Bowie and Brett ‘Alias Smith and Jones’

by Steve Sutherland / NME

27th March 1993

In Part Two of our mega-exclusive meeting of minds between DAVID BOWIE and BRETT ANDERSON, the starlet and the starman discuss what’s great about Moz and the problems of maintaining artistic integrity; Bowie reveals how he lost his confidence in the 80s, talks about the highly personal nature of his new LP, his experience of the LA riots, and lectures Brett on the sacrifices he must make to be a successful artist.

Referee: Steve Sutherland

…..There’s quite a bit of you in this…” Brett is at the tape, his back to us, about to play a rough mix of an as-yet-untitled track from the forthcoming Suede LP. Bowie puts his hand to his mouth, checks that Brett can’t see him, and sniggers.

…..The track plays, Bowie closes his eyes and mock-swoons at the voluptuous chorus. He compliments Brett on his vocals and lyrics. “That’s brilliant,” he says. “The poignancy of the everyday is very apparent in your work.”

…..Brett smiles: “Well, I’m bogged down by the everyday, so it feels like I should write about it.”

…..“And here they come, the boys from Suede, dignifying the lot of the working man…” Bowie has adopted the plummy accent of a Second World War newscaster. “In their long shorts, with their shovels on their shoulders, they’re ready to dig the trenches for the good of the English folk. Hooray, wa say. Hip hip hooray.”

…..“I always aim to take a small statement and make it elegant,” laughs Brett. “The point is to actually speak to other people. I never actually do things for myself at all. Thoughts are essentially quite useless foe me unless they’re broadcast in an acceptable way.

…..“That’s the great thing about Morrissey – loads of people have thought those thoughts before, his thoughts weren’t particularly ground in any way, but the fact that he actually managed, for the first time, to express them to the general populous instead of being an elitist philosopher or just a writer that spoke to a few people, the fact that he actually managed to put those thoughts within an easily palatable art form; that’s what was great about him.”

Bowie: “And he did it asexually. So many of Morrissey’s songs are very asexual. There’s not a sexual bait to them, even if he talks about sexual situations. I think people are quite happy to take their grey anguish from a band like the Velvets or, at the moment, Nirvana, because it’s got great dollops of sex attached to it. But he neutered it to an extent and that seemed kind of unfair or something. I think that maybe produces a lot of hostility toward him.”

Brett: “Were you into The Smiths, then?”

Bowie: “I thought they were good, yeah. I got to like The Smiths more and more as it went on. I wasn’t an immediate fan. I must say that I was disturbed to find out that the Pixies had broken up. That was the band that I thought was gonna happen in a big way, and I was a bit miffed when Nirvana came along using the same musical dynamics; y’know, keeping it way down for a verse and then suddenly bursting out with volume on the chorus. And, of course, Charles was far better lyrically. His lyrics were fabulous. It feels like so many of the bands now are Johnny-Come-Latelys. There’s a huge bandwagon. It’s opened the gates to mediocrity.”

Brett: “But anything good does, doesn’t it?”

NME: I guess there’s a whole generation of little Suedes on their way as we speak. And the irony of that you’ve got people who stand for individuality being copied. Instead of following the credo – be yourself, do something different – they just waggle their bums and rip their shirts.

Brett: “That’s the whole horror of the music business generally though, isn’t it? The visionless people who inhabit the music are always looking for copies of bands that are now being successful and never actually looking for anything that’s truly got any worth.”

Bowie: “And boy, is the word ‘business’ applicable to the American situation right now? I mean, never ever, has it become such a career oriented option. It’s light years away from how it felt in the early 70s. It really grinds ’em out. I mean, nobody believes in bands, works with them, promotes them. It’s such a ruthless, ruthless business.”

Brett: “That’s why the independent scene should be championed. It’s true that sometimes independent is just a byword for untalented but, on the other hand, there’s a certain life to it that doesn’t exist within the Sonys who just plough it out. The funniest thing is you get these comical bands who are like major label ideas of what indie bands are. I mean, have you heard this band The Lemon Trees? They’re just MCAs idea of what a indie band is.”

Bowie: “Ah, didn’t they do Simon & Garfunkel’s…”

NME: No, that was Lemonheads.

Bowie: “Oh, Lemmonheads. That’s right.”

NME:Same thing, though. With a crappy record that was. What a crappy thing to do.

Bowie: “Yes, I honestly don’t get that at all.”

NME:Do you pity Brett that he finds himself working now as opposed to, say in the 70s?

Bowie: “Yeah. For most new bands starting up it must be a fuck of an uphill climb.

Brett: “It’s very stifling when there’s so much emphasis on producing the goods. I mean, you could never have done something like ‘Low‘ if your band were starting now. You’d have just been dropped, because people wouldn’t have known what it was. But now, in hindsight, it’s seen as completely ground-breaking.”

Bowie: “Yeah. We’ll be listening to the first Tin Machine album in a few years and re-evaluating that, I’m sure. Hahahaha!”

NME: I take that you’ve never been in the position of having an A&R man come into the studio to tell you that maybe the backbeat shouldn’t be like that?

Bowie: “Never! Absolutely not!”

NME: I bet Brett has to put up with that sort of thing, though.

Brett: “Yeah, and that’s why you have to be shrewd in deciding who you work with. That’s why we signed to an independent in this country, so we don’t have that kind of interference, because in the end the artist does know best, otherwise it just becomes a product.”

Bowie: “I can’t imagine what that must feel like. I was advised, though. When I delivered ‘Low‘ I got a telegram offering to pay for me to go back to Sigma Sound in Philadelphia to do another ‘Young Americans‘. They just couldn’t accept ‘Low‘, they couldn’t understand it. That’s when I knew it was over with that particular company. And that’s why it’s so psychic that I should come back to Arista, within the RCA association, for this album. In my mind, it’s almost as though I lost ‘Let’s Dance‘, ‘Tonight‘ and ‘Never Let Me Down‘ and, if I was putting together sets of albums, I would go ‘Low‘, ‘Heroes‘, ‘Lodger‘, ‘Scary Monsters‘, ‘Black Tie White Noise‘. It kinda slots in there in feel. And, of course, my last album with RCA was ‘Scary Monsters‘, so the EMI years are this misfit that kinda got in there somehow. Maybe this is the album that Nile Rodgers and I did make in 1983, and there’s been this timewarp ever since!”

NME: Maybe the fact that so many people said Tin Machine were crap gave you your attitude back? Maybe that was the edge you needed to start fighting for your music again, and maybe that’s what gives the album its strong sense of purpose?

Bowie: “Funnily enough, I think working with Tin Machine was a confidence-builder, because I lost my confidence during the 80s and I was quite willing to use the stand-in of indifference. I always look back on those two albums after ‘Let’s Dance‘ as being indifferent; I purposely didn’t get very involved with them. Now I listen to ‘Never Let Me Down‘ and I wish I had, because there were some good songs on it, but I let go and it became very soft musically; which wasn’t the way I would have done it if I had been more involved.”

NME: When I heard that this album was inspired by your wedding to Iman (two pieces were specifically composed for the occasion), I feared it was gonna be soft as shite.

Bowie: “Yeah, I know: He’ll probably put Iman on the cover. Oh, she’s gotta be in the video.’ Hahahaha! I knew what people would think when they heard I was going back in to work with Nile. But I was thinking, ‘I hope this doesn’t turn into another ‘Let’s Dance‘,’ and that probably drove me even harder. It is a very personal album.

…..Jump They Say‘ is semi-based on my impression of my step-brother and probably, for the first time, trying to write about how I felt about him committing suicide. It’s also connected to my feeling that sometimes I’ve jumped metaphysically into the unknown and wondering whether I really believed there was something out there to support me, whatever you wanna call it; a God or a life-force? It’s an impressionist piece – it doesn’t have an obvious, cohesive narrative storyline to it, apart from the fact that the protagonist in the song scales a spire and leaps off.

…..“There’s also a personal reason why I cover Creams’s ‘I Feel Free‘ on the album. One of the times I actually went out with my step-brother, I took him to see a Cream concert in Bromley, and about halfway through – and I’d like to think it was during ‘I Feel Free’ – he started feeling very, very bad… He used to see visions a lot. And I remember I had to take him out of the club because it was really starting to affect him – he was swaying… He’d never heard anything so loud; he was ten years older then me and he’d never been to a rock club, because jazz was his thing when he was young. He turned me on to Eric Dolphy…

…..“Anyway, we got out into the street and he collapsed on the ground and he said the ground was opening up and there was fire and stuff pouring out the pavement, and I could almost see it for him, because he was explaining it so articulately. So the two songs are close together on the album for very personal reasons.

…..“So much of this album comes from a more emotional plane than I’m wont to generally show about myself. It’s a very emotionally-charged album. There’s a lot of jumping into the unknown about it. Maybe a lot of my negative things have surfaced on this album, that’s why it’s got such a saccharine ending. It’s called ‘The Wedding Song‘, but it should have been called ‘The Wedding Cake’, because it really is all icing with a couple on top.”

NME: The title track’s the hardest thing Bowie’s done in ages, and it transpires it was inspired by the LA riots. Bowie and Iman returned from Italy to LA the day the verdict of the Rodney King trial was announced.

Bowie: “We were standing on the roof of out apartment block, hand-in-hand, looking out at these fires starting up everywhere. And they were close! it was unbelievable. If it hadn’t been so frightening, you could have looked out and said ‘Cor, dunnit look like Blade Runner?’ But we thought, ‘Oh shit, we’re in this’ and we did the same thing that everybody else did – we got in the car and went down the supermarket and started buying food, because we didn’t know if we’d be able to get out of there for a few days.

…..“And I stayed up all night the second night because they were getting quite close to our block.”

NME: What were you going to do if they came knocking?

Bowie: “I had my car keys, I had some money and I had my jeans near the bed, and I was gonna quickly get dressed and get outta the building in case it went up.”

Brett: “You should’ve told ’em you were born in Brixton!”

Bowie: “That wouldn’t have helped. Hahaha! And I don’t think showing ’em my wife would’ve helped either. They’d have just said. ‘Well, you’re bith to blame. You’re the problem!’ Hahaha! It was terrifying.

…..“It really did feel like a prison where people had been imprisoned unfairly on no trial and no evidence, and that they’d just had enough. This was like the last insult by the guards and it was like, ‘I don’t care what you think, we’re gonna fuck you up!’

…..“And Clinton had better do better than he’s doing at the moment. He’d better actually have some policies, because everybody’s depending on this administration to resurrect this wave of hope and, if all that morale just dissipates – which is what’s happening at the moment – all hell’s gonna break loose over there.”

NME: How come you namecheck Benetton in ‘Black Tie White Noise‘?

Bowie: “Because I thought it was dodgy when Spike Lee did a thing for them. Y’know, I felt that reading about race relations through Benetton adverts was almost an insult. But then again, we’re presuming that any statement made has to be altruistic. I mean, what actually has the most validity: altruism or opportunism? I wonder… I mean, because of the humanization and dignifying of black athletes, are Nike doing a better job at promoting race relations than say, the administration?

…..“Everybody loves Magic (Johnson), everybody loves those guys now, primarily because Nike made people of them and showed them as personalities rather than saying, y’know, ‘All black guys are good at basketball’.

…..“It cut through all that and presented them as real, living human beings who think and have their own opinions, and it’s very successful and very seductive and, yes, of course it sold loads and loads of Nikes. But has it done something else also, in terms of race relations?

NME: Spike Lee does get people’s back up though, doesn’t he? Maybe he’s not the best spokesman…

Bowie: “Hahahah! Well, not the best spokesman from a white perspective. ‘Shouldn’t we have a more altruistic spokesman up there for the black people?’ Y’know, they can have any damn spokesman they want! We don’t have a say in it. We’re far to keen, as white liberals, to suggest to black people how they should improve their lot. I don’t think they actually wanna hear it anymore. They’ve got their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice. Actually, they’re pissed off every time we advise them now, us goody goody liberals.”

NME: We argue bout homophobia and sexism in black music for a while, good naturedly getting nowhere. Then I ask Brett if he can imagine being in Bowie’s position, a dozen or so albums down the road?

Brett: “No. I think it’s a bit dangerous thinking like that. Once you’ve got too clear a sense of your path, you lose a bit of your spark.”

Bowie: “To make a difference I bet.”

Brett: “Just really a track record. That’s it. To be a thorn that you can never really get out. Crawling off somewhere and having a comfortable lifestyle doesn’t really interest me at this point. Right now I don’t particular personal harmony or anything like that, because I think that would be quite an unhealthy thing at this stage.”

Bowie: “What! Yeah, well let me tell you, my son… hah ha haha.”

Brett: “Go on dad!”

Bowie: “Well, you’re going to give up a lot, you really are.”

Brett: “I’m willing to give it up, though, I really am.”

Bowie: “You are at the moment, but believe me… haha… Oh dear, I don’t like this bit at all. Hahaha. Um, you see, it works like this… I presume you don’t have children yet?”

Brett: “No, I don’t.”

Bowie: “Well, you see, I do. I have a son, and one of my major regrets is that I just wasn’t there for the first six years of his life. And that is a continual source of guilt and regret, because I really should have been able to except that I would be there for him. But you don’t know that you’re giving all that up when you’re going through it. It’s only in hindsight that you think. ‘Wow! I really let go of some serious relationships along the way. If only I’d known’. It’s true when they say you sacrifice a lot as a musician. And it’s generally out of selfishness. You see something and you go for it. But you don’t realize that until much later.”

NME: Brett, are you saying that you’re deliberately avoiding relationships?

Brett: “No, I’m not deliberately avoiding them, but I’m very wary of them. I don’t feel there’s any space in my life for those sorts of things. It’s nothing to do with not having the time it’s actually to do with realizing that creativity comes through tension and as soon you get too comfortable, it all goes.”

NME: Isn’t that a recipe for loneliness? Won’t you wake up one day and think. ‘I’ve achieved all this but what the fuck for?

Brett: “Maybe, but at the moment it doesn’t matter to me. The thought of loneliness doesn’t really bother me. I don’t feel I’m some sort of Morrissey. I’ve always had a really good friends that I’ve always relied on; I’ve always had a lot of people in my life. I’ve never been a sad case. I’ve always been too much inclined to the other side of life if anything, to having a good time…”

Bowie: “Friends I’ve always relied on’… There’s a giveaway, young Brett. Hahaha.”

Brett: “You a prophet of doom or what?

Bowie: “No. It’s just that I’ve never heard a young artist say, ‘Well, I want a fairly balanced life. I don’t want the work to actually take over my private life’…”

Brett: “You want it to take over, you want it to occupy your dreams and everything. That’s the whole point. Otherwise it wouldn’t be any good.”

Bowie: “Yeah, and that’s why you do have to remain empty of relationships and all those things. But you’re always the loser in the end. You must be aware of that.”

Brett: “I am, yeah.”

Bowie: “It sounds very pretentious, but that is the sacrifice one makes. You do sacrifice a lot of real, honest internal psychological safety by doing what we’re doing. You end up as some sort of emotional casualty because you learn how to keep relationships away from you. And breaking that habit suddenly becomes very hard. You suddenly realize at some point that you don’t have the equipment for creating relationships; because you’ve never utilized it, you don’t know how to do it. You’ve lived your life learning how to not create relationships that will tie you down to anything or anybody. And there you are, at a certain age, thinking, ‘Wonder how you get to know people and develop something?’

…..“Art is burden isn’t it? Hahahaha!”

Brett: “Oh it is!”

Bowie: “Genius is pain. Oh, dear me.”

NME: It’s time to part. Brett is due back in the studio. Bowie has another engagement. They swap phone numbers and Bowie promises to come and see Suede play live the next time he’s around. The original plan – that I should interview Bowie separately for an hour about his new album – has gone out the window. We’ve used up all our time and more. “That was too much fun.” says Bowie.

Later Brett tells NME’s John Mulvey: “It was just great. I was really shitting myself, much more than when I go onstage, ‘cos it could have been really dreadful, it could have completely changed my point of view about a whole section of my life… which would have been quite grim. I imagined coming back and smashing up all my Bowie records, but he was actually one of the nicest people I’ve ever met… just so, so charming.

…..“He came in and he smelt beautiful, that was the most important thing. He smelt of Chanel – but not poor person’s Chanel. He wafted in in a suit. It was just like Jim’ll Fix It!”

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