The Rustic Overtones Songs


Sector Z.
Man Without a Mouth.

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.

45 Responses to The Rustic Overtones Songs

  1. howscandinavian says:

    Wow! I never knew about Bowie’s collaboration with these guys. Makes anticipated for the other post-1999 collaborations he’s done. Namely “Province”. That’s probably a while away though.

    • col1234 says:

      that’s a mighty while away! we’ll get to it at some point in 2014, though.

    • leonoutside says:

      Me neither. And I thought I was paying close attention too! What a treat. These tracks are great. Sector especially. Love it. Agree with what someone else wrote – there’s a wonderful vitality in these. Man, Bowie was hard working.

  2. Maj says:

    Well not my cuppa. But props to them!

  3. StevenE says:

    Both these tracks are great I think – shot through with vitality and a real sense of joy.

  4. s.t. says:

    Interesting post, but eek that music! Overtones indeed.

    • AB says:

      How on earth did they make ‘real’ brass sound like a cheap keyboard from 1986?

      As for Bowie’s bit – the ‘radio voice’ twat who won’t STFU utterly ruins it for me.

      • s.t. says:

        Yes, I’m disappointed in Mr. Visconti for yielding such a blob of sonic goop.

        Then again, listening to the band’s other material with real brass on display, I actually prefer the overworked goop! Incubus doing funky ska core is not my idea of a good time. Although you’re right, it would all sound better if the lead singer was indeed the man without a mouth…

  5. SoooTrypticon says:

    I love “Sector Z.” I didn’t know he actually wrote the call and response, I thought he just sang it. The “vitality” on display, as mentioned above, is a wonderful thing. I enjoyed “The Next Day” so much, but I do hope someday Bowie graces us with a couple more “hook” based songs, just so I’ve got something to dance to.

    • StevenE says:

      TND’s title track, at least, is a joy to sing along to. That’s enough to tide me over.

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong, the title track is my favorite thing he’s done since “Slow Burn.” (Although “Informer” is fantastic, and “Rocket Man” is a darn fine jaunt).

        Not to pull this too far from the “Sector Z,” but I’m so happy to see the return of “ice queen” Bowie on TND. Now, I’d just love for him to write a slick album of “doomsday songs.” A more confident “Black Tie White Noise,” or less guitar driven “Earthling.”

  6. Ramzi says:

    Wow, Sector Z really gets into your head.

  7. crayontocrayon says:

    Sector Z is really good fun. I would say its not quite his Ziggy voice, he seemed to come up with a new vocal sound around the time of Buddha of Suburbia, high pitched and cockney and sliding into more croonish vibrato where he would have screamed and ripped his voice in his younger days.

    I love these passion projects that he pops up in from time to time, its surprising how many of them failed to gain much traction in terms of success/exposure.

  8. Roman says:

    I always thought he should have re-recorded Sector Z for his own album. Would’ve been a great Bowie single.

  9. roobin101 says:

    Man Without a Mouth isn’t up to much but Sector Z is great. I couldn’t take a whole album of it but it sounds like the breakout song from an animation film soundtrack, and I mean that in a good way.

  10. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    As mentioned in a much earlier post, before The Next Day, when it looked as if Bowie had retired, I put together 3 or 4 cd’s of every rarity I could get my hands on to cushion the vacuum. They included these songs, but I didn’t know much about their back story, which was pretty interesting, so thanks for that Chris.
    Of the two, I’ve always preferred Sector Z, which is a real stonking little ear-worm that just burrows into one’s head, and pushes all the right Ziggy-memory buttons. Love it.
    Man Without a Mouth is okay, but Bowie’s input is subtle and minimal. And as the post reveals, compared to Sector Z, which was written for Bowie, it sounds a bit like an afterthought because it was.

  11. roobin101 says:

    I suppose if you compare Sector Z to practically anything off ‘Hours…’, made at the same time of course, it makes sense that Bowie would have wanted to change collaborators and the writing set up. There’s nothing on ‘Hours…’ or Earthling to compare to it in terms of vocal melody… which does beg the question, when was Bowie’s last bona fide earworm? There are some good songs on TND, but nothing that strikes as a hummable tune.

    • Sky-possessing Spider says:

      Oh I don’t know. Despite the bleakness of the subject matter, “How Does The Grass Grow” tends to lodge itself into the noggin. I do agree though that if Bowie were to come up with an album with a number of tracks that were as immediate, catchy, simultaneously retro yet modern, and just downright fun as Sector Z, it sure would be a thing to behold. Yes, yes , I know, but I just do really love that song….

    • StevenE says:

      OK SO I might be in a minority in this – but the last song of his which meets this criteria, for me at least – is (She Can) Do That, from the Stealth soundtrack. Can’t recommend the film.

      I love it, catchy as hell, play it loud and annoy my neighbours. It’s like a latter-day Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) for me. I’m looking forward to its eventual entry.

      • StevenE says:

        Oh and God Bless the Girl must count too

      • Sky-possessing Spider says:

        Yes, (She Can) Do That is another one of the very enjoyable songs that features on my compilation cd’s of rarities mentioned previously. And as for playing it loud, well it literally explodes out of the speakers at twice the volume of the songs surrounding it.

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        Agreed on “(She Can) Do That.” It’s not my favorite song, but it certainly doesn’t slog along either. A good pace, and a fun vocal. Maybe a bit too plastic in the production, but fun nonetheless.

      • roobin101 says:

        OK, so the suggestion was a little bit outre, possibly 😉 though I do think Bowie in the 90s used some outstanding instrumentalists as a crutch… sometimes. I am looking forward to Heathen (and not listening to any tracks on youtube so they can be a surprise to me).

    • Ididtheziggy says:

      You Will Set The World on Fire gets stuck in my head often

    • Sykirobme says:

      “Days” from Reality gets into my head all the time. The lyrics border on banal, but the melody is simple and lovely.

      “Valentines Day” and the hummed bit from “Stars” off TND also bubble up in my consciousness quite often.

  12. Mike F says:

    Never heard anything about this before. “Sector Z” is enjoyable. It’s nice to hear Bowie sounding good and having fun for a change. It probably helped that he didn’t have the pressure of making a David Bowie record. Too bad some of this fun quality didn’t spill over into “Heathen.”

    Another nice element here are the strings which I assume were arranged by Visconti. It must have been very low budget because it sounds like a couple of violins rather than a proper string section.

    “Man Without A Mouth” seemed like the longest four minutes of my life.

    • francis says:

      Saw RO play “Without a Mouth” live at George Street Underground in Fredericksburg — 2001. I still remember it. Shook me. Definitely better than the recorded version, which drones on a bit too much, fizzing all the energy away.

  13. fluxkit says:

    This entry helps to explain the situation for me. When I saw this cd come up on searches for Bowie, I didn’t understand it. I listened to samples and really couldn’t understand why Bowie was working with these guys, the style just didn’t fit to me at all and I couldn’t guess how they managed to book him for a guest slot. So, understanding Visconti was the go-between helps.

  14. J. Ward says:

    Thank you for documenting this–I play baritone sax in Rustic Overtones. I remember when we tracked strings, and that is indeed a Visconti arrangement. He also arranged strings for a version of our song Hardest Way Possible. There were two violins and a cello, Visconti triple-tracked them in the mix. I transcribed these arrangements for him and kept shaking my head on how brilliant they were. As much as it was a privilege to work with Bowie, it was an equal treat to learn from a giant like Tony Visconti.

    Years later when I returned to music school, I took an orchestration class and wrote to Tony to get some pointers. For what it’s worth, he said we were his most favorite band to work for, ever. The pleasure was all ours.

  15. Mike F says:

    @J Ward – Thanks for confirming the Visconti string arrangement. He used to do fantastic arrangements for Marc Bolan. It’s a shame that Bowie didn’t make more use of that aspect of Tony’s talents.

    • J. Ward says:

      Yes. They were pretty amazing. And let’s not forget the orchestral flourish of Band On The Run. All Visconti!

      • Mike F says:

        Tony did a concert in New York called the T.V. Show where he played with young bands he produced. They played a mixture of originals and Bowie/Bolan covers. Tony played bass.

        He told brief anecdotes in between songs. His only negative comment of the night was that McCartney didn’t give him proper credit for his arrangements on a Wings album. I can’t remember which album, quite possibly Band on the Run.

      • J. Ward says:

        Yeah, it was Band On The Run. Tony told me that they gave him credit on the reissue.

      • Mike F says:

        Thanks J Ward. Macca makes good! Cool.

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  17. Nice job of unearthing. Man Without A Mouth is OK but not great – however, Bowie’s little vocal arrangement is quite nice and inventive. Really improved the song!

  18. Alex Reed says:

    I really like this entry. So, so much affection for those guys who were clearly in over their heads on all sides. And yes, Sector Z may be a throwaway ultimately, but it has absolutely everything Hours lacked. It is weird and fun. Charming summer music for a winter day.

  19. Your comparison to Dave Matthews Band stuck with me, and I can’t shake the thought that “Sector Z” would really cook with a different drum arrangement – a flashier, busier groove a la DMB’s Carter Beauford or the Spin Doctors. It feels like it wants to be there, and is halfway there already, but lies a bit flat.

  20. billter says:

    FYI the link to “Sector Z” in this post is no longer functional.

  21. leonoutside says:

    Echo of Blackstar in Man Without a Mouth. Similar elements.

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