A Conversation With Tony Visconti

Much like “criminally underrated,” the term “legendary” gets tossed around too easily in the music realm, but it certainly fits Tony Visconti. As a producer, arranger, sideman and collaborator, he’s worked with David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Paul McCartney, Sparks, Morrissey and too many others to name (go do some Google homework) and has helped bring such classic albums as Low, “Heroes”, Electric Warrior and Blackstar to life. His new solo album, It’s A Selfie, gives Visconti a turn in the spotlight and offers fans a chance to hear his original compositions.

MAGNET spoke with Visconti about his new album, his unique relationships with Bowie and Bolan and walking with zombies.

It’s A Selfie is a fun and rewarding listen with a variety of song styles and well-told tales. I’m not used to hearing you sing solo, but your voice has a warm timbre and vibrato that really grows on you with repeated listens. I believe it’s been 20 years since your last release—why so long? I know you’ve been busy performing with Bowie tribute band Holy Holy of late.
Thank you. I’ve been singing for years and years on other people’s records. I did lots of high falsetto vocals on T.Rex records, “Telegram Sam” and “Children Of The Revolution,” for instance, and on much of the David Bowie albums I’ve produced. “Heroes” is only David and me singing back-ups. My father sang in a barbershop quartet, and that’s where I got my love of singing harmonies. I have a decent blending voice, very useful, but singing lead does not come easy to me. I really have to step outside of myself to get to that point where I’m in the spotlight vocally. Holy Holy doesn’t take up much of my time; we do that project for fun. What has taken so long is that I’ve had an amazing 20-year run as a record producer. I’ve been blessed with being reunited with David Bowie during this period, producing his last four albums and various other projects with him. I’ve worked with Morrissey, Esperanza Spalding, Perry Farrell, Damon Albarn and more. An album can take as long as three months to make, sometimes longer. I kept putting my new album on the back burner.

Several of the songs are cautionary tales. For example, we aren’t sure if Frankie and Johnny, the protagonists of “A Marriage,” will make it to happily ever after. Yet, the album still feels hopeful to me. Did you have an overall theme in mind?
Much of life is about our emotional relationships; we all fall in love with somebody—several times in fact. We’ve all had our heart broken or hurt someone else in the process of breaking up. This universal theme comes easy to me to finally write about, a kind of therapy. At this time of my life I’m still asking the question, “What exactly is love?” I know we feel possessive, jealousy, envy and rage in relationship to love. We’d like to think love is that warm fuzzy feeling, but what can love really be? That’s what I explore in the song “The Purpose Of Love.” But of course, it is a human virtue to live in hope. The album definitely points to the light at the end of the tunnel.

On “Hey! Shout It Out,” you lovingly pay homage to some of the people you’ve worked with over the years by referring to their initials and the experiences you shared. Do I have this right, “DC” is Denny Cordell, “MB” is Marc Bolan, and “DB” is David Bowie?
I love to give credit where credit is due. Denny Cordell was a famous British record producer who believed in me and took me on as his second in command and apprentice at the same time. Marc Bolan and I started as scruffy young men who had to put all our pocket change on the table so that we could buy lunch. We started as me, a novice record producer, and he, the leader of a psychedelic-folk duo. We recorded the first three albums with cheap guitars and toy instruments, then went on to outsell the Beatles in the U.K. with a two-year run of hit singles and albums. David Bowie hardly needs any explanation. We started recording in 1967 and that continued off and on until his passing in 2016. When I perform this song live, I will ask members of the audience to ‘shout it out,’ the name of a mentor into the microphone. Tell the world!

The mash-up of country fiddle and robotic vocals on “Mystery Man” is fun and unexpected. The lyrics decry the modern condition where everyone is on social media and Instagram photos replace dreams. It’s a bit cranky! Do you really think things are that dire?
For a long time I felt something was missing on “Mystery Man.” Then the wonderful Greg Holt came into my life. He is so good that I asked him if he wanted to hear the song, and he said, “No, let’s go straight on the mic and press record.” Needless to say, Greg will be on my next album, too. Oh, it’s dire out there. I love social media, but I know when to step away from the computer and do some real living. I used to criticize young people, especially teenage girls who walked and texted, several years ago. Now when I walk to my studio from home, I walk with zombies. People of all ages are doing it, including grey-haired older men. It worries me.

You played, or programmed, almost all the instruments on the album, something you playfully detail on the closing title track. As a producer, you’ve spent many years guiding other artists in the studio. When the tables are turned and you’re recording your own music, do you ever wish you had outside counsel or do you prefer your own?
Since this is my 50th year of producing records, I think I am in a good position to objectively record myself. Also, we have entered the stage where it is so incredibly easy to make recordings on a laptop and there is no holding back millions of musicians who have become their own band, label and manager. I’m not doing anything that different, but I am calling this album It’s A Selfie because it is all me in my narcissistic glory, or folly, depending on how you view it. I have been writing for years and making demos in my professional studio. I polished them until they could shine no brighter. In the old days, you would make demos on really lo-fi gear and then you’d go to a studio and rerecord the bunch with slick studio musicians. Today the demos can easily be the final masters if you spend enough time on them. In the absence or unaffordability of slick musicians, there are digital tools that can correct your tuning and help you edit a dodgy guitar solo into quite a respectable one. 

My daughter listens to lo-fi artists, but they don’t sound lo-fi to me based on my recollection of recording with cassettes and Radio Shack microphones. Do you think the proliferation of quality virtual instruments and plug-ins has been a boon for musicians? Conversely, I sometimes hear major releases that sound too loud and with obvious distortion and clipping.
What is really funny is that professional producers and engineers spend small fortunes on vintage microphones, expensive gear and costly software. But the trend is to make the recordings sound like they were recorded on really bad gear. I have always said that making a rock and pop record is an audio illusion. The trend was always to make everything on the record sound larger than life. But today the trend seems to be to make everything sound smaller and trashier than life. 

Step into the Wayback Machine for a moment if you don’t mind. The early T.Rex albums often had that characteristic and fantastic-sounding slight delay between the right and left channels on the guitars and drums. Was a distinctive T.Rex sound something you were trying to achieve from the get-go once Marc Bolan put together the full band? The Slider still sounds fresh today.
Up to a point Marc, David and I—and every other recording artist—lived in the shadow of the Beatles. Every new album release had sounds on them that baffled us as to their origin. How did they do that? But I worked so hard and long in those early years; I managed to invent a few signature sounds that were very identifiable as T.Rex. I finally knew what I was doing by the time we recorded Electric Warrior, and The Slider was just sublime. Most of the magic was done at the overdub and mixing stage. I loved overdubbing and mixing more than live recording back then. Technically for the time, it was too hard to set up all the analog special effects during a recording session. On the tracking session, it was more important to get good basic sounds from the instruments, but the all-important factor was the performance, the groove, the vibe! Of course, as we recorded we’d make notes of what we were going to do the basic sounds in the mixing studio.  

Lastly, are there any new artists you are working with that you can talk about?
What’s wrong with the old artists? Just joking. I am lining up some future work, including a big film, but nothing I can really talk about yet. I have some time off, and I’ve already started my next album, and I have made plans to record it in a big studio with some of those slick musicians I was talking about.

—Bruce Fagerstrom