Tony Visconti has been producing David Bowie‘s albums since Space Oddity in 1969. They’ve worked together on many of Bowie’s greatest triumphs, including Heroes, Young Americans and Scary Monsters. After a long break, they joined forces again in the early 2000s for Heathen and Reality. Two years ago, he started working with Bowie on his long-awaited new album, The Next Day.
Rolling Stone spoke to Visconti about the pair’s secret sessions, how medieval English history inspired some of the songs and why it’s unlikely that Bowie will tour – though a single show remains possible. As the producer noted, his other longtime collaborator, Morrissey, has the opposite plan. . . but he’ll get to that.
Was there ever a point over the past few years where you thought that Bowie would never record again?
I was a little scared after he had his heart condition. He had a little scare himself. I didn’t speak to him for a year after that. He was just recovering and just not talking to anybody. But I was one of the first people he emailed afterwards and we were steadily in contact since then. But he never really brought up music until two years ago. So he never said to me he retired, and every time I saw him in person, he looked in really good health.
All these rumors started going around about his health. Every time I had lunch with him, or coffee with him, I’m looking at him and my dear old friend was looking really good. But music didn’t interest him until two years ago; that’s when he made the call. He said, “How would you like to make some demos?” And I was a little shocked, quite honestly; it was just so casual. It was just the next topic in the discussion.
How did the process begin?
I was working on another project in London, and he didn’t know that. He said, “Well, when are you going to get back?” I said, “In a few days.” The next morning after I returned, I was in the studio with him playing bass. We had Sterling Campbell on drums, Gerry Leonard on guitar and David on keyboards. We were in this little studio down in the East Village doing demos for a week. I was pinching myself. I couldn’t believe it was really happening. From nothing, right into this demo situation.
Did he have fleshed-out songs at this point?
Yes, he wrote them at home. He had an eight- or 16-track digital recorder. They were quite fleshed out. He had nice bass line ideas and drum patterns. We quickly took down the names of the chords and we scribbled it out on paper. Gerry Leonard and I read from the chord sheet. The room was about eight-by-eight, which included a drum kit. We were on top of each other, gasping for air after an hour or two.
What sparked all this? He had been gone for so many years at this point
He just said, “I feel like writing again.” I don’t know long prior to that he began writing. He just came up with about eight songs.
How many days did you spend demoing in that East Village studio?
We spent five days, and we didn’t record anything until the last day. We just kept writing down notes. On the fifth day, it was hard to try to remember what we did on the first day. But we got them down and this guy at the studio had a basic Pro Tools rig, and we got them down. This is November 2010. Then he disappeared for four months and said, “I’m gonna start writing now.” So he wrote more songs and then he fleshed those out even more. He came up with lyrics and melodies, which he didn’t have at first. But that’s typical of every record I started to work with him. Scary Monsters, every album started out with maybe one finished song and 10 ideas, so this is typical.
What happened next?
In April of 2011 we went into a downtown New York studio. We only worked for two-week periods. We would take as long as two months off after each period, and he would go and write some more stuff. I would listen to it and get some ideas, sketch out some overdub things, and we’d be in constant communication during those periods. So this is about 18 months ago. If you added up all the weeks in the studio, we probably actually spent three-and-a-half months.
You’ve said that the first single, “Where Are We Now,” isn’t like any other song on the album. Do the other songs look back on his life like that one?
Not really; that’s the only one. It’s really the only one of its kind. Everything else on the album is kind of observations. He’s writing in the third person. Some of them belong to his life, but some of them are things like social commentary. He was reading a lot of medieval English history books, and he came up with one medieval English history song. That’s the title track, “The Next Day.” It’s about somebody who was a tyrant, very insignificant; I didn’t even know who he was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.
You’ve said there are five rockers on the album.
Yeah. “The Next Day” rocks out. Same with “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” – that rocks out, too.
Are the non-rockers more mellow? What’s their vibe?
They’re more funky, mid-tempo songs. Very evocative. “Dirty Boys,” the second song on the album, is very sleazy.
Sleazy in what sense?
It’s dark and it’s sexy. There’s a fantastic sax solo. You know, David plays baritone sax, but he invited his friend Steve Elson to do the baritone on this album. I think Steve was in the Saturday Night Live band. He’s a little guy, and he’s got a huge baritone sax, and he plays this dirty solo in it that sounds like stripper music from the 1950s. Old bump-and-grind stripper music . . . It wouldn’t be out of place on Young Americans.
Tell me about “Dancing Out in Space.”
That’s a very uptempo one. It’s got a Motown beat to it, but the rest of it is completely psychedelic. It’s got very floaty vibe. There’s a guy called David Torn who plays guitar, who we use; he comes with huge amounts of equipment that he creates these aural landscapes. He uses them in a rock context with all that ambient sound, and he’s bending his tremolo arm and all that. It’s just crazy, completely crazy sound on that track.
How about “Boss of Me?”
That is one of the slower, funky ones. It’s really solid. There’s a little Young Americans in there. But that’s really not proper . . . It’s a new kind of direction for him, melodically. Doesn’t sound like typical Bowie, that track. But it’s a very good track.
OK. Tell me about “Heat.”
Well that’s the closer of the album and it’s very dramatic. And I’m not quite sure what he’s singing about on it, but it’s a classic Bowie ballad. He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. And I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind. Again, it’s certainly not about him; he’s singing as the voice of somebody.
Tell me about “I’d Rather Be High.”
There’s a few songs about world wars, about soldiers. One is “How Does the Grass Grow” and it’s about the way that soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers, how they have to do it so heartlessly. “How Does the Grass Grow” is part of a chant that they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy. “I’d Rather Be High” is about a soldier who’s come out of the war and he’s just burnt out, and rather than becoming a human being again, I think he laments, “I’d rather be high/I don’t want to know/I’m trying to erase these thoughts from my mind.”
Who exactly is the band on the album?
We had two drummers. The main drummer was Zachary Alford, and Sterling Campbell played on several tracks, too. It’s unfortunate. Sterling was at the demo sessions in the beginning but then he didn’t know when the album was gonna start, and he already committed to a tour with the B-52s. We called Zach in to substitute for him, and Zack played amazing drums on the album. But Sterling is in there as well on songs like “Valentine’s Day” and “(You Will) Set the World on Fire,” which is another steamer, another big rock song on the album.
Bass was predominantly Gail Ann Dorsey, and she played phenomenally well on the album, and she also did some backup vocals with David. The other bass player who played on about four or five tracks was Tony Levin. The guitars are Gerry Leonard who played on Heathen and Reality, and he’s David’s music director. David Torn on the other ambient guitar. And then we got Earl Slick to play some fantastic guitar solos and heavy guitar on some tracks. I played bass on the album for two songs, and that’s about it. David played his own keyboards; he played also some acoustic guitar, some electric guitar as well.
How hard was it to keep this a secret?
It was very easy to keep it a secret because we’re very loyal to him. I’ve known him 45 years, and everybody knew him for more than 10 years in the band. We just love the guy. He said, “Keep it a secret, and don’t tell anybody. Not even your best friend.” I said, “Can I tell my girlfriend?” He says, “Yes, you can tell your girlfriend, but she can’t tell anybody.” So everybody had to explain why they were leaving for work in the morning, you know where they were going and who they were recording with.
The real trick was just not telling even your best friend. Bowie fans are just unpredictable – if they hear news like this, the cover would have been blown years ago. Now one person did leak it, but nobody believed him . . .
Robert Fripp! He was asked to play on it, he didn’t want to do it and then he wrote on his blog that he was asked. And nobody kinda believed him. It was a little flurry for a few days, but everyone said, “How could that be true? We haven’t heard it from anyone else?”
The big question: Do you think Bowie will tour?
He says that he will only play if he feels like it, but no tour. Like, if wanted to do the odd show in New York or, I don’t know, London, he would if he felt like it. And he made that very clear to the label that he wasn’t going to tour or do any kind of ridiculously long album promotion. It was his idea to just drop it at midnight on his birthday and just let things avalanche.
Do you really think it’s possible he’d do just one show?
It’s possible, if he feels like it. I don’t know. I spoke to him two days ago and he said, “I’m really adamant I’m not gonna do a tour.” And he said, “If I might, I might do one show.” But who knows when.
The album cover is sort of intriguing . . .
I only just got that. I wasn’t sure that was the cover.
I thought some fan made a joke cover.
I though that too, but it’s real.
Thoughts on that?
I think it’s great! It gives him a nice space to sign his autograph in the middle of it.
Do you think that you and Morrissey will ever work together again?
Hopefully we will. I’m going to see him Friday night in Brooklyn. We email a lot. We talk a lot. He’s very reluctant to have a deal with anybody. ‘Cause nowadays, the problem is, when a label signs you – right now, he has no label – so if I sign a new label deal, he has to sign a 360 deal. They want a piece of everything. If you write a book, if you write a song, if you’re in a movie, they want part of your fee for all these things. So that’s the deal that the big labels are offering now and that’s because sales are so low and they have to make up their money some way. He’s totally against that. He’s old-school. Actually I don’t blame him.
He could pull a Radiohead and post it online for a fee.
I know. He’s also old school about paying for it himself. Traditionally, the label’s gotta pay for him. I understand that, and there’s an old saying in show business that you never invest your own money in a show. It kinda follows onto recording to some extent, but that attitude has changed.
He could also sign to an indie label that wouldn’t make him sign a 360. . . But beyond that, he has enough fans that he’d make a killing charging $10 for an album online?
Yeah, he’ll make his money back, yeah. He’s playing his new songs onstage, they’re being recorded on cell phones every night of the week and they’re wonderful songs.