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Exclusive interview with John Kumnick on working with David Bowie in 1980

October 19th, 2019 | by admin
Exclusive interview with John Kumnick on working with David Bowie in 1980
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BACK TO 1980. THE BASS PLAYER WHO MET THE ALIEN

He is one of the less known musicians who collaborated with David Bowie, but John Kumnick is a bass player and probably, as the majority of his colleagues, he thinks that being recognised or idolised is a very trivial thing. Much better working hard and improving his own bass line on a song in a recording studio, or in a live performance. Though, his path had crossed with the man who once sold the world. David’s aficionados have surely seen him several times, maybe without thinking too much about whom he was. For this reason it is quite a weird thing that Kumnick appeared on three of the most globally well-known performances by David Bowie.

This American bassist from Portland had repeatedly been at the side of the alien in 1980. The first time was in Burbank, for the performance on the Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and then twice in New York, filming before the fake concert for the German movie Christiane F (directed by Ulrich Edel) and then shooting the official video clip for Fashion (by David Mallet, partly on the streets of Manhattan and partly in the club Hurrah, previously utilised precisely for Christiane F.)

Everything happened in the USA during the months of September and October, because at the time David was very busy, preparing and acting for his role in the play The Elephant Man.

The performance for American TV – at that time the most popular TV show in the USA – is particularly interesting, because on it Bowie revealed a new mask and a new band formed by Kumnick, Carlos Alomar, G.E. Smith, Steve Goulding and Gordon Grody. It was his first musical performance in nine months, and possibly could have been a preview of a new tour for Scary Monsters, and maybe an amazing new artistic stage. At the time David’s appearance and voice were phenomenal. Bowie himself, talking with the journalist Anthony Hilburn said: “I guess I’m sort of on top of the world at the moment”. But less than two months later something happened. His friend John Lennon was killed. David disappeared for quite a long period. No tours until 1983. His golden age started at the beginning of the Seventies was interrupted and never would be the same as before. And probably David’s career changed forever.

 

I talked about this in my exclusive interview for DBN with John Kumnick….

 

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON — Pictured: Musical guest David Bowie performs on September 5, 1980 — (Photo by: Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

 

Mr. Kumnick, you played the bass for David Bowie on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1980. Many years have passed and the whole video was quite rare and damaged. Recently it has been amazingly restored and uploaded online by Nacho. How do you feel watching it, now?

I have had a copy of the performance for many years, that was made from the original NBC tape. So the interesting thing that Nacho did was to include the segment of the rehearsal, which I had forgotten about.

 

David Bowie – Life On Mars? & Ashes To Ashes – Live on U.S. TV “Nacho Remaster” – 1980

 

When David passed away you were interviewed by an American radio, and you revealed that it was Carlos Alomar, a Bowie long time collaborator, who introduced you to the English singer. It was your first prestigious collaboration. How was it being in the presence of such a great artist?

I had a great respect for Bowie and his musicians before I was asked to play with him. So I was very excited to work with David. Meeting him was interesting because he was very relaxed and dressed fairly normally. But he had an aura about him that was unmistakable.

 

How long did you and the band spend rehearsing with David? Did you rehearse any other songs, aside from Life On Mars? and Ashes To Ashes?

We rehearsed for 4 days and those are the only songs we worked on. We probably played or jammed on a few other things, but those are the songs we concentrated on.

Do you remember if there were particular indications by Bowie to how execute the songs?

The thing I remember is him… suggesting the part in Ashes To Ashes, where the groove breaks down and features the drums. Other than that Carlos Alomar led the rehearsals and everyone pretty worked out their own parts to play for each song.

 

At the time had you already heard Ashes To Ashes?

I think I had the Scary Monsters album but it is quite hard to remember. The management sent me the album to listen to before the rehearsals, but I may have heard it on the radio before that.

 

Before you were contacted by Alomar, how much did you follow David’s career?

When I moved to New York City in 1979, I would listen to the Berlin albums, “Heroes”, Low and Lodger. I loved those records and also heard some live bootlegs from the later 70’s. I remember thinking what a great band that was and that I would have love to play with Bowie. And then I met Carlos and played with him and that led to Carlos asking me to play with Bowie on the Tonight Show.

In the video clip Fashion there are some shots and close-ups of you, one in particular at the beginning. How was to appear in “the new brand video by David Bowie” and to be seen worldwide?!

Very exciting – videos and MTV were pretty new at the time. A new video by a legend like Bowie was shown all the time on TV and all the clubs in New York.

In the TV show Bowie wears blue jeans and a red cotton windbreaker, very similar to James Dean’s look for Rebel Without A Cause. Even the haircut! Considering that we are talking about a man who assumed several characters, confusing his identity with an ocean of fictional personalities and suggestions, it couldn’t be an accident.

Yes, and he used it later, filming Christiane F. I may be wrong but I think that the red jacket was actually James Dean’s jacket. [It was not Dean’s indeed, but it is surely very fascinating to think it was, ed.]

At Carson’s TV Show David performed in such an incredible way. A very rare show in 1980 and at the beginning of the following decade… it was the only time he promoted Ashes To Ashes too, but his voice was fine and its obvious he was in high spirits. How many takes did you have of the songs?

The Tonight show was taped live so there was one performance of both songs, just as you see it. No second takes, no overdubs – live music on the TV.

 

You also toured and recorded with Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Francoise Hardy,  Nina Hagen, Chuck Berry, Ben E. King and Serge Gainsbourg among the others… Do you prefer to contribute in a studio or to play in the live dimension?

I love both. They are different. Performing live is very exciting. Recording is a demanding and creative process.

 

I read you performed at the 1985 Grammy Awards, am I right? Because I didn’t find any other information about…

I played with Cyndi Lauper on the 1984 Grammy Awards that was shown in January 1985.

 

What do you think about Blackstar?

I think Blackstar is a great album and it’s one of Bowie’s best. The songs and music are beautiful and strange, but in a good way. The band is fantastic and Bowie’s vocals are emotional and haunting.

 

You are still very active, playing and collaborating with different musicians... what are you working on at the moment?

I play in many different bands here in Maine. I also may come and tour in Italy this summer with my good friend Jack Sonni, who was with Dire Straits.

You can check out John Kumnick’s website here

 

The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (NBC) – Friday 3rd September 1980, Burbank, California, USA (screened on Sunday 5th September)

 

Christiane F – early October 1980, Hurrah, New York, USA

 

Fashion – early October 1980 (the day after filming Christiane F), Hurrah and various locations in Manhattan, New York, USA

Interview conceived and realised by Matteo Tonolli, exclusively for David Bowie News, © 2019.

Thanks to Nigel Marshall for inspiration.

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