A top-level session man, but also a composer and one of the most eclectic bass players, one who has been playing many different music styles. The musician was born in Massachusetts; after he gained extensive experience working with an impressive number of great artists in California and New York, he contributed to David Bowie’s Blackstar album, helping in making that Star shine. Tim is currently a very busy member of the Tedeschi Truck Band, and in a break from their many live performances has answered some questions from New York. He speaks of Donny McCaslin’s new project (in which he participated), but above all of what working with David meant to him. In our interview, Lefebvre analyzes some characteristics of the songs in Bowie’s last masterpiece, and tells us something about the unreleased songs coming out in these days. Moreover, Tim has something to say also about what lies hidden in some drawer… David’s Blackstar keeps surprising us!
Mr. Lefebvre, throughout your career you have worked with many prominent artists: are there any special ancdotes about David and his working method that have hit you and made him different from other musicians you met before?
TL: His intellectual brilliance and sense of humor. Also, he was a living legend, so it made it a bit of a different experience than some other projects I had been involved with. For all the musicians involved in Blackstar, really.
David will always be remembered for his being a completely unconventional musician: I’m not a Jazz expert, but I think that also you ‘Blackstar musicians’ are so. Is that why you collaborated with him? Is there a particular idea or vision that unites you with him?
TL: Well, it was all David’s idea to hire this particular band! It happened to be a magic combination of musicians bringing the songs to life in perhaps a different way than has been done on his records before.
You’ve been David’s last band, and your Blackstar has already inevitably become one of the essential Bowie albums: can you tell us something about the evolution of this project, from spring 2014 to its conclusion? How much did it change during the developement phase?
TL: It was only different because the core guys had only been involved in the basic tracking sessions….the final product blew our minds, with how David had re-sung the songs and how Tony had processed the elements to give Blackstar its final form.
Blackstar is an incredible song, we fans were speechlessed when it was released on Youtube: the lyrics, the music and the video… a truly masterpiece! In your opinion, what are the meanings of the song and the black-star symbol? Are they a metaphore of David’s incumbent death or, like in his most relevant works, are there other hidden meanings?
TL: I’ve never been really sure of the meaning of that song. I think the middle section (“something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a metre and stepped aside”) has some dying and resurrection stuff in there. And some sarcasm too. But that’s all I have been able to grasp for myself, personally.
Near the end of 1975 David recorded Staton to Station. We think there are several connections between it and Blackstar, from the same structure of the two albums (few songs than usual for a Bowie album, a ten minutes long opening track…) to some ‘spiritual’ in the lyrics, until some overt recalls in the Lazarus video. What you think about?
TL: I don’t know Station To Station well enough to say, but I think Blackstar is overall a more world-weary, dark album.
After 40 years David reprised the character of Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell To Earth, by Nicholas Roeg, and the 2015’s projects (album and musical) are deeply connected to that movie through the song Lazarus. Do you know by chance when the project of the musical Lazarus was born, and how much David may have modified it over the time?
TL: All I know is that my friend and musical compatriot Henry Hey (an American keyboard player, composer, songwriter and arranger, he also played the piano on The Next Day, NdR) had a big hand in arranging the songs for Lazarus the musical. They were working on it between the Blackstar sessions. it seems to go down the same way on the cast record as it does on the Blackstar version.
Every time I listen to the incipit of Lazarus I can not help thinking The Cure, even though David has composed an incredible song. How much were you influenced by that band?
TL: I simply improvised an outro on the first take that we arranged into the final take which you hear in its final form on the record. I was kind of coming more from a Fink (a UK band) place, but… yeah, it traces back to The Cure and New Order, bands that did influence me.
In addition to Lazarus there are other three songs written for the stage play and recorded with you: they are No Plan, Killing a Little Time and When I Met You, and they will be released next October 21th in the soundtrack of the musical Lazarus. What can you tell us about these songs? Has David excluded them from Blackstar for some particular reason?
TL: I am not sure, and I have not heard the final versions that will come out soon. I’m sure that it had to do with thematic continuity.
Sue (or In a Season of Crime) was already been recorded by David in 2014, with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and I remember an interview in which is said that he recorded two different versions of this song, during the Blackstar sessions with you: did he feel particularly fond to this song? Is that his last great tribute to Scott Walker’s music?
TL: Yes, there is a version done by the Maria Schneider Orchestra that is more “jazzy” (absolutely gorgeous) and then out version which is more aggressive and avant garde. I’m not familiar enough with Scott Walker to comment on that.
Girl Loves Me is the oddest track of the album: in addition to the use of the languages Polari and Nadsat, the lyrics contain refrences to A Clockwork Orange and 1984. Together with Dollar Days (vaguely reminiscent of Sweet Thing, in the music) it reminds me some of the Diamond Dogs’ atmospheres, is it possible?
TL: Agree! Plus on Dollar Days, the 12 string guitar gives the track that vintage Bowie flavor. The way he sang and the way Tony effected the voice is also reminiscent of vintage Bowie. I think Girl Loves Me is as modern as it is vintage. The beat is so heavy and almost urban sounding.
We have heard both the demo and the finished version of ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, and seeing the song’s evolution was very interesting. In the Blackstar version David has an incredible voice, that almost seems to duel with Donny McCaslin’s sax. It almost seems also a live performance! What do you particularly remember about the recording of this song?
TL: It was pretty much live from the drums and bass, as was most of the record. David yelling toward the end of the track was extremely memorable…he was getting caught up in the moment!!
I Can’t Give Everything Away closes the album and it’s a real farewell, but at the same time it’s also a hint to a possible new beginning, with the harmonica that openly quotes A New Career in a New Town from Low. It’s a key song: how was working on it?
TL: I remember using my 77 Fender Precision on it with the Octabvre pedal. I didn’t have the bass i really wanted to use on that track with me so i had to make do with that bass, i think it worked. The vibe was powerful before David even did the final vocals… we were all in the control room saying to ourselves how heavy this track was and were wondering what it all meant. Really heavy.
Was there a particularly experimental moment during the recording phase of Blackstar? Something that made you think: “I’ve never done this before!”
TL: I think I had done most the things that occurred on this record with other bands etc, but knowing how many people would hear what this band has been up to for years was truly mind-blowing! And even greater than that was the gift of David allowing us and encouraging us to go to those places.
You said that before to collaborate with him, Bowie listened to you at 55 Bar in NYC, but you had some technical problems. I think perfection is not so important and maybe David was attracted by ‘the heart’ of your band. It sounds in Blackstar too. Even David’s voice in the album has some imperfections, but the final result is magnificent. A lot of improvisation and first takes?
TL: A lot of second takes, actually. Those were the ones David told us to be more daring on. Personally, the most improvisation took place on the Blackstar track. I really stretched out on that, especially the middle part and outdo.
From various interviews we know that, during the Blackstar recording sessions, were recorded about 16 tracks. That leaves 5 or 6 new songs, and song titles like Somewhere and Wistful are rumored around. Can you describe us some of these tracks?
TL: Somewhere took us a while to get the vibe right (if we even did). It is a guitar-heavy, odd-sounding track that we worked hard to cop, but it always sounded different than the demo, which we all flipped out about. Wistful was a nice slower song with funky changes, not sure why it didn’t make the cut!
Next October 14th will be released Beyond Now, the new Donny McCaslin quartet’s album, for wich you have recorded two Bowie covers (Warszawa and A Small Plot of Land) and composed a song inspired by one of his unheard tracks. Do you want to say something about this project? Is there a sort of artistic legacy that this great collaboration with David Bowie has left to you?
TL: It’s an incredible group of musicians in Donny’s band. They make me reach higher all the time. Fierce improvisers, too. The legacy David left for me is to be more daring in the music i am involved with; as he was so daring and brave on his final recording.
Interview conceived by Matteo Tonolli with Luca Maffei, conducted by Matteo Tonolli
[Thanks to Rachele and Gail!]