A talking head who is making sense
David Byrne makes a fluid, intelligent analysis of what shapes music in his new book – from the sweaty confines of CBGB's to the internet
David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, is all about the effect context has on creativity. In clear, unfussy prose, the ex-Talking Heads front-man examines how spaces, culture, business-models and technology shape music at least as much as artistic vision. This makes me think a lot about the social, economic and technological context of our interview – a cross-channel phone conversation – in which the slow, measured sentences of the Scottish-born, American-accented musician are often cut off while he formulates his next thought. Here again, context shapes content. In a face-to-face interview, I’d see that he was thinking and simply wait patiently. Over the phone, I fear the line has dropped and often interrupt him.
“Some of the chapters began as magazine articles or blog posts,” he says. “I realised that they all had something in common. They were all more or less about various contexts that were affecting music in one way or another, either how music gets out or how musicians get paid . . . or how the acoustics of various rooms would tacitly encourage certain kinds of music to be made in those rooms. These contexts end up shaping the music at least as much as any of the creators do.”
For Byrne, the “how” of music is as relevant as the “why”, even though it’s these mythologised biographical details that traditionally obsess and fans. “Yeah, the anger at your dad or your girlfriend or whatever – that’ll come out in the music. But sorting through the other stuff that actually helps you get your music made and out there is often more relevant. I find the emotions people have to express are not the only or even the primary shaping force in why music sounds the way it does.”
Byrne’s own musical context moved from arty street performance to the cramped space of CBGB in the mid 1970s. How Music Works explains how different environments lend themselves to different styles of music, and how the shape and size of CBGB influenced the music of Talking Heads. “You’re led to believe that Carnegie Hall must sound better than CBGB’s,” he says, “but it doesn’t, not for that kind of music. In fact, it sounds a lot worse. Then you gradually realise ‘Oh, certain kinds of music sound best in certain places’.”
Later in the book, he outlines the ingredients for creating a healthy CBGB-like music scene (these include cheap rent and “a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene”).
I tell him that I was recently at a cinema screening of Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed Talking Heads concert film, at which most of the twentysomething-year-old audience got up to dance. “Wow!” he says. “I think that’s partly the way Jonathan filmed it. He filmed it as if you were an audience member and he never intercut it with backstage moments or interviews. You’re immersed in the experience and forget it’s a film.”