'It’s clear that for many, many years, for more years that most artists do, he listened to himself.'

By Eric Renner Brown
January 15, 2016 at 06:40 PM EST
Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Mere hours before the world learned of David Bowie’s passing late Sunday night, Bowie-related news of a much different tone broke: City Winery director Michael Dorf had chosen to honor the rocker in the latest installment of his tribute concert series, which has previously paid homage to stars like Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne.

With a lineup including Michael Stipe, Perry Farrell, The Roots, Cat Power, and The Mountain Goats, the show had been in the works for months, but it immediately grew in prominence — enough so that Dorf announced Thursday the addition of a second night at Radio City Music Hall on April 1, to follow the initially planned March 31 gig at Carnegie Hall. “It was an easy call for us,” the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle tells EW. “Bowie was somebody who, in my peer group growing up, was a big, big deal. Ten years ago Bowie was showing up to people’s shows around New York all the time, so I’ve been indulging fantasies that he would be there for a while.”

In light of Bowie’s death, Darnielle opened up about his connection to the musician and why he’s excited to pay tribute later this year.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you become involved with the upcoming tribute concert?
JOHN DARNIELLE: I’ve done one of the Michael Dorf things at Carnegie Hall before. We did the Rolling Stones one. They’re these great celebrations of music that help music in the schools in New York City. There are some giants on these bills: I got to dance with Roseanne Cash at the last one; Art Garfunkel was on the bill. It’s a fun time.

How are you preparing for the show?
We know what we’re going to play, but that’s secret until it happens. [We] are working on some ideas about who will play what, because his music is a pretty open text in a lot of ways. You can present it in a number of different ways. You can do a lot of stuff with it. Last time I was at Carnegie I got to play the Steinway [piano]. All other things we’re talking about aside, Steinway at Carnegie Hall is just incredible, right?

You said Bowie was a huge artist for your friend group, do you remember your first exposure to him?
I didn’t know what to make of him when I was in grade school, but I remember the record I got from the library was an early one, before he had really figured out what he was going to do. It had “The Laughing Gnome” on it. It’s a novelty single from the mid-’60s. I was a kid and I liked that.

I checked out Station to Station — it’s an interesting record for an 11-year-old to try and parse. I didn’t really know what to make of it; it’s hard to locate the melodies if you’re used to verse-chorus-verse [structure]. But then in high school, my peer group was kids two or three years older than me and Bowie was absolutely the coin of the realm. Everybody had an opinion about David Bowie. Everybody I knew was into David Bowie to some extent. This would’ve been historically at the end of that incredible run that I guess begins with, I’d say, Hunky Dory — where he does a bunch of albums in a row, all of which are bare minimum remarkable. Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters is a remarkable run; Scary Monsters was the most recent one when we were all into Bowie. He had that thing where you get into an artist and it looks like they can do no wrong, because every album up to when you get into them is amazing.

How did David Bowie’s music shape your own?
Bowie as a figure, his importance is almost totemic in some ways. He’s not a person, you don’t know him. He’s making these records that are vague enough — like a lot of great pop music — to give you phrases to hang onto. He’s also doing interrogative self-presentation, to use some academic language, which is really empowering to a lot of people, to say, “Well, I want to look like this.” It tells you that just because you’re having success doesn’t mean you can’t continue to test what people will or won’t accept from you. It doesn’t mean you have to be satisfied with having gotten someplace. It doesn’t mean you have to stop risking the possibility of falling down flat.

For me and my cohort, “Let’s Dance” — which was a huge record — we all hated it! I like it better now because I know more about music now, whereas at the time it was like, “Giant pop record that everybody likes? Bowie belongs to us.” He was weirdo music — and then became less interested in being that persona. For many of us it was like, “No, no, wait, he belongs to the freaks.” But it’s part of that presentation that he gave, the permission to stop being the outsider if you want to, to think of your outside self as more plastic than we do a lot of the time. That’s a powerful thing to tell people and to tell performers. It’s clear that for many, many years, for more years that most artists do, he listened to himself.

Do you have a favorite album of Bowie’s?
My friends and I would stay up all night arguing about David Bowie. Our argument was “Who’s better, Lou Reed or David Bowie?” I was the Lou Reed partisan back then. My friends were Bowie fiends. We all liked both artists, we would just sit around bickering about which one’s greater. You wind up putting the big songs up against each other and the big albums, but then you also wind up putting the ones where they fall down and going, “Well…”

Maybe Station to Station? The one he didn’t remember making. That was his year of drug use and he had no recollection of recording the album, which is terrifying. Recording an album is a journey, an experience. People deploy that like a punchline — “Oh yeah, he was so high he didn’t remember it!” Think about spending a month making something, a piece of art, and being too high to remember making it. That’s terrifying. And yet, he brings some remarkable art from that place. That’s his most mystical album, I think.