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An Exclusive Interview With Kevin Armstrong

October 25th, 2021 | by Nick
An Exclusive Interview With Kevin Armstrong

Kevin Armstrong is a producer, songwriter, bandleader, and singer and as he describes himself: a bullet-proof guitarist. His collaborations span a wide variety of genres, artists and projects. He kindly took the time to answer our questions below:

-Hi Kevin. Before we discuss your first band, can you shed some light on how you developed your interest in music and what bands you used to listen to while you were growing up?

My mother is a fairly accomplished pianist and singer and her father was a professional drummer in the 1920s so I have it in the blood to be musical. My parents collected records and had lots of jazz 78s and classical Deutsche Gramophone albums.

I grew up with the very first days of pop radio in the UK too. I remember hearing the very first song on Radio 1 on day 1 (Flowers in the Rain by The Move)

-Please tell us about Local Heroes SW9, your first band.

I put that together after auditioning for Charlie Gillett in his office and getting a record deal on my first try. It was a lucky break to meet Matthew Seligman right then. We were lifelong friends after that. I miss him terribly (he died in April 2020 from Covid 19) we were an indie trio who carved out a small following around South London in the early 80s. The SW9 part was the area of London we were from.

-In 1980 you were signed by Charlie Gillett’s Oval Records, which led to the release of Drip Dry Zone and New Opium by your band Local Heroes SW9. Now, what it’s really interesting here is that there’s a song on Drip Dry Zone called “Love Is Essential” and the guitar part sounds like what would become (several years later) Bowie’s “Outside” track. Can you elaborate on the genesis of this guitar part and how it ended up in Bowie’s song?

I wrote that song in my tiny bedsit room in Brixton in 1980. I remember playing the guitar part over and over for hours. I knew it was going to have a life somewhere beyond that little room.

Bowie heard me playing it at a Tin Machine sound check and asked me if he could have it.

-Despite being a key player in the creation of the song, for some reason you didn’t feature in the actual track recorded in the studio for the Outside album, is that correct?

I guess so yes. The album was 90% done by the time I got invited to contribute and it was just a day with David and Eno in London playing some guitar overdubs. I guess that song was finished and didn’t need anything else by that point. No big deal. I was very happy that he had cut it and shared the credit with me. Thrilled actually!

-On the album Outside, you feature on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” a superb track that was only performed live twice and remains one of the many deep cuts in Bowie’s discography. What was your experience like playing on this song and contributing to it?

I just jammed over the track and that was the only time I’d ever heard it. Eno recorded me and used what he wanted. I literally spent no more than one pass in the studio on it. I think he used the take I did but it’s very heavily ‘effected’ (By Eno) so I don’t know what I played exactly when I hear the record.

-What was it like for you meeting Bowie for the first time (1984)? Were you a fan of his music at the time or had you just heard it casually?

I was a definite admirer and was very familiar with all the great 70s albums. My younger brother Ross was a huge fan and bought every Bowie record the minute it came out. Bowie records were always playing in my house. He died in 1979, five years before I met David which is a source of great sadness to me as he would have loved to know that I got to play with his idol.

Meeting David seemed like a natural development in my journey somehow. He was very welcoming and encouraging to me always

-In 1985 you were told you’d be playing in Abbey Road Studios for a “Mr. X” this would spawn a few songs including the utterly brilliant “Absolute Beginners”. It’s been said that the atmosphere in the studio was light and that Bowie was in great spirits. Can you share with us your memories of working on this wonderful song?

It was an afterthought at the end of a productive session. Bowie was doing demos for the soundtracks of Absolute Beginners and stuff for Labyrinth on the same day at Abbey Road. I helped him knock together an arrangement for Absolute beginners in the last hour of our time there and it just worked straight off. He was very hyperactive and funny that day. There is a slightly notorious drug story about that session and it’s in my book coming soon.

*Kevin’s sister, Janet Armstrong, provided backing vocals for the song Absolute Beginners. It was her first professional recording experience.

-Some people may not be aware, but you’re also on “Chilly Down” from the Labyrinth soundtrack correct?

If you say so. I honestly don’t remember that but it’s entirely possible that I dropped into the Labyrinth session and played something.

-Can you share what it was like for you being part of Live Aid 1985 with Bowie? Was an event of such magnitude daunting at the time?

Apart from it being exciting to play a gig with Bowie we had no idea that it would be such an historic event until the actual day. It wasn’t really daunting at all. I did have a couple of anxious dreams in the lead up. I dreamt that I would forget the songs and it would be embarrassing etc. but the day itself was an extremely happy and positive occasion. Revenge on all those teachers and bosses who told me that I would never amount to anything!

Above, Kevin playing guitar for Bowie at Live Aid.

-Not only did you play in the band for Live Aid but you also put it together. What was your approach to assembling a band for such occasion? Did you have any influence on the set list or suggestions on what tracks would work well for the band?

It was just a selection of friends and people who I was working with at that time, Dolby and Matthew and my girlfriend Clare. I had contributed to Prefab Sprout’s album so Neil was the obvious choice as drummer. I don’t remember having any say in the set list no.

-Another collaboration of yours with Bowie was Dancing In The Street. Can you elaborate on working in this song and collaborating with Mick Jagger as well as David?

I met with David and Mick Jagger one evening in Soho with a guitar and the three of us routined it some days before the session. Then we added it on to the final Absolute Beginners final recording session unannounced. The band didn’t know Jagger was coming until he walked in. It was only Bowie and I that knew. Their faces!

Above, Kevin wth Jagger and Bowie at Westside Studios, during recording Dancing In The Street.

-You became the 5th Tin Machine member and provided an essential support to the band’s live sound as well as the self-titled studio album. After having worked with Bowie as a “super star” to put it some way, you were then collaborating with him during a period of time when he was aiming to be just another guy in the band. Did this contrast have any impact on the dynamics in the studio or was it similar to how you’d worked with him before?

It wasn’t really any different. His sessions were always pretty casual. All the hard work went on in his head but the actual recording sessions were always very easy and relaxed. He liked everyone to enjoy the process I think and had a very good understanding of when something was taking too long. He worked quickly and it all just flowed. No chin-stroking or long discussions, just do it and sort it out later. As for Tin Machine being a democracy well maybe that was what they liked to think, but no-one was in any doubt who wore the trousers.

-Can you tell us about “Now” the song that predates Outside, and was performed by Tin Machine only twice in 1989?

‘Now’ never developed into anything but a temporary idea

It was the riff from my song Love is Essential. He wrote a prototype song on the road with Tin Machine as an experiment after hearing me play it because he liked the guitar part. That was the bit that survived and became Outside along with the “Now, not tomorrow” stuff.

-Please tell us about “Run” the Tin Machine track you co-wrote for the first album.

Same journey as Love is Essential>Outside. I had a song called Babylon Bridge written years before and again, I was playing it at a rehearsal and his ears pricked up so it became Run after he asked if he could use the guitar figure. If I’d stayed working with him who knows how many other of my songs (or at least the guitar riffs) would have transmogrified into Bowie numbers.

-Do you have any insight on the delayed Tin Machine box set that was meant to come out a couple of years ago? If it materializes at some point, do you recall if there’d be unreleased tracks or alternate takes where we could hear you play?

I don’t have any idea about Tin Machine releases etc. I don’t really know what other tracks or outtakes there are. We recorded a lot of stuff so maybe there are things there, who knows? Not me!

-You also contributed rhythm guitar to “If There is Something” and Piano on “Shopping for Girls” from Tin Machine II. What do you recall about working on these songs and what was your impression about them?

I don’t really remember these songs specifically. Like I say there were a lot of ideas put down really fast so it went by in a bit of a blur. I have literally played on hundreds of recordings and only remember a very few of them.

-Can you share a memory you have of your time as a touring member with Tin Machine?

I remember having dinner with Gary Oldman and Sean Penn in New York and hanging out with Jack Bruce too. The gigs on the first tour were fun in that they were in venues much too small for a David Bowie gig, so it was often mayhem with streets closed and people climbing up the drainpipes and falling in through the windows etc.

-Your solo album Run is superb, and in it you did your own takes of Run and Outside respectively, which sound great. What was it like for you re-evaluating these songs to record them again?

I included them to try and re-evaluate my approach on the Bowie versions to see if I could improve my own playing or sound and see if I could sing them too. Obviously they are a great ‘calling card’ for the album too. It doesn’t hurt to have a few co-writes with great artists to get you noticed!

-The rest of the album also features songs you wrote. Do you feel “Run” best represented the oeuvre you put together? And what’s the relation between the songs and the interesting artwork on the cover?

You have to remember that I’ve been living with those compositions since 1980 so they are very old but I think the way they got turned into songs with David rendered them timeless. I didn’t have a theme for the album in mind but my brother’s presence is strong in a lot of the songs. The skull drawings on the cover are me and him I suppose. An original drawing by Lynsey Hayton and a copy done by my son Fox for an art assignment. I saw them together and just photographed them on a tiled tabletop. Then it became clear that they would make a great cover

Above, Kevin on tour with Iggy Pop. © Paul McAlpine.

-You have worked with so many different artists and also collaborated in several different ways (producer, songwriter, composer, guitarist, etc…) what would you say is the role you feel the most comfortable at, and what kind of collaborations stimulate you the most?

I love playing live the most no question, but I like producing music too. After so many decades doing it you develop a sure touch in the studio and I can pretty much always get close to what’s in my head coming out of the speakers now. Playing live is always a tightrope. It can be wild and exciting or really hard work but either way it’s the most fulfilling thing ever. I enjoy all kinds of collaborations there is always something to learn from every artist I work with.

-When things go back to normal at some point, are you planning to resume touring or put out more solo albums? What plans do you have for the near future?

I have six tracks finished for a new album and I intend to do more solo performances soon. I have a book coming too*. *It’s called ‘Absolute Beginner’, it’s finished and currently seeking a publisher, hopefully out next year. Ed.

Above, Kevin with Bowie in ’87.

-Can you tell us about your company Squirrel Mountain and its projects?

Squirrel Mountain happens to be the name I trade under for all music projects but the Squirrel Mountain film started as a craft project in a box on a kitchen table that my wife Angelica made with our son when he was about 9. They made some little characters and a fantasy story about an Evil Egg living in the sky and controlling some Knitted Chickens. Iggy saw the little film we made and loved it so much he wanted to be a character in it and so we wrote another script with that in mind and made it all again from scratch. I made all the original music with ukulele and kazoo etc. and we got Iggy to play himself and sing the Frozen Peas song. It’s pretty weird and innocent fun. You can see it here.

Many thanks to Kevin Armstrong.

Unless otherwise stated, all images © Kevin Armstrong.

You can follow Kevin via his website here

And on Facebook here

Interview by Francisco Beristain, exclusively for David Bowie News. © 2021.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

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