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David Bowie in the 1990s: Producer Mark Plati Lifts Lid on New Archival Releases
“David Bowie’s work in the 1990s has sadly been overlooked and underrated,” guitarist Reeves Gabrels, who worked with David Bowie throughout the decade, told me in 2016. “We had Tin Machine, he reunited with Nile Rodgers and Brian Eno, toured with Nine Inch Nails, and made a drum and bass record followed immediately by a back-to-basics record. How is it possible that people missed how unique and amazing that is? He was working and changing and evolving in a way that he was during the heyday of the 70s. None of his contemporaries were doing that, that’s for sure!”
Gabrels is right. Bowie continued to push the envelope artistically, doing some of his best work during a decade in which he was also making films, editing an art magazine, pioneering the rock star presence on the then-nascent Internet, floating his songwriting catalog on Wall Street, and starting a family.
“He was always ahead of everyone else,” keyboardist Mike Garson, who began working with Bowie in 1973, and played on the 1.Outside album and toured the world with the icon, remembered in 2018. “It was just the way he worked. Whatever you were listening to, David had already heard it, absorbed it and moved on. That’s why so much of what he did still feels so fresh and timeless.”
Recent weeks saw the release of Is It Any Wonder?, an E.P. of unique recordings of some David Bowie classics, underappreciated Tin Machine gems, and oddball one-offs, and paves the way for CHANGESONEBOWIE, another release of 90s-era recordings, this time for Record Store Day in June (CHANGESONEBOWIE will be available digitally on April 17).
Rock Cellar sat down with Mark Plati, who co-produced Bowie’s 1997 album Earthling, and who also co-produced and played on Is It Any Wonder?, for his memories of the period.
Rock Cellar: So, the recordings on Is It Any Wonder? all come from when Earthling was done, and you were prepping for the tour to support it, right?
Mark Plati: Yeah. “The Man Who Sold the World” is part of a set of recordings we did after the Earthling mastering was done. It was specifically done for a BBC radio broadcast. We did, I think, 10 songs. And the songs weren’t even played in their completion on the program. We didn’t think about it doing it. It was like, “We need to do some songs.” So it was Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Zach Alford on drums, and Reeves on guitar, plus David and myself. And I was recording it, but I was also doing some programming along with that. We knocked it all out in a day. It was really just bang, bang, bang. It was cool. Then it was broadcast, and that was the end of it.”
This being David, of course, there was a little thought to it. There was one point where Reeves said, “Ooh, I’ll do a piano on my guitar synth.” And David said, “Just to do it!” So there was a bit of that. But it was mostly pretty off the cuff. But we kind of just threw it out there. It was a nice little session. This is kind of a grab bag of different things. And I never heard it again. Until now.
Rock Cellar: The version of “The Man Who Sold The World” seems to incorporate elements of the Nirvana version from MTV Unplugged, with an acoustic, grungy, slowed-down feel. Was that ever brought up? Was that a frame of reference? Or did it just fall together?
Mark Plati: Not at all. We just played it. It wasn’t really anything like that. We never did that, in terms of trying to reference anything. Even with the “Jungle” thing, there were a couple of artists he was into. He was into Fotech, and a little bit of Tricky, and little bit of Goldie, and Underworld. But we were just kind of listening to this stuff. It wasn’t like we were trying to cop exactly what they were doing. And for this session, we didn’t listen to anything. It was pulled together on the spot.
They’d done Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit in that configuration, the three of them, so they were kind of already up that street a little bit. It wasn’t just like, “Woah, how’s this going to work?” They had been playing together. It was just a matter of recording it and me throwing a little underbelly under it.
Rock Cellar: ‘But “Nuts” doesn’t fall into that category.
Mark Plati: Yeah, that was after Earthling. “Nuts” was done after the first mastering of Earthling, which had “I Can’t Read ’97” on it. We got it back and then it was like, “Alright, let’s do some bonus tracks and B-sides.” We did a session where we did two songs. One of them was “Last Thing You Should Do,” which ended up on the album.
So that was a last minute choice, to swap that in for the version of “I Can’t Read” on here. And “Nuts” was just the other potential B-side. We were working at Looking Glass, the recording studio in New York City. So they were mixed there. Earthling was done at Looking Glass and then mixed at Right Track, but those were mixed at Looking Glass. We were just throwing them out, no time, just do it. So that’s where “Nuts” came from.
I remember we were working in Logic and dumping to tape later, as a safety, and I saw that he understood that this computer thing was happening. That’s why we ended up doing so much work, because the way he’d been used to working, when they did Outside, where they did all these jams and improvisations and had to cut them all together on digital tape, would take a long time. But the first song we did on Earthling was “Earthling’s on Fire (Law).” And we did it all on the computer. At one point he said, “Why don’t we take this section there, put that section there? Reeves and I are going to go out to lunch, and we’ll come back in a few hours.” And I said, “I’m done, man.” I saw the light bulb go on over his head like … oh.
Rock Cellar: Did “I Can’t Read” and “Baby Universal” — the Tin Machine reworkings — come up similarly? Were those songs he wanted to revisit?
Mark Plati: Yeah, they came up early. The two Tin Machine songs came up early during the Earthling sessions. I guess he just wanted to try doing them again in this updated style to see what they’d be like.
Rock Cellar: So those were part of the Earthling sessions? Was he thinking B-sides or was he thinking, “I’m revisiting these”?
Mark Plati: I think that was before anything like that came about. I think it was more like, “We’re doing these songs and collecting them and seeing where they land.” He never said, “This will be a B-side.”
Rock Cellar: Did you listen to the original versions, or did he and Reeves just play them and they kind of blossomed?
Mark Plati: We did not reference the original versions at all. We just did them. We just came up with a groove and went with it.
Rock Cellar: Did you even know they were Tin Machine songs?
Mark Plati: I did.
Rock Cellar: Did you know because you knew, or did you know because it was discussed?
Mark Plati: Because it was discussed. I have to say, my Tin Machine knowledge at that point was very limited. I remember Reeves on SNL doing a slide solo with a vibrator. That is my primary Tin Machine memory, which is a good one, I’ll say. But otherwise, I was not steeped in the Tin Machine catalogue.
Rock Cellar: Did he fiddle with those? Do you remember if there were discussions about the arrangements or lyrics? Or were they pretty much set?
Mark Plati: They just kind of went down. There was really not a whole lot of thought. That whole record was more doing and not thinking, which is, I think, one of the greatest parts about it. We were just doing it. Even like his lyrics. I remember he brought in the Randomizer, this computer program that was going to allow him to use his cut-up technique on the lyrics. He never used it. He wrote all his lyrics on Post-It notes while sitting in back of me, on the couch, smoking, while we were tinkering with the tracks or whatever. Then he’d scoop them all up, stick them on a music stand, and he’d go and sing them. And that would be it. That would be the vocal.
Ideas like “Little Wonder” came from a Disney catalogue. I was getting junk mail at the studio where I had my space. I had a kid, so there was a Disney catalogue there. We were making fun of it. Then all of a sudden, there’s a song about the seven dwarves. There it is. He would just pull things out of wherever. There wasn’t a whole lot of “Well, this will be about the Dalai Lama’s plight in …” There was none of that. It was just really kind of off the cuff. Everything about the sessions was like that.
They were actually doing some touring around then. They would be touring on the weekends, and I would stay behind, doing programming. But I think it was a good thing, because that configuration (of the band) was still young. And it was a really small unit. Because the previous band, on the Outside tour, was huge. This was the scaled-down package. And it was still fresh.
Rock Cellar: How did your involvement start?
Mark Plati: It was on a songwriting session, where we did the song “Telling Lies.” I met him, because I was working as the resident “rock” guy at Phillip Glass’ studio, and after that session he said, “Wow, we’re going to come back and do any album with you here at this place.” And I said, “Yeah, sure.”
Everybody says that. I was already jaded. It was just typical. But David had been working at the Hit Factory, and places like that. He wanted to find a new place to work. He knew Philip had a studio, went to check it out, met me, and in typical David fashion, once he likes something, he just doesn’t part with it. So the studio, me, just became that. And once you’re in, you’re in. But you never know with people. They’re fickle. Maybe he’ll meet someone next month, you never know.
Then I finally did get a call, “What’s your next two months like?” “I guess they belong to you.” But honestly, at that time, I was not a super fan. Bowie to me was like, high school music. It was cool and all. It’s a guy pushing the boundaries. And he’s still kind of doing that. This should be fun.
But I think that attitude was helpful, that I was not bowing at the altar of Bowie. I was like, “This is good. I don’t like that.” I was upfront and honest about it all, rather than, “Everything you touch is gold!” No. He needed that. We all need that. So that helped me I think. But I did consider, “Do I really want to do it? Yeah, I should do it. I should do it.”
It was different once I started to play with him, and then I saw the whole other side of it. “Oh, God. This is … Wow!” Because he just pulled these really strange things together. And me, being engineer guy, it was like, “Yes, I’m going to do that, I’ll try it.” I wasn’t going to sit here and give him my reasons why it wouldn’t work, because I don’t know that. And then I would try it and go, “That’s weird.” And then an hour or two later I’d go, “Oh, my God, that’s not something I would’ve dreamed of.”
And it would happen all the time. He’d just pull some strange thing out of the sky and then, eventually, you’d go, “Damn!”
Rock Cellar: It doesn’t sound like it was about fearlessness, but that it was just in his nature. That was just the way it worked.
Mark Plati: Yeah. He had an eternally curious childlike nature. “We should try that!” Which was really refreshing.
Rock Cellar: So “I Can’t Read” and “Baby Universal” were cut during the Earthling sessions proper, but “Stay” came later?
Mark Plati: “Stay” is from that later period. That’s where we also did “Fun (Clownboy Mix),” based on the live version of “Fame” they’d been doing. That came from a Dr. Dre remix. We got those tracks and then we copped pieces of that and made a backing track of that. We did that with “V-2 Schneider,” too. We took a lot of songs and copped elements from them to make Earthling sensibility backing tracks.
Rock Cellar: So how did “Stay” come about? Because it’s left field.
Mark Plati: Yeah. It has some crazy twists and turns in it. I hadn’t heard it since we did it. We recorded it in Ireland, during the tour pre-production, and then mixed it in New York. Around then was also when I did the “I’m Deranged” remix, which was part of the “Dead Man Walking” single. It just didn’t stop.
Rock Cellar: Around that time you became the go-to guy for that Earthling sound.
Mark Plati: I was suddenly in that box. I was like, “I’m not in a box.” I’d like doing what I was doing, but I’d had no intention of growing up wanting to be a DJ, or whatever. I fell into it. I thought it was cool. And I learned a shitload. But eventually I was ready to go back to other things. I didn’t want to be stuck as that guy.
Because I know guys who are still doing it now. They’re stuck.
Rock Cellar: Do you still get calls to do Earthling 2?
Mark Plati: No, not anymore. It’s been a while.
Rock Cellar: Because it’s funny how in the last couple of years, that stuff sounds much fresher than it did 10 years ago. It’s come around yet again.
Mark Plati: I was interested when song “Nuts” came out recently. It was on a BBC podcast or something and there were all these comments: “This could’ve been done yesterday.” And I was like, “Yeah, it could’ve.” It’s funny how it’s just not dated. This stuff could be now. It still sounds a little like music of the future.”
June 30, 2022
June 30, 2022