AN INTERVIEW WITH EARL SLICK
By David Iozzia
Davesontour.com had the pleasure recently of interviewing guitarist/solo artist Earl Slick. When I caught up with Earl, he was kicking back at home in the mountains of New York State, hanging out with his dogs and working on his next solo record. Earl has recorded with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Ian Hunter. He is also David Bowies lead guitarist, so of course I had to ask Earl about Bowies future plans. The interviewer in me couldnt squeeze out much information on that topic, but the detective in me will keep snooping around. Somethings about to happen in David Bowies camp so stop by davesontour.com again for the latest information and any breaking news.
Dave: Thanks for letting me conduct this interview Earl. I have a 30-year span of questions, so Ill jump around a bit chronologically. Lets start off in summer 2006. I know you have a few sneak peeks of sound clips we can listen to at your website from the solo record youre working on. In your words, describe its musical direction and the musical statement youre hoping to make.
EARL: Actually, those tracks were written for a friend of mine whose company places original music for sporting events. I thought of using them when I was starting the next record but I couldnt decide, and still havent decided, on the musical direction that I would take.
Dave: How far along in the writing/recording process are you and when do you think it will be released?
EARL: With the music direction still undecided, Id have to say that the process is going very slowly. I have no timetable for its release, but Id hope by the end of 2006. I usually like to go into the studio with a direction in mind, giving it the space to develop as time goes on. With this record, I want to do something a lot different than Ive ever done before. Im writing and playing with some different people, so it wont get done until I hit upon something good. Ive got hundreds of songs started on my computer, and I just need to find somebody to help me finish them. I could establish a whole album out of what I already have and be happy, but Im still searching.
Dave: Staying in 2006 for a moment, whats the latest with David Bowie? Should his fans expect a new record and tour in 2006?
EARL: I have some preliminary information, but if I give it out David will be mad at me. By no means is he retiring. There are things in the works that I just cant talk about. David Bowie doesnt like other people speaking for him. Hes so up on things that hell find and read this interview.
Dave: When I walked into Roseland in New York City for the David Bowie Fan Club concert on the day his Heathen record was released, I had no idea who was in Davids band. I was thrilled seeing you standing onstage and back where you belong. Are you playing guitar on David Bowies next tour and record?
EARL: Yes, Im the lead guitarist in Davids band for the next record and tour.
Dave: Lets jump back to 2003 when you released your solo record Zig Zag. Thats a real good record with some great guitar work and a very different approach. Originally, it was supposed to be instrumental. Then, you changed direction by bringing in guest vocalists and letting them write their own song lyrics. How did that idea come about?
EARL: Like I said before, Im really loose when I enter the studio but things can change. What I did stick to with Zig Zag is that I wanted it to be a mellow album. My next album wont be. With Zig Zag, I didnt want to be locked into a guitar-solo type of record. That was in the forefront of my thought process. If Im writing something together with another musician, I automatically go in the direction of letting them write the lyrics. I dont sing and Im not a helluva lyricist. I leave it up to the guy who does it the best, and I give him the space to do it. When David Bowie wants to do a track on your album (Isnt It Evening), you dont hand him a finished song. Or Joe Elliot or Robert Smith either.
Dave: Talk a little about a couple of the songs from Zig Zag and their guest vocalists: The Cures Robert Smith on Believe and Def Leppards Joe Elliot on Psycho Twang.
EARL: Robert Smith and I had never met, but we were fans of each other. My producer on Zig Zag had a track of me playing all of the guitars on a cover of The Cures A Forest. It was for a soundtrack that was never used. When Robert heard it, he offered to do the track on my record. The Joe Elliot thing also came about organically after a friend of mine sent him some rough tracks, and he asked if he could sing a song on my record. When Joe and I got together in 2002 during the Heathen tour, he told me a story and showed me some pictures that I didnt remember. Back in the day, he and a friend snuck backstage at a Bowie concert in England and I let them hang out with me. Thats how we first met.
Dave: You released an instrumental guitar album in 1992 called In Your Face. It featured guest musicians like Edgar Winter and drummer Terry Bozzio as you powered your way through songs like Jimi Hendrixs Manic Depression. Sometimes I hear a Link Wray influence in your guitar playing, sometimes Hendrix, and other times the bluesy Yardbirds guitarists. But what do I know. Who were you influences as a guitarist?
EARL: My main influences are Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. I listened to a lot of Link Wray so you hit that one right on the head. Im sure you can hear Hendrix on occasion.
Dave: I dont know if you ever find the time to grab a bunch of guys and do solo gigs. Hypothetically speaking, pick another guitarist and a rhythm section that youve never played with and form your dream band.
EARL: Keith Richards and me on guitar, Ronnie Wood on bass, Terry Reid on vocals, and Keith Moon on drums.
Dave: Lets go back in time to the mid-70s. David Bowie splits up the Spiders From Mars after Diamond Dogs is released. You were an unknown guitarist brought in to replace Mick Ronson for the tour. Ive heard your critics say that you were only copying guitar parts previously written by Bowie and Ronson. What I hear on the subsequent David Live record is an extremely versatile guitarist who was able to expand upon and put his own stamp on Bowies material. Your guitar playing spoke for itself and that is one of the best rock guitar albums in my collection. How did you verbally respond to that type of criticism?
EARL: From a human nature point of view, that kind of criticism could only have come from two types of journalists: hardcore Mick Ronson fans or journalists who werent familiar with the tour and subsequent album. They took a shortcut, figuring all I would do is emulate, and thats what they wrote. I dont respond to that type of criticism because its so subjective.
Dave: Im sure the same critics said you were copying Stevie Ray Vaughn when you replaced him for the Serious Moonlight tour. Watching you play live on the last couple of tours, your take on the material is very natural and spontaneous, with great feeling, and never do I think its calculated. Is it safe to say that trying to emulate Mick Ronson on one song, Stevie Ray on the next, and Robert Fripp or Adrian Belew on the next would be extremely uncomfortable and awkward to you as a guitarist?
EARL: Youd hear it and Id sound very uncomfortable if I was just trying to be them. There are some songs in the big inventory of material that we cover where I play some of Micks lines. But not his solos. Those lines are just so good that I had to use them. Plus, I was in the right headspace when we started playing those songs again so it doesnt sound uncomfortable. If I tried the Stevie Ray Vaughn thing on Lets Dance it would sound ridiculous. Stevie was a hardcore blues guitarist and that was never me. Mick Ronson and me are from the same school so I could emulate him a lot easier.
Dave: Before you re-surfaced with David Bowie for Heathen, you were pretty much off the map for a few years. Why? Was it the constant criticism, the changing music business and different musical direction of the 90s, your changes in lifestyle, or a little of everything?
EARL: In all honesty it was a combination of many things, including the fact that I got burned out. I fell into a period in the 90s where every project I was working on turned out to be not the right project. But I was doing them anyway trying to keep busy. I was booking clubs based upon my past and using my name to get the gigs. I started not feeling good about that, to the point it depressed me, and I didnt want to do it anymore. So I got out. I needed to be creative and I couldnt when booking clubs in the tri-state area as Earl Slick-former Bowie guitarist. I hit that bump artistically and there were other things going on so I decided to get out for a while. I knew I wanted to come back in one day with a fresher take on things. To answer your question completely, the music business of the 90s had nothing to do with it, but the changes in guitar styles of the late 80s didnt help. It got extremely calculated and technically driven, which I didnt do, so I fell out of fashion.
Dave: Shortly after Heathen was released, David Bowie announced his New York City Marathon, where he played five shows in the five boroughs of New York City. My younger brother had the task of getting us tickets and I drilled into his thick skull two words: Staten Island. For once in his life he listened to me, and we saw David Bowie in a 300-seat theater. Despite driving through monsoon rains to get there, that show in an intimate venue was a once-in-a-lifetime musical event. Share a personal memory from one of the other four shows.
EARL: The show in the Bronx at a nightclub called Jimmys was really cool. I loved it because it brought us back to a point in time where we played in clubs. Playing in small theaters doesnt re-create the club atmosphere, but it does have its own merits, like you experienced at the Staten Island gig.
Dave: That show on Staten Island was attended by 300 people, and as David Bowie joked that night, more than half of them were your friends. I sat one row away from the late Frankie LaRocka. I knew him as the ex-drummer from the David Johansen Group, others knew him as a record company executive, but you knew him as a friend. Honor his memory and tell me how Frankie contributed to your Zig Zag record and how he affected your life?
EARL: When Frankie got on something, he stayed with it. He thought Zig Zag was a good idea, and he put together my record deal for me. He was good, positive energy to be around. Ive known him since high school and we re-connected in the 90s. He was irreverent as hell, extremely funny, and he worked a room pretty well.
Dave: David Bowie has been called a chameleon and its a fitting title. He re-invents himself and his musical direction every couple of years. Weve seen him as a hippie, as Ziggy Stardust and as the Thin White Duke. Weve heard him play glam, Philly soul, funk, techno-pop, industrial, and many more styles of music. Instead of asking what your favorite Bowie song or album is, Ill ask what is your favorite re-incarnation of David Bowie?
EARL: My favorite version is the one from the Reality tour. The whole package was perfect. It had the right amount of staging, and it wasnt too elaborate. The set list was perfect and Davids voice was great. The venues were big enough, yet small enough that we could connect with the fans.
Dave: What musical direction would you like to see him take music fans on next?
EARL: Its hard to say. The exciting thing about working with David is that when you get called in to do the record, you cant wait to see what the hell hes going to do next. No matter what he does, Im going to dig it and draw inspiration from it.
Dave: Im a big fan of Iggy Pop, but I missed the U.S. tour where David Bowie joined him as a keyboard player. Did you attend any of those shows and if so, what did I miss?
EARL: No, I missed that tour also.
Dave: You did two albums with a group called Phantom, Rocker, and Slick. That, of course, was you joining ex-Stray Cats Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom. Was it the same format with Lee playing a stand-up bass and Slim Jim standing behind a small drum kit?
EARL: No. Lee played electric bass and Slim Jim was sitting. But during the encore, Jim would stand up and Lee would drag out the stand-up bass for a few songs.
Dave: Was that job based upon opportunity and a record deal, or was it more about your love of rockabilly?
EARL: I met those guys at a N.A.M.M. show and we started talking. They were recording with another guitarist and they werent happy with it. When they asked me to work with them I told them that I couldnt do rockabilly convincingly. After they assured me it was different, we booked a rehearsal space and started kicking things around.
Dave: Another rock superstar you worked with was Ian Hunter. David Bowie had produced his band, Mott The Hoople, and Mick Ronson joined Mott after leaving Bowies band. Mick continued on with Ian for a few solo albums. When you played on Ian Hunters Overnight Angels, was that technically the second time that you stepped into the big shoes of trying to replace Mick Ronson?
EARL: Yes, that would have been the second time now that I think about it.
Dave: I saw Ian Hunter in concert not too long ago and he had a big picture of Mick Ronson leaning against the drum kit while his band played the song Michael Picasso. Ian commented that his presence is felt every night up on stage. Do you share similar sentiments for musicians youve shared the stage or studio with who have passed away?
EARL: No, not really. Dont get me wrong, I deeply regret the death of John Lennon, but to answer your question honestly, I do not feel his presence onstage when Im performing. Maybe if I were playing a concert with Yoko this would be different.
Dave: After working with so many superstars, you know Id have to bring up an obscure musician to keep things balanced. You played guitar on the one-hit-wonder by Tonio K., The Funky Western Civilization.
EARL: Tonio K. is one of the funniest guys youll ever meet. Hes a brilliant songwriter and hes had a hand in writing hit songs for other people. He has a political/humoristic outlook on life, which he turns into a lyric. I love the guy.
Dave: Following your first stint with Bowie, you joined John Lennon in the studio during the summer of 1980 playing guitar for his Double Fantasy tour. How demanding was John as a producer?
EARL: Like David Bowie, John Lennon was very inspiring. He managed to bring out the best in all of the musicians. The sessions were almost self-propelled. John and the band would run through the songs, wed play them, and Jack Douglas did what he had to do in the control room. John was very easy going and every single idea that he had was right on the money. He was not heavy-handed as a producer. Most of the time hed leave it up to us to see what we could come up with. Once in a while, hed propose a guitar line to me and hed ask me to see what it sounded like. From my experiences, guys like Lennon and Bowie, whod appear to be heavy-handed perfectionists, are totally opposite. They assemble a hand-picked group of guys, letting the band do what they do best, and then as producers they retrieve the gems out of the mix. It was never about doing 20 takes, perfection, or doing things to the letter. It was about doing what you do and really working the song. John, as well as D.B., made you an equal of them with the mindset that were all members of the same band. I think creativity flows more in that type of structure than one where every note is pre-conceived.
Dave: Double Fantasy was released in November of 1980 and a month later John was dead. Was John planning to tour supporting that record and were you going to be in his band as lead guitarist?
EARL: Yes, the same band from the studio session was going out on the road to tour supporting Double Fantasy.
Dave: You were a Beatles fan and if John toured Im sure he would have played a few Beatles songs. Name a song or two that you would have encouraged John to add to his set list. Why?
EARL: Happiness is a Warm Gun and Cry Baby Cry because they are two of my favorite Beatles songs.
Dave: Ive read where you named David Bowie and John Lennon two of your heroes. Where you still star-struck being in his company, or did your years working with David Bowie kill all the butterflies that would have been flying around in your stomach?
EARL: I was so excited when I first went into the studio. John was such a human guy and he automatically made you feel at ease. No butterflies, but I did sit there on certain days looking around and think to myself, Holy shit, thats John Lennon singing and Im playing guitar. That usually happened right in the middle of a take.
Dave: Everybody remembers where they were when they heard the tragic news of Johns murder. I heard it while watching Monday Night Football at home. Where were you, howd you hear about it, and can you describe the emotions that you felt that fateful evening?
EARL: I was home in Los Angeles where I was living at the time. I took a phone call from a friend in New York City who said it was on the news. I had the television on but there must have been some type of delay reporting the news. Two minutes later it came on and my emotions were that of total shock.
Dave: Shortly after Johns death, Yoko Ono was in the studio recording the album Seasons of Glass, which was filled with grief and emotion. You played guitar on that record. Was that the most difficult record you ever worked on, recording with a woman recently widowed who was mourning and writing about the death of her husband?
EARL: No, not really. My mindset going in was my normal one going into the studio for any project. Obviously it was an emotional time and President Reagan was shot part way through the sessions. We took off a few days because that rattled everybody. Plus, it was just a few months since Johns murder and it rekindled things. Its been some time now and I really dont remember Yoko Onos mindset in the studio, but obviously her grief and sorrow were reflected in the finished material.
Dave: Is there one song lyric, written by either David Bowie or John Lennon, that sums up the life and the many roads traveled by Earl Slick?
EARL: I dont remember if this was one of Johns lyrics or whether he got it from somewhere else: Life is what happens to you while youre making other plans.
Dave: If you unplugged all of your guitars tonight and never played again, do you lie down to sleep that night feeling that youve accomplished everything musically that you wanted to do? Or, is there one or two things that youve yet to accomplish that keeps you going to keep those guitars plugged in for a while?
EARL: No, theyre gonna stay plugged in because theres still a lot of shit that I want to do. I want to continue touring, preferably with David Bowie, and I want to make more solo records. I want to produce some bands. Id love to do some collaborations with people I like. Im dying to get some music in a film, especially after being handed the film and told to let loose musically. Im not nearly to the point where Im bored or ready to unplug my guitars for good. In the music business, if this truly is your lifestyle and its what you want to do, the X factor of not knowing what comes next, good or bad, is what keeps you going. I once did a record with Whitesnakes David Coverdale, and he tracked me down through an old website that I planned to shut down a month later. Not knowing whats next and where it will come from is what makes this business so good, as well as so damned ugly!
Dave: Id like to thank you again for letting me conduct this interview. Feel free to add some closing comments or to promote anything that Ive neglected to cover.
EARL: Ive always liked to produce and I found a New York City group called Zero Bridge. I produced some demos and were trying to get them a record deal. Other than that, I take life as it comes. I hope all of my fans stay tuned for whatever comes next.
Full Name: Earl Slick
Myspace page: www.myspace.com/earlslick
Birthday: October 1
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York
Hobbies: spending time with my dogs, re-designing and
remodeling my house
Favorite food: Vietnamese
Favorite beverage: China Cola
Favorite rock band: Rolling Stones
Favorite rock song: that changes all the time
First album ever purchased: Meet The Beatles
Last CD purchased: The Moves Message From The Country
Favorite U.S. city to visit: New York City
Favorite venue to play: Madison Square Garden