Drummer Sterling Campbell has worked with David Bowie for 20 years. Here he reveals what it was like to create the living legend’s surprise new album.
David Bowie chose his 66th birthday on January 8th to surprise the world with the release of his first new music in 10 years – the previously unannounced single ‘Where Are We Now’. At the same time the news of a new album, The Next Day, to be released in March, has generated a surge of media interest.
The sense of excitement can be explained in part by the unexpected nature of the news from someone who has been such an influential icon for the last 40-plus years. Bowie still has a massive fan base, many of whom had assumed that years of near silence meant that retirement was the order of the day.
But with a star renowned for unpredictability, it should not be surprising that there will now be another chapter in his frequent quest for reinvention.
So how did this new album come about and what can we expect of it? The Epoch Times spoke to Sterling Campbell whose drumming has been at the heart of David Bowie’s music for the last 20 years.
Campbell explains that he was contacted by Bowie over two years ago and asked about his availability to go into the studio.
“My relationship with David has always been like this – I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out and I am just around to do it.”
“David had songs he wanted to work on. I wasn’t even sure I knew he was going about making a record in the beginning, and then eventually it became clear that he was in the process of making a new album.”
Along with veteran Bowie producer and bass player Tony Visconti, as well as guitarist Gerry Leonard, Campbell was invited to join Bowie in a small New York studio.
“David wanted to be very discreet about it,” explains Campbell. “Every day for over a week he would come in with a series of demos. He would play them, and we added our interpretations and flavour to them. That’s what he had us there for unless he had a very specific part in mind, in which case there would be instructions about how he wanted it played exactly.”
Campbell goes on to describe the early days of the recording process.
“We would work on about a couple of songs per day then move on. I guess David would then just take them home and listen to them and figure out which ones he was going to keep and record. Later David and Tony would sift through all the recordings and start either adding to, subtracting from or scrapping songs.
“David can write a song then the song can sometimes be completely different in a couple of weeks,” explains Campbell who has not yet heard the finished album.
There is much speculation about how the musical style of the rest of the album will compare with the mellow and low key lead single.
“Tony Visconti has said it is going to be more uptempo than the single, and the stuff I played on was more uptempo than that song,” comments Campbell.
He goes on to explain that his own role on the new album is diminished compared to the last album, partly because of his own pre-existing scheduling commitments, and partly as Bowie wanted to try working with a different drummer on some of the songs. Campbell therefore only played on certain parts of the album.
The line up of musicians on The Next Day is similar to that on the last Bowie album, Reality from 2003, which is regarded by many as his best work of the last 20 years.
The new album will feature: Gerry Leonard, Earl Slick and David Torn on guitars; Gail Ann Dorsey, Tony Levin and Tony Visconti on bass; and Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell on drums.
There has also been a certain amount of speculative comment on the melancholy feel of the single ‘Where Are We Now’, a nostalgic ballad that finds Bowie reflecting on his life in Berlin in the late 70s. These times are referenced again on the stark album cover image of a white square superimposed on the classic Heroes cover from his Berlin era. Some believe that the mood of the lead single and album cover could be a reflection of the singer’s state of mind, as well as an indicator of what we can expect from the rest of the album.
“People shouldn’t read into the first single too much,” Campbell says.
“I’ve heard people say he sounds fragile on it and so on. Think of it like a part of a movie with David as the director. When there’s a part of a movie that has that melancholy feeling, then there’s going to be melancholy music to go with it. When I was in the studio, David wasn’t sad. I think people are reading too much into the mood of the song. Even when he’s writing a sad song, it doesn’t mean he’s sad. It’s like saying Steven Spielberg must be so upset because he did Schindler’s List, a depressing movie. It doesn’t follow.”
Campbell does not feel he can speculate about why the making of the album was so secretive. However, in an age when everyone is instantly connected through the internet, Campbell believes we are living in times when we experience what he calls “the death of discretion” where everyone is supposed to tell everything.
“Maybe David just felt he wanted to make a record. I really think it’s that simple and there’s no myth to it. It’s like anybody being ready to do anything. It’s just the times we live in that make it seem more than it is,” says Campbell.
What is certain is that it’s difficult to predict what the new music will be like, making it all the more intriguing.
Campbell concurs with this, adding that, “It’s hard to read David as he’s always on to the next thing. That’s the way he’s always been and that’s why the music sounds the way it does. That’s why he’s unique. It’s really instinctual, it just comes to him and there’s no rhyme or reason to it and there shouldn’t be. He has a wealth of knowledge from his travels in life, that’s his gift. He has been and done a lot of things. He sponges it all up and it just comes out in his music. I think that’s why it always sounds interesting.”
The Next Day is released on Sony records on March 11th.