In the studio
Prior to the Reality sessions, David Bowie recording a small number of demos in his home studio. Two days of preliminary work took place in November 2002, before the Reality sessions began properly in January 2003.
The recordings took place at Looking Glass Studios in Manhattan, with Bowie working with producer Tony Visconti and assistant engineer Mario J McNulty.
We were committed to avoiding the Heathen formula. We realised that we’d created this kind of genre for Heathen, and we wanted to go in another direction. I’d referred to that album as his ‘magnum opus’ – I told him, ‘That was more like a symphony, and you can’t write too many of those.’ I mean, the great composers didn’t write a new symphony every couple of months. Heathen consisted of very broad strokes and a grand sonic landscape – there were layers and layers of overdubs – whereas for Reality he wanted to change to something that he and his live band could play on stage with great immediacy, without the need for synthesizer patches and backing tracks. He wanted to make this more of a band album.
The sessions continued until late May, punctuated with a break in which Bowie wrote more songs, and usually ran from 11am to 8pm, five or six days a week.
Visconti had assumed that the album sessions would take place in Looking Glass’s larger Studio A, but Bowie preferred the intimacy of Studio B, which Visconti leased on a semi-permanent basis from landlord Philip Glass.
We wanted the record to have a real tight New York sound. David loves the sound of Studio B. We did a little bit of work in there at the end of Heathen, and it was because we liked it so much that I started to rent it. Then, when he wanted to work at Looking Glass again for these latest sessions, I assumed we were going to book Studio A, but he said, ‘No, I want to do as much as I can in your room.’ The monitoring in there is terrific, and anything that I bring out of that room sounds really good, whereas in Studio A I’d have to second-guess the bass. Low end is a little hard to judge in there.
Bowie brought a handful of songs to the sessions, which had been written and sketched out at Bowie’s home studio.
I’m not high tech to any sense of the imagination, but occasionally I’ll take things a little further at home. I have a four-track or something, a Roland VS 1680, and I’ll do sort of a small multi-track, but most of the time, I just jot down on DAT and on paper exactly the chord sequence that I’m working with, and I’ll put a voice over the top. I’m so scared of losing that original quality. I mean, I guess I demoed Reality up in the studio with Tony. I did so much of it myself, with Tony just taking everything down as I played it. But what you have there, a lot of the time, is kind of the feel of the original demos, because a lot of it we didn’t replace. It’s sort of the keyboards and then Tony would add bass to it, and Sterling [Campbell] would come in and play drums with a couple of the guitar players and all that. And I left my own guitars on most of the tracks. So most of the rhythm tracks, I’m plunking away in there. So it has a quasi-demo feel to a lot of the tracks, which is really good – a demo energy to the tracks.
The musicians recorded the rhythm tracks for eight songs in an initial eight-day stretch, followed by overdubbed guitars and vocals. Bowie played rhythm guitar alongside bass guitarist Mark Plati inside the control room, while drummer Sterling Campbell played from inside the studio’s isolation booth.
Inevitably, we’d hardly redo anything. I always record things carefully in the first place, because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.
Before the band came in, I’d played bass on all of the demos, and some of my bass parts eventually made it all the way to the album in preference to Mark Plati’s. This was the case on ‘New Killer Star’ – Mark had a go at it, but there was some kind of personality in my bass playing that David preferred, and the same applied to ‘The Loneliest Guy’, ‘Days’ and ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’. It’s Mark’s bass on all of the other tracks, including the part that I wrote for ‘Looking For Water’.