The Thin White Earthling

by Mark Brown / Addicted To Noise

April 1997

Outside the closed conference room at Virgin Records, David Bowie’s people are panicking. It’s LA and it’s Friday afternoon, so that means a crush of traffic sitting between Bowie and the airplane that’s going to take him to Paris in a couple of hours. Add to this the fact that some guy decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day by perching atop a freeway overpass and threatening to jump. His three-hour “Will I or won’t I?” chat with cops makes all ground travel simply impossible.

Inside the room, Bowie is oblivious to it all, far behind on his press interviews but chatting along at a leisurely pace, beaming at the accolades being heaped on Earthling, his new album that fuses classic Bowie melodies with jungle textures.

“I’m so pleased with the reaction to it,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear. “It’s been really splendid.” The reaction is swifter and easier this time around; his previous effort, Outside, left some critics and fans cold with its futuristic storyline. But after having been counted out in the mid-’90s–just as he has been every decade since the ’60s–Bowie has rebounded with Earthling and the first single “Little Wonder,” as well as his 50th birthday party with fellow musicians at Madison Square Garden.

It’s a last chance to catch Bowie for a few minutes before he jets off to his French TV commitments. The biggest problem is the questions there isn’t time to address–his recent work and shows with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Neil Young to Billy Corgan to the Foo Fighters, his latest film roles including a star turn as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, his use of the Internet to release new songs before his record company puts them on the street.

“I really found yes, this is the manifesto I want, this is where it should go, I believe.” –David Bowie


Addicted to Noise: A lot of people were probably nervous knowing that you were heading into drum-and-bass music with Earthling. So many people start with sounds instead of songs. Obviously you started with the songs.

David Bowie: We’d had the advantage that we’d dabbled early. We did a couple of things on the Outside album that owe quite a lot to jungle, specifically “We Prick You” and “I’m Deranged.” When I was fooling around with the idea of really hooking strong melody content to the idea of drum-and-bass and jungle. I kinda knew back then exactly what my approach was gonna be. I’ve been sort of messing, tinkering with it for about the past 18 months until I really found yes, this is the manifesto I want, this is where it should go, I believe.”

ATN: It’s a genre where you could do so much tinkering that you could end up losing the song.

Bowie: For dance purposes, that’s probably how it works best. But we’re not a dance band. We’re a rock band. We’re bringing that particular rhythmic element into what we do as a rock band, rather than going to try and join the forces of some sort of dance group, which we’re not. I’ve always been melody driven. Naturally that kind of hybrid is something that I would do.

ATN: Why did you decide to produce it yourself?

Bowie: By dint of the fact that there was really nobody else around. We came right off tour and straight into the studio. We hadn’t even thought about it. It was such an on-the-minute decision. As we were coming off the road we said, “Let’s just go in and record something,” because we’re such a good band. We really wanted to take some kind of sonic photograph of how we were. So the music, the majority of the stuff on the album, was written specifically with that in mind–to showcase ourselves as a band, what we were like as a unit. I just believe over the course of the last 18 months we’ve become a really good live band.”

ATN: What did you have to choose from? I have no idea how prolific you are anymore.

Bowie: We used two songs that were pre-written. But everything else, Reeves and I wrote in eight days. The whole thing was recorded in about two and a half weeks and then about three or four weeks of mixing. It was extremely quick.

ATN: You can do that? You can just say “Time to write” and go write?

Bowie: I wrote three songs night before last, while waiting for Frank Black and David Grohl to get to the studio. They’re working on Reeves Gabriel’s new album. I just passed the time. I just wrote songs. I find absolutely no problem whatsoever writing songs.”

ATN: Have you ever?

Bowie: No, not really. I’ve had lack of interest, which is not quite the same thing. When I hit 40, I really didn’t like working at that particular time. I didn’t write for a long time.

ATN: Do you still think that Tin Machine period is underrated?

Bowie: Apparently not (laughs). It’s going to be interesting, isn’t it? As the songs creep out in different forms over the years, I assume that eventually it’ll be evaluated in a different way. I’m not sure people will ever be sympathetic to it entirely. But as the years go by, I think they’ll be less hostile. I think it was quite a brave band and I think there were some extremely good pieces of work done. And I think they’ll kind of show themselves over time.

ATN: Do you think people couldn’t accept the change?

Bowie: I don’t know. I just don’t know. I needed it. I’m glad I did it. Now, looking back on it and doing what I’m doing now, it’s all immaterial what people thought about it. Quite obviously my response to the whole thing was really positive. I think it really helped me write in a much freer and spontaneous fashion than I had done for years. I think that was one of the positive things about being in a band.

ATN: What caused you to feel spontaneous?

“Now, looking back on [Tin Machine] and doing what I’m doing now, it’s all immaterial what people thought about it.” –David Bowie

Bowie: To try and merge myself in the band. To lose the responsibility of other people’s expectations. To recover the idea of just writing for my own amusement, for my own satisfaction, which is very much how I used to write.


ATN: Had you worked with Reeves prior to Tin Machine?

Bowie: Yes. Not really in a known capacity. We’d done some work together in gigs, but they were more kinda arty. We did some stuff in London in ’87 is when we first worked together. This place called the Institute of Contemporary Art in London needed a benefit–the roof was falling off or something like that. So we put together a piece with La La Lock Human Steps, the Montreal dance group. That was the first time we really worked together. Funnily enough, the process we put together for that is not so different from actually how we’re working now. We used tape loops and drum machines and just the two of us onstage playing guitars to that. And that almost became, it’s almost part and parcel of what we’re doing now. I guess it was always there somewhere in us. We had both been very impressed by B.A.D., which is a group I think was really quite prescient in their use of sampling and fragmentation. I thought they were a great band.”

ATN: You look at someone like Big Audio Dynamite and you see them never getting the commercial success they deserve. You’ve been one to push the boundaries, yet commercial success has always come with it. Others like B.A.D. or Elvis Costello didn’t get that.

Bowie: I think Elvis got a lot more acclaim than B.A.D. did. Dynamite really weren’t recognized at all. Nor were the Pixies, not in America anyway. They were more in Europe. They gained a real cult following in Europe. But over here it seems nobody believed in the Pixies. It does seem that first come is last rewarded in many cases.

ATN: You’ve managed to avoid that in some ways.

Bowie: Partially. (pause). Maybe I’m very aware that it’s very important that if you want to be recognized, you have to go to the media. I push quite strongly for people to listen to my work. I never let them out and die on the street if I really believe in them. I kinda say “This is the album, this is why you should listen to it, this is what’s interesting about it and these are the people who have influenced me and this is how it makes sense.” That’s usually my manifesto when I go out on one of these things where I talk about it. I just feel in this day and age it’s incredibly important to do that. And it is unrewarding when something really sinks and you know it was a great piece of work–or at least a good piece of work. The only album really that that has happened to that I feel was a bit sad that it was passed over was this thing called “Buddha of Suburbia.” Which I thought was one of the best albums–really–my best album since Scary Monsters. (Laughs). Ironically, every album I’ve made in the ’90s since Black Tie/White Noise has been called the best album I’ve made since Scary Monsters. So I think the next album I’m going to use “My Best Album Since Earthling. That’s the title. To try and put some closure on the Scary Monsters thing. But “Buddha of Suburbia,” I really thought… it was just an exercise. I was given this TV dramatization of a book… and I was to write the soundtrack. I took it a bit further on the album. It was just myself and Erdal Kizilcay, a multi-instrumentalist who I’ve worked with off and on over the past 12 years. We kinda got ensconced in a studio in Switzerland and put the whole thing together just the two of us. Kind of looking back on it now you can really see why I’ve gone to where I’ve gone to. Because of that album. It was really informed by dance and ambient all over again. I obviously felt I wanted to recapture an area that I had been working in in the late ’70s. It was all over that. And there are elements in both Outside and this album where you can feel them in it. You can definitely see what I was striving for.

ATN: Was that even issued in the States?

Bowie: It is now. It’s one of those things–“Also available…” I think Virgin had that over here. But it’s a really interesting album; it came out between Black Tie and Outside. It’s worth listening to, if I might say so.

ATN: Is it harder to get people to listen to anything challenging today?

Bowie: The attention spans (are shorter). Half the reason people listen so intently to Earthling is that it is exactly pretty much half the length of Outside. Outside was 76 minutes. And as soon as I released that I thought, “It’s much too fucking long. It’s gonna die.” There’s too much on it. I really should have made it two CDs. I think you can overwhelm an audience. I think the attention span is quite short, although I used to like the fact that there was 20 minutes on each side of the album. What did happen was that any rubbish really stood out. (laughs) You had to be very careful about putting sort-of adequate pieces on or mediocre pieces. Because they really would show themselves when there was only 20 minutes a side. So it’s really quite a discipline to work at 40, 45 minutes. Because it all better be good, because it’ll really stand out if it isn’t. With 76 you could feasibly–of course, not in my case–but you could feasibly get away with inferior material (laughs)

ATN: It seems impossible, Marilyn Manson excluded, to go anywhere with a real concept album these days. Townshend did his Psychoderelict, which had some great songs in it and went absolutely nowhere. People don’t even attempt it anymore

Bowie: Except fools like me, who rush in. I’m not sure. I tried something out the other night at Madison Square Garden, knowing that I was going to give the audience the majority of the new album. It was first listen for most–practically all the audience had never heard a track from the album unless they’d been to Roseland or some other small gig that I did. I was trying out some of the new material. I knew I was going to have to make that new material–which on first listen is quite complex, especially the drum and bass thing–and make it accessible in some way. My realization was the visuals would help the audience assimilate what was going on. Indeed, it really worked. Every time there was a new piece of work from the new album, Earthling, I made sure there was a visual going on. So there was something to help create the whole atmosphere and landscape for that song. So it wasn’t just a dry song, first listen. It was accompanied by an entire vision for that song. That really worked in a major way. That’s a very large hall. That 18,000 people. To be able to get away with eight songs that were brand new, all within a one-hour period is quite an accomplishment. And they reacted to it very strongly because they were given a visual foundation to merge the music with. They felt far more familiar with it, almost as if they’d already heard it. It proves to me that I think when some of these things… when they are presented theatrically, they can be received in a very different way than as they are perceived at the moment.

ATN: You’ve always been one to mix visuals live, from what you were wearing to the show. Was that what you wanted to see?

Bowie: Yes, it was what I wanted to see. I was never a music nut in quite the way a jazz fan is where you can sit and be in the music and be there for the music sake. I wanted much more–a multimedia approach to things. Both in myself and the things I enjoy. I’m not much one for going to see musical virtuosos play very rough for very long periods. I want more than that.

“And as soon as I released [Outside] I thought ‘It’s much too fucking long. It’s gonna die.'” –David Bowie


ATN: “Little Wonder” you could have done as a straight-ahead rock song and had a better chance at a hit. You’re one of those people like Neil Young–your fans think you have a classic David Bowie album inside you that you can give up at any time if you choose to and you’re just keeping it from them.

Bowie: It might be true. It might just be a sense of perverseness that keeps me wanting to investigate other areas other than the ones I know really well. Funnily enough, when I work for other people or collaborate with someone on a project for them, I tend to revert back to things that I know I’m very good at doing. A perfect example of that is the same way I was working with Iggy in the days that I was doing quite a few albums. I would give him melodic structures that were really quite hooky. You can access them very quickly and very easily. There was always a danger with Jim–he wasn’t melodically driven. He is more of a poet, stream-of-consciousness kind of guy. I knew that to make his stuff more accessible for a wider audience it needed something that they could immediately latch into. I can do that when it’s for somebody else like that. But when it comes to me, I’ll do the old, “I know I can do that; let’s see how far I can go if I go this way. Let’s see what happens.”

ATN: Did you ever take it to a point where people weren’t able to follow and you said, “Damn! Took it too far.”

Bowie: (laughs) I guess I look no further than my band. I’ve never lost my fellow musicians in what we’ve done. I believe that there has been wholehearted support for what we do and what we write and how we work. As far as audiences, I don’t think that’s something for me to actually worry about. I’m not sure that it should really be my concern. When I’m at my best is when I’ve got ultimate belief I’m doing something interesting.

Whether or not the audience is with me, fate will kinda dictate that. That’s all right. That’s OK. As long as I’m satisfied, that’s the most important thing. It does mean it’s going to wax and wane. The audience is gonna increase or decrease according to the nature of the album. That’s part of the territory if you’re going to work in the way that I work. And I think I long ago had to kind of accept that. And that’s all right.

“When I’m at my best is when I’ve got ultimate belief I’m doing something interesting.” –David Bowie


ATN: How did you get so smart with business? There’s the stock offering, you were savvy enough to get your masters years and years ago when everyone else was getting screwed.

Bowie: I think because I was so royally screwed in the early days that it was one of those questions of “Never again.” I was always very protective about my business interests. Having seen so many other people make so much money off of my back, and there I was… in the late ’70s I was actually on the edge of bankruptcy. All these thing that had happened to me–Young Americans, Ziggy and all those things–and I was thinking “How the hell did this happen?” After that I just learned really fast to look after myself that way. Also, the savvyest thing I ever did was learn how to find the right business advisors. That was very important. And not have managers. That’s the other incredibly important thing to every new artist.

ATN: Do you self-manage?

Bowie: Yes, oh yes. I mean, it’s very simple. There’s a gig. They’re offering you this much. Do you wanna do it? [laughs] That’s management. There’s nothing else in it, really.

ATN: Are you touring?

Bowie: Yes. We go into rehearsals in April and we start off with the Far East–including Japan and hopefully one or two of the Chinese areas, then probably back through Russia, Scandinavia, into Europe for the festivals for the summer, then in the fall we come to America.

ATN: How’s your state of mind regarding your body of work? There’s “I’m not going to do the hits anymore” or this or that.

Bowie: I’m totally irrational, so that could change overnight.

ATN: Does your relationship with that music change?

Bowie: Yes it does. I think the Sound and Vision tour had something like 25 (songs). Even if they weren’t all singles, they were certainly regarded as the staple part of what I’d written. Putting those to bed for the particular time, and up to the present, I think I’ll more or less hold to that. I really felt it was important to paint myself into that kind of corner, to make me write in a vigorous and aggressive manner. I knew that I would have to be good if I didn’t have those songs to fall back onto. However, it has now been seven years since I’ve done the majority of those songs. And I’m starting to feel the time may be coming–maybe not this year, I don’t think, and maybe not next year–but maybe within the 10 years that I might start working some of those songs again. I’ll have a new kind of enthusiasm for them, having not played them for that long. It was quite an eye-opener at the Neil Young Benefit in San Francisco. I took “Let’s Dance” and did that as a country blues. It sounded like a Muddy Waters song by the time we finished with it. I had bottle caps on my shoes and used that as the rhythm for it. And it was just acoustic guitars, and it just felt great. I thought, “This is a really good song! This is a great blues song.” I hadn’t known that it was a blues song like that till we started to re-treat the old songs for that particular show. I can see that there can be a point where you can start getting back into those things with a new invigorated sense of purpose. What I did not want ever to happen was for me to phone in my performances or walk through songs. And I was getting to the point where I was just walking through it. They weren’t meaning anything to me. It was “I just gotta deliver this song because people want it.” And that had to stop.


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