Life On Hours

by Chris Roberts /

January 2000

Few artists have had as much influence on rock music as David Bowie. During the course of a career that has spanned more than three decades, he has roamed all across the musical landscape, adopting new styles as often as most of us change our bed linen. From Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, from “plastic soul” to drum & bass, he has consistently remained an innovator. Yet, on hours…, Bowie returns to his roots–and to form–with his most introspective album for years. contributor Chris Roberts spoke with David Bowie in New York City about his album, his music and his thoughts about contemporary culture at the end of the millennium.

Why is the new album called hours…?

I was searching around, trying to find something that tied up all the strands, and it seemed to me that the album was about reflecting back on the time that one’s lived, and how long one has left to live. Also, it’s about shared experience, so there’s the obvious double punning of “ours”. And there’s this vague notion of it being songs for my generation…oh, it just felt like the right word, y’know? I wouldn’t want to write a treatise on it.

It’s not like you need to make records for the money. Are you constantly trying to improve?

It’s not end product that interests me, it’s process. I just love the way things happen. How they come together, what the confluence of different strands is, what happens when they collide with each other, in any art form. Whether other people are doing it, or I’m doing it myself, that’s the aspect of our culture that I enjoy so much. As for judging one record against another, it’s all so subjective. If your belief system isn’t the same as somebody else’s, you’re going to view everything–past, present, future–in an extremely different way. So I’m intimidated by this idea of absolutes. There can only be that person’s truth. My songs are vehicles for other people to interpret and use as they wish. Although I would say that the man in most of the new songs, “Thursday’s Child”, is disillusioned and angst-ridden, whereas I’m incredibly happy. Jolly, even.

Are you still as abreast of new music as ever?

I watched my son Joe get into Cream and Dylan and Hendrix because there was little 1980s music of interest. Apart from maybe the beginnings of rap, it was all rubbish. But I think the 90s generation will take Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails on with them. Trent Reznor’s fixated on a similar traumatic vision to the one I endured in the late 70s, and he’s tremendous, he’s gonna be really something. And in Britain, Tricky and PJ Harvey are extraordinary. Music’s got strong legs at the moment. Placebo’s last album was sophisticated and Brechtian. I’m not saying that just because they like me!

Do you read a lot?

Three or four books in a good week. We British are by tradition a literary nation–as can be seen by the way all visual arts are at best tolerated if not reviled. I’ve always been drawn to stream-of-consciousness writers–ever since I was a kid I felt an affinity with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and then of course Burroughs. For the same reason I would hope my audience likes my work: there’s more room for interpretation, you’re allowed latitude. More recently, I got very interested in Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity, which is when I found the Internet was a researcher’s dream compared to any library or set of encyclopedias.

Are you still obsessed with the Internet?

God, does that ever eat at the hours. I get up very early most mornings and phone Europe, check out my sites, make sure everything’s up to scratch. But I’ve got it under control now, it’s down to a couple of hours a day.

It’s a great leveller: it’s going to change things quite drastically as to who’s important for their opinions and who isn’t. It’ll encourage people to widen their horizons, to find out that things do all link into each other in a great Zen oneness, heh heh. When you eventually get it in England, that is!

Do people have air conditioning in their homes there yet?

The new media are causing more consternation among record companies than anything ever has: you’ve got kids picking out rarities and unreleased tracks, downloading them, and burning them into CDs and making endless compilations. All my real horrors that I never wanted to see the light of day are up there. The companies are thinking: my God, what do we do? But it’s the same as with “home taping is killing music”–it’ll find a balance eventually. Things don’t end, they just change.

Has it changed the way you make music?

It’ll change the identity of the writer. You used to think in terms of forty minutes, twenty minutes a side. Then with CDs you had to think of a continuous stream of music, around seventy minutes. Then everyone realised that was potty, and went back to fifty minutes again! Seventy bloody minutes of one artist was stretching a point. Now I think more of: well, I’ve done X number of songs this year, rather than one or two albums. I find it all very invigorating. I’ve always been impressed by new ways of doing things. Even though changing a lightbulb can give me a headache.


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