On January 8th 2016, on his 69th birthday, David Bowie released his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Music fans were still sending him birthday greetings and delighting in the newness of the record when just two days later the world was shocked and saddened to hear of his death, after a private battle with cancer. From that moment Blackstar was hailed as his swansong and hidden messages of his impending demise were looked for, and found within the lyrics.
Drummer, Mark Guiliana, was one of the musicians involved in the recording of the album in 2015 and he generously agreed to talk exclusively to Greg Owen for the Sounds Magazine Radio Show.
Greg: A lot of us in Manchester, as you can imagine, will want to hear about the Blackstar sessions, so why don’t we dig into that?
Mark: Yeah, so before Blackstar I was involved in one track with David—collaboration between David and Maria Schneider, this incredible composer, arranger here in New York. He was a fan of hers and he essentially contacted her and asked if she’d be willing to collaborate on a song. I’ll give you the fast forwarded version—I got recommended to be a part of that so it was with her large ensemble, her big band, which is almost 20 people: 4 saxophones, 4 trombones, 4 trumpets, guitar, piano, bass drums, plus David. So I got recommended for that recording and before that, Donny McCaslin, who is a saxophone player who’s been in Maria’s band for over 10 years, and Maria thought that David would like Donny’s band—Jason Lindner,on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, and me. Maria took David to 55 Bar where we were playing and he enjoyed the band. After hearing us and doing one song together he reached out to Donny and asked if we would like to record with him moving forward. In the earliest communications it wasn’t announced that it would be a full record or things like that but that was the genesis of the idea.
Greg: Are you not such a starry eyed individual that you were going, “oh my god I’m going to work with David Bowie”, or was it just like, “Oh I’ve got another gig, another job and let’s just get it done, let’s keep focussed on the music”?
Mark: I think somewhere in between, there is that part of me that of course the main responsibility is to focus on the music and just make it the best we can, but of course it’s him, and he’s such a genius, so it’s very special. But again, I didn’t want that to become a distraction, no reason to make myself nervous by overdoing it either, so it was a nice balance of both—deep respect and admiration for him, but also trying to deal with the music as best I can.
Greg: Did you and the band get personally close to David? Was there much interaction on that level or was it very professional, very focussed and very tight?
Mark: Professional and focussed but we were in the studio for a few months—spread out but added up to about three weeks, there’s a lot of down time in the studio; we didn’t hang out outside of the studio but we absolutely felt a personal connection to him. He was very open and generous with his time, really funny and so smart. All the songs on Blackstar are full takes, both performances and the goal was we’d start a song in the morning, and there’d be lots of overdubs, with keyboards or Donny would have a lot of woodwind parts. We all had to sign off that we liked that performance before we started to add to it. On multiple occasions we’d get the song on the first take or maybe the second take so, by noon him and I are done for the day so some days we’d get in at 10 and by noon him and I are just hanging out while the other guys are finishing up other parts so that meant in the control room on the couch with David for hours and hours of stories. Of course he was incredibly focussed and on task but again lots of down time. It was a business environment, but a personal connection as well.
Greg: Did you know it was going to be a final record? Was anyone aware? Was it clear being with David that he was facing his own mortality?
Mark: No definitely not. We started recording in January a year before its release. Now we hear the record and it’s clear he’s communicating pretty clearly at times on the record but when we were working on it not all the lyrics were finished, or to be quite honest I’m much more focussed on trying to get a great performance or the interaction with the band rather than the message which wasn’t always finished in the first place. No it was a surprise the way it all happened, just as it would be for someone else.
Greg: Talking about live performances—for most of us it’s hard to pick a favourite track from that album, one I really liked for the performance quality of it was Lazarus, particularly the way the rhythm section was interacting, and I had it in my mind that it was a really visceral, intense performance in the room. Were you all in full eye contact and interacting with each other?
Mark: I don’t remember totally, specifically about that take in general but I think you could say that about most of the performances. We were all in the same room, which was really helpful for the chemistry. It was a small room. I remember with Lazarus, we did a take—that’s essentially a beautiful rock ballad; it’s a beautiful song and normally I wouldn’t think to necessarily play the way I played on the version that’s on the record, it might be a little busier than normal, but I do remember doing a take earlier in the day where I guess I played it pretty safe—kind of a more traditional treatment of a song like that, and I remember David, after the take saying something along the lines of “OK great, now we know it, but now let’s really play it.” I think he was never looking for the obvious treatment or the safe version, and I think that performance is an example of that. When I heard the finished record I was actually a little self-conscious about that song in general, that I was playing too much, but it did remind me of the previous take and then him asking for more, so it’s definitely a product of being in the moment and really reacting to each other and going with that energy.
Greg: As I recall you had been given demos of the tracks beforehand, so how much were you able to deviate from those demos?
Mark: I think it was case by case. Essentially we would learn the demos as is, and that would be our starting place, so for certain songs maybe the demo is really the treatment of how the song would be, and in other cases it was much more of a sketch and he really wanted us to inject our own personality, or put our spin on it so it was a very democratic environment, and he was constantly pushing us to take chances and things like that, but case by case. I always tried to honour the demo as best I could. The drums on the demos were programmed or they were loops so part of the challenge was to bring that stuff to the acoustic kit in a natural way. He was open to our ideas at the same time.
Greg: Donny released, Beyond Now, in October 2016, were you on that record?
Mark: Yes that was Jason, Tim and me.
Greg: How was it getting back together to make another record after that? That was recorded after Blackstar was out, is that right?
Mark: Correct, we recorded that a few months later; it felt very natural ‘cos we were a band before Blackstar, so playing together was very comfortable and intuitive but there was a different emotion and there will be a different emotion in everything we’ll do after Blackstar.
Greg: Have you been at all concerned that that’s going to be the thing for which you are most remembered, or is that not how you perceive the game at all?
Mark: I’m absolutely prepared for that and I have no problem with it; it’s not for me to decide, it’s completely out of my control so it would be a waste of energy to think about it too much. I’m just so grateful that, in my humble opinion, it’s an incredible record so just to have been a part of it is incredible, and if that’s the way people know me I think that’s amazing. That being said, I’m the same guy I was beforehand and like I was saying about advice for younger musicians, it’s the same for me, just keep going. I don’t want to make any decisions that take me off that path. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him and I can’t thank him enough, but at the same time if I think about what he would hope for, it’s that we just keep doing what we’re doing, because I think that’s what attracted him to us in the first place. I don’t know exactly where I’m headed but I’m just going to keep going.
The full podcast by Greg Owen will be available very soon.