INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Slash NOVEMBER 1979 - by Staff Writers
DAVID BYRNE INTERVIEW
SLASH: You were saying they dance more to The B-52s than to your music.
DAVID BYRNE: Yeah, that's what's been happening lately.
D'you consider yourselves a dance band among other things?
Yeah, well sort of, I think we play music that's possible to dance to. Actually I found though, what happened last night, when The B-52s were playing lots of people were dancing and there was a railing in front of the stage and it started to crumble and there was this little pit and people would've fallen into the pit, so they had to go out after The B-52s played and tell people not to go forward and push against the railing.
How did the double billing with The B-52s happen? Was it your choice or was it a joint decision with the record company?
I think it was a joint decision... we're acquaintances, sort of friends. We have the same manager, that makes it easy to work out the logistics of playing gigs in the same place.
The reason I ask is because, it's a nice billing, but it's an odd billing because it seems like they're focusing on the past as far as gimmicks, and you seem more oriented towards the future... d'you think I'm wrong?
I see what you mean. I think our feeling was that they were fun and that they're a good band and it doesn't matter what kind of band we play with as long as they've got something... we've played with reggae bands... various different bands. Sometimes it seems to work... sometimes we've gotten somebody to open for us that we think our audience might like to hear; sometimes our audience doesn't feel the same way... [chuckles].
The B-52s are a fun band... are the Talking Heads a fun band?
I think so. I think people can have fun when they see us... it's a different sort of fun.
You wouldn't say fun is what you're singing about?
No, but I enjoy myself when we perform
So is it some kind of second degree thing where actually you can have fun singing about things that are quite scary?
Yeah. I think so.
D'you think that the growing audience that you have sees it that way as having fun with very unfun subjects or d'you think they just pick up whatever they want in the music?
Well, I'm sure they just pick up whatever they want. I like the idea of presenting things that aren't necessarily entertaining... some of the songs might be depressing or whatever, but if they can be enjoyable at the same time...
It seems to be a more ambitious project than most musicians have - which is to present a certain subject matter in another way. D'you think this difference is going to lead you to try with other media or d'you think just the music is good enough of a vehicle to carry your ideas across?
No. I'd like to try other things, but I haven't had the time really... I'm going to have to slow down on the touring soon in order to investigate other things.
Have you been approached by people to do a movie or anything?
Yeah on and off, things like that. I haven't had the time to think about what would be the best way to do it. I tend to think that if you just accept something that's offered like that, even if it's a good genuine offer, if you just go into it then you might be... you're not sort of challenging any of the assumptions about those various mediums. I think I had something that I had to do I would have to stop and think what's the best medium for it. what's the best approach for that, instead of just saying, oh. I'll do a book or I'll do a movie. I tend to think that TV or movies are not generally suited for rock n roll, although they can be used to generate some of the same ideas and feelings, but just having bands on the screen doesn't work very well.
You seem to be more word-conscious than most rock n roll writers, were you writing at all before Talking Heads?
Yeah, a little bit. Some songs, and a lot of things like questionnaires and lists of things, that was the format I was using. In a way, it seemed to be leading the same way, I'd get sick of art that seemed to have no ambition to communicate with people, so I started working with things that would get disseminated, things that persons could read and throwaway.
Do you think you're communicating now?
Yeah, I think so. I can't really tell, but I think so.
Does getting across worry you, or do you take it for granted that only so much will be understood?
I think more of it comes across than people can verbalise, because a lot of the ideas I try to communicate aren't just in the lyrics, it's in the lyrics in contrast with the music, they way the music is arranged, our attitude on stage, all that sort of thing, sometimes just the sound of the instruments implies one point of view that isn't very easy to verbalise but is very easy to understand, but you can't quite put your finger on what it is.
I know this is quite a cliche question, but which comes first, the tune or the lyrics?
It depends on the song. This last record, almost every song is written using a different process. Some of them the words first, and those words set the music, and then I'd figure out what the chords were and then sometimes the whole song was written but it had no words and I put words to it that completed recording. I really made a point not to get into a method of writing songs 'cos I thought if I find something that works and stick to it. then all the songs'd start sounding the same... maybe not, but I was afraid that would happen.
How satisfied are you personally with the progression between the second and the third album?
I think there are some things that are starting to move away from... er... whatever we're supposed to be and I think the sound of the record on a turntable to me is much better than the previous album and that's something I can't explain... We didn't spend any more time trying to get a technically better recording or anything, if anything the recording was sloppier.
What about this song written in a totally foreign dialect - is that African? What is it?
No. it's nonsense, it's a nonsense poem.
Cos I've read some very serious stuff explaining the roots of that [laughs].
Well, the music is serious. I know that song has been accused of sounding disco. My intention was - I'd been listening to quite a number of African songs and I wanted to have a song that was really percussion oriented and had this sort of high life guitar style. The lyrics are from this old nonsense poem by this guy Hugo Ball.
You played in New York with Dillinger... How come you didn't keep the same double billing when you toured that time? Was there absolutely no interest in other parts of the to country?
Yeah, that's... to some extent that's what it is. Logistically it's hard enough to get those people together.
Out of Jamaica, out of time... [laughs]
[laughs] Out of Jamaica, out of time... get them on the stage... I mean I don't want to sound condescending but it's just... it's very difficult, it's not very good for touring. We were scheduled to have the Mighty Diamonds or somebody playing in Berkeley... at the last minute they just called up and said they weren't coming... Aside from that somebody like Dillinger might be known here and in New York and a couple of other places but otherwise, it's not fair to him to go somewhere and have people just sit there.
As far as the band, what is your affinity to the Jamaican sound? Almost every new wave combo that comes out has to have their token reggae tune by now, and you haven't touched the stuff. Is it white people can't play reggae?
I've heard some white people play reggae songs - they're not the same but it still sounds good. I wouldn't wanna just go in and play a straight reggae song, a faithful copy of the original seems like imitation... we tended to adopt some of the techniques that they use, like on some of the songs we use some dub techniques and stuff like that, although it sounds very different when we use it.
You did do a pretty straightforward version of Take Me To The River, which was quite impressive so don't you think you would get away with...
Yeah, but when we started playing that I thought that was more acceptable because it was...
Mm... No, it just seemed like a choice for us to do almost a gospel number.
Is there any other chance that you will perform with other reggae artists? I'm pushing this a bit but we've had such an incredible response from the reggae coverage we do so I know a lot of people are interested.
I think it's possible - I think it'd be good if we could get some of the other types of Caribbean music.
D'you find yourself under certain pressures that you find distasteful?
It hasn't been too bad like that, since we don't go around opening to big bands or anything, we're usually playing to an audience that's come to see us out of curiosity or whatever. We haven't had to do all those things - cocktail parties or anything. Sometimes you end up at some place you think might be interesting and it turns out it's not, but that happens no matter what you do, we've stopped doing store appearances but we did those at one point; after doing them I thought, ah, this is what these are about! In a way it's nice because it's a chance for you to talk to your audience firsthand, but the bad thing is that it reaffirms that star/audience relationship, so now instead if there's a good record store in town I'll go by myself 'cos it's a good record store and they might have something good.
Talking about this star thing...
I don't think we get it that bad...
But you do get it.
Yeah, but it's nowhere near the way those other people get it.
Do you think it will ever get to the point where this unnatural relationship will disappear, where there won't be that distance between performer and audience?
I feel we're making progress like that. It's not working a hundred per cent, but I feel we're getting somewhere.
Do you ever feel that press interviews can also reinforce that distance between audience and artist, by implicitly stating that whoever it is that is being has a "message" to share, or whatever?
It does not have to be that way. Sometimes there is a reason to interview people, because they have had experiences, because of the nature of their work, they know more about certain things than the average reader. In our case we've had experiences with touring, record companies, recording, that sort of thing, and that's probably more than the reader has had, but it does not mean we think we're better than them, it just happens to be what we do. You could say the same about anyone. Whatever job they do, they are more knowledgeable about that subject. It just happens we're in a band, which is the sort of job where people tend to get put up on a pedestal, but somebody who works in an office knows a lot more about that than I know, and I would be asking them questions.
What about people working in offices, doing all these boring repetitive jobs, leading the kind of life you hinted at in Big Country? Are you familiar with it?
Well, I worked for a few years as a dishwasher and a hash slinger, stuff like that. I found it depressing after a while, it wasn't depressing because of what I was doing - if I had a friend that was working with me it was okay - it was horrible because of the way you were treated, it was sort of assumed that you were a dope because you were washing dishes... of course, you don't get paid very well either! But I've worked real boring menial jobs, but with a friend working in the same place it's not too bad, I mean. I can think of better ways of spending my time but I wouldn't necessarily go home depressed all the time.
What did you do when you did end up going home depressed?
I guess I would read, listen to records... you come home feeling depressed and dive into your own projects, telling yourself, "Oh, they treat me so rotten but they don't know, they don't know that when I get home I'm doing all this interesting stuff and I know this and that!"...
What are you doing after this tour?
I think we do a short tour of Germany and England, then I think it's time to stop and think about things for a while. I like performing and touring, but the drawback is that I can't do anything else, it's so time consuming and physically exhausting I can't really work on anything else, I can't write songs. I assume that while touring there are ideas brewing, but I don't have the time to work on something intensively. It's a shame, but it seems I can't do two things at once.
Now that life is somewhat materially easier for you than when you were washing dishes, do you find it as easy to be creative? You know, the old cliche about having to be going thru hard times to be at a creative peak?
Yeah, I know the cliche... I wouldn't want to reinforce it, but in a way it's true. I guess if you start being comfortable your work might stop having any relationship with normal people. I don't make that much money and I don't think I have that problem, if I do make some I'll spend it on studio time or something like that rather than buying a giant house, and most of my friends are just... regular people. I mean they're not regular people, but they are real people. There is another problem when you start having some success is that it makes it difficult to try other things.
Does success also make it harder for you to keep your critical judgment intact? I mean, how do you know when something you've done is good or when it is just okay but probably will pass?
It's mostly down to myself, whether I get excited when I'm writing something. If I get excited I'll jump around the room and think I really got something. In your last issue David Thomas said he really gets excited when he comes up with something that he doesn't really understand, and I feel a little bit the same way. If I get a combination of words that seems really interesting but I don't understand where I got that point of view, when I think I got something, or if the music, the instruments have a relationship to one another that I can't quite figure out, that sounds new - not just as if we go we'll do this and this and it will sound like this, let's go ahead, that's not very satisfying - but as long as I can keep having that attitude I can assume that people that listen to what we do will feel the same way.
How do you go about working out new songs with the rest of the band?
Sometimes I feel I got something and I can see where it might go but it really sounds pretty primitive at the stage where I present it, but they're very good and understanding. If I can explain what I'm after they make suggestions...
Do they write songs of their own?
Not that I know of. They might, but they haven't brought them forward yet.
Hope you noticed we haven't mentioned Eno! And we won't.
When did music enter your life?
1966 or something... pretty late forgetting into rock n roll. I didn't have a transistor radio until then [David Byrne is twenty-seven - Research Ed.] I had a band in junior high school, after that I did things on my own, played coffee houses, then I made tapes, played around with tape loops, that sort of thing, then I played with this guy. I played violin and ukulele and he played accordion, we played real old songs, mostly on the street [giggles]. Shortly after that I got acquainted with Chris and we got together a primitive version of this band, then we split apart and met again in New York and decided to do it for real.
In those days, did you ever think you might be one of the most talked about American groups to enter the '80s?
I didn't think about it too much. I thought there certainly was a lot missing in popular music, and if somebody could come along and start playing music that had some meaning, then all these bands on the radio would just go bankrupt, I just assumed that as soon as the audiences heard something new and relevant they would immediately throw out their old records! It hasn't quite happened that fast! It's been a little slower than that. But I think it is happening, slowly and not as decisively as I thought it would.
Do you think the new wave means some fundamental changes in the whole pop music structure, or is it a more superficial matter?
Obviously, it's supposed to mean some changes, but in general, listening to the radio while crossing the country, thru the newspapers, according to a regular person's impressions, there may be a little element of that, but it's still just a new style of clothing, some new-bands, and that's about it for most people. It's about the same as it was five years ago, like glitter or whatever it was. On the whole there is about the same percentage of interesting music on the radio, which isn't entirely bad. People tend to make the mid-sixties sound better than they actually were, there was a lot of crap on the radio then too! Sometimes I get optimistic and I think something is happening: like the Sergeant Pepper's record was a big failure, and you think, "Hey, something IS happening!' and they are cancelling the huge concerts everywhere, that sort of thing.
Can I ask you about certain songs that intrigue me, or are you getting bored?
No, not at all. Go ahead.
How did you come to write Animals? Did you have a conflict with your cat, or something like that?
In that one the music and words were written completely separately. It was an idea I have had for a while. For a few years I have been curious about the idea of the "noble savage," of being at one with nature, live with one another, harmonious balance, that sort of thing. After a while I just thought "this sounds too trite, it really must be bunk!" So I thought it'd be interesting to write a song that took the opposite point of view. But it seemed that to write a song like that about some primitive tribe would be a little bit too much, so I chose animals. Atone point I was going to tie religion into it, it started off saying "Jesus was hairy." talking about Jesus being all covered with fur, but [cracking up] I chopped off that part!
I took the song as an extreme example of paranoia...
In a way. but I think it's more challenging to present a point of view like that as a really legitimate point of view, not just the rantings of some paranoid person, which I tend to get portrayed as!
Why do you get portrayed that way?
Well, lots of the songs are a little bit like that, but what I think makes them interesting is that, however off the wall the point of view, | try to make them sound believable and plausible. I have to convince myself when I'm writing them. If I can convince myself then I feel it's successful. I have to write from a point of view that is plausible to me, although it's not something I would go out and tell somebody "this is what I believe in!" In other ones I might take one aspect of my point of view and exaggerate it out of proportion until it's bordering on the ridiculous.
How do you react to being portrayed as some paranoid schizophrenic that's made good?
Sometimes it's funny, if it's written in an amusing way. Like there was a Lester Bangs review of the album that was real funny, so I didn't mind that at all, but in some of the other ones, I think they're not quite seeing all of it.
Another song off Fear Of Music that strikes me is Drugs. What was the idea behind it?
When it was originally written it was called Electricity, then I changed the words and the music got changed considerably. It was originally just a description of somebody's perceptions, not necessarily a drug-induced perception, but one particular aspect of normal perception, and I thought it had nice contradictions in it, like someone is feeling sort of blissful and then they throw in a line about murder, they feel mean but blissful about it, enjoying feeling mean. The way the music worked out, we had recorded a different version of Electricity but it didn't translate very well onto tape, and so Brian and I started eliminating things from the mix and substituting other things, and by using that process we managed to get something quite different from the original, and a lot emptier. That worked good, and then some parts that were our favourite ones we copied them on other pieces of tape and added them on the beginning and the end. to extend it a little bit. I always liked the idea of psychedelic songs, although I always felt that during that period a lot of the stuff went too much one way or the other, either the music was interesting... but the words were all love and peace... I heard one of the 13th Floor Elevator's albums about a year ago, and I thought that was real good, psychedelic music should have been more of that and less of the other stuff.
Another song that still obsesses me is the older Big Country off the second album. It seems to reflect the feelings of someone who is literally torn between opposite feelings towards his country, who can love it and loathe it at the same time...
Yeah, I like that. I like the idea of about eighty percent of the song being a fairly objective description of the view from an airplane, the daily life, nothing really objectionable described, and then the person suddenly switches and decides he doesn't like any of it. I had trouble with that song until I got to that one part where I created that contradiction, and it was one of those songs that when that happened, I didn't understand why it worked but it really seemed to do something, and I was happy with it.
Talking Heads is such an all-American looking group, this attitude towards the country surprised me quite a lot... Did you get any feedback as far as the message of that song? Such clean looking young people...
Almost... expressing such feelings?
I must say I was wary of it at first, because expressing a negative attitude towards normal people's lives in the suburbs or wherever has been done.a lot in rock n roll, and it's an easy target, a cheap shot, and it does not really serve any purpose. But then when it was finished I thought, no, it's not quite as cheap as that, it's not elitist, it's not looking down your nose at somebody.