For over 40 years, pianist Mike Garson has been at the forefront of adventurous music, spanning the worlds of rock, jazz, classical and avant-garde. Garson is best-known for this decades-spanning musical relationship with David Bowie, which began on the Ziggy Stardust tour and carried through his 2003 Reality album and final tour. He added jagged edges to Bowie's art-rock, especially with his careening improvisations on the song "Aladdin Sane." Through Bowie, he would make connections and collaborate with artists like the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and the Dillinger Escape Plan, always playing in his inimitable style.
Garson spent an hour discussing this side of his career with us, which represents only a minute fraction of his overall output. He estimates he's composed over 5,000 pieces in his life, a result of over 160,000 hours in front of the piano. And as he told us, even though he feels the majority of his work has gone unheard, he's both content with his reputation and yet still yearns for that breakthrough, all-inclusive composition. Until he comes up with that one, let's dig into what he's done so far.
This interview was conducted in 2014. It has not been previously published.
AllMusic: The majority of your work has been in the jazz and avant-garde world. When a rock artist gets in touch about collaborating, how do you pick and choose which to work with?
Mike Garson: The Billy Corgan one was very interesting, I had heard about the Smashing Pumpkins from my godson, who was 12 or 13, we’re at dinner and he’s talking about this group, the Smashing Pumpkins, and I don’t know what he’s talking about, because I don’t live in the rock world when I’m not recording it or performing it. So he says, “I heard you were with Bowie, but that’s nothing, Billy Corgan is the guy.” So he plants this idea, and next thing I know, I’m on tour with Bowie in Paris. We’re doing a live TV show and there’s a few bands, and one of them is the Smashing Pumpkins. So I go out to the stage area and watch them play and say, “They’re not half-bad." Then Bowie calls me into a meeting with him and Billy Corgan. He says, “I want to introduce you to Billy, we’re having a discussion about god, we want to bring you into this.” This transpires, then as I say goodbye, I say, “It would be nice to work with you sometime.”
Three years pass, and I hear he’s looking for a piano player and is auditioning guys, and I knew some people at Virgin, his record company at the time, so I call them and they talk to him and they report back, “If Mike wants to do it, he doesn’t have to audition, but I didn’t think he’d ever want to play with me.” When I spoke to him on the phone, those were the exact words he repeated, and I said, “I’m not that kind of a musician, but I like your music, and I think we could have fun.” That was it, and we did that whole Adore tour. He must have 180 hours of DAT tapes that he’s never released from that that are amazing.
AllMusic: And you went on to play on the Machina album.
Garson: That was nothing, I finished the Smashing Pumpkins’ last American tour with the original band, the whole American leg, as well as the whole Adore tour, where we used Kenny [Aronoff] on drums and we had two other percussionists, and it was an amazing tour, but it was more of his own thing, it was when that rough period happened with Jimmy [Chamberlin] and the piano player [Jonathan Melvoin] and the heroin and all that. So had to move away from that and put a whole thing together, so I did that tour, and a few years later, he called for the last tour of the Pumpkins, and I did America with them. Then I also did the [score for] the movie Stigmata with him.
AllMusic: What is the transition like between those different musical worlds?
Garson: I was entangled with a classical festival, and Trent Reznor called me to do their last couple of concerts in L.A. when they were retiring, before they started again. He thought it was over, so I did those shows, and switching from those two was very, very difficult. The jazz phrasing versus what I had to play for him, he even said, “You have to tighten up the phrasing in your right hand,” because I was doing more of a jazz phrasing, and so I rebooted and had the feel for his music, because I was playing with a click in the headphones and loops and tracks and his drummer, and everything was very tight, and it was in 10/4, very complex, but a lot different than jazz. So it’s the switch-over, to whatever the next thing is, that messes with my brain and it almost feels like things are frying up there when that happens. Once I land, which could be 15 minutes, an hour, two days, I’m good, and then the music just flows.
AllMusic: At those final Nine Inch Nails shows, you must have seen some pretty wild audiences. How did that strike you?
Garson: I was exposed to that from 1972 on with David Bowie, so that’s nothing new for me.
AllMusic: I wasn't there in '72, but I have a hunch that Nine Inch Nails fans might be more aggressive.
Garson: They also were our opening act in ’96, I toured with them then and we did songs together. Let’s put it this way, I’m familiar with it, but how do I react to it? It’s no different than in a jazz club where someone’s smoking and it’s annoying me. Certain things are annoying when they interfere with my senses, like loud noises where I can’t hear myself, or smoke, or screaming or fighting, but it’s an event, so I don’t view it like I’m in a concert hall or on television, I take it in stride, as long as no one’s getting hurt. I get a kick out of it, I’m not stuck with my nose in the piano when I’m playing. I could play blindfolded, once I learn the music. That’s not the issue, it’s that sometimes it’s just too loud and I can’t hear myself.
AllMusic: Did you have to go back and re-listen to The Fragile to prepare for those final shows?
Garson: I had to listen, and then he added six or seven songs over those nights that I played with them that I’d never played, so I had one morning from when I came back to learn all that music, and I was freaking. I spent three hours, then I went to the rehearsal and I was fine, and then he had me playing with Gary Numan, and it was very nerve-racking, but once I got there and settled in, it was just a ball. I love Trent, we seem to meet every five or ten years, and there’s absolute camaraderie when we meet, and then it’s totally dead in those spaces in between. Same with Billy Corgan and same with Bowie. These guys are living in the stratosphere, it’s a whole other world for them. They don’t view it like I view it. When I meet people, I sort of stay in touch, but with them, when they need me they’re totally there, and if they don’t need me, it’s not even an email, it’s crazy.
AllMusic: Trent also went on to have success scoring films.
Garson: I heard some of it, he’s great. There’s nothing he does that’s not great, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a modern day version of what a classical or jazz musician might have been back then, but he just does it in his wild, bizarre, creative, genius way, it’s not even music I resonate with, except that I feel something is happening when I’m playing with him, I can’t explain it. On the Fragile album I actually played on 15 tracks, I wish he’d release those sometime as instrumental, because the piano playing on the tracks he had me play on was phenomenal, but he only used three. I asked him why, and he said that they were, from his point, so Bowie-influenced, which means they were so Mike Garson in style, because I had the style before I played with Bowie, but he said it’s so connected with Bowie that it takes away from his individuality, so he thinks it’s a liability to him. I said that I respect his viewpoint, but I’m pissed off because I’d worked so hard, I went to New Orleans and did all these tracks and he loved them.
But that’s a real artist, that’s his prerogative, that’s his track. I did tracks with Bowie on beautiful nine-foot grand pianos and then he ended up using the keyboard with me playing on a piano sound that was a sample because it worked better with the track. You have to respect these people because they have very deep intuition in things that very few people have, because they’re geniuses. I’ve been so privileged to work with Bowie, Trent and Billy, they’re all brilliant. And then the equivalents that I’ve worked with in the jazz world, like Elvin Jones or Freddie Hubbard or Lee Konitz or Mike Brecker or Dave Liebman, it’s the same thing. I get lucky that I get called for these kinds of things, and I love it, but as I get older, what’s happening is I’m doing more and more of my own music, because that’s what I’m hearing in my head, and I can’t help doing anything but what I’m hearing.
AllMusic: Ben Weinman of the Dillinger Escape Plan told me when you showed up to play on their song "Widower" that you "literally just walked in and started shredding all over it.”
Garson: Totally. When I met them at Trent’s show, they were playing and I said, “You sound great,” and they said, “You sound great, you want to play on our album?” and boom. That was as much fun as any of those, and they were crazier. Each group I play with gets crazier, so my joke now with each of them, who I play with, I keep telling them they’re all getting too old for me, I’m looking for younger guys now.
That’s how I’ve done it for every artist, and myself. The creative process happens a million different ways for different people. For me, if I don’t get it on the first, second or third take, it’s over. When I was doing Stigmata, I saw the main theme come up, I sat down and watched the movie, and I played the part on one track, perfectly done, no note out of place. Billy says, “Do a version two,” and it drops. Version three, drops. By version six, he’s getting pissed off, we almost had a fistfight because he thought I was fucking with him, and I said, “Billy, I either get it the first or second time,” and he said, “Oh, I get it on the 17th.” We hugged and realized we had different ways of doing it. I’m a mess by that time, the music flows through me and if I like the music and I’ve done my homework and I’ve thought about it, I get it on the first or second take. After that, it’s useless.
That’s how it was with Ben and those guys, and with “Aladdin Sane” and how it was with a thousand other records that you don’t know that I played on. That’s how it flows for me. You’ll hear the Beatles and other guys say that’s how it happened to them, too, they wrote song in ten minutes, and I’m one of those guys. I’ve tried the other way, and I can get a pretty cool thing, but it feels a bit heady for me and false and intellectual. If I just let it rip, I’m going to nail it, and that’s what I love. To do that, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve played the piano over 160,000 hours. It’s a little of both, if you want that freedom, you have to do the discipline.
AllMusic: Regarding "Aladdin Sane," Bowie had said that you tried the track several times in various styles, and only once he told you to play in your own style did it come together. That must have been a good lesson in trusting your instincts.
Garson: I believe the greatest artists on the planet, throughout history and in present time, all operate the way I’m going to describe. It’s getting out of your own way, it’s as if the notes are in the air, and occasionally they find you and occasionally you find them. But they’re out there, and it’s plugging in and letting your ego get out of the way and the fame and the money and the power, just shift to the left all the weaknesses and seven deadly sins, let them slide to the left and get into a space that’s almost meditative, and there you go, the magic will flow through. So that’s what I’ve done with every great artist I’ve worked with, they get there sometimes by drugs or by drinking or by hanging out all day and then feeling inspired, but I don’t understand that process. Thank god I’ve never had writer’s block. When someone forces me to write something when I’m not in the mood for it, my musicianship goes minus zero, it’s not like a typical studio musician where I’m good all the time, it will go from great to the worst piece of shit in the world.
The thing about the Bowie thing, I’ve played on maybe 3,000 albums, every fucking day there’s at least five emails connected with “Aladdin Sane” from someone somewhere in the world, that specific track, and I don’t understand. I listened to it for the first time 25 years after I recorded it, and I said, “That’s not half bad,” and then once the internet came about, I cannot tell you, interviews, books, every single day of my life. I’m not resentful, I’m just baffled, because I’ve done 5,000 other works, and this is all they say, and I’ll probably go down in history known only for this, and if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.
I did an “Aladdin Sane” version on David Live which is phenomenal, but nobody’s ever mentioned it. There’s something freaky about the moment in time and space and place. The London Times came out a few weeks later, Bowie was on the top of the page and it said, “Mike Garson is the best rock pianist in the world because he doesn’t play rock.” I get it, he’s a brilliant guy, and he recognized that I could play rock, that my real contribution was this crazy whipped cream that I put on the cake for him. How that came about is bigger than me, I don’t understand it, and maybe that’s a good thing. So that track was one take, and I made 150 dollars on the whole album. It was union scale in London at the time, and it was 33 dollars for every three hours, 18 pounds. I’d done the first Ziggy Stardust tour, and I got called to do this album. I wasn’t part of the essence of the band, so I was being paid a union wage. I did a blues solo, he didn’t want that, and he said, “I know you played in that avant-garde crazy scene in New York, do that,” and I said, “Are you crazy, after this you won’t be working Saturday night, because I know that’s why I’m not working Saturday night,” and he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I know how to frame this,” and boom, one take, never thought about it again, and that was it.
AllMusic: On the David Live album, you were playing with an impressive group of musicians: Herbie Flowers, David Sanborn, Michael Kamen, and Earl Slick. What was that era like?
Garson: And six months later, Luther Vandross was in my band when it was the Young Americans band, Herbie got fired and Michael Kamen got fired, and I became the musical director. That whole year was so amazing, but the sad part of it is the Diamond Dogs tour, that group you’re talking about, is that none of that was recorded properly or videoed. Everything else we did was documented, and that was the most expensive tour, the most gorgeous-looking tour he ever did, the most involved tour he ever did, and there’s only little fragments floating around. So it was beyond amazing, Michael Kamen was an amazing musician, he played keyboards, I played piano, David Sanborn, I used to give him jazz lessons on our days off, we were buddies. It was a stupendous group, and there’s not enough known about it. All I can say about it was every show was miraculous. There’s a little bit that David Live captured, but I’m talking about what it looked like, it looked like you were going to a 20 million dollar Broadway show every night.
AllMusic: You also played on Mick Ronson's Slaughter on 10th Avenue. Your performance on the title track was interesting in how it brought ballet and Broadway music into a rock album.
Garson: “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” was written by a great composer named Richard Rodgers, who wrote a million Broadway shows. I met him towards the end of his life, and he was more than a great Broadway composer, he wrote these amazing piano pieces, and one was “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.” I learned that piece when I was 12, and when Mick told me 15 years later that he wanted to record it, I was thrilled, and he was a great musician. Mick was the guy who auditioned me, and he did string arrangements for Bowie and “Walk on the Wild Side,” all this stuff on those albums with Lou [Reed], he was the secret weapon.
I remember putting that piano track on “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” between midnight and six in the morning, and that’s an example of one we kept going over and over, and that’s one of the only ones that came out great, because he was a real perfectionist, and for some reason, I wasn’t in the zone, and it was a difficult thing to lay down. We were changing the piece around from the original, it had a different vibe and a beat to it. You just listen to the straight piano version and it’s great, but it’s very different. He was another genius, I miss him dearly. He was a real musician for the rock age at that time, he knew how to read, he played the piano real well, he arranged great, and he was as great a guitarist as you’d get in rock. I was on stage with him and Jeff Beck, and they were comparable in different ways. For me, Mick had even more heart.
AllMusic: There's this through-line for you of playing with some of the most boundary-pushing musicians of their respective generations; Bowie introduced you to Reznor and Corgan, and then Reznor introduced you to the Dillinger Escape Plan.
Garson: I never thought about it that way, but it’s precise and it’s correct, it’s very interesting. I suspect that has to do with what I’ve always done with music, which is forward-thinking, that avant-garde aspect, not being weird for the sake of it, but searching, how a pioneer tends to do, you’re always looking and trying to get out of your comfort zone and push the barrier a little bit. It’s kind of the role of someone who’s a genuine artist, and I wasn’t always that way, I was in the technical side of things, but once you come through the other end of that, you try to find something. Look at Bowie and all those guys, they found it. I’m still finding it, in terms of my music and where it’s going to go, while those guys have written their best work, I don’t think I have yet. I’m more of a work in progress, even though I’m more evolved as a musician just because of my training.
AllMusic: You also appeared on No Doubt's Return of Saturn album.
Garson: That’s the best track on that album, actually, at least it got reviewed that way in a few places. When the album is over, you have to wait three minutes and 55 seconds and then it shows up, it’s me with an orchestra and Glen Ballard producing. It’s amazing. What happened was they had this great orchestra track, the band tried to play with it and they said it was a mess, they spent all this money on this orchestra and this orchestrator [Paul Buckmaster], who did “Space Oddity” and “Your Song” with Elton, he’s a great string writer. They didn’t want to waste the track, so they called me, because Gwen and those guys, I used to teach her pianist and trombone guy, and they were our opening act in South American in the late 90s, so we got to be friendly, and they asked me to do that track. I’ll never forget, Gwen was crying in the control room while I was playing, because she’d never heard her music played that way, and she got such emotion from it. It’s a beautiful track, it sounds like a film score. It’s a little more tame for me, but there’s some stuff where I stretch out. It’s more on the aesthetic side, the beautiful side.
AllMusic: And you turned up on a Seal record, too.
Garson: [laughs] I played on a few tracks on a Seal album, I don’t remember so much what I did or my contribution being too big, but I did play on a few tracks, yeah. He was hardly there, he was late for the session by three hours, there was a lot of stuff going on. I played on a lot of tracks that never got released, they eventually changed producers, and it was a messy stage of his life. They didn’t really utilize me in the best sense of the word, but I put a nice studio piano track down that just sits on the track, it wouldn’t change anyone’s life.
AllMusic: With all the different artists you've played with, as well as your own material, a lot of people probably have heard your playing, but they aren't all the same kind of person. Do you take some pride in the breadth of your exposure?
Garson: It feels incomplete still, because I’ve had the goal to have something I’ve written that can reach everybody, Except for the people who know me through Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, I’m not close to a household name, so I haven’t fulfilled my destiny except by one percent, but it’s a very powerful one percent, and I’m very content. I love to work and I love to share, but I’m just as happy to sit here playing the piano with nobody hearing it. In terms of how it makes me feel, I don’t feel I’ve touched anyone, when you look at Gershwin or Cole Porter or Hamlisch or Streisand or Whitney Houston. I’d like to have that, but with my quality of music. I’m waiting to play on a track with Lady Gaga or Jay-Z or Kanye, there’s a lot of space in that music. I’ve done some small things with rappers, never anything big, but that way I could become known to this new generation. I’d love to play one of those “Aladdin Sane” solos with one of their groovy drumbeats that has no chords, I could turn it into something amazing. I just have to find the right artist, or they have to find me. I just have to get out of the way.
A playlist featuring 10 of Garson's performances mentioned in this conversation can be heard on Spotify