I learned of David Bowie’s passing as I was walking on stage at The Smell in Los Angeles. I was performing with my old band The Dead Science at a benefit for the wife of a friend of the band who had recently passed away. Playing that night was incredibly strange. I could see the news spread through the venue while we played; one side of me found comfort in being with people, playing music, and the other side of me felt like putting down my bass and just giving up. I had never experienced that feeling of resignation before. Music has always been there for me, so that sensation emphasized just how deeply I was affected.
I am not a lifelong Bowie fan. I had only become intimate with his music in the past five years. Recently, I arranged “Life On Mars” for eight tubas to celebrate St. Ann’s Warehouse’s grand reopening. Breaking down that song and really dissecting it gave me an even deeper appreciation for his genius. I love when a song sounds natural on the surface, but when you look closer, you find all these amazing things happening: crazy chord changes, a missing bar here and there – things that, when you sit down to play it, it’s much more complicated than it first seemed. I fell deeper in love.
The day after he passed, Amanda Palmer and I were talking on the phone and kind of jokingly said, “we should do a Bowie string quartet tribute.” As the conversation continued, the joking slowly became plan-making. It just felt right. The thought of digging in to his songs, dissecting each one, and then making my own versions felt like a lovely way for me to honor him. We decided to do an EP strictly with string quartet and voice, and gave ourselves two weeks to get everything done.
It was an insane two weeks! I only had a day to arrange each song. I was literally printing music out five minutes before walking out the door to record the string quartet. I reached out to my friend, Serena McKinney, a fabulous violinist, and she put together one of the best quartets I have ever heard in my life (Serena McKinney on violin, Alyssa Park on violin, Ben Ullery on viola, and Jacob Braun on cello). We recorded in a fantastic studio in LA, and everyone was SO GOOD we finished recording in 3 1/2 hours! The whole thing! So insane!
Afterward, I sent the tracks to Amanda who was in Santa Fe, and the next day she recorded her vocals in a studio there. Then, we enlisted the lovely Anna Calvi to duet on “Blackstar,” and she recorded her vocals in a studio in London. I also wanted a solo on that tune, so Anna’s killer guitar playing was the perfect solution. She rocked it! We also got John Cameron Mitchell involved, (HEDWIG!!!) but everything was moving so fast, and we were running out of time and couldn’t get him into a studio, so we had him record vocals in his NY apartment into his cell phone! Everything was sent to me and I had three days to mix and master everything! I have done projects quickly before, but this was some next level quickness.
The EP was funded by Amanda’s marvelous fans who support everything she creates over at Patreon. I want to thank them for making it possible, and all of the wonderful musicians and helpers who took part in its creation. I also want to thank Amanda Palmer for trusting me to take the reigns and arrange these songs however I wanted. It was really fun. Most of all, I want to thank David Bowie for living and breathing his art, and inspiring others to do the same.
I present to you: Strung out in Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute
You can stream it over on Pitchfork today. It will also be available tomorrow via Bandcamp/iTunes/Spotify for $1. 54 cents goes to Bowie’s publisher, and the rest of the proceeds from the first month will go to the cancer research center at Tufts Medical Center (in Amanda’s hometown of Boston).
Love to you all, and hope you enjoy.