NYC musician Brion Starr met the legendary Tony Visconti in an electronics store; the energy was right, both were looking for cables for their respective projects. Little did they know that soon they would be plugging in on an album together.
A Night To Remember is the culmination of their newfound friendship, a curious yet natural one that unites the generational gap through shared tastes, intuitions and musical language. Recorded at the infamous Chateau d’Herouville in France where Tony had worked on seminal records such as Bowie’s Low, T Rex’s The Slider, and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, A Night To Remember takes Visconti’s soulful production and applies it to Starr’s own cosmic sounds, realising an album that moves through time with ease, grooving with the stars.
Recently, Visconti and Starr sat down together shortly following the album release to unpick the work and celebrate its arrival – here is that conversation.
Jessica Romoff: What specifically about Brion’s music pulled you in?
Tony Visconti: Well, when I heard Brion’s music I realised that he had been studying almost everything I produced.
Brion Starr: [laughs]
TV: Although Brion clearly studied my past I found him to be refreshing. He didn’t sound like David Bowie, he didn’t sound like T-Rex, he sounded like himself. He’s got a really really unique voice and the types of songs were like… I liked them. They were all kind of decadent, about decadence and that’s one of my favorite topics actually.
JR: When you received Brion’s album he had already begun it. So, what did you feel compelled to add and what was your role in the album itself ?
TV: Well, with this album I knew where they were going and what they were going for. They even used the Chateau d’Herouville which is part of the formula, it has a sound, it has a piano there, it’s got a vibe. Your environment always affects the way you make a record. You know, if you live in a city and you go out every night you somehow get the nightclub the next day into the session. When I got the multitracks to mix I was flabbergasted. It was so nice. By passing all the instruments through synthesisers and the harmoniser they already had great sounds. I just did more of the same with my effects. I just took his lead, as a producer I don’t try to put too much of myself into it, I want to make the artist sound as good as possible, represent everything the artist does. I often ask permission, I mean I did some backing vocals that he didn’t ask for but I heard them, you know I did backing vocals for David Bowie and T Rex and all that. So I said, I just hear them and if you don’t like them I’ll just wipe them but he gave me the thumbs up.
BS: And then we got into shakers and you did the baritone bass on that song.
TV: Yeah, I did play some instruments but I’ve forgotten, I think he’s right, I did play this baritone guitar.
BS: Yeah. The Danelectro. I honestly don’t think there is anything we put on those tracks that we took off.
BS: We used everything, we just clicked instantly.
TV: So, it turned out to be quite a stunning album to listen to, it’s never a dull moment on this album. If it’s not his vocals it’s some little thing going on in your right ear, some sound or some little squeak, some little musical motif that comes on for a second or two. So, between the two of us we really jam packed that album full of yummy stuff.
Photography by Alex Hall
JR: How do you feel recording at the Chateau impacted the overall sound of A Night To Remember and what qualities of the room bled into your music.
BS: I had recorded in big rooms before but this was different. The first four days we were there we were just moving the drums around and figuring out where we wanted to place things. The first couple of songs we were kind of feeling it out and then I could really use the room as an instrument and that became really cool because I hadn’t experimented so much in that way before. That was really exciting, we even recorded some vocals in the stone stairwell which sounded amazing. We used the room quite a lot but we also used the whole castle.
JR: And what effect do you think it brought to the album that say, if you recorded at your studio in New York it would have lacked?
BS: Well, the drums are just phenomenal, and that was something I learned from Tony. We took all the drums and ran everything through the harmoniser, so they have this effect that sounds very much from the school of what Tony does but also like, living electronics I would say, and that was a big motivation behind the record, running every instrument through some sort of synthesiser – that’s the thing about the album I dig the most.
Photography by Alex Hall
JR: Tony, where did you feel you pushed Brion the most on this album to escape his comfort zone.
TV: Did I ask you to re-sing anything?
BS: There was, yeah, The Butler, we did the 5th.
TV: Yeah, I knew he could do better, there was one vocal I told him he was throwing it away, this song could be so much better if he re-sang it and he said yes, he was great about it
BS: Did you add backup vocals to that one?
TV: Yeah, that was one! [sings] Bah bah bahda bah.
BS: We both went in on that, which was great because essentially we did end up keeping the original but I did a 5th under. That was challenging for me and something I hadn’t thought of before. Even the band and some other people were like, “Oh no, that vocal is so good let’s keep it that way,” and I was like, “I’m going to give this a shot!” And I go to do it and I wasn’t feeling it at first either but then when I finally hit what you were trying to convey to me, it just went whhehhhoo and zzzsshhhuuu and the whole song stuck together – that was a very special moment.
TV: [laughs] yes.
BS: That was something else you showed me, I remember you said something very specific, that you want something to change every five-six seconds. That is when you started adding things because I was like, “Oh yeah, that would be cool if that did that,” and when we went in to mix this album, we were supposed to be in for a week or something? Maybe a little bit more than a week.
TV: Yeah, very optimistic.
BS: And we ended up in there for three weeks.
TV: These things take time, you can’t rush them.
JR: How did you come up with the concept for the album?
BS: Some of the lyrics were floating around and that time in my life coincided with a very messy period of being a very nocturnal person and it all kind of came together in a very natural way. Maybe I lived that life to make this record.
JR: What do you mean by that?
BS: I think I maybe dove headfirst into certain aspects of the nighttime that, you know, I should have maybe had a bit more reservation with but that’s a different story.
JR: Don’t we all.
BS: There is a concept to the album, it’s the story of this one night. Some of the tracks deal directly with the main character and others focus on people in the periphery of his world. Some of the songs are more about the dreamstate, or a feeling, then there are songs about nocturnal creatures, nocturnal animals, the myth of darkness and the nighttime – it’s a mix of real people we know and fantasy.
JR: One of my favourite tracks is 21st Century Limited.
BS: That song is a very direct character study, it’s a homage to one of my favourite jazz musicians, Alice Coltrane. There was a train called the 20th Century Limited which was a night-liner from New York to Chicago and I have always really enjoyed travelling at night, and it gives me a sense of the ethereal mystique. I do my best writing when I am travelling, particularly at night. I wanted to try to capture that feeling in a song. I would qualify it as an instrumental, the only lyrics are the name of the song as this phasing vocal.
JR: Brion, what do you think you learned the most from Tony while working with him?
BS: Do what you feel, don’t think too much about it, and always keep it interesting. I really appreciate that piece of advice.
JR: What’s next for you both?
BS: We’re going to make another record.
TV: We’re making another record! This time from the ground up.
BS: And in London.
TV: Yeah, in London. I’ve got two studios in London I’m associated with. One is my old studio on Dean Street in Soho I had from ’78-’89, I did Scary Monsters there – I did so many great recordings in that studio. The other studio I am very proud of is in Kingston University in Surrey, it’s just south of London in the countryside. If we want to go out, it’s closer to London than the Chateau (d’Herouville) was to Paris. You want to be a bad boy for an evening? It only takes half an hour to get to the heart of London, the heart of Soho. So, it’s an ideal situation and I might add that I am part of the faculty as well. I’m Dr. Visconti I’ll have you know!
JR: [laughs] I still think that is pretty insane that you have recorded one of the first full-length albums at the Chateau since it reopened.
BS: The first full-length album.
JR: And you were there in the 70s recording several albums, Tony. How do you feel about that connection?
TV: It’s cosmic, it really is.