16th June 2002
If David Bowie, whose recording career in rock music stretches back to 1964, had followed in the footsteps of so many of his own contemporaries, we might have written him off more than a decade ago. But with recent albums that have dug deep into outsider art (Outside) and tapped into the mainline of state-of-the-art club music (Earthling), Bowie, who recently turned 55 this past January, is anything but a shadow of his former self.
And to prove this point better than anything Bowie has just released his 25th studio release entitled, Heathen – a dark, yet engaging album that tugs at the hem of his own past, while looking ahead towards a somewhat uncertain future.
Here Livewire presents David Bowie candidly discussing his new album, heathenism, as well as some old familiar friends, Ziggy’s muse and his own inner ghosts.
How did you and Tony Visconti get back together again?
Bowie: Tony Visconti and I had been wanting to work together again for a few years now. Both of us had fairly large commitments and for a long time we couldn’t see a space in which we could get anything together. As spring came around, last year, things began to ease up. I told Mark Plati and my band that I was going to disappear for a while and put this thing together with Tony. They were very understanding, they’ve worked with me long enough to know that we would be back together again before long.
That’s when it all came together. I went over and stayed at Tony’s place for a while and we talked and played around in his home studio to get a feel of what I was after. Ironically, the first piece that we recorded there in demo form and were excited about is one song that never made it to the final list. However, it was our starting point.
What was it that you wanted from this collaboration?
Bowie: We didn’t know where we were going but it was a joy when we got there. I had a sense of the sonic weight that I was after, a sort of non-professional approach, a kind of British amateur-ness about it. And I mean amateur in that dedicated fashion you find in a man who, only on Sundays, will build a cathedral out of matchsticks, beautiful but only to please himself and his family and friends. I went in very much like that. I wanted to prove the sustaining power of music. I wanted to bring about a personal cultural restoration, using everything I knew without returning to the past. I wanted to feel the weight and depth of the years. All my experiences, all the questions, all the fear, all the spiritual isolation. Something that had little sense of time, neither past nor present. This is the way that the old men ride.
How did you go about setting up the right circumstances?
Bowie: Sometime in spring of 2001, I had been told by guitarist David Torn of a new studio that was in near completion state called Allaire. Tony Visconti and I had taken a trip up up a few weeks before we started work there, just to suss it out; in fact, T-Bone Burnett was working there with Natalie Merchant at the time. It’s just outside of Woodstock, remote, silent and inspirational. We couldn’t believe what a find it was. The place had been originally built in the twenties as a summer home for an industrialist and his family. He had been under the spell of a certain kind of building style, all wood with nautical overtones. Being in the building felt at times like being on one of those Eisenhower era yachts or something like that. He even had that seafaring blue down. Must have ordered it especially, I imagine.
The main room, which would have been the dining room in its day, was so high, oh, at least thirty, forty feet high with twenty five-foot windows. Just enormous. And the view. Well, this whole complex was situated on the top of a mountain giving fifty mile views through one hundred and eighty degrees over the Ashokan reservoir. North through the West ending at the South. Unbelievable. I just knew exactly what lyrics I was to write as I stepped into the room although I didn’t yet know what the words themselves were.
It sounds like a country retreat. Weren’t you worried that the music would become too laid back?
Bowie: Now someplace like that can set me off two ways. I either get super euphoric or darkly depressive, misery being my default position. My soul flies erratically on the wings of what I would imagine is a feeble bi-polarism. Not the all out kind. I’ve encountered that and I’m not that. However, something akin to that brushes past me in my quietest hours.
What is the approach to music making that you and Tony have?
Bowie: I’m not sure that Tony and I have much of an approach really. It never feels like work. For this particular album, I had started writing around spring of last year and had got about forty or fifty bits of melody or chord structures that I liked. Half of the pieces seemed redundant just walking through the door. One reads about encountering epiphany, a Damascene experience. Giddy at the tranquility and the pure gravitas of the place, everything that I had written became galvanized somehow, into an unwavering focus.
Talk a little about the musicians on Heathen.
Bowie: The first person Tony Visconti and I brought into play was Matt Chamberlain. I knew his work by reputation and he had been working with Natalie when we had gone to look at the place so I was able to meet and talk with him a little. It’s gotten very important for me now to work with people who are not Divas or egomaniacs, and boy, I’ve worked with a few believe me. I just don’t have time for all that. The people that I’m involved with now are well balanced and know who they are.
Matt is an incredible drummer. What did he bring to the recording?
Bowie: Matt has a cool procedure as a percussionist. He will drag the most peculiar things into the studio, bits of wrought iron, oil drums, strange Harry Partch-like constructions and bang around on them. He’ll record a few minutes of it on his machine, then make loops out of the bits that we choose and play along to those on his traditional kit. Marvelous drum tracks were created that way. One advantage of the high ceilings was that we could suspend microphones way up high from the beams and record from up there. It gives a whole new dimension to the sound.
As he played, Tony and I would lay down fundamental instruments alongside. Tony on bass and me on synth, piano or guitar. The interesting thing is that although we brought in, over the weeks, a number of people to play these parts, most often they never sounded right. They started getting slick. I was delighted that so much of what I played remained on the finished work. That’s me playing drums over my own loop on Cactus. In fact the only thing I didn’t play on that track was bass. That was Tony.
Townshend and Grohl play guitar on a couple of songs for this album, but who laid down the fundamental tracks?
Bowie: David Torn came in next and in a very similar way to Matt, worked up a series of loops and atmospheric pieces over what was already on tape. His work is very spiritual and has a fragile, ephemeral quality that I adore. The more conventional solo or lead work was played by others at a later stage. Dave Grohl on the Young song, Townshend on ‘Slow Burn’ and Gerry Leonard on a couple of others. Carlos Alomar puts in an appearance on ‘Everyone Says Hi’. That’s about it.
How did Townshend get involved?
Bowie: I’ve known Pete for years of course and have always thought of him as a mentor in some ways. We’d written back and forth about doing this for a while and he was due to do his part when he came in for the Concert For New York which we both played at. Time got out of hand what with rehearsals so we did it by throwing the ProTools disc back and forth across the ocean. It’s such an angular, deeply felt and moving piece of playing, I just love it.
The string section on Heathen is quite beautiful. Did Tony write those parts?
Bowie: Tony wrote most all of them. I had a major hand in ‘I Would Be Your Slave’ as I had kind of worked them out on the Trinity keyboard. And I came up with the line in ‘Gemini’ but everything else is Tony. He is a superb string arranger, I could not think of doing an album with him without strings in some form. It would be criminal.
We had most everything laid down by early September and then THAT happened. 911. The weirdest and toughest thing for us was having the Scorchio Quartet come up from NY to play the parts that Tony had written for them. It was terrific that they could even think about coming up to work after such a traumatic experience. But, as they pointed out, it was the necessary break that was so needed by all of them. It wasn’t easy for them to get up to Shokan either. Trains and such were out and the roads were all closing down, so it was no small thing that they did. I will always thank them for that. The first piece that we worked on with them was ‘I Would Be Your Slave’, an entreaty to the highest being to show himself in a way that could be understood. Too disturbing.
Are all the songs written by you?
Bowie: I do three covers on this album, in homage to the writers as much as any other reason. The Neil Young song ‘ I’ve Been Waiting For You’ was from his very first album. When I got that album in 1969, I was dazzled by the overall complexity of sound. It was so majestic but aloft or lonely sounding at the same time. A real yearning. And I’d always wanted to do that song on stage or someplace.
The Pixies’ song Cactus is really an underrated song, in my opinion, as is so much of Charles’s writing. I never could get over the fact that The Pixies formed, worked and separated without America taking them to its heart or even recognizing their existence for the most part. It was a downright disgrace. Pixies and Sonic Youth were so important to the eighties.
The third is a song by my one time muse The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He was a stablemate of mine on Mercury records in the late 60’s and I chewed off the last part of his name for Ziggy, of course. When I read on his site that he thought that because I’d borrowed his name that, at least I should sing one of his songs I got guilty and wanted to make amends immediately. So I covered one of his best songs, ‘I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship’ although he sings Spacecraft on the record.
I read in one article that you feel you’ve haven’t played instruments as much on an album since Diamond Dogs.
Bowie: Nearly all the synth work on Heathen is mine and some of the piano. We had a joke going that for every song, I would put together a layer of sound that I liked and Tony, grinning like a Cheshire cat, would say, “but surely those are pre-sets, David?” The thing is, most ‘professional’ synth players will listen to a song and then will want to program their own sound for it. They have an inbuilt enmity and elitism toward pre-sets, even though some of these same guys programmed those sounds originally, and with a lot of care. I love pre-sets. And if I say that, ‘no, don’t change the sound I want the pre-set’, their face will drop and a look of disdain appears. However, I got my way most times and the odd sounding homemade quality that Pete Townshend liked about this work is generally me tinkering around.
I’ve never responded well to entrenched negative thinking. When I’m faced with ‘that won’t work’ or ‘don’t let’s try that’ I freeze up. I try to put judgement on hold for as long as possible. Then, when I need to listen to something critically, I put myself in a place that has nothing to do with the industrialized process we’re going through, being in a studio and all that. I’ll pretend that I’m on a ship, say, and I’m looking out to sea and there’s a distant fog on the horizon. I will listen to the piece of music from that place and see what it does to me. I use those kind of tricks all the time. It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece. They will then confront the whole thing with a standard reaction and a standard reaction will not allow for deviancies. It’s the kiss of death in creating something.
But I’m pretty good with collaborative thinking. I work well with other people. I believe that I often bring out the best in somebody’s talents. To not be modest about it, you’ll find that with only a couple of exceptions, most of the musicians that I’ve worked with have done their best work by far with me. You only have to listen to their other work to see how true that is. I can shine a light on their own strengths. Get them to a place they would never have gotten to on their own. There are exceptions, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Fripp to name two.
You use some interesting old-school synths on Heathen.
Bowie: Some years ago, a friend very kindly bought me the original EMS AKS briefcase synth that Eno used on so many of those classic records of the seventies. In fact, it was the one he used on Low and Heroes. It was up for auction, and I got it for my fiftieth birthday. We’ve put that back into service again, most obviously on ‘Cactus’. Everything on the EMS is miniaturized beyond belief; nothing like it existed at the time. Taking it through customs has always been a stomach turning affair as it looks like a briefcase bomb in the x-ray. Eno got pulled out of the line on several occasions. I wouldn’t even dream of taking it through these days.
The Stylophone is one of the looniest of pre-synths. It came out in the sixties and I first used it on ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 I think it was. It was really cheap and the tone is nasty as hell. It only plays one note at a time and you have to use a stylus to get at the keyboard. Like using a pen. It has no volume control so you do that by putting your hand over the speaker. But it’s got something about it. You hear it really well at the end of ‘Slip Away’. Tony suggested that I cover the top note of some of his string parts with it and it gives them a kind of lift.
The ‘Longwave Theremin’ and a proper Theremin were used on a couple of tracks. Tony had the proper one and has had it for years. He’s a super fan of Theremin and showed us all a great documentary on Theremin’s very sad and long life. This woeful sounding instrument found its way onto ‘Gemini’ among others.
Did you live up in Shokan or commute between the studio and New York?
Bowie: We had a beautiful little place to live on the grounds, which accommodated my little family, and we ate in a communal dining room. Once I got to the top of the mountain, I just didn’t go down again until we finished. I’d get up around six most mornings and spend them in the studio putting together my chord structures and melodies and words, finding sounds that I wanted to use. Then around ten Tony would get in and we’d go to work.
You had a clip up on your site some time ago of you performing a simple version of ‘Afraid’ with Mark Plati. Were you writing things that much in advance?
Bowie: Both ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Afraid’ were recorded early last year and as I liked these two so much, I just moved ’em forward to this album. We completely re-recorded ‘Slip Away’, over one of Matt’s great loop parts. Back in the late 70’s, everyone that I knew would rush home at a certain point in the afternoon to catch the Uncle Floyd show. He was on cable and the show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey. All his pals were involved and it was a hoot. It had that Soupy Sales kind of appeal and though ostensibly aimed at kids, I knew so many people of my age who just wouldn’t miss it. We would be on the floor it was so funny. Two of the regulars on the show were Oogie and Bones Boy, ridiculous puppets made out of ping-pong balls or somesuch. They feature in the song. I just loved that show.
I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass. Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.
Have your writing methods changed much over the years?
Bowie: Sometimes you stumble across a few chords that put you in a reflective place. ‘Slip Away’ started like that. It’s odd but even when I was a kid, I would write about ‘old and other times’ as though I had a lot of years behind me. Now I do, so there is a difference in the weight of memory. When you’re young, you’re still ‘becoming’, now at my age I am more concerned with ‘being’. And not too long from now I’ll be driven by surviving, I’m sure. I kind of miss that ‘becoming’ stage, as most times you really don’t know what’s around the corner. Now, of course, I’ve kind of knocked on the door and heard a muffled answer. Nevertheless, I still don’t know what the voice is saying, or even what language it’s in.
Strangely, some songs you really don’t want to write. I didn’t like writing ‘Heathen’. There was something so ominous and final about it. It was early in the morning, the sun was rising and through the windows I could see two deer grazing down below in the field. In the distance a car was driving slowly past the reservoir and these words were just streaming out and there were tears running down my face. But I couldn’t stop, they just flew out. It’s an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it.
On the other hand, what I like my music to do to me is awaken the ghosts inside of me. Not the demons, you understand, but the ghosts. There, I’m using that old language again. I don’t believe in demons. I don’t think there is such a thing. Or evil. I don’t believe in some force outside of ourselves that creates bad things. I just think of it as all dysfunctionalism of one kind of another. No satan, no devil. The devil only really appears in the New Testament. He makes a couple of casual appearances in the Old, but only as an irritating obstacle. We create so many circles on this straight line we’re told we’re traveling. The truth is of course is that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.
Why is the album called Heathen?
Bowie: Heathenism is a state of mind. You can take it that I’m referring to one who does not see his world. He has no mental light. He destroys almost unwittingly. He cannot feel any Gods presence in his life. He is the 21st century man. However, there’s no theme or concept behind Heathen, just a number of songs but somehow there is a thread that runs through it that is quite as strong as any of my thematic type albums.
Any plans for touring this year?
Bowie: I feel really good about taking these songs on the road. I’m playing several festivals and a number of indoor gigs both in Europe and the States. And I’m putting the Meltdown Festival together for June. I’ll playing that. I get asked all the time to do a full blown major World Tour and I’m getting to the point where I feel it might be great. There’re so many new pieces now that I’ve not performed over in Australia and Japan and South America. But it won’t be this year. I have a real need to keep writing this year and I always go with my gut feeling for what is right. Next year though? Who knows?
Is writing still a passion for you?
Bowie: I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I’m not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does. There, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say. The words just jolly it along. It’s always been my way of expressing what for me is inexpressible by any other means.
What is very enlightening for me right now is that I sense that I’m arriving at a place of peace with my writing that I’ve never experienced before. I think I’m going to be writing some of the most worthwhile things that I’ve ever written in the coming years. I’m very confident and trusting in my abilities right now. But I’ve got to think of myself as the luckiest guy. Robert Johnson only had one album’s worth of work as his legacy. That’s all that life allowed him.