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Legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has become a jack of all trades over the past decade: bicycle tour guide, tech expert, TED talk lecturer — not to mention rock star. His recently-penned book called How Music Works does in fact try to explain everything about music. There are by-the-numbers breakdowns of different record label contracts; musings on the ways in which technology and society influence the kinds of music composed and performed; discussions of public arts funding; even an analysis of the mathematical and cosmological contexts of music throughout history.
But never fear, Talking Heads addicts: he spends ample time recounting his experiences touring and songwriting with the Heads, working with superproducer Brian Eno and shifting to becoming a solo artist. It’s a loosely-ordered, quasi-academic work of non-fiction with plenty of anecdotal and generally well-researched credibility. And given the breadth of the content, there is something here for virtually everyone (for instance, an aspiring musician could start with the section on self-producing an album, while a casual Byrne fan could soak up his memories of the late CBGB).
As Byrne prepares to embark on a nation-wide press tour–not to mention an actual tour with recent collaborator St. Vincent–EW spoke with the quirky Scottish-born Manhattanite about the book’s expansive contents. How Music Works, published by McSweeney’s, will be available Sept. 12.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to write the book? Did you want to dispel the popular mythology about the songwriting process and the music industry?
DAVID BYRNE: It kind of started out as shorter articles that were written for Wired magazine, one was a TED talk. And I realized that I was kind of circling around an idea of music emerging to fit the various contexts, social or whatever, and that has a huge effect on the form and shape and sound that we hear. And I thought, ‘Oh, there might be a whole book in this.’ And yeah it does try and show a little bit of a refutation of the idea that music comes out of somebody’s trauma or childhood injuries, the interpretation of a purely emotional act. Well it is emotional, but a lot of other things go into shaping it.
Can you elaborate on that point just a little bit, because you wrote, “We don’t make music – it makes us,” talking about the way that the actual process and the music itself is what elicits these emotions and not the other way around.
I think that when someone writes a successful piece of music, it’s like a drug or something that creates an emotion in the listener. And if it’s really successful, it seems like that emotion, the singer is having it at that moment. But obviously the singer’s not having that emotion every time they sing the song. It’s the song that brings up those feelings and you re-experience them, the way an actor would do. And so I feel like the song or some other kind of piece of music, if it does its job well, it brings back or recreates or digs out these emotions that are latent in us. To me that’s what happens, whether its dance music or folk music or hip-hop or whatever, when it really moves people, it doesn’t mean that that person is having that feeling, it means that they’ve managed to make a device that recreates that feeling in the listener.
I think that could be said of the majority of artwork, that it’s meant to evoke those subconscious emotions, those subjective emotions in whoever is listening to or seeing or watching that particular work of art.
Yeah, a pure emotional experience is usually just somebody completely ranting or regaling or crying or laughing hysterically or something like that. It doesn’t really convey the experience; you’re just watching somebody experience that. But when it’s shaped into some sort of art, then it actually does convey that.
When did you first develop this idea that technology and societal norms are what shape music, and not music emerging as some kind of independent force?
Well not right away, but I think in my own experience of performing and touring, you start to realize that, let’s say, the same show works really well in one place and didn’t work as well in another place. Maybe it sounded better in one place, maybe the way the audience was physically situated, like maybe they had to stand in one place, so they felt more inclined to dance than in a seated venue. You realize that all these little factors start affect how the music works for people and works for you as a performer, and after a while you realize oh, there’s a lot that does that. People talk about all kinds of minutia of their musical experience, like the experience of turning a vinyl record over or having music in 30-minute chunks instead of an endless playlist. All that kind of stuff.
NEXT: Byrne on stripped-down music acts and John Sousa
Do you think the popularity of acts like Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes — these sort of back-to-the-roots acoustic groups — are a popular response to what people see as the artificiality of pop music today?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s an attempt to find something that’s a little more human or a little more authentic. I think it’s an impossible quest, that you can never get that kind of thing by actually, consciously trying to create it. It’s a time gone by; you can’t recreate it. But it’s fine, and the songs are good songs. But it’s also, ‘Well, here we are.’ The digital, glitchy stuff is part of our landscape. It’s part of our musical landscape. But it is a little bit strange to contemplate music that seems to have no human hand in it whatsoever. There’s a lot of that. Some of the music where there is no instrument, no acoustic instrument, some of it has this kind of awareness of ‘This is what I am, I am this machine music.’ It’s very self-aware. Others, of course, people are just doing that because maybe that’s the easiest thing to do on your laptop.
And I think that a lot of these paranoid critiques of electronic music being inauthentic are going to read in 50, 60, 70 years the way that you read John Sousa’s critique of recorded music. It’s going to seem—
It’s going to seem kind of quaint. Sousa is right that there’s a big social difference between listening to music with a few friends at home and nowadays on your phone or in your car, and going out and hearing live music. There’s a big difference, and that was part of what he was going on about. He’s right about that. The way we go out to hear music with friends, there’s a whole social aspect.
But I wouldn’t say that electronic music precludes that kind of social experience.
Oh no, it gathers together huge numbers of people. If anything, a lot of electronic music is music that no one listens to at home, hardly. It’s really only to be heard when everyone’s out enjoying it.
A lot of electronic music is strictly dance music.
Yeah, absolutely. Not something you can put on the radio while you’re making breakfast or whatever.
Personally, I thought some of the more interesting passages in the book dealt with your experiences with the Talking Heads and your songwriting with the Talking Heads that I had never totally understood before reading it. Especially when you were talking about the way that Remain in Light was the result of collective improvisation; you said that writing from experience goes against the grain for you. Can you talk any more about that specifically and the way that writing with the Talking Heads was more of a group, collaborative process?
Oh sure. We had done a little bit of that on Fear of Music, there were a few songs on there where we had improvised. And that gave us enough confidence to say, ‘Wow, this works pretty well.’ And, with the Bush of Ghosts record, everything had come from improvising stuff in the studio. Then we realized, this results in a really different kind of music and it’s kind of silly, but it could be a way to involve everybody. It could be a fun thing for the whole band to do. So we all went that way and tried it out for at least a couple of records. And for the most part it works. [Laughs] Not surprisingly, you end up with not too many chord changes. Because it’s mostly jamming, so you end up with two, maybe three chords. But you end up with grooves and textures that you would never come up with if you just sat down with a guitar; you would come up with three or four parts layered together. Each part is like one piece of a puzzle, and the texture and the groove emerge together.
I think that’s interesting if only for the fact that it flies in the face of this notion of the solitary genius that developed in the mid-1800s, late-1800s, with the advent of composers like Beethoven. Much of what we’re brought up on as music fans and music listeners is that there’s one person who’s the source of this creative energy, and what you’re saying about Remain in Light and these Talking Heads processes is that is completely not true.
Yeah, obviously there’s somebody doing editing, deciding ‘that’s good, that’s not so good.’ But it’s not like one person is making everything. So you get all these things that one person could never have thought of, would never have come up with. And so you get something completely new.
And that could be the element of genius everyone is looking for and everyone talks about.
Yeah, it certainly works that way. Like I said, it has its limitations. I was never able to use that kind of thing to have songs that have really complex melodies, that have a long arch to them. But when it’s fairly groove-based it works really well. Other people have—not copied us—but it is zeitgeist-y and something that’s caught on as a way of working, more in the R&B world than the rock world. But it seems to have become a way of working.
NEXT: Byrne on the prescience of 1980 album Bush of Ghosts
Listening to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was made in 1980, it sounds like something that DJ Shadow or Boards of Canada could have put out three years ago. Were you aware at the time that what you were doing with Brian Eno on Bush of Ghosts was going to become so influential?
No. We were really proud of it. We thought that we’d made some kind of breakthrough and made something that was neither fish nor fowl. It was kind of weird and electronic-sounding, but it also had this smattering of other cultures in it, and it had sort of pop song structures. The beginnings and middles and ends. We thought, ‘Wow, this is an exciting thing.’ We were hoping that we’d end up with a kind of dance record, but we didn’t quite achieve that. I mean it did get played at the Paradise Garage, the DJ there played a couple of our songs, and for us that was validation enough. We managed to do something incredibly arty and electronic, but it actually got played on a dance floor.
I wouldn’t say that most of the songs are what I consider dance-pop.
[Laughs] No, no, maybe one or two.
Can you tell me more about your mentality when you were producing the Stop Making Sense tour? Because you wanted to introduce transparency in the tour, and the idea was that you would bring on every piece of the set individually.
It seemed like a really obvious idea, and I was surprised that no one had done it before. We were already doing shows, and it’s fairly common, where you start with a small group, and then the horn section comes out, and at the end a gospel choir joins the band. And we thought, ‘well, what if the whole show were like that?’ Like, if you really, really saw every aspect of what it takes to put on a show, not just musically, but if you saw the lighting come out, you saw the screen come out, you saw the projectors get wheeled in. You saw everything that was going to get used, musically and non-musically, and as soon as it came out, a musician or whatever, you pretty much heard what they did. And you heard what their contribution to the music was. And I thought, ‘oh, that’s good.’ You see how everything works, but then, if I could pull it off, it would still be an enjoyable concert. It wouldn’t just be a science project in deconstructing a show.
And that now-infamous gigantic grey suit that you were, that was the result of your experience in the Far East?
Yeah, a friend made a kind of quip, while I was trying to think of what to do on this next tour, what to wear, and he said, ‘well, you know what theater is – everything has to be bigger.’ And he didn’t mean the clothes had to be bigger, he meant that the gestures were larger, the music had to be more exaggerated, on stage than they would in real life. But I took it very literally and thought, ‘Oh, the clothes are bigger.’ I’d been in Japan recently and had seen a lot of traditional Japanese theater, and I realized that yes, that kind of front-facing outline, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top.
Did that ever get hot or uncomfortable to perform in?
Not too much, because the actual suit hangs, barely touches your body. It’s got these giant webbed shoulder pads and a webbed girdle that you wear around your waist and pads inside that give you incredibly wide hips and no butt. So when you’re facing sideways you look normal and when you turn to face the front you’re incredibly wide. Mot of the suit isn’t event touching you, it’s just hanging from this scaffolding.
Toward the end of the book you talk a lot about high art vs. low art and public funding of classical music vs. struggling music education initiatives. What do you think the future is for these music outreach initiatives that cater to the quote-unquote lower classes?
I really don’t know. It’s a fundamental, social attitude that the 1% supports symphonies and operas and doesn’t support Johnny learning to program hip-hop beats. When I put it like that, it sounds like, ‘Well, yeah,’ but you start to think, ‘Why not, though?’ What makes one more valuable than another?
You discuss in the book that there’s no inherent better or worse form of art, and that it is a class issue. Do you think there will ever be large-scale public funding for smaller initiatives, or is that going to be more of a Kickstarter or crowd-source kind of thing.
Well Kickstarter is helping a lot, but a kid who’s in sixth grade is not going to start a Kickstarter campaign. And he’s not going to learn how to make music himself or herself through some social funding thing like that. It’s got to be something that is acceptable, whether it’s in school, or in the community, or whatever. I don’t know; that becomes a huge question, a question about what American values are. To be honest, I think some other country’s going to probably adopt something like that first. You can imagine the Dutch or somebody saying, ‘We’re going to support kids learning whatever kind of music they want.’
Some of the more, I guess you could say, socially progressive nations.
Yeah, they could say, ‘We’re not going to force them to learn the classics.’ They’ll come around to that if they like it, but in order to tap into their enthusiasm, you’ve got to say, ‘What are your favorite songs? Let’s learn how they’re made, how you play them, how you write them, how you record them.’ All that kind of stuff.
You say in the book that you would never license certain merchandise, like perfume. What would your perfume smell like if you had to?
That’s really easy. The one for men would be in a dollar sign-shaped container and it would smell like money. And the one for women would be in a different kind of container and it would smell like pussy.