INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Rolling Stone MARCH 5, 1981 - by Kurt Loder
SQUAWKING HEADS: BYRNE AND ENO IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS
Not all ghosts confine themselves to midnight moaning sessions in abandoned mansions. Some are quite modern and speak through their attorneys. Such is the style of Kathryn Kuhlman, a noted radio evangelist recently returned to her sender. Kuhlman is survived by her sermonettes, and David Byrne, leader of the Talking Heads, heard one of these spectral addresses in Los Angeles early last year and taped it off the air. A person of Presbyterian reserve, Byrne was transfixed by Kuhlman's fervor. It seemed the perfect vocal element for a record he was working on, so he went ahead and used it. Unfortunately, he failed to take into consideration Kathryn Kuhlman's estate, which retains a litigious life of its own. Approached some months later for permission to incorporate the sainted founder's taped declamations into what was faintly understood to be an avant-garde Afro-funk album called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, the estate was not amused. Clearly, this Byrne fellow and his associate, a Mr. Eno, could only have an irreverent intent. Permission was then and forever denied.
Thus was one of the more fascinating musical projects of 1980 blown dear out of the water. By the time the Kuhlman estate's displeasure became known, Byrne and Brian Eno - the producer of three of the four Talking Heads albums - had already completed My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, their first independent collaboration. The album covers had been printed, and Kuhlman's posthumous contribution was duly credited on the sleeve, alongside a Lebanese mountain girl, whooping radio preachers and an unsuspecting Egyptian pop singer, Samira Tewfik. Each of these voices had been electronically stripped of its original context and set slithering through a dense thicket of peculiar percussive effects and wild, mimetic guitars. It was a strange and haunting record, and - in rebuke to some of the disembodied orthodoxies being spouted - quite danceable, too. But in September, after a stint of recording with the Talking Heads in the Bahamas, Byrne and Eno returned to New York and reluctantly removed Kuhlman's "vocal" from their album. Then, since they were in the studio anyway, they started tinkering and adding new material. The record's release date was pushed back six months (it's now due out in March).
In October, the new Talking Heads album, Remain In Light, preceded the Byrne-Eno LP into the marketplace. Radically influenced by the harmonic and compositional ideas developed on Bush Of Ghosts, and with Eno listed for the first time as a full creative member, the album was a great hit. But it also raised certain questions. Would Bush Of Ghosts - which Eno described as "a laboratory for the Talking Heads record" - be misperceived as a mere sequel? And in view of the fact that Byrne and Eno had virtually taken over Talking Heads for their own experimental purposes on Remain In Light, was the inscrutable Eno exerting a malign influence on Byrne, alienating him from the band? Rumours in New York and Los Angeles suggested that tensions within the group had been festering ever since the Nassau sessions. It was even said that the Heads might never record again.
The band did perform in the fall, both here and in Europe, but with a heavily augmented lineup that included former David Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, ex-Labelle singer Nona Hendryx, bassist Busta Cherry Jones and percussionist Steven Scales. Byrne explained that this expanded aggregation was necessary in order to do justice to the Heads' complex new music, but fans wondered what was going on. Adding to the ambiguity of the situation was the absence of comment from the other three Talking Heads - bassist Tina Weymouth; her husband, drummer Chris Franz; and keyboardist-guitarist Jerry Harrison. Weymouth briefly unburdened herself in the January issue of The Face, a new English music paper, where her irritation with the Byrne-Eno infatuation was evident. "They're like two fourteen-year-old boys making an impression on each other," she said. "By the time they finished working together for three months, they were dressing like one another. It looked like they'd switched shoes. Eno was now wearing Thom McAn slip-ons. I can see them when they're eighty years old and all alone. There'll be David Bowie, David Byrne and Brian Eno, and they'll just talk to each other."
Eno is not unaware of the antipathies he's stirred up within Talking Heads. One night early in December, just before departing for his first trip to Africa (at the invitation of Ghana's Ministry of Culture), the thirty-two- year-old producer-composer sat sipping tea at a long table in his spacious New York loft and tried to explain his relationship to the group. A modest array of unexceptional stereo equipment lined one white wall, and there was a tidy stack of records: Les Liturgies De L'Orient, Music Of Bulgaria, Actual Voices Of Ex-Slaves, Parliament's The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein... On a far couch were the central components of the "Eno sound," long in demand by the likes of David Bowie and Robert Fripp: two small Korg and Minimoog synthesizers, a black Fender bass and a Stratocaster tuned to an open chord. A Panasonic video camera pointed out the eleventh-floor window, and two upended TV sets stood side by side nearby, silently playing back the slowly darkening Manhattan skyline.
Eno explained that he had first been attracted to Talking Heads after hearing their debut album. Talking Heads: 77, and realising that they alone among the bands associated with the New York punk explosion retained a strong allegiance to the rhythmic conventions of black funk and soul. Yet there was something new happening, too - an angular, jangling intelligence behind the material that fascinated him. He signed on to produce the group's second album. More Songs About Buildings And Food, and stayed aboard for their third, Fear Of Music. By then, he and Byrne had become intrigued by the possibilities of African music, and they came away from recording Fear Of Music particularly excited about one track, the dense, tribal-sounding - and, for Talking Heads, quite uncharacteristic - I Zimbra.
"That track was generated from a group improvisation," Eno said. "It was a step forward in a lot of ways. And we suddenly thought, "This is really quite close to what we've been listening to.' We realised that we were nearly there, in some sense. It was an interesting piece, but it presented a real dilemma for the Talking Heads in that it was a new format for them. And I really wanted to encourage that."
With Fear Of Music finished, Eno entered a New York studio in August 1979 and began recording with a large group of bassists and percussionists, including Chris Frantz. Byrne also played on those sessions, and some of the basic tracks on Bush Of Ghosts date from that period. Eno took these tapes to Los Angeles a short while later. He wasn't sure whether this new material would amount to anything, but while staying at the Sunset Marquis, he encountered three members of the Tubes and, after playing the tracks for them, was greatly encouraged by their enthusiasm. "So I rung David up in New York and asked if he would lie interested in coming to Los Angeles to do some work on a new record, which would be a collaboration between the two of us." Byrne arrived in LA. in February 1980; the original version of Bush Of Ghosts was finished (in San Francisco) by May.
Although several bassists and percussionists drift in and out of the album's eleven tracks, the bulk of the music was created by Byrne and Eno. A major marvel of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is the way percussion and melody have been melded into a single, unifying force. Eno credits much of the album's thick, steamy percussion sound to engineer Dave Jerden, another Talking Heads alumnus, who he says "had a real talent for making cardboard boxes sound great. We were using all sorts of weird ashtrays, film canisters, pipes, trash cans, lamp shades, pieces of the floor, anything that was around." Layering their "found" vocals over these exotic tracks - an exhortatory preacher on Help Me Somebody, a group of Georgia Sea Island singers on Moonlight In Glory, an unintelligible but superb Lebanese mountain singer named Dunya Yusin on Regiment - Byrne and Eno were able to create the most compelling example to date of what might truly be called one-world music.
The Bush Of Ghosts was completed just in time for the beginning of rehearsals for Remain In Light. By this time, however, Eno had no interest in producing the group again. "I wanted to do some work of my own, because I had been forming this idea - the African-psychedelic collision, or whatever - mote and more strongly And that was all I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in doing something that wasn't at the frontier of my ideas, if you see what I mean."
Eno said the Talking Heads still wanted him to participate, so as a compromise, he agreed to join them in the Bahamas as a musician and help work on the basic tracks. Once in Nassau, however, he became excited by the group's new approach. They had been rehearsing for three weeks with Byrne - fresh from the Bush Of Ghosts sessions - and Eno noted that "they had been developing this groove- atmosphere style of work, rather than the traditional song format, and they had been working quite a lot in that direction. I thought, 'Yeah, this is really going somewhere interesting now.' And so I said, 'Well, as I've explained before, I've got strong ideas about what I want to do. What I think now is that you, too, share this idea. And if this is the direction the thing's going to go in, then I would be happy to produce."
That happiness was soon clouded by feelings of resentment as Eno and Byrne, writing almost all of the material, bent the rest of the band in their direction. "There was a sort of uneasy feeling about what exactly my role was," Eno admitted. "Things got pretty difficult at various times; there were all sorts of levels of angst going on. Some of them were for personality reasons, and others were for accidental reasons. But the group has been together six or seven years, and one of the things that affected Remain In Light a lot was this history of frictions within the group. And of course, they started manifesting themselves, quite inappropriately, on this record, and they weren't particularly things that I wanted to deal with. But I had to.
"I had a number of feelings at the end of the Talking Heads record," Eno concluded, running a hand through his thinning blond hair. "One of them was elation - I mean, I thought it was good. But the other was frustration. I felt, 'God, it could have gone further.' Particularly in terms of vocalisation. To be honest, I really thought that if, at a certain point, I had had those tracks and had carte blanche to write whatever I wanted, song- wise, over the top... I think that I could have explored this intricate song form that I was getting into more thoroughly. But I didn't feel comfortable about usurping the compositional role any more than I had done already. So what I'm doing next is stretching my wings in that direction."
As in Brian Eno's loft, a single table was the centrepiece of David Byrne's sixth-floor walkup in lower Manhattan. On it was a small glass of apple juice, a pack of low-tar cigarettes and a book. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, by Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola. Like the young protagonist in that tale, Byrne had ventured out beyond his native village - in his case, for the sake of simile, the Talking Heads - and travelled extensively through the mysterious musical bush, where he encountered all manner of strange things. Whether or not he, like Tutuola's hero, will ever return to the security of his village remains to be seen. It was a January afternoon, and snow was floating down softly outside. In a quiet, careful voice, Byrne tried to explain why he had become so obsessed with African modes of music, and why he was so proud of what he and Eno had achieved on their album.
"There are a lot of similarities between music from West Africa, the Yoruba area, and black music in the States," he said. "For instance, it's just as important to know when not to play, when to leave holes for the other players. In a lot of African music, each individual's part has almost no meaning on its own, and in many cases a musician physically couldn't play his part without playing with other musicians. It would be like having the guitar player on a Michael Jackson record or a Funkadelic record just play his part - you'd have no idea what the song sounded like.
"The whole implication of that kind of playing is that a group of people can do something together that they can't do individually. And that they can achieve something that's much greater than the sum of their individual parts. And I think that goes against the whole Protestant-capitalist sort of ethic here, this emphasis of individuality. You have to limit what you do and play less, but you get more in the end. And you get excitement as a result of that. The nature of the playing is that you give up a part of your ego; and if everyone's playing together and listening to one another, you get this sort of surge of - I don't know what you'd call it - psychic energy, or whatever. A real sort of spiritual, uplifting feeling. It's just thrilling. And it's not an experience, I think, that happens in rock music"
After experiencing these new sensations with the nine-member version of Talking Heads, Byrne did not seem inclined to return to the group's original quartet structure. "It's possible, but I think if we did that, we'd return playing together in a very different way. It wouldn't just be the four of us going back to being a rock band."
With two major albums finally completed, Byrne hopes to diversify his interests. He was involved in a video project with choreographer Toni Basil (an original member of L.A.'s Lockers dance troupe), and he has recently been approached about working with Gamelan musicians on Bali.
It was apparent that Byrne intended to continue beating around in the bush of ethno-experimentation as long as there remained lessons to be learned from it. But if he sought a larger communality in this area of music, what was to become of the smaller but still vital community that is Talking Heads. Byrne thought about that for a moment. He really didn't seem to know the answer. "There is some dissension, on and off, but there is with every group. We'II probably start working again in the not-too-distant future, and we'll see what happens then." He crushed out his cigarette and took a sip of apple juice. Then, suddenly, he smiled. "I think we'll work out our differences," he decided. "Yeah, I think well keep going."