The Observer - 21st September 2003

Backbeat: Q&A
David Bowie and Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office and stand-up comedian, puts 10 questions to pop icon David Bowie, covering what it means to be a fan, the difference between Iggy Pop and Will Young ('about seven inches'), the nature of reality and the prospect of 'buggering off to Tibet'.

Ricky Gervais: What's caught your eye in music in the last year?

David Bowie: Dandy Warhols put out yet another fine album. For all their druggy stance, they're very single minded, consistently interesting and focused I find. I've got them as the support band on my tour this year. Whenever (lead singer) Courtney walks into the room I want to put beads on. I haven't felt like that since 1967.

Grandaddy was a little disappointing I thought. Too many tracks with the same weight and drive I think, but a pleasant album. The new Macy Gray is great, she's really back on form. Blur astonished, didn't they? What a first class piece of work 'Think Tank' was. Excellent writing and beautifully played. I saw them in New York a month or so ago and thought the show wonderful. Damon is a superb front man. Nice suit. Looked like Agnes B. but maybe not. The suit I mean, not Damon. Radiohead took first prize for performance though. The show at the Beacon Theater [NYC] was astounding. Not sure about the album 'Hail To The Thief', though. I find I'm not playing it as much as some of their others. Another stella performance this year was Lou Reed. I loved the stripped down band. Less is more. It gave him room to talk and he weaves a lovely anecdote.

RG: Both the new album and current tour are called "Reality". Why is that, and do you think a man like yourself can keep the same reality as the rest of us or didn't you have that in the first place?

DB: 'Reality' was among the first tracks that I wrote for this album and the word itself seemed a reasonable simulacrum for the various topics on the album. A bit of an arbitrary choice really. Of course, the reality thing is completely subjective.

It's all very well for those of us with an excess of cable channels to talk of no absolutes and synthetic realities and such, but some poor bod in South London with no rent money and not enough food to feed his family has a pretty good idea of what reality means to him.

RG: What's the point of what you do?

DB: To avoid boredom. And to express my disgust at a hostile but indifferent ... No, that was what I said in 1968. To avoid boredom, then.

RG: When you were starting out, where did you imagine you'd be in thirty years? How accurate was your prediction?

DB: I presumed I'd be dead. So I was pretty accurate for a few of years there. I did figure at one point that I'd be likely to throw in the towel at around forty and bugger off to Tibet. Well, Northumberland anyway. I knew though that I'd have a huge catalogue of songs, as I've never been able to stop writing.

RG: Where do you think you'll be in thirty years?

DB: I really don't look that far, Ricky. Though towards the end of this year I'll be in Glasgow.

RG: There is definitely no God. Discuss.

DB: Which God are we talking about here? The frightening one in the Old Testament or the loving fatherly one who suddenly appears in the New book. Or maybe one of the Indian ones? I think the chances are that a God both does and doesn't exist. That sounds the most plausible probability to me.

RG: What do you think of programmes like Pop Idol and Fame Academy, that let off new stars like nail bombs?

DB: Absolute garbage. A nadir with seemingly endless high ratings.

RG: What's the difference between you and Gareth, Iggy and Will, or Reed and Sneddon?

DB: The difference between Iggy and Will? About seven inches from what I've heard. Iggy's quite short, you see? Stop sniggering in the back.

RG: Does David Jones still exist anywhere and would he recognise you?

DB: I will always be fundamentally just a Jones. The moment I close the door behind me, slip off my crushed velvet skateboard shorts and throw myself into our heated Olympic size, three level swimming pool, I think to myself, 'Self, is there a Jones next door that I should be keeping up with?' And do you know something? There always is. Though actually it's the Prestons in our case but you know what I mean.

RG: You have been my favourite artist for most of my life and one of the reasons I never worried about having crooked teeth and was because they were just like yours. Then you got yours done. Do you feel guilty?

DB: Not even a flutter.

RG: Which is the best Bowie album and why? Is that the same as your favourite?

DB: My best album is, of course, my new one, Reality. No question. No brainer. Without doubt my best since, oh, Scary Monsters probably. My favourite is still Buddha of Suburbia. I really felt happy making that album. Overall, it was just myself and Erdel Kizilcay working on that. Erdel was a fellow musician, Turkish, who lived and worked in Switzerland. He had studied at an Istanbul Conservatory of Music, a bit like Juilliard from what I can gather. For his degree he had to become proficient on every instrument in the orchestra. This led to a lot of testing on my part. I would produce an oboe from my jacket pocket. 'Hey, Erdel, don't you think oboe would be nice here?'

He would trot off to the mike and put down a fluent and beautiful solo then say, 'That's quite good but how about if I doubled it with the North Albanian Frog Trembler? And he would. I would seethe, as I would have placed bets on his not being able to play such and such an instrument with our engineer. I never once was able to catch him out. The album itself got only one review, a good one as it happens, and is virtually non-existent as far as my catalogue goes. As it accompanied the TV play of the same name, it was designated as a soundtrack by the record company and got zilch in the way of marketing money. A real shame, I thought. It has to be my favourite though. That and Reality, of course.

RG: If you had to make a choice, would you write songs for other people and never sing another note, or perform other people's songs and never write another note?

DB: So many of your questions require a this or that answer. Tick the applicable box. Did you fail a lot of driving tests? Oh, that might be an American joke...

RG: Do you think art has a social responsibility?

DB: Not as far as Paul Simon is concerned. But there was another Art much nearer to my heart. Art Wood. And yes, he was Ronnie's older brother. He was one of the first London musicians to popularise R&B. He worked for a while with Alexis Korner and would play clubs like Hampstead's Klooks Kleek (say that fast). He eventually formed his own band called logically 'The Artwoods'. You wouldn't know it now but they were probably one of the most popular live bands in London, right up there with the Yardbirds, Zoot Money and John Mayall. But, for fun, there was no beating Red Hoffman and the Measles. One of the great unsung r&b bands of the mid-sixties. I was always finding myself on the same bill as 'Red' or Stan as he became after a few drinks. We'd kick a football around on the floor of the club before the audience came in. Just two boys, jackets as goal posts, Mum calls, 'Your tea's ready'. An enduring image.

RG: Special AKA sang Free Nelson Mandela and Hey Pesto... 6 years later he was out. Do you think you could've released a single that would've sprung him sooner? Is it true you're the only famous person who hasn't met him?

DB: You've got your facts a little skewwiff here, Rick. In October of 1989 Tin Machine released the single 'Prisoner Of Love' and exactly four months later Nelson walked free. I think that tells the story, no?

As for meeting him, somebody looking remarkably like me accompanied my wife to South Africa in 1992 and, having queued up behind Naomi and various other political notables, was introduced to the future Nobel Prize Winner (no, not Naomi etc.) and shook his hand and was given a signed book.. I've seen the pictures. I have the book. A very tall man. And Mr. Mandela is no short arse either.

RG: Before I even heard your new album I knew it was a brilliant and inspiring piece of work that reflects the fact that you are not only the greatest living rock star but also a handsome intelligent man. With that in mind what do you think of my new stand up DVD released November 17th?

DB: It will never be off my record player. Why does your DVD stand up? Has it a supportive base of some kind. Won't that make it jolly hard to file along with Kenneth Williams, Max Miller and the other 'comedy' DVD's.

I too have a supportive base, actually. They've bought all my records for years now. I'd never be without them. Now I understand your thinking.

RG: What do you think of these questions?

DB: (Long Pause) Well? I'm still waiting.