Mike Garson Interview: “Bowie never stayed in a comfort zone”

By Planet Slop
Mon 30 October, 2017

Ahead of Mike Garson’s performance at the O2 Academy, Christy Smyth talks to Bowie’s long-time pianist about Aladdin Sane, the underrated albums of the 90s and life with the Thin White Duke. 

Mike Garson is a highly respected pianist and composer. As well as having his own impressive catalogue of solo albums, he has collaborated with artists such as Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan. He is best known though for his work with David Bowie.

Bowie was known for surrounding himself with a plethora of incredible musicians, many of whom made contributions to his albums that were as significant as his own. It’s hard to think of a better example of this than pianist Garson, who first worked with Bowie on the groundbreaking 1973 record Aladdin Sane.

Bowie rarely stuck to any one formula, but following the success of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, it would have been easy for Aladdin Sane to turn into a straight up sequel. He was still doing Glam Rock, he was still performing with The Spiders From Mars, and was still playing the role of Ziggy. What made Aladdin Sane stand out was Garson‘s piano. To songs such as Let’s Spend The Night Together, Lady Grinning Soul, and Time, Garson provides an incredibly unique avant garde flavour, without which the album wouldn’t be the same.

Garson went on to work with Bowie on eight more studio albums, as well as on multiple tours. He even played at the last public performance Bowie ever did. Next month he will be performing at a series of UK dates, in which he will perform Aladdin Sane in its entirety, as well as a second set of Bowie favourites.

PS: You’re known for having a very distinct style. How did you develop this when you started playing?

MG: This question bothered me: ‘Will I ever have my own voice’? I think any true artist gets nervous about that because in the piano there are so many geniuses. From Bach to Beethoven, all through the great pianists in history. Jazz and classical and all of that. The short end of the story is that if we’re true to who we are and we recognise the music as a self-expression, if you just play how you feel and you’ve done your homework with your instrument it should come out all OK. But it doesn’t seem that way when you’re struggling and practicing eight hours a day like I was.

PS: By the time you started work on Aladdin Sane did you feel like this sound was fully developed, or is it something you’re constantly working on?

MG: Yeah, I mean my voice was already developed ten years earlier. It kept improving and now it’s a hundred times more advanced in terms of becoming more myself. But you’re always who you are, so there’s no worries. And hopefully you always keep getting better.

PS: Am I right in thinking that when you came to work on Aladdin Sane you hadn’t heard Bowie’s music before?

MG: I didn’t know who the guy was!

PS: So when you first heard that raw material, did you know straight away that you had something special on your hands?

MG: Within days to weeks I knew he was a genius. I just didn’t know what kind of genius, because it was a different area from where I lived.

PS: Looking back now, how different was Bowie from the kind of stuff you had back home?

MG: 180 degrees. It was comparable brilliance and genius, but it was in his way. So that was a great learning experience for me. I had already played a lot of jazz, and I was starting to get a little bored of repeating older styles of jazz even sort of newer ones. With David I had the broad panorama of all the beautiful songs, the lyrics, the melodies, the performance on stage, the bands that he chose. I think I played with 13 bands with him over the years I was with him. Which was an honour because there wasn’t one bad band. Every musician he ever hired was great, and he would be considered, in my mind, the greatest casting director of all time in a way. Miles Davis was like that too. He knew who to hire.

PS: You’ve been quoted as saying that, “Bowie is the best producer I ever met, because he lets me do my thing.”

MG: It didn’t change. I’m always hoping to see if someone else grants me that. With a direction, but with no micro-managing. I just worked with a producer recently, I won’t say any names, and it wasn’t the same. They can’t shut up. Do this, do that, do this and that. This music is a spiritual thing. It’s magical and he knew that. He let me do my thing. That’s why the products turned out so great. He did it for Carlos Alomar, he did it for Stevie Ray Vaughan, he did it for Earl Slick, he did it for Mick Ronson, he did it for The Spiders, it’s endless. He did it for Donny McCaslin on Blackstar. That’s who he was.

PS: What do you think it was about Bowie that gave him this knack for bringing out the best in the people he was working with?

MG: I think he figured out who he was. When you’re comfortable in your own skin you can allow others to be comfortable in theirs.

PS: It’s a cliche now to describe Bowie as a chameleon. As a long term collaborator, did you ever find it hard to adapt to all his stylistic changes?

MG: No, I loved it and welcomed it because I’m a bigger chameleon than him. The reason I say that is because I delved into fusion, classical, avant garde, pop, rock, all kinds of playing and composing for the 5,500 pieces I’ve written. But because they’re much more esoteric, nobody knows but a few hundred of them. And because most people only know what I did with David. Herbie Hancock‘s a chameleon, and I’m a chameleon, and David was a chameleon. So we blended very well.

PS: When I think of your contribution to Bowies catalogue I think of We Are The Dead as much as something like Aladdin Sane. You add such a great element to that song, right from the opening riff. 

MG: Well, I think I better have to go and listen to that after this interview. I don’t remember!

 PS: He never played it live. He never played Lady Grinning Soul live either. I wonder if he just never found a pianist he could perform those songs with who was quite like you?

MG: I was with him a lot of the time. I played a thousand shows with him. We could have done Lady Grinning Soul, but I think it was too high.

PS: The highest note he ever hit was in that song.

MG: I think so. I have to listen to We Are The Dead after this phone conversation.

PS: It’s one of my all time favourites.

MG: Am I playing the piano on it?

PS: I’ve read that it was the keyboard. But if you don’t know, I can’t claim to know.

MG: It’s definitely me?

PS: That’s what I’ve read. Someone might have been wrong about that.

MG: You know, on Diamond Dogs, it was really most of the time just me and him in the studio. He played a lot of the guitar. So more than likely, it’s me. But I have to go listen.

PS: You had a really consistent run of working with Bowie through the 90s. These albums don’t necessarily get talked about as much as they should. Is there one of these that stands out to you?

MG: The most amazing ones were Outside, number one, Buddha Of Suburbia, number two, Earthling, then Reality probably, then Heathen and Hours. They were all amazing, but Outside was probably the most innovative album in this period. It’s way ahead of its time.

PS: The last thing I wanted talk about is how much I love the Bowie At The Beeb version of Absolute Beginners that you performed on.

MG: That one is stunning.

PS: Absolutely, and it brings something completely new to the song. In relation to that, when you’re performing these Bowie songs on tour do you think it’s important to be faithful to the original or is it better to bring your own interpretation?

MG: I like the second option personally. I think Bowie liked it when I put my own thing into it. He never wanted to stay in a comfort zone. He never asked me to do that once.

PS: That brings us back to what we were saying at the start about Bowie bringing out the best in his performers.

MG: Yeah. If I don’t have a singer who gives me that freedom, I don’t play as well as I’m capable of playing. The sad part here is that no singer has offered me that freedom. So consequently I haven’t played better for anyone else but him. I play well with my own music. Then I play with singers and I’ve had magic moments with many of them, but to date no-one has come close to David.

Mike Garson plays Liverpool’s O2 Academy on Thursday 30th November.

Image from artist’s Facebook page.