King Of Techno Pop
Few producers begin their careers with experimental bands, become world-renowned for their work with electronic pop, and then turn their attention to traditional rock music. Paul Tingen talks to Mike Howlett, a man of many talents.
He's arguably the world's top producer of electronic pop music. Yet he began his career in hippiedom, made his name as a punk producer, and has spent the past year working with non-electronic acts. Now seems a good time to talk to Mike Howlett.
'Anybody can go into the studio and make very fine records. You don't need a producer for that. A producer is there to make things marketable — that's why a record company or a band gets one in. It's the producers' job to make things work, to use their expertise so that records are playable on the radio. Some bands don't realise that, even when it's so obvious. If all you want for a record is for it to sound good, you can just hire a good engineer.'
The man talking is, not surprisingly, one of Britain's top record producers, and what he says is not to be taken lightly. Over the last decade, Mike Howlett has been responsible for producing a whole load of hit albums and singles, most of which fall into that rare breed of records that are both commercially and artistically successful.
After leaving his post as bassist with Gong in 1976, and after a brief flirtation producing punk bands in the late 70s, Howlett went on to produce various synth-oriented acts like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and A Flock of Seagulls. And as it turned out, it was for his successful involvement with synth-based music that he became well known. Lately, however, he's moved into more traditional production areas, working on Joan Armatrading's latest album 'Secret Secrets', and the new Alarm long-player, 'Strength', from which 'Spirit of '76' sprang into the singles charts.
Inside Abbey Road's Studio 2, Howlett takes a break from a recording session with young London band The Impossible Dreamers, to talk and to be photographed. Relaxed and self-assured as the producer seemed over the phone, lensman Vosburgh and I are surprised to meet a rather shy man within EMI's hallowed recording halls. A short-ish figure with hair greying at the sides, Howlett clashes his hands together in nervous movements, clearly ill at ease with this sudden exposure to media limelight.
Nonetheless, his speech is keen and vivid. 'I don't think it's an evil thing that records have to sell, because you're dealing with a mass market. I don't care what anybody else says: I don't believe a million people will walk into a shop and put their money on the table to buy a record because they're told that's the thing to do! People buy records because they get something from the music and because that music gets to them. And it usually gets to them via the radio.'
The producer smiles affably whilst pulling his hair. He seems to guess what his interviewer is thinking. Surely, for a man with a well-earned reputation for indulging in the inaccessible and the avant-garde, there must be more to producing than trying to get a single on the radio? The smile broadens.
'Commerciality isn't everything, I agree. I like to make records that are interesting as well, and I have a relatively refined musical taste, I think. When I listen to a demo of a band I consider to produce, I listen for two things; Does this music do something that gets me emotionally, and is there a song there that I can make into a single?
'Music has to give me some kind of feeling, whether it's happiness or sadness. I have to like the feeling of a band in general. If I do, and we come to an agreement about me producing them, then I want to take that feeling and communicate it to a wider audience. I try to make a band heard when their songs sound good to me. And really, there are very few bands nowadays who have broken through to a large audience, without a song that was really catchy.
'You can waste a lot of time and energy on a band, making a fantastic-sounding album which nobody will ever hear or buy because it hasn't got that hit song — though sometimes I might be reckless and do an album just because I think it's great music.
'I like demos: the rougher the better, because then you can get to really hear what's in a song, like a hook or a little line in a chorus that can be made stronger. Sometimes you hear songs that are perfect, but at other times you think: "well, this song has some good parts, but it also has a lot of rubbish, so I'll have to chop out quite a bit".
'When I start working with a band, the first thing we do is discuss our ideas thoroughly. Next I like to spend a lot of time rehearsing, because I like to really go into the arrangements, right down to the drum pattern and the structure of the song.'
So Mike Howlett's contribution as a producer lies firmly on the side of arrangement, often drastically affecting the shape of a band's music...
'I've actually gone as far as doing a whole synthesiser-sequencer arrangement of a song, and then getting the singer to go out and put his track down and have the guitarist and the other musicians do the same, effectively replacing all the instruments whilst keeping some of the synth and drum computer parts.
'Sometimes I stripe the tape with SMPTE and run the drum machine off that, then I'll go for a drum track with everybody playing. I like to have the whole band playing because a drummer might come up with things he wouldn't ordinarily play. It also feels good for a band. It sets up a good atmosphere because they're all playing there, in the studio, like they'll play on stage. I like that, because once you've got the arrangements sorted out and the band is comfortable with them, you can get ideas to improve the rhythm track.
'Then, after recording the whole thing, I might possibly replace everything — bass, guitar, keyboards — and build it all up again, layer after layer in a very conventional way. I started to do this thing of everybody playing again — I know it's an old way of doing it — because I was missing out on live excitement in the studio.'
So much for the instruments. But in common with several other modern pop producers, Mike Howlett places equal — if not greater — emphasis on vocals. And his is a fascination that leads him to a dismissal of conventional recording practice, in favour of his own approach to recording the human voice.
'I usually get the lead vocals down at an early stage, because then you know what you're working around. Vocals are very often underrated, especially by technical people and technical musicians. You can have a bad rhythm track with a brilliant vocal and it will be a hit, whereas the same song with a fantastic rhythm track and a bad vocal won't be a hit. The vocal is everything. If you don't have a great vocal you can throw the tape out of the window. A classic mistake a lot of people make is that they spend two months getting a great-sounding rhythm track for their album, and then the vocals go down in two or three days — that's a waste.'
Later on, as I sit in on some of the Impossible Dreamers session, Howlett practises what he preaches. Straight after the basic drum and keyboard tracks are laid down, he sends the band's female singer out to do the vocals. The rest of the band becomes increasingly restless, but the producer continues the vocal work with patience and determination.
It's here, in the control room, that Howlett is in his element. Sitting in the room's most comfortable chair, he motivates the band with relaxed confidence, guiding the recording process amicably, unobtrusively, and successfully.
But how did all this come about? The next day in his large Kensington flat, Howlett takes his time out to tell the story. He was born 35 years ago in Fiji, the son of New Zealand parents. 'I still have a Fijian passport, so I suppose I'm the best Fijian producer in the world, or at least the most successful.'
He started his career as a professional musician in Australia, where he played bass in a band called The Affair. 'We did quite well in Australia, but I wanted to go to England because that was where the best music was coming from. So the band and I went to the other side of the world; I still remember staggering up the shore at Southampton. Sadly, the others got homesick and went back. I eventually went to France where I joined Gong in 1973.'
Just after his departure from Gong, Howlett made a demotape of his own songs on which he managed to get what was — at that time — an unlikely group of people to play along: Andy Summers on guitar, a guy called Sting on vocals, and a friend of the latter, Stewart Copeland, on drums. Howlett recounts the chapter with obvious pleasure.
'Actually, Chris Gutler from Henry Cow was supposed to play on that tape, but he couldn't make it, so Sting brought Stewart along. It was the first time the members of The Police played together. We even did some gigs in Paris at the beginning of 1977.'
The band couldn't get a deal, though. 'I was ex-Gong, Stewart ex-Curved Air, Sting ex-nobody and Andy ex-anybody you'd ever heard of, and the punk thing was just going on, so we weren't a very fashionable combination.'
Meanwhile, Howlett spent a lot of time editing and mixing miles of tape from Gong concerts and studio out-takes, the result being later released as a double album called Gong Live Etcetera.
'That was really my first production, and Virgin were very pleased with it. I'd shown that I was able to sift through things and pull them all together, so they kept giving me little bits of work.'
Howlett's production career got its 'first real break' when it latched on to punk. He did the honours for a Penetration single and a couple of Fischer Z albums, and after that, he realised punk had left a marked change on his musical outlook.
'At the end of my time with Gong I was practising eight hours a day, doing all the scales and trying to become a really great bass guitarist. Then I suddenly felt tired of all that. I realised I could play a two-note riff for four bars that felt 10 times better than all the technical stuff. I mean, I like good musicianship, but that really is something else. B B King's playing is an example of good musicianship, but he's not technically extraordinary — it's just that he's very direct and is saying something meaningful and useful as well. Conversely, a lot of mediocre technical music is just wanking around. Real music transcends the sounds and techniques of what somebody is doing — it's a very direct communication of emotions and feelings that nothing else can do.
'So I had a complete reaction to the whole jazz-rock scene at the same time the punk thing got started. Punk did away with all that technique, and I felt really good that it came along.'
Yet Howlett moved away from punk almost as quickly as he'd moved into it, embracing instead the newly-emerging field of techno-pop. For OMD he remixed the early 'Messages' single, produced their second album Organisation (from which 'Enola Gay' became a massive European hit), and one track ('Souvenir') from the follow-up Architecture & Morality.
Looking back, the producer describes OMD as 'the most hard-core electronic band I've worked with', though they were by no means the only act creating 'electro-pop-disco-stuff' to benefit from his guidance, as A Flock of Seagulls, Blancmange and China Crisis followed them into the Howlett Hall of Fame.
But why move from punk to electro-pop, musical areas seemingly worlds apart?
'Punk was doing away with technique but so was the hi-tech stuff — the difference was that it was using electronics to achieve its aims. The Human League and OMD in their early days were very simplistic bands with a minimalist approach. They wanted to play simple, almost idiotic themes. I like that a lot.
'The best thing about computer music is that it means people with an idea, but with limited playing abilities, become capable of getting their ideas across effectively. The only thing which is important is the vision of the people controlling the equipment. Sometimes they have an understanding that can come out of nowhere. You don't know why these people know what they know, because they've never played in bands and have only very limited musical experience. But sometimes they've just got it, a spark, an idea... they know about musical feel and the technology enables them to express that. I find that fascinating.'
What about the (often valid) criticism that computer music tends to be cold and sterile?
'I agree that there's too much of that sort of music around, but I don't think it's because of electronics. It really all comes down to the people who make the music and program the machinery, If they have ideas that invoke emotions, then they can get these emotions in as well, There's no reason why you can't make very emotional electronic music. Anybody can use any of the new technology, and make the most powerful and emotional music possible.
'That cold and sterile image comes from the late 70s and early 80s, when a lot of synthesiser bands were deliberately playing in a robotic, inhuman way, Kraftwerk and Gary Numan, for example, made a statement of not swinging. The fact that their music was jerky and incompetent was part of it. OMD originally worked like that, though the heart of their work was that they wanted to make electronic music with feeling — I think I helped them to do that in those early days. It was part of my function as a producer, because they weren't always able, musically and technically, to achieve that.
'I compare the introduction of electronic instruments to that of the saxophone or the piano. People were making very emotional and powerful music and expressing themselves adequately before the piano — it's just that the piano opened up more areas and made one man capable of expressing more than, say, five men. The same goes for electronics.
'I feel music has largely stayed the same since its introduction, but there's a new vocabulary added. I must admit, though, that if I want real depth, I don't really look to today's music; I don't get enough out of it. For real vision, I always go back to the classics like Beethoven and Mozart.'
Thanks to his work with Armatrading and The Alarm, Mike Howlett has now spent a year outside the hi-tech field he felt such an affinity with — and has no qualms about the move.
'I wanted to move out of my alignment with electronic music, because I don't like to be bagged', he comments. 'But I have to admit I'm kind of looking forward to getting back into it now. Electronic stuff is fun, because you can get a whole piece going, link up everything with everything, and still be at the stage where you haven't put anything on tape yet, I enjoyed that, especially with OMD and Blancmange. You can get a real groove in that way, a real party atmosphere.
'From an arrangement and production point of view, there's not much difference between working with a hi-tech act and a more traditional band. In the latter case you're a bit more detached, because the band is out there playing, and you might have one or two of the guys with you in the control room, but you're mostly communicating through the foldback.'
At the time of our interview, Howlett had reached the negotiating stage with a couple of bands in the search for his next production job, amongst them Immaculate Fools and the American band Till Tuesday.
He also expressed an interest in making film soundtracks, and in becoming more directly involved in a current music scene he sees as lacking inspiration.
'I want to get involved in that, it's my hope and my ambition at the moment. I haven't been playing for some time now, so I really have an urge to get back into that again. Also, I feel a little bit disappointed with the music scene at the moment. I think it lacks something. I don't hear bands coming up with anything really meaningful and musically satisfying. There are things like Bruce Springsteen or Madonna, which communicate quite well and sum up a whole lifestyle in their own way. It's all well done, but it's not new. It doesn't move me.
'I know there are aspects of pop music which I think are valid and which you have to take account of. One of them is that a lot of pop music serves, what I'd call a socio-biological function. For example, teeny-bop music like Duran Duran gives pubescent teenage girls a way of coming to terms with their new-found sexuality in a safe way. It's almost like a tribal ritual. If you understand a lot of pop music in this way, it's meaningful and it serves a function.
'I think in the midst of all this, you get music which can communicate other things to people, ideas and emotions that are far beyond words and which can't be expressed in any other way. I hold the view that music is important and has a great influence on people and society. It changes the way we perceive the world. Through music, it's possible to communicate a wider understanding of who you are and what the world is like. And personally, I've always seen it as my function to help create conditions in which this communication is possible.'
Few producers, in any field of musical endeavour, have such insight.
Interview by Paul Tingen
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