By Ken Micallef
He founded and had multiple hit albums with Talking Heads and went on to form the influential Luaka Bop label and produce the B-52's, Selena, and Zap Mama. He's produced the Talking Heads, Coldplay, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, David Bowie and U2's best albums (Low, Achtung Baby), and recorded a clutch of influential solo albums that singlehandedly created the ambient music movement of the ‘70s. And he doesn't do interviews. Together, David Byrne and Brian Eno recorded the weird and wonderful My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts in 1980 and have now reunited forEverything That Happens Will Happen Today.
"There is a lot of weirdness out there that is hidden in plain sight," Byrne says from his Soho loft. "It's right out there and anybody can access it, but it is in places that has their audience and demographic and a lot of people just don't go there. I discover that all the time, things hidden."
Where 1980's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts featured hidden things like exorcisms, weird sonic treatments, eerie collages, and other often otherworldly weirdness (with a variety of "found" voices--ranging from radio talk-show hosts to Lebanese mountain singers), Everything That Happens Will Happen Today finds Byrne and Eno mining similar terrain as in the past, but with a brighter world outlook and simpler song forms. Eno's trademark production treatments still fascinate, while Byrne's lyrics and vocals are typically humorous, insightful, and clever. Together,Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is as entertaining as fizzy pop and folk songs, with sonic landscapes that recall a walk through New York by way of a Martian crater.
Though Eno was MIA for our scheduled interview, Byrne was gracious and in good spirits. His Soho loft is representative of his quick wits and diverse interests. Various remainders of past projects fill his working space: Dozens of Boss foot pedals and a Telecaster guitar, an unusual assortment of chairs, and giant wall posters.
"Pedal Walk With Me was an installation using Boss pedals." Byrne explains, "I did an art installation where a guitar goes through 100 pedals, the idea that everyone has to walk over the pedals and it changes the sound, it's like a carpet of guitar pedals. It was ultimately closed due to potential fire hazard.
"The chairs are made from macaroni, wood, plastic DNA molecules, steel (that looks like a giant squishy Brillo pad), paper pulp (that resembles a log), there's an elementary school chair, an abstract wooden design, and one chair made from old books.
"And the giant pixilated posters are photo of raves--blown up."
Better Living Through MP3: Does something special happen when you and Brian Eno collaborate that wouldn't happen otherwise?
David Byrne: Yeah, yeah, I am sure there is. We met at dinner and hung out before we were making the record, but when we actually began making it we weren't [in the same room], he was in London and I was mostly here in New York. So really, it was just exchanging files.
Better Living Through MP3: But there must be some impetus between the two of you that producedMy Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and now Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. You can hear your singular IDs, but they combines to produce something different.
David Byrne: It took a while after Brian sent me a few tracks that he had. It took me almost a year to come to grips with it, "OK, what direction do I go with this that is not going to be a repeat of things we've done before, what kind of lyrical approach do I take?" I felt that it did sound like something neither of us would have come up with by ourselves. Brian tends to use more basic, almost folk chords that don't always sound like that because of his sonic treatment, but that is what they are. Left to my own devices I would never use those chords. I tend to use more complicated chords or voicings or harmonies, so that puts me into a place that is a little unfamiliar, and that makes it a challenge immediately to then work with that in a way where the melodies don't sound that simple either.
Better Living Through MP3: The two first tracks, "Home" and "My Big Nurse," almost sound like country songs.
David Byrne: Yeah, yeah.
Better Living Through MP3: We don't associate that with either you or Brian Eno.
David Byrne: [Laughs] I am folk singer in a way.
Better Living Through MP3: During the recording of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, were you together in the studio?
David Byrne: Back then we were in a room, and the back and forth would be one person would record something on tape and the next person would be thinking about what he would add next. We took turns like that, reacting to each other.
Better Living Through MP3: This time you had a year to react.
David Byrne: Now there is a long time to react, back then the reaction was to individual tracks, vocal samples, instrumental tracks, this time the separation was exclusively Brian doing the music and me doing the lyrics and vocal melodies.
Better Living Through MP3: After you added vocals did Brian change his original tracks?
David Byrne: He added more guitars, drums, then eventually Brian and I got together and edited everything. We structured things a bit more.
Better Living Through MP3: How is the end result different working in a computer and trading files than being together in the studio?
David Byrne: Ultimately, the creative process is not that different. In the one we were reacting to building instrumental tracks and trading off duties, but in this case the split was different but the back and forth thing is very similar. The creative process is the same but the time scale is different. For instance, for this record, Brian's tracks were things he had on a shelf that he had maybe recorded over a number of years and didn't know what to do with, and I could work on them at my leisure. Once I got on a roll, I got to where I'd go in like a job. I'd work a little bit every day and hammer at it and if I didn't get something, I'd come back the next day.
Better Living Through MP3: There was no time constraint...
David Byrne: Right, back in the old days there was a time constraint because you were paying for the studio by the hour. And you're paying for tape, and the engineer to sit there. Now we all work in home studios and we don't pay any of that. I am not saying it's better, I think the creative process is ultimately similar, but the time is a little more relaxed.
Better Living Through MP3: Do we romanticize that period of big recording studios and tape and the time required to cut tracks?
David Byrne: Some people do, but one of the positive things about that was that there was a time constraint. Given open schedules some people have a hard time saying "OK, that song is finished." Whereas if you have a studio and you are paying the bills and you've got musicians there you better come up with something or your budget is going to trickle out. It forces you to make decisions. When you've got the tape or only 24 tracks, the ultimate is when you've got an arrangement and horn players or strings and you are recording everything live. You are really tight, you have three hours to get it. It's scary, but it's also exciting. When it works--we didn't do much of that here, but I have on my records recently--when it works--boom! The song is pretty much done at the end of those three hours.
Better Living Through MP3: Is most of your work now done via file sharing?
David Byrne: I have been doing a lot of that lately. I did a song with Fatboy Slim, it kind of leaked out to the web. It's called "Toe Jam," and the video is pretty hilarious. Norman's known for making very smart choices for his videos and this one is no exception. And the song is in the spirit of what he does. We had already been collaborating on a longer project, so this was fun. The project with Fatboy is a song cycle about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines and Estrela, the woman who raised her. It follows these two women, it's not really a Broadway play, it's more dance-pop where the songs tell a story. Rather than me singing it, I approached a lot of great singers to sing different songs, including Sharon Jones and Santogold.
Better Living Through MP3: And Norman supplies the beats?
David Byrne: Yep. It will be a while before that's done. Now I have this tour I am putting together, doing stuff from this new record, as well from collaborations Brian and I have done in the past which includes one song from Bush Of Ghosts, three songs from the three Talking Heads records we did together.
Better Living Through MP3: When My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts came out it in 1980 it was pretty scary in places. "Jezebel Spirit" featured an exorcism; other parts of the record were equally unusual.
David Byrne: Are you sure you weren't smoking anything listening to that record were you?
Better Living Through MP3: Perhaps! But "Jezebel Spirit" and its Southern preacher shouting "Come out!," that was either scary or humorous depending on your mindset. The world is such a smaller place now, it is still possible to challenge people in that same way through music?
David Byrne: Yeah, yeah, yeah. All those vocals were out there. They are probably still out there. There's plenty of AM and FM radio stations, where you can hear religious radio call-in programs. That was a guy on a call-in program who had determined that a caller had the Jezebel spirit in her and he was going to exorcise her over the phone. I just had the calling programs and religious radio programs on my boombox with a recorder in it so I just pressed record to get some of this amazing stuff. I think I was in San Francisco or New York. You could just turn on the radio and find the stations, as you can now.
Better Living Through MP3: You have to search AM now.
David Byrne: Yes, the AM dial which a lot of people don't go to anymore. But it's not like we had to go into some neighborhood church with microphones, it's all on the radio. And a lot of it still is. There is a lot of weirdness out there that is hidden in plain site. It's right out there and anybody can access it, but it is in places that has their audience and demographic and a lot of people just don't go there. I discover that all the time, things hidden. In the '80s, there were a number of Latin clubs downtown in New York. Like the Village Gate. Every Saturday they had Latin Meets Jazz with an incredible salsa band and some top jazz player would jam. That was New York music just as much as what was happening two blocks down the street at CBGBs. But the two audiences never met. That still exists. The web lets you access everything but it doesn't mean people are aware of everything. A lot of it remains hidden but it's right there in plain sight.
Better Living Through MP3: Can people still be shocked?
David Byrne: I was shocked just the other day. Some news story, like the Austrian guy who kept his daughter in the basement and had all these kids with her for like 20 years? Oh, oh, oh, oh. [Laughs]
Better Living Through MP3: Ultimately, did Everything That Happens Will Happen Today meet your goals as an "electronic gospel" record?
David Byrne: To me it met that goal in our own way. It doesn't sound like any contemporary gospel record that you would hear out there, but it's informed by that feeling and those kind of lyrics, which allude to hope in the face of despair. There is a connection, though it is not a connection you might make immediately. I don't sing like those singers, but to me there is still a connection.