INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Musician APRIL 1982 - by Marc Silag
DAVID BYRNE IN THE STUDIO
The prime mover of the Talking Heads describes his use of the studio, including his most recent technique of creatively layering and stripping tracks.
David Byrne established a formidable stall in the marketplace early on in his career. Since the release of the first Talking Heads album in 1977 he has served as a perfect specimen for the critics employed by this and other reputable publications, who enjoy their task of psychoanalytic dissection of the pop artiste. Though producer cum technoids might or might not savor the opportunity to view the back sheets Byrne and his studio cohorts might mark up in the course of a studio project, we were interested in Byrne's relationship to the studio and his work as a musician and producer in the studio environment. His articulation of the various approaches in producing or co-producing Talking Heads, The B-52s and Brian Eno, to name some, was impressive and revealing in the use of multi-track technology as part of the creative process of composition and studio production.
In an unassuming and at times cautious tone of voice Byrne discussed some of the methods he's used in his work. Lately he's been leaning toward an enthralling process of layering and stripping tracks, perhaps best described as trial and error - though his ratio of success belies the conventional terminology. "It seems I'm most comfortable," he began, "working with something I've never done before.The band is like that too. By taking a different approach to the recording of each album, the material benefits because, though the process is rooted in something we've done before, it's different each time - it stays exciting.
"There are two obvious ways to record pop records. One is where the material is ready and the band comes in and plays it and the engineer and the producer get the sound of the bass and drums and they just tape it they don't worry about leakage or anything." Byrne speaks as though recounting some distant memory, his serious expression abetted by the calm, deliberate manner of his speech. "The other method is to record and you worry about leakage, with the idea being that later you'll change it some parts might get rearranged fixed up or added on". It's becoming apparent that Byrne has respect and admiration for the machinery that allows the juxtaposition of sounds he creates. His tone becomes more earnest and his face begins to soften with conversation.
"Our first album was done in the traditional way: we had plenty of material and we taped it pretty much as we had been playing it live, although we embellished here and there of course I was aware before the sessions that the studio was different. But I figured the huge guitar chord you hit at home or in rehearsal would be there in the studio. No way! That took some getting used to. But we weren't stupid. We picked up on the studio as we went along and began using the studio more on the second album, doing more things in the mix. On the third album, Fear Of Music, some of the material had a whole song structure - here's the verse section the chorus section the middle-eight tag at the end all that - no words, but everybody knew where to play. We recorded at Chris and Tina's and the Record Plant truck came out and we ran the cables through the window and did the basic backs in two days - which is pretty fast" (Byrne seems to be partial to understatement).
"On other tunes we had nothing written - we would just play a groove or jam - Chris would play drums, someone else would play percussion or bass and when it clicked we'd record that for awhile and then we'd have a couple of riffs that fit the same groove and we'd start to record those over everything we already had. We used this approach a lot on Remain In Light. We'd fill the backs with things that fit."
We wondered about the redundant effect in laying down the initial groove - with no distinct parts - how could Byrne and the band "compose" the piece? "Butch Jones, an engineer we've working with, once said that disco music couldn't have been made were it not for the digital tape counters on twenty-four-track machines. It was essential the same groove played over and over and the counter was the only way you could reference the tape for overdubbing. On some of the things on the fourth album we'd record two and a half, three minutes of groove and then through editing. we'd expand it to say, five minutes or so and then play over that. We figured it would be more efficient and economical. When it came time to overdub, you didn't have to play through eight minutes every time. We'd just break it into parts and work them one against the other until the song or piece or whatever you want to call it would begin to have some shape, some identity of its own.
"Once we have the basic tracks - well there would be a number of instruments on the basics and then Brian Eno or somebody would start to play along randomly searching through different kinds of parts and sounds and all kinds of stuff until something started to click, so if Brian was playing something that worked I'd be in the control room saying 'Yeah, yeah! That's it that's the way to go with it forget the other stuff and follow that!" This would go back and forth we'd all switch roles and the random parts and noises would gradually evolve into something that worked or felt right."
Byrne has no compunctions about the apparent happenstance nature of this recording technique. Admitting that neither he nor the band necessarily knows in advance what instrument or effect will produce the desired result he implies that it all happens rather quickly, without a great deal of complication or consternation. "Sometimes you don't get to where you want to go, but you do get somewhere. We add to what we've got taking stuff away that gets in the way of a new part, or something that fits better.
Does this ever lead to a situation where the original idea, the groove itself, the bass line for example, disappears completely? Byrne answers glibly. "Yeah that's happened a few time. Sometimes it's kind of dramatic throwing out what you started with but it's necessary because you can get bogged down with the original idea. I imagine a lot of people record this way though I think that's the way the Bee Gees did Saturday Night Fever and I imagine The Stones do the same thing."
We inquired as to the source of such dexterity and Byrne quickly points out that neither he nor Eno nor anyone in the band are engineers. "I can get my way around a studio to a point. I don't know the patch bays, but I know what should get patched into what so I get exactly what I want. Learning about the equipment was a process of osmosis; you get curious about a certain piece of equipment and at the end of the day you say, 'Let me hear what this does.' I'm comfortable in the studio having spent a lot of time there in the last few years, but I think maybe now I'd like to reverse the process - sitting at home working with a guitar or a piano, but", he adds with a laugh, "I haven't been too successful getting back to it."
The discussion revealed that Byrne and his collaborators also practice a fair amount of mainstream studio technique during their sessions, I like the idea of multiple bass tracks, each with a distinct sound I'll combine them, use one track here and switch to the other somewhere else. I do take advantage of the studio it frees your imagination. If you play something you've got it on tape; if you like it you keep it if you don't you try for something else. You might not know the metric relationship of what you play from one track to the next, but you can go back later and figure it out if you have to."
Byrne acknowledges his allegiance to the twenty-four-track format proposing the likelihood that given the tracks, most bands can fill them easily, although he feels that eight-track recording would be a severe limitation on his studio technique. He's also quite candid about his modus operandi with regard to the expansive outboard effects available in the studio. As new sounds and effects are developed Byrne experiments. Attempting to fit unique sounds into a composition. "When we find something we like, we ask ourselves what part it can play in the overall piece. Before I went into the studio to do Catherine Wheel (Twyla Tharp's dance piece for Broadway), I spent a lot of time at home programming sounds into a synthesizer, sort of an ongoing research project - I had no idea where or how I'd use them."
We assumed that Eno had been a technical influence on Byrne and wondered how David influences he artists he produces. "Eno has a very spare approach to his technical direction in the studio. He has more experience than I do in the studio but we're on about the same level of technical abilities. We listen to our engineers a lot and don't necessarily use a sound or an effect just because it's there." Byrne's implication is that both he and Eno share a common sensibility when it comes down to producing. "Assuming you get along with everybody, there are a number of roles a producer can play. One, he is an arranger, suggesting other parts or instruments - nodding when something sounds good and shaking your head when it doesn't. If a band has all the material together it's easier, I suppose, although it's harder when the band is recording its first album. Looking back at our first album, I can see what a rough position it is for a producer of a band that has never recorded in the studio before, because you have musicians who are really wary of having their material or their precious sound tampered with. That's natural - they've worked on this material for years, they've got their recording contract and now there's some guy sitting in he control room checkin' out some part that the kids in the audience always liked it's a really hairy position to be in, but it's good in that the producer can provide perspective and some level or technical advice"
Although he's aware of the great mass of technology responsible for the pursuit of his studio exploits, Byrne is hesitant to endorse new technology outside of speculation. He does acknowledge the great strides in store as digital encoding becomes a more common method of signal processing and storage. "It comes down to that piece of plastic you go out and buy - there's a limit to how good it will sound! With 24 track tape in the studio you hear a lot of hiss and noise that'll never show up on a record - at least not to the average ear. I've only heard a couple of digital records and noticed they had a nice spatial effect. Once digital encoding gets beyond the recording unit some great things will happen, I'm sure I've thought about digital equalisers and imagined the ultimate Harmonizer where the shape or the sound can be physically changed it seems inevitable, I suppose but I'm not preoccupied with it. We've just started to use automation for the first time. We mixed the live record on the computer, writing it when it sounded good and touching it up later. It saves time, though we don't spend months in the studio working on one project."
Byrne explained the live album as a mixture of live shows that had been taped as far back as '77. This caused one or two problems as Byrne explains it "We had to fix one entire track that had a horrible buzz on the clavinet so we fixed that but there was a tape from 1977 and I had to fix some sour notes on a vocal back - I mean sour! That took a lot of punches because my voice had changed". Obviously Byrne has no misgivings about "fixing" a live album - another example of Byrne's outspoken honesty with the material and the recording process from this view.
We concluded the evening's conversation with some inquiries about Bryne's work and business habits. Does Byrne address these factors as a producer? "Yup. I figure it's something to be dealt with. Rather than have the record company just pay the bills and then deduct them from our royalties, we deliver the product to our company, Sire Records. If a band doesn't see the bills, they're likely not to care about the cost. If we go over the budget then it's on us! We try to be smart about it - we've thought about doing our own studio, getting semi-portable stuff so we can use it on the road and in the studio too but we realized it would require a bit of maintenance and we weren't ready to foot the expense. The bare bones of the studio cost not much more than the average recording budget, but the thought of a studio in my home makes me think I'd never get anything done - I'd just piddle around all the time. When we so into the studio, we get right to work - I think I requires a lot of concentration."
In the end Byrne's pragmatic approach is fuelled by a love for his work. "I'm a natural worker, but sometimes I have to tell myself to do something, to get it done. On the whole it doesn't bother me, though" he says laughing. "It's a good job". And a job well done.