INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Word NOVEMBER 2008 - by Dorian Lynskey
DON'T LOOK BACK
The two-man brains trust - Brian Eno and David Byrne - has reunited: musicians focused solely on the future, the baggage of nostalgia exchanged for a piercing clarity of ambition. They are never boring, Dorian Lynskey believes, because they are never bored.
Brian Eno and David Byrne have enjoyed such a famously fruitful creative relationship that it's strange to think that their new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, marks their first collaboration for twenty-seven years. Between 1978 and 1981, they were a two-man brains trust, working together on three neurotically inventive Talking Heads albums while, in their spare time, producing the landmark My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which lit the way towards both sample culture and rock's ventures into world music. You can perhaps sympathise with those on the fringes of this intense alliance. "They're like two fourteen-year-old boys making an impression on each other," grouched Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth.
Although their professional paths haven't crossed since then, they have proceeded in a similarly picaresque manner, wandering between the centre of pop culture and the margins. Byrne, fifty-six, attained unorthodox stardom with Talking Heads; Eno, sixty, became U2's studio consigliere. Byrne has just written a musical about Imelda Marcos with Norman Cook; Eno has been in the studio with Coldplay and U2. Byrne has his own internet radio station; Eno conceives his own music software. Byrne recently designed nine avant-garde bike racks to delight and perplex New York residents; Eno created an audiovisual computer program called 77 Million Paintings. Byrne published a book of tree diagrams called Arboretum; Eno is working on a new book right now. And so on. They are never boring because they are never bored.
Ideally, one would get them together for dinner at a quiet corner table and ask the waiter to collect the Dictaphone when he delivered the bill. That not being possible, Eno calls from his studio in London amid work on the soundtrack for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, and Byrne from a hotel in Atlanta, where he is touring Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Eno's answers are fluid, fully formed theories (typical opener: "I think"), while Byrne's are more quizzical and exploratory (typical opener: "I guess").
Their careers refute the idea that artistic ambition dims with age and that erstwhile innovators are fated to retread the ground they once broke. Even in an era gone goo-goo with nostalgia, they retain enough velocity to escape the pull of the past. They demonstrate the creative freedom, and the sheer enthusiasm, that can come if you follow one simple credo: don't look back.
What appealed to you about working with David again?
Getting interested in making songs again, and also wanting to pay more attention to the actual singing, for which I needed some help. And David came to mind. I really like his lyrics, and I thought I would love to concentrate on the music. It's a bit like when you had Rodgers and Hammerstein or the Gershwins, where those jobs were separated. They weren't considered to be the province of one person.
You recorded it in separate continents exchanging tracks online. Did you miss the personal contact at all?
I think it was a real advantage. [It's good] being in a position to spend six-and-a-half hours working on this one detail of one track, and nobody's going to be pissed off. The other aspect of that is when you do finally hear something from the other person it's presented as a fairly complete idea. You know the famous expression? "Politics is like sausages: you don't want to see them being made." I feel the same way about music sometimes.
When you first met did you have an instant rapport?
Yeah. I think we met at a time when our musical interests were converging, and that showed up on both My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and on Remain In Light, where there's very clearly a shared philosophy about how you relate rhythm to song, and what singing's about.
Did you feel that you'd gone as far as you could together by 1981?
Yes. We didn't make [Bush Of Ghosts] as the beginning of a career we had planned together. It was made as a one-off. It's the way I like to work: put something out and see what happens to it and not keep returning to it. I like it when other people do the returning and make the variations. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts became Moby's career really, and I'm very glad he did it.
What do you admire about David?
First of all, he writes songs about subjects that nobody else writes about. He always did. You'll remember the titles of some of his Talking Heads songs: Air, Animals, Electric Guitar. But then he also writes in such a stream-of-consciousness way it gives you that feeling: "Gosh! I could write songs like that!" I always appreciate artists who give you that impression, though in fact if you try to write a song like David it's actually very difficult.
Despite the album's sobering subject matter, it's a comforting record. Do you find yourself needing to find consolation even in terrible things these days?
I think as you get older you become alternately more pessimistic and more optimistic. Pessimism is a big theme of my life because I have children and I think, "God what world will they be living in?" It's a big worry actually. The world doesn't seem to be getting better at the moment. On the other hand, I have a certain optimism in the evolution of humanity. One of the reasons I'm drawn to gospel music is I think that's one of the clues. The ability of people to co-operate with one another and be joyful and decide to take an attitude of hope - I think that's something humans are getting better and better at. My daughters spent most of the summer going to festivals and it became very clear to me that the music was an alibi. What was really important was being part of a big community. And of course, the internet offers the possibility of new kinds of community aren't linked to geography. But of course the struggle is on all the time, between the ability to co-operate and the stupidity of governments and their self-interested, short-term views. I watch closely for signs of who's winning.
I don't know much about him, and I don't think many of us do. What I am excited about is that he represents a rare desire on the part of Americans to make a radical change. I don't think he'll win, unfortunately - I wish he would - but even if he doesn't, it still says to me that Americans are thinking about their place in the world, and that's important.
Is it weird being perceived as an intellectual in a field not exactly overburdened with them? Are you expected to have an answer for everything?
(Laughs) Yes. I realise that it's a little bit like that thing Samuel Johnson said: "One is impressed by a dancing dog, not because of the quality of the dance but because he can dance at all." And it's a bit like that - here's someone from that world who can form an articulate sentence. Actually there are quite a few other people who can do it as well.
Do you feel a constant pressure to innovate or do you sometimes have to let that go and just try to make something good?
That's all I ever think about - the latter. I never think about the former really. It's not productive. Nearly always the way I get to music is by listening to things and thinking, "Wow, that's an interesting idea but it would be so much better if such-and-such..." So I often start working at the point I think someone else has failed. It's a little bit like the scientific process: you see an experiment that didn't work and it helps you design a new one.
In recent years, even bands who vowed never to reform have found themselves drawn back together, partly by a desire to revisit the past before it's too late, but you've never joined a Roxy Music reunion tour. Do you lack the nostalgia gene?
It sort of makes me feel ill. More than anything, I'd be embarrassed to be this old bald guy playing music that was written by a twenty-four-year-old.
Is it important for future creativity not to hold your past achievements in too high esteem?
I think so. Things always look better in retrospect. If they've been celebrated and people like them they tend to become charmed. But I can always remember what I thought about things when I was doing them, and what I thought immediately after I'd finished them, and my feelings were often quite confused. "Well that was good but I'm sure I can do that better," is very often the thought.
There are more and more cultural products - music, TV, films, books, websites - being produced than ever. How do you decide what to devote your time to?
Deep rather than broad has always been my style. I've never actually seen the sense, or possibility, or satisfaction of trying to keep up with everything. I pick up a few things and use them as a doorway for looking at the whole culture. Why has this appeared now? Why do I like it? How does it connect with other things I like? What does it tell me about where we are at the moment? I'm not the Japanese tourist type who jumps off the coach, takes a snap and then goes onto the next experience.
What's the last musical innovation that really excited you?
Actually, the thing I'm most excited about are my visual installations. I've got quite a few running at the moment in various parts of the world. Of course, I never get invited to do them in England because I'm not a "real" artist, so I can't possibly be in a gallery.
Do they feed back into the music?
They completely, totally connect at a process level. It's music that is as close to painting as I can make it and it's a kind of painting that is as close to music as I can make it.
Does that snobbery you talk about discourage more musicians from crossing disciplines?
It's an English problem. I always say to friends from abroad that there's only one serious crime in England, and that's rising above your station. You can do anything - rip off investors, molest children, whatever you like - and you'll be forgiven eventually, but rising above your station? That's a bad, bad crime here.
What appealed to you about working with Brian again?
Over the past five years I've done a lot of one-off collaborations where someone sends me a track and I write something over it. It doesn't always work, but if it works it's great because it throws me onto slightly unfamiliar territory and absolves me of any responsibility over the track. There's a real pleasure in that. Brian's tracks all tend to have tons of major chords - stuff that I would tend to stay away from because those are the first chords you learn - but of course Brian has no shame about that. If it sounds right, it doesn't bother him.
Do you find lyric-writing easy?
Sometimes it flows really quickly and other songs take quite a number of drafts. If something comes really quickly you tend to doubt it and think, "Could it be any good if it came that easy?" And vice versa. If you rework something a half-dozen times you think, "Have I beaten it to death? Am I doing this because it's actually not very good to begin with?"
Is that the advantage of collaborators? They can reassure you that you're doing OK?
Brian's a great cheerleader. I'd do something and he'd send back an effusive text or email saying, "That's wonderful." Which is exactly what you need to go the next step. And then later on he gets a little more critical.
When you first met did you have an instant rapport?
Well, we instantly got along as people. John Cale brought Brian to one of our shows in London and we got along really well. We didn't approach Brian as a record producer. We just sort of got to know him and after a year or so we said, "Well why don't we ask him?"
In retrospect, do you sympathise with your old bandmates' grievances about the intensity of your working relationship with Brian?
It was the Bush Of Ghosts record, I guess, so the band might have felt we were off tinkering by ourselves. I don't blame them. But there's not too much you can do. If you feel a creative outburst coming on it seems silly to put a stopper on it.
What do you admire about Brian?
Well, the enthusiasm. For the most part he's really listening to the sounds that are coming out and not so much thinking, "What chords are we playing? Does it sound too much like this or that?"
Your vocals now are so much lusher and more fluid than the uptight, herky-jerky style you started out with. Has your neurosis mellowed with age?
That's what I think, but I think it got some help. (Laughs) I suspect that I probably had some mild form of Asperger's. I was completely socially inept but, like people with that syndrome, I could focus on things intently. I've read that it sometimes dissipates with age, or at least the most intense aspects of it. But I also think that I was fixing myself in a way. Performing and singing is so cathartic. I remember when we first started performing stuff from Remain In Light, it was completely ecstatic. I felt like I was being transported and lifted by this groove. It felt like a great psychological relief.
Do you find yourself needing to take comfort from terrible things these days?
Well, I think that the bad things are, in a way, all part and parcel of what it means to be alive. As much as we would like to only have the smiley face, that would be an incomplete package. (Laughs) Not that I'm saying you have to have some torturing - obviously you want to minimise it in the world if you can - but I sense some kind of acceptance that the world is made up of this mess of things that are good and bad and horrific and beautiful, all mixed together.
You were publicly very sceptical about Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Have you allowed yourself to hop aboard Obama's hopewagon?
I have an in-built scepticism but at the same time I feel like, "Wow, I really can derive a sense of hope and the possibility of change." I think he really means it. It's a beautiful thing that this could happen. Of course, it's frightening to watch McCain gain points in the polls and you wonder how could people vote to continue what's been going on for the last eight years? How could they possibly want more of this?
Is it important for future creativity not to hold your past achievements in too high esteem?
Yeah, yeah. If you start worrying about your past you're going to just get frozen. Luckily, that seems to be a bit of an age thing as well. You get to a point where you've been through enough ups and downs and you think, "Well OK, I can really do what I want. I don't have to be looking over my shoulder."
You could surely clean up with a big Talking Heads reunion tour but you've shown not the slightest inclination. Do you lack the nostalgia gene?
Yeah, I guess I do. I'm certainly thrilled with some of the stuff we did but that doesn't mean we should try to recreate it. That's like Hollywood trying to remake a successful movie.
There are more and more cultural products being produced than ever. How do you decide what to devote your time to?
I guess I do what anybody who's a music fan today does. I go to music websites, I read some print reviews, and if it seems like something I might like I go online to hear some of it. It shocks me when I hear musicians of my generation go, "I never listen to anything any more. I have my beautiful house in the country and I go write there." I don't think you need to listen to anything else for influences, or to glom on to the zeitgeist. I just do it because there's great stuff out there.
What's the last musical discovery that really excited you?
The Ting Tings record. It's hilarious and really great.
Do you have faith that the next fifty years of popular music will be as exciting as the last fifty?
I keep thinking that the next fifty years are going to be about performance and the social aspect of music as opposed to the recorded aspect. For the last fifty years that was the area where people thought, "I can make some money making music! And sometimes I don't even have to tour." But I think those days are almost gone, and now it has to be about the relationship between the performer and the audience, and the audience being with one another, and the social aspects that take place online. It's going back, in a way, to where it began: as a social glue. I think that's just great.
Does your non-musical work feed back into your music?
I feel the creative drive is similar but one informing the other is pretty unlikely. The last things I did, visual art-wise, were these bike racks for New York City. You can't really apply that to music. (Laughs)
You always seem willing to try things out. Have you ever made a record that just didn't work?
There was a record I did years ago called Uh-Oh and I thought the sound worked out great, but I'll listen to the song-writing and think, "Oof, God!" But the thing is, you have to keep doing it. If I just stopped dead because I was trying to second-guess myself I might get paralysed. You have to keep the momentum going. Every year or two you just have to put your hand in again and hope you get it more right that time than the time before.
Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is released as a limited-edition CD with four bonus tracks, a short film and a miniature hardbound book version of the liner notes by Opal Records on November 30.