Just a month before David Bowie's death, local Bowie cover band Sons of the Silent Age made plans for their next show, a concert benefitting cancer research at the University of Chicago Medical Center—the same place that Metro owner Joe Shanahan went for his own cancer treatments. Once the Thin White Duke died from cancer, says the Sons' drummer, Matt Walker (previously of Garbage and the Smashing Pumpkins), it became even more clear that playing a benefit show was the right thing to do. On March 4 the nine-person band will take the stage with Bowie's former girlfriend and collaborator Ava Cherry to play Station to Station in its entirety plus a set of songs spanning Bowie's career.
I caught up with Walker to talk about the first Sons of the Silent Age performance, the time he met Bowie, and what it was like singing "Young Americans" with Cherry herself.
How did Sons of the Silent Age first come together?
[Lead singer and former Ministry member] Chris Connelly and I were working on some music together. We were both big fans of Bowie, and we were kind of geeking out about this and that. And we just started talking about how fun it would be to put a show together and play Bowie songs. We had no intention of starting a tribute band; we just wanted to see what it would feel like to play the songs. We put the first show together and made it a benefit concert for the Pablove Foundation.
The Pablove Foundation was started by a good friend of mine, Jeff Castelaz—he lost his young son, Pablo, to cancer and started this foundation. It just felt good that, if we were going to do this, to put our efforts toward a good cause. As it happened, Shirley Manson, who I worked with in Garbage—she was also close to Jeff, and she knew Pablo. Also Shirley was a big Bowie fan, pretty much like everyone, and so was Pablo. Pablo's favorite song was "Life on Mars?," and she sang that song at his funeral, so she was very close to this. She came out and joined us for the show. We did it at Metro, and it was just an amazing night for so many reasons. The greatest thing is that we really did raise a lot of money for the foundation, but we also had so much fun doing it that we thought we should do it again. So since then we've been playing once or twice a year, mostly for our own enjoyment but also for causes we feel close to.
So it seemed like a natural fit that you would honor Bowie's death with that same kind of concert.
Exactly. That first show, we played 15 songs—how do you even choose what Bowie songs to play? They're all so great. We have nine people in the band, and everyone wants to play their favorite, so everyone's arm wrestling for which song they fantasize about playing. This upcoming show is our fifth or sixth show, and there are still 30 songs left that I would love to play. So I think we'll keep going with it.
So then why the decision to play Station to Station for this upcoming show?
That record is Chris Connelly's favorite record. Additionally, there are only six songs on that record, and we had previously played five. For whatever reason we as a group were drawn to that era of Bowie already, so it just kind of made sense to focus on it. Also, the date that we are playing is 40 years and one day since he came to Chicago on the Isolar tour playing that album.
Originally the idea was to play the same set that he played in Chicago on that tour, and we brought the idea up to Joe at the Metro and had the show booked—this was back in December. We already had this show booked and we were rehearsing for this show, and on the day we were rehearsing, Bowie passed away. The next morning we all talked, and for a moment we thought we shouldn't play the show. We thought it might seem like we were taking advantage of it, but we soon knew that the thing was to celebrate his legacy and go forward with it. At that point we changed our plan and made it just the Station to Station record for the first set, then a second set which will be more a retrospective of everything he's done.
What was it like when you heard the news?
My friends all know what a big Bowie fan I am, so whoever heard it first—I was getting texts at 5:30 in the morning. I woke to a text that said, "David Bowie died." Honestly, it didn't even seem real. I think when anyone passes, personally, I have trouble accepting the reality of it. It's just so interesting because it's obviously someone who you don't know. I have met him, but I'd never say that I knew him. But when it's an artist like that, in some way you do feel like you know him, because your whole life you've spent years and years and years listening to his art and investing yourself in his perspective and his aesthetic. I think I'm not alone in feeling that.
As a big Bowie fan myself, I've found it fun in the aftermath to connect with other fans and celebrate with them.
I think it's great that mainstream media has celebrated him the way that they are. I've seen concerts planned all over the world in the upcoming months, and that's really nice to see. What maybe separates what we're doing from all that is that while of course we're doing this concert in honor of him and he just passed, our intent is really to continue doing what we do for the foreseeable future. It's a big group—it's nine people—and it's kind of unique to get that many people together who all feel the same connection. Any band, even of just three or four people, everyone has a different perspective and it can be kind of difficult. But with that many people, to have everyone on the same page aesthetically and share the same feelings for David Bowie is kind of remarkable. It's coming out in how we play now. I thought we were really good when we started, but we've really internalized his aesthetic and play his music now in a way that doesn't sound like we just learned the parts. It feels sincere; we're playing it from a personal perspective.
Tell me about when you met David Bowie.
I was on tour with Billy Corgan for his solo record, The Future Embrace, and Billy knew Bowie. We were playing in New York, and we were just about to go onstage. The door opens—David Bowie walks in. It was extremely surreal. He was just very relaxed and sweet and said some encouraging words before we played, told us to have a good show, that he was really looking forward to it. There wasn't too much to it, but he was instantly disarming. I'd heard that before, and sure enough, that's exactly how he was in person. And then of course we had to play the show knowing that he was there watching.
How did you guys get Ava Cherry involved with the show?
There was a lot of serendipity at play. Chris had thought to reach out to her for the show because she lives in Chicago. Again, this was before David Bowie passed. But none of us knew her, and we were just kind of talking about it. After the date of his death, a friend reached out to me saying he had a friend who was trying to put together a tribute for David Bowie and knew Ava Cherry and was trying to get her involved. He put us in touch, and I just said to this person, "I don't want to rain on your parade, but we have this show already booked and we're planning it, and we would love Ava to join us—would you mind if she played with us?" He was very cool about it [laughs]. She was happy to come on board and join us, and it's been really inspirational to be with her. She's said some things that are very encouraging to us as all Bowie fans. To play "Young Americans" and have the young American singing, that definitely does something to your soul.
Sons of the Silent Age, Fri 3/4, 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, metrochicago.com, $21, $19 in advance.