To celebrate David Bowie’s 70th birthday and mark a year since his passing, we sat down with bass player and producer Yossi Fine (Lou Reed, Stanley Jordan, Rubén Blades) to talk about the music icon’s legacy.
Fine played on Outside (1995), one of Bowie’s most acclaimed post-70s albums. Here, he shares an inside look at the singer’s highly collaborative and adventurous approach to recording, producing and arranging his music.
Waves: How did you first get the invitation to play with Bowie?
Yossi Fine: “I had a band in New York in 1990, named Fine Line, playing instrumental psychedelic funk-rock. It featured a lot of diverse techniques and textures, and some of the members ended up playing with big rock stars. After one show a guitar player came up to me and said, ‘I love what you’re playing man,’ and I invited him to come and play with us. It was [Bowie’s longtime guitarist and musical director] Carlos Alomar, and I think Brian Eno also attended the show. So Carlos played with us, and he told me, ‘One day you’re going to hear from me.’
“Five years went by. One day I check my messages, and it’s ‘Hey man, it’s Carlos, I’m in the studio with David Bowie, can you come over?’ I had already moved from New York to Tel Aviv. It was on a Wednesday and I told him I could make it only the following Monday and he said: ‘That’s cool, we have a week booked.’ So I flew in and came straight to the studio, the Hit Factory in New York.”
Do you remember the moment you first met Bowie?
“I came to the studio on Monday, 9 am, and it was just Bowie and his engineer, David Richards. He said, ‘Hi, who are you?’ and I introduced myself, and he said ‘I’m David, and this is also David, would you like some coffee?’ So he broke the ice and made me that cup of coffee, and from then on I felt very natural next to him.”
David Bowie, “Hallo Spaceboy”:
“A completely different approach to mix and sound”
How did you blend in?
“Once we started playing, I remember I had one of those breakthrough moments. At that time I had like a split personality: I had my own style of playing bass, but I was also trained to be a studio musician where you don’t put too much of your own personality into it. You just deliver a very good performance like you would on any other record, which means recording clean, straight to the direct box. But at that moment I thought, ‘Hey, this is David Bowie – if anybody is going to get what I’m doing, this is the time to do it.’ So I recorded into two channels: one clean, the other with distortion and various effects, but mainly all kinds of guitar overdrives and distortions, and I wanted to blend the two. But when I got the album and heard the mixes I was shocked, they used only the distorted one. It was so amazing how they used the bass.
David Bowie, “The Heart's Filthy Lesson”:
“The first time I heard the album, I thought it was very strange, with a completely different approach to mix and sound from what I remembered playing in the studio. I listened to it again recently, the week David passed away, and the album sounds way better to me now than it did back then – ahead of its time.
“Bowie wasn’t just a musician, he was a full artist – he, Prince, and Miles Davis are maybe the most complete artists I’ve ever seen. The album Outside was a complete story or a play, and Bowie drew the album cover himself. The way he dressed, his energy – everything, not just the music – was one big piece of art. He had this stardust around him, this halo, more than anybody I’ve ever met. That’s what always drew people to him: he had a very strong energy field – and he was very smart and very lucky from the very beginning to know that that was his gift.
“We ended up talking a lot about art and life and his philosophy. He introduced me to jungle music and drum & bass, which he was exploring at the time through his DJ friends, and I introduced him to [industrial band] the Young Gods, my little contribution to him.”
“Bowie and Eno where really great at getting things unstuck”
How did you work on Outside? Did you have any particular working methods?
“Each song was different. For some he brought the chords and lyrics written down, sometimes with comments like ‘add a drum fill.’ But mostly he would just sing and play the song on keyboards. We would then play each song two or three times to learn it. Sometimes, if the drums played open in the choruses and tighter in the verses, he might say, ‘Let’s switch: play tight in the choruses and open in the verses.’”
How involved was he in your own playing?
“Not at all most of the time, but when he didn’t like something, he would immediately say it’s not what he wanted and suggest that I ‘try something else.’ And sometimes when we got stuck – and that was more Eno’s thing – we would stop and exchange instruments. So I ended up playing guitar, Carlos Alomar played bass, somebody else would play the drums. We would listen to each other, and then we would get back to our own instruments, but playing all the parts that the other person came up with. Bowie and Eno were really great at getting things unstuck.
“Eno made all kinds of sampled sounds. He had an ASR 10 sampler, and he created layers of Bowie singing that only he could make – different echoes and delays. They knew that certain textures would be in certain songs, so we would play that song on top of the textures, with the vibe already set up. Often those textures didn’t even end up in the final mix – they were meant more to set up the vibe while we were recording.”
What was the recording process like? Analog, digital, both?
“It was 1995 – digital recording was at its early stages, so it was all recorded into 2-inch tape. But I don’t pay much attention to that. The main thing was that apart from the drummer we were all recording in the control room.”
“Yes, he was singing and playing keyboards right there with us in the same room, with a dynamic microphone instead of a condenser, some golden microphone like a Telefunken.”
Was he recording vocal guides at that point?
“No, he was going for the real takes. Maybe he replaced some of them later, but I remember him really nailing everything. He sang with so much character, you could hear every word and every nuance and you knew that he was going for it. I was sitting right next to him – we were all sitting and he was the only one standing. It was amazing to watch. This guy really knows his shit: he writes his basic charts, he can play, and he sings the final takes with no problem.”
David Bowie, “Deranged”:
“Let spontaneity take over”
Did you take away any lessons from those sessions that might help music makers who are just starting out?
“Not entry-level lessons, because you still need to learn how to do some things by the book. But I learned the importance of spontaneity. You must have a good song before you enter the studio, but then you let spontaneity take over. Take a group of musicians who don’t belong together and put them in the same room. On the drums he had Joey Baron, the avant-garde jazz drummer from John Zorn’s bands. On keyboards, there was Mike Garson who plays jazz and classical music. Carlos Alomar comes from funk. Reeves Gabrels, the guitar player who had been in Tin Machine with him and now plays with the Cure, comes from a completely different school of guitar playing, what I would call ‘progressive punk.’ So each musician came from a different world. I asked Bowie: ‘Is this how you do all your albums, like Scary Monsters and all those classics that I love so much?’ And he said, ‘Yes. I bring the songs to different types of musicians and we just play the song and whatever comes up, that’s it.’ But of course, the key is to know exactly which musicians to put together in the room.”
David Bowie, “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”
Did you stay in touch after the recordings?
“For the first year. When his tour came to Tel Aviv we hung out before and after the show. I loved how open he was. When he came out of the hotel, that was a different Bowie because he was ‘in character.’ But the real person was someone who loved music and arts passionately. And that’s something I’ve found in all the great musicians I hung out with over the years – Bowie, Lou Reed, Ahmet Ertegun, Jaco Pastorius. The one thing they had in common was how passionate they all were, about music and in general.
What’s the most important lesson for life you took from Bowie?
“Stay true to yourself, first of all, and then be open. Be open to many influences, to the musicians playing with you, and to change. Always keep changing.”
What did you think of his last album, Blackstar?
“I think it’s amazing. First of all I was floored by the sound – very warm, very dark, but with a lot of energy. Sometimes dark does not go with a lot of energy, but this does. The musicianship is incredible: again, these are jazz musicians. And the fact that he knew throughout the whole thing he was going to die and he still kept going. That’s a huge statement about the artist he was. And it’s also so Bowie: to be ahead of your time. When the album came out he was still alive, so people started listening to the album from one perspective, but suddenly within days they heard the songs from a completely different angle. And only then it dawned on them that he knew where he’s going and what the songs were about. He was always ahead of the game.”
What is your strongest memory of him, musically or otherwise?
“How much freedom he gave me. Once he played me three or four new songs. I picked the one I wanted to play first, and he said ‘OK, I’m leaving the studio. How long do you think you’ll need to learn this song?’ I said ‘45 minutes,’ so he goes, ‘I’ll be back in 45.’ he left the studio and I did all my parts alone, and when he came back he said, ‘OK, I get what you do, now do it a little bit differently.’ And that was it. Up to that point nobody ever gave me so much freedom to construct whatever I thought was needed. After working with Bowie, I started demanding it. Now, if I’m not happy with the part or I think I can go in a different direction, I will say so. Not all the producers like it. So I tell them, ‘Bowie liked it, and so can you!’”
So this experience also served you well in your work as a producer?
“Completely. On the one hand I know exactly what I want, vibe-wise, and because of Bowie I know to choose the right songs beforehand. But then I stay open to different things. That’s why I like having musicians in the studio playing live together – I wait for the mistakes. Being correct is very boring. It ‘works’ if you want a Top 40 hit song. But if you want to make a musically interesting album, then make sure it’s 70% or 80% ready, and leave some space for the spirit to get in the room. The spirit is the feeling of the real spirits behind the musicians. We have our fingers, pedal boards, guitars and sounds. But behind it all we have our spirits that have to come out – that’s when the magic starts to happen.
Finally, let’s go all the way back: What’s your first memory of listening to David Bowie as a music fan?
“I remember exactly when and where it was. I was 7 years old. An older brother of the kid next door had a cassette player. He knew I loved music – I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, that kind of stuff – so he played me his tape of Space Oddity. He had a friend over from the US who interpreted the lyrics for me. Even now, I’m almost in tears telling you about it. The song was so incredible, his voice, the lyrics – I remember it as if it were yesterday.”
David Bowie, “Space Oddity”