“I will not make product” - Mark Plati

Mark Plati was on of David’s last key musical collaborators. Here are some of his insights, not all of which I had room for in Starman.

Tell me about the Earthling creative process. It seems like David was really inspired after being on the road and – credit to your good self – some new production techniques.

“I entered a situation that was already primed for something of a shift. Carlos Alomar had recently departed; the Outside band had been scaled down; Reeves was about to take on a larger creative role; David had become a fan of drum and bass, and the sensibility of it was exciting him musically; and, David and Reeves had gone looking for a different studio to work in for a change of scenery, which is how we connected.


“Philip Glass' adaptation of 'Low' led David and Reeves to check out Philip's studio, The Looking Glass, in New York. They loved the vibe there, and decided they’d try it out. Next, they needed somebody to engineer who knew the place. As I had my own MIDI room in the complex, and I’d been doing a good chunk of my recording in the A room for nearly five years by that point, I was the obvious candidate. So ... new studio, new engineer, new ideas, new songs... it all added up. A week of recording turned into seven years for me.


We spent a week in May 1996 working on 'Telling Lies.' We did a few versions of it, including a remix I did called the ‘Feelgood’ mix. David took the then-unusual step of releasing it as an Internet-only bonus track. David was pretty happy with how it all turned out, and at that point he told me they'd be back in late August to start an album at the Looking Glass with me engineering and programming. I didn't really believe him - I'd gotten pretty used to industry-speak, so you knew better than to get excited at the prospect of such a thing until it actually came to pass. I took it with a grain of salt.


Then, by chance, I met up with David and the band in mid-summer ’96. I was in Berlin and they were at a festival in Leipzig. I had a couple of days off, so I figured I'd take a train and go catch the gig. It was a wonderful experience – I rode on the band bus, hung out in the dressing room with David and Iggy Pop, spent the gig at the front-of-house mix position, asked for my thoughts after the show. They also comped me a hotel room for the night. A fan’s dream, for sure. Backstage, David mentioned returning to NYC to do an album, at the Looking Glass, with me … and again I didn't really buy it. He then asked me to come up with a few tracks for us all to work on. Now THAT was interesting.


Sure enough, a couple of weeks later the call came in for the album to actually happen - I was formally booked to record a David Bowie album. David and Reeves would return to Looking Glass the last week of August, and we'd spend the next month or so coming up with a record. It would only be the three of us - David, Reeves, myself - for the first two weeks, as the songs needed to be written and fleshed out before the band came in to play their parts. David and Reeves would have some demos ready, so we'd pool all of our material together and see where it went. NOW I was excited - and I set to work coming up with a load of playback tracks before their arrival.


“When we met after the tour we played all of our ideas and chose bits and pieces to start with. We’d work out one song idea per day, at a fairly relaxed pace – starting at 11, finishing around 7, with me staying a bit later to clean up or flesh out a few things here or there. It was also a new experience for all as we were foregoing tape and doing it within the confines of the computer and samplers. It was my first real foray into a land without tape, and though there were a couple of tech hiccups it provided us with a way to work that made trying out ideas a breeze. What would have taken hours to try out by cutting tape could happen in seconds, and we could undo it all in a second as well. David picked up on it immediately, and within a few days we were upgrading our gear to make it even more powerful. We didn’t look back after that. I was free to throw whatever musical ideas or sounds I had into the pot – they’d be used, rejected, or twisted into something else. As we’d work on a track, I’d see David jotting things on Post-It notes on the couch at the back of the control room. Then he’d gather up his pile of Post-Its and go into the studio and lay a guide vocal on what we’d done that day – though in many cases it wasn’t the guide vocal at all, but a keeper. The framework of most of the songs was done this way- once that was in place we’d put it aside for when the band would arrive and overdub their parts.


“I don't think any of the three us anticipated that we'd have as good a chemistry as we did. It was one of the simplest records I'd ever done, before or since. A lot of fun, a lot of humor. There was very little - if any - second-guessing. Deliciously off-the-cuff. David was nothing if not keen, and I'm sure he felt our enthusiasm from the get-go. It was a moment, and I knew it.”


Reeves said he wished you'd been in at the beginning of hours,  but then you came in and took it home. Please can you talk a bit about that album?  It's often painted as David's reflection on age etc but what was his mood like? Also, Reeves said he was kind of grooming you to take over his Musical Director's position. being on the road and – credit to your good self – some new production techniques.

“David and Reeves began work on hours in Bermuda as a home recording. It was going to be the ‘anti-Earthling’ in a sense - a stripped down affair, just songs, no electronics, no big production. I know they were at odds over that - Reeves definitely wanted to go into the direction of Earthling 2, so to speak. I can sure see his point - by the end of that album we were like a machine, we really knew what we were doing, there was confidence in the method, in the team. We could reach even higher the next time out. In retrospect, I'm glad we didn't go there.  Earthling could have worked purely on the level of enthusiasm, I think. The songs and the sound were there, but there are times when a sort of magic seeps into a record because everyone is in love with it, with each other, with the moment. Given all that, in some way it was a one-off and I'm not sure we could have bettered it. Maybe it WAS better to have changed direction entirely.


“I know personally that I'd have supported such the shift because everyone that wanted to work with me after Earthling wanted THAT record - electronics with rock, Bowie-style. And I was getting a little tired of it. Earthling felt like a peak for myself in a couple of ways, one of which was that marriage of rock and electronics. I’d wanted to do a record like that for the whole of the '90s, and once I climbed that mountain with DB I didn’t see the point of going there again.


“My take on it was a moot point anyway, because I wasn't involved. I'd heard a couple of the early demos, and at the point they didn't need me.  There was also talk of it not even being an album, but simply music for a computer game called 'Omikron.' So, it was a bit of a surprise when I got a page from Reeves Gabrels in the spring of '99. Instead of having me come in to record or do programming, they wanted me to play bass on the songs they’d been working on … so that was a definite shift in direction. But that was something that always excited me about working with David – you never knew where it was going or what role you were going to fill. On Earthling I began simply as an engineer, but ended up as a programmer, mixer, and co-producer. On this album, I was brought in as a bass player … who knew where it would end?


“The approach to recording was different than before - more traditional in the sense that we were looking for where the songs would land, as opposed to on Earthling where we pretty much just ran with our first impulse. Some songs went through multiple treatments, different drummers, structure shifts. The mood was very good, very positive. A lot of fun, as usual. Record making with David is for the most part a humor-laden affair.


“It didn’t seem like a reflection on age, or a reflection on anything, really. I could never really tell if David’s lyrics were autobiographical, if they were culled from the events around him and personalized in a lyric, or if he was simply creating a common fictional thread and characters to run through the songs. I never bothered to dig too deep or to ask what certain songs were about – it would spoil the mystery of it for me. I’m behind the curtain enough as it is - I don’t really want to know everything. It's open for us all to interpret as we see it.


“If Reeves was grooming me for anything, I was certainly the last to know … though it was interesting how my role took on a decidedly musical turn over the course of that album, a good degree of it initiated by Reeves. I'd really only wanted to play one show with the band – the VH-1 ‘Storytellers’ gig – and then I could feel like I’d done it and go back into my studio coccoon. Of course, after Reeves left there was a vacuum as far as the bandleader/MD position, and I happened to be somebody who could fill it. I was a known quantity in several ways - I knew David, I knew the material, I had worked with everyone in the band. Reeves left the day after the ‘Storytellers’ taping, and everything happened fast after that - suddenly I found myself onstage at Wembley Stadium with one of the icons of our time. It was surreal, it was more than a dream come true … and again, I was lucky enough to know it and relish it at the time. Though I missed Reeves when he left. We had a great bond, musical and otherwise.”


I spent several happy hours engrossed in your tour accounts. Again, could you reflect on them as they seem to you now? Hectic schedules, jackalopes  and, from all accounts, a lethal live band.

 “I loved the Heathen Tour. Loved it. Many happy moments, many great shows, incredible audiences.  Adventures high and low. It was made up of so many great parts – the Roseland performances of the Heathen and Low’ albums, the Five Borough tour, the Area 2 leg. Meltdown. Montreux. The Tower Theatre. TV promos like Like By Request, Jonathan Ross. Jools Holland. Each piece so different, so unique feeling. The Five Borough Tour in particular was a genius idea, I thought. The pace of it all was perfect – we’d be away a few weeks, then home for a bit, and then back out again. I didn’t want it to end. 


“That band was lethal, for sure – given the range and depth of talent onstage, it could really go anywhere. By the end of the tour the band was incredibly tight and we were really killing it.  It was a privilege to be in such a group. It was hectic, for sure, a very full schedule while we were out there. I always marveled at David’s ability to deal with it all as his schedule was about ten times more full than ours (the musicians). He’d not only be doing everything we did – gigs, soundchecks, travel – but he’d also be doing the meet and greets and interviews in the cracks between all that. It was a pretty unreal pace for him, for anyone, from my perspective.


Could you talk about Heathen? Again, David seemed on a creative roll and had found another great musical translator/sparring partner in yourself. Could you talk about your creative relationship around this time?

I was not really a part of the Heathen recording process as David did that album pretty much with Tony Visconti - other than the song ‘Afraid’ which David and I had produced and recorded for the unreleased Toy. I had really become the bandleader by that point, had crossed over from a technical to an almost entirely musical role. I was much more involved in translating the record to the live band, making set lists with David, making sure we sounded good as far as any musical/sonic/technical issues. It was my responsibility to ensure the band was prepared, happy, and playing well. Again, with such a great crew that was a cinch.”


I was highly-impressed with your dedication assembling the Low-Heathen sets. Please could you tell me about that – and Meltdown?

Assembling the Low set was a great experience. For that, we really wanted to stay faithful to the album and present it as close to what was made then as possible. So, I got the original multitrack tapes. They had to be baked - heated up a bit so that it wouldn't be all stuck together and crumble into a pile of oxide when we tried to play it back. Such is the case with 25 year old master tapes. Then, we had them transferred into the computer so I could really listen to it on a nuts and bolts level. This is always an exciting thing, to hear a classic record broken down to its building blocks. Next, I had to make special mixes for each musician so they could not only learn parts, but come up with sounds that were faithful to what was played on the original album. In essence I was making what are sometimes called 'minus one' mixes - mixing the song down to mono on the left, but with one critical part removed - and having that part isolated on the right side. Of course this meant deciding who was going to play what part, but with three guitar players, two keyboards, bass and drums, it was actually pretty easy. It was obvious what sort of parts Slick or Gerry would cover, and of course Mike would get more of the solo/improvised keyboard parts, and any piano bits. I played the part of swing man - I'd fill in the guitar or keyboard parts that weren't covered by the others.


“I did the same exact thing with the Heathen album, though for that it was a lot simpler as everything was already in the computer, so no baking was required. Again, it felt obvious who would play what (Gerry got most of the David Torn soundscape parts, for example).


“Meltdown was a great show, but it didn’t resonate for me like gigs at Glastonbury, Madison Square Garden, or Wembley Stadium. Royal Festival Hall just didn’t have that sort of appeal for me personally, whereas you’d heard about Glastonbury and Wembley since the time you were aware of rock music as a pre-teen. It was an important show for sure, and we prepared for it like mad. Also, I didn’t think it had the same sort of magic as, say, the Roseland gig on June 16, 2000 - that night was magical for some reason (it’s no wonder I still remember the date). A special electricity was in the air.


Any personal triumphs, Bowiesh anecdotes and reflections, now we're a few years down the line? Could you talk about your creative relationship around this time?

 “1: When I became MD part of my gig was rehearsing the band and getting material together that David was interested in performing. From time to time band members would also suggest songs to do, and I quickly jumped on the bandwagon. One occasion is memorable - we were in the Milan airport in the fall of ’99 when the original video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ came on the TV in the departure lounge. I saw it and immediately suggested to David that we do it. And lo and behold, we did - we rehearsed it on a break we had between legs of the tour, it became one of the staples of the show from then on. How I ended up playing it on bass is another story, but related closely in time. We had to play a few back-to-back TV programs where the stations couldn’t technically accommodate for a live band, so the musicians had to mime while David sang live. To spice it up for ourselves, Gail and I – in Milan - switched instruments just to make it interesting. We liked the idea of it and decided to do it for real – so we looked for a song where it could happen. Then, when we leaving Milan and saw ‘Ashes’ on TV, I knew that was the one. It was one of my favorite songs, so it was always a thrill to play it.”


“2: Glastonbury. Five weeks before rehearsal for Glastonbury was to begin, I fractured both elbows in a bicycle accident in Manhattan. I was pretty laid up and couldn't play at all - I could barely feed myself. I spoke with the doctors, got a prognosis. I spoke with David. It seemed like I'd be back on my feet if I really worked at the rehab, with a little luck. I began an intensive, concentrated course in physical therapy. When rehearsals began I was still in pain but I was able to do it. By the time of the gig, all was well. David stuck by me through the whole thing. I'll never forget that.”


“3: There is the case of ‘Space Oddity.’ How I loved it … and how David hated it! I don’t blame him, he must have played it a zillion times. I really wanted to do it on the Heathen tour, and kept semi-pestering him about it. He was annoyed, over it. I persisted to the point of getting the band to learn it before he’d arrive at rehearsal, to get it to a place where it was more faithful to the original version as I’d never really liked the live versions I’d heard - for me they lacked the atmosphere of the record, the spacey quality. Between Slick and Gerry we were able to get a great degree of light and shadow. Gail went to town on the original Herbie Flowers part. And of course, I got to play that signature acoustic guitar part. One day during a rehearsal with everyone, after we’d done our work and were about to take a break, the band started playing it. David shot me daggers, but sang through it … and he didn’t hate it. Satisfied, we put it away … and that was the end of Part One. Part Two was getting it put into a set list and performing it. We’d organize the set list the afternoon of the show, sometimes on the plane, other times right after soundcheck. I kept bringing it up, he kept shooting it down! It was so funny. Finally, in Arhus, Denmark, he relented and we played it. And it was fab ... people actually wept … and that was it. He gave me a look like ‘never ask me again.’ And I never did.”


“4: As I’d said previously, while we were making Earthling we didn’t have any record company input. While we were mixing it that began to change, and at that time industry people began sniffing about wanting to listen to what we’d done. There was one time when an executive heard a playback of a number of the tracks and began to offer his rather conventional/commercial vision of what needed to be done and where to take it next – what would be singles, marketing strategies, and the usual attempts at musical advice. David was always a gentleman in those situations, but was really not happy about it once the person left. I remember him saying quite firmly ‘I will not make product.’


“That really stuck with me because the entire time I was there, the whole of seven years, it never felt like we were making product. Sure, an artist needs to sell records and concert tickets, get radio and video play, etc. But those things always felt secondary to the purpose and the quality of the work. The selling was dependent upon the art, not the opposite. It felt like there was a reason for it all, above and beyond selling little pieces of plastic and putting bums on seats. It wasn’t the sausage factory. It wasn’t show business. That’s what kept me there so long.”

Thanks to Kris Needs