INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JULY 17, 2006 - by Chris Dahlen
David Byrne's office/studio occupies a former sweatshop in Soho, up three steep flights of stairs. In the studio side you can check out his current projects, including his chairs; one of them is a file cabinet, and you sit on the opened bottom drawer; another is a kind of bean bag made out of the molecule kits you play with in grade school science, a big mush of interconnected atoms that looks comfy to sit on. In the main office, a large wall is covered with shelves holding vinyl and CDs from across the globe and books - including art books, guide books, literature, and a toppling stack of maps.
Byrne's office is littered with new projects, but I came to talk to him about a record that's twenty-five years old: this spring, Byrne and Brian Eno re-released their 1981 album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with extra tracks and a project that allowed fans to submit their own remixes while providing new insight into a work that was both pioneering and controversial: While it's been praised for its innovative use of sampled voices, others balked at the idea of two white men from the Western world lifting recordings of Lebanese singers and deep South exorcists and putting them to their own uses. As Jon Pareles wrote in Rolling Stone, "Like most 'found art,' it raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism... Does this global village have two-way traffic?"
But in Byrne's career, Bush Of Ghosts marks one of the first times that he immersed himself in the music of different cultures - a passion that he's explored in the Talking Heads, as founder of Luaka Bop records, as the frontman for an all-Latin band on 1989's Rei Momo, and through countless other projects, including most recently, a musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos, with music co-written by Fatboy Slim. It's also a running theme in the most consistent work that Byrne produces today: his blog, where he chronicles his travels, the concerts and events he attends - from taking a bike ride with Dave Eggers, to talking global warming with the Wired crowd, to revelling in a Sunn0))) concert.
Chris Dahlen: How did you decide to reissue Bush Of Ghosts now? Was it timed to the twenty-fifth anniversary?
David Byrne: Uh - there was a reason. [Thinks] I know Brian's catalogue was starting to come back out [in England]. It might have been the guy over there who oversees re-releases who said, "We'd like to put this out," and asked, "Do you have extra tracks? Do you have other materials, any ideas," etc. etc.
[He also asked] "What if we sent out tracks to be remixed?" I went back to him and said, "The remix thing is not a new idea. I don't know if you're trying to get it in clubs or what, but if you're really trying to get your music in clubs, those guys charge money. Do you want to spend that amount of money? Or why not, let's do something different."
So then the whole idea of giving away the twenty-four-tracks came up. And I thought there might be a lot of interest from people about, "Well, what are the pieces of this puzzle? How did they do this and how did they put it together? What do the individual tracks actually sound like?" Making them available answers a lot of those questions. You hear us doing stuff where we basically sound like human samplers, playing the same part over and over again for three minutes.
Chris Dahlen: Of all the remixes submitted through the Bush Of Ghosts website, how did you decide on the two you selected?
David Byrne: I think we wanted to have one that was vaguely danceable [Help Me Somebody], and then another one [A Secret Life] that was a little more moody or atmospheric. And some of the mixes that I've heard so far are really good. So Brian and I are thinking maybe we should make more tracks available if we can. It's a little bit like changing the rules in midstream, to add more stuff, but depending on if there's enough interest, maybe we'll do that.
Chris Dahlen: Have you tried remixing either of the tracks personally?
David Byrne: No, I haven't. [Laughs] Brian said he might.
Chris Dahlen: You originally worked with tape loops and assembled this album by hand. How do you think your work methods have changed, now that you have the facility of a laptop?
David Byrne: Um, it hasn't. It's changed it to some extent, but it hasn't changed it that much, at least for writing songs. I still feel like if I can get a song to work with, say, a basic beat, a rhythm, some chord changes, and a melody, a vocal melody - if it works with that, then I feel it's written and there's something there. So I intentionally don't get involved with arranging stuff or fussing over the sounds and the edits and the beats too much, at least not in the beginning, because I feel like then you can fool yourself that you've got something there, when you might not. In a certain way, you get some new tools to work with, but I don't know if it ultimately makes the creative process any easier.
Chris Dahlen: Were you and Brian in touch regularly about the reissue?
David Byrne: We kept in touch a lot. Luckily, there wasn't too much that had to be creatively haggled over. It was pretty straightforward - remaster the record and see what other tracks could be found. That was a little bit of detective work, finding where that stuff was.
Chris Dahlen: Qu'ran appeared on early pressings of the original album, but was later replaced by Very, Very Hungry. It sampled Algerian Muslims chanting passages from the Koran. It's clear why it's not on the CD reissue, but it's interesting that it's not even mentioned in the liner notes.
David Byrne: Yeah, I sort of didn't want to go into it. Partly for the reason that I didn't want to make people feel like something was being withheld, like they were missing something. It also brings up a lot of issues, and I thought, "I don't know if I can resolve all this stuff."
Way back when the record first came out, in 1981, it might have been '82, we got a request from an Islamic organisation in London, and they said, "We consider this blasphemy that you put grooves to the chanting of the Holy Book." And we thought, "Okay, in deference to somebody's religion, we'll take it off." You could probably argue for and against monkeying with something like that. But I think we were certainly feeling very cautious about this whole thing. We made a big effort to try and clear all the voices, and make sure everybody was okay with everything. Because we thought, "We're going to get accused of all kinds of things, and so we want to cover our asses as best we can." So I think in that sense we reacted maybe with more caution than we had to. But that's the way it was.
Chris Dahlen: I know these things have flared up over the years, but with the recent Danish cartoon incident, it became not just an issue of respecting someone's religion. It became very combative. People began taking sides. And I think that's maybe why people look at the omission of Qu'ran a little differently now. At the time you could say it's out of deference to somebody's request, but in the wake of this recent controversy, people were lining up saying, "No, you have to print that on a billboard in Times Square, just to show them!"
David Byrne: There was an op-ed piece in The New York Times by an evolutionary biologist or somebody - which was a curious place for the opinion to come from - and he said that there's no such thing as a completely free, uncensored medium, that people censor themselves all the time, in deference to hurting other people's feelings, or offending other groups, or in their own, not to provoke a fight. He named a whole bunch of examples - the American press, the U.S. press, the European press. There's tons of things you can think of that they don't print, that they don't say, that they tiptoe around very carefully. It is a form of censorship, but that's also the way people are as animals - that you don't unnecessarily provoke people unless you really are looking for a fight. And you do self-censor certain things, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. That's just the way human social interaction works.
And I thought, that seems kind of reasonable. So my opinion was that somebody certainly has the right to do cartoons that make fun of somebody else's religion. But to reprint them just to provoke a fight and just to provoke it like thumbing your nose at someone else and going, "What are you gonna do about it? What are you gonna do about it?" Which is kind of what it is. Then it's kind of like, "Well, if you keep doing that, somebody will do something about it."
Chris Dahlen: You've played some of these tracks live over the years - for example, "Help Me Somebody". Specifically, one of the points of the album was to listen to the cadences in the voices, and treat the cadences as the music. Did they stick in your head when you were doing the vocals?
David Byrne: Oh yeah. I would do it with the same cadence and the same phrasing as the voice that's on the record.
I spoke with Brian about that the other day, about what that was like, and it's really curious because [on] a lot of the record, it's not like there's a lot of chord changes and super-rich harmonic stuff going on. That song does have chord changes, but a lot of them don't, and a lot of them are about this texture and groove evolving under the voice, rather than a clear-cut chorus and verse and all that kind of stuff.
Sometimes, performing it, it would become this kind of formless musical mush or groove, with me doing the vocal over the top. And other times, when it worked, it did have a shape and a dynamic - it did have that groove and texture, but it also had enough of an arc and a shape that it seemed to work. It sounded kind of like it was reminiscent of one of the tracks off the Miles Davis record On The Corner, which I felt was a good thing. I didn't know about that record when we were doing Bush Of Ghosts, but afterwards, people said, "Ah, have you heard this?" Which was an eye-opener.
Chris Dahlen: The original idea behind Bush Of Ghosts was to create an imaginary culture, or pretend you went out to the California desert and came back and said, "Somehow we obtained this stuff." I was interested because later with Luaka Bop, you created the idea of Afropea, a virtual continent based on the real world -
David Byrne: You know that word made it into the dictionary?
Chris Dahlen: No kidding!
David Byrne: [Laughs] It's now a real word. I was amazed.
Chris Dahlen: When you compare that original concept of a fictional culture, and the concept of Afropea, in which the ethos and attitudes of Europe are overlaid with African sensibilities - do you think they come from the same impulse?
David Byrne: Hmm, not really. The idea of making music from an imaginary culture was to give ourselves a set of restrictions and parameters within which to work. Otherwise, we might have just gone on all kinds of creative detours, some of which might have been interesting. But better we confine ourselves to something. Which kind of worked. At least it kept us within bounds for a while, [and] by the time we abandoned that whole idea, which was pretty early on, we already had a direction.
With the Afropea stuff, it seemed [there are] musical nodes on the planet where cultures meet and mix, sometimes as a result of unfortunate circumstances, like slavery or something else, in places like New Orleans and Havana and Brazil. And those are places where the European culture and indigenous culture and African culture all met and lived together, and some new kind of culture and especially music came out of that, that had this incredible richness and strength that then just, boom, exploded and went all over the globe. The most common music that you hear anywhere in the world now basically has its roots in that union that happened in the last century, or in the century before that. That kind of music that's groove or beat oriented just didn't exist in lots of cultures before that.
Chris Dahlen: With Luaka Bop, you started out releasing compilations of older music, but with the new artist signings, would it be fair to say that you've been drawn to artists that make these strange juxtapositions between styles and cultures, or bring other strange things together?
David Byrne: Do you mean Tom Zé, or people like that?
Chris Dahlen: Yeah.
David Byrne: I'm drawn to the stuff that's maybe a little bit on the fringe. Part of that is just practical sometimes. We can't compete with the major labels for some acts, so you figure, "Okay, what could I introduce to people, or what do I like that is within my means?"
Chris Dahlen: It also helps that part of the agenda was to make it very contemporary. As wonderful as the Nonesuch Explorer series is, it's very archival. But you guys always wanted to have contemporary cover art, and say, "This is something that's relevant to your life."
David Byrne: Oh exactly, yeah. The whole challenge was to present it as if this was some kind of contemporary music, not something that only somebody who was interested in something far away and "exotic" would be interested in. That sometimes worked. It didn't always work. Sometimes the European and North American public like some things to be exotic and kept at arm's length. They don't want sometimes to know that foreign artists are doing something that's at least as relevant as what's being done here. But I think that's changed a lot in the last twenty years or so.
Chris Dahlen: In your role as curator with Luaka Bop, I wondered if you'd been following the digital distributors that are bringing catalogues from abroad into stores like iTunes or Rhapsody. In the '70s or '80s, you would be introduced to this stuff so slowly, buying used vinyl or sharing it with each other. Do you have any take on what we're going to do in the digital era, with so many albums suddenly available?
David Byrne: It is amazing how much stuff that you can't imagine existed and then vanished can be kind of resurrected. I know when Luaka Bop started doing Cuban compilations, [the Cuban record companies] had such a small amount of vinyl to work with that they wouldn't press that many records. So [the records would] come out, they'd sell out, and there'd be no further pressings. People would pass them around and learn the songs, and then they'd talk about it as if it was part of the musical history, and you'd go, "Oh, can I hear this record? Where can I get a copy?" But no, not even the government music archives had vinyl copies. They had the master tapes, but they didn't have the vinyl. It was gone.
Same thing with a lot of the Brazilian stuff. When I was first getting really curious about the Tropicalia movement, people would mention this legendary group Os Mutantes. And I would say, "Well, that sounds amazing, a psychedelic band from that period - can I get the record?" "No." Nobody had 'em, or they had them in their parents' garage, or something, and you couldn't find them in the stores. The vinyl was just gone.
Same with some other things. Someone would mention some great songwriter, so I'd go into a record store in Rio or someplace and ask for records by that person, and they'd go, "No, we don't have any."
Chris Dahlen: In your online journal you've written a lot about the flow of culture between the West and the "frontier," and I know too that, starting with Bush Of Ghosts, Jon Pareles criticised you in Rolling Stone for using the music of other cultures. With Bush Of Ghosts, did you think there might be a problem with two white guys using Arabic music and these other sources?
David Byrne: I thought there might be a little bit, but not that much. As I said, I think we were more concerned with making sure all the rights and clearances were done.
Some of the reaction we got, we should have anticipated, but it was kind of unexpected. And it didn't have to do with the kind of cultural stuff, I don't think, so much as it had to do with the fact that the guys whose names were on the record weren't singing on the record, which has since become super-common in the dance and electronic music worlds. But at that time it was blasphemy. It was like, "But that's not you singing!" And I think it was also confusing to people, because to us, when we were lucky, the combination of the rhythm and the music and the voice had a real kind of emotional arc to it, and it felt like an emotional performance. And I think it bothered some people who felt that this emotional feeling was constructed, that it was manufactured. By using somebody's voice, we were tricking the listener into feeling something that we weren't necessarily feeling, but that we knew the tricks of the trade and the craft and the skills, and we could make you feel something even though it was just all constructed, and put together in that way.
There's a pervasive feeling that when somebody sings a song and records a song on a record, that it's their true feeling.
Chris Dahlen: Yeah, it's from the gut.
David Byrne: Yeah, [people feel] it has more value the more it's from the gut. Which, I would agree with part of that. You hope that there's some honesty and some intention that they want to communicate. But with a lot of what we take to be true feelings, especially on pop records, we feel them because they're cleverly crafted. And because the words are written by somebody who knows how to craft words and draw on those things and convey those feelings. That doesn't mean they're dishonest. But it also doesn't mean that it's all just pure primitive emotion spilling out.
There's still a feeling that uncensored emotions make a good song. They don't. Pure emotion is just somebody screaming at you, or crying. It doesn't communicate anything. It has to be mediated with some skill and craft, in order to communicate it to a second, a third, or a fourth person. That doesn't make it any less real. And it doesn't make it any less true. But it does mean that, yeah, it's the combination that makes it work.
Chris Dahlen: In the '80s, you started to perform more styles of music from around the world. For example, with Rei Momo, did it take confidence to get in front of a Latin band, and say, "I can actually do something here?" Were there any issues?
David Byrne: A lot of that worked itself out in the recording. I thought it was working in the recording, and then I thought, "Oh, okay, maybe I can get a lot of the same guys and we can do this live." By that time, the band took a little while to gel but once it worked, it really was fairly accepted live, for the most part, once we kind of got our chops down.
That was in a period when I was intentionally rejecting everything I'd done previously, as people sometimes do when they make a break from something - a previous band or a relationship or whatever. You kind of deny everything that you ever did before, and you say, "I'm not going to do any of that stuff anymore. Ever. That's old." I was going through that, which I think was kind of stupid. I should have tempered it a little bit, at that time. But ah, well, sometimes that's just the process that you need to go through.
Chris Dahlen: In the essay you wrote for The New York Times, "I Hate World Music", you write that when you understand where music comes from, by studying the liner notes and by appreciating that these are other people, then you're really responding to it on an emotional, creative level. You argued that listening to music from a different culture is valuable because it's impossible to see the other people as less than you after you've heard it.
David Byrne: Yeah. I'm being probably naïve, but I would like to think that once something moves you and you have an emotional involvement with it, and you see some relevance in it to your own life, then it's a little bit harder, maybe, to look at the people that produced it as being just exotic others that don't have any connection to you or relevance to you. I think I'm a little bit naïve there, but I would like to think there's something to that.
Chris Dahlen: As a musician, do you ever feel like you can spend enough time with another culture's music - say, Latin music - where you feel like you can "get it," and work on almost an even plane with the other people? Or do you feel like there's always a separation?
David Byrne: It depends on who it is. Some things, I feel like no, I never could have the depth of experience of their own music and culture - but sometimes if I'm collaborating with somebody, they're interested in me bringing my own stuff into their thing, and sometimes that works.
Other times, it's super, super easy. There's a band from Argentina, an alternative band [La Portuaria] that has some regional elements. I did a song with them last year, and I'm going down there in a week to do some shows with them, just me joining them on that song. But that was really easy. Their music already had the same kind chord progressions and everything that I'm familiar with.
Chris Dahlen: Recently you wrote about attending a reading by Chinua Achebe, and you seemed to look forward to the idea of "the empire striking back," or in this case "the empire writing back" - that the flow of culture could go both ways, between the colonising powers and the colonised.
David Byrne: Yeah. Well, the same thing happens musically. A lot of people, musically anyway, have realised that they can do it, and there's an audience for it at least in their own country, and often thought a lot of countries have a diaspora that breaks out all over the place, so they have a pretty wide audience.
Chris Dahlen: Why does it particularly interest you, that that's happening?
David Byrne: I'm going to guess that I hear the same kind of process happening there that sparked off a lot of the creative explosions in popular music that I've heard or fell in love with over the years, and I see it happening again and again. It doesn't have as much of a centre anymore, at least in pop music. It's really getting spread out, and sometimes the most exciting development might be somewhere - certainly other than New York.
So, to me it just gives me more stuff to listen to that I like. That's what it's about.
Chris Dahlen: I've been reading your journal, and you seem to spend a lot of time writing it, and giving an account of the events you attend and the other stuff you're seeing. What got you started doing it?
David Byrne: I'd been keeping tour diaries, and especially when I go somewhere where I felt the experience might be interesting, like Eastern Europe or South America or whatever, where the whole perception of what I was doing there and stuff that I was seeing and music I was hearing, I could put all that into a diary. And I would write those as I went. But that was quite a while ago, and there was no such thing as blogging or anything then. So I would just occasionally e-mail them to friends, or send out little portions of them to people who might be interested. And various people occasionally said, "Oh, you should do more of this." Some people were mainly interested in my musical insights of what a musician thinks about on the road, what are the practicalities of being on the road, and all that kind of stuff.
When it became easy enough to do it online, then I just thought, "Oh, I'll start doing this. I'll put the parts online that aren't going to get me in trouble. I'll save the rest for myself." [Laughs]
It became also this kind of self-therapy. I could write about stuff that was bothering me, or personal stuff. And the very personal stuff I could edit out. But it was kind of the catharsis of getting it out and writing about it, that made me think, "Okay, I see why people do this, why they keep these diaries." So I thought, "Well, let's see what happens when I post some of it."
I think sometimes I get carried away, like I'm speaking to an imaginary audience rather than just trying to figure something out for myself. Ideally, I try to balance that - that I'm asking these questions of myself, how does this work, why does this happen, what's going on here.
Chris Dahlen: When artists publish their memoirs or whatever, they're usually very conscious of, "You're reading this because you want to know why I wrote this song, or why I did this thing." And with your journal, it's hard to shake that assumption as a reader - even though a lot of what you're writing about may not end up in a work product of any kind.
David Byrne: Yeah, there's an awful lot that I think obviously won't. It feeds into things I'm interested in, but it has almost no musical relevance, a lot of it.
Chris Dahlen: It also gives this impression that you lead a very charmed life, as you're talking about all of the cool events and the cool things you're checking out -
David Byrne: Yeah, of course you leave out all of the boring stuff that you did. You're only posting the stuff that actually moves you or interests you or annoys you or whatever, and you leave out the four days in between when you went to see stuff and it wasn't very good.
Chris Dahlen: I haven't asked you about Here Lies Love. I couldn't really find any materials about it except for some reviews, and some people who were surprised that you didn't talk about Imelda Marcos' shoe collection.
David Byrne: It's still in the development stage. Norman Cook, (Fatboy Slim), and I are [doing] the music production part. The work with him is very close to being finished. So now it's moving on to meeting theatrical producers and investors, and thinking about the casting and all that kind of stuff. We'll see how that goes.
Chris Dahlen: When you did the run in Australia, was it still a work in progress?
David Byrne: Oh, very much. And that was just me and my band, and two Asian women singing the songs, as a concert - with some archival video on some parts. But there was no attempt to make it a theatrical thing.
Chris Dahlen: What drew you to that subject?
David Byrne: It was a combination of things. First, I read this book by a Polish writer named Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor, about Haile Selassie. He interviewed members of Selassie's court after the fall of the regime, and it painted this picture of the world inside a dictator's court, which was a very surreal place. I thought, "Well, this is very theatrical, and artificial, this little universe that gets created inside these places."
And then more recently I read something about Imelda going to Studio 54, and having a New York townhouse, and it's like, "Wow, here's somebody in power that comes with their own soundtrack. This is the soundtrack that they lived by." So I thought wow, let's see if there's a story there.
That music - a lot of it is about getting outside of yourself and losing yourself in the club, and the beats, and all that kind of stuff. And I imagine that's a similar experience to the heady experience of having all this power. So I thought, "That might be a good way to express what these people are feeling."
Chris Dahlen: Do you know when this might come to the States?
David Byrne: I'm going to do another concert version I think, at Carnegie Hall, next February. By then I'm hoping the theatrical version will be starting to get itself worked out as well.
Chris Dahlen: I just had one last question. A friend of mine played a show in Providence and went to a hot dog stand. They're in a band, so the hot dog stand guy says, "Oh, David Byrne used to work here. We've been here thirty years and he worked at this hot dog stand." And at this place, when they do the hot dogs, they line them up on their arm and they take the condiments and they go like this [I make a chopping gesture along my arm, as seen in the video for "Once in a Lifetime"]. "That's where he got that!"
David Byrne: I did work at a hot dog stand, a place called New York System, where you put the hot dogs on your arm like that. But I got that thing from, I saw these Japanese kids dancing in the park in Tokyo, these kind of rockabilly dancers, and then there were these kind of space cadet kids that had a completely different set of movements. I videotaped a bunch of them, and that's where I got that.