Mind Warp Pavilion finale, 2017. Pic: Richard Watson
The Mind Warp Pavilion returns to Gate One Theatre, Claremont Showgrounds, to celebrate the life and music of David Bowie on Saturday, February 3. The much-loved musical icon passed on two years ago now, but as our chat with Musical Director, Greg Dear, proves, when it comes to our love of Bowie, nothing changes…
It’s always sad when a well-loved musical identity leaves us, but it’s really more pronounced with David Bowie, don’t you think?
I agree. Bowie’s death hit me quite hard, and I was surprised by that. I think it was the fact that he had kept his health problems so well hidden. He released an album (Blackstar, 2016) that was stunning and such a powerful return to form - not that the previous one (2013’s The Next Day) was lacking in any way - and then a few days later he was gone. I think the only other time I was hit so much by a musical hero’s death was when John Lennon was shot. It was the manner in which Bowie lived and worked in his final months that only became apparent after his death.
Bowie wasn’t only highly influential to you as a teenager on your way to becoming a musician, he was also the gateway to a lot of other music for you…
Absolutely. I think I have said this in other interviews too. I obsessively read every magazine article about Bowie and listened to every radio interview of Bowie that I could find as a high school student, and every artist he mentioned or referenced in some way I would investigate. I remember going into suburban record stores to be told that the New York Dolls don’t exist, or that Raw Power was the only record that the Stooges had released, when I knew that was not the case.
Bowie led me to Lou Reed and from there to the Velvet Underground and from there to John Cale’s solo career. I also discovered Eno’s solo records after he left Roxy Music – purely because magazine photos of Eno indicated that he was probably similar to Bowie. In spirit he was, even though they both developed very different sounds and material. It made perfect sense when they worked together to produce Low - which I thought was more like early Eno than Bowie - and Heroes which was classic Bowie with Fripp and Eno helping out. I also remember seeing Patti Smith’s Horses in Dada when I was 15 and it had just been released. That cover grabbed me straight away and I wanted to listen to it, but when I turned it over and saw on the back cover that it was produced by John Cale, I just bought it without listening and when I got it home and listened to it, it blew me away. From Patti I discovered Television, and from there the New York punk bands, although I never knew they were ‘punk’ until later when the English punk thing happened and I started checking out those bands. And of course, from the earlier Stooges discoveries it was only natural to me that Iggy and Bowie would join forces to produce Lust for Life and The Idiot.
I was very disappointed when the Iggy show at the Perth Concert Hall in 1977 was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. I was looking forward to it, and still had never heard the term ‘punk’. It was all just Bowie-related music of value to me as a kid. I think the early influence of Bowie on my musical taste was that I became drawn to anything ‘arty’ or left-field that still had a good pop sensibility. In ‘77 and ‘78 everyone was going on about the Sex Pistols and The Damned, and they were good, but to my ears The Ramones and The Buzzcocks were just great pop bands, and Wire were far and away the best thing to come out of the so-called English punk scene. Of course, The Stones, Neil Young, Tom Waits, The Doors, Black Sabbath, Led Zep, etc, were all an influence on me, but above all of that and everything else was Bowie and the arty pop stuff that a love of Bowie led me to.
The first Mind Warp Pavilion show last year looked good on paper, but it seemed to exceed everybody’s expectations, on stage and off. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I was blown away by the affection and comradery in the room that night. I knew that each of the singers and performers would do a good job with their songs and that it would be a worthwhile show, but I didn’t really appreciate how wonderful it would be until it happened. I mean, we had 45 local musicians - all proud artists who are rightfully confident about what they do - but there wasn’t one single ego on display. It was just love and dedication all round. I got quite emotional about the way that everyone pitched in and made it a great night. It was so special that I didn’t want to do it again. However, numerous people urged us to do it again and now here it is about to happen once more.
In assembling the musicians and singers for this year, what was your process for assigning certain songs/eras to certain participants? And within that, how much did you weigh in the potential experience of teaming people who had never played together - or even met - before?
The process was one of negotiation within parameters that I set and managed to uphold. There are certain songs that simply have to be part of the live performances. I also wanted some of the less obvious song choices to feature as well, though. As a starting point, I invited everyone back who was part of last year. I wanted it to be different, but to have some overlap, but there was no one who could be neglected. Some from last year couldn’t be available this year - touring or otherwise busy with other projects - and a couple wanted to sit out and give someone else a turn, but come back in future years if we keep doing it. I then simply started to replace those who couldn’t return, and some singers from last year wanted to do a different song. There were also a few forced changes this year, many at the last minute - health issues and other clashes causing some to have to pull out - and a few people needing to swap song for various reasons, or me needing to swap people around because of those who pulled out. Due to clashes with other events we also had to make this year’s show a few weeks later than last year which was on the eve of Bowie’s 70th birthday.
From the rehearsals so far, what songs and combinations of people look set to surprise the audience?
This year will feature a couple of songs that we weren’t brave enough to attempt last year. The same principles that I set last year are operating again – put bands together comprising musicians who don’t usually play together, and draw on a mix of age groups and genres. Similarly, we have some singers who have been stars of the local scene for many years and some who are coming into prominence now or who are just starting to make a name for themselves. They don’t have to be Bowie tragics like I am, and like Leanne (Casellas, promotions and admin brains of the event) is. I’ve invited people who I think can bring something interesting to the show and who can embody the spirit of Bowie’s inventiveness and dexterity. Of course, many of the people involved are Bowie obsessed, but some come from very different backgrounds. Without exception though, the performers appreciate Bowie’s legacy and artistry.
What have organising these MWP shows reinforced to you – or even newly taught you – about David Bowie?
I always knew that his songs were deceptive: they either seem quite simple but are incomprehensibly complex, or they seem complex but are deceptively simple. Sara (from Rag’n’Bone who plays bass in one of the bands) and I were commenting to each other at one of the rehearsals that as much as Bowie’s songs cover a huge diversity of genres and structures, there are a few patterns that we recognise coming up in a number of songs and which make us smile – ‘hey David, you’ve used that chord progression before mate’.
Even Rick Wakeman, who is an insanely talented piano player, has commented in an interview that he found some of Bowie’s chord patterns to be not only surprising and brilliant, but also extremely difficult to play. I’d much rather listen to the Ramones than to Rick Wakeman, but I do respect his virtuosity. So if he thinks Bowie is challenging, then he absolutely is.
What are your hopes for this year’s show?
That the audience loves it as much as last year, and that they recognise that a vast array of local musicians has worked their butts off to bring this together, and they are doing it for their love and appreciation of a great artist who we are very sad to have lost. This is not a tribute: we are not trying to mimic or reproduce Bowie; it is a celebration of Bowie. All of the performances will be true to the songs, but look at the different versions that Bowie has done over the years, so not every song is designed to sound exactly like it does on the first recording of it. Many will though.
And beyond that, I really hope that we can break even or go beyond that so that we have some profits to donate to the Cancer Council. Last year we donated $3,500, having covered costs of roughly $15,000 to produce the show… this is not just a simple gig. I do hope to go past the break-even point and make a further donation to the Cancer Council this year. I have absolutely no doubt that those who come to this show will have a ball, so that is not a hope of mine – it is simply a given. Finally, I hope that this year works well enough to enable us to put it on again every year. It is an enormous task, but if it keeps the love of Bowie alive, then it is worthwhile.
One more thing that I feel a need to say is this: in my day job I am a scientist and I have no time for magical thinking, but last year something magical and a bit spooky did happen. When the singer of the first song in the show stepped out on stage and leaned into the microphone he became aware of a spider hanging from a 15-metre single line of web right in front of that microphone – like a spider from mars, or some other world, it hung from a high. It was as if Bowie had come down to let us know that he approved of and appreciated the celebration we were embarking on. No one has seen a spider before or since in that arena. Having made its appearance, the spider climbed back up its web and was not seen again. Make of it what you will, but be assured that the music on February 3 will lift your spirit and blow your mind. Perhaps the spider will come back again, to let us know we are doing good work.
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