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Interview: The Next Day With Tony Visconti
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court? Almost. Tony Visconti is a Brooklyn, N.Y., native whose chance encounter as an aspiring young composer with legendary producer Denny Cordell (the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker) led to a 22-year run living in London creating his own respectable career. His record production portfolio includes work with artists such as Badfinger, Marc Bolan of T-Rex, Paul McCartney, Thin Lizzy, Adam Ant, Angelique Kidjo, and the Boomtown Rats, among others. But Visconti's career has been tightly linked to Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient David Bowie, for whom he has produced such albums as The Man Who Sold The World (1970) through classics such as Diamond Dogs (1974), Young Americans (1975), Low (1977), and Scary Monsters (1980).
Visconti teamed with the Thin White Duke for his most recent outing, The Next Day, which features the elegiac first single "Where Are We Now" and marks Bowie's first new album in a decade. Upcoming projects for Visconti include producing Capsula, an Argentine rock trio, and an album with four-octave chanteuse Kristeen Young. In a brand-new interview, the GRAMMY-winning producer recalled his career beginnings, his legendary output with Bowie, the secretive The Next Day, why he prefers to track in a studio with musicians, and the great unknown.
What about that fateful meeting with Denny Cordell?
I was standing by the water cooler at my publisher's office and struck up a conversation with Denny, who was in New York to produce a record with Georgie Fame. He had assembled a studio full of jazz musicians but he had no arrangements, no charts. You can't just play the demo for those guys so I wrote him a quick arrangement — two trumpet parts and the drums. The session was a success and two weeks later I was flying to London as his assistant.
Can that kind of serendipity still happen in these days of home studios?
In those days the studios and places like that were the watering holes that we all gathered around. It was also a benefit to live in New York, where you'd bump into people on [West] 48th Street and get a job just like that. It's not like that anymore. Some of the studios I used to love to work in have closed and more music production has moved online. I'm still very old-school — I like being in a room with other musicians, and that's still thriving in pockets like Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
Has technology changed how you make records?
I'll tell you what happened to me in the '90s, no one wanted to hire me because I was "old school." They said, "Oh, you're too old, we want someone young, with Pro Tools." Now, they come looking for the kind of expertise we acquired making records 35 years ago, and I had made the decision years ago not to become a dinosaur and I set out to understand everything about digital recording but with a good grounding in analog recording. So now I'm an old guy with Pro Tools, and I'm quite busy.
You owned a conventional recording studio in London years ago, Good Earth Studios. Do you record at home now?
I had a small [studio] in my apartment in New York, but for the past few years I have my own room [at] a studio in a company called Human Worldwide, a music scoring company partially owned by my son Morgan. Most of Bowie's new album was mixed in my room [there].
Which is how you recorded David Bowie's new album, The Next Day, at the Magic Shop in lower Manhattan, working with some fantastic musicians such as Earl Slick, Tony Levin, Zack Alford, and David Torn. You worked on the album for two years and no one had any inkling it was coming. Why the need for such secrecy?
David called [while] I was in London working with the Kaiser Chiefs. He said, "Fancy making some demos? I've written some songs." I talk to David pretty regularly and he'd told me a few years earlier he wasn't really writing and he was fine with that, so this took me by surprise. On previous albums when David is trying to do something new, he defines it as an experiment. It doesn't become an "album" until he decides it does. We were into the second year on The Next Day before he said, "I think we have an album here." David wanted it to be a surprise — he wanted it to drop on his birthday — but security was no problem: Magic Shop is a single-room studio and there was no one besides us working there when we were there and the staff would go out for deliveries for coffee and food. And everyone had worked with Bowie before so we didn't need to sign an NDA, [though we did].
Did Bowie's voice sound different, after 10 years since his previous studio album, Reality?
Yes, his voice is constantly getting deeper. He's dropped some keys onstage — "Life On Mars" and "Heroes" are in lower keys. That's only natural. But his voice still sounds great.
Did you consider recording to analog tape?
Yes, but both David and I find working on tape too slow. I'll do backing tracks to tape but when it comes to edits and punches you just can't work at the speed that we've gotten used to in the digital age. But we mixed to tape, half-inch tape at 30 ips. From the console right to tape.
I see this album employed Apple's relatively new Mastered for iTunes specification.
Yes. I'd never mastered for iTunes before, but the record label brought in a [technology executive] from Apple and he explained that the problem has been that people deliver their mixes too "hot" for iTunes, and that will end up as distortion [after iTunes' own processing is applied]. The secret is don't make the mixes too loud, don't peak them out. They gave us a [software] plug-in from Waves that showed us where the red line should be. In general, it made us pull back the overall level. It worked. When I heard the record streamed I was amazed — all the dynamics are there and no distortion.
The Next Day goes a lot of places, from dark ballads to upbeat rock. What are the threads that hold it together?
Bowie and I are the threads. We've made 11 studio albums together, since 1967. So between us we have the complete how-to book that we've written together. For this album we were pulling all the tricks out of the past, and we didn't even have to say the words like, "Let's use the snare from 'Low' or 'Diamond Dogs' on this." We didn't use any samples from the old records but I was able to recreate the snare from "Low." We're at the point where we can finish each other's sentences — and it still took us two years to make this album!
You recently admitted to The New York Times that you "kicked yourself" for not opting to produce Space Oddity. When Bowie did work with other producers, how did you feel about that?
I never really minded. The only time it disappointed me was on Let's Dance. He had met Nile Rodgers and they started the record the next day. I had a plane ticket in hand. I was ready to do the next album. And it turned out to be a great record. But it's water under the bridge and, to be fair, I work with other artists. There's loyalty between us but it's not blind loyalty.
And now you're getting ready to work with Capsula, from the legendary to the unknown.
I've always worked with a combination of well-known and offbeat artists. David and Marc Bolan were both underdogs when I met them. There are many great unknown artists out there. And some of them will become legends themselves.
(Dan Daley is a freelance journalist covering the entertainment business industry. He lives in New York and Nashville.)