Interview with producer Tony Visconti
As David Bowie’s producer since before the Space Oddity album – and sonic architect for everyone from Marc Bolan to Morrissey – Tony Visconti has the world’s ultimate desk job. In this exclusive interview, he talked Bowie, Berlin, the brutal modern industry – and why he won’t be seeing U2 again in a hurry… We spoke in Dean St Studios, London by asking Visconti about the start of The Next Day, Bowie’s recent album made in secret over a two-year period.
You’ve had a fascinating career, of course, but we have to start with David Bowie. How did he first get in touch about The Next Day? I actually got a phone call when I was in this very studio [Dean Street Studios] working with the Kaiser Chiefs. He said it was nothing special, he just wanted to make some demos, as he’d been writing. So, y’know, it was interesting, because I had to go back to the Kaiser Chiefs sessions and keep it secret for the next two-and-a-half years, as it happened.
In one interview, you were saying how hard it was to walk around New York seeing kids in Bowie T-shirts while you were recording at The Magic Shop… I’ve always seen kids and grown-ups wearing Bowie T-shirts, but this was a different thing: passing Bowie fans in the street and seeing his face on their T-shirts, none of them expecting what was going on. No one even considered it. All the signs were there. We were going to the same studio every day; he was spotted, but no one ever thought he was going to a recording studio. I was spotted on the train a few times. I would say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m working with a band. I can’t say anything about it yet, I’m just working with a band’. It was very frustrating. In some ways it was psychologically damaging.
There were a few rumours buzzing around the album. People misinterpreted a 2011 blog by Robert Fripp to mean he was playing on the sessions… I skimmed over that blog and I took it to mean that David had contacted him. Actually, Robert was describing a dream he had. I made a big faux pas on that one. He had a dream [about Bowie recording new material], which was uncanny, y’know, some kind of message he received in his dream. But Bowie never did contact him.
Which track excited you most when David played you the demos? All the songs were written over a long period of time, so I can’t really remember. At first we, as a small band with David on keyboards, made a dozen demos and I was excited by every single one of them, but they were just structured backing tracks, no melodies or words. They didn’t have titles yet. They might have been called ‘Riff in E Flat’ or ‘F groove’. After this stage, he wrote at least another dozen and demoed them himself. What resulted in the end was pretty much different from the demos. The demos were just the first stage and they eventually evolved to the songs used on the album. Many were left unfinished. David was adamant at the first-demo stage that we were not making an album. He made it clear the demos were just an experiment.
Some people felt Where Are We Now? was an unconventional comeback single… Well, he does everything unconventionally. You would think that the first single would be a rocker, like if the Stones made a new album, it’s what they would come out with as the lead track. I love Where are We Now? but when he said this was the first single, it did surprise me, but I should know better. He’s always going to do something you don’t expect him to do, even me. When I saw the video, I thought it was literally a work of video art, it was so beautifully done. To see the two-headed doll, the black-and-white footage of Berlin… I cried the first time I saw it. I wasn’t expecting that. Of course, the big message was – Bowie is back!
To take you further back, what’s your favourite memory of working with Bowie? I would say the second album I made with him, which was The Man Who Sold The World. That was fantastic, because not only was I producing it, but I was also in the band. Bowie and I made a conscious decision to be as heavy a rock band as possible. We didn’t quite know how to do it, but Mick Ronson was the important key, and when he came in, he was the person who helped us work it out. He gave us heavy-rock 101 lessons in the first few weeks. That time was very exciting. We knew he could play amazing stuff and we finally worked out a direction for a very positive sound. Unfortunately we only sold five records… [but] it was a good experience for us.
What did you think Mick Ronson brought to the group? At first, we thought Mick was just a great rock guitarist, but what we soon found out was that he was a much more accomplished musician. He studied violin and piano, and because David and I had different musical backgrounds, Mick was able to follow us and, in some cases, lead. He could relate to a string quartet arrangement or a woodwind arrangement. He was able to read and write music, which wasn’t apparent at first because he was quite shy. But when he realised he had permission to soar, he did. And we were a pretty good rock band, the four of us, including his best mate Woody Woodmansey on drums.
What’s your favourite track that you’ve ever recorded with Bowie? Hard to say. I listened to The Man Who Sold the World album a lot, and I like a song that not many other people like – She Shook Me Cold. That’s when we’re just really rocking out, we’re jamming out. [I like] several songs on that album. After All, which was one of the first times anyone in rock ever used a Moog synthesizer. We got a classical pianist to play it for us and I was kind of imitating the Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach record. The synthesizer was used to play classical music, but we used it in a rock context with classical music overtones. That album was so groundbreaking.
My own favourite is Fantastic Voyage from Lodger. How did that one come about? Fantastic Voyage was one of three songs written with the same exact chord changes. It was an experiment. Always experimenting. Boys Keep Swinging: that’s the same changes and structure. Then there’s a third which didn’t make the album: not finished. Maybe a week after Fantastic Voyage was recorded, David came in and announced he had written lyrics. He got in front of the microphone and I immediately said to myself, ‘Oh God, it’s such a beautiful song’. Minutes after he’d finished the lead vocal, he called me into the studio to sing the backup vocals with him. I noticed that the first two chords of the song were the same as the first two chords of Love Me Tender by Elvis. Instead of strings, it called for mandolins, playing like a string-section of violins. So we borrowed some mandolins from a music store in Montreux and Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew and myself – we could all play mandolin – played my little arrangement. You can hear Love Me Tender if you listen closely to the mandolins, just for a bit. Then the third chord is not in Love Me Tender anymore, so we stopped playing that motif. I remember, when I was a kid, there was an arranger called Mantovani who would have these huge string sections; he had a big hit in the ’50s called Charmaine. Another arranger, comedian Jackie Gleason, did the Mantovani sound with forty mandolin players doing violin parts, and that’s where I got the idea from. David knew about Mantovani and Gleason, too. I mean, it was such a romantic-sounding song, I thought, ‘Why not have mandolins on it?’ It didn’t sound Italian in the end. It just sounded beautiful.
How much time did you spend in Berlin back in the day? Of the Berlin trilogy, only two albums were partly recorded in Berlin. Then for one short time, I went back to do the Baal EP . We went to record it with a Berlin pit band, a little 11-piece orchestra: one violin, one trumpet, one trombone, one accordion. All in all I spent three memorable periods recording in Berlin. Of course, David lived there, and having David live there and working in the studio with German musicians and everything, I got a real wonderful memory of that city. I know the wall had to come down, but in many ways, it was a much more romantic city with the wall around you. You felt like you were in a black-and-white film from the ’40s. You were expecting Humphrey Bogart to walk down the street any minute.
What were your initial thoughts on the modelling guitar? My initial thought was, ‘It’s got very few knobs and lots of variations’. And I thought, ‘How could I possibly remember all this?’ So you left it with me and within probably ten minutes, I worked it all out. It is very intuitive, actually. It’s built in a Strat, which has a real comfortable neck. It’s a real comfortable guitar to play. I can dial up the Les Paul-type humbucker sound: a Les Paul sound with a Strat in my hands. You can get that real heavy tone. And also, the Tele position is probably going to get used the most. A lot of people are getting into home production. What would be your top three tips? If you’re being your own recording engineer as well, I think you shouldn’t try to save money on microphones. Having said that, I think a lot of good microphones are now being made and sold for relatively low prices. You can get really good condenser and ribbon mics, which I think are very, very important for recording guitar and virtually every other instrument. And of course, dynamic mics were always inexpensive. Shure showed the way years ago with the SM57 and SM58 – still in use – to jam right against a guitar amp speaker. Ribbon mics are great to smooth out the peaks. They’ll provide the mellow tone and the dynamic mics will provide the crunch and the attack. I think it’s always wise to record the guitar over two tracks at least, with a dynamic and a ribbon mic on the same amp. Now, if you have a home that has a long stairwell or an echo-y basement, then put a condenser mic anywhere in the room. You’ll pretty much emulate what we do in the studio. Some studio rooms are not much bigger than a basement in an average house. So you can emulate what we do with the three-mic technique: two up close and one room mic.
We interviewed Steve Levine a while ago and he said how important it is not to over complicate things, and that you need a great song first. Would you agree? Well, that is one school of thought, and it’s valid. That’s the way it traditionally has been. Like, one of the Beatles would write a song on acoustic guitar, or piano, and play it to their bandmates and everyone involved, including George Martin, would deem if it was catchy enough to record. But that’s not how everyone writes. Some people bounce off jams when writing. Some jams inspire melodies and lyrics and some just never get off the ground. Bowie can jam in the studio and then two or three days later come up with some melody that is unbelievable. I think Fame, Fashion, Under Pressure and Heroes are such songs.
It’s quite a long loop on Heroes isn’t it? That song is about seven minutes… Yeah, six or seven minutes long. David lived with it for quite a while before he identified where he would write the verses and where he would write the choruses, but before that happened we blissfully started overdubbing synthesizers and other guitar parts. Fripp’s guitar part was overdubbed before the melody was conceived. But that really is the exception to the rule. Most people should start writing with structure, at least when they’re starting out. And then, when you’re at a master level like David, you can ‘jam’ a song into existence.
Is that how David worked on the latest record? Partially. He had structured songs and unstructured songs – just ideas. He’d usually come in and play us all a demo.
Let’s talk a bit about your work with Marc Bolan. Did you know he was special? I knew he was special from the first moment I saw him in a nightclub. This was in a little club off Tottenham Court Road. He was in a duo, him and Steve Peregrin Took, called Tyrannosaurus Rex, and as soon as I heard his voice and his melodies… I wasn’t yet aware of Tolkien or Celtic music but they had all those prehistory elements in them and it was very strange experience. He looked like an other-worldly creature to me and I couldn’t even recognise the language he was singing in as English. But shortly afterwards, we met up and became friends, and it was certain we were going to work together. He gave me a copy of The Lord of the Rings and said ‘If you’re going to work with me you have read these books, this is what I’m all about.’ At the time, he was. What was Marc like as a recording artist? Once we got into the studio, the speed he worked and the confidence he had was something I hadn’t really seen yet. The studio is usually – for beginners, for young people – a terrifying place. Marc already had some experience. He had already been in groups prior to working with me, but with no success. But he had the experience, and finally you could see that he made up his mind how he was going to do it. Lots of stars go through that method: ‘I think I’m a star, I know I’m a star, but what do I do next?’ When he started Tyrannosaurus Rex, he wanted to go straight into an electric band situation but there was absolutely no budget for it. Even his clothes and guitar were second-hand. He paid £12 for it and the key for the G string was busted so he had to carry around a pair of pliers to tune up the G string – that’s how he started with me and I have the utmost admiration for him and his humble beginnings. John Peel was his friend. The first single that we released – the first single Tyrannosaurus Rex released – Peel played almost relentlessly and we got Top 30 with that. John Peel was the only real thing on the radio in those days, and I think he had already amassed hundreds of thousands of young British listeners. It was called Debora and it’s one of the hottest acoustic guitar sounds I’ve ever heard on a record [recorded by Gerald Chevin at Advision Studios].
Do you see big changes in the industry from when you started out? The most important difference was, back in those days, advances were very low. But you were given a decent budget. It wasn’t big business, but if you got a big hit the royalties were your reward. Record labels were more devoted to pop culture in those days and they were on the lookout for very unique talented people – they just didn’t pay very much. If you didn’t have a hit record you parted ways, no big deal. If they really believed in an artist they would allow you to make two or three albums without a hit. It was more relaxed, more cultural. Everyone realised that making records was all about the next cool sound. And I mean cool at a street level, not at corporate board level, where middle-aged men decide what’s cool, which is pretty much what the music industry has turned into now.
How do you feel record labels have changed? Big labels are only signing what they perceive to be three ‘sure things’ a year, and throw tons of money at them. In this climate, they will never find the next Syd Barrett, the next Pink Floyd the next David Bowie, the next Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s a clear message they’re sending: geniuses, do not apply. Record sales are at an all-time low so I don’t think this is a good business model. You could blame it on video games or fashion or sneakers… millions of kids and hipsters who love real music are not buying the polished corporate image-driven artists. Instead of spending a lot of money on three artists a year, why not throw a lot of small money at, say, 100 artists? Give the more left-of-centre artists a chance. Maybe five big acts will emerge from a hundred. Some will defy all marketing predictions. Oh well. I’m just a record producer, what do I know? On the other hand, you have people who are self-publishing and self-recording. There are millions of them now, but there’s no focused marketplace. How can you find the hottest act in the world right now? It’s like a needle in a haystack. He, she, or they, are out there, but you’d have to spend hundreds of hours on YouTube every night. Do you have time to listen to millions of people?
How do you feel about Spotify, then? Thom Yorke recently pulled Radiohead’s music off the site, saying Spotify doesn’t support new artists as they get paid nothing… I feel the same way. Spotify is making loads of money from stuff that’s already been available for decades. You can hear Beyoncé and Elvis on there and everything else, but there’s no indication of where you can go for anything cool – it’s too random. Spotify is like Muzak, really; like elevator music. I know a lot of people have it on in the background all day – it’s very comforting, I’m sure. I’ve signed up and only used it once. I can’t stand it. I don’t like the way it looks and works. It’s an insult to make so much money and pay – if someone gets 2 million plays on Spotify – enough to maybe buy a dinner for four at a good restaurant. I don’t think Spotify helps anyone but Spotify.
So which other producers – alive or dead – do you respect most? George Martin. Whether people realise it or not, even the very youngest producers today, he started it all. Modern record production started with him. Every day, we’re doing things that he innovated with The Beatles. I think a lot of George Martin’s other productions don’t illustrate that as much, but The Beatles could have gone another way if they had a producer who didn’t care, or have Martin’s skills and creative talents. If they had a producer who just did his job’s worth and left at 6pm every day, they could have just been a band who had two albums and faded out. George Martin didn’t force himself on The Beatles but, say, when Paul McCartney turned to him and said, ‘I’ve got this song called Yesterday and I hear a string quartet on it’ – he was on it! There weren’t many before him who recorded pop music to such a high standard. Some record producers, they’ll only do heavy rock, they’ll only do hip-hop: specialised genres. But I like the fact that George Martin was an all-rounder. He was classically trained and he had no problem working with a rock ‘n’ roll pop band. Other producers I really admired over the years were Chris Thomas and Roy Thomas Baker. Like George Martin, they were complete producers – they brought out the best of their artists and served their productions with whatever it took to make studio magic.
You’ve said that Bowie is the loudest singer you’ve ever heard. Was there anyone else who shook the studio when they let rip? Bowie has always been a magnificent singer, and if he wasn’t in rock he could probably be in a West End musical: he would reach the last person sitting in the highest balcony. He never studied, he just always could sing that way, having a uniquely big, heavy and clear voice. During the making of The Next Day it was clearly still there. I have two singers I currently work with who sing that loud. One is Kristeen Young: I’m producing a new record with her, and this is going to be a great one because Dave Grohl is playing drums and some guitar on it. Kristeen has such a great, quality voice, but I can’t stand too close to her when she’s singing in the same room. I’m currently working with a British artist called Jim Stapley, an amazing singer. Jim has a great, decibel-breaking voice. His style is rock, with a bit of folk and R&B.
Do you carry earplugs? Not for the singers. There’s always a door. When I go to a club now, or any concert, I do wear earplugs, because I find some modern sound levels deafening. Sometimes I’ve lost my hearing at some live gigs and it takes maybe a week to come back. I don’t subject myself to that anymore. If you don’t have earplugs in a club, I think you can almost always buy them at the bar. I advise everyone, especially if you’re young, to take care of your ears.
Speaking of which, what’s the best live gig you’ve ever seen? I don’t go to live gigs much. I’m not really impressed by live gigs. It hurts my ears. The best live gigs for me are recording Bowie and other great artists in the studio, singing live with a band, for me in the control room: my own private concert. I went to a U2 concert in Madison Square Garden once. I was deaf for two weeks after that. I don’t find pain entertaining.
Universal Music is launching a service to reprint records that are out of print. Which records are your prized possessions? I’ve got Scary Monsters and Electric Warrior, the original pressings. I’ve got some jazz, some Gil Evans and Miles Davis records that sound wonderful. I’ve just recently got a new turntable and a good amplifier, and apart from the scratches and some of the clicks and pops, they sound just beautiful.
Vinyl really is the best way to listen… Young people should realise, you might make a CD with 70 minutes of music on it, but it’s going to sound horrible on vinyl. You’ve got to limit the timings. If it’s rock or hip-hop, and it’s got low-end, and you want it to sound loud, you have to keep it to no more than 20 minutes a side. You know, it’s a physical limitation, as you have so many grooves and so many inches of space from the edge to the label, so if you put more than 20 minutes per side, the grooves have to be thinner – and consequently the dust is louder than your kick drum.
You’ve been active in the modern era. What are you memories of working with Morrissey on 2006’s Ringleader Of The Tormentors? Morrissey was just wonderful to work with. When I first arrived in Rome, he to me, ‘I thought you were dead!’ Any fan of Morrissey would expect him to say something like that. He knew what he wanted. He always admired my production work and we missed each other for The Queen Is Dead. I was honoured to be asked by him to do Ringleader Of The Tormenters in Rome. His band was his touring band and they were really hot, more like a dedicated band rather than session musicians. We had a lot of fun and it was an industrious album – we got a lot of work done in a short time. A lot of bonus tracks. He was a joy to work with. Initially, he said, ‘When I sing, all I want you to tell me is if I’m too loud or too quiet’. But I eventually offered a little more feedback and asked him to re-sing some things. But I really didn’t have to tell him very much. He is an awesome singer.
One reviewer said they thought Morrissey must be in love because he sounded so happy on that record… Well, he was certainly in love with Rome. That is an unbelievable city to work in. You’re walking in the steps of the emperors and gladiators. The history, it’s there in your face. I’m amazed by how little graffiti there is in that city. You’ve got these marble statues and white alabaster statues, and nobody writes on them. You don’t even see graffiti scrubbed out. Romans are guardians of their heritage.
What’s your favourite cover version? A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. It was originally on Sgt Pepper’s – a little bit of a comedy song – and then Joe Cocker just turns it into this blistering soul record. I was involved in the making of that. It’s very hard to cover a Beatles song but he did – we did – and we improved it. McCartney was apparently amazed when he heard it.
Were you a fan of Elvis? Yeah, of course. Elvis, Little Richard and Fats Domino for me. David and I grew up listening to those idols.
Nile Rogers has been touring with Chic recently. What did you think of his production on Bowie’s Let’s Dance? It started as a sad story for me. I was asked to record the next Bowie album [after Scary Monsters], and two days before I was due to leave London for New York, he had already met Nile and I was told that he was going to try some tracks out with Nile, which eventually evolved into Let’s Dance. I was a little disappointed, but when I heard it… I really liked Let’s Dance and Modern Love. Of course, it sounds like Bowie singing with Chic, but what a great success it was for him. I’m a big fan of the records that Bowie made without me. There is no jealousy, only admiration. The big question: do you think Bowie will make another album? I think now that he’s opened the gate, he’s going to make more records. I don’t know when, but I’m sure he will. We recorded more than enough songs, and some extras became bonus tracks for The Next Day. But there were others that could kick off a new album. There’s more stuff there.