SOME WEIRD STRINGS
Kevin Armstrong moved quietly through many artists’ careers. A real studio pro and a live concert specialist, the English guitarist played, wrote and produced music with a string of musicians from Prefab Sprout and Thomas Dolby to Sinead O’Connor and Morrisey, from Iggy Pop to Youssou N’Dour, not to mention Sia and Sarah Jane Morris. Our interest in him is mainly down to his important collaborations with David Bowie: Dancing in the Street, Labyrinth, Tin Machine and 1. Outside… We interviewed him shortly after his performance with Iggy Pop on the stage of the Medimex in Bari, where 80,000 people had gathered to see the wild Iguana. Kevin talkS about David, the live shows, his collaborations and when his sister became an ABSOLUTE BEGINNER…
Just to break the ice. Your first band was called Local Heroes SW9. What was the name referred to?
KA: It was the area of London we were from Stockwell near Brixton in South West London. We had a following there and used to attract a crowd in the local rock pubs and clubs.
You acted in different and exciting musical projects through the years, and collaborated with so many talented artists. But I think that your work, even though really brilliant, is not under a proper and right estimation. People probably should considerate you more. Have you ever thought: “Now, I want all the spotlights on me”?
KA: That’s not really who I am. I’m more suited to being in a supporting role. I like attention and to be recognized, who doesn’t, but it’s not what motivates me at all. If it happens it’s a nice surprise!
Have you ever thought to a solo career?
KA: I thought about being a solo artist when I was very young but I don’t know if it would really suit me. I’m really happy to make music for others. I do still write and record my own songs but I have no ambition to release them really.
You have produced several albums for very different singers. The role of the producer has sensitively changed through the decades, I suppose. How do you combine the heritage of the ‘old school’ with the new technologies?
KA: I’ve used every generation of recording technology as it’s come along and really they don’t matter very much. You can obviously do more with digital technology in terms of production techniques etcetera but, in the end, it’s what you are actually saying with the music that matters, not how it’s made.
Your first collaboration with David was in 1985, at Abbey Road Studios. How was to meet and start to work with such and incredible artist?
KA: I had just left a deal with EMI records and was feeling a little lost but an A&R man from EMI called Hugh Stanley Clarke and recommended me for the job with David. He just called me and said “Go to Abbey Road. Take your guitar. You can thank me later.”
Which is your best, and the worst, memory about Live Aid?
KA: Well, the headrush of going onstage with David in front of that crowd was pretty special. Few things in life feel as wonderful as that moment. I don’t really have a bad memory of that day. Perhaps I should have stayed until the end when everyone sang Feed The World together but I was probably having fun somewhere else!
You collaborated with David for one of his best songs from the ’80s. I’m talking in particular about Absolute Beginners. A marvellous song with some (yours) perfect guitar inserts. I know the backing vocalist was your sister Janet, an ‘absolute beginner’! I’ve always wondered why people never focused on her wonderful performance. Could you please tell me something about her and the recording sessions?
KA: The first session was at Abbey Road where it was just an extra time demo at the end. I helped David finish the song. I didn’t write the song but I helped him with the structure and to realize it was a finished piece. He asked me about a female singer for it and I suggested my sister who was a singer at that time. To my amazement he just said: “OK bring her along!” We recorded the final version at Westside Studios the following weekend. Mick Jagger came and we did also Dancing In The Street at the same session. The band did not know Mick was coming. I was in on the secret but David wanted them to be surprised, which they certainly were.
You were the fifth ghost member of Tin Machine project. How do you consider now, after David’s following career, that musical project? Many fans agree Tin Machine II was more melodic and Bowie oriented, but in general worse.
KA: I had mixed feelings about Tin Machine. Some of it sounds better now than it did back then and it was a genuine experiment for David I think. He did allow Reeves and Hunt and Tony to steer the whole thing. The thing about artistic genius is, it has no fear, and it’s not always a success. In a career like David Bowie’s one can afford to miss the target once or twice.
The song Outside, was written in 1989 (originally entitled Now) and sometimes performed by Tin Machine during their first tour. Five years later it became a really amazing prologue for the album 1. Outside. You played on this track and on Thru These Architects Eyes. Why was your collaboration for this masterpiece only on two tracks?
KA: David came to London to record some things with Brian Eno and just called me to come and play for a few hours as I lived nearby. I had a very busy production career at that time and also ran my own studio so there wasn’t an ongoing rôle for me with him at that time. He just was being kind to me I think. Sort of “Oh I know I’ll phone Kevin to come and play something”. I was nearby and it was a very nice opportunity to become a small part of that album. I have stayed friends with Eno since that time too.
You’ve collaborated with Iggy Pop in studio and especially toured with him, becoming his band leader on guitar and his musical director. When did you meet the Iguana for the first time?
KA: Again because of David Bowie. He wanted me to do the Blah Blah Blah record and I went to Montreux and stayed for a couple of weeks recording at Mountain Studios. My first day with Iggy was spent drinking beer and going out on a very small boat on Lake Geneva. After the record was done Iggy asked me to select musicians for a tour so it just turned into a two year job.
Do you remember some goodies/outtake from the Blah Blah Blah sessions that can be used in future for some anniversary edition?
KA: Actually I don’t think there was any spare stuff from that album. It seemed like David and Iggy had the whole thing planned out as something that could be done quickly and efficiently. There wasn’t a lot of hanging around and experimenting. They had a schedule and I suppose David had other things in his diary so… no time was wasted! Here’s today’s list, let’s do it!
What are the major differences between working with Bowie and Iggy?
KA: Well, you can see they’re very different people but both of them have been very easy to work with musically. Once you share a cultural or musical language and build a personal trust, not much discussion is necessary. Both of them work quickly and all the real magic comes form the very private vision they have. Great artists often make everything seem really simple. My part has been just to do what I do and to hope that there is something they can use.
At the beginning of the 2000s David declared that he felt himself a pioneer, to be still a rocker at his age. What do you think about? My opinion is that musicians like you and Iggy have still a lot to say and, frankly, your generation is really better than the majority of the newer.
KA: I see a lot of new talent that doesn’t cause me to worry about the future too much. Of course music has changed in the way that people relate to it now. It appears that it was more important in our culture a few dacades ago. People were inventing things for the first time. You could argue that David Bowie was really the first person to make being a rockstar in to an adult artform. Or that Iggy defined the limits of rock and roll excess for a generation. But everything ages, and everything changes.
Could you tell us the Iguana’s secret? 70 years old, still alive and bloody kickin’… This is something really supernatural!
KA: He has a special life force. An inner demon that drives him onwards. I agree he’s amazing. A super strong guy inside. Long may he burn!
In June you performed in Bari with Iggy. The set was amazing, with some incredible and unusual songs! Did you have a good time?
KA: Bari was an outstanding night. All of us felt it! A beautiful gig. The Italian crowd gave us a really good energy and the sound was great.
I know you performed several times in our country, also with Sarah Jane Morris for example. Do you like Italy and its audience?
KA: Who can not love Italy? I have played in some of the most beautiful locations in the world there and eaten some of the best food too. I have some lovely Italian friends and will always enjoy visiting Italy.
Your projects for the future?
KA: Right after Iggy finishes the tour this year in Moscow, I’m going to tour with Mike Garson (and Gaby Moreno, Ed.) and perform the entire Aladdin Sane album at some shows in the UK. In the new year I’m doing some work with Thomas Dolby again. I’m also finishing a book about my life in music but I never plan too far ahead and I really enjoy the surprises that come along!
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli and Federico F. Falco