Interview: David Byrne

Via Pitchfork

By Joshua Klein

David Byrne frequently stops to think before answering a question. It's a less common practice than one might assume, the sign of a polymath processing new information and decideding from which file — art, science, music — to retrieve the right answer. Indeed, Byrne remains one of rock's most thoughtful figures, but he's not above a bit of fun, either. That's likely what drove him again to work with Brian Eno, his former collaborator in both Talking Heads and on their joint outing My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The new Everything That Happens Will Happen Today isn't as adventurous as those formative works, but it is in many ways more assured, emotionally complex, and certainly more melodic. 

On the eve of an ambitious new tour, Byrne talked about his long-distance collaboration with Eno, among many other subjects, from music to bike racks.

Pitchfork: A few minutes before you called, a Brazilian friend of mine messaged me to say he had just heard the best Brazilian record of the year. I gave it a listen — it was kind of this spaghetti-western space rock music — but noted that since it was instrumental and in a rock idiom, it really could have come from anywhere. Brazil, Brooklyn, Chicago...

DB: So what is it?

Pitchfork: It's a band called Ruido/MM.

DB: Huh. Never heard of them!

Pitchfork: People generalize so much — American music, Brazilian music, whatever. But if I were Brazilian, my conception of Brazilian music would likely be completely different from that of someone who wasn't Brazilian.

DB: Yeah. And a lot of times people, as your friend did, pick music that you'll listen to and go, "This doesn't sound Brazilian at all to me. Why should I listen to this group that sounds like they could be from Seattle, or anywhere?" Yeah, we tend to want our Brazilian groups, or our French groups or whatever to have some kind of sound that we associate with that country.

Pitchfork: What you and Brian Eno have both said about the new record is that it's largely informed by his love of "American music." Is Brian Eno's conception of American music at all different from your own?

DB: Yeah, probably. It's happened time and time again. Foreigners, maybe starting back in the 1960s, were kind of the first ones to hook onto American rock and roll. Little Richard, or the blues. Brian said he finds gospel music very amazing, whereas a lot of people here, if you're dialing on the radio, would just skip through those stations. You kind of ignore the stuff because you just figure it's out there, so you don't need to know about it. Sometimes it takes foreigners to kind of point it out and say you've got some amazing stuff going on in your midst. And the foreigners will do a version of it [laughs] and sell it back to you.

Pitchfork: That's how musical evolution takes place.

DB: Yeah. Often.

Pitchfork: A lot of people knew or suspected you were working with Brian again, but I'm not sure anybody expected an entire album.

DB: We didn't know, either. At first, we were pretty quiet about it, since we thought it might not work. And then for a while we thought that we might not get enough stuff for a record. It may just be a few songs we do as collaboration that end up on one of our records. But he kept coming up with tracks, and once I had a handle on it I wasn't as timid about going after ‘em.

Pitchfork: You've hinted at how surprised you were at how "pop" oriented the material you got from Brian turned out to be.

DB: Yeah, especially how almost everything is in a relatively major key, which I've stayed away from for a long time. I guess after some point I would hesitate to write a song that was like a three chord rock song. Or a two chord rock song. Or a one chord song, as some of these are. I would just feel like, oh, now I know other chords, I'll just throw those in. Brian has no problem with that. [laughs] He doesn't have those same issues, probably because he's not someone who picks up an instrument, strums a guitar. He's listening to the overall texture and sound as opposed to thinking in terms like, "This chord goes to this chord to this chord."

Pitchfork: Could you tell from your vantage if his way of working has changed much over the past 20, 25 years?

DB: Well, on this record it was very different from what we did before. Obviously, when he works with a band, like Talking Heads or any of the other bands he's worked with, he's generally working with their material. Sometimes he'll kind of ask them, as he did with us and as I think he does with other bands, to maybe improvise so that he can start to interfere at the kind of ground level of the stuff being written. But this one was a really clear split between me taking his tracks and writing on top of them. Occasionally I'd throw in a guitar solo or something else, but for the most part I stayed clear of it, because I thought, OK, then we'll stay out of each other's hair. But in another way he does do a lot of the same or at least similar things. In the past we had early synthesizers or effects racks that he'd run stuff through. He'd twiddle with it while you were playing. Now it's the same kind of thing but on a computer, plug-ins and effects that you do on the computer. But it's very much the same kind of thing.

Pitchfork: There's a little irony here. At least as popular lore has it, one source of tension between you and Eno back during the Talking Heads was that you were worried about becoming his backing band. Now, so many years down the line, Eno essentially volunteered to be your backing band.

DB: [laughs] Well, it is true, I'm sure, that working with bands he often thinks of whatever the band is playing as raw material. Which for a band member, that can be a tough one. But for him he kind of has to think about it that way. It doesn't mean he doesn't love what they're doing and appreciate it, but he does tend to think of it as kind of raw material, ingredients added to the soup.

Pitchfork: As a songwriter and singer, do you approach lyrics and melodies differently when you are in essence handed those raw materials?

DB: I guess I would... tend to... try to write a little bit based on what I think the person on the other end is going to like. I'm trying to please them to some extent. I did a similar kind of collaboration with Fatboy Slim a couple of months ago, a song called "Toe Jam". I don't know if the song is out, but the video kind of circulated around. Norman's tracks are kind of funny and playful in a way that Brian's are not, so it kind of inspires a very different kind of lyrical approach. Brian's tend to be dark and moody, but the major chords make them sort of uplifting at the same time that they're dark and moody. After absorbing that vibe, that kind of gave me a lyrical direction.

Pitchfork: A lot of people have pointed out, no doubt because of those major chords and major keys, an undercurrent of optimism to the record. But lyrically, there's almost an equal undercurrent of dread.

DB: Yeah, it flip-flops one to the other. To me, it's optimism in spite of the dread, in spite of what's going on. In spite of cars exploding, things like that, a kind of basic human feeling — exalted or whatever — that things are going to go on. Life will go on.

Pitchfork: Especially in pop and rock music, that dread often manifests itself as alienation. But you seem really engaged with the world right now, both on the record and on your blog.

DB: Yeah... well, that might just be that I'm older, in a way. Things that might have alienated me in the past, now I just figure, well, that's the way that person is or that's just the way things are. I'm not going to let that bother me too much. And maybe it's because being older there's a certain kind of don't-give-a-shit attitude, in a good way. Not that you don't care what you're doing, but you don't care quite as much that every little thing is the be-all and end-all, or that every statement you make or every person you meet has to be exactly right. Sometimes the results end up being more right than what you kind of obsessively... it was a kind of paranoia that demanded everything be right.

Pitchfork: For a long time I think people painted a simplistic portrait of you, or at least your personality. This anxious, nervous, neurotic guy. But listening to your singing on the new record, and in fact your last couple of records, I don't think you've ever sounded more at ease with yourself. It's very warm.

DB: Thank you. I'm glad that comes across. It's kind of the way I felt when I was singing. That's probably a little bit reflective of various... being older, being a slightly different kind of person. I realized that was changing some years ago, and I thought, oh, people are going to miss the old kind of more nervous, yelpy guy. But there's nothing much I can do about that. Those records still exist. It's not like it's totally unavailable.

Pitchfork: When you do hear those old records, does it sound like a different person at this point?

DB: Oh, yeah! I mean, I realize it's me, and I can remember writing that stuff. But I also realize I would never write the same things now. It's kind of sad, but that's the way it goes.

Pitchfork: Pop and rock music is kind of by nature ephemeral. If you kept making the same music again and again, you'd probably be doing the wrong thing.

DB: I guess so. But there's also the big fear that, OK, I was stronger then because I was a mess. Or whatever. Have I mellowed out, and is the music therefore more boring? I don't know. It's maybe not quite as edgy. But I tend to think there's still stuff going on there.

Pitchfork: The nature of collaboration on the new record is kind of unusual. Usually when people collaborate long distance it's a matter of practicality — the two principals can't meet because one is in Papa New Guinea or something. In this instance, you chose to stay separate even though I imagine it would been pretty easy for you two to get together in a studio.

DB: I did go over to London a couple of times, but only one time did we work for a week solid. The rest of the time was this back and forth. Brian pointed out that it's nice for both of us to be able to kind of live with the tracks, not feel the urge to respond right away to what someone else had done. I could work out a tentative melody to something, then work out little changes over the course of a few days or weeks or whatever, whereas in a recording studio working immediately with somebody, the pressure is on to perform and do something right away. So this took a lot of that out. I mean, there was still pressure to keep stuff going back and forth, but it was over days as opposed to hours or minutes.

Pitchfork: I know Brian is a big fan of generative music — self-generating music. In a sense this is almost a melodic version of that, where he releases some music and it comes back to him in a different form.

DB: Maybe he thought of it that way. I was a little worried because on some of the songs — not too many but a few — he'd made tentative beginnings of melodies and things like that. I thought, oh, he has an idea where he wants this to go, so I thought he might not like where I take it. But I think some stuff he had completely given up on, so anything that came back and worked didn't have to be the direction he was going. He was pretty happy with it.

Pitchfork: On your blog, you seemed genuinely curious about releasing this record and seeing how it propagates itself with relatively minimal promotion. What have you thought about the response so far?

DB: It's a mixed bag. The reviews have been in general pretty good, which is nice. They've been in a number of different websites and print, things like that. So that shows that can happen without the whole record company mechanism. But at the same time, I sense that a lot of people don't know we have a record out. There are a lot of people that don't scour websites regularly or read music reviews. They need whatever, the other kinds of stuff, whether it's an appearance on Lettterman or posters or ads. They need to kind of be hit more in the face and be told that there's something new out there. And so I'm wondering if it will penetrate to that level without a whole kind of marketing thing going on. The tour might help. I don't know.

Pitchfork: Something's certainly been lost in this time of instant gratification that by the time an album is released in a lot of circles it's almost anticlimactic. There's a lot less surprise and discovery, since things get processed so quickly.

DB: I have run into people who have said, "Oh, do you have a copy of your new record? I heard you have a new record out, do you have a copy of it?" "Uh, there's no physical copy of it. I don't have anything to give you. You can download it." Sometimes I get a look like, "Oh, you don't really have a record out now. But, well, that'll change."

Pitchfork: It puts a renewed focus on live performance.

DB: Yeah. And some people are doing really well, I think. They realize that's where they have to take control. It's not simply a vehicle for promoting a record anymore.

Pitchfork: Your upcoming tour may be equal parts promotion and introduction, depending on how many people have stumbled upon the new record.

DB: I am playing a good number of new songs, but we're also playing older stuff. It's kind of about the show — singers and dancers and all this stuff going on. It's going to be more about that than record promotion.

Pitchfork: You've been rehearsing pretty extensively for this.

DB: Yeah. More than I have in a long time. There are dancers, choreographers, all this stuff going on. I thought, OK, we need to increase the amount of rehearsal time to integrate all that stuff and see that it's working. Which I think it is, for the most part. The band is ready! [laughs] But now we're trying to integrate these other elements.

Pitchfork: When you have things that are relatively set, like choreography, how does that affect the traditional ebb and flow of the performance?

DB: It puts certain restrictions on. If somebody has got something worked out to a song, you can't just stretch it out indefinitely, like, oh, we're going to jam on this part, and somebody's going to solo for an extra eight bars. You can't do that. But on the positive side, now that we're starting to integrate it, you can do things like — the drummer, Graham [Hawthorne], can say, why don't I add this part when the dancers are doing that? There are relationships that go both ways. The musicians start playing to the dancers as well as the dancers dancing to the music. You can't do that with a record, but you can do that with a live band.

Pitchfork: I understand you're going to be playing a lot of music that you've never really played live before, in addition to the new material.

DB: A little bit. Not a lot, but some.

Pitchfork: Certainly the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts material doesn't sound like it was made to ever be replicated. 

DB: No, and I have tried some of it. Not all of it. I tried to do some of it live, and it didn't really work so good. I immediately realized that the fact that when you heard the sampled voice, that it evoked, say, a radio show or evoked something else, that was really important to the song. Saying the same things in the same place didn't have the same effect at all.

Pitchfork: People are so used to pre-recorded backing vocals and samples.

DB: Yeah, well, I've been to laptop shows where the vocals are all pre-recorded, and [laughs] it leaves something to be desired sometimes.

Pitchfork: I saw Aphex Twin perform stretched out on a love seat, his legs dangling over the arm, with a computer on his lap. I have some serious doubts he was doing much of anything on the laptop, but the visual was certainly part of the performance.

DB: Maybe. It comes out of a different tradition. I mean, it's been going on for a while, but I think people are somehow starting to make it more of a performance.

Pitchfork: In terms of technology, a lot has already been written about what you and Brian were doing with Bush of Ghosts. Not only are those techniques now more commonplace, but it's become a lot easier to do what you did.

DB: Oh, jeez, if we had this stuff then — Protools, Logic, or something like that. Or even samplers! Although objectively it sounds like what we did must have been incredibly difficult without those kind of handy tools, it meant also that we relied more on luck and happy accidents. We also realized that when we would fly in some vocals, even if they weren't exactly in the right place or doing what you might have done as a singer, your mind would kind of fix it and you would hear it working in ways that were better than what we were actually doing. It didn't have to be as perfect. Your mind would kind of self-correct it while you were listening to it. It didn't have to be as perfect as people can be now with samplers and digital editing. Which may be, in a certain kind of way, an advantage. It meant that we didn't make everything perfect, and we didn't clean everything up, because we couldn't.

Pitchfork: With digital tools, is it more difficult to have happy accidents?

DB: In a certain way it is. There's a great temptation to clean everything up and make everything more perfect. You have to know when to stop and stop doing it, or you might end up with something that sounds metronomic.

Pitchfork: When there is no time budget or serious financial budget, when do you know when to stop?

DB: Well, we made a record. We had around 14 songs and thought, OK, there's got to be a record in here somewhere. [laughs] I felt it was pretty much done then.

Pitchfork: In theory, the back and forth could have gone on indefinitely.

DB: Yeah. And there are still some tracks that I haven't worked on. It could have gone on a long time, but I think we were basically happy with the range of stuff. It all hung together.

Pitchfork: There's something intriguing about that idea, though. If you had worked on the album for ten years, the album would have gone through several permutations. Good, bad, good, bad, every few months.

DB: It's certainly possible. [laughs] I think that's probably happened to some stuff. I imagine there are some records where people do it, go away, then come back and rework it to death. I'm happy with the way it is, but it's certainly possible to do that. I don't think there's any ultimate mix, or any ultimate version, of songs. I think in the past I may have felt that, partly from growing up and listening to recorded music so much, you start to think that is the version of that song. It just happens that that was the one that was the most ubiquitous. Some country artists do it, and some international artists do it, re-release their old material but not have all the money flow to their old record company. They'll re-record all their old hits with a new band, put it out and not tell anybody these are re-recorded! [laughs] I bought those records. You listen and go, there's something funny here! [laughs] They're all playing the same licks, it's exactly the same song, but it's not quite the way I remember it. That's kind of disturbing, I have to say.

Pitchfork: You've been busy with any number of projects, not all musical. Do you think visual art and music come from the same place?

DB: To me, there seems to be a certain amount of similarity. I don't think it's true for everybody, though. For me, I can kind of think of approaching writing music semi-conceptually, or go into it that way before I have to work by instinct and intuition. The third phase I have to use whatever craft I have to turn it into something. That process seems pretty much identical no matter what kind of creative thing you go through. I don't think you can translate things from one to another. People would I think love it if you could, if you could say this is my sound version of this painting. [laughs]

I know people who talk about doing that all the time! For instance, there were all these artists in the 1960 and early 70s who were stripping the canvas bare, until there was almost nothing. Minimalist art. And then there were composers, inspired by that, who did almost the same kind of thing. At the extreme end of it, I find two hours of the same note playing — which was done perhaps on some of those records — is a little hard to listen to. Well, it's not like it's difficult, you just stop listening to it after a while. Whereas sometimes a painting that is bare, it can be something you look at time and time again.

I thought of it again when these books came out recently of no wave and post-punk photographs, mainly. Some of them kind of document the artists, musicians and bands that were all happening around the same time. To me, it seems as if the bands, except for one or two, never could reach a broader audience. But sometimes visual artists, who were kind of doing the same thing, they could make something ugly and brutal and in your face, the same as what the bands were doing, but some of those got to be incredibly popular and could command huge prices from collectors and be in museums with everything else. But the music is still relegated to an underground, relatively obscure group of listeners. It's partly because of the nature of the medium. With a piece of visual art, you can look at something ugly, brutal and in your face, but it's kind of — there it is. It doesn't take you over in the same way that putting on the music at a certain volume does.

Pitchfork: You can make somebody look at something, but you can't make somebody listen to something. You can only make them hear it.

DB: Yeah. So while the creative impulse might have a lot of parallels, the results, how people appreciate and enjoy them, I think are really different.

Pitchfork: Increasingly, you've revealed yourself to be something of a polymath. You're an artist, but you might not know which art will emerge at any given time.

DB: This might be kind of a legacy from art school or something, but there was always this dogma that you had to be true to the medium. You might have an idea that you want to express, or a feeling you want to get across, and then you have to figure out, what is the true medium, that has integrity for that kind of thing. Does it want to be a song, or does it want to be a little video? Then you go further: what kind of song does it want to be? I'm not sure that's really true, that every idea has a medium of expression that is integral to it.

Pitchfork: Can a person be a medium? In a sense you're a brand, and anything that comes from you will be thought of in a certain way because it's coming from you.

DB: Gosh. You might be the first person to say "you're a brand!" [laughs] I have to kind of accept that. [laughs] It's not as crazy as it sounds, I guess.

Pitchfork: I mean, Brian Eno can be considered a brand, too. He could produce a record that sounds like any other record, and people will still search out and find something of him in it, whether it's there or not.

DB: That's an interesting idea. It's like that Borges story of the guy who rewrote ‘Don Quixote' and maintained that his version was different even though every word of it was the same! [laughs] It would be probably be true that... yeah, I would maintain that if I did a song that sounded like some totally mediocre song by someone else that it was different because I did it. But, eh, kind of objectively, I think somebody would have to say, no, it really is just a mediocre song.

Pitchfork: You could do an album of sheer noise, and someone will inevitably hear a lot of the Talking Heads in it.

DB: Yeah! [laughs] People kind of reading you or their version of you into whatever it is. I guess so, but I think as I said earlier, the fact that I'm getting older means that I don't worry about it as much. Not that I never think about it, but I don't stress about it, how to ‘maximize the brand' and all that kind of stuff.

Pitchfork: For the first half of your solo career, most people were probably coming to it from the perspective of the Talking Heads. But now I imagine there's some portion of your listeners who started with you as a solo performer first, and might only then make their way back to Talking Heads.

DB: Some. You know, I have no idea. I do know that in concert, depending on where I play, the audience is pretty mixed, covers a pretty wide demographic. So I figure some people are there who were originally Talking Heads fans, and then there are other people who never saw Talking Heads and figure it's their dad's music. Something like that. They may like those things, but it's not something they grew up with.

Pitchfork: And there's probably still another group that goes, isn't that the guy who designed thosebicycle racks?

DB: [laughs] That hasn't happened yet! "You mean, you do music, too!?" [laughs] I heard a couple of those sold. I don't know to who, exactly, or what, but I heard a couple of those sold. That's a good sign, because it might mean I get to make more of them.

Pitchfork: Do they sell and remain stationary, or do people take them somewhere else?

DB: [laughs] Unbolt them from the sidewalk! Presumably, someone would either buy them as an artwork, or... it would be hilarious to see them bolted to the floor, indoors. More than likely, I would guess that some institution would buy them, so that they would have them as kind of cool bike racks in front of their place.

Pitchfork: Eno claimed in his diary a few years back that he smuggled in some of his own urine to a Duchamp exhibit and sprinkled it on his urinal, figuring functionality was the whole point of the piece. He didn't want to let Duchamp down.

DB: [laughs]

Pitchfork: I kind of believe him!

DB: [laughs] Oh, I don't know.

Pitchfork: It's like owning a bike rack that's not being used as a bike rack.

DB: Yeah, but they are being used.

Pitchfork: But were someone to purchase one and bolt it down in their living room...

DB: Yeah, then it becomes not functional anymore. But that's true with a lot of art. A lot of times people take things that are... African masks, and that kind of stuff, which in one context definitely had a function, but when it's put on a stand or put on the wall, it doesn't have that same function anymore. Eh, it's OK. It's putting a frame around it and saying ‘look at this.'

Pitchfork: Has the function of music changed at all in the last few years? It sometimes threatens to approach a state of perpetual background.

DB: That's been going on for a long time. Anybody who really listens to music a lot, who pays attention to it, you can find it really annoying to go into a restaurant that has music playing at a certain volume. Not because it's loud, but because if you're someone who listens to music, you start listening to it! You start listening for what song they put on next, or their choices. The background becomes the foreground. But as you said, live performances are having, at least it seems to me, a resurgence. There's no shortage of them here. Venues close, but new venues open up. People are renovating places and opening ambitious new venues. That's one thing that music does. It gets people out of their houses, and gets them hanging out together. I'm really curious how the private listening — iPods, people listening on their phones — how that might eventual effect music. There'll be a whole genre of music that really works on a kind of one to one headphone or earbud level but doesn't really work when you play it in a room.

Pitchfork: That goes back to the idea of generative music. If the music's constantly changing and never repeats, then the experience is constantly changing as well. If you're not listening, you'll never hear it again.

DB: That's true.

Pitchfork: I read an account a few months ago of a man who decided to wear earplugs all day to block out the din of the everyday. He was amazed at how much he noticed that he never noticed before, because his ear would always automatically gravitate toward various distractions.

DB: Yeah, you kind of see what you hear, to some extent, and vice versa. You sometimes hear things because you see them. I read some neuroscience stuff, where we figure that's a figure of speech, that you're saying, well, you saw it because you heard it. But it's not just a figure of speech. If you don't make the connection, you can kind of block out things that are right in front of your face, whether it's a sound or a visual thing or whatever, either because it's unexpected or for whatever reason you're focused on something else. It really is like you didn't hear it or see it. It's not like, well, you unconsciously saw it. No. You actually didn't see it.

Pitchfork: Then there's the Big Lie, the idea that if you hear something enough you'll eventually take it as truth.

DB: [laughs] Yeah. Al-Qaeda. Iraq. Al-Qaeda. Iraq. Say that enough and people will just assume it was the Iraqis that bombed the World Trade Towers.

September Radio David Byrne Presents: Covered Up

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