Interview SEPTEMBER 1995 - by Ingrid Sischy


David Bowie once wrote and sang a song called Changes. It would be a good word, too, for what makes him such a force. There's nothing nostalgic about this guy. He isn't one to rest on his laurels. He is never boring, because the one thing about him that won't change is that he is constitutionally interested in what's going to get us further and deeper and what's going to make us broader, smarter, faster, and ultimately freer.

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 1. Outside, 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 realised 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 re-evaluate the work that's been done and then throw it in an entirely unexpected direction. One thing that Brian and I realised 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 1. 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 rag-tag 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 set-up, 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 re-emerging 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 1. 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 areas, it was getting quite encyclopaedic, and then hit the random button on the computer, which spewed out reams of paper with everything I'd written recomposed.

IS: Outside, the title of your record, seems the perfect word to summarise 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 coloured 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 drive 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.

IS: This word, outside, has a different meaning in the context of you and Brian. You've both had a lot of success, which makes you insiders, too. Yet, because of your multiple interests, you don't fit in a slot, so in that way you've been outsiders for a long time. What often seems to happen is that your expressions of outsiderness end up setting the vogue later for what'sin. But you seem to have consciously chosen to remain outside of what was current at certain times. Can you talk about all that?

DB: Yes. When Brian and I came back together this time, we found that we'd gone through very similar psychological states during the course of the '80s. Around the middle of that decade, both of us felt kind of depleted. Brian dealt with it his way by going to Malaysia for some time. He felt that the '80s was a stagnant, still era. His interest in doing music was fast fading at that point, and he'd become seriously involved as a lecturer in conceptualism. I was going through a similar thing back here, in the West. It hadn't slipped my notice that I'd had more than a leaning toward pluralism in the '70s. I saw the proverbial two sides to every story, and that applied to music and religion and, I guess, politics. I'd felt really split down the middle. Now, I see all that as the beginning of the fragmentation that we find ourselves living with in the '90s.

Brian and I had both felt resolutely out of it. I tried passionately hard in the first part of the '80s to fit in, and I had my first overground success. I was suddenly no longer the world's biggest cult artist in popular music. I went mainstream in a major way with the song Let's Dance. I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did Let's Dance, and it was driving me mad - because it took all my passion for experimenting away. I went through the doldrums at approximately the same time as Brian. I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time. Then, toward the end of the '80s, everything started to fall back into place again. It was as though there had been this hiatus where everything had stood still. Birds hung in the sky; they didn't finish their flight.

Brian suddenly felt in sync. He started doing a lot of work with U2. And Reeves Gabrels, who's my guitar player, appeared on the horizon. He inspired me with his ready wit, sparkling intelligence, and uncompromising attitude to playing music, and he threw me a rope ladder down into the box I felt I was in and helped me get out of my confines. We formed Tin Machine, which was possibly the best decision I ever made in terms of freeing myself from this cul-de-sac and decontextualising myself. Once I had done Tin Machine, nobody could see me anymore. They didn't know what the hell I was, which was the best thing that ever happened, because I was back using all the artistic pieces that I needed to survive and I was imbuing myself with the passion that I had in the late '70s.

Things got surer and more positive from that point. My next piece of music after Tin Machine was Black Tie White Noise. I had just gotten together with Iman, we had married, and that whole period was like a reassessing of my own emotional, spiritual life, which was growing and healing so beautifully at that time.

IS: You used the word healing. It sounds as if your loss of excitement, and the feeling of loss of self came about because of the kind of success that comes from feeding the machine, Instead of feeding yourself.

DB: Oh, absolutely! Without a doubt. The nightmare of this box that I had built was that I saw myself as a character in his early fifties running around doing his old hits for the rest of his life, because he had programmed his audience and himself into that expectation. I had turned the tables on myself and found that I was working for an audience instead of for myself. And I had vowed when I began that I would never, ever do that. It was really demoralising and had ramifications for my personal life, because, having successfully kicked my drug habits of the '70s, I found I was going back into them, though to a lesser degree than anything I had done in the '70s. It was also a period where I began to drink very heavily out of depression and low self-esteem.

IS: How interesting but how understandable that this low self-esteem came at a height of such public esteem. I say understandable, because you're clearly someone who measures success in personal terms - not by commercial acceptance.

DB: It meant absolutely nothing to me. It didn't make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. Let's Dance was an excellent album in a certain genre, but the next two albums after that [Tonight and Never Let Me Down] showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent. My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it. [laughs] In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.

IS: Were you prolific as a visual artist during this low period?

DB: It dried out. I tore up most of my sketches in the '80s. But I want to keep things in perspective. If so many other performers hadn't gone through their own stories, I would be only too pleased to offer mine as an example. But my story is really no different from that of anybody else who has been in a situation similar to mine. And the fact is, I think if I read one more of these exorcisms, I'll go fucking spare. The proliferation of these particular stories in the press about the other side of a certain type of fame makes one become immune to them.

IS: I know you've said that it wasn't good for you, or for your work, to become the guy who stood for this or for that, but by that time you'd become almost a shaman for your audience - someone who let out things that hadn't been let out that much, such as a more mysterious image of sexuality.

DB: All that was very important, but it had repercussions. Your reference to my bisexuality in the early '70s goes back to an exciting and experimental period of my life, physically. And there was a certain element of high priest about it. I was very aware of the idea of androgyny or an unknown gender being attached to most priesthoods in the East, for instance. The variety of androgynous or even neo-drag priests that you can find in many smaller religions throughout the world is phenomenal. Those original shamans have mutated into the entertainer, and some of the most effective entertainers have been those whose sexuality has been shadowy, to say the least. I felt pretty much that that's where I was at in the early '70s, more with Ziggy Stardust, obviously, than my other figures. But I've always left it to others to interpret what the figures in my music are. It's not for me to do that.

What started to bother me about this is, at a particular point, I almost felt that I was becoming a standard-bearer for bisexuality. I'm certainly not apolitical, but I'm not willing to be a standard-bearer for anybody or any movement. My interests are very eclectic and very catholic. I'm quite diversified, and, again, I felt I was being boxed in, and I knew instinctively that if I was boxed in, I wouldn't be able to do all those peripheral and strange things that I knew I was going to want to do throughout my life. I felt like a voyager, and I didn't want to be caught on some particular island and have my ship taken away from me. I wanted to keep sailing.

IS: And you have.

DB: I sincerely don't have time to mess around with the past, because I'm not sure the past exists anymore. I'm not sure we have the time to develop any cohesive philosophy of what history means. History has been revised to such an extent that even historians are flummoxed by what history means. Maybe history is dead, and if it is, it quite likely means that the future is dead, because they are two sides of the same coin. We might be coming into a new era of nowness, which maybe is a very good thing. Perhaps if we didn't dwell on absolutes and what we should be doing, we might be able to reestablish a whole new philosophical understanding of why we're on the planet. Another thing that's caused us to think about this now is AIDS. AIDS has plunged us into the now more than any other thing on this planet.

And there has to be some kind of karmic and spiritual pathway here. I think it's the idea that chaos and fragmentation is our friend and not the enemy that it's being made out to be. I think that the people who are learning the most about how to adapt to all this are the young. What we see as their indifference and inability to go to the depth of understanding of any particular subject is, in fact, a position where they're learning to adapt to a new kind of society. Whereas we won't know how to cope with this complexity that we've now discovered is the real reality, the young will be able to sail through, because they know about scanning the surface of things and getting what they need to move on to the next minute. And that's how the world is going to be. I think we're actually in an era that is terribly exciting. I'm very optimistic about it.

IS: The fragmentation and multiplicity and complexity that you are talking about has always been a part of your persona and of your work. For instance, there's David Bowie the musician and there's David Bowie the artist. And, as we both know, people have a hard time accepting that a person can actually be serious about, and great at, more than one thing. They like to think of other stuff as just dabbling, which sometimes it can be. But I don't think of you as a dabbler when It comes to art. I've been watching the direction your work's been taking. I know you mean it, and I know you are possessed by it. Yet I think you face this box that you hate so much, that says If he's this, he can't be that. Your success in one field works against your serious success in another. My gut says it may be a turning point for you now in terms of an appreciation of your visual art. For instance, I know you just had a successful show in London. By successful, I don't just mean that crowds came, but that other artists came, and museums bought the work. Can you talk about this?

DB: [laughs] I am a very patient man. And yes, I was pleased with the response to the show. Plus, it was successful in the consumerist way. The work went to very prestigious places. Now, in critical terms, I got two extremely vitriolic reviews and one deeply affectionate one from one of my contemporaries, Holly Johnson [former lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood]. The two angry reviews were over the top in their hostility, compared with the work itself, which is neither greater nor weaker than a lot of other work I've seen around. The negative criticism didn't come as a surprise at all; I expected a lot more. The fact of a rock artist having an art show on Court Street, the sacred ground of English art, absolutely infuriated the hell out of some people. The most diabolical reviews are almost worth blowing up and using as works themselves. I value the fact that people got off of their bottoms and came and reviewed it. One of the guys who went after me is a well-known vilifier of Damien Hirst and his contemporaries [young English artists who are causing much international excitement]. The critic wrote about my work in the same bashing way that he has reviewed Damien. I actually felt that he'd helped me become part of their group in some kind of existential way! All I want to do is keep working and keep showing, and I will - and that's almost an end to it. I just know that I've got a lot going against me, as indeed any artist who tries to work in another medium has. But that's O.K. It comes with the territory.

IS: I went to go back to your attraction to collaboration. We talked about collaborating at the beginning of the interview when we went into the new album, Outside. But I know your interest in working this way goes beyond one or two projects. For instance, I know just recently you've collaborated with Damien Hirst on some spin paintings, and I watched you collaborate on some other painting with the South African artist Beezy Bailey. And I know photographers like working with you because you always throw yourself into it and make something with them, and not just for them. I see all this as a fundamental interest in experimentation, and in coming out with something that you don't know you're going to get when you go in. Am I right?

DB: Yes, I adore the process of collaboration. When it's successful, it's created some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. I love bouncing off other people's work.

IS: What else motivates you?

DB: I need friction. Also, I adore a sense of competition. I really like to see or hear somebody's work and say, I can top that. It makes me work in a far grittier, more muscular way. In the '80s, I couldn't look at Paula Abdul or Kylie Minogue and say, I can do better than that. I didn't give a fuck. I can't write if I'm not with people or in a place that really gives me grist for the mill. I need people to throw things back and question my opinions and premise of life. It makes me really respond. There've been moments living in Berlin and in New York when I've felt all that. Bells go off and you're alive and everything's tingling. And I'm feeling that now about London.

IS: You took time off, in the middle of getting Outside ready, in order to play Andy Warhol in the film Julian Schnabel shot this summer [Build A Fort, Set It On Fire], which is Inspired by the short and tragic life of the enormously inventive late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. How did it feel to be in Andy Warhol's wig, as It were?

DB: Impersonating Andy was something I could cope with, with a reasonable amount of ease. His body language was very distinct, and as near as a British man can do, I think I understood the modulation of his accent. His look, of course, is easily brought about. This was a man who had a real cutting look at life, and would talk in cliches and in a simplistic way, but in fact, there was a motor going on in there at a fantastic speed. Only the final edit of the film will show how successful I might have been in pulling him off, as well as his relationship with Basquiat.

IS: So here you are, with a new album, and about to go out with it on tour. Even how you're doing that is a bursting of the box that musicians get put in, or put themselves in - since the other band that's touring with you and your group is Nine Inch Nails. I've heard your album and I think It's really out there in terms of following your own heart. In fact, the title of the first single is The Hearts Filthy Lesson. What about that paradoxical lesson that so many popular artists like yourself have learned - that something that is incredibly successful on artistic terms may not be successful on other terms? You don't seem worried about how your work will be received. You genuinely seem to feel a freedom to explore uncharted seas.

DB: Brian once said something to me in the '70s that's always helped me focus on what I enjoy. He said, David, you must remember that in all the functions we have in life, art is the one place where we can crash our plane and walk away from it. And that's so right. Creating something is the one area where you mustn't have caution or inhibition. If you make a startling, disastrous mess, it's fine, because you can reach out and reevaluate and plunge off into another direction. But never be scared to do the plunging.