David Bowie Keyboardist Jason Lindner on Making of 'Blackstar'

"When Bowie opened his mouth to sing on the first take, that's when it hit me," says jazz ace

"Somehow the stars were really aligned for this record," says keyboardist Jason Lindner of working on David Bowie's 'Blackstar.' Credit: Deneka Peniston

David Bowie may not be doing any press to promote his upcoming album, ★, (pronounced Blackstar), but that doesn't mean his collaborators are remaining silent. Late last month, we posted an in-depth piece about the making of the album where we spoke with producer Tony Visconti, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana, but we didn't quite get everyone. "[Keyboardist] Jason [Lindner] was a godsend," Visconti said.  "We gave him some pretty far-out chords, but he brought a jazz sensibility to re-voice them."

Lindner is indeed an incredibly accomplished jazz keyboardist who has worked with Avishai Cohen, Dafnis Prieto, Claudia Acuña and many others. We called him up to speak about his work on ★.

Are you a longtime David Bowie fan or did you come to him later in life?
Later. I was a total bebop head. I was a metalhead as a kid and then a bebopper and blues head as a teen. I didn't start really start to expand and start to appreciate rock & roll and stuff like that until well into my twenties.

What was the first Bowie record you heard?
Earthling. I really loved it. Of course, I heard the hits as they came out in the 1980s like "Let's Dance" and everything. I knew his music as more of an outsider. But with Earthling, I started checking him out more.

That's seen by many as one of his lesser albums, though I've always liked it.
It's pretty experimental. They were really plugged into the underground drum 'n' bass stuff happening at the time.

Did you first come into contact with him when you saw him at Bar 55 a year and a half ago?
I didn't know he was there. I was thankful I didn't know since I would have been self-conscious about playing.

How did you learn he was there?
Afterwards, Donny [McCaslin] was like, "Bowie was in the audience, and I think we might do something."

What was your reaction to that?
I was really happy and excited, but in general I'm not the kind of person to get my hopes up since I've been disappointed before. Things like that have come up, and then they wind up not happening. There was no guarantee that what we'd do in the studio would ever amount to an album release. I'm the kind of person that I want to see it to believe it.

Tell me about the first time you met him.
That would be the first day in the studio back in January.

Did it surprise you that you were invited onto this project?
If I say it didn't surprise me, I sound like an asshole. I don't know. Great things have happened before. It was a very pleasant surprise, I'd say that. It was thrilling that all of a sudden all this was happening and we were making arrangements to have gear in the studio and holding these dates. It was pretty amazing.

Walk me through that first day of recording. You'd heard demos by that point, correct?
Yep. The sessions happened over three waves in January, February and March. We received some demos before each session, and each one was approximately a week. We checked out all the demos. If I'm not mistaken, we got together, the four of us, Donny, Tim [Lefebvre], Mark [Guiliana] and myself; we went over all the demo songs. We rehearsed them so we wouldn't show up unprepared. We learned, I don't know how many demos, probably six or something, "Blackstar" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," among them.

We got to the studio early, actually a day before to set up and got sounds and everything, which I thought was a great idea, so that the first official day of recording, when Bowie met us, we didn't have anything to worry about as far as music. We could just focus on the music.

What direction did he give you on that first day to get things started?
He came in and introduced himself, [Tony] Visconti and the great producer Kevin Killen. We just basically all met and he just said, "Should we start with this song?" It might have been "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore." The first time we went into the studio together and he opened his mouth to sing on the first take, that's where it hit me. It was like, "Holy shit, I'm really in the studio with a rock star now." It doesn't hit you when you meet him. He's just a very elegant sort of gentleman. He was dressed casually and very nice, pretty normal.

What sort of keyboards were you using?
My setup was nine keyboards, though 1o if you include the grand piano in the studio. They had something called a tack piano that has thumbtacks on all the hammers, which make a metallic sound when it hits strings. That was a little spinet they keep artfully out of tune. I'm a Dave Smith keyboardist artist. I have some of his gear, a Prophet 08, a Prophet 12 and a Mopho x4. In the studio there was a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak that I used on one song. I had my Moog Voyager and my Micromoog. I brought my Hohner Clavinet, which I used on a couple of songs. There were two different Wurli's. One was a tube Wurli, which was very funky and nice and good for the more percussive sort of songs so that I didn't have to play so pretty. I think those were all the boards. 

"Above and beyond a certain level of artistry, genre just falls away completely when someone can be that intense as an artist."

Tony told me you used guitar pedals to achieve certain sounds. Can you explain that to me?
Yeah. I kind of use the Wurlitzer as my main keyboard, and kind of use it as a guitar in that I have a chain of pedals that I really love. I put it through that and it becomes part of the Wurlitzer sound. Actually, I would move that pedal chain to any instrument I would be tracking on so I could have full flexibility with the use of those effects.

How much of what you're playing is based off the demos and how much of it are you improvising?
The demos contained the parts that needed to be there, so if there was a moving line or, obviously, a bass line or anything specific, we made sure it was there because that's part of the song. Then we'd have to determine, if it was unclear, if that was going to be a guitar playing that or a keyboard or bass or whatever. Those were things that needed to be learned. Then he gave us the freedom to really just play, sort of be ourselves, and if we were hearing anything in particular, to try it out. But there's a fine line there. When you're in the studio with somebody like Bowie, or any high-level artist, you want to be aware of where the boundaries are of bringing yourself in and being true to the demo and being a real sessions musician and nailing the part. Of course, that line moved as we all got more comfortable in the studio, but during the first week in January we were all trying to nail the demos.

I know the title track began as two different songs. What were they like in the early stages?
I haven't heard the final product of the rest of the songs besides "Blackstar," but it was pretty much the way we had it in the studio with the exception of the overdubbed string sounds that I guess they did without me later. It didn't change much from the demos. None of them changed that much from the demos. The quality of the sound changed. You could feel Mark on the drums and everyone, but the parts are all there.

Tony told me that "Blackstar" was first two songs they put together. Is that your memory of it?
Bowie knew it was going to be the same song. It wasn't that they were two separate songs. He actually said in the email that we would connect these two parts with a freeform middle bit. That was that. It was a two-part suite rather than two different songs.

The freeform bit in the middle gives you a lot of freedom.
Absolutely. There were parts of some songs where it was just, "Play jazz. Improvise."

How would you characterize the music? It's jazz with hip-hop drum sounds and rock guitar at times. It's hard to pin down to any one genre.
The feeling in the studio was like, "This is rock & roll." That's what I came away with. It has that energy, that rebellion and that intensity. It's all rocking. That's what I came away with. I think genres, to me, are more about energy and the type of feeling you get than technical stuff. There's definitely some jazz artists that have that feeling. Above and beyond a certain level of artistry, genre just falls away completely when someone can be that intense as an artist.

Was Bowie singing live on every take?
Yeah. From what I understand, they redid everything. I don't know what they kept from the original stuff, but they were all great to my ears.

Very few people in the past decade have watched him sing in any setting. It's a real privilege that you got to see that.
It's an incredible privilege, and we were completely blown away. He's just a super perfectionist. For him to just go in and kill it on vocals to where we're all just astounded, first take without any warming up, and go back and say, "We're going to redo all the vocals. Those are just scratch vocals." It was like, "Wow."

I know James Murphy was there for the second of the three weeks of sessions. What was his role? Tony told me he was originally going to be one of the producers.
They weren't clear on his role. He was just in there hanging out. He did some interesting, cool things. He filtered some of my sounds through this machine he carries to all his sessions. It's called the EMS Synthi. It has various models. The one is the EMS Synthi AKS. It looks like a briefcase and you open it up. It's one of the first synths. Basically, it has modular ins and outs, and you can filter anything through it. A couple of overdubs of my parts where filtered through this thing. It had an amazing effect. I know it is one of James' favorite things in the world. These are extremely rare and extremely expensive now. 

[Before Murphy showed up,] Bowie said something like, "We will have a new 'body' in the studio as of Tuesday. He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He also produced Arcade Fire's Reflektor album. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball."

Donny told me that "Dollar Days" was just made up on the spot by Bowie one day. Do you recall that happening?
It wasn't called that then, and I don't remember. It wasn't on the demos, so I can't even recall in my head what song that is. I remember a couple of songs he played us on the guitar. I think he said he wrote them this morning and we made something out of them.

Tell me about this new version of "Sue."
There's the Maria Schneider Orchestra version [from the compilation Nothing Has Changed]. We tried to play a quartet arrangement of that. We also tried another version that was not trying to copy or emulate that arrangement. I don't know which one they kept.

The closer "I Can't Give Everything Away" is amazing. What do you remember from that?
It's just an epic song. It's a huge feeling. It's kind of trancelike. I remember I just had this piano figure I played on the Wurlitzer that keeps going and stays consistent through the bass notes moving down. It keeps repeating and gets bigger and bigger. It's a huge feeling.

There's seven songs on the album. Do you remember how many you recorded?
Probably 12, something like that.

Do you see any scenario where you perform these songs live with him?
In my mind [laughs]. No one mentioned any live stuff. He was recalling some touring in the 1980s that he did when he started to have those hits. I suppose that was the "Let's Dance" era. He said that weeks and months of tour dates were being added as they were still out, and they were out for over a year straight. He didn't like it. I don't think he enjoys touring. I saw an interview with him from the 1970s or 1980s where he said he didn't go on a plane for a while, even. It took him a while to do that.

I suppose from his perspective, he's going to be 70 in a little over a year. Why not focus on creating new work rather than playing old songs you've already done a million times?
Do you think if he performed live he'd have to play old stuff?

I think fans would be happy to see him do anything. Also, he did retire the hits on his 1990 tour.
What does that mean? He played them for the last time? 

Yeah. He did this huge arena tour and pledged he'd never do the hits again. Then in the 1990s he only did new songs and obscure old ones on tour. By the very late 1990s, the hits started to come back, and on the tours in the early 2000s he was back to playing everything.
Really? That's funny.

Yeah. The 2003–04 tour was amazing. He'd do absolutely anything. It was like he put his whole catalog on shuffle. Then he had the heart episode at the end and he hasn't played since.
When did the lollipop incident happen?

It was just days before the near–heart attack, and it hit him right in his good eye. And not long before that, a crew member fell to his death before a show in Florida. I can understand why he didn't want to tour again. That last one ended in complete disaster.
I can see him dreading touring after that.

Sure. But why not do a single night in New York where you guys play the new album and nothing else?
That would be pretty amazing if we could do all these songs. We'll see. Maybe he'll be inspired to do it.

He also hasn't done an interview in a decade.
I know. Why do you think he choses to do no interviews?

I'll give you my theory. I think after the heart surgery he wanted to recover in private and be with his family. During that absence, he started to have a mystique about him again. It wasn't like all those interviews he did in the 1990s and early 2000s did much to advance his career, and now suddenly, he was this mysterious figure for the first time since the 1970s. I think he's realized it served him well and just stuck with it. Also, it's like his newest persona. He's like this rock-star ghost.
Yeah. That sounds pretty true from what I can see.

To get back on track here, this project must be a real career highlight for you.
Yeah. It's a career highlight to date. I'm probably going to get the most press I've ever gotten. It's certainly the first chance I've had to do anything with Rolling Stone, or really outside of the jazz world. It's probably the biggest honor, in a certain sense. I've gotten to work with a lot of great musicians who aren't famous, which I also find to be an honor. But it's a tremendous career highlight.

Tony told me that you were a hugely vital part of the thing.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the way he is in the studio as a producer, it influenced me. I worked on two albums as a producer this year. One came out this week by the New York Gypsy All-Stars. When I was in the studio as a producer I couldn't get Tony out of my head. He was always in my head as a reference without me consciously thinking about it. It was like, "What would Tony do in this situation?" He's such a badass producer.

To wrap up here, I think people are going to really love the album. It's going to shock and surprise a lot of people.
I'm super happy that I really connected with all the music. That means a lot to me. I'm sure I could have not liked it, or it could have been another artist where I don't particularly connect with the music, but they have a huge name or something. I'm really happy I connected, and it was right in line with all of us in the band. Somehow the stars were really aligned for this record.