by Dan Stubbs / NME
19th January 2013
Following the surprise comeback single, producer and friend Tony Visconti spills the beans on David Bowie’s new album.
On January 8 – David Bowie’s 66th birthday – the world awoke to to news that the little-seen superstar was ending nearly a decade of musical silence with a brand new single, ‘Where Are We Now?’, and news of an album on the way. Now, speaking exclusively to NME, Bowie’s long-term producer Tony Visconti says Bowie is in “exuberant” form, while the album, “The Next Day”, includes tracks about tyrannical leaders, shooting rampages and Bowie’s Berlin past…
How long have you been working on ‘The Next Day’?
I got the call from David about two years ago. I’d been waiting for that call for years! We met up and jammed for a week in tiny, grimy basements in New York. We were on top of each other. It was perfect. Things evolved very quickly after that – the other musicians are longtime Bowie band members and they’re very fast. Then David said, ‘OK, I’m going to take these home and write some lyrics’, and that was the last we heard of him for about three months.
Did you worry the project had gone off the boil?
No, he just needed to live with them for a few months, and he wrote some new songs as well. Suddenly we had about 15 to record. If you added up all the time we were in the studio I’d say it was about three months total and a little more for mixing. So we didn’t take very long recording it, but 18 months of thinking went into it.
How did you keep it so secret?
Nobody tweeted about it, nobody shared it on Facebook. David has learned that ninja rock-star stealth over the years.
Why did he decide to make an album after all this time?
I think he always had it in him. He was disillusioned with the state of the music business in the past decade. To him, the whole game changed and he was just wondering what his place place was in it. He certainly didn’t retire, but I remember five years ago he said to me, ‘I haven’t written a thing recently and I don’t care’. Then all of a sudden, two years ago, he said, ‘I’ve written a lot of songs’. I saw him socially in between and he never mentioned music. We’d talk about Ricky Gervais shows and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
What were the most memorable parts of recording?
The funniest thing was how loud the vocal was. We had him at the end of the room with a couple of baffles around him and he was singing with such exuberance – he was so happy to be doing this – that he couldn’t hold back. His band were overwhelmed to be making a new Bowie album, and that was the spirit every day. I would turn to my engineer and say, ‘Is this really happening?’
What’s the overall sound of the record?
A lot of the tracks are uptempo, a lot of them are energetic; it’s a good variety. It’s not boring!
The single, ‘Where Are We Now?’, suggests the album as a whole might be a musical autobiography. Is that the case?
No, and that’s the only song that looks back on Berlin. I got choked up when I saw the video because I walked those same streets. It was a really great time of our lives because so many things happened then. A lot of the new songs were written in third person about other people. David reads a lot and his fascination with a subject does end up in a few songs.
What are his favourite subjects to read about?
When you’re just about to bite into your sandwich at lunch he’ll talk about Russian history, British history, old battles, kings and queens, Roman emperors… But everything Bowie writes is a metaphor for something else.
You’ve said the album harks back to classic Bowie – which eras?
Sonically it’s something in between (1980’s) ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ and (2002’s) ‘Heathen’. We actually played some some unreleased ‘Scary Monsters…’ recordings and stuff from the ‘Lodger’ days (1979). We tried to recreate them or update them but instead we just got into the vibe.
Was there any talk of playing the songs live?
He’s fairly adamant he’s never going to perform live again, so it didn’t matter. One of the guys would say, ‘Boy, how are we gonna do all this live?’ and David said, ‘We’re not’. He made a point of saying that all the time.
Did he talk about the next record?
We actually recorded 29 songs for this album and we did talk of another album, but I don’t know where and when.
What’s Bowie’s state of mind?
Every time he was in the studio he was full of exuberance. He’s still remarkably youthful in his approach to making music. He’s very decisive and very sharp. If something isn’t going well he’s very quick to abandon it.
Why is he so secretive now?
I think he’s fed up with being so public. He told me, ‘I’m fed up with interviews, I don’t want to do it anymore’. We sat with the record label a few weeks ago and they said, ‘What about PR?’ and he says, ‘I’m just releasing it, I’m putting it out on my birthday, that’s it’.
Tony Visconti on selected ‘The Next Day’ album tracks
The producer picks out his favourites on the LP.
‘THE NEXT DAY’: It’s about the taking down of some kind of historical tyrant, someone in antiquity that I think was killed by a mob. It’s quite graphic what they do in the lyrics.
‘DIRTY BOYS’: That’s probably looking back to glam rock. Not him – the other dirty boys!
‘THE STARS (ARE OUT TONIGHT)’: This one could be off (1972’s) ‘Ziggy Stardust…’. It’s a big stadium rock song.
‘LOVE IS LOST’: We used some techniques we used on (1977’s) ‘Low’ on this , so soundwise you might hear something familiar.
‘WHERE ARE WE NOW?’: To me it’s not about the three-odd years he spent in Berlin in the ’70s. It feels like just one day he had an epiphany walking in the street.
‘VALENTINE’S DAY’: It’s a very gentle song with almost a Kinks influence. That’s a little retro, but the subject matter is pretty scary. It’s related to people who go postal, about people who acquire a gun and do awful things with it.
‘IF YOU CAN SEE ME’: It’s kind of bonkers. It’s nutty, it’s mad, it’s really out there.
‘I’D RATHER BE HIGH’: It’s not about his drug days! I think it’s the lament of a war veteran who’s shellshocked and beaten up and really needs rehabilitation.
‘HOW DOES THE GRASS GROW?’: The title is derived from a chant that British soldiers had to recite as they were bayonetting a dummy in World War I or II. Who’d write a song like this except David Bowie?