“The overriding feature of the ’90s was working with bands that few people had heard of,” Tony Visconti recalled in his autobiography. In 1989, he sold his Good Earth Studios (where Bowie had cut some of Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters) to “a jingle company” and, after two decades in London, Visconti moved home to New York. “It was the end of my era. Young dance producers were making entire records on Akai 900 samplers and record companies loved this trend, if only for financial reasons. Rock was dead; or rather, record companies were attempting to murder it.”
A bit ironically, as he was now based in New York,* Visconti now worked with a heap of British and European artists: Phillip Boa, Annie Haslam, Louis Bertignac, Marc Lavoine, John Squire’s Seahorses. He also produced records for a few American indie bands swept up by the majors: the Dwellers, D Generation (during whose sessions Bowie called to break the ice with Visconti, after 14 years of silence) and Portland, Maine’s Rustic Overtones.
The Rustic Overtones were signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis in 1998. They’d come up DIY in the early Nineties—playing hundreds of shows across the Northeast, producing and promoting their CDs to an at-times obtuse local media and helping to grow a music scene in Portland, Maine, a town not especially known for its sound (no dig at Portland, a fine place).
Davis saw the band, with their three-man saxophone and trombone section and their funk/ska leanings, as being Arista’s response to RCA’s Dave Matthews Band, Atlantic’s Sugar Ray and Interscope’s Smash Mouth. The band had other ideas. At their “coming out” performance at an Arista party in 1999, attended by the likes of P. Diddy, the band ignored Davis’ song requests and instead played the most feedback- and distortion-heavy songs in their repertoire.
Upon signing with Arista, the band was given a list of possible producers and quickly settled on Visconti. Recording in the spring of 1999 at Avatar Studios (the former Power Station) in midtown New York, the band felt like “the Beverly Hillbillies,” lead singer Dave Gutter told me. Their one indulgence was to have a ping-pong table brought in the studio. As the sessions went on, Visconti kept saying Bowie would love their sound. (The intro of their “Hardest Way Possible” had called back to “Young Americans.”) This became a running joke, with the band pranking Visconti about Bowie showing up to jam. Gutter would announce himself as Bowie at the door buzzer and once carried on a five-minute phone conversation with Visconti as Bowie, with “a really bad British accent.”
The band didn’t know that Visconti and Bowie had renewed their friendship and were now regularly e-mailing, and that Visconti actually had invited Bowie to the sessions. So one day when the Overtones were messing around in the studio, each player on a “wrong” instrument (Gutter, who played guitar, was thumping on a bass), Bowie walked in. “We freaked out,” Gutter said. The rules changed. For one thing, Bowie smoked everywhere, despite the “no smoking” signs at Avatar. The band had been on good behavior but now they were almost running after Bowie, frantically lighting up in his nicotine wake. (Gutter mailed a few of Bowie’s cigarette butts home to his mother.)
With Bowie up for singing on a track, the Overtones developed a piece called “Sector Z” for him. The song naturally involved extraterrestrials. “In the smoky clubs you won’t need oxygen/and you won’t need laser guns,” Gutter offers in the verse, with Bowie commandeering the refrains as an alien broadcaster. Bowie came up with the refrain’s call-and-response structure, alternating his spoken asides with some gorgeously-sung phrases “in his Ziggy voice,” as Visconti later recalled, and swathed them in a set of harmony tracks. (So the Bowie voice you hear in “Sector Z” could be similar to the scrapped “Safe In This Sky Life,” another alleged Ziggy-style vocal cut the prior year.)
“Sector Z” sounded like Bowie was having a blast: there’s a fizzy exuberance in the track that’s a world away from ‘Hours,‘ the album he was finishing at the time. Bowie would turn up five or six times during the sessions and the band was taken by his irreverence and honed self-deprecation. “Oh, that was shit,” Bowie would say upon hearing one of his (usually perfect) vocals played back. Gutter was on Bowie’s email list for a time; Bowie would bombard him with links to the most bizarre video clips imaginable.
Bowie’s work with the Rustic Overtones is a testament to his “professional fan” side: he didn’t charge the band for his time and he would hype them on BowieNet as one of his favorite groups. And when the Overtones went to Looking Glass Studios in July 1999 for Bowie’s vocal overdubs, Bowie mentioned that there was another song on the roughs that he thought he could do something with, and would they mind?
Unlike “Sector Z,” “Man Without a Mouth” wasn’t intended for him, so Bowie had to worm his way into the song, tracking a series of wordless harmony vocals. He worked with his usual economy: he sang his main vocal in one go, then triple-tracked his lines, finishing all of it in about 20 minutes.
Variations on what happened to the Rustic Overtones played out for dozens of other bands caught up in the post-Napster implosion of the music industry. (“It was when the wall fell down,” Gutter recalls). Their album, provisionally titled This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll, was set for an early 2000 release until the ouster of Davis and his allies left the band without an advocate. The album soon got yanked from Arista’s release schedule, and after a year in limbo, the band was able to escape Arista with their masters. They cut some new tracks, though nine of the Visconti tracks (and naturally, the two Bowie songs) would remain on Viva Nueva, the album finally issued by Tommy Boy in the summer of 2001. The strain had taken its toll on the band, though: they broke up a year later.
They’ve been reunited since 2007 (“once the coast was clear,” Gutter said) and are happy to be indie again. Visconti is the last outside producer the band used, as they took their time with him as a tutorial (“we learned so much from him—all of these tricks he had”). Gutter said that when starting out as a band in the early Nineties, the game was to hustle to get a major-label deal, that self-producing CDs was taken as a sign that you couldn’t cut it. Now seemingly everyone (including Bowie himself) is a self-publisher of sorts.
So hats off to a Maine rock band who can be listed in the same sentence as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Placebo, Lulu, Scarlett Johansson and Arcade Fire. Gutter’s only regret from his time with Bowie concerns the ping-pong table at Avatar. The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed. “We totally should have asked Bowie to play!” he says.
Recorded ca. May 1999, Avatar Studios; July 1999 (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, New York. First released on Viva Nueva, 5 June 2001.
I’m very grateful for Dave Gutter for his time and stories. Please visit the Rustic Overtones’ site for more information about them. Dave has a request: if anyone recalls (& finds) the BowieNet journal entry, ca. 2000, where DB talks up the Rustic Overtones, please send along a link (I haven’t found it yet).
* A pointless personal anecdote: Visconti and I were neighbors in the Nineties. According to his autobio, he lived and worked in an apartment at 90th St. and 3rd Ave.; I lived at 83rd St. and 1st for most of the decade. I likely saw him on the street a few times without knowing it. Did I ever see DB & not realize it? There’s a question.
Top: Holger Engelhard, “London, 2000”; Visconti and the Rustic Overtones clowning at Avatar Studios, 1999 (Billboard); Viva Nueva.