For the legions of Bowie fans earth wide, The Next Day proved to be a record worth waiting for. After nearly a decade of radio silence following the 2003-2004 Reality tour, Bowie shocked the music world when—on his 66th birthday—he announced plans to release his 24th studio album. Created with help from Line 6-powered guitarist Gerry Leonard, producer Tony Visconti and other longtime collaborators, The Next Day is already being hailed as one of Bowie’s finest works—and perhaps the greatest comeback record in rock history. But, as Leonard found out, the road to a landmark album can take some surprising twists and turns.
After several years passed without mention of a new album, many of Bowie’s close friends and band mates assumed that the legendary rock star was enjoying a well-deserved retirement. So for Gerry Leonard, the invitation to record demos came as a complete surprise. “I received an email from Bowie with the subject line ‘schtum!,’” recalls Leonard. “It seemed he was hatching a top secret plan. He asked if I was available—and you can imagine what my answer was!”
Bowie’s vision for the album was clear from day one—however the songs didn’t take shape until Leonard, Visconti and other musicians joined Bowie in New York for a series of hush-hush sessions. “David has a very strong sense of what makes a good rock song, so the foundations and basic outlines are set,” relates Leonard. “There’s a directness and visceral energy to his initial broad strokes. He starts with something really strong and then takes it into the stratosphere.”
In the Studio with Bowie
For the initial sessions, Bowie’s rough demos served as a launching point for the band. “He likes to work fast so the pressure is on,” says Leonard. “You just trust your instincts and allow the inspiration to come forward. It’s almost a form of subconscious reaction. And that’s where the most surprising and beautiful stuff lies.”
The Next Day is a guitar-heavy record, with Leonard’s riffs providing the foundation for many of the thirteen tracks. “David really loves the guitar,” says Leonard. “He’s the only singer who’s ever asked me to turn the amp up.” During the sessions, Bowie encouraged improvisation, allowing his band to develop their own parts. For Leonard, this led to some excellent results, such as the hard-driving opening riff on “The Stars Are Out Tonight.”
“Most of the licks came to me right away the first time we played the songs,” explains Leonard. “When we did overdubs I was able to sculpt the licks more around David’s lyrics.”
On tracking days, the band followed an efficient schedule, arriving at 11am to review charts, dial in sounds and figure out the ch-ch-changes. After capturing a few practice takes, they’d review the results and make any adjustments suggested by Bowie and producer Tony Visconti. Three more takes to finish the song, and everyone was done by 5pm. “Almost all of The Next Day was recorded live,” explains Leonard. “You get such great chemistry that way.”
The quick pace of the sessions didn’t allow much time for overdubs. “We never belabored the parts,” says Leonard. “If it went down quickly, fine—otherwise we moved on.” To embellish the tracks, Leonard returned later for separate overdub sessions. The solos and sonic layers he added contribute significantly to the rich, textured feel of tracks like “Where Are We Now?,” “Heat,” and other songs.
For production of The Next Day, Leonard relied heavily upon his Line 6 stompboxes. “The DL4 is one of my desert island pedals,” states Leonard. “There are a bunch of loops on the album that I recorded with the DL4. I also used the M9 pedal board for synth guitar sounds and programmable tremolo patches. It was great to dial in the tempo and play choppy guitar textures in time and on the fly.”
Boss of Me
As The Next Day began to take shape, Leonard had the privilege of writing several tracks with Bowie, including “Boss of Me.” Leonard explains: “David wanted to work on a few songs so one morning I started playing this riff. The amps were cranked up and I could feel his energy. I threw down a beat in Reason and David jumped in with melody and lyrics. Right away he came up with the line ‘how a small town girl like you, could be the boss of me,’ and that became the song. We wrapped it up and he left with a rough mix in his back pocket.”
It took over two years for The Next Day to be produced, with several significant lapses between sessions. “At times I worried that Bowie was shelving the project,” shares Leonard. “When the line went dead for a few months I figured ‘oh well, he’s not digging the stuff. He’s going to bag it and go record a banjo record in Botswana.’”
The Next Chapter
The Next Day was released to critical acclaim and chart-topping commercial success—so what’s next for Bowie, Leonard and the rest of the band? Rumors have been swirling about a possible tour, though Bowie himself has remained silent on the issue. Should a tour materialize, Leonard is ready to hit the road: “My racks are packed—just waiting for the call!” he says.
Until then, Leonard looks forward to spending some time with his new Line 6 Dream Rig. “It’s an incredible setup,” he states. “James Tyler Variax has the potential to become a new breed of instrument, given the possibility for alternate tunings and cool processing where even the knobs on the guitar can become controllers.”
“I’ve also been really digging into the POD HD500 lately,” continues Leonard. “My goal is to make it my fly rig or round town rig. The idea of having one box programmed and tailored to the specific demands of a particular show is really interesting to me. So far, I’ve done a rock show in Zurich with Aimee Mann producer Paul Bryan, an ambient outdoor show in New York with Laurie Anderson and Steve Buscemi, and an indie club gig with Nina Nastasia—all with the HD500 at the center. Very different each time, and POD was solid and really versatile.”
Visit gerryleonardspookyghost.com to hear about upcoming performances, projects and more.