Interviewing someone who has spent time inside The Rolling Stones can be a daunting task for a journalist. With the exception of the “core four”, band members are careful about what they can and can’t say, and sometimes the interviewer may actually know what’s on the radar for the band more than the interviewee. Bernard Fowler has been a member of the Stones’ extended band for over 25 years, singing backup vocals on both live and recorded albums since 1989, a term that exceeds the age of most bands.
His work with the Stones actually goes back to his days working with Mick Jagger on She’s The Boss (1985) during the most contentious period of the band’s history. Fowler’s third solo album, Inside Out, is out today.
It’s a spoken-word album, with Fowler re-working the music of the Rolling Stones. Call it “an album of covers,” though, and you’re selling it short. It’s more of a jazz album, with Rolling Stones lyrics woven into it.
I started off this assignment, eager to gain some insight into what makes Bernard Fowler tick. There was the research into both him and his time with the Rolling Stones, and what I first found was that his work outside of the Stones was just as compelling as his work inside the band. I started finding some killer tracks he had done on his previous two albums. Then I got hold of the album that this piece centers around, Inside Out. I had already heard an advance track, “Sympathy For The Devil.” I assumed I was going to hear just the one song done in spoken word. Then I got the rest of the album and started skimming through it.
Every song is done in spoken word. I first though to myself, “Stones fans will hear this and probably be very critical of it.” I started to focus on the production, the recording, really digging into the album from a technical standpoint, and doing more research. Then I decided to tune everything else out, and sit down with the album a second time. The second time led to a third time, and a fourth time, and so on. The first time I listened to the album, I noted how much further “out front” the lyrics were, which works well for me because I tend to focus on the instrumentality of songs, rather than their lyrical content. On the second spin, I faded the lyrics out in my mind, and started to listen to the instrumentation, the songs. What I found was something that had links to so many different artists I had gown up loving. I could hear James Brown, Miles Davis, the percussion of Santana, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Billy Cobham.
If you like your rock music infused with the razor sharp virtuosity of the above-mentioned artists, then this record is for you. Make no mistake, this is not an album’s worth of Rolling Stones covers. If you’re expecting to hear Stones songs sung (or spoken) by Bernard Fowler, that’s not what you’re going to hear. What you are going to hear are a collection of tracks that have as their distant relatives the Rolling Stones, in a way you couldn’t imagine.
Bernard was kind enough to spend some time with me, in the middle of his A Bowie Celebration – The David Bowie Alumni Tour. Since then, The Rolling Stones’ 2019 tour of the U.S. and Canada has been postponed due to Mick Jagger’s heart surgery. Here’s what Bernard had to say about his latest project, life with the Stones, and a few other topics.
Rock Cellar: You’re doing four songs from Undercover, which was recorded during The Stones’ most contentious time, and it wasn’t a fan favorite. Why did you pick songs off of this album?
Bernard Fowler: It was because of the lyrics. I went through The Stones songbook, and everything was picked based on lyrics.
Rock Cellar: How long did it take you to go through the songbook? That must be a pretty lengthy task given The Stones’ catalog.
Bernard Fowler: It didn’t take me very long, I went through the book and I gravitated towards things that jumped out at me.
Rock Cellar: How are you going to gauge the success for this album? It’s dedicated to the fans. Do you think the fans are going to be the core group interested in it?
Bernard Fowler: Probably so. You know, they’re familiar with it. But, you know, I would gauge the success of it by turning other people on to the music.
Rock Cellar: “Dancing with Mr. D” sounds very reminiscent of something that Miles Davis did, the Jack Johnson album. It’s got a hypnotic rift that repeats through the song, and a very funky bridge. It sounds like something from the school of James Brown. Who or what influenced this track?
Bernard Fowler: There are a lot of people that influenced me on that track. I was gonna try to use Miles’ samples, but it just so happened that Keyon Harrold, the guy who did all the horn work on the Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, was in town when I made the album.
I would much rather have somebody come and do it for real.
Rock Cellar: What were some of the difficulties in recording the album? The liner notes stated, “It wasn’t easy to do.”
Bernard Fowler: Well, the difficulty was lining everybody up to do it. This project had no budget, so I did it however I could. And most everyone, if not everyone, did it as a favor. I just called my friends and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new project, I’d love it if you’d come and play.”
If they were in town, they came to play.
Rock Cellar: On your previous album, The Bura, you worked with Pledge Music, what was that like?
Bernard Fowler: That was a headache, they wanted to give me the money after the record was finished. What was the point? The point of me doing the whole funding thing was getting the money to finish the rest of the album, and they refused to release any of the money until after it was finished.
I’ve completely self-financed this new album.
Rock Cellar: How do you go about covering something that’s just kind of burned into your brain? Does it make it difficult to rework these songs?
Bernard Fowler: I do hear them night after night, but when I’m walking up the street or just singing them to myself. I put my own twist on them, and that twist stays in my head.
Rock Cellar: Why did you choose not to put any of your own original material on this album?
Bernard Fowler: Because that’s not what I was doing with this record. I wasn’t doing my own music, I was shaking the Rolling Stones stuff and turning it upside down.
Rock Cellar: In some ways, it’s as though you’ve taken their music and turned it into original material. Apart from the lyrical content, it bears little resemblance to any Rolling Stones music.
Bernard Fowler: It is my own music, they’re completely new songs. It’s inspiring, you know. The lyrics have inspired that.
Rock Cellar: On “Sympathy for the Devil,” you put back the line that Mick Jagger had taken out, the line, “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys?” Why was that put back in?
Bernard Fowler: I just wanted to stay true to what the writing was.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about the recording. You did a lot of this album at the Steakhouse in North Hollywood, was it because of the vintage Neve console?
Bernard Fowler: That was one of the reasons. But probably the most important reason was because I’m comfortable there. I try and do most of my recordings there.
Rock Cellar: Do you think you might consider doing a tour to promote the album?
Bernard Fowler: That’s the plan, when I finish my other commitments. Right now, I’m doing the Bowie celebration. And as soon as that’s over, I go and join the Stones. And as soon as that is over, I plan to tour.
Rock Cellar: You’ve worked with so many people, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in all of that?
Bernard Fowler: I would have to say, keep it simple.
Rock Cellar: You’ve played in just about every genre, jazz, funk, soul, blues, Latin, rock, salsa. Do you find it at all difficult to switch genres?
Bernard Fowler: I don’t find it difficult. Even if it’s something that I’ve never done before and it’s something that I like, I’ll go towards it. Things that musically make me uncomfortable, I tend to go towards them. I think that attitude certainly has served me well.
Rock Cellar: So what is it that makes you uncomfortable?
Bernard Fowler: Nothing really. Musically, I would say, maybe opera would probably make me uncomfortable.
Rock Cellar: Do you think you could pull it off?
Bernard Fowler: Well, I’m sure gonna try. I’ve been actually talking to someone about doing a type of operatic project. A couple of months ago, I had a conversation with somebody about that.
Rock Cellar: What in your background was it that gave you a musical education in all of these different genres? Who were your go-to bands or musicians in your formative years?
Bernard Fowler: I think the radio was my go-to. I listened to the radio constantly as a kid. I also grew up in a black/Puerto Rican neighborhood, so I was listening not just to soul music, but Salsa too, some of the best Salsa music ever recorded. It was everywhere, so that’s what we did.
Rock Cellar: Can you give me any glimpses of the upcoming Stones album? I know the band has been in the studio for a long time working on this project, do you know when we’ll see it?
Bernard Fowler: I wish I could but I’ve not had a glimpse of it myself …
Rock Cellar: How about the tour, are there going to be any surprises that you can tell me about?
Bernard Fowler: I wish there were, but you know what I know.
Rock Cellar: I know, there is only so much you can reveal.
Bernard Fowler: I won’t know that until I see them at rehearsals.
Rock Cellar: Why did Lisa Fischer leave the band after so many years?
Bernard Fowler: Did you see Twenty Feet From Stardom?
Rock Cellar: I did, yes.
Bernard Fowler: That’s why she left, she’s seen a lot of success since that film.
Rock Cellar: When you started out with Mick Jagger, you were doing She’s the Boss, that was your first introduction to the Stones. You were there during the big rift in the 80’s, and Mick and Keith’s subsequent reconciliation in 1989. How did that go down?
Bernard Fowler: Well, the fighting calmed down between Mick and Keith, and it was all put aside for the good of the band.
Rock Cellar: Have there been any particular moments with the Stones that stand out for you?
Bernard Fowler: I’ll give you two of those moments. 1.5 million people on the beach in Brazil, and when we played to 900,000 people in Cuba.