Still Making Sense
David Byrne released his new album on the internet to a globe full of iPods and a radio industry promoting digital music downloads but people barely flinched until the CD appeared months later.
"I was surprised that when the actual physical CD came out, the reaction was: 'Now it's a real record,"' he says. "I thought: wait a minute. They have the technology, they could download it and burn it and make their own CDs. But [people] didn't and they felt like it's not really there until it's in their hands. I thought: 'Wow, OK. The change hasn't quite happened, yet."'
Byrne knows change. Whether recording in his home studio or in his downtown New York office, toiling on projects ranging from albums to artistic bike racks for the city's streets, the 56-year-old rarely slows down.
The former Talking Heads frontman's immediate future involves touring the new album he has made with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
The pair enjoys a long history, with Eno helping to create the lush sound and world beats of early Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. Eno has shaped everything from U2's biggest albums to Coldplay's Viva La Vida.
In 1981, between Heads albums, Byrne and Eno released My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an early example of the sampling and splicing of vocal and other sounds that was popularised as electronic recording improved. As they collaborated for that album's re-release in 2006, Eno mentioned some "unfinished" songs for which he had no lyrics. Byrne started writing.
The result is a record so modern it could not have been made as a 1980s sequel to My Life … and could barely have been created in 1991, when Talking Heads broke up.
In New York, Byrne constructed lyrics to tracks Eno, in London, had almost completed. They then emailed each other increasingly complete works for 12 months. For its initial release, the two didn't use the muscle of a major record label, instead selling digital versions on a website. It is now available on compact disc.
And it has been an unusual collaboration, with the pair spending just a week, and later a weekend, working in the same location. They took a year to complete the album but the luxury of time and the benefit of distance brought the challenge of making the collaboration sound full. Byrne waves his hands searching for the right way to describe the process: "You don't want it to sound as if you've just plopped something down on top of somebody else's things."
The challenge was to create melodies that felt influenced by the music provided. When it worked, he says, it felt like they were in a room together the whole time.
"You just have to make your melody and vocals sound like they kind of emerged from the same womb." There is a short pause. "Sort of."
The entire project is something different, an attempt to feel a path into the new economy of the music business.
Music has never been so accessible to the listening public but piracy has caused album sales to plummet. Madonna and rapper Jay-Z have turned their backs on traditional record companies to embrace comprehensive deals with touring agencies. Radiohead famously experimented with asking consumers to pay what they thought their album was worth. Byrne and Eno's download-it-yourself site is their experiment in a changing market. (Everything … is also available at the iTunes Music Store.)
"We thought: 'OK, is it something where we can afford to take a risk and see what happens when we do it ourselves and … start doing it digitally?' That's not going to work for everybody," he says.
The clear impression is of an artist who doesn't miss the apparatus of large record companies. His notion of "fishing around" for a new model is just a way to get to the core idea for Byrne: the inevitability of the artist getting a bigger share of the reward.
Talking Heads benefited from the monolithic industry structure, in which multi-national corporations enjoyed links to sprawling radio networks and chains of stores. But the times were different.
"One of the nice things about then was there was much, much less music out there. There was much less for the people to pick and choose from," he says.
Touring the album shows just how much things have changed.
Talking Heads played their first gig at famed New York club CBGBs and honed their sound before being exposed to mass audiences. "The CBGBs scene was … a dozen bands or whatever," Byrne says. "Not very many. The number of bands and artists out there now is just unbelievable. So it would be nice not to have to shout above all that but you can't have it all."
Now the time needed to fumble from bar band to greatness is less but the space to experiment quietly doesn't exist.
In previous decades, Byrne and band would "work themselves out on the road", touring to regional US cities to try things out before going near the industry and critics in the metro centres. That's no longer possible.
"The first show we did [on this tour], the next day half the stuff was on YouTube. Blurry and … whatever.
"But it's there and you can't take it back. So you have to have it sort of together right from the beginning."
Instead of the stadiums he once filled, Byrne is now in symphony halls and concert venues. But you won't find him complaining.
"Arenas? Oh, that was the end for me," he says, before laughing quietly. "I started to feel kind of alienated when Talking Heads starting playing really big places. I felt like I was losing touch with the audience."
It was less about the music and more of a tribal gathering.
That's "perfectly valid", he says, but at the time he really wanted it to be about the music. Byrne has more control now. The shows keep evolving and growing, with the addition of dancers and choreographed elements keeping the experience fresh for the tour veterans.
"I'm lucky too that this band and the dancers and the singers we've got, they're more kind of willing to … get out and do things than bands sometimes are," he says. "Bands are notorious for drinking themselves into oblivion after the gig and then basically sleeping it off the whole next day until the next show."
Now the band bring their bicycles with them and make day trips to break up the hotel-soundcheck-hotel-gig grind.
"That keeps it from turning into that routine. We go: 'OK, tomorrow we're going to be in … Louisville, Kentucky and this guy wants to invite us out to his bison farm. Anybody want to go? Show of hands.' And we'll go for this little class trip. And it keeps it from getting tedious."
Byrne, a creative all-rounder, is disciplined, keeping a calendar on his phone and computer and having his office keep him on schedule. Still, he retains his artistic quirks, carrying a handheld recorder as he walks the streets of Manhattan or jogs by the river.
"So if a phrase occurs to me which fits one of the melodic phrases … I'll add that in there," he explains.
This is how Byrne works, accumulating hundreds of phrases before writing them up - pages upon pages - and mining it to see if any groups resonate together. "Some little groups of phrases emerge, that sound like the beginning of a verse … that will say there's an ideal subject right there."
His output remains high because Byrne doesn't "do" holidays. On his last vacation he visited Iceland for a week but he can't remember when it occurred. "It might have been [last] year. Not sure," he says. "It's a bit of a failing too … I usually take the holidays as an opportunity to work at home because then everybody else is on holidays."
Talking Heads sold millions of albums and are ensconced in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their success could mean an easy, private life for Byrne: he could visit Iceland for longer, or never work again, if he wished.
"I haven't checked but maybe," he says, sitting in his SoHo office, eating a meal at the conference table late on a Friday night.
"I'd be pretty unhappy."