"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut DECEMBER 2006 - by Alastair McKay
ALBUM BY ALBUM: DAVID BYRNE
The morning after the final concert at CBGB's, David Byrne is in no mood for nostalgia. "I'm not that sorry they closed," he tells Uncut, down the line from his Manhattan office. "They haven't been booking important stuff for years." But the former front-man of Talking Heads does concede that there was a moment in the pre-punk 1970s when Hilly Kristal's club was the only place in New York where unsigned bands could play. "If you weren't playing other people's songs in some lounge, there was this gap. There were little coffee bars on Bleecker, and we played those, but Hilly opened it up and said, 'OK, you're going to play your own stuff. That's what this is about.' All of a sudden everybody came out of the woodwork and said, 'Hey, I've got songs!'"
The shock-waves still resonate, even if it is hard to imagine Talking Heads sharing a van with The Ramones, as they did on their first European tour. But Byrne was never really a punk. In Talking Heads, he moved from art rock, through funk and African rhythms, while his solo career includes excursions into Latin pop, film soundtracks and his ground-breaking collaboration with Eno, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; recently re-released on its twenty-fifth anniversary and sounding brutally contemporary. Next up is a collaboration with Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos. More immediately, Byrne has an art opening to go to: his own exhibition, of chairs. What, you wonder, would Joey Ramone have made of it all?
• • •
A blistering postcard from New York's new wave, with Byrne's jittery, distant persona anchored by the first single, Psycho Killer.
BYRNE: The character in a lot of the songs was me, but half the time I don't know exactly what they're about. But it's not me in Psycho Killer! That was purely a song-writing exercise. At the time I was reading a lot of cybernetics and systems theory, so I started playing with language the way it was used in these technical books - flow-charts and decision trees. They were applying systems and ways of thinking to businesses or governments. I thought: what if you started applying it to yourself and to personal relationships? I did that in an ironic way. I knew that it didn't make much sense practically, but I thought it would be interesting to force the square peg into the round hole, just to see what happened. Some of the songs were written with that in mind. Maybe all that is some kind of metaphor for what I was going through. I was trying to be rigourous about it, but in a willingly perverse way.
People find it hard to understand that a person as shy as I was then could even get on-stage. Well, I didn't have stage fright. I had the equivalent of stage fright when I was off-stage. I realised that rather than keeping everything bottled up, I had to get on-stage and express it somehow. If I didn't, something bad might happen.
The essential Heads LP. Producer Brian Eno steers the band towards funk, while Byrne's lyrics grow darker and more paranoid.
That was the record where we had to start writing new material. I remember writing at home with a little Walkman-type tape recorder and, on some of hose tracks, Brian encouraged us to just jam on some chords, which was a brave step for us at that point. We recorded everything at Chris and Tina's loft, where we rehearsed. We were never really satisfied that the studio was capturing what we sounded like live. We brought a mobile truck and ran the cables through the windows, and recorded all the basic tracks that way, where we were perfectly comfortable. It does seem lyrically paranoid. I wonder what it was. The band were doing quite well, relatively speaking. The New York scene was changing. Then, or shortly after that, there was this mix of art-rock and hip-hop. The Lower East Side was starting to explode with painters. So the scene was pretty vibrant. The city itself was pretty much of a shit-hole. The streets were littered with bodies, cheap hookers and drug addicts. New York was bankrupt. Whole sections of the city looked bombed out. There were all sorts of parties, clubs, illegal after-hours places - the City really didn't give a fuck. They let anything go, basically. That was an interesting combination.
Eno ushers in African rhythms on this influential and upbeat set, which includes breakthrough video hit Once In A Lifetime.
We went whole hog into the backing tracks being improvised and recorded before any melodies or lyrics were written. The band is involved in helping create those backing tracks. But, after that, turning them into songs... a lot of that falls to me. To me, that record (and Bush Of Ghosts, recorded before it) seemed to be the answer to the question that Fear Of Music was raising. Fear Of Music was about angst and dark prophesy. This seemed to be the response, of saying, "OK, here's the way out." I felt I had to write lyrics that were more ecstatic to reflect the music. I can't say if it's just that the music is a reflection of a natural personal change, of growth or evolution, or if the music is making it happen. At the time, I felt that the music was making it happen. The music was telling me stuff. Telling me how relaxed I could feel, or how I could open up. It sounds new agey, but the music was a healing thing. I was just overjoyed and excited - as much as I could be - that that was happening, and that's reflected in the music. People picked up on it: here's this very uptight person, breaking loose a bit, and really overjoyed. You can sense how desperately that relief is needed.
The collaboration with Eno blossoms: sampled voice and thundering percussion blend into a genre-stretching essay on religious ecstasy.
We certainly weren't thinking 'clash of civilisations'. We were more tuned into the idea that these spiritual or religious vocalisations - preaching or chanting the Koran or gospel singing - seemed to have this soul and passion, this unique and powerful way of using the voice. The voice always turned into an instrument when it was driven by those passions. It almost didn't seem to matter what end of the religious spectrum it came from. You could see the roots of all kinds of music in preaching and talking. As long as the words aren't crap, it's the musicality of the words that hits you first. If I'm writing words, I try to say something, but I realise that it almost doesn't matter. If you can say something, that's an extra bonus.
There weren't any samplers then. You could make an odd percussive sound into a stuttering loop, but you couldn't ample vocal phrases and move then around the way you can now. But your mind makes the voice fit the music. There was a bit of hubbub that we were using all these other voices; that we weren't singing. That troubled some people. Now, that's incredibly common. In a funny way we looked prescient, but actually we're very lucky that a lot of things happened that are vaguely similar.
Byrne's first solo album pins frisky lyrics (opening line: "Now and then I get horny") to a joyous concoction of Latin influences.
That comes from my love of Brazilian music, and a lot of salsa. I was hoping to reflect the pan-American music that's heard in New York. It still is, although a lot of the salsa has moved on to reggaeton. Beginning in - wow! - the early '80s, I started to go to salsa clubs. I didn't know the rhythms, but occasionally I'd hear something cool. At that point, if you wanted to dance, you either had a choice of pogoing in the mosh-pit or the disco, and I didn't fit into either. This was a way for me to have a physical relationship to music. I got to know who some of the main artists were, and they all lived around New York and played in local clubs. I could walk to the Village Gate or S.O.B.'s and hear the best salsa bands in the hemisphere. By the mid-'80s I started to pick up on the Brazilian artists that didn't play new York as much. I tried to cut a pan-American record, which was maybe too ambitious, but I had a great time. In some cases I bit off more than I could chew, but in other cases it worked. For me the validation came when Yale [Evelev] of Luaka Bop went to Cuba to license some records. We were at this carnival in a tiny little town. I heard one of the Rei Momo tracks being played by the DJ, and I thought: 'Alright, I guess it worked.'
The funk is absent on a confident solo set that finds Byrne tackling opera and Lambchop's The Man Who Loved Beer.
Having grown a bit more relaxed, I started to really enjoy singing and performing; not in a self-satisfied way hopefully, but the physical act of singing became a release. That can come through the voice and, even for opera things, it doesn't take a trained voice to bring out the emotional release that's built into those songs. A lot of the record is pretty lush. The Lambchop cover is a bit more lush than their own version, so it fits in. There's only one or two funky tunes. I went back to it on the project I'm working on now with Norman [Fatboy Slim]. But with Grown Backwards I went for lyricism... attention to what I thought of as classic song-writing. It has an air of melancholy. To me, that means a bit of sadness, but not as on clinically depressed. I'm suspicious of songs that are too one-dimensionally happy. It has to have some melancholy edge to give it depth. It's a balancing act: if you can get the joy of performing in the music or the rhythm, and then also have this realisation that life is basically sad but also wonderful then, to me, you've got it.