INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork JUNE 8, 2011 - by Mark Richardson
Discussing his early instincts toward live performance with Talking Heads, David Byrne recently told us that he wanted to "throw out everything and start from scratch." That tradition-flouting attitude has served him well for more than thirty years, most notably in the groundbreaking 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, which deconstructed the concept of a rock concert through methods usually associated with experimental theater.
For Byrne's 2008-2009 Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno tour, the modern Renaissance man once again devised a startlingly original show involving quirky dance, worldly funk, and even a few office chairs. The trek was chronicled by filmmaker Hillman Curtis, who combined behind-the-scenes takes, interviews with the tour's players, and concert footage to make Ride, Rise, Roar, which just came out on DVD. Calling from his house in Manhattan, Byrne recently spoke to us about his early concert experiences, the legacy of Stop Making Sense, and his enduring, open-minded approach to the stage.
Pitchfork: Did you have any formative concert experiences that showed you how live performance could be something apart from the usual?
DB: When I was in high school, there were these British blues-rock-type bands with really good guitar players that would jam on one song for half an hour. And as much as I was amazed by some of those guitar players, seeing them prompted me to make a note that that's not something I could do. [laughs] There were other cover bands I saw around then that did Memphis and Motown songs, and they had stage effects - there was one part where they turned on UV lights and they all had white gloves on, so you would just see these gloves doing a routine. It sounds very much like a minstrel show and it probably was [laughs], but you go, "Oh, look at that!" when you see something and it's not just the band performing.
In college in the early 1970s, I remember seeing an amazing James Brown show, and he had two women dancers, one on each side of the stage. They were kind of like go-go dancers, and that was all they did. I thought, "Wow. That's amazing that it's so important for him to have that element represented on stage that he will pay to have those women be a part of the show even though they're not contributing anything musically." I made a note of that.
And by the time Talking Heads were starting, my feeling was to throw out everything and start from scratch onstage; strip it down to as close to zero as you can get and then you can make it yours. It was a little bit after that that I became aware of more experimental theater, and those things had at least as big of an influence on me as any rock shows that I saw.
Pitchfork: I was going to ask you about that because during that period, especially in New York, the lines between music, theater, performance, and dance weren't clear.
DB: It was all very blurry, very funky. It seemed approachable and it didn't feel fully out of my range. It was also kind of virtuosic and perfectionist and really cool - I'm drawn to that kind of thing.
Pitchfork: It is interesting how the conventions of the rock show are pretty established and conservative: band comes out, plays their songs, comes back for an encore, and that's it. Do you ever find yourself bored by some of those conventions?
DB: Sometimes - it's the whole shoe-gazer and laptop thing where the band doesn't give the audience very much. At some point, you're like, "I love what this person is doing, but I think I'll just put the record on at home next time."
On the [Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno] tour, one of the dancers gave me a DVD of an R. Kelly show that had been shot in Oakland, and I watched it and thought, "Oh, my god." Insane stuff, just insane: a six-minute monologue about girls moaning [laughs] and then he did Trapped In The Closet with almost all the different voices. I thought, "Wow, here's where some of the most innovative musical staging is happening - it's not happening in the rock world." But, as much as I love the whole Trapped In The Closet thing, I didn't feel confident to go that way.
And I went and saw James Blake last week and expected it to be laptops, but it wasn't. It wasn't a visual spectacle, but it was a real performance. And it was moving, which was kind of surprising. The robotic repetition of the few words that he uses starts to build up and it becomes this emotional incantation. Maybe I'm completely reading into it, but it's really amazing that it's not just electronics - there's actually heart in there somewhere.
Pitchfork: Are there any other younger bands that you think are doing something interesting with live performance?
DB: I recently saw Nellie McKay, who does this cabaret show about a woman on death row. All her songs are standards or vaguely wacky or lighthearted, but the theme was death. Musically, everything was still appropriate to the cabaret setting, but the content just seemed wrong. It was amazing how she turned the expectations upside down.
Pitchfork: Considering the stature that the Stop Making Sense film and tour have obtained, do you feel an obligation to keep the bar high in terms of your performances being theatrical?
DB: Yes and no. I knew that I wanted the [Songs Of Byrne And Eno] tour to be somewhat theatrical, but for the tour before that, I carried along a string section and there was no theatrical element whatsoever. It was just about the music. So I go back and forth while figuring out something that's within my budget and trying to do something I haven't seen a million other people do. I'm proud of Stop Making Sense, but it's a little bit of an albatross; I can't compete with it, but I can't ignore it either.
Pitchfork: It's got a life of its own.
DB: Yeah. After a while, it was like the tour had never stopped. The film just kept playing. So many more people saw the film than ever saw the live show. In the film, we're playing in a two-thousand-five-hundred-person theater - we weren't playing arenas or stadiums or anything like that. We weren't raking in the money on the live shows, but we were very successful and we were having a good time. In fact, most people thought there was no live show and that it was all created onstage by [director] Jonathan [Demme].
Pitchfork: Moving on to Ride, Rise, Roar, it was really interesting to see your home studio and how you're getting musical elements from Brian Eno via e-mail then translating those into the songs on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. What are the pros and cons of collaborating with someone long distance through the Internet?
DB: I do it a lot now; I did some songs like that with Will Oldham recently. When it's one-on-one, it's pretty easy. I don't see many downsides to it, as long as everyone stays on their side of the field and no one encroaches on each other's territory. In some ways, passing stuff back and forth [online] is like layering things up in a studio, but it just stretches the process out over miles and time instead of it taking place one minute after another.
[Everything That Happens Will Happen Today] might be the first record I had that I thought might find a sizeable audience. It was pretty much self-released. So, in making the record that way, it meant we hadn't piled up a huge amount of expenses. Overhead was really low. We didn't have to go to a record company and go, "We need to pay for a recording budget on this."
Pitchfork: Is the technology at a place where you could do everything you wanted without having that money to go into a studio? Did you feel any limitations?
DB: Well, with that record, we had a guy mix it in a real studio. And there were studio days recording drums and brass and some other things that you definitely can't do on a laptop. But we would do those [recordings] as one-offs. I'm always surprised now when I see a band park themselves at a real recording studio for two or three weeks. I think, "How are you gonna pay this back?" But I do have friends who will go out of town and find a place where the rates are a tenth of what they are in New York. They'll record there, and it makes perfect sense.
Pitchfork: How involved were you in the dancing and choreographers on the Byrne/Eno tour?
DB: My suggestions were pretty loose. I remember early on saying I didn't want things to look too dance-y; if they could do something virtuosic, I wanted that to be done in little bits. I wanted them to be integrated to the band as much as possible - the stuff they were doing was maybe stuff we could do if we worked out a little more.
I had a hands-off approach with the actual choreography until we were on the road, then wanted to add more stuff, like [choreographer] Annie-B Parson's thing where we're carrying all these office chairs around. We were like, "There's always these office chairs backstage. Can we use those?" And then both of us went to see Deerhoof in Milwaukee and at the end of their show the guitars got held up and there was feedback for fifteen seconds. I thought, "Wow, they did a new dance with the guitars. We can do that." Then you take that further.
Pitchfork: So you were in some ways building it as you went.
DB: Yeah, building it and integrating the band and the dancers and singers. Like when I found out that one of the dancers played guitar, I said, "Oh, we could really use another guitar on this song." I could really integrate stuff so that you didn't know where one part of the group ended and another began. Obviously, the drummer's not going to get up and dance. Well, maybe.