AFTER TAKING A SABBATICAL FROM THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, EARL SLICK HAS RETURNED TO HIS SPOT AS GUITARIST FOR DAVID BOWIE, AND RECENTLY RECORDED A STAR-STUDDED NEW SOLO ALBUM TITLED ZIG ZAG. NIGHT WATCHMAN CAUGHT UP WITH EARL OUT ON TOUR TO FIND OUT HOW HE GOT STARTED, AND WHERE HEíS HEADED NEXT.
Night Watchman: To start off, letís go back to when you were just a young pup.
Earl: Oh, no. This is going to date me.
N: What got you interested in playing guitar to begin with?
E: The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was there at the right time. I saw it and went, "I gotta have that-Ė thatís cool! Look at all the chicks yelling and screaming." Those guitars looked really cool, the haircuts were cool, and the whole thing just nailed me.
N: That was it, huh?
E: Yeah, that was it. I was smitten.
N: How long was it until you got your first guitar?
E: You know, thatís kind of a vague thing. Iím sure I was breaking my old manís chops immediately. He went out somewhere-- it was during that year-- 1964. It might have been around my birthday, but it wasnít too long after that. I got a secondhand Danelectro guitar; it probably cost him $30 back then.
N: Did you learn how to play it right away, or did it take a while?
E: You know, I went to lessons and they gave me sheet music to "Brown Jug". Back in those days, it wasnít like it is now. I hated it. It felt like I was in school, and I hated school. Itís like, "What is this shit? I donít want to do this." I went two or three times, but then I said, "Fuck it." So I started learning things from TV shows, like The Saint, Green Acres, The Twilight Zone-- anything I could pick up from the TV; anything to play that sounded like something. And then I went out and bought a chord book and taught myself.
N: I know what you mean. I took guitar lessons when I was ten, and I took in my Kiss albums and said, "I want to learn how to play this." Instead, I got taught "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot, which is a cool song to me now, but when youíre ten and want to learn Kiss tunes, itís like math class.
E: Yeah. It was supposed to be fun, but it wasnít fun.
N: Did you put together a band after that?
E: Probably within a year of picking the guitar up, I was into The Ventures, and learned enough that we would put together little bands of guys that would never play anywhere. And then, within two years, I had bands that would play parties at peopleís houses.
N: How did your professional career take off?
E: The first thing that led up to that was in high school weíd play dances. Back in the day-- that makes me sound like an old fucking man--
E: --bands would play, not DJs. And that was like having a gig at Madison Square Garden. My band got a following, and then, somewhere around the last year of high school, we were playing in bars and clubs. Weíd sneak in underage, which they didnít give a shit about back then. And weíd play for so cheap they didnít care. We didnít make much money, but I got a job playing in a backup band for Hair on the road. It was original members of Hair that had broken away, and some guy took it on the road. So I think I did a dozen dates, maybe more, and that was my first professional thing. Then, in the midst of trying to get a record contract and playing in bars to keep some money coming in, I met a guy named Michael Kamen. You know who he was?
N: Yes, absolutely.
E: He just passed away last year. But Michael took me under his wing. He would try to get me gigs, and heíd bring me into the studio as a session guy on some stuff when he needed a rock thing. He produced demos for me, and I ended up playing in his band for a while. Michael is largely responsible for me even sitting here talking to you right now.
N: Wow. It must have been great to know him. I got interested in film music because of his work on Brazil. That was my first exposure to him.
E: Right. And I did a few of those with him. I did a Dan Aykroyd thing-- Nothing But Trouble-- with Demi Moore.
N: Yeah, I remember that.
E: You remember that one? Weird fucking movie. It was a weird movie. I did Hudson Hawk, the Bruce Willis thing.
N: That had some great music in it.
E: Iím on the title song with Dr. John. Michael introduced me to Dr. John in the early days when he was with Bowie. I actually auditioned for Dr. Johnís band, but didnít get the audition. So whenever Michael knew of somebody needing a guitar player, heíd throw these auditions to me.
N: Thatís great. You must have made quite an impression on him for him to be trying to get you work all the time.
E: I never really thought about it at the time. I just thought he was being a nice guy.
N: But most people arenít nice in the music business.
E: No, theyíre not. But I didnít say that, did I?
N: So, then you started playing with Bowie, and that went on for quite awhile, right?
E: You know, it went on and off, and thatís what he says when he introduces me. But weíve been at it again now for almost three years.
N: You originally left after Station To Station. Did you ever think you would be playing together again?
E: Oh, no.
N: Did things end badly?
E: It was just weird '70s bullshit. I donít even want to get into it. Itís not worth it.
N: After that, you played with John Lennon and then Ian Hunter. Youíve made music with a lot of great artists. Was there anyone you always wanted to get together with, but it just never worked out?
E: The only thing was when Mick (Taylor) left the Stones, I went ballistic, you know? Iíd love to do that. But Iím pretty sure Ronnie Wood had that gig right out of the gate. I tried to get an audition, but it never happened. But that would have been the only band.
N: Do you prefer collaborating with people, or do you prefer to write your own material?
E: I like doing both. I mean, I love collaboration, and even when I write my own stuff I like to have a partner around for production, and maybe to help write.
N: Someone to bounce your ideas off of?
N: How would you compare some of your earlier solo work, like Razor Sharp and Lost And Found, to what youíre doing now with Zig Zag?
E: First of all, Lost And Found and the Earl Slick Band stuff was a band. Lost And Found was recorded but never came out, so I found it and put it out myself. The Earl Slick Band was a band, but this time there was no specific band. It was me and Mark Plati, who produced the record. He played bass and engineered Zig Zag.
N: Heís done a lot of great stuff as well.
E: Mark is fucking wonderful! And he was a really good partner on this album. When I started writing these songs, there was no intent to make an album. I just started to write again because I started working with Bowie again, and I got inspired. Mark is largely responsible for this record even getting done, for the simple fact that the inspiration came to me with him. So I never intended to do anything but write, and then, all of a sudden, I thought, "Maybe Iíll make an instrumental album. I could get a small label to put it out, and then start talking to some people in the film industry, which is something I'm very interested in." Not on a Michael Kamen level, where Iíd be directing orchestras and stuff, but Iím very interested in scoring the right kind of movies, and that would be an in. And then David came in and offered to do a track on the record, and then it kind of took on a life of its own. Then Robert Smith got involved, and Roy Langston from Spacehog. I love Roy.
N: Did you have to bribe anyone to do the project?
E: No. And you know what the weird thing was? I didnít ask David, I didnít ask Robert, I didnít ask Joe Elliot. I did ask Roy, because I was listening to Spacehogís Resident Alien album, and I was like, "We should get a hold of Roy and see if he wants to get involved." And he was right there. It kind of happened all on its own.
N: What I really like about the album is youíve wrapped these really great moody instrumental pieces around songs with vocals, and itís really got a great structure. There is a definite beginning, middle, and end.
E: Mark Plati really helped with that as far as choosing what tracks to use. You know, you write stuff sometimes, and there were pieces I know I wanted on there for sure, but there were some I just said, "Mark, pick out the pieces you like, and we'll narrow it down from there." Heís got a great ear.
N: Youíre a big Gibson player, right?
E: I hadnít been for a while, and then I just started again a few years ago.
N: What is it about the Gibsons? Is it the tone or the feel?
E: Itís everything. Itís a different animal. I play differently on them. They feel different, they sound different, theyíre more aggressive.
N: What other type of equipment did you use on the recordings? You have a lot of sustain; are you using a Fernandes for that?
E: I do have a Fernandes with a sustainer in it that I use for that, and then some Les Pauls. And Peavey, a long time ago, had made me a couple of guitars that are Tele shaped, and one of them is configured like a Strat. It has three pickups and a whammy bar. I also used some 335s, some Martin acoustics, and my J45 Gibson acoustic. Those are the main guitars I used.
N: How are you going about promoting the new album? Are you performing any of the tracks with Bowie out on the tour?
E: Not yet. I donít know if thatís going to happen. Itís in David's arena. Iíd love to get him to do "Isnít It Evening".
N: Are you selling the CD on the tour?
E: Yeah. Weíve got them up front. The main thing is doing stuff like Iím doing with you. Iíve done some guitar magazines, weíre doing pretty much everything. Everything but a video-Ė in this day and age it doesnít make much sense for me to go out and do that. Itís a lot of money, and you donít know if itís going to get played. It costs money to promote stuff like that, and youíve got to look at it realistically.
N: How long are you touring?
E: Until July.
N: What are your favorite tunes to play on the tour?
E: I love everything, but I really like playing the Reality stuff. We do "Reality", "New Killer Star", and I like when we do "Heroes". I like all of it, you know?
N: He has such a great catalogue of songs.
E: Yeah. Itís wonderful.
N: Is it tough playing Bowie songs from all these different eras; going from playing a Mick Ronson riff to a Reeves Gabrels guitar part?
E: To be honest, the only stuff where Iím doing what the other guy did is Mickís stuff, because itís the closest to what I play like. But on everything else I do my own thing. Obviously, if there is a signature line in a song, it needs to be done. With Gerry Leonard involved on the other guitar with his knowledge of all the electronic gear, anything with effects, heís incredible at it. It makes for a really good balance, because you donít want two similar guitar players up there, and he can cover the stuff I donít really do. Heís another big inspiration. Even before we recorded the album I toured with Gerry, and heís the one who got me into sustainers. I needed more colors, so I just copied stuff from him.
N: Thatís the trick. Always surround yourself with good players, and learn from them.
E: Absolutely! Itís all inspiration, man. I learned that years ago. One of the reasons I took a break for about four or five years is that I was just playing the same thing over and over again, and everybody that would call me to do stuff wanted that, and I was just bored with it. I wasnít inspired, you know? And I came back in with an approach more like a songwriter; almost like a backup musician in my own band.
N: You just got tired of being a "hired gun" for that particular style?
E: For that particular sound, yeah. Part of it, though, was I was doing it to myself. I was doing it with my own albums. When I came back from the break, the inspiration came back, and I just started writing. It wasnít really intentional. I just wasnít playing like that anymore.
N: Did you play at all during that break?
E: For a little while, I didnít. I just needed to get away from everything.
N: You know how people say you shouldnít do something that you love for a living, because that love then turns into your job? Was it something like that?
E: You know, in hindsight that might have been part of it. But you also have to realize when you have any kind of a job like that, itís not a day job. And you do need to keep yourself floating financially, so there are certain things that you do need to do. But you have to look at it when you really start to dislike it, which I was.
N: It does sound like youíve come back from that break, and youíre a lot more excited about things; a lot more inspired.
E: Yeah. I am.
N: What are you going to do once the tour wraps up?
E: Iím thinking about doing some gigs. I want to do some dates, but I also want to start writing again, because thatís what Iíve been enjoying doing. As far as touring goes, I want to concentrate on anything that David might want to do, and a few gigs on my own. And then just writing, which I really enjoy right now. If youíre really enjoying it, then thatís what you should be doing.
N: Are you able to write on the road?
E: No. A couple of the guys in the band can do it, but I just get so into road and live mode. I do get a lot of ideas, and they do store in my head. When we get back Iíll take a break for myself, and all that stuff will flood out.
N: What is being on the road like for you? What is it like to be moving from place to place every day?
E: I actually enjoy it. I like plane rides. I enjoy the different places, checking things out, finding a decent restaurant. I like to do all that stuff. Iím a bit of a clothes shopping hound, so, you know, it works out fine. I enjoy the bus time. It gives you time to chill out.
N: So itís not as crazy as it used to be?
E: No. Back then, it wasnít that the road was crazy, just me. Since Iíve been cleaned up, my crazy factor has gone down. I do a lot of other crazy things, but not that kind of crazy thing anymore. Itís pretty mellow, man. Iíve been so busy doing stuff like this-Ė what weíre doing right now-- and I do enjoy it.
N: Well, youíve got to find someway to get people aware of what youíre doing.
E: You know, to be honest, after being in this business as long as I have, and being in the position Iím in, Iím grateful as hell that people are interested in talking to me, and they like what Iím doing. Not everybody gets that.
N: I donít know how familiar you are with the site, but we have this question that we ask everybody.
E: Uh, oh. (laughs)
N: How much do you know about dogs?
E: I know a lot about dogs.
N: Okay. Hereís the question: In your professional opinion, do you think dogs have lips?
E: Yes. They definitely do.
N: Itís a running question we ask everyone.
E: I know that for a fact, because I have two Newfoundlands. Do you know what they look like?
E: Theyíre huge dogs-- almost St. Bernard size-- and they have those big, droopy faces. Well, those things that hang down like on a Bullmastiff, those are their lips. And I know that because they drool all the time. Theyíre horrible droolers, and some people that get these dogs actually have this surgery where theyíll sew their lips up higher so they donít drool.
N: Thatís fucking horrible!
E: Yeah, thatís fucking horrible. Thatís how I found out about that, and I said these guys need to be taken down.
N: Wow. Thatís a new one. Iíve never heard of that before.
E: Yep. Donít even get me going on that, or declawing cats and the rest of it, because Iíll go ballistic.