As if to go full circle, the music by the latter of those rock luminaries is the subject of Howe’s latest solo record, Subterranean: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin. But given that he has plumped to redo the pale, warped, claustrophobic-felt instrumentals that adorned the b-sides of two of Bowie’s two less-mainstream long-players – Low and “Heroes” (both from 1977) – he certainly had his work cut out.
“It was just an experiment at first, but the music had a connection with me from when I first heard it, and that brought a different energy to approaching it for this project.” Howe declares, down a phone line as crackly as some ’70s vinyl. “I first heard both albums in the 1980s, in my early teens. They were in my dad’s record collection, and what I remember distinctly was hearing the a-sides, and those being great, and what I’d expect from Bowie, and then turning the record over and thinking what’s happened here? There was no drums, not much singing, and it was very much concrete and stark-sounding. I don’t think I’d heard anything quite like that. To hear something so stripped back was a shocker.”
Indeed, and what’s directly appealing about Subterranean – apart from the fact that these infamous “Berlin-period” tracks of Bowie’s have only previously been reprised as a classical suite by Philip Glass in 1992 – is how Howe approaches this music from the standpoint of both a jazz, and rock musician. “I loved the overall aesthetic, and the fact that it took real bravery to make a record like that, with no regard for commercial reception.” he says. “The idea that Bowie wanted to be an artist and not a pop star was a good indication to me that that is the way to go. It really struck a chord with me as a musician, making this record”.
Originally produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti, the said instrumentals (plus two outtakes from the same ’77 sessions) are recreated almost to spec, sonically. And with nothing as pop-solid as “Space Oddity”, “Ziggy Stardust” or “Fame” to flex his rock chops over, Howe, and his fine band – featuring Brandon Allen and Julian Siegel on tenor saxophones, Mark Hodgson on double bass and Ross Stanley on piano and synths – are left to splash colour, and improvise around these minimalist, yet heavily-textured tunes.
“I think it’s good to avoid the obvious,” he says. “Nothing would sound as bad as trying to do something like “Sound & Vision” or “Let’s Dance”. For me it would be cringe-worthy. In terms of doing adaptations of Bowie’s stuff, this project is about him, but at the same time it’s more to do with what he and (co-writer and musician Brian) Eno were making at that time”.
Howe remembers.”I tried “Warszawa” (from Low) first, applying a kind of Coltrane group approach, and that worked well, so I thought I can try some of the other tracks and maybe turn it into an album. Because the tunes are both simple and sparse I could easily re-arrange and re-harmonise the material”.
Selecting musicians for such a challenging project, Dylan rounded up players from his regular quartet, insisting “I had the right people in the room, and when you do, you don’t have to say anything. If you get all the best people you know, and give them a direction as to what the music will be about, it will just work”.
The influence of Coltrane’s small group sound and style is clear. In fact, away from all the wires and sonic wizardry, the vibe throughout the record evokes a distinctive, vintage ’60s jazz timbre, which, too, alludes sincerely to the past.
“The sounds on the record took a lot of time and care and attention, and I suppose neurosis, to ensure it was going to stand up against the original albums” he says. “I think most people that listen to this album will have heard Bowie’s originals. The synth overdubs, and finding all of the sounds either in plug-ins or in old gear was one of the main challenges, and was very time-consuming. It drove us mad”.
The haunting “Subterraneans” opens the album, and any fears from Bowie buffs and jazzers alike that a record like this might not work, are instantly flattened by the delicious fusing of buttery upright bass, tinkling piano, and some scratchy brush work from Howe, hovering effortlessly over space-like synth chords, flickering back and forth like radio frequencies or some frenetic Morse code.
Aside from the lush mix of seventies synths, and dry, live instrumentation, the record triumphs with some ingenious arrangements from Howe himself. The twin sax-powered “Weeping Wall” and Bowie’s previously bleak ballad “Neuköln” surface here as top-tempo boppers, whilst the once sombre “Some Are” is served up as a breezy waltzer. Closing the album, an ambient-style re-working of “Moss Garden” is particularly noteworthy in that Steve Howe makes a guest appearance plucking the track’s distinctive oriental melody on koto.
The most noticeable hat tip to ‘Trane though is the brilliant ‘All Saints’. With its throbbing, muscular bass intro, and dramatic swerve from main theme to ruthless swing-out, it very much resembles the road-map for “Resolution” (from A Love Supreme), right down to Brandon Allen’s similarly-scalding soloing.
While “All Saints” plays as one of the record’s most strapping tracks, Howe is quick to point out that it was one of the most problematic to piece together, and put to tape. “What we recorded in the studio first was an un-altering groove, and then interspersed with that, I thought we could take each of the sub-divisions of the melody as a new tempo, and then just play open or solo for a short period at this new tempo, then I could insert these (as an overdub) into the tune. Everybody in the studio was like “what are you on about?”, and to honest I wasn’t even sure it would work myself. Luckily it did work, but it took a lot of digital splicing.”
As Bowie himself found out, cutting records as multi-layered as Low or “Heroes” proves very difficult to re-produce live. But tailing the summer release of Subterranean, Howe has planned a series of live shows to promote it. “It’s going to be a challenge.” he admits. “This is an album with a lot of overdubs, and the one I’ve spent most time on after recording the basic tracks”. Howe reveals plans to extend the core band for the live shows too, with Andy Sheppard on saxophone, and also Steve Lodder playing keys alongside Stanley.
“I’m interested to see where it will go once we all get into rehearsals” he says “I imagine they’ll be another level to this music live I think the record will be a document of the project then, and the live show will be a document for now”. Rest assured whatever these shows throw up, Howe and his boys will keep swinging.