Legendary rock producer Tony Visconti breathes fresh life into old David Bowie songs

Photo of Tony Visconti courtesy Tony Visconti Facebook

Photo of Tony Visconti courtesy Tony Visconti Facebook

If you know me at all, you know that there is no musical artist I adore more than David Bowie. I know every song. I have every album. In college I saw him live twice (three times, if you count his surprise appearance with the Arcade Fire in New York in 2005), before his decade-long-and-growing live performance hiatus. I have an “Aladdin Sane” lightning bolt tattooed on my right arm. I am not messing around. So when the opportunity arose to interview legendary producer Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longest-standing collaborator and producer of 12 of his albums… well, I mean, you already know the answer. Not to mention the fact that Visconti has also produced albums for the likes of T. Rex, Morrissey, Iggy Pop, Sparks, Alejandro Escovedo and many more bands and artists I love only slightly less than Bowie. And, again, not to mention that fact that bassist Visconti, along with original Bowie drummer Woody Woodmansey and an all-star lineup of musicians, formed in 2013 the band Holy Holy, which will perform Bowie’s seminal 1970 album “The Man Who Sold The World” on Thursday night, Jan. 7 at the Asylum in Portland, along with a handful of other Bowie songs. I mean, really. Oh, and he produced Rustic Overtones’ major label album “Viva Nueva,” so there’s a very strong Maine connection — and, of course, Bowie’s new album, “Blackstar,” due out this Friday. And as evidenced by our phone chat, he’s an extremely affable and down to earth fellow. Here are excerpts from our interview.

These are songs that are totally iconic and often seared into people’s minds as sounding a certain way. With Holy Holy, are you pretty faithful to the original interpretation, or do you put your own spin on things?

It’s faithful, as much as it can be. Woody and I, we never did it live, but what you hear on the record is 50 percent jamming. Some of it really works well on the road. If, back then, I’d have done it on the road, I’d have developed some of those songs more. Now, what I play is developed, and Woody is doing something similar, though I’d wager he’s probably more faithful to the original than I am.

This lineup is the same lineup that played on “The Man That Sold The World,” which was a less popular Bowie album — at least, until Kurt Cobain brought it into the forefront with his cover of the title track. Where do you think that album fits in?

It’s clearly the beginning of the Spiders from Mars, because it’s the same lineup as “Ziggy Stardust.” Though that band was yet to be invented, technically, it’s a logical extension of what was going on with “The Man Who Sold The World.” It was a pivotal album in that it gave him a taste of what it was like to be in a rock band.

Who are the people that are coming to these shows? I imagine you get some original fans of David Bowie, but are there still young people flocking to the music? I know I did.

We’ve done the show now 22 times in the U.K. and in Japan, and there are people who were kids when this album came out, and now they’re bringing their kids, who are also Bowie fans. We have people as young as 15 coming and mouthing the lyrics. They know this album. It did go on to sell a million copies, after all, and I think this is an album that a lot of bands practice to. It’s something you can jam out to.

You’ve produced so many incredible artists, but one people might not expect is Alejandro Escovedo, who I’m an enormous fan of. What are your memories of him?

Alejandro is a secret glam rocker. He and I were destined to meet each other. He was playing in Chicago, and during his sound check he was playing all these glam rock songs and Iggy Pop songs — but he didn’t play them during the show. He gets pegged as his kind of introspective and serious songwriter, but he’s a rocker. He really is. And we made three jolly good albums as a result of it.

You’re playing in Portland, which is the home of a band you’ve actually worked with — Rustic Overtones. Do you keep in touch with them? What are your recollections of working with them on Viva Nueva?

I’m in touch with Spencer Albee a lot. We email each other, and we’re Facebook friends. Dave [Gutter] and I communicate too. I had a great time with that band. They’re really one of the best I ever worked with, and I don’t think they got a fair shot at stardom, which they fully deserve. It was one of those things where you get signed up by Clive Davis [of Arista Records] and you have to do what he says. The creative freedom was just sucked right out. He just wanted a hit single from them. It was unfair. When I got my buddy Bowie to sign onto the album, he saw them the same way I did, which was really that they were creative geniuses, in a way. I really love that band. Always have.

After a decades-long collaboration with David — one that continues with his new album, “Blackstar” — are there things that still surprise you about him? Or do you know each other as musicians and artists so well that it’s become totally natural?

Oh, he always surprises me. He’s always got me on the edge of my seat. He’s one of the few who doesn’t have a formula. There is no formula. He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. He’s always re-investing in his art. He doesn’t rest on his laurels. We go back to the past as references, and our communication is quick and straightforward, but with “Blackstar,” it was a complete surprise, the direction he wanted to go in. But I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. It was not a typical album for me, to be honest. But it was a great adventure, and I know it was for him as well.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, UMaine graduate, proud Bangorian and a writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food to all the cool things going on in the Greater Bangor area. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra. She's interested in everything that happens in Maine.