Star Man – exclusive interview with Bowie wingman, Gerry Leonard
As David Bowie’s guitarist, wingman and musical director, Dublin-born ace Gerry Leonard was present at the birth of last year’s top-secret comeback album, The Next Day. He told PowerOn! how he went from “a little brat with dirty fingernails” to the most envied sideman on the scene…
It all happened on the morning of January 8th, 2013. No warning. No fanfare. No cynically orchestrated marketing campaign. Just a brief announcement on David Bowie’s personal website that twenty-fourth album The Next Day was imminent, accompanied by the video for ghostly comeback single, Where Are We Now?
As one, the world choked on its coffee. Bowie, we’d assumed, was unofficially retired: he hadn’t released a scrap of studio material since 2003’s Reality, and last appeared on a stage back in 2006. Now the truth was out. Holed up in a tiny New York studio, the shape-shifting songwriter had been tracking in secret, off and on, for two years, with a circle of trust that included late-period guitarist Gerry Leonard. We caught up with the Dublin-born sideman to hear about those hush-hush sessions – and the path that led him there.
Let’s take you right back to your childhood in Dublin. How did music come into your life?
It really started in primary school, when I was 10 or 11. I’d already taken piano lessons with this angry 80-year-old piano teacher. My granny was adamant the boys would get piano lessons and the girls dance lessons, so I was frogmarched off to these lessons. I was a little brat. I’d come in with dirty fingernails, and she’d whack my knuckles and teach me Clair De Lune. I’d try to read music, and I had this love-hate thing with that whole process. Then, when I went into the fifth year, I had a teacher who played guitar and had an accordion band. He brought in this electronic organ, which was like a spacecraft at that point, and he saw that maybe I had some potential, so he recruited me and got me to stay after school for guitar lessons. He showed me major chords, minor chords, chords to popular songs. It was a big change for me, y’know, when he came along.
What kind of popular songs was he teaching you?
He was into Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles, y’know, and then later on it was America and those US bands. Stuff you could basically play on an acoustic guitar and sing. When I look back, they were all very well-crafted songs, but at the same time you could bash them out with three or four chords, and learn the picking style on Scarborough Fair or something. Someone brought in the Beatles songbook, so we were just eating that stuff up.
How did your love of music progress from there?
This teacher was really supportive. He had a drumkit, a keyboard and some amps, so we put together a little band and started doing talent competitions and gigs around the place when were around twelve. Our repertoire was mainly chart songs, Beatles songs, maybe Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock, or whatever we could manage to bash out, y’know? We had drums, bass, guitar and a singer, and at that point, I also made my first electric guitar with my dad, out of Everyday Electronics magazine. It was a very caveman kind of affair. We put in the frets ourselves, carved out the neck, somehow pulled it together from this little blueprint they gave in the magazine one month. I was very interested in electronics and taking things apart, and I had a soldering iron, so I was all over that stuff. I still have the guitar. It survived in the shed at my family home all these years.
People often refer to your ‘ambient’ guitar style. How did that style come about and how has it evolved over the years?
I think it was a combination of things. Y’know, when we were learning, the late-’70s hit and punk came through. Then that kinda cleared the decks and new wave came along, when it was about having more space in your playing, and having these guitar parts that we used like echoes, with reverb for the chorus, stuff like that. So immediately, the guitar started to take on this sonic element as well as the musical element. Y’know, what could you do with that sound to make it more interesting or put it in a space?
I think that was very formative. I ended up studying classical guitar for years and I think that really influenced me to start seeing guitar as a polyphonic instrument. I also had this very strong thing with electronics over the years. I worked in a recording studio as soon as I could get my foot in the door, and I was always putting together little guitar rigs. It was about putting the musical idea into a sonic space. I love it when a sound is more expansive. Like, if you sing in the shower, or in a cathedral, what you’re doing is enhanced by the surroundings, and I think when we use pedals to enhance the sound, we’re kinda dealing with the same idea. We can play one or two notes and it sustains. It exists in a much bigger way.
We wanted to ask about the 32A movie score that you wrote. How different is it putting music to film compared to writing a song?
Well, it’s a really interesting and beautiful process. You start to realise that what happens musically can create emotion, or suspense, or whatever might have been needed for the scene, so there’s kind of a colour palette. It’s also a little exacting in terms of metre and the length of things. It’s not quite like writing a song. You might have 16 bars and then you go to another section, so you’re much more a slave to the edit of the movie, and you have to be a lot more compositional in terms of how you shape things. There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes with it, and you also need to be open to the bigger picture all the time. Writing a song, you can just let things happen, but with a score, you have to be sensitive to what’s going on narratively, and how you’re going to fit it into the space. Sometimes, you don’t actually want a lot going on musically, because it’s distracting. So it’s really fascinating work.
So tell us about your move to New York in the ’90s…
Well, over the years, I had many bands, culminating with the band [Hinterland] that got signed to Island. It really felt like this was our big time; we made a record and a couple of videos, and as part of that whole process I came to New York and got the bug for the city. When all that stuff finished up, I found myself back at square one. At that point I was just in my thirties and I thought I needed to get out of here and try something new. So I moved: I packed everything up and I took my favourite guitar, a bag of clothes and a couple of hundred dollars and I moved to New York. I thought, ‘I’m just going to try and fit in here’. I quickly realised that there were a lot of other guys out there and that really helped me focus on what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at. I auditioned for The Blue Nile and almost got the gig, but didn’t, because I didn’t really know how to prepare in a short space of time. So I learnt the hard way, and the next time I got an audition was for the Cyndi Lauper tour, so I practised and I made sure I knew the thing backwards – and I ended up getting the gig. They cut short the auditions and said, ‘This is the guy’. So it paid off.
How did your meeting with David Bowie come about?
One person who was very much on my side was my friend, Kevin Killen, who’s a great engineer, producer and mixer. He’d done Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s records, and we grew up together working as tape ops in Dublin in the early-’80s, and we reconnected over the mixing of my record with Island. So in New York, he would call me up and say, ‘I’m working with Laurie Anderson tomorrow and they need a guitarist, so I’ll put your name forward…’. So it was really about meeting people, and working with them, and then if they were doing another project, they would ask you to get involved.
That was the road to meeting David. I met Rupert Hine, who is the producer for Stevie Nicks, and he had me play on Suzanne Vega’s Songs In Red And Gray record. Through that, I met the engineer-producer Mark Plati, and we worked on a couple of projects with each other. Mark ended up being David’s MD and got me to play on a track with David, and one thing led to another. David actually came down and saw my own solo thing, Spooky Ghost. We would play in a coffee house once a month, and in the end David came down to one of those little gigs with fifty people and sat in the audience. He said to Mark Plati, ‘You know that Gerry… can he rock?’ I guess I did rock that time, because then he asked me to do a try-out for the band.
The story goes that David actually heckled you that night…?
Yeah. It really broke the ice, because first I was so nervous that he was there. You really felt like there was so much riding on it. We did this somewhat improvised thing. It was me and a bass player and I would do my looping thing: it was pretty free. I’d make some absurd comments to the audience and David was heckling me and having a good laugh. There’s a tape recording of it somewhere…
Do you remember the process of joining David’s touring band?
Yeah, David had me come down and do an audition, but as it turned out, he was sick or something, and we ended up doing it all with just a video camera and some other core members of the band. We’d been given a bunch of songs to learn and we just kind of played through those. It was really about seeing if it was a good fit. So when I actually got the word, ‘Yes, you’re part of the band’, and we started proper rehearsals, that’s when the real work started.
Your first gig included playing the Low album in full. How much pressure was that?
One thing that David does is to give a generous amount of time for rehearsals, so we had time to figure it out – but the biggest challenge would have been getting assigned these guitar parts and trying to decipher a good way to play them live. Whether it’s the guitar solo from Always Crashing In The Same Car, or Sound And Vision, they’re iconic guitar parts that we all know and love, but they’re not traditional, and whether it’s Robert Fripp plugging into Brian Eno’s little EMS synthesizer or whether it’s messing around with things like the 12-stage phaser, it’s really a case of using your instincts, going in and programming stuff, and putting together a guitar rig that would be versatile enough to do those things.
As well as writing songs with David, you’re his musical director. It’s a role you’ve also had with Suzanne Vega and Rufus Wainwright. How would you describe it?
Well, it’s very different each time. It’s really about having a good line of communication with the artist and figuring out what they’re trying to do, as well as knowing everybody in the organisation and trying to make everything run smoothly. With somebody like David, it was quite a big organisation, but he would come to me and say, ‘I want to do this song’, and then I would do the charts, schedule it for soundcheck and make sure we had it up and running for him. Then he would come along, join in, make some comments – and it’s done. So it’s not so much like being on some power-trip and bossing everybody around as making sure everybody is connected and it happens on a schedule. Just all those little details.
How about with Rufus Wainwright?
With Rufus, it was a pretty big band and he’s got his own vision, so again, it’s really a case of facilitating him, interfacing with the tour manager and band, making sure the politics didn’t get out of hand. Musically, you’re just making sure everything gets realised in the best way. Sometimes, you’d have to step in and make decisions. Other times, like when I produce a record, I really like to make it feel like everybody can just be themselves and anybody can try their idea.
So being an MD is almost like being a producer, making sure the artist gets what they want at the end of the day?
Yeah, it’s making sure everything is moving forwards all the time and things are done to a high standard. That’s important, ’cos I hate to see a missed opportunity, or see things botched or fall apart through a moment of bad communication, or because you prepared the wrong things. So it’s long hours, because at the end of the day, it’s not done until it’s done. When I did David’s tour, I did very long days. You go to bed, get as much sleep as you can, then get up and tackle the next day.
Let’s talk about your Boss pedal setup. What are your favourites and what’s new?
I’ve always had the Super Overdrive in my rig: it’s one of my desert island pedals. I just love the way that thing really focuses the guitar, and it has a really nice mid-range. Every guitar rig I’ve put together over the years, there’s one of those pedals lurking in the background somewhere. Back in the day, I remember having a Boss chorus pedal that you could do very subtle or extreme things with. That pedal was huge for us. Over the years, the Boss delays have been great, and one pedal I’ve kept going back to is the Space Echo. I always think delays should have a very warm, blossoming thing about them and the new Space Echo design does that really well.
You’ve been using the Boss Tera Echo as well: what are your thoughts on that?
The Tera Echo is tremendous. It’s such a unique thing. After all these years of using Boss pedals, they keep coming up with new and innovative stuff, and the thing I love about the Tera Echo is when I use it in a super-ambient setting, it gives this beautiful infinite sustain. I originally had to do something with Laurie Anderson for a big outdoor show in New York, and she had these actors read this short story while I sat behind [playing]. The Tera Echo was amazing for that, because it was an instant soundscape, and the sustain it gave sat there in a beautiful way.
The story goes that you and David initiated material for The Next Day at your house?
Yeah, that was a funny moment. David called up and said, ‘Do you have a drum machine?’ I said, ‘Yes’, meaning that I don’t have one, but by the time you get here, I will have. I remembered that my friend had this vintage Roland 808 drum machine which was perfect, so I drove over to his house and said, ‘Ed, I’m taking your drum machine, but I can’t tell you what it’s for’, because we were in this official secrets act y’know? I have a little studio in one of the back rooms of my house, so I just had the 808 set up, and a keyboard, because David likes to write on a keyboard. We had some guitars plugged in, so it was ready to pick up instruments and bash around.
How did that early session go?
The first two songs we worked on, he had the chord progression for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) and some ideas for melodies, so I’d just establish the tempo and we’d program up a very simple beat and play along. That’s the way David wanted to do it, and when we worked out all the sections, then we would do a very simple little recording of that.
So what happened when you got into the studio with him in New York?
He would have very simple demos of an idea. He knew there was a very strong core to the idea, but it might be kind of crude. He would pick out an idea that he thought might have legs to work on, and he’d pull it out and play a chorus, and we would try and decipher it in some way. If he played some weird thing on the guitar, I’d get him to show it to me and then we started playing around and, y’know, adding some inflections here and there if we needed to. Just evolve the idea.
Obviously, producer Tony Visconti has a long history with David. What do you think he brings to the recording process?
Tony is a very good listener, and he’s a very supportive and positive person in the studio. When Tony is on the other side of the glass, you always get the feeling that you’re making progress. That’s something he’s naturally good at as a person. He brings a real sense of positivity to the process, and, y’know, being at the studio and being creative, it’s about creating a safe space where people can feel like they can produce something that’s got honesty and integrity, but also a sense that it’s happening for the first time. Tony’s got a good sense of that. He’s also got a good sense of song and arrangement, and even simple things like tempo and little arrangement ideas. When it comes to working with David, they have some good history. I think that David needed somebody he could really trust, that he could be somewhat open with, and maybe a little bit vulnerable, in terms of having these new ideas and seeing if they stick. Tony is a very good foil for him in those ways. They know their working process and they know they can trust each other. When we did the first demos of this stuff, Tony played bass and he arranged strings for the record. He’s got a very good musicality about him as well.
To move onto the classic Bowie material, what was your favourite song to play live?
Oh gosh, there’s so many of them. I mean, the riff from Rebel Rebel: I remember learning that way back, and it’s not that difficult to play, but it’s one of those riffs that just works on a guitar, and it’s really fun and satisfying. And then, getting to play Heroes and do the Robert Fripp Ebow parts for that, where you know what it sounds like, but you don’t really know what it is until you take it apart. Or playing the abstract Fashion, and doing the solo, which is another Fripp thing. These are all good little masterclasses: taking this stuff apart and trying to put it back together in my own way, so it’s fresh and not just a bad copy. Ashes To Ashes was another really great song to play live, and a lot of the stuff from the Ziggy days, like Suffragette City. Playing some of that really fast Bowie stuff is really fun, I got to say.
But then, we would do stuff like The Motel from the Outside sessions, which were really dark, and you can tell were really moody pieces. Or pieces from the Heathen record like Sunday, where there was a lot of work for me and a lot of pressure, because I was on a big stage and you’re kind of chopping these little loops and layering it up, and it’s the kind of thing where a lot can go wrong. And if it goes wrong, the sounds you’re using are such cathedral-type sounds that it’s just going to sound really dreadful, on a massive scale. So there are a lot of challenges to be part of the whole thing…
If David did ever gig The Next Day material, what would you look forward to playing?
Well, there’s a lot, I mean The Stars (Are Out Tonight) was really fun. I really connected with that song straightaway and some of my guitar parts existed in the cut. That would be really good to play. I loved doing Love Is Lost as well. I mean, it’s such a great moody piece. I’d been listening to a lot of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and how he used that reverb kind of bluesy lead, and you can hear I’m channelling a lot of that stuff.
When you’re under pressure to come up with a guitar part, do you start with the riff or the sound?
I get a pretty clear picture early on of what I’m doing harmonically. Then, when I get my instinct for that guitar part, very quickly, I’m also thinking, ‘OK, is it going to be wet or dry, and if so, how am I going to put a little twist on it so it’s not really straightforward?’ So it’s the music that comes first, then I put the sound on it straightaway. If it’s a rock thing, then it’s going to be a little dryer and more punchy, so you go for the amp sound, but if it’s a slower piece and you’re going for an ambient thing, then it all depends on the box. The new box we didn’t touch on that I really like these days is the Boss Slicer, which is really great. I’ve used it now on the new Suzanne Vega record, in a section where I was able to clock the Slicer to the tempo of the song – and it’s really beautiful.
So what records are you listening to at the moment?
Y’know, I’ve been listening to the new Arcade Fire record [Reflektor]. I really like that it’s a bit more modern, but I also like the whole pairing with James Murphy, who’s the producer of that stuff, and I really like their music videos. It depends on what’s been going on. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Suzanne Vega record this week because I’ve been working on it, you know, and some of the influences on that have been the Rolling Stones and other things like Radiohead or Lana Del Ray. So it’s been all over the place, listening to those records, and the spirit of those records. I really like the records where it feels like the record was done in a time-capsule and you have the feeling of the art of the record. When that personality comes through, it’s really satisfying.
If you could go back in time, what advice you would give your 15-year-old self?
Oh gosh, I think to just keep doing it. To explore the world in front of you and not be discouraged by the things you aren’t. There’s always ways to grow and improve, but there’s something about appreciating where you are as well, and allowing the small ideas you had to come to you, and to act on them, because they too can grow into big ideas. It’s really easy to look at the big ideas and think, ‘Oh, we can never get there’, but they really come from the small ideas, y’know? I think when you’re at that point, being 15 and formative, there’s got to be a healthy balance, and you’ve got to let your own ideas manifest in some way.
Do you have any advice for recording?
I think we’ve come almost full-circle in terms of recording, where we can record in almost an organic way, where people play together. Sometimes that’s a little scary, but I think if you can do that successfully, you bring this other kind of magic to it all. How many times have you seen a beautiful landscape, whipped out your iPhone and taken a snapshot, then you look at the picture and it’s really kind of flat and dismal? So the trick is to try and make sure the recording doesn’t get too flat, and that there’s a feeling of spontaneity and a little bit of mysteriousness going on. So it’s not all squeaky-clean and tidied-up, to the point where there’s none of these enriching things which obstruct the sounds but make them richer in the end.
The danger these days is that we have the ability to make everything squeaky-clean, put it on a grid and take away all the squeaks and the bad notes. I think there’s a happy medium. It’s good to be prepared when you go in to record and to have some things worked out in advance. It’s good to feel solid about things like tempo arrangements, keys and the general direction of things. But you don’t have to have everything worked out. It’s good to allow things to grow in the moment.
There are things you can prepare. Like, sometimes, the best thing I can do, if I’ve got a session, is to check my gear, check it twice, and make sure I have all the cables and power supplies. Things like putting a new set of strings on my guitar and getting a good night’s sleep: sometimes those things are the best way to prepare for a session, because most of it is going to happen when you’re there, and you’ve just got to make sure you’re not putting obstacles in the way, like, ‘Oh sh*t, I’ve forgotten the power supply!’ Also, keep things simple when you’re recording. You end up with better music that way, rather than getting stuck with the technology.
Finally, we wanted to ask you about the passing of Lou Reed. As one of Bowie’s compadres, what did the man and his music mean to you?
Y’know, Lou was really one of the great rebels. He was a brilliant person, and he was only ever kind to me. I know he also had a reputation of being ‘difficult’, but I think that was because he wasn’t somebody who would just settle and go ‘Oh, it’s okay’. He wanted things to be the best they could be. He wanted to provoke things and stir up the pot. I think that’s one thing he did throughout his career. He was very influential on a lot of people over the years, whether it was through his work or by getting in their faces, and stirring up the pot, and sometimes making people angry. That takes a lot of courage. There are not so many people who can exist in that realm and have the confidence or drive to do it. Most of the time, we’re looking to please all the people all the time, and Lou was certainly not somebody who was interested in that. He was interested in making art and making a statement, and that’s a great essential part of making good art. We needed him – and he’s going to be sorely missed.