EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: “What have I got myself into this time?”
AFTER TWO STUDIO ALBUMS WITH TIN MACHINE, DAVID BOWIE RETURNS WITH HIS FIRST SOLO LP IN SIX YEARS, AND EXPLAINS THE BACKGROUND TO THE SESSIONS
IT’S six years since David Bowie’s last studio offering, “Never Let Me Down” – which the critics hated, failed to maintain the commercial profile of “Tonight”, and which produced only a couple of minor hit singles.
From being the biggest cult artist of the 70s, Bowie crossed over into the international mainstream during the early 80s, when the “Let’s Dance” single and album revealed him as a man who, after years spent hedging his bets, had blond ambition in his veins after all. The pinnacle of his mass acceptance came when he duetted with Mick Jagger on “Dancing In The Street”, as a part of Live Aid. As his music became more radio-friendly, and his image wholly in tune with the Armani-wearing rock establishment, Bowie the entertainer threatened to engulf Bowie the artist.
His venture with Tin Machine polarised his fans further. Some saw it as yet another extension of Bowie’s game-playing, which harked back to the persona-swapping 70s; others baulked at the group’s ugly, headless guitars, even uglier attempts at hard rock, and dubbed the project Tinpot Machine. Worse still, a lot of people didn’t care either way.
Ever since Tony Parsons mentioned that he’d been given a sneak preview of Bowie’s forthcoming album at Xmas, and more to the point, that it marked a dramatic return to form, a sense of expectation has surrounded this latest release. First, the news was that it marked a return to the classic, boundary-breaking “Low” and “Heroes” albums of the mid 70s. More recently, the triumphant noises have become rather muted: “Well, it’s actually David’s best since ‘Let’s Dance’ said one insider.
Q: Your new album is called “Black Tie White Noise”. What is the significance of the title? And what does the record say about the divisive role colour still plays in the world?
David Bowie: A lot of it’s just very impressionistic. I think “Black Tie White Noise” refers to the very obvious – the radical boundaries that have been put up in most of the Western World. It also has a lot to do with the black and white sides of one’s thinking.
I think it goes a little further than simply the racial situation. Obviously, there are the stereotypical situations that we encounter every day that one has to address. I think, at this particular moment in time, it’s very important to promote the coming together of the disparate elements in any nation, specifically America, where the record was written, but actually I guess even more so now in Europe.
These last few months have been terrifying. Change is no easy thing, and it’s not going to happen without a certain amount of violence. In fact, I think there is no revolution with violence. It’s not a soft solution, but there is a positive outcome. It won’t be gained easily and it won’t be gained by singing, “We Are The World” or “We Shall Overcome”. Those elements of coming together should be foremost in our minds, but it’s not going to be like that in actuality. There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward.
Q: Were you in Los Angeles during the riots?
DB: Yeah. My wife and I had been away on holiday and we arrived back on the day the riots started. It was an extraordinary feeling. I think the one thing that sprang to our minds was that it felt like a prison riot more than anything else. It felt as if innocent inmates of some vast prison were trying to break out – break free from their bonds. I don’t think they’ve succeeded in doing that, by any means. The whole thing has been forgotten: I don’t see any real change in Los Angeles.
Q: You don’t seem very talkative about it.
DB: Oh, I am, I think (laughs). I foolishly believe that the new Clinton administration will help things. I would like to believe that the new administration will be far more caring.
Q: New York author Don DeLillo wrote a novel about post-industrial static, entitled…
DB: “White Noise”! It’s an interesting thing. White noise itself is something that I first encountered on the synthesiser many years ago. There’s black noise and white noise. I thought that much of what is said and done by the whites is white noise.
‘Black ties’ is because, for me, musically, the one thing that really turned me on to wanting to be a musician, wanting to write, was black music, American black music – Little Richard and John Coltrane in the 1950s.
The first artist I really sort of dug was Little Richard when I was about eight years old. I found it all very exciting – the feeling of aggression that came through the arrangements. It was like breaking up the sky – his voice broke out of the skies – an extraordinary voice. That’s what triggered my interest in American black music. That led me to the blues, John Lee Hooker and all those guys, and for a number of years I worked with rhythm and blues bands, and my participation in them formed my own black ties in that area of music.
Q: So does the new album date back to that time in any way?
DB: Yeah, I don’t think there’s been an album that hasn’t owed a lot to rhythm and blues music. Everything that I’ve done has had that basis.
Q: Let’s talk about some of the musicians who worked with you on “Black Tie White Noise”. What about Wild T.?
DB: Wild T.’s real name is Anthony. I find it very hard to call him Wild T. He comes from Trinidad and he’s lived in Canada for some years and he plays the blues. It’s sort of a lilting take on Hendrix’s guitar style.
I first encountered his work when somebody gave me a CD while I was touring Canada with Tin Machine. I liked it so much that I phoned him and invited him to a show so that we could meet. He came backstage one night, I told him that I really liked his guitar-playing and said that if we ever got a chance, would he like to work with me. I think he thought I was simply being polite or something.
So I think he got quite a surprise when I called him up and asked him if he’d come down to New York and do a session. He was an absolute delight! I mean, I’ve never worked with him before and he’d come straight from his show in Vancouver, I think. He was very tired when he arrived, but he worked really hard. He had some delightful qualities on the song in question, which is a Morrissey song called “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” – just the silliest song I think Morrissey’s written, but it’s very cute.
Q: And you’ve teamed up again with Mick Ronson, the original guitarist in the Spiders From Mars.
DB: This project is the first time we’ve worked together in almost twenty years – it’s been a long, long time. We sort of keep track of each other through the years: every time I go on tour, Mick turns up somewhere along the line and guests on my show. It was just synchronistic that we happened to be in the same city at the same time. I asked him if he’d come and work on a song that we both liked very much, which was Cream’s “I Feel Free”. He said he’d be delighted and he turned up and played his usual breathtaking solo. Extraordinary man, extraordinary guitar-player.
Q: And Mike Garson?
DB: Mike Garson is a bit of a mystery. He also worked with The Spiders. At that time, he was a Scientologist, I think, and that was the cornerstone of his life for a long time. He parted ways with that in the mid-80s and has subsequently become one of the leading jazz pianists in California, working a lot with Stanley Clarke. He really has a gift. I wanted his particular, rather eccentric playing on a couple of tracks. One is called “Looking For Lester”, the other “Bring Me The Disco King”. He kind of plops those jewels in the track and they’re quite, as I say, extraordinary, eccentric pieces of piano-playing.
Q: You mentioned Lester, which brings us to Lester Bowie…
DB: Well of course, I had absolutely nothing to do with his surname! Actually, I had everything to do with it, because it was his name that made me go out and buy his CDs – and what a pleasant surprise! I mean, he’s got to be one of the major inheritors of the Miles Davis approach to playing. You have to follow him around the studio with a microphone because he won’t stand still! He’s absolutely wonderful, and he weaves great anecdotes of his early days in music.
I needed a trumpet on this album, so Lester was an obvious choice. You know, I couldn’t resist it: Lester and David – the Bowie brothers!
Q: What influence do these guest artists make on your music? Did you simply bring them in and let them do what they wanted to?
DB: Yeah. I think with a sound or with a song, what’s required from a solo player, unless you’re a control freak, is for them to interpret what they’re hearing in their own way. It’s this that gives the song a character of its own, and through the input of these individuals, the track becomes a collaboration. They hear the songs and interpret them through their own instrument. All I require from them is to bring their own language to it.
Q: In the past, you’ve sung with people like Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Tina Turner and John Lennon. How did you enjoy working with Al B.?
DB: I’ve never worked longer with any artist than Al B. (laughs). I had a particular thing that I wanted to do with this song, and he spent a long time working through it. He’s really dedicated to what he does. I don’t think I’ve never seen anybody work harder. He’s a really great guy. He understands very much what I’m trying to do, and his contribution to this album is not lightly given. It was often quite punishing for both of us. However, out of those kind of punishments, jewels often appear.
Q: What prompted you to record Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”?
DB: It occurred to me when I first heard Morrissey’s latest album that he was possibly spoofing one of my earlier songs, and I thought, I’m not going to let him get away with that. I do think he’s one of the best lyricists in England, and an excellent songwriter, and I thought his song was an affectionate spoof. Of course, this is where it gets very incestuous because Mick Ronson produced Morrissey’s last album. Anyway, I thought, I’ll take that song he’s done and I’ll do it my way, so we’ll have David Bowie doing Morrissey doing David Bowie! And that’s what I did.
There’s something terribly affectionate about the idea in the lyric – you know, don’t worry, somebody will come along if you wait long enough. I mean, it’s very weepy and silly, so I did it very grandly with a gospel choir and horns, and it’s saying “God comes shining through the mountains in the end”. It’s a bit silly, but it’s done with affection.
Q: Do you have any plans to promote the album with a tour?
DB: Heavens, no. I’d like to, but it takes up so much time. There was one period when I toured for ten years, eight or nine months a year, and I think I lost such a lot of my life through doing that. I don’t think I’d ever let that happen again. Nowadays, I really want to involve myself in my own life again, take back my life and see some of it and live through some of it.
Q: You’ve never been afraid to take risks musically, so when making a new album, how concerned are you by it’s commercial prospects and its subsequent public acceptance?
DB: I don’t care a tick for it’s commercial viability, which has often caused me a lot of problems with record companies that I’ve been involved with in the past. Every time I make an album, I tend to take the road to commercial suicide because I actually revolt against the last album I made, especially if it’s been successful. I think it’s to keep me in sort of desperate straits, because if I get too comfortable, I write really badly – I write terrible songs.
Q: So it’s to keep you creatively interested?
DB: It shouldn’t be necessary, should it? I mean, I should be quite capable of just drawing on my own life experience, blah blah, blah. But I’m not, you see, and that’s why I’m not the same as everybody else.
Q: What music do you listen to today?
DB: I listen to a lot of old Pixies albums, things like that. For me, that is grunge music, but I guess I’m in a small group there. But you know something? Frankly, over the past year, I’ve been listening to me an awful lot. I really like this new album, it’s really good. If I find that I’m not playing the album that I’m making, then something must be very wrong – it has happened on a number of occasions, but not this time.
Q: You recently signed a long-term recording deal with Savage Records and BMG. With so many major labels to choose from, what was it about Savage that made you choose them?
DB: I tend to think in terms of how you work and the people you’re going to work with, so personalities come into it a lot. David Nemran of Savage Records was the only man I met who actually seemed to accept the situation with open arms and encouraged me to do exactly what I wanted to do, without any kind of indication that it would be manipulated, or that my ideas would be changed, or that other things would be required of me. That made me feel comfortable and that he was the deciding factor.
Q: So you can’t see any problems looming on the horizon with BMG?
DB: As I said, it really comes down to personalities, and the two or three key people who are involved with me at BMG are the people that I feel comfortable with. For instance, I’ve known Heinz Henne for a number of years now and I think he’s a good man. I think he wants to work with me on the kind of music that I write, and that gives me a kind of security. An artist doesn’t get his security with a record company: a company will never make an artist feel secure. It’s the individuals involved in that company that give them that.
I always dread the day when these people leave their blessed companies, and they do: it’s like a roundabout out there. You see somebody for five minutes and the next time you knock on the door there’s somebody else. I end up thinking, what the hell have I got myself into this time. But this won’t happen this time, of course.
Q: So it’s the individuals that you respond to, and not the companies?
DB: Yeah. I couldn’t give a toss for companies, per se.