by Linda laban / Mr. Showbiz
A surprisingly grounded David Bowie finds that fifty is fab, the Internet is more interesting than Akron, and that playing Earthling is invigorating
AS David Jones, he was born into the wreckage of post-war Britain, and raised in a dreary South London suburb. As David Bowie in the early seventies, he shook awake the hippie music scene with a dazzling, post apocalyptic vision that has been influencing bands from the Cure to Nine Inch Nails ever since. Never one to stand still, Bowie has continued a process of artistic, if not personal, re-invention that can be seen as either calculated transformation, or ambitious redefinition of his art and his life.
Be it musical evolution or sound business sense, Bowie stands as one of rock’s most enduringly successful, artful, and intriguing characters. He celebrated his fiftieth birthday on January 8, 1997, with a show the following night at Madison Square Garden in New York. Proceeds from the concert benefited Save the Children, and Bowie was joined by a cast of well-wishers that included Lou Reed, Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, and the Cure’s Robert Smith. The world was invited, too, via the show’s live broadcast on the Internet, and highlights from the set are earmarked for a pay-per-view special early next month. A week after his birthday bash, Mr. Showbiz spoke to Bowie by phone from New York. With the celebration over, he turns enthusiastically to his new album Earthling, a project that crosses the British drum ‘n’ bass movement with white-noise rock.
“Hello,” Bowie began, his voice a deep and disarmingly playful purr. The man who has personified rock artifice and other-worldliness comes across as a pretty normal, articulate earthling. Ever the experimenter, Bowie talked at length about his favorite new artists, recent musical influences, computer programs, playing Andy Warhol on-screen, and how he aspires to meld all of his interests together into a new performance hybrid.
Let’s start with the new album. Who produced Earthling?
DB: I did. With Mark Plati, who is the mixer and engineer. It was co-written with Reeves Gabrels, who is my guitar player, and has actually been with me for something like ten years now. It’s like I only met him yesterday!
You haven’t done much production outside of your own records since the seventies.
DB: No, I haven’t and it’s rather pushed me into feeling quite hearty about the prospects of maybe doing more. There’s a girl, Gail Ann Dorsey, who’s our bass player, and who’s also a wonderful singer – and she writes. I think I will be producing her album this year as well.
You produced Lou Reed’s Transformer and many of Iggy Pop’s late-seventies albums. Both of them experienced some considerable career rejuvenation as a result of those albums.
DB: Well, it was really out of my own respect and admiration for them as artists. Both, in their own way, had been influential in what I’d done, and I wanted to do something for them.
I suppose we’d better get back to the present rather than rehashing the seventies.
DB: Well, part of the present, in fact, also incorporates Lou Reed, because he worked with me the other night at the Madison Square Garden show. That was a really lovely thing, we had a ball.
To get back to Earthling, as usual, you are credited with playing many instruments: guitar, sax, and keyboards…
DB: Yeah, I diddle about with everything really.
Well, more than “diddle.”
DB: Well, if you were there!
The diddling comes out really well.
DB: It’s very creative diddling. I know which diddle to twaddle!
New audiences probably aren’t aware of you as a musician. They know you just as a singer.
DB: When I’ve had the courage, I’ve always gotten in there and played something on the albums. There are some things that I do quite well, maybe it’s because of my lack of expertise, but they have a certain kind of brutal integrity to them that worked. Particular chords and things, guitar runs and stutterings on the sax. I know nobody else could do them quite the same way.
There are moments on Earthling that are reminiscent of older albums, say a piano part that maybe even harks back to Ziggy Stardust days.
DB: The piano would be Mike Garson. He worked with me right through ’75, from late ’73 with the Spiders, and played on the Aladdin Sane album. He’s a longtime collaborator, even if he was away for a long spell going his own way. But we’ve gotten back together, this must be now the fourth album that he’s done with me in the nineties.
Who else is on the album?
DB: Reeves, of course, has been there on just about everything since ’88. Gail Ann Dorsey and Zac Alford are the two comparatively new ones to me. They’ve been working with me now for about fourteen months, and in this present unit of just five of us, we’ve been together since January of ’96.
Were they the touring band, is that how you came to them?
DB: Yeah, they came in as the touring band in ’95, when we did the Nine Inch Nails tour. Then I reduced the band down because it was, I thought, just too large and unwieldy. It was a nine-piece so I took it down to a four-piece. They continued on with me through the rest of this last year. We’re pretty solid as a unit now, they’ll be coming again with me when I go out this year.
You referred to the Outside tour as the Nine Inch Nails tour.
Wasn’t it the David Bowie tour?
DB: Well, I kinda presumed you knew I was on it! Nine Inch Nails as opposed to the Pat Boone tour.
Don’t want you giving NIN too much credit here.
DB: Well, they’re very good.
That was a pretty spectacular duet you did with Trent Reznor.
DB: The one song that I did with him, oh Lord, come on, tell me the name of it… “Hurt,” that’s it, “Hurt” – a beautiful ballad, one of the best songs he wrote. The tour was a really unusual combination of styles. We both felt that it was probably one of the most adventurous stylings of a tour in quite a few years. I’m not sure if many other people thought of doing that kind of combination. I haven’t seen it happen too many times subsequently. We actually filmed it, and one day we’ll do something with the footage.
So, you were with a touring band that you became very comfortable with, and obviously Reeves you’ve been with a long time. How did you come together and write the songs for Earthling?
DB: We had an extremely hard year last year. We worked our way through Russia, Japan, Scandinavia, and into Europe. We pretty much ended up doing the festival circuit in Europe, which meant working with sometimes up to fourteen other bands. We just got really good. By the end of the tour we were the dogs’ bollocks, as they say in England. I really thought it would be great if we could almost do a sonic photograph of what we were like at that time. So, Reeves and I started writing pretty immediately after we finished on the road. We went in about five days after we finished our last gig and wrote and recorded in a two-and-a-half-week period; frankly, the whole thing was put down quick.
So the music was the culmination of the four of you playing together?
DB: The arrangements and the structure of it was more or less between Reeves and myself. But the individual responses to it were interesting. With Zac, for instance, the drummer, unlike most drum ‘n’ bass things, we didn’t just take parts from other peoples’ records and sample them. On the snare drum stuff, the very fast, frantic things, Zac went away and did his own loops and worked out all kinds of strange timings and rhythms. Then we speeded those up to your regular 160 beats per minute.
DB: (Drum ‘n’ bass) has gone up to 185 beats per minute now. Can you imagine? It’s almost impossible to dance to!
Do you try?
DB: Well, I click me fingers and that’s hard enough. It goes really quickly, somebody said it was going to hit 200 within the next six months. Two hundred beats per minute is almost impossible to entertain the thought of. Back in those days of a few months ago, it was still at 160. So Zac did all his own samples. That’s very much how we treat the album; we kept all sampling in-house. We created our own soundscape in a way.
How come you went for a drum ‘n’ bass-influenced album?
DB: Who could not be influenced by it? It’s the most exciting rhythm of the moment.
The hip-hop and jungle thing?
DB: Yeah, I still like hip-hop. I guess that new musics generally, plural, are what I’ve always listened to. It’s always been the stuff that I thrive on. What I really adore about musics, is the stuff that starts on the edge. I can’t really remember a time when I had any interest in the mainstream, except maybe when I was real young. As I hit my late teens, I just started to like more obscure, or so-called avant-garde stuff. I’ve just always been in tune with it. In its way, it duplicates the situation in the late seventies where both Eno and I were listening to a lot of what was the German sound coming out of Dusseldorf, whereas I guess most other people were listening to punk. We kind of didn’t want to be part of that mainstream thing because it was information we already knew. For me, it sounded almost like an expansion of what Iggy and the Stooges had been doing in the late sixties. And I was always stimulated by things that I didn’t completely understand and the new technological approach by bands as varied as Can, Kraftwerk, Harmonia, and Kluster, and all those Dusseldorf bands that I found far more intriguing because I didn’t quite know how it worked. I guess that’s why Brian and I got so much into what’s now called deconstructed or rather “rusty” industrial sound, because it just felt like oncoming information.
Something you could obviously work with. New ideas.
DB: It was very stimulating to work within. I did with it then what I generally do – I hybrid it with what I’m already doing. So it becomes like one of those French stews that you put on, and as you go past it every day you throw in another vegetable, and by the end of the week you’ve got this incredible mixture that tastes very hearty, but you’re not quite sure what it’s made of. That’s kind of how I build up my music.
DB: It is pretty exciting what’s going on with hip-hop-infused rock.
DB: And it’s really a dialogue that’s happening in Europe; it’s not happening in America at all. The most they have in North America – I don’t know about Canada – but the majority of it are things like Moby. Which is okay, I don’t mind Moby at all, I think he’s very good, but it’s not actually moving in a very interesting fashion. It’s pretty standard, almost disco.
What about people like Beck?
DB: That’s fun, it’s kinda quirky, but he’s got a tradition in people like Wild Man Fisher and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He’s a very American folk pioneer, almost outside of folk, poet. It’s quirky, but it’s not setting the rules for a new language.
Were any of the songs on Earthling left over from Outside?
DB: “Telling Lies” was a song that I actually started writing just before we started out on tour, because I wanted to work on it more thoroughly in that medium. We changed the arrangement all the time and tried new ideas on it. By the time we’d gotten it finished, we really found that how we structured this particular kind of music worked well and integrated it with what we do, which, fundamentally, was hybriding a very aggressive rock sound with drum ‘n’ bass.
DB: We had touched on that sound before with Brian on Outside. There are a couple of tracks on Outside, specifically “I’m Deranged” and “We Prick You,” which are quite heavily jungle – as it was called then. But that was more of a narrative album, and we didn’t want the music to be quite so high-profile. This time I felt free to do something which didn’t have narrative to take into consideration.
“Telling Lies” was the song that first went out on the Internet last September?
DB: That’s correct, with three of the versions that we’d gone through. The one on the album was the one that I ultimately thought was the best. It was also, of course, the latest.
You seem to be very active on the Internet, what with the birthday show broadcast last week and the “Telling Lies” premiere.
DB: Well, I get about! I’m a right little surfer!
Seriously, you’re interested in that side of it?
DB: It’s not a bad pastime. It’s something that I could quite easily lose myself in for a couple of hours. That’s the trouble, it’s so bloody addictive. I have fun with it, but I’m very careful, actually, because of that. I also find that when I do get on it, there’s such a lot of crap to get through before you find anything truly interesting. You’re spending half your time going to different pages and wading through this rubbish.
DB: That’s an aspect of it that I’m not particularly delighted with. I must admit that I find it much easier to get involved with it when on tour. When you find yourself in Cleveland, or Akron, or something like that, and you’ve done the local museum and there’s nothing much else to do except watch who goes in and out of the McDonald’s.
It’s a bit of a savior in that situation.
DB: Yeah. It’s quite fun to do. I also carry a couple of art programs with me that I slot into the computer. I knock out some graphics. (In fake advertisement-ese). That’s when I have fun with my computer! I even chip in occasionally, sort of anonymously – throw false rumors in and get everybody at it. Well, why not? I love the idea of misinformation, anyway.
How did you get interested in the Internet?
DB: It wasn’t the Net that I got intrigued with first, it was the computer. My son had always been into computers. We’d fooled around with a couple of programs that he was working with and he said, “Dad, you’re into art and all that. Why don’t you get these two things, you might like them?” One program was called Kidpix, which is an art program for, like, six-year-olds. I think it’s wonderful, I still use it. There are two others, more sophisticated ones, Painter and Photoshop. This was around 1993, so I started messing with those, and I did a whole series of lithographs based on work that I’d done on the computer. It was inevitable that somebody then got me into a modem and I started. (Adopts woeful, Cockney junkie voice.) I came home and found I was going on the Net every night. This went on for a long time, and eventually I found a group of Net Anonymous that I joined. We shared our problems with each other, and I think I’m off it now.
Where do you see it going in terms of its impact on music?
DB: Croydon with a K! Where’s it going? For a new artist, who’s got a lot of material but no audience and can’t get gigs, and there’s no real record company interested in what he’s doing, then at least to establish a new audience and get somebody interested in what’s he’s doing. To be able to put pieces of what he’s doing on the Net and have them download it for free, does at least give him the opportunity for a window. I think it’s pretty good for people like myself, especially those of us who over-write, which I do. The trouble is I write too much – for my company! The record company only wants to deliver an album once a year – and that’s fast – or one every eighteen months, and it’s so frustrating when you’ve got a backlog of material. I read the same thing in an interview with Prince a few weeks ago. He has exactly the same problem because he’s also an over-writer. For some of the stuff that the more corporate companies wouldn’t be interested in releasing – because it’s either too esoteric or arty or “avant-garde-a-clue,” or whatever – getting it on the Net is a good way of getting an audience for it. At least it’s going somewhere, and you don’t feel like it’s all stored up in a cupboard where nobody will get to hear it.
Can’t you, if some of the stuff is too out there for your record company, can you not go to an independent and have a little release on the side?
DB: Yeah, but it still takes a few months even with an indie, to get the album together and get the artwork for it and all that. Whereas with the Internet, you could virtually put stuff out on the Net as you write it.
DB: That’s the compelling thing about it, its immediacy. On tour it was great being able to do things like “Telling Lies” at a show and then get on the Net about an hour later, after the show, and you’re being told if it was any good or not. That’s great. The feedback is tremendous, it’s so fast.
Do you think that American audiences will embrace the coming wave of British electronic artists?
DB: There’s a question, isn’t it? I wonder. I don’t see that big a hope for it, only because of past experience. You look at something like reggae and how little it was embraced by the American public. I think it was embraced a lot more by Canada. In the rest of North America, you can hardly say it’s worked its way into the fabric of music by any means. They don’t embrace so-called outside musics, musics that are not indigenous to North America, very easily. That may be a real problem. I don’t know, we’ll just have to see. There’s been a couple of warm signs: there’s two jungle clubs in New York, and a couple in L.A., but that’s the coasts. That is not mid-America, and I don’t know if in Akron we’re going to see junglists. There’s more of a market for industrial, there always has been in America. But it’s the techno and the drum ‘n’ bass aspects, I’m not sure that they will ever really achieve the grandeur that hard rock achieved over here, or grunge, or whatever. They’ll always be some audience for it, and that’s good enough for me.
A couple of the British bands are having a stab at it, the Prodigy did quite well.
DB: Yes they did, they certainly got some kind of reaction. There’s a new interesting multicultural band called Pigeonhed, that’s not exactly jungle. But what I think they have a problem with in America is the idea of multicultural music where it has more than one influence, more than one cultural influence. They’ve always had a problem with that, the idea of things that are hybrid or mixed in any way seems to be problematic to the American. It’s a much easier thing to fall into in Europe. Although we still have our problems over in Europe, the whole landscape there is a lot more tempered than it is in the States where the abyss between races is really terrible.
DB: I’ll tell you something, the good news is when Tricky was working in New York the other week, it was the first time that I’ve witnessed a mixed audience in America for a long, long time. That’s pretty good. Maybe one can almost think of drum ‘n’ bass as possibly, if it does get a head start in the States, doing something about the social level. It might be interesting to see exactly how music can again affect society as it did so much in the sixties.
Or attempt to.
DB: At least attempt to, and the attempt is not a bad thing, to at least have tried.
There is a track on Earthling, “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
DB: Well, yeah, I’m not actually specific of what my fears are in the song but I mean…
Is it more Americana than actual persons?
DB: Yes, it is actually. That one is about Americana and it’s the inevitable Johnny song. Poor dumb Johnny, he keeps cropping up. He’s like a traditional figure to have a knock at. He just wants to comb his hair and get a car.
It seems that you are talking more about the homogenization of cultures and the way everything is becoming so bland and unified.
DB: Yeah, I’m always dead scared of that. We’re living in an age of chaos and fragmentation, and we should grab it positively and not be scared of it and not see it as the destruction of a society, but the material from which we rebuild a society. It is discomforting to see people sorting through the wreckage and trying to pull out absolutes again. That’s really troubling. It just becomes so intolerant, and that’s not what we want. That’s not what we want, is it?
Okay, let’s have a couple of comments on what it’s like to be fifty. Here you are, David Bowie at fifty.
DB: Fab. But, you know, I don’t feel fifty. I feel not a day over forty-nine. It’s incredible. I’m bouncy, I feel bouncy.
Are you as productive and happy with doing the music thing as ever?
DB: Yeah, I don’t think there is much in my life that I would change. I don’t think there is anything, really. Over the last ten years or so it’s just gotten to a place that I could honestly say that I probably enjoy myself more now than I did twenty-five years ago. I can quite definitely say that.
You still have the acting going.
DB: Yeah, but I don’t take that very seriously. I have fun with it when I do get these cameo roles – they’re fun to do because they aren’t very long periods on the set. You don’t think you’re wasting your time for eight weeks, stuck out in a trailer park somewhere. I don’t have the ambition to be an actor.
What about the role as Warhol in Basquiat?
DB: That was great. It was a ten-day shoot and it was in New York, so that when I wasn’t needed I could run off and play. It was easy and there were good people in it. Chris Walken I’ve known for years. It opened and closed in less than a week – we all thought it would, but we also feel that it’s really a very, very good movie.
The Warhol character had me in stitches, very funny.
DB: Oh good, I’m pleased. I’m so fed up of people portraying him as this cold, calculating man. Because he wasn’t. I just thought that he was this rather insecure queen who didn’t quite believe how big he was and didn’t quite know why. I found it very funny, he was just very funny. Unwittingly, half the time. He was a human; he wasn’t this machine at all. He’s always made out to be such a menacing figure, and he wasn’t. He was just this guy living a life like everyone else and struggling through it most of the time.
I think that really came through to the audience in the scene where he had died. You really felt it.
DB: Those people who knew him really were moved when he died. It was so unexpected and it shouldn’t have happened.
So, what tour plans do you have for Earthling?
DB: We start rehearsals in April and we will be touring from May through Christmas. This one’s really extensive, a long, long tour. I’ve only got a couple of minutes left actually – before they have to put the drip in!
Looking back at both the Glass Spider and Outside tours, are you now convinced that you can translate a narrative story line onstage?
DB: If I ever had an ambition, I guess the culmination of everything I do would be to produce something that could be called a theatrical musical event. I daren’t say “musical,” because it’s not what I’m thinking of. But, it has to go to the arena somehow. The only thing that really gets lost is dialogue. I’m convinced that there is a way to explore the idea of a straight narrative piece for rock theater that can go and travel to arenas. I know I’ll do that one day. I will do it. I’m getting nearer to how it could be done. I’m beginning to understand how it could be done.
I guess you’re going to be spending a lot of time in arenas this year. So it’ll give you a few more ideas.
DB: Yes, I’ll be able to suss it out a bit more.
Where do you see yourself going after the tour – is there going to be another album?
DB: I don’t think I could say that there would be specific events. The one thing that I do know is that I just don’t foresee a point when I wouldn’t be making music. Not quite as constantly as I am at the moment. I am really enjoying the process as never before in my life. I could never explain how satisfying it is at the moment. The other thing is that the visual arts, over the last five years, have become much more important in my life and I’m still doing a lot of work in that area. Doing a lot of shows, doing collaborations with people. I think those two things will continue to go very much hand in hand.