In the studio
David Bowie was planning the Toy sessions as his band rehearsed for his Glastonbury Festival appearance in June 2000. In his tour diary for Time Out he wrote:
I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band so I’ve asked one and all if they would like to make an album immediately we get back to New York. All are in full agreement that they’d like that very much, so I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.
Recording began at New York’s Sear Sound studio in July 2000. In a blog post on Mark Plati’s website, posted on 17 October and titled “Ziggy Lands on 6th Street”, the producer wrote:
We took a break from the initial tracking sessions of the next Bowie album – the working (and most likely permanent) title of which is ‘Toy’ – at the end of July 2000, as David and Iman were anticipating the arrival of their first child and David wanted a couple of months off before finishing it. For this record, we pretty much just bundled the live band into Sear Sound in New York, set everyone up, and let rip. A number of the songs had been rehearsed, so we were somewhat prepared this time. The idea was to keep it loose, fast, and not clean things up too much or dwell on perfection. As a result, we had 13 basic tracks cut in around 9 days. In this period we managed a few overdubs on each tune, including Tony Visconti conducting a 14 piece section for the string arrangements he did on two of the songs.
Although the intention had been to record new versions of 1960s compositions, the sessions also yielded several new numbers: the title track, later released as the Reality bonus track ‘Your Turn To Drive’; the Heathen song ‘Afraid’; and ‘Uncle Floyd’, later to be reworked as ‘Slip Away’.
Other songs worked on during the sessions had been written in the 1960s but never previously recorded properly. These included ‘Hole In The Ground’ and ‘Miss American High’.
The Toy sessions drew to a temporary close after the first fortnight. Bowie’s daughter Alexandria Zahra (Lexie) Jones was born on 15 August 2000, and he temporarily retreated from music to devote himself to family matters.
I really, really love it. To be honest, I really have to pull myself together weekly to focus on my music that sometimes it almost feels like a distraction. The music, I mean. But I think I’m beginning to find a sense of balance between daddyfying and workifying. Mind you, the next album might have lyrics like: “the wheels on the bus go round and round…”
BowieNet chat, 4 June 2001
Work on Toy resumed after a two-month break. During this time Mark Plati saw Lisa Germano performing with Eels, and thought she would be a good fit for Bowie’s album.
The pair met and recorded a series of overdubs at Plati’s home studio in Manhattan. Plati posted about the collaboration on his website, along with a photograph captioned “Bowie and Lisa @ my place”:
I happened to catch the Eels at the Bowery Ballroom. Pete Keppler, who engineered the tracking of Toy, is also their live sound engineer, and he clued me in to the gig. Those who know me know that I love this band (listening, E?) and I’m quite a fan. I’d heard they expanded the band a bit for this tour, so I was curious. One of the new additions was the multi-instrumentalist Lisa Germano, who was playing violin, recorder, keyboards, mandolin, guitar, and singing (if there’s anything I forgot, someone let me know). After listening to a few songs, and being familiar with some of Lisa’s solo records and her work with other artists (John Mellencamp and Sheryl Crow among others) I knew I needed to get her on the Bowie album – her vibe would be just perfect for it.
(Interestingly, like Kenny Aronoff, Lisa Germano was another Indiana musician that I’d never met while I attended IU in the early ’80’s. We seemed to have been in a number of the same circles in those days, but it just didn’t happen …. )
My initial idea was to get Lisa to come to my home studio either after the Eels gig or the following day, just to put a few things down so I could give David an idea of what I was thinking, but circumstances wouldn’t allow that. Instead, I pitched my idea to David, and Lisa got him some of her CD’s. After a week or so, we decided to go for it. The next question was where. I figured I’d try to do the session in my home studio, as I’d been working there with a number of people who all seemed to like it. Lisa was really comfortable with the idea, preferring my house to a commercial studio – she’d done a number of her own records at home.
So, the travel plans were coordinated and I prepared the studio for the session in late September (which consisted of buying coffee and tidying up a bit). At first it seemed odd having such high profile folks sitting on my goofy Ikea couch, playing with my daughters’ toys, or combing through my fridge for the milk – David poked fun at the candles, and the seashells I use for ashtrays – but they both loved it, especially the deck. So I put on the kettle, and we zipped through a number of songs the first day. Lisa really took to the material, putting down all sorts of parts on an arsenal of eccentric instruments, including an electric violin tuned one octave lower than usual, a 1920’s Gibson mandolin, and an old, tiny tortoise shell blue-green Hohner accordian with a strap so old and tired we had to beg it to stay together (assisted by duct tape) for the duration of a song.
David was completely into these sessions – we worked at my place for two days this time – as he’d not done any work on the album since August, nor listened to it much. He seemed just plain READY to work, and he was thrilled with how great and fresh the songs were.
It was a lot of fun, and very exciting – David kept pulling ideas out of the air for Lisa to play, and it was great to see how well they got on and how musically in sync they were from the first few minutes or so. For me as a record producer, Lisa could be one of my more inspired choices as far as an ouside musician I’ve brought in to work on a project: it worked out much better than I could have imagined (I figured it’d work, but not THIS well) as her playing – especially violin – was simply magical and made some of the songs truly complete. It was as if she was a part of the band from the conception of the record, and not grafted on afterwards.
We went out for lunch and had a good walk around the neighborhood as well. Neither of them are regulars in the East Village, so they were quite surprised and impressed by the not-so-recent transformation of the neighborhood – I think both of them still had the late ’80’s vision of it as junkie/anarchist hell – and the good weather and the nice Italian cafe next door only helped matters. We decided to continue working out of my studio to do vocals and other small overdubs (anything but drums) before mixing the album in late October.
Bowie invited Tony Visconti to arrange string parts for several of the Toy songs, and to mix the album. This led to a rekindling of their professional relationship, which ended when Bowie chose to work with Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance. Bowie and Visconti had reconciled in 1998 and had worked together on a handful of minor projects prior to Heathen.
David Bowie had begun working on a new album and had asked me to arrange several songs. David and Mark Plati, who had co-produced Bowie’s Earthling and ‘hours…’ albums, had co-produced the tracks, an interesting mixture of old and new Bowie songs. I was attending the Grammy Awards show in Los Angeles in February 2001 when David called me on my cell phone, ‘Would you like to mix the album?’ The album, which was to be called Toy, revisited some of David’s earliest songs, including some I had already produced in the 1960s (‘Conversation Piece’, ‘Let Me Sleep Beside You’). It was a great idea to give those old songs a fresh reading in the twenty-first century. But there wasn’t enough material, even though David had hundreds of his own compositions he could re-record, it was these particular songs he wanted to sing.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
Towards the end of the sessions Bowie recorded a cover version of the Who’s ‘Pictures Of Lily’. This was not intended for Toy, but was bound for the 2001 tribute album The Songs Of The Who. The recording featured Mark Plati on guitar and bass, and Sterling Campbell on drums.
The mixing of Toy began in October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Philip Glass’s studio on the ninth floor of 632 Broadway in Manhattan.
Not really got any plans for recording with anyone at the moment… I’ve just finished an album called Toy. And we started mixing this week. I’ll probably take a break for the next couple of weeks and then reconvene with Tony Visconti for the preliminary work on our album which we will start early next year.
BowieNet live chat, 31 October 2000