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Inside the rock star's studio with music arranger Paul Buckmaster

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Paul Buckmaster (L) with David Bowie in 1975. Brad Elterman, Courtesy Paul Buckmaster

So far, 2016 has been a tough year for music fans, with the sudden deaths of David Bowie and Prince — but we’re fortunate to have many memories and stories from the people who worked with them.

One of those people is Paul Buckmaster, who was a young man in the late 1960s when he was asked to work with Bowie on two songs for the album “Space Oddity,” including the title track. That launched Buckmaster on a long career, working with a who's who of artists, including Elton John, Miles Davis, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

Space Oddity

Buckmaster stopped by The Frame to explain his role as an arranger, what it was like to work with Miles Davis and how a chance encounter early in his career led to working with David Bowie

Interview Highlights

Tell me how you ended up working with Bowie.

This trombonist invited me to a recording session where the producer was Gus Dudgeon. Gus asked me a few questions and said, "Yeah, very interesting. You've got some good ideas. Come to my office tomorrow." I did, I turned up at his office. And there was the man who became my first manager, Tony Hall. And Tony was very interested in some of the things that I said and he said, "Have you done any arranging?" And I said no. "Would you like to try?" And I said, yes.

Then one day, at Gus' office, I was introduced to this young man David Bowie. They wanted to make this one record, which is "Space Oddity." During that period I hung out with David a lot. We had a very great enthusiasm for the classic science-fiction authors, which we spent hours talking about. It was wonderful. We did the recording session and the rest is history. That was my first international hit as an arranger.

Wild Eyed Boy

Let's step back for a minute. We're in Los Angeles and we've got a lot of people who work in the industry. But think about the layperson who's listening to this and they're not sure what an arranger does. You're obviously a trained musician. At what point are you invited into a project?

In the case with the first Elton John album, I was the arranger, which meant that I had to arrange for drums, bass, guitar, percussion, as well as orchestral-type instruments like woodwinds and brass. As the arranger at that time — see we were recording on 8-track analogue tape — you had to plan these things very carefully. You couldn't do what you do now and have every instrument on a separate channel in Pro Tools. 

As an arranger, you're writing all the parts that have not been recorded by the artists and the "band" in the session?

Right. I had to turn up with the parts all ready. The musicians were reading session musicians. Being professional session musicians, they know how to restrain themselves and keep to the general idea that I as the arranger had said. So the arranger has to have this overall view as it was then. Then when 16- and 24-track came in, the producer and the artist would either have their own band or do their own tracks, and I was only called in to do what Americans call "sweetening" — which I detest as a term — which is adding these orchestral parts, and I'm pigeonholed as a string arranger. I am in part doing this, but I am an arranger. Period.

You mentioned the first Elton John album. He did the piano but you did everything else?

Everything else. In the case of the song "Sixty Years On," we had been given carte blanche by Elton and his personal manager Steve Brown to do whatever we wanted. The only thing we couldn't interfere with was his piano part. As we went on with the song I said, "Look, we've got a little too much piano here. Let me transcribe that for harp so that what you hear on the record is the piano part transcribed for harp with some modifications which were from my own taste." Essentially it was note for note.

Elton John - Sixty Years On

You worked with Miles Davis on a few of his records. His reputation was of someone who could be difficult. He was exacting and demanding of his musicians. How did you come to work with Miles, and what was the experience like?

My manager Tony Hall was a personal friend of Miles. Partly fueled by their common interest in fashion. They were not dandies, but they liked to dress nicely. And I said, "I'm trying to get tickets for the Miles Davis show at the Odeon Hammersmith," which is now called the Apollo. I said, "I'm trying to get tickets and it seems to be sold out." He said, "Don't worry about that. Come with us." Then I discovered shortly after that he was a personal friend. The day after that gig, Tony Invited me to his apartment and Miles and his companion at the time, Marguerite Eskridge, came over. We had English tea. Tony introduced me to Miles and said to him, "Paul just had an interesting jam session a few days ago. Would you like to hear it?" And he said yes. So he listened to it silent, nodding occasionally. When it was over, he turned to me and said, "Buckmaster, you're a son of a gun." (I'm not one of those people who try to imitate his voice). 

Which albums did you end up working on for him?

Well in '72 I got a phone call direct from Miles and he asked if I would come over and work with him. So I went down to Pan Am and bought a ticket the same day and dropped everything. I got on the plane and was with him as a guest in his house for the next two months. The album that came out of those sessions was called "On The Corner," which resulted from this idea I had to combine strange space music with street music. I introduced Miles to the electronic organ, which at the time, my favorite model was the Yamaha YC-45. I loved that electronic sound which was kind of science-fiction-like to me. I always associated Miles with being a kind of Martian. There was something about him that was unearthly. 

Miles Davis - On The Corner

Was it a good experience for you all around with Miles?

It was fantastic and amazing, but at times intimidating. Here I am a conservatory cat amongst these tigers, monsters of jazz. 

You've done some film composing as well — "12 Monkeys" I wanted to ask you about in particular. How did that project come about, and tell us a little bit about the theme music.

I got a phone call from the office of the producer Chuck Roven asking me to come and see him. His assistant handed me the synopsis. I saw that it said Terry Gilliam and I said "Wow!" I read the synopsis and I said, "I know what this is — Chris Marker's 'La Jetée,'" which is a short black-and-white film composed entirely of stills made in the early '60s by this French director, which is the story expanded into a full feature. I sat down with Chuck and said, "This is 'La Jetée!'" He said, "You know 'La Jetée?'" He said he had spoken with people who didn't know anything about it, even people in Los Angeles who had never heard of it. 

12 Monkeys theme

So what was your approach to the music for Gilliam's film?

Well, they had temped the opening with music by the great Argentinian composer and bandleader Astor Piazolla. When speaking to Chuck Roven, he showed me the opening and I said, "Wait, that's Astor Piazolla." He said, "You know Piazolla?" So those two elements bought me the job immediately. That was it. I was in. I said let's license it because it's too great of a piece. So "Suite Punta del Este," that's the opening movement of that suite. I then basically expanded for full orchestra with some minor little touches of my own. It works beautifully with the picture of course. It's just perfect.

You did not get to work with David Bowie again after that first record. Is that correct?

No, we did collaborate together for the music for his film "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Sadly, the music that we wrote was rejected by the director and he had some other people write for it. But we spent a better part of two months in the late summer of '75 working together. We had several recording sessions where we put a lot of things down. The music still exists on multitrack tape and I have a cassette in storage somewhere. 

You said you hadn't been in touch with David Bowie for some time, but it still must have been a huge shock when he died.

Yes, I was up late working at about 2:15 a.m. whenever it happened. I checked my email and I saw this headline had come in from the New York Times, and it almost knocked me off my chair. It almost flattened me on the floor. As I said to some friends, it hit me like a steam train at speed. It was very shocking for me because it was totally unexpected and heartbreaking. 

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