Bowie On Eno
INGRID SISCHY:David, you are a solo artist, but you're also a tried-and-true collaborator. I was fascinated to hear that you had begun working with Brian Eno again. You worked together so much in the '70s and did such incredible things, and then you went your separate ways. Now, you've recorded a new Bowie album called OuSide, which involved working with Brian again and which is coming out in September. I think people would like to know how you and Brian started to collaborate again.
DAVID BOWIE:Brian and I had set ourselves the goal of completing a trilogy of albums in the late '70s Low, Heroes, and Lodger. We achieved that and we parted most amicably, and then we didn't see each other for fourteen years. We met again when Iman and I got married and he came to our wedding in 1992. Because of that meeting, we realized that we were thinking in very similar ways about experimenting in popular music, and that our interests were converging again, which really gave us the impetus to work together again. Over the next few months we wrote each other mini manifestos about what we would and wouldn't do in the studio, so that at least when we went in we'd have a set of concepts that would enable us to avoid all the things we find boring and bland in popular music. We didn't want parameters. The only thing we knew was that we wouldn't be writing songs before we got in the studio. We would come in armed with fodder. Each of us had a certain plan that we wouldn't reveal to the other about what we wanted to do. We kept secrets from each other. That was really good, because it led to a lot of "Oh, I didn't know you were going to do that." It meant there was a huge surprise factor.
We also knew we needed to work with musicians who could adapt to our way of working. I went through all the musicians in my life who I admire as bright, intelligent, virtuosic players. There's an atmosphere of play in the way that Brian and I work. We wanted musicians who had the ability to throw themselves into what may have seemed an absurd situation and not be embarrassed by it, but who would embrace it. I needed adventurers, fellow seamen, fellow pirates.
IS:Both you and Brian are artists as well as musicians. Did you each approach this album as if it were a kind of blank canvas?
DB:Everything that came together on this album came about through accident and synthesis and through Brian's take on cybernetics that you take systems and, in destroying them, you recover the pieces that seem to work and make them into something new. Brian is a born cybernetician. He will take the most unlikely juxtapositions and philosophical ideas and throw them together into this kind of conceptual stew of his and produce this unfathomable, but fascinating animal. And he will continually stop and reevaluate the work that's been done and then throw it in an entirely unexpected direction. One thing that Brian and I realized is that he tends to take things from the street or from low art and elevate them to a high-art level. I do precisely the opposite. I steal from high art and take it down to the street or vulgar level. I think it's because of this difference that we work so well together. Where the two lines cross each other is where we do our best work, actually. I tend to do things more intuitively, and Brian approaches things from a far more analytical, conceptual position.
What Brian did specifically on Outside and he'd done it in various ways on our '70s sessions was put everybody in another space before they started playing. He walked into the session and said, "I've got something very interesting for us to look at today." And out of his little bag he pulled these six flash cards and gave one to each of us. He didn't tell me he was going to do this. He said, "I want you to read these cards and adopt the characters on them for as long as you can when we start Playing." He said to our drummer [Sterling Campbell], "You are the disgruntled ex-member of a South African rock band. Play the notes that you were not allowed to play." And then the pianist [Mike Garson] was told, "You are the morale booster of a small ragtag terrorist operation. You must keep spirits up at all costs." My card said, "You are a soothsayer and town crier in a society where all media networks have tumbled down," so I knew it was my job to pass on all the events of the day.
Because of this setup, when we started playing, everybody came into the music from a very different space from where they would normally. So you had six really vibrant personalities with interpretive abilities playing from idiosyncratic points of view, and the confluence of all that produced an extreme atmosphere that was quite outside what one might have expected from a bunch of rockers.
While this wonderful, inspirational, mystical, emotional, emotive music was pouring out of these guys, I had to match it with something. I had typed out all the subjects that were interesting me at that particular time. This ranged across very simple things like love and death. It also covered subjects like paganism and how it's reemerging in the latter part of this millennium. There were also notes on ritual artists, and why there's a revived movement of body-part obsession and body-fluid obsession again as we approach the end of the millennium.
Having amassed all this material, I used it in a way that was similar to what I did in 1973-74, when I started cutting up lyrics. I've always felt comfortable with the idea of contradictory information; I feel it's always given me more insight into the reality of situations than merely knowing the so-called facts. I tremendously admire [William S.] Burroughs for the way in which his writing negates the idea of the linear story. However dysfunctional other people found it, I found it riveting and closer to the true essence of experience. I could interpret his work the way I needed to interpret it. So I have been drawn to cut-up writing for quite a while now. This time, for Outside, a friend of mine in San Francisco developed a program for me that duplicates the cut-up method, but could do in milliseconds what would generally take me a long time. So I was free to feed into the Macintosh a huge amount of material, covering many subjects and areasit was getting quite encyclopedic and then hit the "random" button on the computer, which spewed out reams of paper with everything I'd written recomposited.
IS:Outside, the title of your record, seems the perfect word to summarize what you've done in many ways.
DB:Brian and I wanted to work on the outside or the periphery of the mainstream, and that also meant setting ourselves up psychologically to be somewhere further out than the hub, the nub of popular music. So we did everything within our powers to achieve and understand those different states without taking drugs. [laughs] In early '94, for example, we went to the Guggin mental hospital just outside of Vienna, where some of the famous old outsider artists lived and worked. Some of them have been in the painters' wing for, like, thirty years, as an Austrian experiment to see what happens when you allow people with mental disabilities to give free rein to their artistic impetuses. Before you get to the outsiders' wing, there's this other wing you pass through where all the psychos and murderers live, and the only thing written on the wall is THIS IS HELL. But the painters' wing is colored with graffiti everywhere. They paint all the trees surrounding their wing - everything is painted! To see it against the starkness of this other wing next door is really hard-hitting. We were both very affected by this experience. It's quite obvious that these outsider artists don't have the parameters that are placed on most artists; they don't have any real dnve to sell what they do. Some of them don't even do it as an expression of themselves; they do it because their work is them. Their motivation for painting and sculpting comes from a different place than that of the average artist who's sane on society's terms.
This article was originally found on page 140 of the September 1995 issue of Interview magazine.
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