Earl Slick, an American guitarist chats with Kevin Cooper about working with the late David Bowie, the current state of the music industry, his friendship with Glen Matlock and their forthcoming performance at 229 The Venue London on Saturday 10th August.

Earl Slick, an American guitarist, is best known for his collaborations with David Bowie, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Robert Smith. He has also worked with other artists including John Waite, Tim Curry and David Coverdale, in addition to releasing several solo recordings.

Slick was initially hired by David Bowie to replace Mick Ronson as lead guitarist for the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974. He also played lead guitar on Bowie’s Young Americans and Station To Station albums, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively.

He continued to work in the studio with former Mott The Hoople front man, Ian Hunter, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, before forming his own solo band, releasing both Razor Sharp and Earl Slick Band in 1976.

In 1983 he joined David Bowie again on his Serious Moonlight Tour, which supported the Let’s Dance album. At this time he also co-founded Phantom, Rocker & Slick; a band with Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker that saw the release of two albums.

During the time between the release of the albums, Slick appeared with Carl Perkins and a host of other musicians including Eric Clapton, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. In the early 2000s, he was back with Bowie, appearing on the studio albums Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003) as well as touring in support of those albums.

At this time he also released a solo album, Zig Zag, which featured guest performances by David Bowie, Robert Smith, and Joe Elliott. From 2006 he was a member of Slinky Vagabond with Glen Matlock, Clem Burke and Keanan Duffty.

In February 2016, he performed a tribute to Bowie at the Brit Awards with Bowie’s Reality touring band and the New Zealand singer, Lorde.

In 2014, Slick announced an exclusive distribution deal with Guitar Fetish of his own brand of guitars, featuring his own custom-wound pickups, and aged hardware and finishes. Each is a ‘stripped-down’ model, with only a single volume knob for simplicity.

Whilst busy rehearsing with Glen Matlock, Jim Lowe and Chris Musto for their appearance at 229 The Venue on 10th August, Slick took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Earl good afternoon, how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m great thanks, how are you man?

I’m good thanks and before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No problem, it’s my pleasure.

And I’m going to ask you the very important question, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

I must be honest and say that life now is treating me quite well. I’m glad to be back here in the UK and if nothing else I am enjoying the weather. New York has been so nasty; I was as happy as hell to get out for a little while.

Well what can I say, if you think this is nice let me tell you, we have had some really crappy weather over the last few months.

(Laughter) yes that’s right but you haven’t had temperatures of a hundred degrees; we are just taking a beating over there. I really couldn’t wait to leave (laughter).

It’s funny that you say that you are glad to be back here in the UK because I recently spoke to Glen (Matlock) and he said “if you ever come over to my gaff in London you will find a sofa that seems to be a temporary home to either Earl Slick or Slim Jim Phantom” (laughter).

(Laughter) I like that.

You are back here in the UK to play at 229 The Venue, London with Glenn, Jim Lowe and Chris Musto on Saturday 10th August. Are you looking forward to that?

Oh yes, very much so. It is always fun man. I really do always look forward to getting together and playing with my old pal Glen.

You, Jim and Chris are now officially The Usual Suspects as due to other commitments Slim Jim Phantom won’t be there with you.

That’s right, Slim Jim is currently out on tour with The Stray Cats but Chris (Musto) knows what he is letting himself in for, so all is good (laughter). As you have pointed out it will be just the four of us and let me tell you, it’s going to be great. Obviously, we will miss Slim Jim but it’s great to have Chris with us. I love Chris.

Without giving too much away, what can we expect?

A great show (laughter). That’s all that I am going to tell you (laughter). Guess what, I’m not even sure what we will be doing until we start playing every night, so there you go.

On that point, do you guys work to a set list or is it simply down to wherever the mood and the audience take you on the night?

Theoretically we work to a set list. However, things will mysteriously disappear during the show and other things will mysteriously appear (laughter). Let me just say that we tend to work within the confines of a framework of sorts. We actually know the songs though, so it usually works out okay (laughter).

That helps doesn’t it (laughter).

(Laughter) yes it does, indeed it does.

Whenever I have seen you and Glen playing together it looks as though you are taking money under false pretences because the two of you appear to be having far too much fun. Would you agree with that?

Well, you know, let’s not take it all too seriously (laughter).

The last time that I saw Glen was during his book launch where he read a few chapters, played a few songs and answered questions from the audience. Am I right in thinking that you have done something similar?

Yes, you are right. I did a bunch of shows over here in the UK last September. They are always fun to do; I love doing them. However, unlike Glen I didn’t have my acoustic guitar with me simply because I can’t sing like he does but I did do a Q&A which is always fun whenever I do that over here with the Brits (laughter).

I must ask you, just how did you a Glen meet?

We met through a mutual friend, Keanan Duffty, who is a British clothing designer and musician who is based over in New York City. Glen knew Keanan a while before I did but I finally met him in 2006 and we became good friends. It was some time after that that Keanan introduced me to Glen and the three of us then started working together in a very short-lived band called The Slinky Vagabond with myself, Glen, Keanan and Clem Burke. We did a few gigs and a couple of recordings, but it was hard to keep the band together because myself and Keanan lived in New York, Glen lived in the UK and Clem was living in Los Angeles, so it truly was impossible. This is easy because it is just me coming over; it’s not like we are scattered all over the globe.

I was fortunate to interview Clem a few months ago now and he said that whenever you, Glen and he get together it is nothing but fun.

That’s great to hear. Clem really is a bundle of fun. Whenever we get together with Glen, we really do have a lot of fun. There is work involved, no doubt, but you have got to have fun. If I’m not having fun, then I’m not happy (laughter).

If you are not having fun, then it simply becomes a job.

Yes, that’s right, it simply becomes a job and everyone who comes along to see you can see that you are there doing a job and that does not fare well for anyone at that point.

I was going to ask you what you and the boys charge for an after-show meet and greet because I recently saw KISS and they won’t sign anything. There are no photographs or selfies, and they charge you $5,000 for the privilege.

Fuck them. That’s all that I have to say (laughter).

(Laughter) I actually said something similar when I was told that.

All that I do is charge a pretty nominal fee at the door, somewhere between fifteen or twenty quid, and that’s it. Whenever I play those types of gigs it’s not how I make a living, it’s something that I do for me, I do it for the fans. They enjoy it, I enjoy it, I get to know them better, they get to know me better on a different level, and the whole experience really is great. I will read a few pages from my favourite book usually for around forty minutes, then I shut up. I have a timer with me onstage just to make sure that I don’t ramble on and people start to leave in order to buy popcorn or beer at some point (laughter). However, when I open the floor for questions that is when the fun starts.

You never know what they are going to come up with and surprisingly it is not what you would think. They don’t ask silly ass questions, they ask good questions as a rule. That in turn then opens it up for me to get more of an understanding between the fans and myself; it is great.

Glen said that if he got a pound every time that someone asked him, who killed Nancy Spungen, then he wouldn’t have to work anymore.

I know exactly what Glen means when he says that because I have those too.

Putting you on the spot, just what makes Glen Matlock so special?

What’s great about this and why I work with Glen is that first of all I like the music. If I didn’t like the music Glen and I would remain friends, but I wouldn’t be doing this. I love playing the music. Everything that we do is so easy in terms of there being no personality disorders in the band, we work hard, we have a lot of fun when we perform, and that’s the idea. That’s why I love doing it so much.

I must tell you that I still regularly play your 2003 album, Zig Zag, I think that it is a great piece of work.

Thank you, it is always nice when someone tells you that they like your work so bless you for saying that.

Are there any thoughts on any new studio material?

Well, to be honest with you, I have got a hell of a lot of stuff in the can right now. But the truth of the matter is that I am not sure what to do with it. With things being the way that they are now, I personally do have a problem giving my music away for free. You give your music over to Spotify and no one is ever going to buy it because it is on there. Of course, people get to listen to it for free which is all well and good, but then again, Spotify and the public end up getting it for free. I’m not in the business of giving my work away for free and I don’t mean that in any other way that if I work for free then I can’t make music which means that I have to have a day job, then if I get a day job I haven’t got the time to make music.

That is the Catch 22 situation in all of this. Because of social media and the way that the internet has treated our music, and how they have devalued it so much, it makes it so difficult. However, for us it is not, because we have been around the block, we have a strong fan base, we can always go out on the road and work, and therefore get our music out there to our fans. But, for the new guys who are currently starting out in the business, they are screwed. What are they going to do? Regardless of whether you are making millions of dollars or you are just making enough to get by, either way is good because you get to play. For the most part, the new guys can’t even make enough money to pay their rent. It’s not that easy for them. Don’t get me wrong, it was never easy but today it is almost impossible.

Whenever I speak to people in the music business and musicians about this, they all say that the problem started when the music industry ignored what Napster were doing and simply let them get on with it. Would you agree with that?

In my opinion that didn’t help matters but I have to say that it was stopped early enough. Napster was simply a precursor to a hell of a lot of what was going on. Napster just happened to be the first one to be publicly acknowledged. There was plenty of stuff that was going on under the radar, it was there already. Napster just happened to be the first one to rear its ugly head.

Do you have any views on public funding in order to get albums made?

Public funding is all well and good, but what do you do with it after you have finished it, that’s the ticket. It’s always best if you figure out just how to get things recorded properly. And if you put your mind to it, you always can. But what do you do with it next? That’s really it because you need to get it out there to the public, and how do you get it to the public in a way that is financially acceptable to you so that you can keep doing it and acceptable to the public so that they can afford it? It really is a twofold problem.

U2 and Bono, bless him, didn’t help matters by giving their album away free of charge.

I have to say that if you look closely at that situation, U2 didn’t really give the album away free of charge because when you are that big, even if they gave it away for free, that then persuaded the public that they wanted the real, physical thing in their hands which was proven because the record sold millions of copies worldwide. So, what happens if the new guy gives his work away for free, everyone says “oh, I got it for free”, ball game over (laughter). The new guy doesn’t have that lifelong fan base who are going to go out and tell everyone this is really cool, they gave this to me for free, but now I want a real one”. They are not going to do that with the new guys.

So, looking at it from the inside as an active artist, how do you solve the problem?

How do you get the shit back into the horse, I don’t know?

A lot of musicians tell me that the main reason for the current demise of the music business is that it is no longer run by musicians for musicians. They tell me that it is run by towel salesmen and CEO’s of large brewery organisations. People with little or no knowledge of the music business. Is that correct?

Yes, it is now, that is perfectly correct. In the very beginning it was too but if you go back to the early days, let’s say to the days of Ahmet Ertegün and Jerry Wexler. As you know they started Atlantic records where they had the capability to both record and promote music. The difference with Ahmet and Jerry is that they were hands on with the artists. Granted, I have no idea what these guys were getting paid back then, most probably not a lot, but they were getting paid and the big thing was that they had guys like Wexler and Ertegün who knew how to take their music, get it to the public, get them a hit record which would set them up at that point, if they had the talent, to keep going and make a career for themselves.

Now it’s not about making yourself a career, it has always been about the one hit wonder thing. Let’s grab this guy because he is good looking, he makes good records and if we can get a hit out of him or better still two hits out of him, fine then we can move on. That is nothing new. That is where it falls on the artists. If they have a great situation then they must take advantage of that situation, but I don’t know where those great situations are now.

I recently saw a documentary about sidemen, in which you were featured quite heavily. Are you happy being the gun for hire?

Absolutely. If I’m doing a gun’s for hire thing, if I am a sideman then working on a stage for me is no different from doing my own gig, or working with Glen, or anything because when I get onto a stage, I look at it as being a band member. In a band you have got a lead singer, you have got a guitar player who is usually up front somewhere, the rhythm section, and the idea for everybody is to make the show and the music work so that the lead singer, who is really the focal point, no matter what band you are in, is powerful, and as much as I love Keith Richards, the focus is really on (Mick) Jagger. Don’t get me wrong, Keith is great at making Jagger look good, he also makes the band sound great, and still being present without trying to grab the focus from the lead singer.

The whole idea is that the singer doesn’t have to be looking over his shoulder at you. He shouldn’t have to think about anything and that is what we are supposed to do whether you are in a band as a member or you are a sideman. To me there is no difference.

I can’t speak to you without speaking about the late David Bowie. What was David like to work with?

Considering that David and my working relationship was on and off for a very long time, I have to say that it was very easy, or I wouldn’t have gone back at any time. I would go off and do what it was that I was doing whatever it was, and then I would go back and join David, so it really was easy; it was great. In fact, it was a piece of cake because whenever I would join up with David it never felt that I was working for him, it just felt like I was a part of his band. That made is so easy for me to step in and out and any time.

The reason why I asked is that I recently spoke to Mick (Woody) Woodmansey and he said that whilst David was a perfectionist, he was always open to suggestions and ideas.

That’s right, absolutely, and that was the beauty of it. With David nothing was ever written in stone because if you would have come up with an idea out of nowhere David’s ears were very finely tuned into everything, and so if he heard something of value, he would grab it.

You have obviously been bombarded with questions about David since he passed away, so all that I would like to ask you is, do you have a lasting memory of David?

There are a lot of them, but I would think that out of all the years that David and I spent working together, the biggest memory that I have of him is that the David that I knew and the David that was portrayed to the public were never exactly in sync. He was very funny, very easy to get along with, and he really was one of the guys. That is the biggest thing that I remember, he was just one of the guys. I have heard stories of people having to walk on egg shells around the guy and shit like that, but let me tell you, it was never like that. To me, on a personal level, that was the biggest perk of the whole thing really.

I think that I saw both the good and the bad of David. The good was The Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983 and the bad was The Glass Spider Tour in 1987. I remember reading a quote from David where he said that The Glass Spider Tour was the worst thing that he had ever done.

I heard that, but I sat in on that tour a couple of times, but I didn’t see that. Having said that, you know that when you are sitting on a date you don’t see things (laughter). We have all had the best and the worst, me included. There have been sometimes when I have been an absolute monster and looking back on it going ‘Jesus, what the hell were you thinking at the time’.

What was the first record that you bought?

The very first record that I bought was the album what you guys here in the UK would have called With The Beatles, and in the States we called it Meet The Beatles.

Who did you first see performing live?

Wow, shit (laughter). Not counting local bands that would have been Led Zeppelin at The Filmore East in New York City. They were opening for a band called Iron Butterfly (laughter). I also saw Jimi Hendrix opening for The Monkees (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh Christ, there is always something that makes me cry. It depends upon what I hear, and what I am going through at the time. I couldn’t even tell you.

What is always at the top of Earl Slicks Rider?

Of course, it all depends upon who I am working with at the time but mostly it will be smoked salmon. That is if I can get it (laughter).

On that note Earl, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been a pleasure.

Cheers Kevin, thanks man. You take care and I hope to see you at the 229 Club. Bye for now.