By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – January 1996
David Bowie talks about life among guitarists, from Ronson to Reznor
David Bowie is one of a handful of people who have directly influenced the course of popular music during their careers. It may even be safe to say that Bowie is the only musician who has been able to change the face of rock music more than once in his career. Through it all, he has been supported by some of the best guitarists in the business, many of whom rose to fame on the strength of their stints with David. With the release of Outside, his 24th album, Bowie has created yet another eclectic combination of guitar players. In this exclusive interview, Bowie reflects on the guitarists he has worked with over the past 25 years, starting with Mick Ronson and hinting at the possibility of a future collaboration with Jeff Beck.
How have you decided at different times which guitarist you wanted to work with?
David Bowie: I guess it’s usually job-specific. Right at the very beginning, virtually when I started out, it was the Beck-iness of Mick Ronson that attracted me to his playing. At that particular time, I was looking for something…somebody who could work within the realms of the rock/rhythm & blues thing that I was doing but was just interested enough in what a guitar could do other than just deal with notes themselves. Mick sort of liked the idea of playing around with feedback and extraneous noises, to a certain extent; although not as much as some of the other guitar players that I worked with later on. But there was enough there to make it a little more adventurous than just the standard guitar. By the time I moved into the Berlin period [Heroes, Low, and Lodger], I was really much more interested in finding guitar players who were interested in the guitar as a sound source. It was really more a question of creating atmosphere rather than playing biting solos that showed off the virtuosity of the players. But to be that adventurous, they really need to understand the instrument very well – to really make something of what they’re doing. It’s the old adage of knowing the rules to be able to break them, which applies to Reeves Gabrels, and I must say, obviously, to Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp.
You have a history of dealing with eclectic guitarists that are frequently unknown before they work with you. Do you tend to just stumble on these guitarists?
David Bowie: Yeah [Laughs], I do. I’m just incredibly lucky. But then again, I kind of go out and see just about everything; there’s not much that gets past me. I really like to know what’s happening in this contemporary field of mine. I’m just a great fan of contemporary music. I catch every act as they come out, just to see what their attitude, what the chemistry, is all about. I thrive on a sense of competition. If I see something that’s really, really good, I automatically say, “God, I can do better than that….”
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Robert Fripp was actually the only guitarist who was kind of a recognizable face when you were working with him.
David Bowie: Well, firstly, Fripp was brought to my attention – by Brian Eno himself – as somebody who’d be willing and probably interested in working on what Eno and I were working on. [Eno] said, “Look, I’ve done such a lot of work with Robert, and he’s really a collaborative spirit. He’s somebody who can really get into what we’re doing.” So it really was Brian’s nomination [Laughs]. Fripp got very involved when we started. With Adrian it was simply [the result of] going to see a Frank Zappa gig. I was backstage, I was watching from the wings, and in between when he wasn’t playing, he would come off into the wings and start talking with me. I think it sort of upset Frank a bit [Laughs], because the guy was talking offstage for most of the show, and asking me what I was doing, if there was any chance to do something together, because he liked the way I was working, and all that. So that was sort of a gig meeting.
With Reeves, it was a very strange thing. Reeves I kind of got to know on the ’87 tour, because his wife, Sara, became a stand-in publicist when our publicist was sick. So he was just like this guy that I chatted to a lot, he kind of knew a lot about art. We just seemed to have some common interests, you know? But Sara gave me a cassette on the tour or maybe sent it to me shortly after the tour had ended, and I put it in my bag of stuff, like, “oh, I’ll do that when I get home to Switzerland.” So I was playing through tapes and things that I got on tour, and I did come across Reeves’ tape. It hadn’t actually gotten through to me before that he was even a guitar player, and I was just blown away by the pieces that were on the tape. And I immediately phoned him up and asked him if he’d like to work with me on something, although I didn’t quite know what at the time. But I was very excited by his playing, and I thought, “This is a real kindred spirit.”
It was very exciting, finding him, because I was going through creative doldrums to a certain extent. I really was becoming quite indifferent to the idea of music. I was kind of getting more involved in visual arts again. I don’t think I was at the point where I would have stopped writing music, but it was certainly almost taking a back seat. I have to credit Reeves with giving me the sense of adventure and experimentation. I really must. I mean, he kind of pulled me out of a hole with the formation of Tin Machine. It became a very freeing exercise – I hope for both of us. Definitely for me. It gave me the impetus to carry on doing what I again realized I like doing best, which was working in an arena that was more adventurous than what I had drifted into, sort of between ’84 to ’88, I guess. To me, that was a really dull, flaccid, lethargic period [Laughs].
Reeves played on Outside and is on the tour, but you also brought Carlos Alomar back in. Why was that?
David Bowie: I just felt that the nature of some of the material that we’re working with needed that very strong rhythmic element again. I guess I could have covered it with either samples or synth, but there’s just something so complete about the way that Alomar handles it that I thought I would try the chemistry out, I didn’t know how they’d get on together, and I’m always worried how personalities will work together. So I put Carlos in the studio with Reeves in New York when we were coming towards the end of making Outside, and Carlos worked on about five of the tracks as rhythm player, but I made sure Reeves was there at the same time. I saw that they were both big enough to sort of get on with each other, so that kind of clinched it with me, that I would have Carlos work within a band context again. And I think the combination of Reeves and Carlos is just terrific. They kind of automatically found their own positions within the band. I don’t feel that there was a terrific rivalry. Maybe a sense of competition, but that’s okay, that great. In fact, it produces very good music.
How did Trent Reznor come into the Outside picture?
David Bowie: Brian and I virtually had nothing in store for us when we went into the studio. In fact, the band that I was actually quite taken with was three guys from Switzerland call The Young Gods [See “Groundwire Nov/95 – ed.]. I’d been aware of them previous to knowing about Nine Inch Nails. I thought they had some extraordinary ideas, by taking one chunk guitar riff and then sampling it, looping it, and having that as the consistent pattern through a piece of music. That became very much something that I thought, yes, I like that a lot, I’ll try to employ that. They’re quite something; I’d be very interested to see where they go.
But then I was made aware of Nine Inch, through interviews actually more than anything else, what fascinated me was the evolution between the first album [Pretty Hate Machine] and the second [Broken]. It was so speedy and mature in one album, I thought that was tremendous. It really made me aware that Trent was indeed somebody who was going to be around for a very long time. And something that is not noted with Trent is that once you get past the sonic information, the actual writing abilities are very well grounded. He writes very good bits of music. And as with most of the younger bands, there’s nothing that goes past him; every era of rock is actually in there – even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music. There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there and all kinds of other things [Laughs].
I wanted to do something a little more adventurous than possibly an artist of my…hmmm…I’m not quite sure what to call myself – I guess it’s what an artist of my “fill in your own blank” normally would do. Having read that Trent was quite interested in my music from Station To Station on to Scary Monsters, obviously there was an empathy between the two of us. When Virgin Records called up to ask who I would tour with in support of this album, I thought that he’d be just great to work with. So I called Trent, and he’d just come off tour with us as long as it wasn’t any longer than six weeks, because he was pretty exhausted. So I was absolutely delighted that he agreed to do it.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was on guitarist you hired who really came into his own later on. How did you find him?
David Bowie: He was playing in the Monterey Jazz Festival. I’m not very good at years, but I suspect it must have been about 1982, the year before we started working together [on Let’s Dance,, released in 1983 – ed.]. He was just a support act for some major band, with Double Trouble, and he just blew me away. He was just extraordinary.
You and he had a fairly well-publicized falling out after 1983’s US Festival. Did you ever see him again after that?
David Bowie: I did indeed. In fact, just before he died, for about six months prior to his death, we got back together and got on so extremely well. We started going to each other’s gigs, he’d come to see mine, and I went to see his, and we really started to buddy up. He changed an awful lot – he’d got a lot of the problems that he had earlier in his life out of his life. He just seemed to be so buoyant and enthusiastic, full of life. And his death was tragic, it really was.
You played all the guitars on Diamond Dogs, which was fairly impressive given cuts like “Rebel, Rebel” and the title cut. Why did you choose not to use another guitar player?
David Bowie: I think it was because I had what I thought might be fairly off-the-wall ideas. I was fairly shy and intimidated by other musicians in those days, especially musicians who I felt just were so far above me in experience and what they did. And I felt, God, I’ll just try these ideas on my own because I’d be too embarrassed to ask other guitarists to do what I wanted them to do. I think that was the same period where Brian Eno was doing a similar thing and working on his own albums, because he also felt embarrassed about asking accomplished musicians to detune their guitars and things like that [Laughs]. I was very naive then. But I got quite close to getting the sound I wanted on that album without using too many other musicians.
Are there any guitarists that you’d like to work with, maybe those that already have their own reputation?
David Bowie: I think maybe in the future, Jeff Beck, Jeff and I have, in fact, talked about doing a very special project at some point. I’d very much like to work with Jeff – I still think he’s one of the most undervalued guitar players. I think he’s absolutely extraordinary, and I’d like very much to work with him.
A guy who’s not actually known as a guitarist, but certainly wrote for guitar, is Glenn Branca [see Guitar, Aug/95 – ed.], who I’d dearly like to work with. I’m not sure in what capacity, whether we’d kind of construct something for guitars – although Glenn has moved away from guitars, and he’s working primarily with strings. I’d like to encourage him….Maybe we could do a combination piece working with the idea of the string, and it could be guitar strings and gut strings as well. I’m such a big fan of his, and have been for quite a number of years. I think David Torn is also extraordinary, although I don’t feel a need to have to work with him. I kind of feel that I know players that are in the same areas as David. Those needs have been fulfilled for me by the people I’m working with [Laughs]. But the Branca and the Beck modes are something I would like to pursue, to really discover that.
About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National Guitar Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.
Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (January 1996). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.