In the summer of 1999, Rustic Overtones were in New York City. The band from Maine had been signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis and were in town to record their first album for the label. Producing the album was Tony Visconti, known for his work with T. Rex, The Moody Blues, Thin Lizzy, and most notably, David Bowie. They ended up spending six weeks recording, two of which were at Avatar Studios in New York.
On one of those average mornings in New York, the band’s baritone saxophonist Jason Ward got into the studio early, looking to get a jump start on warming up. Visconti was already there, having a conversation with an engineer and someone Ward didn’t immediately recognize.
It ended up being David Bowie.
“He (Bowie) just happened to visit Tony Visconti one day at Avatar,” Ward said when we reached out to him the day after Bowie’s death. “He was curious of what he was working on because Visconti doesn’t just take on any project. I was one of the first people to encounter him in the studio since I arrived first. Most pleasant shock of my life.”
A life-long fan of Bowie, Ward struggled to keep it together. Bowie lightened the mood by saying that at first glance, he thought Ward was Frank Black of Pixies.
Bowie had actually been invited down to the studio by Visconti, who had worked with the singer for years, dating back to Bowie’s 1969 album, Space Oddity. Visconti thought Bowie would like the band and, seeing as how Avatar was close to where Bowie lived, the producer suggested he stop by.
On Monday morning, Ward elaborated on the encounter.
The fact that Bowie wasn’t taller than he thought he’d be came as a surprise to Ward, who was also surprised with how pleasant and jovial the massive celebrity was. The Thin White Duke was open to being a sounding board for the young band, willing to provide feedback and even suggesting what song (“Hitman”) should be the album’s lead single. Spencer Albee, a member of the band at the time, remembers that “he loved it (the album). We played him tracks, and he would say complimentary things and move to the music. He genuinely was excited by what he was hearing. We were blown away.”
Ward was especially taken back by how Bowie treated the band.
“He was somebody that embraced who we were as a band and what we brought to the table. Years later he confirmed this in a book saying that we were one of the best bands we worked with. He treated us in the same league as Bowie or Queen.”
Visconti ended up kicking around the idea of Bowie contributing to the album. Albee said Visconti asked him if “he wanted to play a little saxophone.” Bowie wanted to sing, though. He ended up adding vocals to two tracks: “Man Without a Mouth” and “Sector Z.”
For Albee and the rest of Rustic Overtones, the experience hit them on multiple levels.
Bowie is arguably the coolest person in the world, and he took the time and energy to hang with, sing with, endorse and generally enjoy a bunch of hicks from Maine. Rustic was, in many ways, the underdog of the music business. We fought hard for what we had. Suddenly, the Pope said we were cool. So we were.
Dave Gutter, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, who continued to keep in touch with Bowie, joined his bandmates in penning tributes to Bowie on Facebook, Monday morning.
The band’s former drummer, Tony McNaboe, also took to Facebook to pay tribute to Bowie:
I can’t shake off the weight of having created music together while he was here.. The humbling fact that for a moment, that spirit, that gift, that unique thing that only he had was generously given to me and my friends in return for what we had given him.. Music is the greatest language that can be spoken. It’s conversations bare the soul of a human being more honestly than words ever could. I’m not sure if anyone’s ever spoken that language as eloquently as David Bowie did in this final chapter of his life. Somehow, It’s even more of an honor to have been a part of it than I realized before today.
The album, ¡Viva Nueva!, would eventually come out in 2001, delayed after Arista ended up dropping Rustic Overtones after disagreements about their sound and image. In somewhat of a shocking twist, though, the label let the band retain the album, which was then released by Tommy Boy Records. The band would go on to disband in 2002, regrouping five years later. If their encounter with Bowie was a high point, the months that followed would be a series of low points, culminating in their parting ways with Arista.
Life’s all about moments, though, and for the seven members of Rustic Overtones, that moment when they walked into the studio, David Bowie casually sitting there and open to talking shop, giving advice, even lending his talents, was one that would stick with them forever. They felt validated, humbled, invigorated. Bands like Rustic Overtones dream of those kinds of chance encounters, but they rarely happen.
But this time, it did. And they’ll never forget it.