For the past year and a half drummer Zachary Alford has been forced to walk around with the secret that he plays on David Bowie‘s new album. “It’s been torture,” he says. “Everyone always says to me, ‘So, what’s David up to?’ I just had to shrug my shoulders and say, ‘I wish I knew.'”
Now that the secret is out, Zachary is finally able to talk to us about the secretive recording sessions for The Next Day. We also spoke with him about his tenure in Bruce Springsteen‘s “Other Band” in 1992-’93.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Tell me how you first heard about this new Bowie album?
David sent me an email asking if I was available in the first two weeks of May of 2011. It was out of the blue. I mean, we’d been in email contact, but there was never any talk about work.
What was your first reaction?
I said yes. [Laughs] Luckily I was available, so I was just really happy about that. But I didn’t know what it was. But whatever it was, I’m available. [Laughs]
He asked if you were available, but he didn’t tell you it was for a new album?
There was a time where I didn’t know what it was. He wouldn’t even say where it was or what it was. I remember [bassist] Gail [Ann Dorsey] and I talking about it, like, “Oh, did he contact you too?” “Yeah, he contacted me.” “What’s it for?” “I don’t know.”
Popular on Rolling Stone
We didn’t know if it was a performance or a recording or anything. It wasn’t until maybe a week before that he said, “Yes, be here at this studio on this day.” Then somehow it leaked out.
What do you mean?
Well, I got an email from David saying, “Do you know a photographer named so and so?” I could find the name, but I don’t remember offhand. I said, “No.” It’s a good thing I didn’t know him. [Laughs] Apparently this photographer had called someone from David’s office and asked if it was OK for him to take pictures of David at the studio. They were like, “What? Who told you there was even a session?” Obviously, someone from the studio leaked it out. We got an email after that saying, “OK, change of plan. We’re doing it at Magic Shop.”
By this point, are you shocked to learn that he’s making a new album?
Um . . . I’d say I was relieved that he’s finally back in the saddle, and I was relieved that I got the call.
Tell me about the first day of recording. Did he lay out his vision for the album, or did you just start cutting tracks?
It was all very matter-of-fact. We weren’t allowed to hear any of the songs before that, because he didn’t want anything out there circulating. So we basically walked in, and there wasn’t much discussion. It’s like, “Here’s the first tune.” Usually he’d play us a demo. It would be a home demo with a drum machine and a synth. Then he’d play a rehearsal demo, because they had actually rehearsed some of the material up from the initial demo stage in November. I guess that was in 2010. And so we listened to both, and then we’d go in the room and start playing it.
Is this you, Gail, Gerry Leonard and David?
Yes, and David Torn. The first week in May we actually had both guitar players, David Torn and Gerry Leonard. Gail was on bass and David was on either synths or he’d play acoustic guitar or piano, depending on the song.
Gerry would hand out charts while we listened to the song so we’d have something to follow, and we could make any notes we needed. We listened to the songs about two or three times, and then it was time to go play it. That was the drill.
I assume David told you that you couldn’t tell a soul about the sessions.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. He handed out nondisclosure forms for everyone to sign.
Did you even tell your family?
Yes. I told my wife and my kids. But we home-school, so I didn’t have to worry about them blabbing it all over school.
It’s pretty amazing in this day and age that it didn’t get out there.
Yeah. I think it’s a real testament to the value of privacy. This is zero promotion. Basically, him saying nothing is almost promoting the record itself.
Being quiet a whole decade and doing no interviews makes him this real mysterious character. It’s almost like he’s this ghost, and I can understand why he’s reluctant to give that up.
In this day and age, people are so distracted that it’s hard to show them anything they’ll pay attention to. By actually giving them nothing, they want to know more.
I’ve only heard the single, but everyone keeps telling me the rest of the album sounds much different than that song.
Oh yeah. There’s definitely a lot of up-tempo material. That’s some kind of Sixties doo-wop-ish material. Although I don’t remember a lot of the songs. I mean, it’ll be two years in May since we did it. I haven’t heard any of it since. I hope to have the chance to hear it soon myself.
So you basically only spent three total weeks working on the album?
Can you walk me through your average day of recording? What was the routine?
Well, the routine was very much like going to work. It was a lot of fun for me, because I don’t live in the city anymore, but I grew up there. This was a nice way to come back. Every morning I’d stroll through Soho to go to the Magic Shop. I’d show up around 10:30 a.m. David was almost always already there. He’d be in the control room strumming away on something. Then he’d come back when we were all gathered and drinking our coffees. He’d then throw on a demo. Gerry would hand out charts, we’d take notes, and after hearing it two or three times he’d say, “Everybody ready?” We’d say “Yeah,” and we’d go in and play it through. We’d only do two or three takes and he’d say, “Either we’ve got it or we don’t.”
On one occasion I recall we came back in and he still wasn’t happy, so he wanted us to move on. He’d rather keep the momentum going and keep the juices flowing than sit there and hammer out a tune until it’s perfect.
So we’d do the first one, then we would break for lunch. Then the same drill. We’d listen to another one, takes notes, go in . . . Usually we’d finish by five or six.
Roughly how many takes do you think you did of most of the songs?
I would say between two and five takes for all the songs.
Is that sort of low in your experience?
That is low, actually. It may not sound like it, but you can do a lot of takes in no time. Because they’re all rehearsals. I can’t tell you how many sessions I go to and I say, “Oh, wow, let’s listen to the third take. That was the best one.” And someone will say, “That was actually the sixth take.” You forget how many times you’ve done something. So this was pretty low. On a couple of occasions it was only one take.
You said some of the songs were sort of doo-wop. Earl Slick told me some were Rolling Stones-esque. Can you describe the sound of the songs a little more?
There are a couple that remind me of the Scary Monsters period, because they’re a bit more angular and aggressive-sounding, so I would approach them that way, because naturally I’m trying to tie the material into my association of what Bowie music sounds like.
There’s another number that’s a straight-up country song. There was another one that was based on a blues riff, but we had specific instructions to not make it sound like the blues. There were two songs that sort of had a Bo Diddley feel. I remember specifically shying away from that because I didn’t want it to sound like “Panic in Detroit.”
Do you know any of the songs titles?
They’ve changed. The only ones that have remained from my initial days are “The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and . . . is there one called “Ya Ya?”
I don’t think so.
I remember “Boss of Me.” We cut that with Tony Levin on bass. I remember specifically thinking, “Oh, this one sounds kind of funky. Wouldn’t it be great if he played the [Chapman] Stick?” I suggested that, and Tony wasn’t thrilled with that, because there were a lot of chord changes. He doesn’t like to do songs with chord changes on the Stick, but everybody thought it sounded great. That sounded almost Peter Gabriel-like, like something from the “Big Time” era.
How many songs total did you work on?
There’s only 17 on the album when you count the bonus tracks. Do you think the others will come out eventually? Maybe another album?
Yeah, I would think so. There’s plenty of stuff there. One of the songs we worked on was a leftover from Lodger. I think it was called “Born in a UFO” when we worked on it, but I didn’t see that title on the record. Maybe he changed it. I don’t know.
Did David ever mention the possibility of playing any of this material live?
Well, he did . . . I think it was at the end of the first two-week installment. On the very last day he asked if I would be available to do any promotion. I said “Yes!” But that was in 2011.
By “promotion,” I assume he meant playing live in some capacity, right?
Yeah, I would think so.
I guess at the very least he was thinking about a TV appearance or something. Most people are telling me he isn’t doing a single thing. Do you think that’s the case?
I’m hoping he changes his mind. I’ve haven’t spoken to him personally since the sessions, so he really hasn’t said anything to me. I’ve just found out from reading things on the Internet that he’s said he’ll never play again. I’m just hoping that something changes his mind. But I’d be surprised if he never played again.
Well, because he seemed so excited about the music, and from touring with him, I know that he’s always loved performing.
I know you toured with Bowie when he was on the road with Nine Inch Nails in 1995. What was that like? It had to be tough facing a diehard NIN audience that maybe didn’t know Bowie’s music very well.
Absolutely. On top of it, we were a brand-new outfit of guys that hadn’t played together, and we’re playing after a group of guys that just finished the Downward Spiral tour. They were a well-oiled machine, and they were coming back on the road just for David. We had to follow them and find our own feet. It was tough. That’s a hardcore audience. Some fans were not going to stay for David, but some fans loved it. I mean, we played a lot of old material in addition to the new songs.
Right, but you’re playing obscure stuff like “Andy Warhol” and “Teenage Wildlife.”
Exactly. Some of it he had never played before.
It would have been so easy to break out stuff like “Ziggy Stardust” or “Rebel Rebel” and just destroy the place. He really made it hard on himself.
He likes the struggle. He likes to have to win the audience over. It’s the same reason he went into Tin Machine after all that “Let’s Dance” fame. That’s what really excited him. When everything is presented for you in a silver platter, it’s ultimately kind of empty.
Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your time Springsteen?
No, go ahead.
When you joined up with him in 1992, he’d been playing with one drummer for nearly two decades. Did you feel a lot of pressure because the fans were so familiar with Max Weinberg’s work?
I felt confident I could do justice to Max’s parts, and at the same time bring my own personality into the group. Again, I know he received a lot of flak changing bands. Fans are loyal. But I also know that we sold out 11 nights at Brendan Byrne Arena. So it obviously wasn’t a big enough issue to spell disaster for us. We did end up playing less and less of the new material and more of the old material as the tour went on. But I think Bruce was very careful in putting together a band he felt wasn’t going to sound like studio musicians, yet at the same time a band that was going to somehow bring something different to the music, and be able to handle the breadth of emotion necessary for his catalog.
When you played Saturday Night Live the band was very small, and when the tour began it had really grown.
The SNL band was very early in the game. After that we went back and auditioned more musicians and singers.
It’s similar to the Nine Inch Nails/Bowie tour in that you have a hugely iconic rock star shedding his past and really trying to move forward.
Yeah. I feel like for whatever reason, Bruce needed to explore another side of his musicianship. In this case, I know he listened to a lot of musicians. There was a huge audition process. I felt very fortunate that he chose me. It was a great experience working with him.
Did you get into the studio and work with him after the tour ended?
Yes. We went into the studio and I maybe worked on four or five songs.
Did they ever come out?
I know that “Secret Garden” came out. I don’t know if it’s a new version, or if he overdubbed my parts. I’m pretty sure it’s Max on drums, though. The other tunes I have not heard. It’s funny, though. Someone recently told me there was a tune from that period that came out. I don’t remember which one.
You always hear there’s one shelved album with songs built around drum loops in the style of “Streets of Philadelphia,” and another one that’s primarily songs about relationships, sort of like Tunnel of Love. It sounds like he was working on that one with you.
The only other song I can remember is “Back in Your Arms.”
He put that one out.
I don’t know if it’s a version that I play on.
You played “Streets of Philadelphia” with him at the Oscars, right?
I actually got a great compliment after that gig. A drummer that I respect named Charlie Drayton came up to me and said, “Why did you guys mime to that song?” And I said, “Actually, we didn’t.” [Laughs] That was a huge compliment.
In hindsight, do you think that no matter how well you well you guys played with Springsteen, the fans would never truly accept you because you weren’t the E Street Band?
Yeah, I would definitely say that. And in hindsight, I understand it. You know, there’s just something very special that gets built from the band. I mean, Max’s blood, sweat and tears are in those songs.
Thanks for doing this interview. I’m really looking forward to hearing the Bowie album.
As am I.