David Bowie Producer Talks New Music, Health Scare: 'Album Is Physical Evidence That He's Fine' (Q&A)

6:00 AM PST 01/11/2013 by Shirley Halperin
The "Where Are We Now?" video

In a candid conversation with THR, Tony Visconti sheds light on his work with the elusive singer while taking issue with today's pop stars ("Everyone is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are flimsy") and industry blogger Bob Lefsetz ("He's an old fart").

Perhaps Jarvis Cocker put it best during an interview with the BBC on Tuesday. Reacting to David Bowie’s just released single “Where Are We Now?,” the reclusive singer’s first in nearly a decade, the Pulp frontman noted that Bowie’s decision to release it on his 66th birthday -- typically a day when one would expect to receive presents and good tidings -- was really a gift to us, his fans.

Indeed, the long-awaited but completely unexpected arrival of new music -- a full album, no less, called The Next Day and due out in March -- did not go unappreciated as the melancholy tune made its way across the Internet and around the world. It proved, among other things, that the influential artist (in the truest sense of the word), whose monumental 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, is as missed as ever.

But is the Bowie of 2013 relevant? It’s a question that could have crossed even the most casual listener’s mind, and in hearing the melancholy, reflective and, you could even say, elegiac “Where Are We Now?,” with its haunting piano chords over that distinctive forlorn voice, the answer seems clear: absolutely. Today’s self-curating genre-defying music lovers don’t need or even look toward a radio station to tell them what to listen to. No longer guided by a minefield of research data, if a song moves you, as Where Are We Now, even upon first listen, certainly does, then it has every right to exist alongside hits by Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and the like.

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But where those pop stars, with their millions of Twitter followers and Facebook fans, find it hard to disconnect for even a second, Bowie is on a whole other tip -- laying low for two years while working on a new batch of material that he refused to call an “album” until it became unavoidably obvious. Instead, says producer Tony Visconti, recording sessions were always referred to as an “experiment.” Bowie’s longtime collaborator, who’s worked on more than 10 of his albums and will next team up with Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the top-secret project and provided answers to some nagging questions, chief among them: Bowie’s health.

The Hollywood Reporter: In this day and age, how do you keep something like this secret?

Tony Visconti: We respected David's wishes. Simple as that. We had to sign NDAs, non-disclosure agreements, but that wasn't necessary. We love him so much and everyone in the project except for a few were old timers -- people who made albums or toured with him. So of course, we didn’t tweet or put it on Facebook or even tell our best friend. That was the hard part because people close to me wanted to know what I was working on, and I couldn't tell them. I knew if I told one of them, somebody would leak it and it would be all over the world in a day. I didn't even tell my children what I was doing.

THR: Is it that you don’t trust your friends or is it because knowledge of the project would be too overwhelming?

Visconti: I don't trust Bowie fans. And all my friends are Bowie fans.

THR: It’s been 10 years since Bowie last put out new music, and a lot can change in a decade when it comes to the music business. What was it like to see that instant globalization on release night?

Visconti: Fantastic. It was his idea to release it on his birthday. He came up with that plan about two months ago, and the countdown was unbearable. When it was finally released, I stared at my computer for 15 minutes until the first person realized it was simply dropped in iTunes.

THR: Having worked with Bowie for so long, what was different about the process this time around?

Visconti: Nothing except the secrecy. He and I work in a certain way -- we would record the music first when he had only a vague idea of what the song was about. We would then have a working title and for the melody, he would sing live in the studio.

David would also work on the songs musically in his own home studio and he'd bring demos in. Then we'd learn it and flesh it out a lot more. But he still didn't have a really serious title. And certainly the lyrics were the farthest from his mind at that point. So it was great to work up these sonic gems based on a gut feeling. And then he would take it away for a month or two and come back with lyrics. Over an 18-month period, we only spent three months recording.

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THR: You both live in New York City. When you weren't recording, is David someone you’d see with any regularity?

Visconti: I did. We used to meet up about once every two months for lunch. We would catch up on the latest British comedy -- Ricky Gervais, Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore, Harry and Paul, which probably means nothing to Americans -- and we'd talk about our lives, what's happening to the economy, anything anyone else talks about. I guess I'm one of his few American friends who can relate to him on this level. We have a good time when we get together over a couple of pieces of sushi or a coffee.

THR: You told the BBC that unlike the first single, the album is “rocking.” Is that something that revealed itself right away or did it come later?

Visconti: There are a lot of rock tracks on it -- some that he could go right out onstage and play very loud and have the audience clapping and dancing along, but it's not totally a rock album: It's a David Bowie album.

THR: That could mean so many things, can you elaborate?

Visconti: It's very diverse. Some songs are up-tempo and driving and some are completely far out. ... A couple of new things people haven’t heard before on a Bowie album, so he's been very innovative on several tracks. Some tracks sound like they would belong on Scary Monsters, others like they would be on Heathen, two albums that we made together, but that's because it's him. And we actually were listening to a lot of our own records when making this album. We weren't listening to anything current. We're not very impressed with today's music. And we didn't have any guest artists, either.

THR: What is it about today's music that you abhor?

Visconti: It all sounds like it was made by the same person. It’s very computerized. There's a style and a sound in all these modern records where they're interchangeable. It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy. It all relies on beats rather than quality lyrics.

These days, if a kid gets a new laptop and there's Garage Band on it, within five minutes they sound like somebody on the radio. This can't be good. It's either the radio is bland or people have lower expectations.

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THR: Is there a contemporary artist you do like?

Visconti: Groups like Florence + the Machine -- that's a little closer to the ethics of '70s recordings. And when young groups are at their best, they're emulating the '70s, it seems. But when they're at their worst, they're doing this cut-and-paste, watered-down, hip-hop and R&B music. It's just so bland at the moment.

THR: You expressed surprise that the first single is, in essence, a ballad …

Visconti: Traditionally people will lead an album with an up-tempo song. And I should know better. Bowie is never traditional. He always breaks the rules.

THR: Why do you think he decided on “Where Are We Now?”

Visconti: First, I think he understood immediately -- before I even did -- that people had to deal with the shock that he was back. That, in itself, is news breaking. So like the song, maybe he was easing people in with a slow ballad. I'm just theorizing here, but it's very nostalgic about the Berlin period, especially in the video, where there are some vintage shots of Berlin in the '70s. It made me almost cry. I did weep, actually. I'll confess. The first time I saw it, I got so choked up because I had been in those places with him. But it's more about being at a certain place in your life, where everything was really good and happening. I think that evokes nostalgic feelings in people. That's definitely the theme of the video, having so much vintage footage in it.

THR: Do you know who the woman in the video is?

Visconti: It's the director's wife. And David didn’t tell me this, but I read that they were looking for someone who looked like Coco. Because at the time, she, Iggy Pop and David were constant companions during that period. Looking at it now, she does bear a passing resemblance to Coco in those years. But I don't know. I read this on the Internet.

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THR: Speaking of the web, there had been rumors that Bowie was in ill health, can you shed light on that?

Visconti: That was his own doing. We all know he had a health scare. I hate to hear it described as a major heart attack -- it was not a major heart attack -- but he had surgery in 2004 and he's been healthy ever since. Because he hasn't come out and said anything, people suspect the worst. And it was frustrating. I would have lunch with him and I’d tell people that he looks fantastic and he sounds great and all that. And people would not believe me. Someone recently said to me, "Well, why didn't he make a statement?" And I mean, that's silly -- can you imagine David Bowie getting on television and saying, "I'd like to tell everyone that I'm healthy?" So what could he do? Nothing. This album is physical evidence that he's fine.

THR: How is his voice?

Visconti: Loud. He hurts my ears when he sings. When I'm right up close to him, I have to back off very quickly and go into the other room.

THR: While you were recording, was there ever a sense of pressure?

Visconti: No. David always prefaced every session [saying] that it was experimental and that it might not be an album, so let's just get together and make some music. It was never pressure. It was fun, fun, fun, the whole time.

THR: Any expectations now in terms of its release?

Visconti: I don't know. It's hard to predict. But I've heard that we're outselling Rihanna, and that is wonderful. Not that I have anything against Rihanna, I love her dearly, but it's like there's something real now, and if this starts a copycat trend, people might be making good records from now on. Maybe David has started this new trend. … But honestly, it's because it's so refreshing. You can tell it's a studio-made record, it's not done on a computer. It's really beautiful and organic and it sounds good on the radio too.

THR: Industry pundit Bob Lefsetz shared his thoughts on Bowie’s return in a blog post Jan. 9, writing: “Yesterday’s news. I'm not talking about the man himself so much as his new track, his new album. A circle jerk publicity campaign that the old wave ate up and we've already moved on from. I mean, how can someone who used to get it so right, who was on the bleeding edge, get it so wrong?” He goes on to blast the notion of putting out a full album, rather than singles, among other gripes. Care to respond?

Visconti: Well, he used to be cutting-edge but he's an old jerk now. He is so out of touch with what people want. This album is already No. 1 in 20 countries and it hasn't even been released yet, so that's evidence that the album is the way to go. It might be not be for everybody because, honestly, people don't write enough good material to fill an album anymore. So Lefsetz is a complete asshole. At one time, a few years ago, he had his day in the sun, but now he is basically an old fart, and I am bored with what he says.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

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