David Bowie's Blackstar Sessions

In January, the world lost one of its most extraordinary artistic voices. The musicians on his futuristic final album reflect on their studio collaboration.
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Performing on a cold January evening at New York City’s Village Vanguard, the Donny McCaslin quartet played their brand of burly, kinetic jazz to a sold-out audience. Saxophonist McCaslin, drummer Mark Guiliana, keyboard player Jason Lindner, and bassist Nate Wood (subbing for Tim Lefebvre) explored jazz’s outer edges, drawing on influences ranging from Boards of Canada and Sonny Rollins, Deadmau5, and Archie Shepp. But tonight was something different.

After an intense set of sprawling improvisations based on his compositions, McCaslin spoke about David Bowie, stopping to catch himself lest the tears flow. What followed was a version of “Warszawa,” a doom-laden yet beautiful track from Bowie’s 1977 album, Low, one third of his “Berlin Trilogy.” Lindner framed the haunting melodies in spacious Wurlitzer and Moog Voyager tones, then McCaslin led the band to a tremendous crescendo, followed by a hushed, almost mournful finale.

A year earlier, almost to the day, McCaslin, Lindner, Guiliana, and Lefebvre were in Soho’s Magic Shop laying tracks for what would be David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Prior to that, in 2014, Bowie had popped into beloved Greenwich Village performance dump 55 Bar to catch the McCaslin quartet at full force. Soon he sent demos to McCaslin and began developing recording scenarios with longtime producer Tony Visconti. Though Bowie had undergone treatment for liver cancer for 18 months, once in the studio he was “spry and full of energy,” said Lefebvre.

The band Bowie assembled on Blackstar performs his futuristic final music with creativity, intelligence, and daring. On Bowie’s urging, McCaslin’s quartet, aided by guitarist Ben Monder with percussion on two tracks by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, turn Bowie’s demos into rich, crackling vehicles comprising nervous beats, mournful saxophones, deep-bowelled electric bass, and embedded keyboards that form an oceanic, stormy sound world.

The first part of opener “Blackstar” pulses like a silent UFO over Guiliana’s frantic pulse and Bowie’s woozy vocal, which recalls a tormented angel. Guiliana’s visceral, pounding beat propels “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.” As McCaslin bends notes and sounds ready to jettison the deck, Bowie sings a humorous tale, layered voices surrounding him from on high. The languorous groove and crashing guitars of “Lazarus” are truly nightmarish, the feel pure ’70s Lower East Side: dank, dark, dangerous. Bowie and band beat it with their drum-and-bass fist on “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” Bowie’s voice feeble and demented, as it is on much of Blackstar. The stroboscopic electric bass and stalking drums of “Girl Loves Me” create a hypnotic bed, Bowie’s ghostly vocal adding to the spell. “Dollar Days”—the one song none of the band can listen to—is the most sentimental and moving track of the album. “I Can’t Give It All Away” is an oddly grand finale, a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Bowie’s ’70s white soul masterpiece Station to Station.

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Tapping McCaslin’s band and their innovative aesthetic to forge a new sound in a career that traded in stylistic changes practically as a brand, Bowie ran the Blackstar sessions loosely. Working a nine-to-five schedule that meshed well with his neighborhood SoHo jaunts, and energized by double macchiatos from Parisian bistro Balthazar, Bowie relied on the band’s exploratory skill set, never requiring more than three takes to nail a keeper. Bowie sang live in the studio with the band, and encouraged them to experiment. He even had a copy of Guiliana’s groundbreaking electronic treatise, Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations, and asked the drummer to freely reference his electronic arsenal, which he did on the clambering “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.” “The main reason Bowie hired the band, besides Donny, was because of Mark’s Beat Music album; he wanted his ass in there,” says Lefebvre.

Bowie and Visconti reportedly took inspiration from D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The Blackstar sessions were fast, productive, and fun for all, recorded over three separate weeks in early 2015.

“We had these skeleton parts, but everyone on the session was a genius and had great ideas,” says Lindner. “There was a lot of brainstorming and inspired discussions. ‘Let’s try this or this.’ David and Tony graciously allowed us to explore our ideas.”

In addition to the seven songs on Blackstar, Visconti has stated that there are five outtakes, including a Ziggy Stardust-worthy track called “When Things Go Bad.” The tracks will hopefully appear on a Blackstar deluxe edition.

Blackstar and Next Day (also recorded at Magic Shop) were stress-free, no problems,” Visconti told the Los Angeles Times in late 2015. “He comes prepared now. This is an old dog with new tricks. Now, by not announcing he’s making a record, he gives himself the time to be creative. Playing saxophone on these demos, bringing in radical guitar parts. He really is making music for himself these days. There’s no fluff about David Bowie anymore. There never was, really.”

The Blackstar sessions were tracked through Magic Shop’s Custom 80 Series Neve console “The Neve was used for the front end, meaning preamps and EQs, as well as for monitoring,” says assistant engineer Kabir Hermon. “It runs as a split console, so there was one side for tracking and one side for monitoring. The sessions were tracked to the Magic Shop’s Pro Tools HDX system running Pro Tools 10.

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Sessions featured vintage microphones and the studio’s extensive collection of outboard gear that includes models from Neumann, API, EMI/Chandler, Focusrite, Sontec, GML, Drawmer, Neve, Teletronix, Joe Meek, dbx, Eventide, Lexicon, and Urei. Signal processing was done almost entirely in post.

“The tracking process was live,” Hermon explains. “They would do mostly full takes in the 1,000-square foot live room. After takes, they would come into the control room and listen. As they listened, the band, Tony, and David would discuss what they were hearing and if needed, make adjustments. If they felt they could play it better or that changes needed to be made, then they would go out and play it again.”

Each band member shared their perspectives on their final studio sessions with Bowie.

Mark GuilianaMARK GUILIANA, DRUMS, ELECTRONICS

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“David comes into the live room on the first day and sings the first tune,” Guiliana recalls. “In my headphone mix, as they turn up the vocal, my drums get louder too. I realize I’m bleeding into David’s mic. Afterward, we go into listen and I tell David and Tony that we have a problem. My snare drum is getting into David’s vocal mic. And David and Tony reply, ‘Isn’t that great?’ That was take one, day one, song one. From then on I knew this was a new kind of experience for me. It was extremely liberating. And very humbling.”

Engineer Kevin Killen’s miking setup for Guiliana’s drums was standard: two overheads, three feet above the highest cymbal; top and bottom snare drum mics; and two room mics. “I think the creative stuff came from utilizing other microphones in the room that might have not necessarily been drum mics,” Guiliana says. “All the mics were open so they could have been used as such.

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“On the first day [Bowie] said something like, ‘Mark, I love what you’re doing with Beat Music,” he says. “If you feel any of this stuff can go in that direction please feel free.’ Which is pretty crazy! He did his homework. He was really, really hungry, and present and in tune with us. He was checking everybody out. He actually asked me to bring my electronics, which is a minimal rig, but that was based on his hearing Beat Music. That was cool. I used the electronics on ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.’ I did an overdub of 808 tom fills using my Roland SPD. I can’t hear that they altered the performances at all.”

The goal was to complete a song a day, including overdubs. Lindner and McCaslin stacked parts, including multiple keyboard and woodwind sections. Guiliana and Lefebvre signed off on takes quickly, followed by overdubbing.

“David would often choose the take but he’d make sure Tim and I were happy with the take,” Guiliana says. “The idea of ‘this is the take or not’ was very intuitive and we all felt it the way good takes seem to pop out.”

Jason Lindner and his keyboard rig JASON LINDNER, KEYBOARDS

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As Lindner proved at the Vanguard with his own band Now Vs. Now, and on Blackstar, he’s a sonic conjurer of the first order. His keyboards and their subliminal sounds form the bedrock of Blackstar, one keyboard seemingly merging into the next. His instruments on the sessions included a Hohner Clavinet, Moog Voyager and early ’70s Moog Micromoog, Sequential Circuits Six-Trak, Oberheim Prophet 08 and Prophet 12, tack piano, and two Wurlitzers, including a tube model. His gear ran direct but also to a Fender Twin, at which time the signal chain included MXR Analog Chorus, Boss Phase Shifter, Moogerfooger Delay, Fulltone Obsessive Compulsive Drive, Malekko Omicron Vibrato, and his favorite, the WMD Geiger Counter Digital Destruction.

“I used the WMD a couple times on Blackstar,” Lindner says. “The two Wurlitizers are all over the record. And they are very different sounding. The black Wurly is prettier and has more sustain. The tube Wurly sounds more trashy and imperfect and noisy. We used that on the more funky rocking songs.”

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Though everything else was established in the demos, Lindner was free to chart his own path on the sessions. He believes his keyboards were treated in post, including manipulation of levels, compression, distortion, and gating, but that very few plug-ins were used. All effects were tracked live and on Visconti’s end, the effects changed track to track.

“The Moog Voyager is on ‘Blackstar’ when the beat kicks in,” Jason says. “Mark is playing what reminded me of an ’80s freestyle beat. The stabby synth sound synced with his bass drum is the Moog Voyager. The pads are the Prophet 8, which is warmer, and the Prophet 12, which is modern and grittier sounding. The Wurlys are on every track. There’s also some weird delay on ‘Blackstar,’ but the strings are all Tony. ‘Lazarus’ is pretty much all Wurlitzer. In ‘Sue,’ the Wurly is embedded in the track, but there are some extreme sounds in the drum and bass part, these huge sounds which are delayed; that’s one of my Prophet keyboards. A lot of the watery reverb sounds used in ‘Sue’ are the Wurlys through pedals.”

Given the experimental nature of the sessions, Lindner was unsure of their outcome. “I didn’t expect it to be an album,” he says. “Anything can happen in this industry. I didn’t know until September they’d scheduled a release date. I would have been happy to just have had the experience of working with David Bowie.”

Tim LefebvreTIM LEFEBVRE, BASS

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“David’s demos were specific,” Lefebvre says. “For instance, on the bass part in ‘Lazarus’ I changed the sound a little but that’s basically what David had demoed; the exact part. The band and I came up with the intro and outro. But 60 to 70 percent of the tunes were right off his demos. David told me he played the bass on the demos too.

“Mark and I had suggestions regarding forms,” he continues. “Donny wrote scratch charts. But it was all scripted out by David in the demos, including the saxophone parts and the weird tennis-ball-bouncing saxophone in ‘‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.’”

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Playing his Moollon P Classic and 1968 Fender Precision basses, Lefebvre used a Yamaha EM 80 head through an Ampeg B15 cabinet with some reverb dialed in. Various pedals helped him create the trademark style he’s known for with the Tedeshi-Trucks Band and Wayne Krantz. A 3Leaf Audio Octabvre, Boss OC2 and SVT, and Dark Glass Audio Vintage Microtubes added that patented Lefebvre stealth. An Avalon U5 Direct box was used, as well as EV RE20 microphone to cover the Ampeg cabinet.

“They gave us some sonic choices, so I was gunning for Serge Gainsbourg bass sounds/Justin Meldal-Johnsen, with a lot of pick,” Lefebvre says. “Bowie had specific bass lines for the beginning of ‘Blackstar’; he wanted a more floaty thing. ‘’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ was straight off the demo. ‘Lazarus,’ too. And I play guitar on ‘Girl Loves Me,’ Bowie’s white 1960s Supro Dual Tone guitar and his multieffects pedal. I play exactly what he plays in the demo. It’s very warbly sounding. I don’t even know how he made that sound. But I just doubled the bass line (through a TC Electronics chorus pedal and Octabvre) on guitar. On ‘Sue,’ I’m using the sine wave and bending the string so the pitch is rising. It’s like EDM, that rising chromatic thing. I was surprised that made it to the record; it’s very experimental.”

And as everyone who worked on Blackstar has said, Tim says Bowie was in fine form throughout, singing on every take, offering and receiving ideas, working with the band as if they were equal journeymen in the trenches.

“He would sing every take with us,” Tim says. “Live takes. He was in the room with the drums and there’s not much separation, so a ton of drums bled into his vocal takes. I think they sampled the snare from ‘Girl Loves Me’ from Bowie’s mic. ‘Blackstar’ was one of the last tracks he did with us. The first half was pretty scripted, then they let me go off. That’s one of my favorite tracks for the bass.”

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Ben MonderBEN MONDER, GUITAR

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“The bizarre shrapnel guitars in ‘Lazarus’ are all Bowie,” Monder explains. “I was hoping it was me, but it’s David. He sounds great on that. I don’t think they did anything to my guitars in post. They didn’t seem to touch anything.”

Monder’s guitar rig included Ibanez AS 50 and Stratocaster guitars (with its two pre-CBS pickups), and he brought two amps to run stereo; a 1968 Fender Princeton and a Fender Blackface Deluxe. Monder used all his pedals on the sessions: Lexicon LXP-1 reverb, a Rat distortion, Walrus Audio Mayflower and Deep Six Compressor pedal, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Fulltone Deja Vibe, an MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay, and Strymon BlueSky Reverb.

“Bowie’s directions were very minimal,” Monder says. “I was there at the end of the sessions, and on the final day I was alone with David and Tony, experimenting. He really let all of us create our own parts. He was very enthusiastic and when something didn’t work it, was obvious to everybody. It was a very relaxed atmosphere.”

Donny McCaslinDONNY MCCASLIN, TENOR, ALTO, CLARINET, FLUTE, ALTO FLUTE

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“I sent demos to the guys, and I made scores so I orchestrate the parts and expand them with different woodwind combinations,” Donny Mc-Caslin recalls. “The band got together to rehearse the song forms before recording began in January, 2015. We got sounds one day, the next day David came in and we started recording.”

McCaslin’s instruments were all effected in real time. Tony Visconti added reverb and what sounds like mad pitch-bending effects, but it’s all McCaslin, in the moment. McCaslin followed the saxophone parts Bowie recorded on his demos, often note for note. “I love his saxophone playing,” McCaslin says. “It’s always very soulful.

“David usually offered conceptual advice so that he engaged your imagination,” McCaslin adds. “He always engaged our creativity. David would pore over every detail and work really hard until he got it exactly as he wanted it. He was fully engaged in the process. He’d take in every detail. Then when he and Tony worked on the tracks after we finished recording there was an incredible amount of attention to detail and the bigger picture. The fact that Blackstar is a Number One album is both surreal and bittersweet. That will always stick with me.”