Seattle Post-Intelligencer - 12 April 2004

Gettin' Ziggy wit it? No, Bowie builds his set lists around the here and now

By Gene Stout

British rocker David Bowie - the man who brought us "Ziggy Stardust," "The Man Who Sold the World," "Aladdin Sane" and other classic albums - is on one of his most successful tours in years. The globe-trotting trek, which is now taking another swing through North America, is named for "Reality," the powerful 2003 album featuring "New Killer Star" and "Never Get Old." The 57-year-old rocker talked to us after sound check in Winnipeg, Canada. He's due to perform Wednesday night at KeyArena, with The Polyphonic Spree opening.

How many songs are you and your band performing in the "Reality" show?

The other night I think we did 35 (laughs). Most nights we do at least 24. But some nights, if the audience is lucky enough, I'll do 30. We really push it. We have about 50 songs that we choose from and I would say that about 50 percent of the set list stays the same and the rest changes every two or three nights. It's enough songs to ensure that we don't get too sedate about what we're doing.

Your current set includes "I'm Afraid of Americans."

I trust that audiences will see the irony in the song, but it's certainly a favorite. I wouldn't dream of not doing it, even in Austin (laughs).

You've also included "Cactus," by the recently reunited Pixies. The song is featured on "Heathen." Is the song a personal favorite?

Frank (Black, aka Black Francis) and I got to know each other in the late '80s. I've been a fan of the Pixies forever. Even in Tin Machine, we covered a few songs by that band. And I played with the Pixies on several bills on festivals and things before they split, and I thought it was really sad they broke up. I put "Cactus" on "Heathen" just out of respect for Frank because I think so highly of him as a writer.

A review of your recent Toronto show described you as "the rare artist of his vintage committed to where he is now, not yesterday."

Some people want us to do more oldies. And some people want us to do more new material. I think I have to go with my gut instinct about what we're going to be capable of playing with a lot of enthusiasm. That's really the bottom line. I can't just stick things in because I expect the audience will want them to be there. So we're not doing "Let's Dance" every show. And we're not doing "Space Oddity" and "Golden Years" and many others. We're just doing the ones that work in the context of the newer material.

You seem to be clicking with younger audiences these days. But on the Nine Inch Nails tour of the mid-'90s, things didn't always go smoothly.

It's hell to be a support band. But overall, I like a lot of what happened to us on that tour. It became progressively better as we continued. And both Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails' lead singer) and I felt we had really accomplished something by the end of the tour. We got off to a very shaky start. But it did help me understand a certain aesthetic that was needed to do live performance in front of younger crowds. Especially ones who expect harder music. On the other hand, I wouldn't want to lose the people who have stayed with me for years. Because they're pretty bright people as well. You've gotta find a balance between not seeming to harness a young crowd and not trying to appease the older crowd. It's interesting being (my) age and having this wide of a crowd. It's really mad.

Where will the tour go after finishing up in North America in late May?

We'll head back to Europe and the U.K. and do a lot of summer festivals. It's going to be great. Some of the bills are extraordinary. One of them in Spain is with Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan and ourselves - extraordinary assortments of acts as they tend to do in Europe. I don't know why but it always seems to work in Europe. Nobody's really cracked it here in the States. It does seem that kids generally want to go to very genre-specific kinds of shows. And that's a shame, that they don't have a kind of wider acceptance of acts. Because then I believe they could get some really exciting festivals in North America.

It seems the success of "Heathen" and "Reality" have given you a much higher profile.

I gotta say, going with a new label, Columbia Records, they certainly made my presence far more known with "Heathen." I think that pricked everyone's ears up and showed that I hadn't slid off the radar. But I really like what I was doing in the '90s, and I'm not sure that "Heathen" and "Reality' are any better or worse than anything I did then. There's a certain standard of writing and performance that I hope I've maintained since the beginning of the '90s.