One of the reasons Howells seems relaxed is that he's recently taken a break from the DJ grind, focusing much of his energy on the production arena. It's the DJ's first extended foray into production and will see the light of day on his shiny new label, Dig Deeper. (You can hear some of those tracks on Howells' recent Renaissance - The Mix Collection double disc set.)
So will we see Howells giving up spinning entirely? Not quite. As RA's Todd L. Burns found out in a chat after his recent US tour, after 17 years behind the decks he's just gotten a bit pickier and his mind has started to wander to things like that career in mental nursing, Coldplay and REO Speedwagon.
It was amazing. Every aspect from the opening DJ to the sound to the crowd. It was on a Thursday night, so there were a lot of people that I recognized. Sound-wise it was flawless. It was quite intimidating to DJ there, to be honest, as the slightest mistake is amplified. You hear every detail. It's interesting—you'll play your own productions on a system like that and you'll think, "Oh fuck, that sounds crap!" Or you play a piece of vinyl and an mp3 compressed at 320 kbps and you hear the difference immediately.
Traveling a lot, I tend to think that maybe my ears aren't working as well as they used to—because things don't sound good in clubs—but when you go to venues like that you realize that it's not your ears. It's that a lot of soundsystems really aren't up to scratch.
Speaking of your own productions, you spent a lot of time in the studio earlier this year. Are you happy with the results?
Absolutely. I just got off the phone a moment ago, as we had a remix done by Faze Action of one of the tracks and my computer isn't charged, so I was listening to the track over the phone and jumping around the room.
It's really exciting for me, because I've only released things very sporadically for years, but I really have been focusing on it for the last 16 months or so. I'm really pleased. There are about 15 tracks done, and out of those 15 there are about nine that I think I will release. Having this new label and being involved in all aspects of it from the design from choosing the release schedule to the remixes is really exciting. We've got Faze Action, a drum & bass guy and Future Beats Alliance all lined up for remixes.
It seems like you're covering a lot of bases with those remix choices.
Well, the label is called Dig Deeper—after my night of the same name—and I really want to reflect that. In a perfect world, a Dig Deeper night encompasses many styles of electronic music.
Starting a record label in 2008 seems like it flies in the face of everything that you should be doing from a business perspective.
[laughs] I've based my entire career on flying in the face of what I should be doing I think. But I'm not too worried about that. All I'm worried about is making sure that the quality of the releases is good. Obviously I'm not embarking on this completely solo. We have experienced label guys who are taking care of all the business things—which I don't know anything about—which leaves me completely free to make the music, make sure the artwork is good. The creative side.
It might be a bit of a weird time to launch a label, but the guys that I'm doing it with are very experienced and I think they got involved knowing that it was going to be a complete loss. I don't think anyone is going into it thinking that we're going to make money. It's just a way for me to have an outlet for the music—and to encourage me to make more.
I definitely don't think that I'm going to be traveling for five years or even three years from now the way I once did. I'll still be DJing, but I won't be running around the world like an 18 year-old because, well, I'm not 18 anymore. I'm 37 years old. And I really do see that right now that I want to be settled in at home and doing more production—no matter what kind of music it is. I think that the music will find its own path, and I'm sure I'll strike on something one day that I'm good at and that will open up for me. I'm very curious to see where it goes.
I think so. That's kind of how I've approached America, for instance, in the past few years. I'm not one of those competitive guys that set out to be big or a huge success. My focus is a bit different: I want to be better. I want to create quality music and quality sets and create something that I'm proud of, you know?
I just want to be happy. I don't feel the need to conquer those unheard of places in Middle America that mean nothing to me at all. I'm quite picky. I like doing the gigs that I know are going to work, as well as throwing in a handful of new places obviously. Being able to generate this much money or sell that many units isn't something that drives me. It's not rewarding for me to be dealing with numbers and things like that.
Do you think that's why it's taken so long for you to do another mix? It's been three years since your last one.
Yeah, I think so. I honestly never really enjoyed making them all that much anyway. Obviously I get really involved with it and really excited about it, but they're quite daunting, committing yourself to record.
The other thing is that the whole market for mixes changed in that particular time period. So the pressure was much less. I didn't have a manager or label telling me that I had to do one. It's quite nice having that breathing space actually.
Was that the case before? You had people telling you that you had to get something out mix-wise?
Yeah. The mix album market was very different and there were a lot of opportunities to be doing so—if you were willing to go along with that. At the time, I was much more keen to spend the time on a mix album than going into the studio. In the last couple of years my whole life has changed a lot. I moved in with my fiancée and moved away from Hastings, which had been a big part of my life. And it's taken time to reestablish myself in the studio, which is something that I'm at the first step on the ladder with.
Whereas, a few years ago, I would put out a mix album and then go around the world to promote it. The studio was the thing that you did when you had a bit of spare time between tours. Mix albums are kind of like…obviously you don't have complete control over what you do. You don't work for people who tell you what to do clearly, but at the same time you're a bit limited in that there is so much legal tape involved.
Certain labels are very, very fussy when it comes to licensing things—even today. To get your track on a compilation is a very good thing, in terms of promoting your label and producers, but you have a lot of labels out there that have sold a handful of copies of these releases that are stuck-up about letting people use their work. You almost have a better chance of licensing a Coldplay track than some underground house labels.
Changing gears, I was reading recently that you wanted to be a pilot when you grew up.
I did, yeah. It was like anything when you're young, when you have no idea what you want to do. That was the thing that I plumped for. And then I somehow fell into mental nursing.
Flying could be your second career after the DJing has died down.
back to my nursing
I'd like to go back to my nursing career actually. I think about it a lot. And I think with a lot of people that do this type of work, there's always this fear of rejection or failure. There's so much focus on what people haven't got, as opposed to what they have got. So there's that fear of what happens when it's all over.
But realistically, I love the idea of my old job. Even though it's so different from what I do now, it's very rewarding in a different way. You are actually helping people and families to get their lives back together again in situations that are often uncontrollable. Even though I'm very successful in what I'm doing now, there's still a part of me that misses helping people in that sense.
How long did you do that for?
About nine years.
Were you DJing all during that time?
Yeah. I think I started nursing in 1990 and I got my first decks around 1991. It was quite crazy trying to combine those two jobs at the same time.
At what moment did you decide that you couldn't do both anymore?
It was funny, because the people at the nursing job were so compliant. They knew what I did, and they were very lenient with me. Over in the UK, you're dealing with a big organization because it's owned by the government, so it's not very flexible, but I was very fortunate. I went to my boss and said, "Look, I've landed a remix of Robbie Williams that I need to do in four days." And he said, "OK, phone in sick and we'll sort it out—but you'll need to do some overtime next week to make up for it."
It's funny that your boss didn't mention the remix…just that you had to come in to do overtime to make up for it.
[laughs] Yeah. Remixes and DJ gigs were really picking up at that time, but it was hard to leave for me financially just because things were so unstable. It was only after I had done Nubreed for Global Underground that I had to make a decision to do one or the other. And I realized that I could probably go back to nursing in the future, but that this opportunity with music was only once-in-a-lifetime. So I made that leap. Although I do remember going six months later to do some overtime because I had to pay the rent, and had no other way of doing it right then.
Looking forward to Winter Music Conference next year, what's the big track that you have planned for your '80s-themed Pop Tarts party?
[laughs] I was thinking about this just the other day. I can't quite remember what it was. Maybe something by REO Speedwagon? I think the Pop Tarts phenomenon has crept out. They don't normally book DJs at Glastonbury two years in a row, and I had bought tickets to go because I love it, but my agent talked to them and they agreed—if I played for free and played a '80s set. Which I was happy to do. [laughs] If there is no interest from regular clubs anymore, it's nice to know that I have a back-up career in mental nursing and '80s music.