- 18 Dec 19
Ahead of his New Year Irish visit for the Dublin Bowie Festival, Paul Nolan spoke to Bowie's long-time producer about Young Americans, the Berlin Trilogy, The Next Day and more.
One of the most celebrated and successful producers in rock history, Tony Visconti hits the Olympia on January 11 to perform with Holy Holy – also featuring Woody Woodmansey and Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory – as part of the Dublin Bowie Festival. We had a wide-ranging Q&A with Visconti ahead of his visit, covering Holy Holy, Bowie's pioneering '70s work, his later classics and much, much more. Visconti was in a bright mood when we talked, telling us "Dublin is one of my favourite cities." All in all, the new year Bowie festivities are once again shaping up very nicely indeed...
PAUL NOLAN: Do you think the appreciation and love for David's music has gone up a level since he passed away? He seems more present in the culture than ever...
TONY VISCONTI: David is such a treasure to so many people. His music is timeless and I, personally, never grow tired of listening to him. His recordings bear listening over and over again because he was always so nuanced. You always hear new things.
How have you found doing the Holy Holy shows and revisiting the material?
They have been to some extent cathartic, I mean since his passing. Before he passed they were really fun, and they still are. But I now see the occasional tearful person in the audience and that just sets me off. The music is just wonderful to play. David wrote songs that were challenging to sing and to perform.
For me, I was still writing my bass parts during the making of TMWSTW and I’m still tweaking them every night on stage. Playing with such a powerhouse drummer as Woody is such a gas! It is so energising. And Glenn, what a voice! He’s a big man and the voice is even bigger! I love every member of our band and it’s such a thrill having my daughter Jessica in the band too.
As well as the Man Who Sold The World and Ziggy Stardust albums, you do a handful of other tracks – were there particular periods you wanted do stick to? Were there certain songs you thought about and felt maybe they were too tricky to reproduce live?
Woody creates the set list. He’s got a good sense of the flow of the show. I suggest a few changes but it’s mainly Woody’s set list. Our band is so talented, we can play almost any Bowie song live. It takes two guitarists, a keyboard player, backing vocalists and a sax to pull it off. Our premise for the show is that we do not want to be considered a strict tribute band.
We like to play songs we helped to create. So if Woody or I were the original musicians, or I produced it, it’s in the show. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do. We’ve included 'Where Are We Now?' since last year and that goes down really well.
The Young Americans album is a particular favourite of mine and I think 'Right' is quite an underrated song. I was wondering what you remember of recording that track?
I love 'Right'. In the Five Years documentary, there was a reconstruction of how those backing vocals were recorded, but it’s a very accurate one. It was very tricky to record. The band recording went down smoothly without a melody or words to follow. It was just a very organised jam. Afterwards, David sat with it for a few days and then came up with that great call and response breakdown.
It took a couple of hours to record. As the film illustrates, the backing singers were learning a little bit at a time, recording what they had just learned, then moving on the next few bars. In the control room, I was getting sore fingers from rapidly punching in and out on the tape machine. Luther Vandross was the key to making it all work. He was a natural born choir master.
The Berlin trilogy is known for being thrillingly experimental and expanding the vocabulary of rock – would you say it's a singular career experience for you?
What’s really great about the so-called Berlin Trilogy (only Heroes was recorded in Berlln and Lodger was recorded in Switzerland) was that David did not want to chase the Top 10. It was at times chaotic and some of the songs were constructed by chopping out big pieces of a jam, a process like carving a piece of wood until a recognisable form appears. The rhythm section, Carlos, Dennis and George, were key to that.
They would jam in tight formation, so something was immediately there from the start. It’s amazing how an evening starts with absolutely nothing, then 'Heroes' and 'Joe The Lion' exist by the end of the night. I only had this kind of freedom with David. Most other artists I’ve worked with actually wrote their songs before they stepped into the studio – and they rehearsed beforehand. David wouldn’t do such things for Low, Heroes and Lodger – well, maybe one song was a finished song, but the rest were cerebral jams!
Bowie had a celebrated ability to adapt his songwriting and explore different styles very successfully – is that a unique quality in your experience?
David was more versatile than others in Rock/Pop. David Byrne is another visionary who mastered many styles and both certainly invented a few. Marc Bolan could get pretty far out in his way but was limited by his musical vocabulary. I think he would’ve surprised everyone had he lived a longer life.
The Idiot with Iggy Pop was also visionary in his own way – songs like 'Nightclubbing', 'Dum Dum Boys' etc still sound like the future. What are your memories of making the album and do you find it remarkable that it still sounds so forward-thinking?
Iggy is a wonderful visionary. When I worked with them, though, it was David who created the settings. Honestly, David could’ve stepped in as the lead singer on any of those songs and it would’ve sounded like a Bowie album. But Iggy had something David wanted. It was Iggy’s lyrics and subject matter. Iggy lived a very different life as a young man, and he lived to tell the gruesome tales. The same goes for Lou Reed whom David was also in awe of. David was a bit of a wild child in his teens, too, but Iggy and Lou had been to hell and back. David would do that in his later years.
Were you surprised when David decided to do another album with The Next Day? Did it come out of the blue?
I was completely shocked when I got his phone call. We saw each other a few times in between Reality and The Next Day. Just a year or two earlier we had lunch in New York’s Soho and talked about our family life for a bit. Then he announced that he hadn’t written a song in years and it didn’t matter one bit. I thought, well, he could actually retire early, he’s done nearly everything.
I was working in London with the Kaiser Chiefs and my mobile phone rang and David was on the other end. He said he wanted to make another record and asked how soon I could get back. I also had to keep it a secret, a new situation in our relationship that extended to Blackstar – complete secrecy about a new Bowie album in the making. After that call, I could barely contain myself. I was back in New York in a rehearsal studio two weeks later with Gerry Leonard on guitar, Sterling Campbell on drums, David on keyboards and me on bass. We were working out arrangements for new songs, actually written beforehand, for the next album. I couldn’t have been happier.
I think 'Heat' from The Next Day is one of his greatest ever songs and I love the Scott Walker feel to it. I was wondering what you recall of recording it and if David talked much about the song's influences or lyrical content.
Interesting question. We rarely talked about his lyrics in any song. When he had finished them, he’d hand me the lyrics and expect me to take my own meaning from them. Sure, we’d talk about Scott Walker and that 'Heat' needed a dark string arrangement, which he left up to me. I think it was a great way to work together. If I didn’t get the meaning immediately, I would certainly get it soon after. It’s normal to work on one song for a week. That song gave me goosebumps. I have to revisit it again.
Finally, do you have a favourite song to perform live with Holy Holy?
I love to perform 'Width Of A Circle'. It is an epic and a joy to play with the band. It’s in three parts. David wrote part one in Haddon Hall in Beckenham. Woody, Ronson and myself rehearsed it in our basement for weeks. When we were recording, it we felt it needed to go somewhere else and spontaneously broke out into a boogie, as if the song couldn’t get any more exciting. Then we wrote that soft transitional part two, to take us to the boogie, part three. There were no lyrics or melody. David wrote the rest of the lyrics in the lobby of the studio. It’s a great piece of music. It opened him up as a futuristic writer.
- Film & TV
- 14 Apr 22