David Byrne: Two heads are sometimes better than one
By Ed Vulliamy
21 March 2010
On the eve of releasing 22 new songs with Norman Cook, the Talking Heads frontman tells of the joys of artistic collaboration
What a place the web would be if rock stars blogged and babbled their backstage musings all over the place; but how refreshing that a musician as intelligent as David Byrne, formerly of Talking Heads, keeps a journal of his craft, rather than his ego.
Byrne's latest deliberations concern the mechanics of a process which has always been at the core of rock'n'roll: collaborative writing, and specifically his current partnership with the British south coast vinyl-scratcher Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook.
"One could say that some of the songs co-written with other members of Talking Heads were also collaborations", says Byrne, and indeed one could, but this notion opens floodgates that would overwhelm his essay into meaninglessness. No, thank God. We're talking collaboration in the tradition of joint ventures like Simon and Garfunkel (at best) or those which Paul McCartney embarked on after the golden age: excruciatingly with Stevie Wonder (Ebony and Ivory) and the poignant mistake with Elvis Costello, because however talented the latter, he just ain't John Lennon.
Byrne reminds us that he has done "a slew of collaborations", the best of which have been with the compelling Brian Eno, starting with the estimable My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and most recently the Byrne/Eno Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The collaboration with Cook is called Here Lies Love, and is "the most extensive I've done in a while" – 22 songs due out in April. But Byrne wants to discuss his theme without giving away secrets, and does so by explaining his work not with Cook but Eno. He takes receipt of "a slew of tracks" which Eno "seemed to want to become songs (as opposed to ambient tracks or film scores)" – "musical ideas" in need of "completion".
Byrne then takes us into his home studio ("the floors of this industrial building are concrete – and I put industrial carpet down on the floor and one wall is a kind of sound absorbent plasterboard") and, crucially, we enter the process itself, a rare glimpse of how the diction of good rock poetry is welded on to someone else's melody. It begins with "meaningless vowels and consonants" and a "sonic/syllabic flow" which works aurally, and is only later given a narrative. The sound comes first, like chant, then the story – it's fascinating, and sonically primal: what matters, says Byrne, is how the words "sound to the ear and feel on the tongue".
Once the right "vowels and consonants" are established, there comes a "transcription of verbal sounds into nonsense sentences made with real words", and finally a coherent (or in Byrne's case, sometimes incoherent) narrative. During the composition, says Byrne, "I never have writer's block, but sometimes things do slow down (and sometimes the shit backs up)". Of course this is all about money as well as art, and "there are also some market-oriented, pragmatic arguments for collaboration," writes Byrne. "If both collaborators are sort of well known, then there's a natural interest among the combined set of music fans". What a thought: the grizzled fiftysomething retired psycho-killers of Long Island and the pill-popping junior managers who commute between Ibiza and Brighton, all reaching for the same download button.