There are few musical artists still around after 25-plus years who could still be considered supremely cool by anyone. The Rolling Stones have their props, but long ago stopped breaking any new musical ground; The Beatles reign as posthumous pop icons, but half the teens you ask will hold their noses and call them pathetic dinosaurs. Yet David Bowie has retained a hipness that still gets a knowing nod from metalheads, emo lovers, pubescent goths, rap and soul DJs, and even your gay old parents. His two most recent releases Heathen and now Reality are a return to form with strong thoughtful songs, sonic experimentation and a welcome collaboration with Tony Visconti, the producer who helped mold Bowie’s distinctive sound on classic records as Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust.
The Weekly Dig spoke with Bowie by phone from London.
Were you happy to work with Tony Visconti again?
Yes, we did Heathen last year and Reality this year, and no doubt he will be working with me next year as well. We’re kind of, as much as we can, going to try to do it as a yearly thing, because that seems to be the speed that both of us work at. In our case it works out pretty good. In the old days, we used to do maybe a couple of albums a year. But, of course, the industry can’t really support that. We kind of have to restrict it to one a year, which will be OK I guess.
There’s a whole syndrome that I felt that I’d fallen into where you can only do something once every two years or so because the company has a sell off-period, then it has a factory line, like, it’s such a hard deal, the whole industry thing is hard to come to terms with, so Tony and I are pretty much going to go our own way. At the moment I’ve got a company that is pretty open to letting me do things my own way.
So I’m assuming that you are talking about the mega-platinum success of Let’s Dance? That it was a deterrent to you artistically?
That slowed everything down, it really did. Up until that point I’d done one, maybe two; sometimes if I was producing an artist it would be three albums I was making a year. With Iggy, for instance I was writing three albums a year for that period. I was writing his Lust For Life and The Idiot, and then I had my own albums I was writing. I was also doing the odd other thing for another artist as well, so it was really a heavy workload. But I enjoyed the hell out of it. And I was touring at the same time.
The direction you seem to be going these days, moving away from the heavy electronica that you’ve been doing, is this a deliberate choice on your part?
It really isn’t. I love all that stuff very much indeed, so I guess I’m just writing the stuff that I feel is right for my time, where I live and what I’m doing. I can quite see myself doing … I mean, David Torn, who I work with these days quite a bit, we’ve talked about doing something maybe a little more techy in the future.
How much are you affected by the musicians whom you play with? Do you come up with the sound and find the musicians?
Heathen was written just for me, and I didn’t have anybody in mind. I think it works that way that I get an overall idea of what the album should sound like and I tend to handpick the musicians who would make that sound come to life. This one was oriented, I guess, a little more toward my band. Reality was – it was pretty much about the personalities, Gerry Leonard and Earl slick on guitars. Sterling Campbell on drums.
Are you playing guitar?
Yes, I’m playing quite a bit of guitar and keyboards on it.
But not like when you made Diamond Dogs. You were playing all of the guitar parts on that one, right?
Yeah! (laughs). I’m playing a lot of stuff on that if my memory serves me right, which may not be too good a guide. My memory was … whoah!
Do you take into account the affect your being involved will have when you work with someone, for example, like when you produced Lou Reed or covered Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” on Scary Monsters?
Never at the time; it’s just a thing you’re doing, like good fun. In hindsight, obviously things change and they develop a new context. Looking back on all that now, it was, as far as Lou is concerned, Lou is still a very dear friend of mine. I wouldn’t say we’re practically neighbors, because he lives quite a long way away from me, we’re both downtown [New York City], though. We run into each other all the time, we e-mail, and we’re pretty good buddies. But looking back on the album that we did together, it’s a real good album.
That’s for sure.
I’m really pleased we did it, you know. It would have been awful had we not actually worked together while we were both comparatively young guys.
You continue to have appeal across the board, with young hipsters –
– as well as old hipsters. We’ve got ’em too, you know.
This is a pretty unusual thing, though.
I’m grateful for any audience, you know? It’s fine; I don’t care if they’ve got two heads. As long as they are there to enjoy themselves, come listen. I suppose the only thing I’m fairly strong-armed about is that I really kind of require them to get involved with the new material I’m writing as well as the older things. … But these days it is very hard to get new material known outside of a very kind of trainspotter kind of fan. But so far I’ve been extremely lucky in that way that I’ve had audiences prepared to go really the whole length and listen to not only older things, but new stuff, and that’s really quite fulfilling as a performing artist.
Do you care if you ever return to those huge tours of the past?
The way that I work these days, which I guess some would say is a more intimate kind of relationship with the audience, maybe I’m a lot more like my genuine self these days. I guess you would say it’s a lot friendlier in my approach to the audience. When you’re sort of a little more withdrawn, it’s easier in a way to play to a bigger audience. … I don’t think I could go much above this [audiences of more than 12,000], not unless I was knocking out anthemic songs. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve got that many; I’ve got a couple, but on the whole, some of the newer material is getting quite intimate sounding.
Are you doing the old songs any differently now?
“Let’s Dance” starts as a waltz, so it is incredibly quiet; sometimes it’s a samba, it depends on our mood. Recently I’m not doing it (laughs). I’ve only done it about four times on this tour.
Do you like playing in Boston?
Oh yeah, you bet!
Tell me about the tour.
This leg of the tour, we’ve got about 30 dates. I know we’re coming back to the States in the spring. Then we’ll be doing a whole bunch more when we come back, after we do New Zealand and Japan and Hong Kong and all that, you know? We’ve got Wembley, London for the next few nights, then we end up in Glasgow – that’s our very last show in Europe. It’s been a hell of a run. It’s been a great tour – really excellent tour.
Well, it’s an excellent record.
Oh, thank you. I genuinely pretty much live for the writing, that’s the top of the thing. And I’m finally starting to really enjoy performing as well.
Yeah, I never enjoyed it. It was not something I looked forward to very much. I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing – one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist. But over this last eight years or so, since I’ve started working the first time around with Reeves, we went through the ’90s, now I just got really comfortable on stage. Now I’m just, I’m just like a duck in water out there (laughs).
Was that why you wanted to quit after the Ziggy Stardust tour? The performing was getting to you?
No, I wanted to get out of being Ziggy Stardust! I so much wanted to move on. It seemed a kind of right-juvenile drastic way of doing it (laughs). I maybe should have told the band. When you’re young, you make these ridiculous mistakes.
But you’ve gotten to the point where you don’t have to be anybody but yourself up there.
That’s right, exactly, and now there’s really no escape. Well, I guess even I would find a way to, to escape into being somebody, wouldn’t I? If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).
Do you think you will ever collaborate with people like Eno and Fripp again?
Oh, heavens yes. I still keep in touch with those guys. I always try and go see Fripp when he comes to town in New York, and catch the show. Eno and I frequently e-mail.
What did you think of the movie Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes? It seemed such a not-so-thinly veiled story about you. It sounded like he’d just read a few of the biographies of you out there and tried to turn it into a movie.
Yes, it certainly had a lot of that. And I think because of his own particular sexual politics he wanted to make something that represented queer cinema in that way. I guess he did OK, I just found all the characters very colorless; everybody kind of lacked personality, and the main thing was that if he was trying to catch an essence of glam in London in ’72, ’73, whatever, he really missed the humor. It was a very serious movie.
Good point, it was very grim.
It was hilarious in those days! A scream! It was really a riot, you know, it was a lot of fun. And this seemed like a cold world he’d painted, dry as a bone, yeah? So I don’t know, it’s not the best thing he’s ever made. I suspect he’ll make great movies, though; he’s a good filmmaker.
With all due respect, David, how long do you think you’re going to keep going?
Yeah, I know. I wonder. I wonder. I have a horrible idea that’s my answer.
Do you ever feel under pressure to keep coming up with something new?
“Under Pressure” we do in the show, and Gail Dorsey is doing the Freddie Mercury part (laughs). Boy she’s good, and I’ve got to follow that each night. She sings her tits off that thing. The only thing I can compete with is I usually follow up with “Life On Mars” and look back at her EHRAAA! [makes taunting noise and laughs heartily]. It’s the only thing that will stand up to that bugger! Under pressure to do what?
To come up with something new each time you release a record. You’ve dipped into so many styles.
No, no, it has to be what I like. It has to be, but you know it starts off from there. If I’ve gotten all fancy about something then that will probably end up somewhere in there. But usually I just try to create a nice atmosphere for the song in question.