Ben Monder with his 1982 Ibanez AS-50. Photo by John Rogers
What do you remember about the first sessions, Ben?
Monder: It was actually kind of unclear in the beginning how much I would even contribute. I thought maybe it would just be a couple of tunes at first. I had been given a couple of mockup demos that David had done in his home studio, so I wasn’t going in totally cold. I had a few ideas of what I was going to do on some of the tunes, but there wasn’t a ton of preparation. The first track we worked on was “Blackstar,” which was one of the ones I had a mockup of, so I had some ideas about which chords I was going to play, and Donny had made some relatively simple charts so I could follow the structure. It wound up being a lot of the first take used on the final track.
What did you hope to bring to the record, given that David was seeking something with a jazz foundation of sorts?
Monder: People say that, but I don’t really see it as him hiring a bunch of strict jazz musicians. We’re all improvisers, but every one of us has roots in rock music—especially Tim and Mark. And those guys are also equally comfortable in electronic music and groove-based stuff.
I came into this record with the idea that I’d have as open a mind as possible, and try to do my best to adorn the tunes presented to me in the most personal way I could without losing or sacrificing the character of the material. I didn’t necessarily know what that was going to be, but it wasn’t really unfamiliar territory because I’ve been listening to Bowie’s music for so long, and I knew Donny and the rest of the band so well. I think I had the confidence that if I just stayed relaxed and open to the moment, I’d be able to come up with the appropriate things.
“Blackstar” in particular sounds very spontaneous in a lot of ways. It’s polished, but it’s still very lively and organic.
Monder: There’s definitely a fresh energy to it, and that’s certainly got something to do with so much of it being a first take. But the song has its two distinct parts, and David basically said, “Somehow dissolve this into the next section of the tune.” Somehow we did that dissolution perfectly on the first attempt, and that’s what you’re hearing on the album—no punching-in or anything. We did the middle section separately, but the way it all dissolves into it was totally improvised. There wasn’t an effort made to over-polish or overproduce it.
Ben, there’s a twinkling, upper-register guitar lick that juts in and out on “Blackstar.” What are we hearing there?
Monder: I was using the shimmer effect on the Strymon BlueSky [Reverberator] pedal for that
part, so that might be why it’s got that upper register sheen to it and all of those nice overtones.
Tim, you mentioned chemistry earlier. What would you point to as evidence of the difference that chemistry made?
Lefebvre: The intro and outro on “Lazarus” are the kind of thing we’ve done as a team live a lot. Little subtle touches between myself and Mark and Jason came through in the record quite a bit. It’s subtle, but it’s there if you pay attention.
Ben, as such a well-educated player, were you ever afraid that thinking too much about theory would trounce the improvisational flair of the sessions?
Monder: That’s the real challenge—you need to have the discipline to forget what you know. The ultimate purpose of all the theory is to enable your ears to hear things they wouldn’t normally hear without that knowledge. It’s like a symbiotic relationship: Your ears can lead your intellect to new discoveries, and those new discoveries will lead your ears to hear things they might not have been able to hear without the knowledge. So, it’s hard to say what exactly is going on mentally when one is improvising. In a way, your fingers are simply going where they go, but they are also informed by everything you’ve learned and everything you’ve digested. The idea is to trust your unconscious to take over, to trust that you have enough knowledge that if you don’t control it, it’ll find a way to do something interesting and creative. Then you sit back and watch it happen, but the idea is to get out of the way of letting it happen.
How involved was David with the band’s tracking?
Monder: Oh, he was singing with us on pretty much every take. He was there in the studio with us singing in full voice—which really helped the energy. He sounded great and his voice was really strong. It really helped that the sessions felt like a real performance. He’s a chameleon in a way, but he always had a really clear identity and concept in mind. It’s always his vision.