For the sixth straight year, Sons Of The Silent Age celebrate the music of David Bowie onstage at Metro. Focusing on Bowie’s famed “Berlin trilogy,” the nine piece group will also be joined this year by Oscar nominated actor Michael Shannon who celebrates the role of Iggy Pop in Bowie’s Berlin days. I spoke with Sons Of The Silent Age vocalist Chris Connelly about David Bowie’s legacy, tackling the Bowie canon and much more. A portion of the proceeds from Saturday night’s show at Metro will benefit Kellogg Center cancer patients through NorthShore University HealthSystem’s integrative medicine program…
There aren’t a lot of tribute bands that approach their subject with the level of musicianship, intellect and love that Sons Of The Silent Age has David Bowie since 2013.
Born out of a collaboration between Chris Connelly (Revolting Cocks, Ministry) and Matt Walker (Filter, Smashing Pumpkins, Morrissey), Sons Of The Silent Age is a nine piece group that delves into the Bowie catalog, masterfully crafting performances that go beyond the hits, embracing collaboration to really strike at the heart of both Bowie’s musical exploration and message.
In 1976, David Bowie moved to Berlin in an attempt to escape the limelight and the trappings that came with it.
Working with Brian Eno and longtime producer Tony Visconti, he sought to move forward from the stratospheric success of both the Ziggy Stardust and Thin White Duke characters. But he didn’t just move on from them, he created something almost wholly unrecognizable.
By experimenting with electronic sounds, embracing krautrock and more, Bowie, Eno and Visconti challenged fans over the course of the Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979) albums, pushing the music forward in the process.
But Bowie’s days in Berlin are equally notable for his work there with Iggy Pop. Pop’s punk progenitor The Stooges broke up in 1974. In Berlin, Bowie co-wrote and produced Pop’s first solo album The Idiot and it’s quick followup Lust For Life, both of which were released in 1977 following the breakout of punk rock the year prior.
Now in its sixth consecutive year, Sons Of The Silent Age’s annual Metro benefit will focus on Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” with an assist from Academy Award nominated actor Michael Shannon in the role of Iggy Pop.
I spoke with vocalist Chris Connelly about the relevance today of Bowie’s work in Berlin, embracing the spirit of collaboration and much more. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below.
A portion of the proceeds from Saturday night’s Metro performance will benefit Kellogg Center cancer patients through NorthShore University HealthSystem’s integrative medicine program.
Q. What’s it like approaching someone else’s work – in this case work that people know astoundingly well – and kind of putting your own stamp on it?
CC: Do they though?
Here’s the thing… One of the things, initially, that I noticed was… I’ve been a fan of David Bowie’s work for over forty years, since the mid-70s. And everybody who is a Bowie fan, when he had a new record out, you devoured the record.
Going back to it and learning the words, learning the arrangements and looking at how certain things are approached, he’s a very, very idiosyncratic writer. So songs of his that might appear to be fairly straightforward in structure are actually not at all. And so that’s actually a huge benefit for us. It’s a big part of the fun: taking these song pieces and putting them back together again and trying to figure out what he was thinking. And a lot of it is second guessing songs that you don’t know.
So, to me, it’s perhaps like acting, when you’re supposed to become a character that you don’t have a personal relationship with. So you kind of have to build the character yourself. And what’s so brilliant about Bowie – and Todd Haynes did this in his movie Velvet Goldmine. He didn’t have any involvement from Bowie in that film. Or Iggy Pop or Lou Reed or whoever. But he had this very romantic idea of what it might have been like. And that’s what I have as well.
I have this very romantic idea of what it could have been and I kind of try and bring that to the stage. So it’s my perspective of David Jones, if you like, and his characters.
Q. You talk about being a fan for forty years. Do you have an early memory of maybe one of the first moments where you realized how seriously you were going to take his work or maybe that first big fan moment for you?
CC: Well, I had been aware of him because, like everybody, we watched Top of the Pops. 7:30 on a Thursday night. And that was when I was first saw him. And many, many people will tell you that’s when they first saw him doing “Starman.” And, for me, I liked it – I didn’t quite understand it. I was about 8 at the time.
But, for me, the defining moment was when “Golden Years” came out. That song, which came out in late 1975, that hit me like a hammer. That really was an important song to me. And it still is. And I still listen to it quite a lot. Because I think it has everything I ever wanted in a song. And it still resonates with me in the same way.
To me, what resonates with me most is, you can talk about the amazing songwriting and the amazing lyrics but, to me, the songwriting and the lyrics are always quite cryptic. There’s a mystique about it. And that will always fascinate me about him and his work. And I get the same feeling as I did when I was 11 that I do when I’m 53 now.
Q. Over the years, you’ve collaborated with a pretty impressive roster of guests at these Metro benefit concerts – Shirley Manson, Sinead O’Connor, Ava Cherry, etc. Bowie was obviously no stranger to collaboration so how important is that idea to these annual concerts and what kind of a role will Michael Shannon be playing this year as a guest?
CC: Well, he’s going to be playing Iggy Pop.
There’s two kinds of Sons shows: there’s shows where we will play the music of David Bowie and there’s shows when we pick a certain era.
This era is the so called “Berlin trilogy” which spans from like 1976 to 1979. And during that time, Bowie was very much sort of downplaying his star status. And he took a backseat and went on tour with Iggy Pop just to be in a band.
So we wanted to incorporate that which, to any Bowie fanatic, is a really important step that he took. Bowie suddenly wasn’t playing in arenas anymore. You could go see him at the Marquee Club or whatever and Iggy Pop would be playing.
And this was either just incredibly well calculated or it just happened to be when punk happened. In ’77, Iggy sort of had this renaissance and went on tour and he was the badass godfather of punk. And that’s what we’ve kind of asked Mike to be. And he’s definitely into the idea and I can’t imagine a better actor to do that.
To circle back to your question about collaborators… It’s not about having a star guest, it’s about having someone who fills the roll. Because it’s all sort of acting.
We always try and get interesting openers as well. And we also try, again, to second guess what Bowie would do. I mean, he always thought outside the box really, didn’t he?
Q. Well, I know you guys have done the Low album before. Why the focus now on the “Berlin trilogy?”
CC: Why? Well, it’s not that we decided now to do it, it’s actually something that’s been very much on our thoughts.
First and foremost, we’ll go ahead and do that because it’s an era of his career and it’s a new challenge.
Last summer we did a show called “Five Years” where we focused on 1969 to 1974. So that kind of encapsulated the glitter era, the Ziggy era and stuff like that.
It’s kind of not like the Rolling Stones. It’s not like, “Well… let’s do this…” Because Bowie changed. He got bored. And he explored. So we’re doing the same thing. We’re like, “Let’s pull this music to pieces!” [The “Berlin trilogy”] has nothing to do with Ziggy Stardust! It’s so radically different.
Q. It’s possible I’m going out on a longshot here… But the whole divided city of Berlin kind of looms large on the triptych, particularly on the Heroes album (as it was the only one of the three recorded entirely in Berlin). And, certainly, we live in divisive times today. I know it’s two different things but did that idea of division, of divisiveness, which we see in America right now, kind of play into that decision to focus on the “Berlin trilogy” this year?
CC: That’s a very good question. Because I don’t think that it’s something that was voiced but it’s certainly something we’ve talked about.
There’s a very interesting thing that Bowie said once, and he was talking about lyrics, and he may have been referencing this period where he had a lot of instrumental songs. And he said, “Classical music doesn’t have lyrics and it’s been that evocative for hundreds and hundreds of years before rock music happened.” I think it doesn’t need to be said that this music is about alienation. And I think there’s a lot of people feeling alienated these days.
It’s very interesting to me that this music is still relevant. When I listen to a track like “Warszawa” or something like that. Or “Neukoln,” which is from Heroes, which is about where Bowie lived in Berlin. It was where all the Turkish immigrants lived. And they were treated really poorly. And we’re seeing this kind of thing happen again to people like that.
So, yeah. You’re right. This music is relevant now. And I think by playing it, it has that sort of conduit to your soul. It really makes the performer and the audience think.
Q. I think one of the most important things I’ve heard cited about David Bowie since he passed – and it’s certainly one of the first things that I kind of latched onto with him. I’m 38 so my first exposure to him was later than a lot of people in the form of the 80s stuff on MTV. But I think it’s just kind of that idea that he made it ok to be different – that general idea of acceptance. I think that’s maybe as important in the world now as it’s ever been. How important is that and what is David Bowie’s legacy to you?
CC: Absolutely. He gave a lot of people a voice. And I think that he may have downplayed that himself. But it’s incredible the amount of influence. He made it ok for people to dress the way they wanted. He made it ok for people to talk about their sexuality. More so than I think many people think. He didn’t give a sh-t.
Back then, because I remember in the 70s, people were “queers,” or whatever you wanted to call them, and when he dressed up in a dress… What a relief for someone who may have been thinking about doing that for a long time. Just imagine. For a teenager to suddenly – that’s an isolating time anyway – but for a teenager to suddenly realize there are people around like you – very pre-internet of course. What would you do?
And I know so many people… Like my friend Jim Nash who is deceased now but opened Wax Trax. Living in Topeka, Kansas in the 60s and 70s being gay. What possible chance could you have? And then suddenly this bejeweled icon appears out of nowhere and says, “It’s ok. Enjoy yourself.”
And I see that there’s definitely a u-turn in people’s thinking these days and it breaks my heart. Because people need to have a voice. People need to be able to talk about their sexuality and their preferences and things like that without fear of being incarcerated or beaten up or whatever.
So his message – even though it was kind of an unvoiced message, it was implied – is very, very important now.
Q. You’ve got two new records out and on Art & Gender in particular, you address pretty contemporary questions like the way art is often judged based upon the gender of its creator and the way in which the world in general has increasingly become a less friendly place to people and things and art that is different. Those strike me as ideas Bowie could’ve gotten behind. Was he in your thoughts as you worked on that record?
CC: Absolutely. Because I think he opened a lot of doors for me.
Not just necessarily talking about the politics of gender but he also was the guy who would write a really serious rock song about a really serious visual artist. And opened our minds. He wasn’t singing about getting laid after the show or whatever. He was making really sexy songs about performance artists or painters or dancers. He kind of brought that amazing culturalism into music.
And, with me, when I grew up, I thought I just accepted that at face value – this is exciting, it’s rock music and it’s about all sorts of different things: movies, books, authors, whatever it references. With something like Art & Gender, it’s the freedom of expression with your art, to put it as bluntly as possible.
My mode is making records. And that was Bowie’s too. I am always in deep awe of visual artists – of filmmakers and things like that and artists who take risks. All I can do is make records and hope that people listen to them.
But I can’t help writing about these artists who challenged their audience and challenged the public and don’t give a sh-t about whatever oppression they’re facing.
Q. You and Matt Walker had Sons Of The Silent Age going for a few years before Bowie passed. Was there ever any indication that he was aware of it?
CC: The reason I started the band… It was funny. Because Matt had me sing on a song of his. And we hadn’t talked about it or anything like that. But something in that song really reminded me of the sort of essence of not a particular David Bowie song but just an essence. And I thought, “We should do some more music together.”
At that point, David Bowie had retired. It was before The Next Day came out. It was like, “He’s gone! He’s done!” And I respected that decision… though it pissed me off. (laughs) But I didn’t know that he was secretly working on this amazing album [Blackstar.]
But I said to Matt, “Tons of kids have never heard these songs live. Why don’t we do that? Wouldn’t that be fun?” And he was all into it. And that’s how it started.
And then it’s funny because a few days before our first ever show [in 2013], he released the single “Where Are We Now?” And it was just so beautiful and it was just so perfect how it all worked out.
I thought, “Well, Bowie’s back… But we’re going to keep doing this.”
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Saturday’s Sons Of The Silent Age show at Metro below)
Sons Of The Silent Age
Saturday, January 6, 2018
Doors open at 7PM
Show starts at 8PM
Also performing: Talsounds, Craftwerc
VIP tickets: $124
*** A Portion of proceeds to benefit Kellogg Center cancer patients through NorthShore University HealthSystem’s integrative medicine program ***
Click HERE to purchase tickets
Tags: benefit, Brian Eno, Chris Connelly, Craftwerc, David Bowie, Iggy & The Stooges, Iggy Pop, Jim Nash, Kellogg Center, Matt Walker, Metro, Michael Shannon, Ministry, North Shore University, Revolting Cocks, Sons of the Silent Age, Talsounds, The Academy Awards, The Oscars, The Stooges, Thin White Duke, Tony Visconti, Wax Trax!, Ziggy Stardust