IN HIS MID-1970s BERLIN PERIOD DAVID BOWIE PRODUCED SOME OF HIS MOST INTERESTING AND ENDURING WORK. BATTLING COCAINE ADDICTION, LIVING IN THE WEST OF THE GERMAN CAPITAL AND RECORDING AT HANSA STUDIOS IN THE SHADOW OF THE CITY’S DIVIDING WALL, HIS RESULTING ALBUMS – LOW AND “HEROES”, RELEASED JUST NINE MONTHS APART IN 1977 – WERE AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTS IN AMBIENT ATMOSPHERE AND CINEMATIC MOOD.
Both produced by Tony Visconti and famously featuring Brian Eno, the records were an artistic turning point for an globally successful figure in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Intensely detailed album STATION TO STATION (1976) was an exercise in slick cocaine-bloated stadium-soul – but, with punk rock just around the corner, times were changing for the old guard. For the first time since he’d grabbed the music scene by the lapels, any artistic relevance was slipping permanently away from Bowie. Rather than play out a sad decline into grasping at former glory, he retreated to Berlin to ‘clean up’, immersing himself in a frugal life in the city by day, and puncturing nights with excess. Gradually finding new meaning. All trouble and peace was perfectly documented by the esoteric instrumental passages across “HEROES” and LOW.
Jazz composer Dylan Howe – drummer in Wilko Johnson’s band and The Blockheads in addition to his extensive session work for the likes of Nick Cave, Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Dave Gilmour, Damon Albarn and Hugh Cornwell – is about to release his own vision of Bowie’s Berlin. New album SUBTERRANEAN has been five years in the making. An inventive and radical take on the instrumental cuts from “HEROES” and LOW, Howe says: “Think Coltrane Quartet produced by Neu! in an air-raid shelter”… In this interview with The Mouth Magazine he discusses both SUBTERRANEAN and Bowie’s mid-1970s work.
SUBTERRANEAN IS YOUR FIRST STUDIO ALBUM FOR TEN YEARS – SO I GUESS THE PLACE TO BEGIN IS TO ASK WHY A DECADE’S ABSENCE?
This is my first studio album since 2004’s THIS IS IT. I’ve recorded three albums as a leader since then; two recorded live at the Pizza Express in Soho (TRANSLATION VOL.1 and VOL.2) and one with a mobile studio in the cinema at the Barbican centre ( DH / Will Butterworth Duo – THE RITE OF SPRING). The reason this one has taken so long is, in short, two of the oldest reasons out there; time and money.
WHEN DID THE IDEA FOR SUBTERRANEAN COME ABOUT?
I had the idea for the album in 2007 and had a preview track on my album TRANSLATION VOL.2 – a demo of WARSZAWA. That year I also previewed some of this music at the London Jazz Festival with a 12 piece line up, including special guests Hugh Cornwell, Adrian Utley and Gilad Atzmon. I’d recorded some demos of some of the music, hoping to use for the master at Jim Barr’s (bassist from Portishead and Get The Blessing) studio in Bristol, but all I kept in the end was some of Adrian Utley’s guitar. The main group recording was done in one day two years ago at Eastcote studios in west London and then I’ve done a lot of overdubbing in my studio in Essex and at Will Worsley’s (edit and mix engineer) studio in East London, adding new drums, synths, extra saxophone and a few other things.
WERE THERE PARTICULAR MUSICAL CHALLENGES THAT YOU FACED IN PUTTING THIS RECORD TOGETHER?
I suppose the main challenge was to just get the music and then the recorded performances of it to where I needed them to be. I like how it sounds now, finally. It was the first album that I’ve recorded as a leader that I’ve really used the studio as a movie camera, 35 mm, instead of a stills camera just taking a snapshot of a day. I like recording all together and not overdubbing of any kind – but this time it needed much more attention and I wanted to be able to like this record for a long time.
BOWIE’S ‘BERLIN PERIOD’ IS SOME OF HIS VERY BEST WORK. CAN YOU REMEMBER MUCH ABOUT YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE OF THOSE RECORDS?
I can remember it pretty well. I must have been about 12 and saw the cover of “HEROES” downstairs propped up on my dad’s record player, and thought “that looks interesting”, nabbed it and played it all day. Liked the lyrics to JOE THE LION… you know, “You get up and sleep”. And BLACKOUT – all that “I’m under Japanese influence and my honours at stake” stuff… love it. Obviously the tunes, playing and sound too. I really got into that great rhythm section he had from then on; Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar, George Murray. They really taught me a lot about playing the drums and groove, etc.
SUBTERRANEAN DOESN’T FEEL REVERENTIAL, YOU’VE TAKEN THINGS TO YOUR OWN PLACE. BUT DID YOU APPROACH THE ARRANGEMENTS WITH ANY TREPIDATION, PERHAPS IN LIGHT OF THE FACT THAT THE MUSIC OF BOWIE’S BERLIN PERIOD IS MUCH-LOVED AND KNOWN ‘INSIDE OUT’ BY FANS..?
I suppose I did a little at first – I didn’t want it to be rubbish! It’s hard when there’s a definitive version out there that a lot of people know and love. You know that most people are expecting or kind of want it to suck, so the pressure is on a little. With that in mind maybe that’s a good reason to try to get away from the originals and mess around with the music and see what happens. It did seem to kind of work straight away – felt open and easy to improvise in, and a kind of fresh platform to do stuff with. Saying that, I did spend a lot of time on the synth side of things, getting the vintage sounds right. I had some good people to help me though; my brother Virgil is a vintage synth nut and Will Worsley is great at finding sounds as well. So it turned out okay…
WHAT WERE YOUR ULTIMATE AIMS FOR THE RECORD – WERE THERE DELIBERATE THINGS YOU WANTED TO ACHIEVE WITH EACH PIECE?
I think the aim with this, and with anything you do that you love and have put everything into, is to just hope it can be heard by as many people as possible. And that you get a chance to play it live and go somewhere with it.
WERE THERE PARTICULAR ‘PARTS’ THAT YOU’D WANTED TO BRING OUT OF THE ORIGINAL BOWIE TRACKS?
With regard to the parts, I seemed to find more in there than I’d noticed before, the more I got into it. I knew that all the main themes had to be there but then I noticed quite a lot more in the keyboard parts – especially with tracks like NEUKOLN and WEEPING WALL.
PHILIP GLASS REWORKED PARTS OF “HEROES” AND LOW FOR TWO OF HIS SYMPHONIES. WERE THOSE PIECES AN INSPIRATION FOR YOU – PERHAPS IN TERMS OF ‘MAKING IT ACCEPTABLE’ TO INTERPRET BOWIE’S MORE ESOTERIC WORK?
I liked what Philip Glass did with the music very much, but I was looking for that third stream. The one that’s not really out there with most music. That’s the reason I did the album in a way, because I couldn’t go out and buy what I was looking for. No-one was doing it, so I had to make it myself.
I WAS PARTICULARLY TAKEN WITH YOUR VERSIONS OF WEEPING WALL AND SOME ARE, BOTH FROM LOW – VERY CINEMATIC. SUBTERRANEAN FEELS LIKE THE NIGHT-TIME BERLIN CITYSCAPE MUST HAVE SEEMED TO BOWIE…
Thanks! Maybe at first I was trying to project onto the music the landscape or scenes of what I might have imagined it was like then… making that record or going for that feeling… But that’s just projection, and it’s someone else’s movie that might not even be real anyway. In the end the record became something else, something totally personal to me – and maybe that’s why it sounds okay…
HAVE YOU BEEN TO BERLIN, AND WAS THERE SOMETHING OF THAT CITY YOU’VE TRIED TO CAPTURE, YOURSELF?
I have been there a few times, yes – but never long enough to go to see some of the places I’d have liked… Hansa Studios, where parts of those records were made, and the music and clothes shops on that great quarter, I forget what it’s called. So far it’s always been a night there for a gig and then off the next day…
WHERE DO YOU THINK DAVID BOWIE RANKS, IN TERMS OF ‘THE GREATS’?
Regardless of whether you like Bowie or not, you can’t really argue with a big chunk of his catalogue. He’s had nine proper classic albums and many others that are excellent, too. He’s a brilliant magpie and enabler as well as having a one- or two- take voice. Also, he helped point the way towards so many great visual artists and other creatives for a lot of people too.
BOWIE HAD HIS DECADE OF ABSENCE BETWEEN STUDIO RECORDS… DID YOU HEAR THE NEXT DAY?
I really liked WHERE ARE WE NOW – the first single from THE NEXT DAY. I’ve not really heard the rest of the album. I’ll have to check it out…
BOWIE OPERATED IN SO MANY DIFFERENT MUSICAL AREAS – WERE YOU EVER TEMPTED TO WIDEN OUT THE REMIT OF THIS PROJECT SO THAT YOU COULD REWORK OTHER BITS OF HIS CANON?
Not at all, to be honest. I think this only works because it’s some of Bowie’s more obscure material. Anything that’s too well known or recognisable would sound pretty pony no matter who’s doing it. Best to stay within these boundaries and do something with it, rather than sail too close to the tribute group area … Don’t want to go anywhere near that. Plus it’s instrumental – so we’re sort of in the clear as long as we stay edgy.
Buy Dylan Howe’s SUBTERRANEAN here.