Earl Slick: In The Studio with David Bowie

It came out of nowhere, slipping onto the modern airwaves with nary a warning, a hint of lilting jazz preceding the voice that had been silent for so long. With The Next Day, David Bowie has accomplished the impossible: recorded an entire album without anyone finding out. Just when everyone had settled into the notion that the Thin White Duke was done with music for good, he slips out an incredibly simple video accompanying the lovely, contemplative musical poem, “Where Are We Now?” that became the gasp heard round the world. Bowie has made an album!!

One of the only men you could call a genius and not be exaggerating, Bowie has always been an innovator. He became a glittered androgynous god one moment and then a tuxedoed hipster the next; seduced us with a Space Oddity, enraptured us with The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, inspired us with Young Americans and introduced us to rock & roll with vibrant new sounds and colors. He was, and remains to this day, a breathtaking anomaly.

While Bowie remains silent amidst the flurry of excitement for the album’s release on March 12, producer Tony Visconti and guitar player Earl Slick have been the voices of Bowie. On a laid back Monday afternoon, while Slick was “just hanging out with my dog today and doing a couple of interviews,” he is relieved that he can finally let the cat out of the bag after almost a year of keeping the secret protected. Being swamped with interview requests, Slick graciously took some time the other day to talk with Glide not only about working on the new Bowie album but what it has been like working with the legend for almost forty years.

Slick, I know everybody and their mother are wanting to talk to you about David’s album.

And their brother and their Auntie (laughs)

So, David calls you and he says …

He actually emailed and he said (laughs)

Ok, so he emails you and he says …

You know what is really bizarre and it’s kind of a funny story.  I got a doctor buddy of mine, right, he’s a surgeon and he plays drums and he’s like one of my best friends in the world. I was doing a gig near his house and I stayed at his house, and he has a Cobra sportscar, right, and long story short, we take the car out for a spin and the fuel line broke and the damn car went on fire. It’s all good, we didn’t get hurt. I mean, the car was totally melted (laughs) but it was in the middle of the afternoon so obviously the police and the fire department show up and then of course the news show because it was in this really expensive neighborhood and here’s this car just like throwing up twenty foot flames. Anyway, it made some news, internet news, and DB caught wind of it and emailed me: “You ok? I just seen the news.” I said it was cool, we got out of the car in time, it’s all good. I said, “If anything, I got some free press out of it ha-ha.” Then I got another email like maybe an hour later and he starts asking, “So what are you doing?” blah-blah-blah. “What is your schedule like?” and about twenty emails later or whatever, I find out he was making a record and he wanted me to come in and play. Like off the wall, totally off the wall of putting together a record (laughs). Not even a phone call. We were just emailing back and forth for like two days till we figured the schedule out. It’s pretty hysterical.

Did you just sit there and stare at the screen when he said he was making a new album?

You know what, the funny thing about all of it, people are going, “Were you shocked?” cause David’s gone kind of invisible for quite some time. I said, you know, it was a pleasant surprise but by no means a shock because I wouldn’t be surprised if it went one way or the other, of had he not gone in and made a record or if he did. After all these years of working with David, nothing really surprises me (laughs)

Would you have been more surprised if he DIDN’T call you?

Oh, I would have been damn surprised and probably not a lot happy about it (laughs) if I found out it was in the stores and I wasn’t there playing on it, you know. Obviously, I’m human and it wouldn’t have made me too happy but you know he did contact me and I did do tracks and they’re there and they’ll be out in March.

Everybody is so excited about it. Why do we have to wait?

You have to wait because I have to wait, cause I don’t even have a copy yet (laughs)

But you’ve heard it, right?

Well, what I heard was a work in progress. When we work, we work really fast because when you’ve been working with somebody that long you kind of have a system down, like an unspoken system, but you have one down. We’ve got a method about the way we do stuff and we work really quick. So after I listened to a bunch of tracks and then I played on whatever I played on, which is maybe about seven or eight and I think three or four of them ended up on the album, it went by so fast that you don’t have time to digest everything, you know. Obviously, I wasn’t given anything to take home because you don’t ever want stuff floating around. I don’t even give people stuff to take home when I do my own stuff until it’s time. So I have not heard any final mixes yet. I’m sure I will within the next couple of weeks, prior to the actual release, cause I’m going to need that information so at least to know what the hell I’m talking about (laughs)

But I have an idea what the record is. I mean, the single is just a representation of just one aspect of the record. It’s not that kind of an album of what that single is. There is more angst to it, there’s more rockers on there, you’re going to hear influences from a number of his works from the years. It’s going to sound like a David Bowie record. The one thing that always happens no matter how he puts these albums together, they always do have a continuity somehow. But it is more of a rocking record. It’s not going to be like a pensive ballad-y kind of thing like what he put out first, which I actually love that one. I was actually surprised he put that out first but I think it was a good idea actually.

Why do you think that?

I just think it was kind of cool. I have this ability to look at it as an insider and an outsider. I don’t know how I do it but I can. So when I saw that I went, this is a very heart-on-your-sleeve piece of work, which I think the public picked up on pretty quick, which I thought was kind of cool. He was looking back. I mean, if you see the German footage, the Berlin stuff, and the lyric and the mood of the whole thing, it’s very pensive, which I thought was kind of cool. A little bit vulnerable for his work actually, much more vulnerable than you would normally see on a David Bowie album, especially on a first single.

The first single has kind of caught people off guard and they’re thinking that maybe this is how the whole album sounds but you and Tony are saying no, this is just one song.

We’re not saying that because we don’t like the song, cause we all love it. We’re just saying that because it’s really what’s going on. That’s just one aspect. There might even be a bit of Scary Monsters influence on it. I heard a couple things on there that were maybe a little Station To Station but not exactly like it but maybe the mood. And I’m looking at the other guys’ interviews too and it’s mostly been me and Tony but we’re not exactly describing it the same. I mean, we’re giving an overall description but we’re not really exactly describing it the same. So I bet if you asked everybody that plays on that, you’re going to get like a different take from everybody (laughs)

Tony was talking in an interview about a song called “Dirty Boys” and he said it was real sleazy.

A matter of fact, I’m almost positive I’m on that one. If you’re going to have a title like that, I have to be on it so I think I am.

What was it like that first day when you went into the studio?

I walked in and he was already there and he says, “Oh, it looks like a rock & roll guitar player just showed up.” (laughs) That was the first words out of his mouth. And then I said, “Where’s the coffee?” (laughs) And then we just sat down and, cause we really haven’t seen a lot of each other, we email and stuff but we really haven’t seen much of each other, so we had a little quick reunion thing, how you doing? What’s going on? Blah-blah-blah, the usual thing. Obviously, we’re glad to see each other. And we got down to it.

Is that how it usually goes working with David?

It is, because a lot of times we’ll go through long periods, well, this was a whopper as far as long periods go (laughs).  This year, and this baffles me when I look at it, but in April, maybe March, of 2014, means that I’ve known David and working with him on and off, for forty years. I don’t know anybody else in the business that long that’s actually still alive (laughs). It’s a mind-blower because I distinctly remember the first time I met the guy, you know what I mean, like it was yesterday and it sure as hell wasn’t yesterday.

How did you meet him?

You know, it was one of these things where, and I have a son that plays drums and know a lot of guys in their twenties right now, and they just don’t get how something like that happens, because the way things are now because of cyber world, everybody is cyber friends and have cyber gigs and make cyber albums (laughs). We’re fucking cybered out, right? (laughs). So what ended up happening was I was very active on the New York rock & roll scene from the time I was about sixteen years old. I started really young. I played in town all the time and I got hooked up with a guy named Michael Kamen who had a band called The New York Rock Ensemble and we went out and I got originally hired as a roadie because I was playing in a cover band and I hated it. I said, “Michael, I don’t give a shit. I’ll even carry gear but I can’t do this other stuff anymore. I want to be around guys who are actually doing this for real.” Then within a few weeks I ended up in the band, which was my intention in the first place, and Michael knew that. So Michael was my mentor. He had met David Bowie in New York City and they got to talking and it turned out that David was looking for a guitarist because Mick Ronson had just left the band. And Michael immediately said “I think I got your guy.” Michael gave him my name, they contacted me and I went for an audition, which was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Me and David, we actually talked about that the first day when I went in, about that.

Why was it so weird?

It was weird because I went in to RCA Studios, they had called me up the day before and said, “Look, David Bowie wants you to come down and audition.” So I thought maybe I was going to go there and it would be a band and that I would play. I get there, I go to RCA Recording Studios while they were mixing Diamond Dogs the album. I didn’t see David, I didn’t see anybody but Corrine Schwab, “Coco”, who introduced herself and said, “Oh, you just go here in the studio; not the control room but in the studio.” And they had an amp for me and she said, “Just put the headphones on.” So I put the headphones on and Tony Visconti is talking to me over the intercom and I’m going like, “What do I do?” and he goes “Well, I’m just going to play tracks, just play to them.” “What keys are they in?” “Just play.” (laughs)

So I’m playing to unmixed tracks of Diamond Dogs, just noodling for a while and we’re having some dialogue back and forth. And the control room was so dark I couldn’t see anybody in there. I mean, I knew David had to have been in there otherwise why was I there. So he comes out about ten or twenty minutes into this thing and we just sat down, he picked up the guitar and we talked for a little while and we just jammed around and I left. They said, “We’ll call you back in about ten days to two weeks cause we got a bunch of guys to look at.” And my first thought was, Jesus Christ, this is going to be a long two weeks cause I wasn’t asked to keep it quiet but I was trying to cause if I start telling everybody that I did this audition and I don’t make it, man, I’m going to end up just moving, I’m just going to leave the country (laughs) As it turns out they called the next day, thank God, and they said, “David would like to meet with you cause he wants you to do this thing.” So that was the audition.

Is there a big difference between working with David Bowie, John Lennon and David Johansen in the studio?

No actually. Funny enough, there are a real lot of similarities between Bowie and Lennon. And even with Johansen, cause we did some recording together after the Dolls tour.  But let’s address Bowie and Lennon first off. They both bring in guys for a specific reason. In other words, it’s not like, I’m going to make a record, let me call up a bunch of people’s managers and bring all these session guys in. Even though Lennon had more session players, David really doesn’t use stock session guys, he never did really. But it was, and I don’t know how to say this, casual but focused at the same time where you never feel pressure and what they would try to do is to get out of you what it is they called you for. I do a specific thing I do and that’s what they wanted, both of them, even with Johansen as well. It wasn’t like I would walk in the studio and they would say, “Well, you have to play these notes with this guitar on that amp,” which is why I don’t do sessions. I don’t function in that world. But it’s almost like you’re sitting in a room with a band that actually gets along, which is also another rarity, but it would be as if you were actually in a band with them and you were just throwing ideas around and coming up with what was needed and recording it. Actually, for me, it worked really, really well, that process. For me, it was easy.

Obviously, there was a little tension here and there and sometimes that’s good. There is always a little bit of you’re not getting it right or it ain’t doing what it’s supposed to do and everybody will get a little tense and out of that tension is where you get the results sometimes. I’m not talking about full-blown arguments and fighting and stuff. I’m just talking that a little bit of artistic tension, I think, helps things along.

You’re a very no-nonsense kind of guy. You go and you do it and you don’t have rose-colored glasses on. Is that how you go into the studio when you’re working?

Yeah, I do. And I can tell you this again about Lennon and Bowie and Johansen, is that they think in the big picture as opposed to micro-thinking. Like some guys will sit there and they will worry about one note for three hours. That would stress the crap out of me because what you’re going to get out of me is going to be a vibe. I don’t even know if I know what I’m doing, to be honest with you (laughs) but I do create an atmosphere the way I play and that’s what you have to catch with me, you have to capture that. And that makes it so much easier and it’s the same thing I do when I go in with my guys. I don’t nit-pick every little thing. I’m looking at the big picture: the end result sound as opposed to every little tiny detail. And I learned this from Bowie actually because in all honesty, he’s the first big artist I did any recording with – is that to go in there and do it in such a way where it’s more relaxed and vibe-y is the ticket.

And the musicians have a little freedom to improvise.

You know what, if that’s what they wanted, what they would do is they would just hire guys and stick sheet music in front of them, which on the Lennon sessions we had some of the best session players on the planet on those sessions, but they were also more of the New York style session guy, like Hugh McCracken who played guitar with Lennon as well. I mean, Hughie had played on a lot of records and was one of those guys, and is still one of those guys that can really get the vibe and it doesn’t sound sterile. Tony Levin as well, who actually, funny enough, played on this Bowie record and we both played with Lennon as well.

What is something about David Bowie that would surprise people?

You know, I think, we could take David Bowie and probably a number of other people as well that are of that ilk, and these weren’t the Johnny-come-latelys, these were the innovators. The Lennons, the Bowies, certain other people who have actually created something that is out of the ordinary. You know, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, whatever. People put them in a light where they are like these superhuman beings. The only thing I’ve found as a thread with all of them that makes them superhuman, they’re just so damn good at what they do (laughs) but they’re guys and I think that might be the biggest surprise to most people.That if you meet a lot of the people, and like I said, I can’t just single Bowie out on this cause if you mention how Bowie is and what would surprise people, it would be the same thing that would surprise you about a lot of other people.It’s almost what we present publicly because what they see in the public eye, whether it be on stage or a video or photographs, is they put together in their mind their own picture of what this person is. It’s the pedestal thing. I mean, we all get up, both feet hit the floor and we make our cup of coffee, you know what I mean? Might surprise people that would meet David or any of these guys in person, some people treat you in a certain way where it’s actually uncomfortable. David, he’s just a regular guy and can sit down and talk about whatever, just regular stuff.

It’s what we do for a living, OK, its not a job, it’s a lifestyle. So the one thing that you will find in all of us is that our lifestyles are definitely not suburban, middle-class, white picket fences; none of us are like that. We’re all, being artists, a little quirky in terms of what the general public is. I look at us as I think we’re more normal than the general public (laughs)

What guitars did you use when you were recording the new Bowie album?

Electric guitars I mostly used my Framus Earl Slick model and I also used a Framus Mayfield Electric. Those are the main guitars I use and I brought my, it was like my new toy, I just got it, a Gibson Mini J-200 that’s like killer and I used that. That’s an acoustic. I’d say my signature got used mostly on it.

You were at NAMM recently. Were you out there promoting your guitars?

I was out there promoting everything (laughs) I just got back Friday cause after NAMM I went up and visited my daughter and decompressed for three or four days. [But] we had a specific schedule that we did every day, promoting me, meeting with different people about stuff. I did a few gigs when I was out there, which was fun. Have you heard of a band called Dead Sara?  I sat in with them because they’re also with the same string company I’m with, D’Addario, and the D’Addario artist relations guys said, “You want to sit in with these guys?” And I said, absolutely, so we played at their big event and then I sat in with the Dirty Knobs, which is Mike Campbell’s band, from Tom Petty, and that was sponsored by 65amps and Duesenberg Guitars. So I actually got to do some after-NAMM things at night, which is kind of good to blow steam off and that’s the best way I blow steam off is to go play.  It’s fun but I tell you one thing, it’s a burn out cause it’s like, four days at NAMM is like four months on the road (laughs)

So what do you have going on in 2013 besides the Bowie album?

I want to do this thing, right now I think we’re calling it Earl Slick’s Living Room (laughs) I don’t know if that’s going to be the final title of it but I got a bunch of guys together, including David Johansen, Mark Hudson, Michael Houghton and those are going to be the front guys with me. They’re all singers and I got a great piano player, rhythm section and we want to go out.By the time we get this together it will probably be the fall, I’m thinking. There could be shows before that but I’m shooting for the fall. I want to be able to – because I don’t sing, I’m not a lead singer, but I do have my own stuff, some of which I wrote with Johansen and some that I wrote with Michael Houghton – where we could go and I would love to be able to do a couple of the old Lennon songs, new arrangements, some really cool like Delta blues stuff, and just stuff that I feel like doing, period;this eclectic repertoire of songs.And go out and do like maybe twenty to twenty-five dates and actually put them in reasonable sized venues where we can actually interact with the audience, where there could be some storytelling and back and forth stuff with the audience like that in between the songs.

It’s something that I would really, really like to do where it’s more a personal interactive thing with the audience, cause Mark Hudson does the Lennon stuff great and then Michael Houghton does the rock stuff and then with me and Johansen the bluesier stuff, and every show I want to try and be able to, and this is something that we’re working out, get like a guest. For instance, in LA, let’s say we’re there and Johnny Depp is there and we bring Johnny Depp in for the night or my buddy Mick Mars and have these guys come up and sit in for four or five songs. If I’m in Nashville or something if Jack White worked out, you know what I mean. I’d love to get like PJ Harvey, maybe Siouxsie Sioux. So in each city there would be a special guest in there that would come up and do like five or six songs with us.

And the set list would change. There would be our stock songs that our guys would do but then there would be whoever the artist du jour would be, we would find out what they’d want to do, so they can come up and do something that they’re comfortable with and I think it would be really cool cause I really haven’t seen anybody do anything like this. I think Ringo is the closest one that did that.  But right now there is no actual schedule yet. It’s in the works and it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how long it takes, cause we got people’s schedules to deal with and all that kind of stuff. We are working on it and if it works here and people actually like the thing besides us (laughs) cause we’re going to like it of course cause it’s our thing, if it’s something that really works here then we can maybe take it over to Europe for twenty days or something. Maybe shoot to Japan for two weeks.
I’m real excited about it cause it would be a way for me to do my own thing with guys I really want to do it with and also have guests come in, people that I really admire, people that I really like.

What happened with Mick Mars? Last time we talked last year, you were writing with Mick.

We went in and recorded some stuff and then I got busy and Johansen got busy and Motley went on tour (laughs) So that kind of took care of that.

You were also planning something with Phantom, Rocker & Slick.

That was also schedules too. Matter of fact, I’m doing a gig with Lee Rocker Saturday night up in Woodstock. It’s a scheduling thing again, because we’ve all gone off on different paths over the years and we all have commitments and it’s really hard. When I talked to Lee the other day, we were thinking if maybe we could squeak in a half a dozen Phantom, Rocker & Slick gigs before the year was over, it could be kind of fun. It all comes down to the fact that we all have separate careers now that scheduling has really been the only thing that’s gotten in the way.

But you just did something with Jen Schwartz.

Yeah, there’s a singer in LA called Jen Schwartz who has a band called Me Of A Kind and I just did some tracks, I did a single with her and we covered “Play With Fire” by the Stones. But, you know what it is too, is if I’m playing, I’m happy. As long as it’s a project that feels good to me, I do them. I just got to be playing.

To learn more about Earl Slick and his career, check out our interview with him from last year

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