Ziggy Stardust in Exile in LA: Ryuichi Sakamoto Interviews David Bowie

During his visit to Japan in 1979, David Bowie was interviewed by the New Music Magazine. The interviewer on behalf of NMM was the rising musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who just released his debut solo album Thousand Knives last year, and later co-starred along Bowie in the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr.Lawrence (dir. Nagisa Oshima) which he also composed the soundtrack for. The interview covers various topics including the contemporary music, literature and Bowie’s album Low. For there is no available English version nor online resource of this interview, I translated it into English from the Japanese transcript published in NMM.

New Music Magazine, February Issue, 1979
Interviewer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Photographer: Masayoshi Sukita
Translation by Stella Hsieh

David Bowie
Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto: It’s my first time interviewing for the New Music Magazine. I’m not even sure if it will work, but…
David Bowie: I see. (laughs)
Sakamoto: Anyway, it would be nice to talk about music and other various things.
Bowie: I don’t have much knowledge about music. (laughs)
Sakamoto: I’m a huge fan of Brian Eno.
Bowie: He’s the kind of person who doesn’t define himself as a musician, but rather, he is more interested in concepts and methodologies instead. For him, I suppose, the synthesizer is one of the perfect instruments for practices like scientific experiments.
Sakamoto: Then what do you think of him?
Bowie: If, say, I had to describe him in one phrase, it would be something like “Small Mobile High Intelligent Unit.”
Sakamoto: Hmm?
Bowie: Haha. When facing some tricky situations at work, he can always bring forward solutions that others would never have thought of. (Notices the December issue of New Music Magazine featuring Devo on the cover and laughs) Ah, Sesame Street! Has Devo come to Japan?
Sakamoto: Not yet.
Bowie: A fascinating group indeed-aren’t they called “Young Kraftwerk”? You like German bands?
Sakamoto: Of course I do, especially Faust and Can, and, well…
Bowie: Can? I knew them. Then what about Neu!? Klaus Dinger’s band-he’s the guitarist.
Sakamoto: I knew the band but not really the personnel…
Bowie: He was originally a member of Kraftwerk. They had worked together for a long time but split up due to their disagreements in artistic pursuits. Neu! was formed after that and the remaining ones continued in the name of Kraftwerk-and follows La Düsseldorf.
Sakamoto: If I’m allowed to talk a little bit about myself…
Bowie: Please. Dō-zo. [“Please” in Japanese] (laughs)
Sakamoto: I started playing classical music from an early age and hence continued learning it in college-an art college in Tokyo. But I became interested in rock ‘n’roll about four years ago.
Bowie: Why?
Sakamoto: Hm. It’s not necessarily about the classical music itself, but the form belongs to the past. And I’ve always been attracted to the modernity and futurism embedded in rock.
Bowie: Then what kind of rock music do you enjoy?
Sakamoto: Not only rock but also the kinds of jazz and folk…But recently I much enjoy listening to punk rock- this kind of futuristic rock in particular.
Bowie: Mm-hmm. Don’t you think that what happened in the rock realm a few years ago is very similar to what happened to avant-garde music in the 20th century? Schönberg in particular- he was the most prominent avant-garde musician at that time, and it was impossible to talk about the avant-garde without attributing everything to him. He was followed by the likes of John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and, well, Terry Riley. Terry Riley is a bit different, though. And then, there was no more piggybacking on Schönberg and the latter ones were eventually able to create a brand new genre of music.
I think the same thing has happened to rock ‘n’roll in the last four or five years. Yes, rock is a new genre, but all the traditional forms of rock would become the form of “old music” in their own right. All those deconstructionists start with an immature movement, like punk rock, like Dadaism… It’s very similar. But I think there’s always a new kind of music out there.


Sakamoto: I studied all the composers you just mentioned in college.
Bowie: Like John Cage?
Sakamoto: No. We didn’t get to learn John Cage in college.
Bowie: That’s odd. (laughs)
Sakamoto: The curriculum was just up to [Olivier] Messiaen.
Bowie: I see.
Sakamoto: I, however, really admired composers like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. I listened to them often.
Bowie: What I like about their music is the subtlety. You have to take your time to listen to the changes in their music. It’s highly refined and tricky for the audiences to observe. In my opinion, that’s the similarity between western and eastern music, especially in the works of Philip Glass.
Sakamoto: Yes, I think they took inspiration from the folk tradition of African music.
Bowie: Exactly. As for Philip Glass, he is much of the Indian and Tibetan form- very eclectic. Ah, the most exciting thing about rock ’n’ roll is to be eclectic; it borrows from everywhere! (laughs)
Sakamoto: Japanese music is not that rhythmic, but I’m wondering if you got any interest in it, such as Noh.
Bowie: Of course. I love the traditional sound of the koto. Noh drama is too difficult for me to understand, but if you just listen to the music and don’t try to grasp the meaning, it’s nevertheless very amusing. For me, it’s better to have fun with it than actually “listen” to it. (laughs) It takes a hell of a lot of effort to try to follow it.
Sakamoto: I really like your album Low.
Bowie: Thank you. The regional issues always have a big impact on my work. It’s as if the environment creates what I do on my behalf. In Berlin, where we recorded Low, the friction between the East and West was intense. That place was always surrounded by walls and guns pointing at each other. But that was good for making peaceful music. At first, I wanted to capture the impressions of the Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and East Germany in my music- Low is a work of such kind. I started becoming interested in more instrumental style at the same time, and, contrary to the friction there, I always had a feeling for the foggy streets where I lived. Therefore, although it was conceived in Berlin, the music was more peaceful and introspective.
Sakamoto: You said Low is peaceful, but I don’t think so. I’d rather say it has a horrifying aura…
Bowie: Ah, the song Moss Garden from Heroes is probably the most peaceful thing I’ve ever written. By “peaceful,” I mean that the album Heroes is a bit chaotic itself, and Low is more peaceful in comparison. I understand what you said. Even Moss Garden has an inauspicious hint that an airplane is flying over the Saihoji Temple in Kyoto.
The Japanese have a similar point of view. In Yukio Mishima’s novel [Spring Snow], the protagonist walked through a garden and noticed that the waterfall was not flowing. Upon closer observation, he found there was a dead dog stuck at the top of the waterfall. This, I think, is the best metaphor for the concept of “the world.” Many of my works carry that feeling, too. It presents a perfectly common note, a perfectly normal piece of music, but it’s somehow odd. Even those that seem extremely reasonable are distorted in a way-just like looking at things in a slightly cracked mirror.
Sakamoto: I see.


Bowie: Given Ziggy Stardust as an example- he is the ideal rock ’n’ roll frontman, but somehow, something about him was wrong. Only that he didn’t know what it was at that time. I suppose his mistake lies in his way with “balance.” What we think is right and balanced in the world is, in fact, not balanced at all. Not saying that I know this well myself, but…
Sakamoto: Then please take a good look at the various unbalanced aspects of Japan.
Bowie: There are more than that? (laughs) No, I was joking. I like the balance of Japan, the jumble of stimuli. Everything is old, yet everything is new. That’s a great thing. Isn’t Japan an efficient, perhaps the most perfect ergonomic society? The Japanese people pull all kinds of methods from all kinds of places to create something, and somehow the result always works.
Sakamoto: Your music today is very different from the glam rock through which I first knew you.
Bowie: It is. There’s no character or persona in Low, but before that each of my albums and stage concepts had a different story and a character. When I was living in Los Angeles, I felt like all my characters were chasing after me. (laughs) So I had to leave them and go back to Europe. Ziggy Stardust- he doesn’t exist in me anymore. He’s now in L.A. I locked him up in my hotel room, took the key to the door, and threw it away. I’m really sorry for the next guest who enters there. (laughs)
“Living” with my characters for such a long time was so emotionally exhausting that it took me three years to rediscover what I wanted to do when I started my music career in the first place. I don’t need to exploit myself anymore, however. I used to feel like a fugitive, haunted by my own characters, but now I feel much settled.
Sakamoto: Your new live album also features songs from that period.
Bowie: I used to sing when possessed by the characters, but now the same song only exists as the song itself. When performing in front of thousands of audiences, when in a make-believe situation, it’s very difficult to make people understand how much reality is inherent in a song in a natural way.
Sakamoto: (silent)
Bowie: I think every singer-songwriter has the moment that they ponder why they write songs after all. And it’s also about finding yourself, yet everyone struggles to find themselves by observing the other myriad things. For me, the expedition to “something else” is over. Now I am dedicating everything I feel in the “air” I live in to my music. I got a feeling that everything around us is changing rapidly, and we will never see the same things twice. That’s why I always seek to capture “the present” rather than examining back from the beginning.


8 thoughts on “Ziggy Stardust in Exile in LA: Ryuichi Sakamoto Interviews David Bowie

  1. I has been expecting to read this for a quite long time. Thank you for your translation. I enjoyed it a lot. I really like Bowie and Sakamoto. This interview is the beginning of their story which I think it’s a little bit upset but romantic at the same time. Thank you very much.


    1. Thank you for your kind words. It’s a great pleasure to share this with more people. I may compare the tetralogy by Mishima that Bowie mentioned in this interview to the mutual artistic influences between these two, that have taken the roots of nidana from the very beginning and last through the incarnations.
      Sakamoto had another article published in the same issue reflecting on this interview, with some detailed thoughts on Bowie and his own experience as an interviewer. Should I have enough time, I’ll finish translating and then publish it in a month or two.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for posting this.
    I’m curious. Surely this interview was conducted in English. As far as I know Bowie couldn’t speak Japanese. So, why did you need to translate this interview?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. According to an article in the same issue by Sakamoto, it was conducted with the help of an interpreter because Sakamoto himself was speaking Japanese throughout the interview. And since it was published in a Japanese magazine, the part of Bowie was also translated into Japanese. This all-Japanese version is the only available source I could find so far. I was, in fact, doing a second-hand job translating Bowie’s words back into English.

      Liked by 2 people

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