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Inside David Bowie's Stealth Comeback: Q&A With Tony Visconti

6/12/2014 Gary Graff, Detroit ,  Billboard

Billboard -- During much of the past two years, Tony Visconti has been "walking around the streets of New York with my headphones," listening to the music that became "The Next Day," David Bowie's first new album in 10 years. Visconti -- who's worked with Bowie on "David Live," "Young Americans," the so-called Berlin Trilogy, "Scary Monsters" and 2003's "Reality" -- has been involved with the new project from even before Bowie started recording demos and oversaw sessions at The Magic Shop studios in New York's Soho section with a corps of Bowie regulars. With Bowie himself choosing not to do interviews for "The Next Day," Visconti has become the voice of the album -- and, not surprisingly, he has plenty to say about it...

It's hard to say if the greatest achievement of "The Next Day" is making it -- or keeping it so entirely secret as you did. How does it feel now that the world knows about it? Oh, well, I'm ecstatic. I'm really, really happy. I've been keeping this a secret for two to finally have the dam break loose and have the world know about it, I actually had a physical reaction to it, a big relief in my body.

How did you manage to keep the news from leaking? The members of the band and the engineers, the people who bring us coffee in the studio, everybody who was involved in this had to sign a (non-disclosure agreement) to keep this a secret. The people who played on this album, most of them have worked wtih David for a long time; to sign an NDA would have been unnecessary for most of them. But we had some new people and a new recording studio we didn't have an old, long-standing relationship with, so we took the precaution. Everyone had to sign it. No one objected; they said, "It's just an absolute joy to be working with David Bowie." The way we kept it a secret was on an honor system -- not that we were worried about being sued or anything like that. It was so cool to be part of this club. That's what it was really about.

What was the timetable for all of this? Well, (Bowie) started writing it two years ago. David's one of my oldest friends. We'd been communicating over e.mail all the time and we'd meet up for lunch occasionally in New York. The last few times I met with him I saw a twinkle in his ye that wasn't there before, which meant he was writing. I knew the call was gonna come one day, and he contacted me and said "I'd like to go in and make some demos." We went into a studio about two years ago with myself on bass and Sterling Campbell on drums and Gerry Leonard on guitar and we just jammed for a week or two on the ideas that David had. We lived with those demos for a few months and we walked into an actual studio maybe 18 months ago and put down the first serious tracks and worked from there. We'd go two weeks a time and then take a month off or as long as two months off. We probably spent about three months in the studio, but spread out over 18.

Was David conscious that it had been such a long time people had kind of written off the idea of ever hearing from him again? He seemed to be amused by the world kind of thinking he retired or was in ill health. It didn't bother him at all. I think he was a little tired of having to make an album because it was in his contract to do another one in a certain time period. He just gave all that up. He just wanted to have a private life and think about when he would go back in the studio. He's a very confident person; "I'll make a record when I'm ready, when I really have something to say." It never really did bother him what people thought about his absence.

He looks pretty healthy in the video for "Where Are We Now?" I've seen him steadily since he had the health problem (an angioplasty) in 2004 and he's very healthy. He's kind of rosy-cheeked. And in the studio his stamina was fantastic. It was as if he never stopped doing this for a 10-year period. He was singing with every live take; quite often he'd play piano or guitar at the same time. And when it came time to do the final vocals, he was just as loud as he ever was.

The personnel was kind of like old home week, too, wasn't it? Oh, yeah. We had his longtime guitarist Gerry Leonard and his longtime guitarist Earl Slick and his longtime guitarist -- since 2001, anyway -- David Torn. So we had three absolutely wonderful guitarists who have their own specialties. Earl Slick was the tearing-it-up lead guitarist, and then both Gerry and David have different versions of ambient guitar, very dreamy, washy kind of guitar sounds. So the three guitarists were very complementary. And we used Zachary Alford on drums and Sterling Campbell on drums; these are all old Bowie band members from different tours and albums. And Gail Ann Dorsey played most of the bass on the album and sang backup vocals. We had Tony Levin, who's a wonderful bass player, come in for a few tracks as well. And then we had string players come in, wonderful string players who play in Broadway musicals and things like that, and various other people. It was a nice, small combination. I'd say at most a dozen musicians were involved.

Any guest vocalists or featured rappers? (laughs) No, not at all. This was an exclusive, closed-door David Bowie album being made under secretive wrap.


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Is "Where Are We Now?" indicative of the sound of the album? That is the only song like it on the album. Most of the album is uptempo rock songs, with some very innovative new styles as well. I can't give too much away, but there's some very familiar Bowie on it. Obviously you're going to get some classic Bowie, but then there are some tracks that are so far out he's never recorded anything like them before. And they sound oddly commercial, the really far out ones. It's really exciting; I've listened to this album for two years now, analyzing it, tweaking it, writing notes, and I've never grown tired of it. It's amazing every time I hear it.

Tell us about some of the far-out tracks. There's one called "Dirty Boys," and "If You Could See Me" is extremely far out there -- if anything, a bit jazzy. Bowie writes a lot of songs on keyboards now, and when he writes on keyboards he goes into this jazz thing which is quite remarkable. But he's always had songs that have sophisticated chords in them. There's another one, "How Does the Grass Grow," that's very, very different, new Bowie, new-style Bowie.

Did you work on more than the 17 songs that are coming out between the regular and deluxe versions of the album? We over-recorded, yeah -- I think 29 songs in all...and some of them were abandoned within weeks. They just didn't work out. He often writes without lyrics or melody; we're just going for a groove or something that's pre-lyric stage. I think maybe some of the others, if we record again, they'll be re-written or re-arranged, but they didn't fit the immediacy of this album. The 17 we settled on were really the hot ones. I think there are three or four others that are hot, but we disagree on that. (laughs)

Where in the process did "Where Are We Now?" surface? Early, but I didn't hear the lyrics until about five months after it was recorded. It was just a pretty ballad; it was called something else, but I forget what. He came i one day and said, "I've written words for that. I wrote a song about Berlin," and I thought, "How nice. That's really cool." And he gave me a copy (of the lyrics) and got on mic and started warming up, and I read the lyrics and it gave me goosebumps because I spent quite awhile in Berlin, too, making the three albums that are called the Berlin Trilogy. I knew hat he was talking about, because in those days when we were making those albums he didn't live in a very expensive apartment. He lived in the bad part of town, and he and Iggy Pop and I used to go around to just ordinary beer gardens and sit around and pretend we were German and drink beer. He got that feeling in that song with those lyrics.

What else does he sing about on the album? ("Where Are We Now?") seems personal, but some of it is historical. He's been reading history books, and we were having great conversations in the studio about, well, British monarchy for a start and stories related to them. A couple of songs on this album are about historical subjects. Some of the lyrics are blood-curdling, they really are -- very, very strong lyrics about old wars, things like that. The title one of the gorier songs. It's kind of like a Hammer Horror film lyric to it, pretty gory. But I think David's very multi-level; "The Next Day" could also mean this is the new day or this is a new album, this is a new me. But I'm speculating.

You mention possibly returning to some of the material that wasn't used. Are you confident that "if" will become a "when?" I don't know. There's no "when" yet, obviously. I'm not booked to do another album with him. But we talked about recorded more after this. We ended the album on such a high, and he said, "I can't wait to get back in the studio" -- but that's a long way off. This album's going to run its course. We might get together this year. I really don't know.

Did he say anything about touring or playing live? He said no, absolutely not. He said to me, "I've played live for 30-odd years and given interviews, and I don't want to do either of them anymore." They kind of fall into the same bag, the way he thinks. He just wants to make records. He feels like that's what he's entitled to do now.

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