David Bowie: the making of ★

The inside story of David Bowie's final studio album

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Here’s the interview I conducted with Donny McCaslin, bandleader on David Bowie’s album.

The interview took place on October 31 2015, and this piece originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Uncut.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner

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“How about flying a little more…?”
After DAVID BOWIE’s extraordinary career resurrection with The Next Day, he is preparing to release ★ – an album of “big concepts”. Here, the album’s bandleader DONNY McCASLIN, reveals all about Bowie’s remarkable working-practices, including jazz solos, conceptual feedback and sushi lunches. “He leaves no stone unturned,” we learn.

I first met David through Maria Schneider. I’ve been in her group for about ten years or so. She and David were talking about collaborating. Then she was calling me up, looking for recommendations about different aspects of what they were doing. We did two small group workshops for “Sue [Or In A Season Of Crime)”, with David, Ryan Keberle – a trombone player from Maria’s band – myself and the rhythm section. I recommended the drummer from my band, Mark Guiliana, to play on it. After the first workshop, David came with Maria and Tony Visconti to hear my band play at the 55 Bar, a local spot in New York. The next morning he emailed me and said that he had written a song based on what he’d heard last night and wondered if I interested in recording it. After I picked my jaw up off the floor – he was so polite about it, just so generous in what he said – I said, “Absolutely, love to.” So he sent me a demo version he’d made at home. He had programmed the drum, the bass, he had played the saxophone solo on it. That was “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”. Then pretty quickly it was, “How about we do two or three tunes?” Then I think Maria suggested to him, “Why don’t you have Donny’s band do a whole record with you?” That was how it started.

The first time we got together to record, we planned four or five days of rehearsal, then a week of recording. But things got busier on his end. The timetable got pushed back. Then it was just, “Let’s record for six days.” That was January this year. At that point, I thought it was going to be a few songs. David said, “I have no idea how this is going to go, let’s just go for it and see what happens.” He’d sent me, say, six or seven songs. He had written out some parts, I transcribed and orchestrated some things that were on the demos, I added other parts to what he had written.

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We’d arrive at the studio around 10 or 10.30, tune up and listen to what we’d done the day before. David would arrive at 11 and we would usually work until about 4pm. The Magic Shop, the studio where we recorded, is in the SoHo neighbourhood in New York. It has a very unassuming front door. You walk in, there’s a desk on the right, a very narrow hallway and at the end a set of big doors leads into the control room where they have this vintage [Neve] console. Then you go into the studio itself. It’s not a huge room. We had Mark’s drums set up at the far end of the room. Then next to Mark was Jason Linder and his keyboards. On bass, Tim Lefebvre was closest to the control room, with his back to it, facing Mark who’s at the other end of the room with Jason on his left. Then David was to Tim’s right where he had some guitars set up and a vocal mic. I was set up in a booth next to David. We were working as a live band and David was recording with us. It was all very intimate. That was good, because you can hear that it’s recorded in a live room. It makes it feel real.

We recorded two songs a day and maybe only one on the last day. I remember Tony and David both saying, “Wow, this is going so fast. You’re doing a great job.” David took everything we did during the day home at night and listened intently to it, trying to figure out what he wanted and so on and so forth. His attention to detail that way was eye-opening. By the end of the week, as we had got more momentum going, David said, “OK, I want to go back and record this one and this one again.” We celebrated his birthday in the middle of the sessions. Because it was New York City, we had sushi. Really fancy sushi.

(Photo by Jimmy King)
(Photo by Jimmy King)

On a typical day, David would come in and we’d listen to what we’d done the day before. He might say, “Let’s try this or let’s try that.” Or “Let’s try this song.” We’d rehearse a little, then just roll tape. Usually within the first two or three takes, we’d go back and listen and he’d say, “OK, we’d got it.” Then maybe he would go in and refine the vocal, and maybe Tim or Mark might fix something. Then I would go in and do the rest of the woodwind in addition to the basic track. David would say, “How do you guys feel?” He was very democratic, always soliciting our opinions. He’s taking in the whole thing. Maybe I’d play a solo and say, “What do you think, David. How is that feeling?” He was usually super-positive. The way he would give feedback was cool. Again, it was kind of conceptual. It wasn’t “Well, on bar 4 instead of playing B flat play B natural.” It wasn’t that kind of thing. I guess the week went pretty well, because at the end of it David said, “Let’s do this again.”David presented almost every song as a demo. Most of them he had recorded by himself at home, but I think he had recorded some with Tony and a drummer sometime before. There were a couple he taught us in the studio, but I don’t think those made the record. We probably recorded 15 or 16 songs in total. Some I had in advance of the recording session, but then on the second go around, when we reconvened in February, he hit me with five or six songs a few days beforehand. It seemed like they came to him pretty quickly. I think “Blackstar” was one he had demo’d the night before we went to the studio or something.

It was a pretty open and collaborative process. Generally, the song you hear is what he brought in. There may have been a tiny bit of improvisation, but for the most part, the length of the song, the verse, the chorus format, all that was pretty clear from the demos. That said, he wasn’t dictating to us. He’d never say, “You have to play this drum groove,” or, “The bassline has to be exactly like this.” He was open to our interpretations of the demos – a lot of the horn lines, the orchestrations I did, the way I added different instruments. If I wasn’t sure, I’d say, “I’m just going to try this and we’ll see [if it works].” Then I’d ask David, “What do you think?” He was totally affirmative and into it. When the sax is soloing, that’s me improvising; that’s all happening in the moment. But to be clear, David would say, “This will be a spot for a solo.” It felt like he was really trusting our instincts, or my instincts. It felt really cool that way. It was the jazz idea of a collaborative democracy, where we’re passing the ball back and forth, but yet it was in this context of what he had written and the forms he’d come up with.

David is super focused in the studio. He’d come into the live room and we’d get ready to track, he would sing a little bit – and I mean a little bit. We would do a warm-up rehearsal to get it going, but when it was time to go, he was ready to go. When he was fixing up his vocal part, it would go quickly. He would add harmonies, or double track. Often, he knew what he wanted to do, or maybe it was a conversation between him and Tony – but it happened fast. They have all this history together, they understand each other. They had a very good rapport. Let’s say we recorded a track, we’d do one or two takes, we’re listening to it, and when David would say, “OK, that’s the one, let’s go with it.” Then maybe David would go in and work on the vocal. So Tony really knew exactly what to give him and how to get it to him. He was working with Kevin Killen, the engineer, who’s great, but Tony I felt was really quick to identify what section David wanted to work on, how to give him what he needed in the headphone mix. All the little details. Tony would say, “Start here. Give David more kick drum” – or whatever it is.

With David, Tony was really on top of it. This whole process, from start to finish was not that long. We’re not talking about three hours of vocals here. David knows what he wants to do and then Tony is great at facilitating that on the technical side. The whole process goes pretty quick because David delivers. But David was never consumed with his own part. He would also listen to what we’re doing – our overdubs or whatever – so he’s able to take in the whole picture.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.

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.
In April, I did a day of overdubs at Tony’s place [Human Worldwide], some flute on “Blackstar” and another saxophone part for “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore”. David and Tony spent a lot of time there, after we did that first round, listening to the stuff over and over and sifting through the material to make it what it is. I know David did some more vocal stuff. One way to think of it, when we were together David and Tony were gathering information, laying it down, then the two of them comb through everything. For instance, we recorded “Blackstar” in two different pieces at Magic Shop. It might have even been on two different days. At the time, David and Tony were talking about how they were going to bridge the gap between the parts, and I think they put it together at Tony’s. When I went in April, it sounded different for sure. They had added strings and the drum part. When I heard the little snippet that’s being used on the TV show [The Last Panthers], I was like, “Yeah, that’s definitely different from what we did.”

We didn’t have a wrap party but I think a big part of that is that Lazarus has been a pretty consuming project for him. We’ve been in contact over the summer and various times he’s said, “I want to organize a listening party, I’ve got so much going on lately.” David’s been super busy with Lazarus. I understand. But hopefully that will happen soon.

What did I learn from working with David Bowie? He leaves no stone unturned. He listens intently to everyone and is totally present in every moment. David could be very conceptual. When he was giving us feedback, for instance, it was never as black and white as, “I want this to sound like Motown, 1967.” He’d say things that would engage your imagination. You could think about it and figure out what it means to you. I remember him saying once, “That sounds great. How about flying a little more?”

Looking back, I was inspired by David’s songs, by how imaginative he was with the lyrics, and how even the demos had all the elements in place; strong melody, harmony, bass line and drum groove. Seeing how he lives, he’s gracious and generous and doesn’t spend time doing things he doesn’t want to do. He would go over everything we recorded, until he got the music where it felt right. It reaches so far. He is such a deep artist. You know how it is.

The March 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our 19 page David Bowie tribute plus Loretta Lynn, Tim Hardin, Animal Collective, The Kinks, Mavis Staples, The Pop Group, Field Music, Clint Mansell, Steve Mason, Eric Clapton, Bert Jansch,Grant Lee Phillips and more plus our free 15-track CD

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