The Outside Summer Festivals Tour involved a slimmed-down band line-up. David Bowie was accompanied by Reeves Gabrels on guitar, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Mike Garson on keyboards, and Zachary Alford on drums. These were the core musicians who would play on Earthling.
The genesis for this album was the dynamic achieved and harnessed by the end of the summer tour. I was working as part of a group of musicians who all valued each other; by the time of the album, the five of us had bonded as a unit and we wanted to satisfy the tour energy with new songs.
The five of us have been working together since February 1996: this was the nucleus of the eight-piece band that I was touring with at the end of 1995. Mixing that band in large halls was very difficult: I thought if I stripped the fat away, it would sound more direct.
Earthling press release
Mike Garson had first played with Bowie in 1972 on the Ziggy Stardust Tour, and had appeared on the albums Aladdin Sane, Pinups, Diamond Dogs, David Live, and Young Americans. There followed a break lasting nearly two decades, before they were reunited on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise.
Although he was normally best suited to Bowie’s more experimental releases, Garson found little to like on Earthling.
‘Little Wonder’ did nothing for me; neither did ‘Telling Lies’.
He took me and Reeves to a club in London to listen to Goldie and I was thinking, ‘Where’s the melody?’ I enjoyed watching people dance, and that was it. Earthling didn’t have enough melody for me. Although I’m a crazy improviser, I like a good melody – that’s what inspires me. I remember telling Reeves I didn’t think Earthling would have the future power Outside would have.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
He did, however, profess a love for ‘Looking For Satellites’, and was bemused when it was not chosen as a single.
I thought that was the best tune on the album. I got so turned off when they didn’t follow through with that and release it as a single that I lost my desire, because I thought that was the one. I thought that was a mistake. When I heard those vocals at the beginning I almost died, it was so good.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
Zack Alford had joined Bowie’s band for the Outside Tour. Earthling contained a mix of his live drumming, sampled loops, and programmed beats.
I indicated to Zach the style and tempo of the piece of music; virtually, that’s all I gave him. He would take like half a day and work out loops of his own on the snare, and create patterns at 120 bpm that we would then speed up to the requisite 160. Then he would have that as a bedrock to play on top of. That loop would be fairly minimal – maybe four or eight bars maximum. And then over the top of that he would improvise on a real kit. So what you had was a great combination of an almost robotic, automaton approach to fundamental rhythm, with really free interpretive playing over the top of it. I think the best example of that on Earthling is a track called ‘Battle For Britain’, where you really get a feeling for how Zach and the loops are interacting.
Modern Drummer, July 1997
Another new member of Bowie’s band was Mark Plati, who with Reeves Gabrels was given a co-producer credit. Plati had actually worked on the ‘Fame 90’ remix some years previously, but his work on Earthling led to him becoming a core part of Bowie’s live band, as well as production and performances on ‘hours…’, Heathen, and Reality.
The other new studio collaborator was bass guitarist and singer Gail Ann Dorsey. Like Plati and Alford, it was the beginning of a lengthy union with Bowie, encompassing his final six tours, and appearances on Earthling, Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day.
It was May 1995, and I was in England, at [Tears for Fears’] Roland Orzabal’s house. I had been playing for them and we were just writing songs and hanging out in his recording studio in Bath. I thought this has to be a fluke, it can’t be the real David Bowie. Then he said, ‘No, love, it’s David.’ I think he was probably used to that reaction. So a six-week gig turned into a twenty-year association. I wasn’t a huge fan beforehand, but he was an amazing artist…
When we first met I was so, so nervous, and then he walked into the room and he was just so sweet, as he always was, he was always very gracious to everyone and made me feel at home instantly. He was very funny, very sassy, always a quick comeback with something. He was always in touch with popular culture, had papers from every city. I don’t even know how he had so much time, and it was before the Internet was so intense. He always had his ear to the ground with music, art, fashion, always who and what is the latest thing. It was because he was interested in it, he wasn’t trying to copy it, he just wanted to know what was going on. He would come into rehearsals with twelve-inch singles and vinyls that you’d get on Brick Lane and be like, ‘This is what’s happening in London right now,’ and that’s how Earthling came along.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones