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Exclusive Interview: Sébastien Bédé

I discovered the work of French musician Sébastien Bédé long before I started including interviews on this blog. I posted the first of his videos I came across, a reinterpretation of “Heathen (The Rays)” which I found to be stunningly good. In addition to his own music, Sébastien has created several Bowie reinterpretations (I previously had referred to them as “remixes,” but as you’ll see below, he prefers the term “reinterpretation”), with several from Heathen, an album for which he and I share a fondness. I frequently listen to his versions of the songs on my own. they are different enough to sound like new songs. Plus, the clarity of Bowie’s voice is more distinctive than they are in the originals. I’ll include links to various ways to find his music at the end, but for a quick link just to the Bowie section of his web site, click here.

I was tremendously honored that Sébastien agreed to the following interview which I found to be fascinating:

Q. What inspired you to start reinterpreting David Bowie songs and creating unique reinterpretations?

A. In 2009, for the Space Oddity 40th anniversary, David Bowie officially released the original 8 separate tracks to allow fans to have fun mixing as they wanted. It was fascinating to rediscover this classic in these conditions, but rather than being satisfied with the 8 tracks, I allowed myself to create new ones, without forgetting the famous Stylophone.

I suppose I wanted to add a cosmic touch to a song that already was, but I loved feeling free to deconstruct a little while having the objective of respecting the original spirit as much as possible, even if I admit the ambivalence of my words.

Q. Please share your creative process behind transforming a classic Bowie track into something entirely new? Can you also address your process of creating new videos to accompany the music?

A. The experience of Space Oddity was so fun that I wanted to do more with other songs. But I didn’t have access to the slightest multitrack of any song. However, as (a sort of) audiophile music listener, I had in my collection some SACD or DVD Audio of Bowie albums whose mixes mostly enabled the vocals to be heard on a separate channel.

So this time, I only had Bowie’s voice at my disposal while the rest of the mix did not allow me to dissociate the instruments from each other. This constraint was a real challenge and allowed me for the first time to create a bit like it was a personal song with Bowie on the microphone. “The Loneliest Guy” from the album Reality was the first on the list in 2011. I performed all the music (and even some backing vocals), respecting the chords and the original tonality. The next one was “Five Years” and it was quite fascinating to discover the vocal placement which was free to say the least. And in general, immersing myself in David Bowie’s songs has always been a lesson in freedom in creation which in turn inspired me some creative daring.

Regarding videos, it’s a little different. I generally want them to be consistent with the era of the song, as much as possible. There are a few exceptions, including “Sunday” whose video was mainly in reaction to his death, therefore a tribute to his entire career, if possible.

I sometimes like to divert a few images, to do certain slow motions to create an emotion, or more precisely an immersion in the fascinating face of Bowie.
However, the process of creating videos is more difficult for me, I feel more comfortable in creating music.

Q. I particularly like what you did with some of the songs from Heathen. What drew you to Heathen in particular? Do you think it’s an under-appreciated album?

A. Heathen is one of my all-time favorite Bowie albums (with Low, Hunky Dory and Blackstar). In my opinion, it’s the only album that possibly summed up Bowie’s career, better than a compilation perhaps. Probably the most mature album where Bowie seems himself. Vocally, he is at his best, with his different facets. And the Tony Visconti production is wonderful. This is just my interpretation of course. Heathen also corresponds to the year 2002 when I had the chance to see him several times in concert as well as at autograph sessions and recording of TV shows.

So, it was very natural that I drew from Heathen to create my remixes, or rather my reinterpretations as I like to say. I would like to clarify that my work does not consist of improving or giving a real version of a song, I only work on songs that I love anyway and which I find perfectly produced. I hope I will be able to work on the entire album, there is still a lot to do.

Q. I have a theory that “Sunday” fits into a sequence beginning with “Five Years,” followed by “Panic in Detroit,” then “Diamond Dogs” and finally “Sunday” that warn of the coming breakdown of society, then depict it happening, describe the broken world, then, years later revisit the aftermath. Do you think there’s anything to that?

A. Although I would be surprised if this was conscious on Bowie’s part, I find this theory very coherent. In fact, a different version of “Panic in Detroit” was included on Heathen’s Bonus CD at the time.

I would even say that in a good number of albums, Bowie recorded songs with an apocalyptic vision or at least with atmospheres and innuendoes, sometimes from a spiritual point of view, such as “Heat” from The Next Day, or why not “Always Crashing in the Same Car” from Low.

And speaking about “Sunday”, the version I produced arrived only a few days after David Bowie’s death, giving fans, perhaps, another meaning, Bowie having left on a Sunday… It’s my most viewed video to date.

Q. How do you approach balancing respect for the original composition with injecting your own artistry in the reinterpretation process?

A. That’s an interesting question! On the one hand, everything suggests that I do not respect the original song since in the majority of cases, I “get rid of” all the original arrangements. Apart from the fact that these are technical reasons which lead me to this, I love the idea, in any case, it is a challenge for me to create a brand-new song which would respect and enhance David’s voice. That’s why I’m not comfortable with the word “remix,” I prefer “reinterpretation.” Also, I tend to use instruments and sounds that may be familiar in Bowie’s work from different eras (Stylophone, Omnichord, Mellotron, Minimoog…).

I must also remind you that no one is asking me to do this and that nothing is official or « authorized ». I like to think that Bowie would have liked my approach.

Q. How do you decide which elements of a Bowie song to retain and which to transform, ensuring a balance between familiarity and innovation?

A. Well, as explained earlier, I don’t really have the choice to keep certain elements or others, apart from the voice, so it’s all or nothing, so of course, I don’t keep anything and my work is a complete innovation, if I may say so. One of my favorite styles being “ambient” music, notably that of Brian Eno, I want to create calm and strange atmospheres in which Bowie’s voice can blend well, even if we are very far from the original. I’m thinking for example of “A Better Future” or even “Life on Mars?”, my latest work.

Q. Which of your reinterpretations did Billy Corgan retweet, and did that increase interest in your music?

A. It was « Space Oddity », back in 2009. I thought Billy Corgan was searching for sort of covers because The Smashing Pumpkins performed this song. Well, I think at this time it has increased the number of viewers for my very first remix, but I wouldn’t say it had an influence or increased interest in my personal music, at that time anyway. However, I like to think that this tweet allowed Bowie himself to listen to my mix, who knows…

Q. What’s your favorite Bowie song and album?

A. My favorite song is “Ashes to Ashes,” every Bowie voice is in this song, the beat is so intriguing and Tony Visconti’s production 44 years later is still amazing to this day.
Concerning album, it depends, but Low would be my number one, due to the fascinating Eno connection, and the huge influence on my work. It is possible that I discovered “ambient” music in particular with this album.

Q. Where can people hear your music?

I have a Website where most of my work is available to listen and watch (click on the bolded work to link). You can find me too on Bandcamp , Soundcloud and of course, Youtube.

I’d like to thank Sébastien Bédé for participating in this interview but more importantly, I’d like to thank him for his music. The leadup to this interview gave me an excuse to post three of his videos this week, but they will not be the last to appear on this blog!

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