Brian Eno, David Byrne rediscover the magic

Via The Courier Mail

Noel Mengel

Adventure and surprise have always been in David Byrne's musical life and his never-ending quest for new approaches, new sounds, rhythms, places and people.

The first album he made with his band Talking Heads, 77, set them far from their peers with its clean, angular lines, bubbling rhythms and the nervy edge of songs such as Psycho Killer.

It was a strikingly original sounding album when it was released in 1977 and more than 30 years later it still is.

But Byrne's adventurous spirit ensured he wouldn't stay in one place for long. For the next album, Talking Heads teamed with producer Brian Eno, then best-known for his work with David Bowie and as a former member of Roxy Music.

The result was some of the most exciting music of that era and since, for that matter, including the classic Remain In Light album with its dazzling polyrhythmic approach inspired by African and Arabian music, a sound so layered and intricate that it required an expanded Talking Heads band to take it on tour.

Outside of Talking Heads, Byrne and Eno recorded the 1981 album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. They didn't work together again for more than 25 years, pursuing their own careers. Eno worked on the soundscaping of his own experimental work while also helping refresh the sound of huge bands such as U2 and Coldplay. Byrne investigated his passion for danceable rhythms of all kinds and Latin music in particular.

The big deal

With their five-star track record, a musical reunion between Byrne and Eno is a very big deal, although it couldn't have happened in a more casual way.

"We had kept in touch but we worked together a bit more when My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was re-released about two or three years ago," Byrne says, taking a break from rehearsals in New York with the band touring Australia in the next month.

"We had to keep in contact pretty steadily and I guess we discovered, 'Oh, we still get along pretty well, we are seeing eye to eye on most of this.' At one of our get-togethers Brian was playing me some tracks that he had and as I remember it he said, 'I've tried to turn these into songs' but either 'I'm not happy with the results' or 'I just can't figure out what to do with them.'

"I said, give them to me, I'll have a go. If you don't like what I do that's the end of it. We don't have to announce we are doing anything, we don't have to tell ourselves that we're committed to anything. Give me two or three tracks and I'll see if anything springs to mind."

Something did.

As they both prefer to explore new ground, it should come as no surprise that the result, the new Byrne and Eno album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, doesn't sound like what some might have have expected, a Remain In Light take two.

Well, only a little.

Weight of expectation

Yes, Byrne says, there was hesitation. The music they created the first time around left such a huge legacy, the expectation when word leaked out would be huge.

"Even though it was said in such an off-hand and non-committal kind of way, I still felt that a fair weight was on my shoulders," Byrne says. "To begin something like this I would have to come at it from the right direction so there was a long delay before I started working on the stuff. Maybe I was more hesitant than I needed to be."

When Byrne finally did send Eno a sample of his efforts, the Englishman was delighted.

As with many successful collaborations, Eno pushed Byrne to a place he would not have gone on his own. It wasn't that unusual for Byrne to take an already recorded instrumental track and find the structure in that to create a song, but the result here is an album that has an open, joyful atmosphere.

Everything That Happens is clearly a production of a modern recording studio – the two only spent about a week together in the whole process, and mostly emailed sound files between their respective homes in New York and London. Yet the songs feel so uncluttered and direct you could imagine many of them played on a guitar and sung around a campfire.

"There is an awful lot of major key things which I never would have done myself," Byrne says. "It would have seemed either far too uplifting or far too simple for me to write songs using those chords.

"In a way it was a blessing to be handed stuff like that. We did for the most part stay on our side of the tracks. At most I may have added a little something here and there and might have cut and pasted things to extend a chorus or add a verse, but other than that I pretty much took his tracks for what they were.

"I thought this is part of the game. You have to work with what's there. You can't say, 'Can we change the rules?' "

Singalong element

Byrne says the singalong element becomes more evident when the music is played live, but even on the record there is a lot of strumming of acoustic guitars that people might not have expected from Eno.

Byrne says his own inclination is to more unusual chord progressions that he hasn't used before.

"So to be handed stuff which is basically old chords that have been used a million times but which still sound great, and told this is what you have to work with, it put me in a nice place."

Eno says he thinks of the record as electronic gospel music: a music where singing is the central event but where the sonic landscapes aren't those normally associated with that way of singing.

Finding gospel

It was working with Talking Heads that opened his ears to a lot of music he hadn't noticed until that point, including gospel. When he was recording More Songs About Buildings and Food with them in Compass Point, Nassau, he heard the first gospel song he ever responded to (Surrender to His Will by Maceo Woods and the Christian Tabernacle Choir), on a radio station picked up from the American South.

The song on Everything That Happens which sounds most like the work of Eno with Talking Heads is the glorious, lighter-than-air funk of Strange Overtones.

"He didn't give it to me until we had done a lot of the other stuff, and when he did dig it out he said he really didn't think it was song material. I insisted he let me have a go and it did take me a few tries," Byrne says.

And the gospel connection? "I sensed in the music that it had that possibility. I thought, this isn't the kind of sentiment or songs I would naturally sit down to write but this is what the music inspires in me. When I wrote back after listening to a couple of tracks, I said, 'Well, it's not going to sound like a regular gospel record but what if it has a little of that kind of feeling in it?' Knowing he was a fan of gospel music I thought that was going to go over well."

Travelling man

Byrne's passion for different cultures and styles of music is as strong as ever (see his entertaining blog about his latest visit to Brazil at davidbyrne.com). What has he learnt from these interests?

"One of the things I took was that they seemed to have found a way to do radical or really innovative arrangements, to still keep the groove going but set to really beautiful melodies as well.

"If someone does interesting lyrics (in the West) often it's not melodically, ahhh . . . (he chuckles) . . . not all that easy to listen to. The two aren't always mutually exclusive but a lot of times they are. I thought, 'Look, here are some cultures that don't see that separation at all'."

He also loves the way that dance and the music are so closely linked in other cultures, and he's bringing all these factors into play with his touring band.

"It's a big band, with three singers and three dancers, and all of us interact so it's quite a choreographed show.

"There are some similarities but in certain ways it's unlike anything I've done before."

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