Gabrels’ custom-built Audio Kitchen amps, Thing One and Thing Two, stand behind him at a Cure show. “For the Cure’s stuff, I need loud and clean, and my stage volume sits right around 100 dB, but I need to be able to boost it 5 dB without it compressing,” he says. Photo by Mauro Melis

And now you’ve revisited your time with David, in a sense, during the sessions for the new Never Let Me Down.
David and I talked about those songs a lot through the years, and so I kinda knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. I purposely didn’t listen to them before I went in the studio. I wanted to treat the original versions like they were demos, but I didn’t want to have parts stuck in my head. That was the kind of scenario David encouraged. A lot of people think David dictated every note, but David was like an art director. He assembled people whose work he liked and saw what happened, then edited from there.

Did David leave instructions for the project?
Bill Zysblat, who’s running the Bowie trust, kind of explained that David left a five-year plan. So, at the beginning of a year, they just tear open an envelope and see what the instructions are. As I understood it, he left a list of musicians for the project. I was a sounding board, perhaps, for Mario in the process. It was nice for me just to be the guitar player, because I spent a lot of years where I was worrying about way more things than just playing guitar—writing those pesky songs with David.

The recording process was fairly organic. Mario and David’s plan was to keep David’s vocal, keep his guitars, and replace the drum machine with real drums, and build it up from there. So Mario got Tim Lefebvre and Sterling Campbell, and they went in, and they spent about a week just doing bass and drums against David’s guitar or a keyboard pad that defined the harmony, and David’s vocals. We had talked about maybe me recording with the rhythm section, but I was out with the Imaginary Friends in Texas at that point. So I couldn’t do it.

With “Time Will Crawl,” they had kind of established a sound. When I came in, I spent a couple of days doing some guitars, and then David Torn came in for a day while we were at Electric Lady, so there were a couple tracks—“Shining Star” and “Glass Spider”—where we played simultaneously, which was fun.

Did you already know David Torn?
We had spoken via email and on the phone, but we had never met. You would think the overlap between the two of us would have made it unnecessary to have both of us. But like it often happens, when you put two things next to each other, you see the differences. Torn, with his ambient and atmospheric stuff—there’s something really gentle about his playing, and intimate. I’m more of a bull in a china shop, so that difference became apparent from early on.

What was revisiting your time with David in such a visceral way like, emotionally?
Hearing David’s voice on the multitrack ... when Mario and I were getting ready to record, we listened to “Zeroes,” and we kinda looked at each other, and were, like, “Wow, this should be a single!” Jokingly—but apparently now it is. We realized it needed another acoustic guitar. So I figured, “I’ll do this first. It will be a good way to get into it.”

So they set me up to record an acoustic guitar in the live room: Studio A at Electric Lady. It’s the Hendrix Room, so there’s all this vibey stuff going on in there. I had my headphones on. I had me in my right ear and David’s guitar in my left ear—and the vocal in the middle, bass and drums.

David and I always used to record, from Tin Machine times on, the acoustic guitars simultaneously, facing each other. And he tended to emphasize his downbeats, like one and three, and I tend to sit on the backbeat. So we had this nice push-pull-in-stereo feel, panning left and right. And he would also get this look in his eyes while we were tracking: He was looking at you, but he was also looking miles away. He would cross his leg and his foot would bounce while he was playing.

So, I have all these memories of that, and while I was playing, I had my eyes closed, and I’m hearing him in my left ear, his guitar, hearing his vocal in the center. I can feel him hitting the one and three a little bit harder, and me hitting two and four, and I can see him in my mind, sitting across from me the whole time.

“The only thing that any of this stuff is good for is I can get a good table in a restaurant so I’m not near the kitchen. And I can get free tickets to shows.” —David Bowie

Then we get to the end of the song, and I opened my eyes … and he wasn’t there. I was glad I was in the room by myself because—it’s even hard for me to recount it now—it brought a tear to my eye. And so there was that.

And the other thing about the group of musicians was that we all wanted to see David happy, you know, with what we were doing, and we all cared about him. We all loved him, basically. So it was a labor of love for everyone involved.

We just wanted to serve the songs, really. The original version—everybody played great on. And if you like the original version, the original version’s being remastered and it is being released as well, so it’s not like we’ve erased history. But David always said that he felt the songs were great, but he kind of “checked out” during the recording. So it’s been an album that’s almost more about production—that 1985–’87 sound. We stripped the songs back quite a bit, and you can hear them now as the songs that they are.

Are there places on the album where you really uncorked?
Yeah, a bunch of them. [Laughs.] On “New York’s in Love” ... I like to cut what would be considered the lead guitar first and then go back and respond to that track with other guitars later. If the song is a room, it lets me into the room, and I’m lifting up the couch pillows and looking for change, and checking out what’s fastened to the wall and moving the furniture around.

Parenthetically, on “New York’s in Love,” Peter Frampton had played rhythm guitar, and we kept the guitar parts from the original, and kept Peter’s sitar on “Zeroes,” and we kept Carlos’ [Alomar] gated rhythm on “Never Let Me Down.” And then pretty much everything else got replaced.

But anyway, on “New York’s in Love,” I was thinking about how much New York had changed since 1987, and like what you hear walking around on Saturday night. There’s definitely more of a cultural melting pot—more Middle Eastern and Asian influence now. On the original version, it was Peter’ blues-rock-influenced soloing. I decided to substitute more microtonal modal stuff. I did it in one take, first take—I just went for it, and when I got to the end, Mario just looks at me, and he goes, “Well, I guess that’s done.” “Beat of Your Drum” has moments of that, too. “Zeroes”—I freely played and took a couple of runs at it, and we figured out we had what we were looking for. “Zeroes” still has that freedom to it.

It has more of a textural vibe.
Yeah, a melodically relaxed thing. It’s not as fraught as, say, “New York’s in Love,” where I was thinking of the sirens you hear on Saturday night and people trying to sell you something on the street. “Buy a watch!” “Zeroes” was an emotional response to the lyrics and to what I felt when I was recording the acoustic. And in “Bang Bang,” I was feeling sort of a fractured blues thing, so I used a Trussart Telecaster and a Fender Bassman with a GE-7 Boss Graphic in front of it to spike certain frequencies.

Since you mentioned the Yamaha modeling amp, what gear did you use for the sessions?
I used, basically, the same as my usual live rig with the Imaginary Friends. I found an old Ibanez Weeping Demon wah that I brought with me. Also, a Varidrive tube distortion, a Source Audio Multiwave distortion, a GE-7 graphic fuzz modified by the Thru-Tone guys in Nashville, a Phase 90, an M9 with an expression pedal, and an Ottobit Jr. bit crusher/randomizer thing that I actually bought on the second day of the session and ended up using on “Beat of Your Drum.” It has a randomized setting that you can tap a tempo into, and it will do something very similar to what the old H4000 Eventide unit did, which is periodically grab a note and just spin it, delay it, cut it up, jump an octave … you don’t know what it will do next. But I like that.

We did a couple of passes on the solo. I started way far out and then dialed it back, and I think we mostly used the dialed-back one, where I just used Ottobit Jr. at the end of phrases, so that last note would get hurled off into the depths of space. Then that went in stereo out of the M-9, into the front end of the THR100, which I had running as two separate amps: one sounding like a Hiwatt with a 5881 in the power-amp section, and the other sounding like a Deluxe with 6L6s, with two of the Yamaha THRC speaker cabinets. They had different Eminence speakers—a Tonker and a Cannabis Rex, I think, but we tended to like the one that was getting fed the Hiwatt-sounding side of the Yamaha. That might have been the Tonker, because that’s kind of more like a Celestion.

The other thing about the amps is, we used the room at Electric Lady, because it would be a crime not to. We had ambient mics up. And that was the rig for everything except some of the stuff I did at Mario’s studio, where I used a Line 6 Helix and my pedalboard.