for the vocals, that’s what was really interesting for me. Klemens has got an amazing low to high range and he holds it very well, he doesn’t break, and to hear your mics pick it up, I was really impressed.

They were playing around with the mic and I love that, I encourage that in them, using mics they would never have thought of. The tracks they were building had 15 to 20 vocals going and I said a simple way of just getting more definition is changing mic, don’t use the same mic for every singer. So they’re getting into that whole aspect of learning recording techniques.”

Leifur: “We just renovated the basement of Klemens’ house, and that’s our recording studio until we get the project finished. It was very convenient, we just we pulled together all our gear and moved in there.

It’s pretty much all in the box, on the iMac, with a custom-built stereo pre-amp built by a local guy. We have an upright piano, a Wurlitzer, stuff like that, and a few mics lying around. We’ve been using the Astons a lot. I’m using the Stealth for all the guitar stuff, on the 4x12 cabinet, using the G setting, and then the Spirit for the upright piano. I actually just received the new one, the Element, but I haven’t tried it out yet properly. I especially like the Stealth because in the past I’ve used the SM7 a lot on vocals and everything but the Stealth just feels right at home for me, like out of the box. You can do so much more with it, you’re not confined to that one sound, you get everything you like from the SM7 but more. It just works, you know?

Getting the source right

Leifur: “We really like the Spirit on the upright piano. We’re going for a kind of low vibe character with it in the mix, so recording in mono with the Spirit and getting just the right amount of the softness in there. With the piano slightly out of tune, it’s like an Indie thing and it just captures that. We’ve experimented with that quite a bit; we took the front lid off and tried different mics in different places but ended up with the Aston. It just sounds so right in that context.

It’s like a heavily vocal bass record. For the main vocal we were using the Stealth a lot - like for when we were finishing writing the parts, because it’s just very handy and it’s not over sensitive so we could sit in the same room with the monitors slightly on. We ended up building a vocal booth. Klemens sounds a lot different from other vocalists I’ve worked with, it was quite a bit of work to get that source right. He’s not a very experienced studio singer either so we had to do a lot of experimenting with different mics and pre amps.

We’re using Logic for the most part. We were doing some of the programming, loops and stuff in Ableton but there’s not going to be a lot of that on the record.”

French connection

Howie: “Before I moved to France four years ago I had a space in London’s Battery Studios, there was me there, there was Flood, Alan Moulder, Steve Lipson and we all had a room there. It was a brilliant environment and I had all my kit, I was mainly a hardware guy at that time but Native Instruments gave me their whole set-up to see what I thought of it. I was still a bit of a luddite but then I went, wait a minute, this is brilliant! I had a little MacBook Pro at the time and all of a sudden I was using it instead of the tape machine and then thinking about what converters I should use. This whole new world opened up to me. I was using tape up until 2012 and loving it, but also not getting some projects because people wanted to send me ProTools sessions. Now I was writing music in aeroplanes! I was on my Mac and a little Akai keyboard and I was doing film scores on 12 hour journeys. It was a brilliant transition and I went through it quite slowly. With Native I started getting really comfortable creating a sound I was happy with using software and then I started using soft synths too. The whole studio became redundant because all the keyboards I was going for I could get after a bit of work. The reverbs were the killer for me in the beginning because I just didn’t accept them, but now, the last three or four years, it’s been incredible.

Now I’m totally ‘inside the box’ apart from sampling, which I do a lot. I like it because it’s really quiet here so I’ve been experimenting an awful lot. I’m using it like I’ve gone back to how I was making music in the late 80s, early 90s; everything sample-based and the only thing I’m using outside the box is microphones. There are a few things that I miss; the RMX16 reverb, and I really, really miss some of my compressors.”

Multi-tasking

Howie: “I work a lot in Asia and also Italy - basically all over the world. I help run a place out in Thailand with bands there and I’ve had a base in Beijing since about 2001. I went there with the British Counsel as a cultural export and I loved it. Things were just kicking off there musically, the radio was changing its whole thing over there. Instead of just traditional Chinese music it started opening up so it was really interesting times. Then I got involved with the whole film scene there and that just exploded as well. I love the culture and I like the whole of Asia.

I’ve produced three albums since this pandemic happened. One in China, one in Italy and one in Iceland. It’s crazy and I’ve not met any of the bands! So the process is a lot longer and I’m tap dancing most of the time because I’m a hands-on guy, my training was as an engineer, I like being there, positioning the microphones.

As well as Leifur’s project I’m working with an incredible singer called Sinah who is in Berlin. She’s written and produced everything herself and then she’s giving me the stems and I’m slightly touching them, putting my fingers on it just a little bit, because what she’s done is beautiful, I’m just giving it a little bit more height and depth. Very talented musicians are working on their own now because they’ve got a lot of time on their hands they’re not worried about costs because they’re doing it all on their laptop. But their engineering skills aren’t really there, so it’s really interesting for me to get involved.”

Leifur: “I have also been doing some work with a local guy here that I like very much but he sings in Icelandic and he’s not very focussed on taking his project abroad, but I’m putting his record out in the Spring. He normally gets me to be in his band and play with him so I’m assuming there will be live shows in the spring and the summer, but my main focus is getting the Klemens record together.”

The spice of life

Howie: “I’m also working with two Italian women, they’re called Fossick and they do shadow projection with music. It’s different, an audio/visual album, quite beautiful. And I’m working with a Chinese artist called Zhang Wei, his band is called  Whai, and I’m doing a 3 album project with them.

The variety keeps me going. I’ve been engineering now for over 35 years and it’s still challenging for me. The night before a session I’m still thinking ‘what mic will I use for this’, and then from that I’m writing a film score and then I’m playing in a club to 1500 people. I’m calming he DJ and the live performance thing down now. it pays very well but there’s so much dead time around it and the travelling. To do a 2 hour gig takes 3 days.

I started doing master classes in Taiwan and Bangkok and I really enjoyed that, teaching and working with 4 or 5 unsigned bands on a free basis. I’ve been doing that with Yamaha, who have got around 20 music schools in Thailand. I like the fact that I’m sharing the knowledge I’ve picked up over the l years with these 18/19 year olds

The only time I’m really tired is after a day in a recording studio for an orchestral session. You’ve got 30, 40, 45 people in a room with mics, the pressure is off the scale so when you finish you’re brain dead. I love doing the orchestral sessions. It was me learning that spectrum and also recording technique and use of microphones and use of ambience, that was the biggest cover of what I bring to all these other projects, the sense of balance and space and I got that from. I take that into everything, even a hard rock band, I think of an orchestra. I’m taking a rock world into a jazz world, I’m taking a jazz world into triphop an so on. It’s a healthy environment. I think the artists I work with benefit from that.”

Before lockdown – Howie with U2 and Eno

Howie: “I did 2 albums with U2 and a tour, producing the live show for a year and a half so it was a magic experience for me. The first was this experimental album called Passengers and it was produced by me and [Brian] Eno. It was one of the most nerve-wracking days of my life. Bono and Edge had heard one of my 12 inches at a party in Dublin. Next day Bono calls Island and says “I want that Howie B to come here because we’re having a problem with our album just now.” I flew out the following morning. I’m sitting in this hotel having a Guinness for breakfast, shitting it… ‘f*****g hell I’m going to be meeting U2 and Brian Eno!’.

It was Adam [Clayton], the bass player who came to pick me up. He said “You’ll have a little chat with Brian and then come and meet us in the studio.”.

Brian’s sitting there with this ghetto box and he goes “Hi Howie, nice to meet you, let’s just get straight into it. I’ve made a little collage of the 20 songs that we’re working on, I’m going to play a minute of each and then you tell me what you would like to do with it.” So I’m saying stuff like “I think maybe the kick could be more toned, I think the tempo could be a little bit faster…” then straight on to the next one. He says: “Ok great lets go and meet the band”. I walk into the control room and the band are all there and Brian says “Howie thinks that we should do this with this song, let’s get start working on it”. Bang, that was it.”

World music

Howie: “I worked on all of the songs and it was crazy. Brian was with the band and I was taking tapes to another studio, playing around and overdubbing. If I wanted to do the bass Adam would come round or if I wanted to do the drums again or some overdubs, I’d call Larry. I’d even call Eno up and say we need another keyboard part, I could have done it myself but f*** it I wanted him to come in, and Eno would pop over on his little bike, draw up a little pad from his DX7 and then off he’d go.

They are the hardest workers. They’re at the studio at 10am and do 12 hours a day, 5 days a week all four of them. The second album took a year and a half to do and I was there the whole time. Just the attention to detail, the fact that they don’t compromise and their dedication to the signature that they have. It drove me crazy at times as well, they’d say “It sounds f*****g great, yeah, but it’s not U2…” But it was just a great learning curve for me being with such great song writers and actually watching them do it and being involved, it was incredible.

I’m working on my own album, based around working collaborations. Normally there are one or two collaborators that come in but on this one I’ve got someone with me near enough on every track. I’m bringing youth in and discovering myself through other peoples’ take on me. which is quite interesting. It’s just young people that I’ve spotted on Facebook, Spotify or on Bandcamp people like that. They’re like a little bit shocked when I say they don’t need a budget, I don’t want to get paid. I’ve been working on that for about two years now, with people from all over the world; a drummer from Thailand, singers from Iceland, Los Angeles, Italy and Estonia. I want it to be a vinyl thing and there’ll be a CD version and a digital version as well, probably around September [2021].”

 

Howie B. photos (p2,6,8) by Fabio Paleiri.

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