From tea boy at London’s Lillie Yard Studios, Howard Bernstein rose to be of the most sought after electronic music producers of the past 20 years. Though his best known work was with U2 in the 1990s, notably scoring sound for the group’s 1997 Pop album and accompanying world tour, the man has also sent music to space and dabbled in soundtracks for soft core porn. We interrupt an afternoon mixing session to get the gossip on what he’s up to at 46.
I heard you just got back from Congo. How was that?
It was incredible. I went to this village for an Oxfam project called ‘Love’, with [fashion photographer] Rankin. He was doing photo workshops and I was doing music workshops. I’m still coming down from it to be quite honest with you. It ripped me apart, emotionally, physically, every way.
How do you know Rankin?
He set up Dazed & Confused the same week I set up my record label, Pussyfoot. We met in SoHo [London] in a pub, and we’ve been best mates over ten, 15 years now.
You have a number of projects going on in China at the moment.
Yes, I did the soundtrack for [director Zheng Zhong’s indie film] Gasp. I also produced an album for a band in Guangzhou called YFM [Yu Fei Men]. And I’m in the middle of doing something with Cui Jian in Beijing. We’re making plans.
What are the standards of production like in China right now?
Not very good. In England and America there is a strong culture for recording music, but there isn’t that culture in China. There’s a complete lack of recording studios, there aren’t enough live venues for bands. There’s a whole chain of [circumstances] that give rise to the situation. It’s slowly going to change, but there is a need for outside people to come in and share their knowledge, and I’m very happy to do that, especially with people who are hungry to make good music.
You started at Lillie Yard, so film music is your base, isn’t it?
I love watching images and then having to marry an image with a sound, or dialogue with a sound. It’s quite liberating. There are absolutely no rules at all, apart from that it needs to work with the picture. So, you can be much more experimental.
When was your “I’ve made it” moment?
I think every day I get to the studio, I’m like, ‘Fuck’s sake, I’m in the studio’.
There was talk of you doing a project with NASA. Did that ever come about?
It did! [Húbert Nói and I] did a film called Music for Astronauts and Cosmonauts. It’s a music led film about being in orbit around the earth, with footage from NASA. It premiered at the National Film Theatre [in London] 7 weeks ago.
Can astronauts listen to music in their spaceships?
Yes. It takes 90 minutes to orbit the Earth, from the sun to the moon, which is what we do in just under 24 hours. So it takes [astronauts] 90 minutes to have a full day.
When we discovered this we thought, ‘Fucking hell, that must fuck them up.’ So we wanted to split that 90 minutes into a musical day, being morning, day, evening, and night. Each piece lasted for 22.5 minutes.
Is it true you did a soundtrack for a porn film?
Yes, I did a porn film. I put some other artists on [the soundtrack] as well: Fantastic Plastic Machine from Japan, Naked Funk, Kid Loco... We had such a laugh doing it [laughs]. I produced it as well, with an [American] director called Jacob Pander. You should check him out. He’s done some crazy films!
I’ll bet he has. Did you just do the one?
Yeah, and the funny thing is, every time one of the girls came over to London they’d call me up. So, for about two years after I made the film, I’d get a call once every three months from an American porn star.
Any wisdom for kids trying to break into the industry now?
Start at the bottom and work your way up. Any other way is not real.
Howie B plays the Whisper Festival in Shenzhen, Sat 31.