David Bowie: the making of ★

The inside story of David Bowie's final studio album

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We never did a lot of takes. Between one and three, and that was it. When we got together for that first week, David said he wanted to re-record “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”. We were playing hard, going for it. That just happened in, like, ten minutes. That might have been the first take. The new version of “Sue” took the longest. Because the original we recorded with Maria is so specific, with all the orchestration, I said to David, “Why don’t we do a version that’s more open, where we’re just jamming, the guys are jamming, and there’s David Bowie singing that first part. Then we’ll all just cue the sections.” So we did one or two passes at that which were really wild, but it didn’t work. I went back to Maria’s score and reduced it to clarinet, alto flute, tenor. I came back the next morning and said, “Tony, I’ve got an idea of ‘Sue’.” Then I put those parts on and everybody felt it was feeling complete. I was trying to push to have those guys play more open and to get it edgier and let loose.

I remember the demo he sent me for “Girl Loves Me”. It was one he’d done entirely on his own. He had string parts in the version that I scored out for flutes. There’s a really lyrical melody in the middle of the song, an interlude, that was also strings. I played an alto flute and a C flute. Then James Murphy became involved. James took it to his studio and did this whole other thing with it. Mark and Jason both heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it. I don’t know if that’s the version that ended up on the record or if that’s going to be a remix or something.

On the last run, in March, Ben Monder came in on guitar. He was set up between David and Tim. I remember he sounded great on “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. There was a sax solo, a guitar solo; there may have been a keyboard solo, too. But I love this one. I think the horn stuff that I did on this one had chords that were there on the demo. I may have added a voice or two, but in terms of the part that I played, David had it all there.

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I was so inspired by how much music and literature David’s checked out; he is constantly looking for new things, to listen to and to read. The concept with my band, it’s this idea of electronica music mixed with improvisation. I think David was particularly drawn to that. For instance, when describing one of the first songs we recorded, “Somewhere”, David referenced the Boards Of Canada song “Alpha And Omega” [which McCaslin recorded for Casting For Gravity] as an approach. It’s just amazing how he processes information. We’d talk about Death Grips, this band in California. We talked a lot about sax players, but he didn’t bring his horn. That would have been fantastic. But his horn is all over the demo for “‘Tis A Pity… ” and one called “The Hunger” [“Lazarus” on the album].

Did David ever indicate whether there was a connection between Blackstar and Lazarus? No, but it’s funny, at one point he mentioned the guy who’s the musical director on Lazarus – a good friend of mine, who subs in my band for Jason. He said, “Oh, you know Henry Hay? He’s working on another project for me.” I didn’t know what it was, he didn’t go into it. Then we recorded a song that I’m sure didn’t make the record called “Wistful”. David sent me a demo with a singer and a piano player playing this arpeggiated thing. Beautiful. We recorded it in January, but David wasn’t feeling it. He sent me a different version for the March session. It was the piano player and a singer, and the singer had a kind of musical theatre approach for it. I thought, “Wow, that kind of sounds like it could be for a musical.” And lo and behold it was! The piano player on that demo was Henry Hay.

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