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Producer helped David Bowie keep new album secret
At the turn of the year, David Bowie was barely a thought for the music industry -- and his fans.
The iconic rocker had been silent since 2004, when an agioplasty forced him off the road during his Reality Tour. He was rarely seen around New York City, where he resides with his wife, the fashion model Iman, and it was widely assumed he'd put his music career to bed. So to call this week's arrival of "The Next Day," Bowie's first new album in a decade, unexpected is an understatement.
But don't count Tony Visconti, the new set's co-producer, among the surprised, and not just because he was working on the album for the past two year. Visconti -- who's been a Bowie collaborator since 1969s "Space Oddity" album, including the so-called "Berlin Trilogy" during the late 70s and 2003's "Reality" -- says he never doubted that "the call was gonna come one day" to make some new music.
"David's one of my oldest friends," says Visconti, 68, whose resume also includes albums with T. Rex, Morrissey, the Moody Blues and more." We'd been communicating over e.mail all the time and we'd meet up for lunch occasionally in New York. He seemed to be amused by the world kind of thinking he retired or was in ill health. It didn't bother him at all.
"I think he was a little tired of having to make an album just because it was in his contract to do another one in a certain time period. He just gave all that up. He just wanted to have a private life and think about when he would go back in the studio. He's a very confident person; 'I'll make a record when I'm ready, when I really have something to say.' It never really did bother him what people thought about his absence."
Visconti says that in 2011, he started to see "a twinkle in (Bowie's) eye that wasn't there before, which meant he was writing." Before long, Bowie did call Visconti about going into the studio to make some demos, on which Visconti played bass, with Bowie band veterans Gerry Leonard on guitar and Sterling Campbell on drums. The quartet spent a couple of weeks working on the new material and, according to Visconti, "lived with those demos for a few months. We walked into an actual studio maybe 18 months ago and put down the first serious tracks and worked from there. We'd go two weeks a time and then take a month off or as long as two months off. We probably spent about three months in the studio, but spread out over 18."
The greatest achievement in making "The Next Day," which has been streaming on iTunes since Feb. 28, is not only the music but also keeping it absolutely secret. The announcement of the album on Jan. 8, Bowie's 66th birthday, was a genuine surprise -- especially in an era when every celebrity movement is duly reported in real time via the Internet and social media.
Visconti says all concerned in "The Next Day," from the musicians (including other Bowie veterans such as guitarists Earl Slick and David Torn and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey), to "the people who bring us coffee in the studio," signed strict non-disclosure agreements -- even though the move was "unnecessary" for most of those involved.
"The people who played on this album, most of them have worked with David for a long time," he explains, "but we had some new people and a new recording studio we didn't have an old, long-standing relationship with, so we took the precaution. Everyone had to sign it. No one objected; they said, 'It's just an absolute joy to be working with David Bowie.'
"The way we kept it a secret was on an honor system -- not that we were worried about being sued or anything like that. It was so cool to be part of this club. That's what it was really about."
Visconti says any concerns about Bowie's health were quickly discounted as work on the album began. "He's kind of rosy-cheeked, and in the studio his stamina was fantastic," the producer recalls. "It was as if he never stopped doing this for a 10-year period. He was singing with every live take; quite often he'd play piano or guitar at the same time. And when it came time to do the final vocals, he was just as loud as he ever was."
That's a good thing, too. As Visconti notes, "most of the album is uptempo rock songs" though tracks such as the first single, "Where Are We Now?," "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" and "Heat" are quieter and more ethereal. The album is populated with sonic references to Bowie's past, but, Visconti adds, "with some very innovative new styles as well. There's some very familiar Bowie on it; Obviously you're going to get some classic Bowie, but then there are some tracks that are so far out he's never recorded anything like them before. And they sound oddly commercial, the really far out ones.
"It's really exciting; I've listened to this album for two years now, analyzing it, tweaking it, writing notes, and I've never grown tired of it. It's amazing every time I hear it."
The question now for Bowie is what happens next. He's reportedly eschewing interviews and touring to support "The Next Day" -- though guitarist Leonard, who co-wrote the song "Boss of Me" with Bowie -- recently said there's a 50-50 chance that Bowie will relent and do some live shows. Meanwhile, Visconti acknowledges that the troupe "over-recorded" during the sessions, working on 29 songs total, of which 14 wound up on the album with another three added to a deluxe edition.
"I think maybe some of the others, if we record again, they'll be re-written or re-arranged, but they didn't fit the immediacy of this album," Visconti explains. "The 17 we settled on were really the hot ones. I think there are three or four others that are hot -- but we disagree on that."
And does he think the "if" will ultimate become a "when" for Bowie?
"I don't know," Visconti answers. "There's no 'when' yet, obviously. I'm not booked to do another album with him. But we talked about recording more after this. We ended the album on such a high, and he said, 'I can't wait to get back in the studio.'
"But that's a long way off. This album's going to run its course. We might get together this year. I really don't know."
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