HELP Collaborations (Part 2): THE BOWIE CONNECTION
For obvious reasons, I have become associated more & more with one of my influences: David Bowie. It’s not surprising, as I have a Bowie tribute band called “haZy cosmic jive”.
However, even though Bowie was an early favorite and influence, he is only 1 of a sea of influences of mine. In fact, in a previous blog post (“Brownfields & Bowie: Worlds Collide”, August 12, 2021 … see an excerpt below), I discussed how odd it is for me to have a tribute band in the first place.
That being said, through osmosis, I suspect Bowie subconsciously infiltrates my songwriting. As far back as being a 7-year-old kid, a couple years into learning piano … hearing the amazing Ziggy Stardust & Hunky Dory albums with a number of piano-dominated rock songs … cooler than anything I’d heard before … made me want to become a musician that could write songs like that.
And I can say that in this song, HELP, I seem to channel my Bowie influences more than probably any song I’ve ever written. I mean that in a couple ways: lyrically & thematically (the isolation and mortality-facing & acceptance concepts) … and in my vocal stylings (not necessarily that I sound a lot like Bowie but more how I imagine he might approach a song like this … how he might emote).
… WHICH is why I’m particularly excited to have a couple of “inner-inner circle” folks from the second half of Bowe’s career involved in this song: Mario McNulty and Gail Ann Dorsey.
“Wolf” (the drum programmer on this track) introduced me to Mario. Looking into Mario’s body of work as an engineer & producer, I was obviously impressed. He was one of Bowie’s go-to engineers during the 2nd half of his career. Beyond Bowie, of course, Mario has worked with a who’s who: Prince, Nine Inch Nails, Julian Lennon, Tim Finn, Laurie Anderson, Willow Smith, Linkin Park, etc.
As for his work with Bowie, Mario is possibly most well-known for the posthumous re-make of the 1987 Never Let Me Down album, an album Bowie considered a failure … or at least a personal & professional disappointment. The NLMD remake is based on numerous conversations Mario had with Bowie, including a middle-of-the-night wakeup from Bowie to get together and discuss what an album remake might entail. It was clearly enough on Bowie’s mind and he clearly had such trust in Mario that there were instructions to the Bowie estate, who engaged Mario for the challenging project in 2018.
I saw a great video of Mario and Wolf talking nitty gritty details of how they created the new drum track for one of the songs (Glass Spider) on the NLMD album. Industrial & trip hop influences, the drum samples, filters & FX, creating the various moods across a wide-ranging song. Watching it, I was pretty convinced that Mario & I would hit it off working together.
Then I got a chance to talk to Mario. And he was just as chill, intuitive, intelligent and empathic as he appeared in the video. After a couple conversations, I knew I had to work with him.
And working with him … not just on HELP but on a suite of songs … he justifies that decision every time. He is super quick to absorb the details in the many tracks of a song … and is great at “telling the story” throughout the song by prioritizing the tracks to feature in each moment of the song. And his spatial (3-D) mixing and technical expertise using the right FX & filters, etc. is second to none.
Mario’s mix on HELP is great and I could talk at length about it. But I’ll point out just a couple items that were really important to me …
(1) ELECTRIC PIANO. There is a signature electric piano “riff” that helped establish the foundation of this song. But even though it was foundational, I wanted to soften its attack & the articulation of each individual note, so that it would kind of “melt” into the other keyboard “pad” sound and form a “sea” of ambient drone-like sound for the guitar to sit on top of or pierce through. He found a way to do that … the right filters or whatever. I think that really helped de-clutter the mix a good bit and helped established the vibe I was going for.
2) BACKGROUND VOX. There was a lot of great raw tracking from Gail & Lia. And Joey & I spent a good bit of time weaving their parts together in a way that told as good a story as we could tell, including providing FX on Lia’s voice. But there was still more story-telling to be told by mixing the tracks properly ... both 2D (up & down volumes) and 3D (spatially, side-to-side & front-to-back), as well as applying the remaining FX in proper amounts. The BGVox package also had to consider the interplay with my lead Vox and the rest of the mix. Needless to say, Mario did a masterful job with all this aspect … which is a huge part of the song.
GAIL ANN DORSEY
Suffice it to say, Gail provided us with virtually perfect Bass & BGVox tracks. There is quite a bit I’d like to say about connecting with Gail for this track … so I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.
Meanwhile, below is the excerpt that I mentioned above … from a previous blog post … regarding how weird it is for me to have a tribute band … EVEN if it is a tribute to one of my musical heroes …
EXCERPT FROM “Brownfields & Bowie: Worlds Collide”, August 12, 2021:
…“As for my music world, even the idea that I have a band that does this Bowie tribute is kinda weird. Not that I’m not a fan … and not that Bowie’s music & 70’s cultural impact didn’t hugely influence me. I am … and it did.
But as a musician that prides myself on creating original material … learning piano at age 5, writing my first original song and starting my first band by age 10 … the idea of doing “the tribute band thing” had long turned me off. I get the nostalgia market it serves. It just bugged me that original music & bands, which already have a tough time competing with the world of traditional “cover bands”, was also competing with the ever-increasing plethora of tribute bands. Every other one, seemingly, a Dead tribute band, by the way. (Don’t get me wrong. I love the Dead … I cut my teeth on the Dead & Allman Bros. But come on! There is so much other great music out there).
But I had long said to myself, if I had to do a tribute thing, I’d probably do Bowie. The music is just so varied & interesting … challenging. And the necessary vibe so cool. (Or something else similarly more under the radar and challenging like Little Feat).
So I ran into some great guys (musicians) a couple years ago … in early 2019, during a big multi-band birthday celebration thingy. Got a chance to jam with these dudes. Later on, they looked me up to do what was supposed to be a one-off Bowie night at this iconic venue near Philly.
Well, we ended up loving the experience. As it turned out, the rhythm section (Joe Tassoni on bass and Anthony Rodriguez “Arod” on drums) became my go-to rhythm section for my original bands. And as Philly Loves Bowie Week 2020 (Jan 2020) was looming in the fall of 2019, we decided to get a really great band together for that event.
“haZy cosmic jive” was born. It includes Joe & Arod as the rhythm section. We kept the coolest cat on sax, Bill Butryn, from our “one off” show. Then I rounded it out with the uber-talented Joey DiTullio and Jon Paul Smith. Bill is older than me. The other guys are much younger than me … by 2 to 3 decades (Joey DiTullio in the photo below, is 23). It’s a great mix. We have the kind of chemistry bands dream about. I didn’t anticipate it taking off the way it did, but I guess that is what happens when those things come together.
I love these guys! In addition to being great musicians, they are just great people. I haven’t yet told them about this “worlds colliding” business yet. The significance of it for me … the vertigo-inducing juxtaposition of it all. But when I do, I know they will get it. That’s the benefit of doing the things that you love surrounded by good folks. AGAIN, I THINK BOWIE WOULD APPROVE.”