Sound & Vision: Tony Visconti
Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. In this special edition, I’ll be talking with the legendary producer Tony Visconti. Visconti, who originally hails from Brooklyn, got his professional start as a jazz bassist. Early in his career, a chance encounter with the British producer Denny Cordell brought Visconti to London where he discovered the pre-famous band Tyrannosaurus Rex (later to become T. Rex). Playing an integral role in shaping Marc Bolan’s glam-rock sound, Visconti produced several T. Rex albums including the chart-topping Electric Warrior. He also began a long and fruitful association with David Bowie, which has so far yielded more than a dozen albums, including the acclaimed Berlin Trilogy, and the highly anticipated Blackstar, which will be released on January 8th.
Over the course of his distinguished career, Visconti has worked on hundreds of albums by artists ranging from Thin Lizzy to Elaine Paige, the queen of British musical theater. When we spoke, Visconti was eager to share his candid insights about the industry. He was also excited to discuss his latest projects, including Bowie’s Blackstar, a forthcoming album from Kristeen Young, and his own touring musical super-group, Holy Holy, which performs songs from The Man Who Sold The World plus a selection of other Bowie favorites.
The Rumpus: With a new Bowie album about to be released, I thought we’d jump right in to your work with him. The Man Who Sold the World was Bowie’s third studio album. Sonically and stylistically it’s a big departure from the folk sound you hear in his earlier work. Can you tell me about how you collaborated with Bowie and the other musicians on the record to get that sound?
Tony Visconti: From the minute I met Bowie, I was told by his publisher to get him focused on one style because he was too much all over the place. He was writing show tunes—like Broadway songs, and other strange, kind of quirky English songs. And the thing David and I both agreed on was folk rock. That was a nice style at the time, like The Mamas and the Papas, the jangly twelve-string guitar and all that, and we based the first album we worked on together—the Space Oddity album—on that sound. But we didn’t like it much. It didn’t quite come off. We felt at the end it could have been and should have been a lot heavier. And honestly I wasn’t up to scratch. I wasn’t a good producer yet—and so I said, “Yep, whatever, I’m open to anything! We just have to make it better!”
In the interim we met Mick Ronson, who was a friend of the drummer on Space Oddity. Mick came to London and as soon as we heard him play for us, David and I looked at each other and said, “We’ve got our lead guitarist! From him we’ll build a new sound!” We definitely wanted to go prog rock, heavy rock, concept rock. Mick was it. He was wonderful! Because he played this style longer than we did, we looked up to him. He also gave me some input on how I should play bass. He made me listen to Jack Bruce and said that’s the kind of bass I would really love for you to play if I’m going to be in this group. That’s how we started to make the sound for The Man Who Sold the World.
Rumpus: Did you realize at the time that these sonic experiments you were doing, bringing in a heavier guitar sound, and using echo, phrasing, and other vocal techniques, were in essence creating the first Bowie persona and drafting the musical blueprint for future albums?
Visconti: Honestly, while we were making it we thought it was going to be the best album ever made. We knew we were doing something really, really new. I have this theory that Bowie was always maybe a couple of years ahead of his time, and the way he became successful was that he had to slow down a bit and be just a few months ahead of his time. We wanted to be a rock band and I think we succeeded—except the album wasn’t critically well met. I think it was just too revolutionary. It was just too different. People were just kind of scratching their heads.
Rumpus: Tell me more.
Visconti: For example, the song “The Width of a Circle” is nearly eight minutes long. You didn’t have songs that long in those days, except maybe on art rock albums, but they weren’t selling in the Top 10. England at the time was a very singles-oriented country. Radio 1 had just started. It played pop music 24 hours a day, and we didn’t have a single on that album—maybe the title track “The Man Who Sold The World” could have been a single, but it didn’t fit in with anything happening in those days. We realized we had to meet people halfway—like give them fifty percent of something they know and fifty percent of something original. I think that album was something like ninety percent brand new. Blackstar is similar, but now he’s “David Bowie,” so he can get away with it.
Rumpus: That’s very interesting. I’m thinking about how that idea might apply to one of my favorite Bowie albums, Young Americans, which was a big commercial success in ’75 with Bowie’s first #1 song “Fame.” Tell me more about the experience of making that album.
Visconti: Yes, well, every album has an experimental aspect. For that one it was: can we make a really good blue-eyed soul album? So we went to Philadelphia, to Sigma Sound, the very same studio where R & B albums were made in those days, and I think we succeeded. And I remember at the time one of David’s favorite television shows was Soul Train, which meant a lot to him because he grew up with R & B records. We both loved Little Richard and Fats Domino, and all of the old R & B, and Soul Train was the modern version of that. It was one of David’s goals to get on Soul Train—to him it was better than winning a GRAMMY or knighthood! And after Young Americans came out, David was one of the very few white people at the time to get to sing on Soul Train. For him it was a dream come true.
Watch Bowie perform “Fame” on Soul Train:
Rumpus: Was there pressure from the label to replicate the same sound going into his next album?
Visconti: Yes, after Young Americans we went to France to try another experiment, this time with Brian Eno, for the album that would become Low. RCA hated the album so much they said they were going to buy David a house in Philadelphia and make him record a “Young Americans 2.” They would have been happy if he’d spent the rest of his career making blue-eyed soul. But of course you can’t do that to David Bowie. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Despite that particular experience, you’ve said before that in general the seventies was a fertile creative period for music—that musicians were encouraged to do their own thing rather than clone the success of other bands. When and why did that change?
Visconti: Well, there are a lot of theories. Pop was initially ignored as a moneymaker by the recording industry. In the seventies they were still relying on Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett for their big hits. You know, most of the budget for the record companies in those days went to the classical department—and those were big budget albums. You can imagine how much you’d have to pay a classical orchestra of a hundred musicians! Towards the end of the seventies pop was gaining the momentum and respectability was very high with groups like Yes and Queen who were making “classical” rock records. They were also bringing in big bucks. So the eighties became the “bottom line” decade. Accountants and lawyers were dictating who should be signed. By then pop music wasn’t only supporting the classical department. It was a strong entity unto itself, and it had to be nurtured, so pop became a business where it hadn’t been as much so in the seventies.
I kind of liked the method of the seventies where they would throw a little bit of money at a hundred different groups—not millions of dollars per group, but, you know, a few thousand. Throw them in the studio, and if five of those groups came out with a hit record it would be money well spent. The eighties turned that whole system upside down. They would sign three groups and give them five or ten million dollars each to make three records. Out of those three records maybe one would be a hit. The economy changed, and that’s why the music changed.
Rumpus: Now that labels don’t act as gatekeepers in the same way anymore, do you hear more experimentation among emerging artists who are self-releasing?
Visconti: Of course! That’s what’s happening. Any respectable artist has really given up on a label because the labels are still kidding themselves that the only way to go is to sign these big names like Lady Gaga and expect to make gazillions. But they don’t. They lose money. Every time I meet the CEO of a record label I tell them how they did it in the seventies because they want to know. I tell them, “Sign a hundred people! Throw it against the wall and see which ones stick!” And they frown and say, “Oh, we can’t do that!” and they start mumbling about demographics and this and that. The PR alone costs a million dollars, which is ridiculous when the returns are so low. For example, people are raving about Taylor Swift selling something like eight million records or something like that. Well, Alanis Morissette has sold more than forty-seven million. The Beatles sold something like one-hundred-and-seventy-eight million. The labels are not getting the returns they want from their PR. Plus, for every Taylor Swift there are a hundred thousand nobodies out there who are probably making better music. Self-releasing is the only way to go.
Rumpus: I see your point. But as the self-release haystack grows, how do we find that worthwhile needle?
Visconti: That’s a good point, but the way record labels are working right now, you’re not going to find that needle that way either.
Rumpus: I also feel that musicians in the past were more consciously trying to make songs that would last, hoping that the songs they released could become “classics,” but now the pressure to constantly put out new music has compressed, and maybe compromised, the creative process. Is it still possible to write great songs, to “make tomorrow’s history” as a songwriter?
Visconti: Well, I know that some creative musicians are worried. They don’t want to go too far out. I think a lot of melodies now are based on the pentatonic scale, which is really nursery rhyme music. I think there are some adventurous people out there, and I think Blackstar is an example to show folks they don’t have to dumb down so much. A lot of artists dumb down thinking, and maybe labels contribute to this, that if you make these dumbed down records they’re going to be instant smash hits. I just see that as a steady decline in quality.
Rumpus: You’re a long-time proponent of technology—for example the Eventide Harmonizer, which allowed you to change pitch without tempo, was totally integral to the sounds you were able to achieve for the album Low. But have today’s musicians also become too reliant on technology to make things “perfect” as opposed to interesting?
Visconti: Yes, that’s true. I won’t mention names but some people do rely too much on technology. Look, technology is wonderful and I love it. When I was in the UK and I had hit records I would also have a high tax bill at the end of the year, and that would be the time to buy up all the technology—it was write offs. And sure, you could make some great sounds with technology. That’s what recording is all about. What happens in the studio is very magical, and should be, in my opinion. But for the artists I work with, for instance David Bowie, the studio is a performance area. He wants to go in and deliver a performance. The one thing I don’t mess around with too much is his voice. I mean he’s a great singer. I like to work with people who have a sense of putting a song over, and can sing in tune, and with passion. With technology you can polish a turd, but there’s still no button you can press for passion.
Rumpus: I don’t know how to ask the next question except to do so honestly and directly: I think it’s become fashionable for successful musicians to buy up vintage production gear, or offer to float the rent to keep legacy recording studios afloat. But what good does that do for less established musicians who can’t afford to enlist the services of professional producers and engineers?
Visconti: I think this whole obsession with old gear is completely overblown. You don’t need old-fashioned gear to make a great-sounding record. You don’t even need [analog] tape. The truth is all that gear is beyond its expiration date. You have to really spend a lot of money to practically rebuild all that old equipment. And if you rebuild it, it’s not vintage anymore. Rupert Neve, the guy who invented the Neve console, said he never intended those things to last more than twenty years. So throwing a lot of money behind vintage equipment? Well, that’s just a millionaire’s game. Dave Grohl can do that, but David Bowie doesn’t care about that. Just stick a microphone in front of him and he’s really happy.
Rumpus: Perhaps this is a leading question, but wouldn’t the money spent on buying and restoring vintage gear be better spent then on artist-centered A & R—getting behind talented emerging musicians and helping them to break out?
Visconti: Yeah. You can try to go out on your own with social media, it’s kind of a Wild West out there, but I think nowadays you need a team behind a hit record.
Rumpus: So I’m just thinking about one of the great parts of your story—how you walked into a club at the start of your career as a producer and saw Marc Bolan performing there and thought this guy has potential—and then you were able to do something professionally to help him realize that potential. Can that still happen in 2016?
Visconti: Well, you don’t necessarily need expensive gear or giant budgets to reach an audience. I’m thinking of someone like Devendra Banhart. You can’t record him slick. He’s a “lo-fi” artist, and there are a lot of fans out there, aficionados who like to hear the artists in a raw form. They don’t like sophistication. The music is what matters.
Rumpus: Are there any emerging artists out there who you’re especially excited about now?
Visconti: Yes! I’m working with an artist now who’s very uncompromising: Kristeen Young. She’s been around for a while and her albums are wonderful. She doesn’t sell herself short. She’s capable of writing a catchy song but it’s quality all the way! We’re currently making an album that, by the way, is completely different from her last album— look for that to come out in spring.
Watch the video for Kristeen Young’s “Pearl of a Girl”:
Rumpus: To come back to Bowie, can you tell me how the new album Blackstar evolved from the early demos you first cut in mid-2014?
Visconti: How Blackstar evolved was a long process. It didn’t happen overnight. We worked for about a week on new demos, and we used some of his former drummers like Sterling Campbell and Zack Alford, I played bass, and Gerry Leonard was also there on guitar. But then we started hitting this jazz territory, which we really, really liked, and we realized we needed to bring in some other musicians. So we dropped it for about five months. I didn’t even have a copy of the demos, which were purely experimental.
David then had the idea of working with Maria Schneider, and they made a one-off single called “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” Maria led us to listen to Donny McCaslin, who was in her orchestra, and he had a really great band, including the drummer Mark Guiliana. They were perfect because they were young jazz guys who grew up not only listening to Charlie Mingus and all the classic jazz musicians, but also listening to David Bowie. For them the work was very challenging but something they were certain they could rise to, and they did.
Watch the video for David Bowie’s title track “Blackstar”:
Rumpus: From what I’m hearing on the title track, Blackstar is both a look forward and a look back. For one thing, the displaced character in the songs “Space Oddity,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “Hallo Spaceboy” appears to return. And for another, I’m hearing a lot of Low. In what ways were those references helpful to establishing the concept for this album?
Visconti: I think the whole Berlin trilogy—Low, Heroes, and Lodger—represents that side of Bowie’s nature, where he stretches out into unknown territory. I would say that’s the only link with Blackstar because if you hear the rest of the album it really departs from Low references. I only hear them now because some people tell me they hear a bit of Low, but that was never our intention.
Rumpus: You were quoted in a recent Rolling Stone interview as saying that during production, “[You] were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar… The goal was to avoid rock & roll.”
Visconti: There’s nothing on the album that resembles Kendrick Lamar [To Pimp a Butterfly], but we loved how Lamar was breaking boundaries, and that was what was attractive to us. His album is hip-hop but it’s really, really different.
Rumpus: Yes, there are also elements of jazz, gospel, spoken word.
Visconti: It’s incredible! Talking about it, it’s like seven blind men describing an elephant! There’s so much depth to Kendrick Lamar. That album inspired us to rise to the occasion with the way we do things.
Hear a preview of Bowie’s new single “Lazarus”:
Rumpus: I’m looking forward to hearing the full album when it comes out. Bowie also has a new musical show, also called Lazarus. And there Newton, the exiled extraterrestrial Bowie portrayed in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, has in fact returned. In his review of Lazarus for Slate, Chris O’Leary has describes Newton as “essentially Bowie’s album Low made flesh.” I haven’t yet seen Lazarus, but you have. Do you see the similarity O’Leary cites?
Visconti: No. [Laughs] You know, like with Blackstar, some reviewers don’t know quite what to make of it. And I don’t want to add my own theory. That’s the nice thing about David and a few other artists. You get to have your own interpretation.
To see Michael C. Hall and the cast of Bowie’s Broadway show performing the title track “Lazarus” (which is also the name of a single on Blackstar) on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, click here.
Rumpus: That is a fair point. Before we close, let’s talk about your recent revisitation, along with the touring band Holy Holy, to the album The Man Who Sold the World. Can you tell me about Holy Holy and how this project came together?
Visconti: It started out as a dare in 2004. Woody [Woodmansey] emailed me and said,“ Let’s get back together and perform that album—do you realize we never performed it live?” I didn’t answer him at first, so he emailed again and said, “For fuck’s sake, are you going to answer my email?” So I wrote back and said, “I haven’t played it for years, I can’t even remember what I played.” But then I listened to the album again, and I remembered, wow that was fun to make! We had no restrictions. It was David’s very first uncompromising album. So then my next question to myself was if I could still do it. Did I still have it in me? I still play bass but there’s some wild bass, real crazy stuff on that album, and a lot of it was me just jamming away. So I sat with it, and I had to relearn the album, and then I told Woody I would do it.
From the outset, we made it very clear between us that our intention wasn’t to be a Bowie “cover” band or a “tribute” band. We are the original players on the album, joined by new members who are so talented. And we specifically picked Glenn Gregory (of Heaven 17) as a vocalist because we didn’t want anyone who looked or sounded like Bowie. Glenn has a very powerful baritone voice, so we dropped the keys for him, giving the songs an even darker rendition. And in part two of the show, we perform the Bowie classics that Woody played drums on, songs including “Life on Mars?” “Watch that Man,” and “Ziggy Stardust.” It sounds great. So far we’ve already done twenty-two shows in the UK and Japan and now we’re touring the East Coast of America.
1. You can see Holy Holy on tour! Click here for dates.
2. Here’s Visconti’s Spotify playlist of some favorite tracks he’s worked on:
3. In addition to collaborating with Bowie and T. Rex, Visconti has also worked on hundreds of other albums by artists including Thin Lizzy, Luscious Jackson, The Strawbs, U2, Fall Out Boy, Alejandro Escovedo, Gentle Giant, Mercury Rev, Sparks, Badfinger, The Alarm, D-Generation, Kristeen Young, and Elaine Paige, the queen of British musical theater.
Here’s a Spotify playlist of some of my favorites:
This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.