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.”
Byrne says that he hasn’t seen it for a long time, and that he rarely looks back. “I can’t do that. I’m more interested in whatever I’m doing at the moment.” Since Talking Heads, he’s preferred short-term collaborations. He has worked with Norman Cook, Brian Eno and Dirty Projectors. It has been said that he will collaborate with you for a packet of Doritos (he repeats the slander in a chapter called Collaborations). Modern technology makes this easy. Love This Giant, his brilliant recent album with Annie Clarke, aka St Vincent, was written across cyberspace with the collaborators emailing musical files over and back.
“It used to be you had to sit together to collaborate,” he says. “Your response needed to be immediate. Now if someone sends you something, you can live with it for a few days and not necessarily go with the very first reaction you have to it. You have time to consider.”
How Music Works also shows how musical decisions can arise from practical circumstances. “[Working with St Vincent] was proposed by a small Aids charity in New York called Housing Works,” he says, by way of example. “They were hosting musical events at their bookstore. It’s a really small place with no sound system and when Annie proposed brass I said ‘That’s brilliant. We won’t need a sound system – we’ll just need microphones for the two of us.’ It solved a technical problem as well as being an interesting musical idea. To me it was totally determined by the context of this imaginary concert which we have yet to perform.”
The lyrics, in turn, were a product of the brass arrangements. “When you have a big brass section it can sound pretty grand or pretty funky, but it never sounds small. So I thought, we can’t write about intimate things. Even if you do, that intimate thing you’re writing about becomes a metaphor for something larger.”
He’s unafraid of large themes. His next task is to complete Here Lies Love, a disco musical about the life of Imelda Marcos. Released in 2010, he’s rewriting it for its theatrical debut. The lyrics are derived from real transcripts and interviews. “It will go into a theatre in New York in the spring and I’ve got a couple more songs to write. We’re trying to do it with no dialogue, so if there’s a narrative problem it means another song is needed.”
Why Imelda Marcos? “She was a powerful person obviously and notorious and she loved discos. I thought, here’s a powerful person who comes with a musical context. Her life comes with its own soundtrack. If you were writing about Henry Kissinger, who knows what he likes? You’d be imposing your musical taste. With her I thought that her musical taste was significant. It expresses something about her.”
Byrne revels in self-imposed restrictions and arbitrary rules, whether it’s lyrics based on transcripts, arrangements shaped by brass sections or the “anti-rules” of Talking Heads (no solos, no pop clichés). “It’s good not to have an unlimited menu,” he says. “You can imagine going into a restaurant and being told ‘you can have whatever you like’. You’d be there for hours.”
How Music Works demystifies the creation of music and deconstructs the romantic myth of an artistic class who pull music from the ether. “I don’t want to deny that idea completely,” he says, “but to some extent that tells people: ‘If you don’t have that spark of genius then stay away. Don’t bother. You shouldn’t even try.’ In the last century there were people who argued against music education because they believed in born geniuses . . . as though Mozart burst from the womb writing symphonies.”
Byrne is an advocate of amateurism. “There was an earlier period when everyone made music in the parlour and nobody consumed music that was made by professionals. It was all made by yourself and your friends.
“It’s not surprising that as big media companies emerged they encouraged people to consume the stuff that was professionally made. But you can do it yourself and you don’t need a lot. With two chords you can write a song and express what you need to express. You’re not going to write a symphony but you don’t need to. Know your limitations and work within that. It can be incredibly moving within those limitations.”
Byrne’s own relationship with music has been a cathartic one. “I was very socially inhibited and uncomfortable and music was a means of expression,” he says. “It was a way to put myself out there and express myself in some way and then I could retreat back into my shell when I came off stage. It allowed me to meet people and socialise and it was a way of surviving.
“Music was hugely useful for me and it’s hugely important for people on a very personal level whether it’s telling them that they’re not alone or that there are other people like them or that the weird feelings that they’re having, that other people have those, too.”
This is why, despite sporadic forays into the worlds of writing and art, Byrne always returns to pop music. “Pop music is very egalitarian. It’s very democratic. It doesn’t have any pretensions – or at least not the same ones as the art world – and it can be disposable. When you get something that lasts, it’s an added bonus. But I think disposable is okay, too.”
* How Music Works is published by Canongate