Planning and demos
David Bowie and Tony Visconti had been discussing working together on a new album since the producer worked on the Toy album. However, their conflicting work schedules had stood in the way of further collaborations.
In early 2001 a path ahead emerged, and Bowie began writing and recording demos from January. In April Visconti visited him for “a couple of listening sessions” at the singer’s New York City studio.
We spent most of the day just listening to music; it ranged from the latest Beck album all the way back to Little Richard on vinyl. David and I had talked about him on the day we first met at David Platz’s office thirty plus years earlier. We were looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album. I don’t think anything really stuck that day, but it was such a nice reunion of talking up music and downing cups of strong coffee which David brewed every hour or so. I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll, we were alive and sober. That was important. Both of us were now long over our chemical romances. I had never seen my old friend look healthier and he remarked the same of me. We did manage to come up with some pointers for the album and only one musician was spoken about as a possible participant. His name was David Torn, a very surreal guitarist by David’s description.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
Although they listed to some new music, Visconti said they found more inspiration in the past.
I can tell you we weren’t very impressed with the [modern] music. Instead David pulled out some vinyls and we explored some very obscure recordings dating back to the 50s. We listened to so much stuff, from Little Richard to Neu!, and that stuff put a few smiles on our faces. It’s funny, but those sessions were not about taking a bit from this and a bit from that and synthesizing something as a result. But it was important for us to get the creative process in first gear.
The pair reconvened in June 2001 at Visconti’s home studio, where they recorded further demos.
At the time I lived in a three-floor apartment in West Nyack, NY, a transitional move back to the city. West Nyack is known for having a huge shopping mall and little else. My girlfriend said that when David’s limo arrives he’ll take one look at the place, make an excuse that he forgot something and drive back to the city, never to return. Fortunately, he chose to stay.
In three days we demoed four songs. One was really great and it made it to the final tracks for the CD, but was never included in Heathen or the bonus tracks. Instead, like the earlier discussions we had in March, these three days were spent as more time on creative strategies rather than writing a lot of music. We spent our evenings at my local sushi restaurant. What great service I suddenly started getting there! The Japanese staff knew David was somebody important, but couldn’t figure out exactly who. It was very bemusing. Long after he had gone they would say, “When is your friend coming back?”
More preliminary work took place in the now-closed The Looking Glass Studios, owned by composer Philip Glass. The studios were situated on the ninth floor of 632 Broadway in Manhattan, a short walk from Bowie’s home at 285 Lafayette Street.
[I recorded] a lot of music that I really liked, almost 40 pieces, maybe even more. They were just sort of motifs; they weren’t finished, established pieces of work.
[I wanted] to re-establish myself as a writer and a putter-together of sounds… Tony and I wanted to give each song its own identity and character without getting lost in a hailstorm of musical ideas.
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg
David Torn was a key figure in the creation of Heathen, and not just for his guitar work. During a meeting with Bowie and Tony Visconti, Torn recommended a new studio complex, Allaire Studios in Ulster County, near Shokan, New York.
Allaire was part of Glen Tonche, an estate situated atop Mount Tonche in the Catskill mountains. It had been established in 1928 by American businessman Raymond Pitcairn, who used it as a summer family compound. It was bought in 1998 by musician and photographer Randall Wallace, who set up Allaire Studios. Following renovations it reopened in 2001, the year before the recording of Heathen.
We had an earlier meeting with guitarist David Torn, who was extolling the virtues of the new Allaire Studios. I already received a PR package for this place and it looked too good to be true. So with pressure from Torn and myself, David resigned himself to visit Allaire. This took place on the second day of demo sessions. We drove past Woodstock from West Nyack, up to Shokan, N.Y. and followed very intricate directions up a windy mountain road. We met the studio staff, then slid quietly into a Natalie Merchant session to check out the studio. She was very gracious and invited us to lunch. Another irony about this studio was that I kept telling David about this amazing drummer I had worked with, Matt Chamberlain. Lo and behold, Matt was at Allaire playing drums for Natalie. Afterwards we booked the studio for August and went back to West Nyack. That night we rented Requiem For A Dream on the strength of Pi and got completely depressed (but what a great film)!
Bowie was greatly inspired by the visit to Allaire, and he began writing new material in earnest.
The next morning I burnt a CD of the work for David and he was off back home to New York City! He was supposed to return in a week’s time, but called a few days later to postpone. He said the three days were a great springboard to what he was looking for and he now had the concept of the album in his head. He also said he couldn’t stop writing new stuff once he’d gotten home.
Bowie normally found inspiration in the urban surroundings and the cities he lived in. Yet the vistas and remoteness of Allaire clearly made a deep impression on him. Indeed, in January 2003 Bowie and Iman bought the neighbouring 64-acre Little Tonche Mountain for $1,162,500.
I went into Woodstock once, and I hated it; it was just too cute for words. This is not cute, on top of this mountain: It’s stark, and it has a Spartan quality about it. In this instance, the retreat atmosphere honed my thoughts… I don’t know what happened up there, but something clicked for me as a writer. I’ve written in the mountains before, but never with such gravitas.
Interview, June 2002