In the studio

The recording sessions for Heathen began at Allaire Studios on 6 August 2001, with work continuing through to September.

The night before we left for Allaire I asked my girlfriend to shave my head. I had never had that done in my life. For albums made at residential studios I usually never shave because who’s going to see me? By the end I am quite hirsute. But this was going to be a hot summer and I had an opportunity to try something stupid without too many witnesses around taking the piss out of me. I honestly needed a night to recover from the shock after the shave. I had no idea I’d look like that. For me this was a transition from a matinee idol to S&M master. I recovered in the morning.

I arrived at Allaire a few hours before David and Coco [Schwab, Bowie’s assistant]. When David arrived studio staff surrounded him and I stood among them. He said to everyone, “Hi, it’s nice to see you again.” When he said that to me, Coco tapped him on the shoulder and said, “It’s Tony!” He was quite startled by the shaved head but said immediately that it suited me.

I spent the first day familiarizing myself with the equipment and discussed with my assistants Brandon Mason and Todd Vos how we were going to proceed. But, already, this didn’t feel like work. Allaire is a beautiful studio in a beautiful setting and the staff were wonderful to us. Matt Chamberlain’s flight cases arrived the next day and he arrived the day after.

Tony Visconti

On the second day David Bowie began a routine of rising at around 6am, then going into the studio to write for several hours before breakfast.

At around 10.30am Visconti and drummer Matt Chamberlain would join Bowie in the studio to learn the new music and work out parts, with Visconti recording the results to 16 track, 2″ analogue tape.

We initially recorded to 16-track analogue tape because I just love the sound. I’d talked David into working that way on Heathen – I told him it was really worth doing, because we’d capture the analogue compression and warmth on digital. When we’d transfer it, the sound would still be there, and that proved to be right on Heathen.
Tony Visconti
Sound On Sound, October 2003

The four musicians recorded 19 backing tracks in two weeks, breaking each night for dinner at 7pm.

David would play keyboards and I would play bass (we almost always recorded the rhythm tracks as a trio). We spent each day recording maybe two songs, at the most, tweaking the parts and experimenting with the form. No lyrics were yet written and often a song would have a working title like “Matt’s Song” or “Jordan’s Song,” to commemorate the day of Matt and Jordan Rudess’ arrivals. Like all previous albums I’ve recorded with David, we would record intensely, with no long breaks. Lunch at 1 p.m. would often be a 45-minute affair. Dinner was around 8:30 p.m. but we’d rarely work after that. This would be a 14-hour day for David that’s a long time in the studio. I would go into the studio for an hour or so after dinner to back up files and do other important house work with Brandon. After Matt left us we transferred all the drums into Logic Audio, a software program that uses Pro Tools as hardware. I did some editing of Matt’s drumming, but not very much. Matt is a really solid player. David and I were always going for feel rather than perfection. My philosophy is that if the feel is right, then that’s perfection. We avoided the modern Pro Tools pitfall of making our music sound sterile.
Tony Visconti

In addition to Bowie’s original compositions, Heathen contained three cover versions. ‘Cactus’ was by Bowie favourites Pixies, whose frontman Black Francis had duetted with Bowie on ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ and ‘Fashion’. In 1990 Pixies had released a rendition of Neil Young’s ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which Bowie also recorded for Heathen.

The album’s third cover version was ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’, by maverick 1960s performer Norman Odam, aka the Legendary Stardust Cowboy – from whom Bowie adapted the Ziggy Stardust name. ‘Gemini Spaceship’ is also notable for containing a G1, the lowest note Bowie ever sang on an album.

With the basic tracks complete, Matt Chamberlain left Allaire, and guitarist David Torn joined the sessions.

Torn is one of the most versatile guitarists I’ve ever worked with. His rig is scary; he’s got gadgets plugged into gadgets plugged into more gadgets! His guitars are all hot rods! He has recorded entire film scores with his guitar work. We recorded more than enough of his playing and then spent many days and nights editing the best bits. Torn took some of his recorded files home and did more magic to his loop stuff with his computer rig, the guitar sounds on ‘Sunday’ in particular.
Tony Visconti

Although he often worked with a core group of musicians, David Bowie was never averse to starting afresh and recruiting a new cast of players.

I was keen to work with musicians neither of us had worked with before, so I told my band, whom I’ve worked with for seven years now, ‘You’re all sacked, fuck off’, ha ha. No, that’s not true. I said: ‘Listen, guys, for artistic reasons we won’t be working together on the next album, but we’ll pick up when I’ve finished and go back out as a band.’
David Bowie
Time Out

Bowie was recording at Allaire at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but his wife Iman was close to the Twin Towers on Manhattan. The musicians were able to see the flames that night from the Catskills.

One morning, after all the vocals were recorded, David called my room and asked if I had any relatives or friends living in downtown Manhattan. I could think of only my son Morgan. He told me that a plane had just hit one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He had just seen it on television. I was actually on my porch practicing tai chi when David called, but I ran to his house to see the news (I didn’t have a TV in my room). By then a second plane had just hit the other building and they were both seriously on fire. David turned to me and said, “This is no accident, we’ve been attacked!” I was sick with anger, fear and grief simultaneously. We spent the next half-hour trying to phone Manhattan, to see if our family members were okay. I think we managed to get one call in each. I managed to leave a message on my son’s answering machine knowing at least that his building was standing. Then it was impossible to phone NYC. Unbelievably I found Morgan online! He was in a plane that was grounded in Detroit immediately after the attack and was using instant messaging to talk to his friends from his laptop. This is not the place to share my feelings about the attack and the aftermath, but we suddenly found ourselves in a very strange space, feeling so positive about this great music we were making; then this awful, awful thing happened!
Tony Visconti