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The Guardian MARCH 27, 2009 - by Edward Helmore
'THE BUSINESS IS AN EXCITING MESS'
Even after a twenty-seven-year break, the music of Brian Eno and David Byrne is umbilically linked. They talk to Edward Helmore about punk rock, paranoia and the power of singalongs
David Byrne is sitting outside the ladies parlour, upstairs at the Tampa theatre, one of the most spectacular 1920s movie palaces in the US, in downtown Tampa, Florida. Byrne, once notoriously tense, is almost loquacious. In a couple of hours he'll introduce himself to the audience at his gig with the words: "Hello, my name's Dave, I'm your waiter tonight." But for now he's reflecting on more than thirty years of work with producer and collaborator Brian Eno - the only work he is drawing on for his current tour.
Between 1978 and 1980 Eno and Byrne's then band, Talking Heads, made three groundbreaking albums together - More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music, and Remain In Light. Without the band, Byrne and Eno released a fourth album together in 1981, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. There was then a twenty-seven-year break before the pair reconvened last year to release the cheerful, almost homespunEverything That Happens Will Happen Today, which the current tour is promoting.
So why draw in all the other Byrne/Eno music, too? "I could see a connection, a musical thread, between this new music and the old stuff," Byrne explains. "On record it sounds a bit of its era, but live you can hear continuity in the music between, say, Poor Boy and Born Under Punches. Lyrically, they all borrow from preaching, shouting and ranting. It becomes more obvious live, when it's all right there in the moment."
That seems apt, since the new record was made very much in the moment. It was simply made: two men in their home studios, Eno supplying the music and Byrne the lyrics, sending sound files back and forth across the Atlantic by email. When it was nearly complete they added finishing touches in a London studio and released it a week later on the internet.
"I'd written a story about music on the internet for Wired so I thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is and give it a shot," says Byrne, "and I thought, given that it is Brian and I, there may be a certain amount of interest - at least on the web."
The immediacy of the arts-and-crafts approach - a far remove from Eno's big commercial production projects such as U2 - fit both men's interests. "When I finish something I want it out that day," says Eno later, in a phone conversation. "Pop music is like the daily paper. Its got to be there then, not six months later. So we decided to release on our websites first, then put it on the commercial websites, then as a CD, then with different packaging. It's just trying to see what works. The business is an exciting mess at the moment."
But utilising technology was not an end in itself; the heart of the album was Byrne and Eno's desire to make music that was communal and inclusive, something exemplified when Eno invited Byrne to join a meeting of his local Maida Vale singing group. "He invites a group of friends round," Byrne says. "It's an a cappella type of thing with wine and cheese. They sing a Hank Williams or an Everly Brothers songs - easy songs to sing. No one takes the lead. Everyone finds their place."
"We had been working in parallel, and found ourselves drawn to music of the people - gospel music, for example - music designed to include people," says Eno. "I would say it's an embrace of a certain kind of emotionalism over a literary or intellectual approach. [The music] is not exclusive. It's not clever music. It's music that's evolved to allow people to take part. David and I talked about music as form of surrender, so you stop being 'me' and start being 'us'. The social aspect to music has always interested me. It's the possibility of losing yourself."
The opposite of what they are doing, says Eno, would be the work of Frank Zappa. "Zappa was very technical and impressed by things that were musically challenging - weird time signatures, strange keys, awkward chord sequences. Zappa was important to me as an example of everything I didn't want to do. I'm very grateful to him, actually."
"It was a lot more intellectualised before," Byrne says, trying to outline the differences between the pair's first collaborations and this latest one. "Now this feels like I am drawing on an old kind of emotional song. I find the new songs like My Big Nurse a lot more moving. A lot of the new songs are about hope in the face of fear, paranoia, terror or whatever."
Byrne and Eno met for the first time in May 1977. Talking Heads were touring the UK as support to The Ramones, and John Cale took Eno to see the show in London. Afterwards, Eno invited Cale and Byrne back to his flat, where they sat and listened to records. Among the albums he put on was Fela Kuti's Afrodisiac, which would become the template for Remain In Light. "I was very excited about this music at the time and they were pretty excited too," says Eno, "which was thrilling, because no one in England was at all interested."
Even in the earliest days of Talking Heads, it was clear that Byrne's interests lay beyond the CBGB punk-rock scene that his band was associated with. The film-maker Mary Harron interviewed Talking Heads for Punk magazine in late 1975 and recalls them being hugely enamoured with British art rock, specifically Roxy Music and Eno. "I remember Love Is The Drug playing and we were all saying how great it was." Later, at CBGB, Heads bassist Tina Weymouth told Harron she was listening to Eno: "I think it was Another Green World." Not long after that he started to produce them.
Eno at first described Talking Heads as "music to do your housework by", but soon saw the similarities between what they were doing and his own work with Roxy Music. "We'd imported a whole lot of ideas that hadn't been in pop music before and changed the form to fit us," says Eno. "That's what Talking Heads were doing, too. They took American light funk, people like Hamilton Bohannon, and married it with downtown New York punk or new wave. Now everybody does it but at the time it was a very new idea."
Was there a natural affinity between British and American art rockers? "Oh probably," says Byrne, who attended Rhode Island School of Design before being thrown out. "There weren't as many American art rock bands. It wasn't as big a tradition in the States because you had to pay to go to art school, or get your parents to pay or you got a scholarship."
Nevertheless, art rock had its own constraints, and after Fear of Music was released, Byrne was looking for an escape. The Afro-funk of Remain In Light was the answer. "Our weird take on it was a long way round to rediscovering American folk, but coming at it from a fresh angle and in a more herky-jerky way that suits us," says Byrne. "That way of making music, with those rhythms and big ensemble of musicians that make up an Afro-funk band, was a way out of the psychological paranoia and personal torment of the stuff I'd been writing - and feeling - the paranoia of New York in the '70s, my age, my personal stuff, fitting in and not fitting in. I felt I had that pretty bad for a while."
Remain In Light, and the shows that a hugely expanded talking Heads played to support it, became seen as a defining moment for music in the early '80s, and its legacy still holds strong. So strong, in fact, that the new tour has not been accepted in some quarters. Last month, after Byrne's Manhattan shows, the New York Times' Jon Pareles wrote a stinging review, saying the songs had "tepidly efficient arrangements"; that Byrne had "stripped away much of the density, mystery and variety" that Eno brought to the albums.
On his website, Byrne retorted that Pareles's review "seemed to be one of those reviews that comes from some psychological issues the writer has". Eno, no lover of rock criticism, recalls that Pareles savaged My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts at the time, calling it "culturally imperialistic".
Rumours circulating that Eno might join Byrne on stage when the current tour reaches the Royal Festival Hall in London next month are dashed. Eno has said he'd rather be sick than perform again: "It's his show. For me to wander on and toodle around - I couldn't think of a way to do that gracefully." Instead, he's offering a conversation with Jon Hassell (the musician and horn arranger on Remain In Light). The subject? Making the world safe for pleasure; control and surrender; kinds of abstraction sickness; the north and south of you; transcendence and intoxication: what sex, art, religion, music and drugs have in common... To borrow a phrase: same as it ever was.