INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express NOVEMBER 8, 1980 - by Paul Rambali
"WE'RE AIMING AT SOMETHING DIFFERENT"
Brian Eno, the music of Africa and an expanded lineup have wrought change on Talking Heads. And, good as it is, Remain In Light has brought with it some bad feeling. "Brian wanted to say it was his record, David that it was his record," says Tina Weymouth.
Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of America. In little more than fifty years, the business of entertainment has built a vast, moneyed urban sprawl around the billboards that line sunset strip announcing the latest records and films. Most of the people who live here either work in the entertainment business, or else they clean up after it.
A city like this, which is not really a city at all but just seventy-two suburbs in search of a city, is bound to have character problems. America views Los Angeles and the rest of southern California with apprehension. Southern California, for its part, seems to have renounced the rest of America.
Even for a country that regards politicians as being almost by definition corrupt and self-serving, the level of interest in the imminent elections is absurdly low. The one solitary note of political support I've seen in the streets was a customised van with a bumper sticker advocating something called the Libertarian Party...
"Beer drinkers," according to David Byrne, a New Yorker whose job has taken him all over the world. "They want to make everything legal, abolish taxes, and just have a good time."
Byrne recently rented a house in Venice, an "artists community" by the beach, while he and Brian Eno worked on an as yet unreleased album called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Venice is a centre of what Wet magazine calls "responsible hedonism", which is a sort of intellectual version of the roller-skating fad.
Roller-skating is just one of the fads that originated in this vanguard city. And Los Angeles is a vanguard city. The LA art/punk crowd like to think that there's something vital going on here, and there is, but it's everything they despise. LA is the centre of contemporary American culture, broadcasting through films and music the blueprints for contemporary ways of life; little parcels of clothing and attitude for consumers starved of real sustenance.
David Byrne had to move out of Venice after just two weeks. It didn't suit him. "Everybody was just relaxing in the sun all day, tossing frisbees around..." And in the land of the laid-back, naturally, the automobile is king. Cars outnumber people in the City of Lights, and the parking lots outnumber the buildings. California is the last outpost of the West in more than just geography. Even the youth culture runs on gasoline.
Every Saturday night, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards are bumper to bumper with youngsters cruising in their personal automotive sculpture - some of them Low Riders, the custom suspension job favoured by Spanish gangs of the Barrio. As simple a proposition as going to see Talking Heads play at the Greek, an open-air theatre in the middle of a large park in the Hollywood Hills, would be out of the question with only a pair of heels.
There being virtually no public transport and few taxis, you would have to miss the first engagement on the first tour by the new Talking Heads Funk Orchestra. But don't be too disappointed. By the second and third performances they had improved a great deal.
The new Talking Heads Funk Orchestra is the same as the old Talking Heads with the addition of Adrian Belew from David Bowie's band on feedback guitar, Busta Jones, once of Sharks, on fatback bass, Steve Scales on percussion, Dolette McKay on vocals and Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic, whom you might say has swapped P-funk for F-punk, on keyboards. The result is a nine-piece Talking Heads, lush instead of brittle. It's probably the single most radical step so far in the progress of America's so-called premier new-wave band. Even a new-wave band has to move with the times. Talking Heads have finally gone 2-Tone!
Eleven months ago, when they played the last date of their last tour in London, the group was on the verge of apoplexy. They had been touring eight months out of the year for the previous four, and were almost wrung out with the routine.
The working methods and approaches they had learned with Brian Eno had kept them fresh and stimulated in the studio and produced a consistent evolution on record, but on stage they had ground to a halt. They needed a new edge. Animated drum podiums and laser lights were not the answer. Anyway, David Byrne would probably just get arrested for vagrancy if he tried to take his shirt off onstage.
And so, for the first half of this year, Talking Heads went on hold; Byrne went to Los Angeles, Jerry Harrison went to Philadelphia, Chris Frantz went to Jamaica, and so did Tina Weymouth.
While the Frantz-Weymouths were visiting Lee Perry and hanging out with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, debating who was the greatest rhythm section in the world, Jerry Harrison began working with other bands... The Escalators in New York, Double in Canada and a French band who had supported Talking Heads in Lyon. "They're actually quite good. They write songs about fucking in elevators," he says, nonchalantly. "Really, that band we have now is the result of the work I did with other people. I had met Busta Jones and he called me up to play with The Escalators. Then we went down to Philadelphia and I produced some demos for Nona Hendryx... I started moving around that scene in New York.
"I met Bernie Worrell through Busta - he played on Busta's album on Spring Records. Dolette had sung on the Escalators album. Steve Scales, I didn't know. We found him through Bernie. And Adrian Belew we met when he was recording in New York with David Bowie."
Meanwhile David Byrne, being somewhat impressionable, became absorbed in Brian Eno's discovery of Africa. The two of them set off like explorers into the California desert to try to capture the feeling of the bush in the sagebrush. They failed, and had to resort to recording My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts in a more prosaic setting, using "found vocals" from the radio as their bush of ghosts.
I don't want to suggest that Byrne is a vacillating lump of jelly without a mind of his own, but it's obvious that the even more impressionable Brian Eno made the running here. Byrne's interest in musical anthropology surfaced in a short piece he wrote for High Times soon after More Songs About Buildings And Food, and several songs on Fear Of Music - most notably I Zimbra - bore an ethnic trace that pointed to the hypnotic swirl of words and rhythms that characterises Remain In Light. However, Eno, being the more systematic of the two, probably helped put the idea into practice.
The main spur for the idea was a book published in America last year called African Rhythm And African Sensibility by John Miller Chernoff. Byrne spends a lot of his time in books. When we met, he was reading a book called The Role Of The Artist In Primitive Society, which I suppose ours qualifies as... Anyhow, the idea is that music of the Third World provides a spiritual nourishment lacking from the popular music of the West; witness for instance the importance of reggae in our black community. Byrne wants Talking Heads to do what tribal drums do, but whether or not he sees himself as the shaman of the global village he didn't say.
I would recoil from the dryness of this exercise were it not for the fact that each of the members of the group bring something different to the picture, so it won't be so academic, and also the very idea of trying to do for white America what George Clinton and many other funk and soul artists have long been doing (often unconsciously) for black America seems almost unthinkable.
Then again, as the French magazine Actuel put it in a headline for an article about Eno: Les blancs pense trop... The whites think too much.
When this band came together, were you aware that it would probably be the only popular integrated band in America?
Byrne: "I thought that, then I thought there must be others, but they don't get recognised for it as much. There's a group called Wild Cherry, I think. Chaka Khan has some white musicians in her group..."
The white rock audience and the black soul audience rarely overlap in this country.
"That's true. I think for our audience, considering the kinds of groups they might go to see, we're a real exception. When we put the group together we didn't think of that, but it was obvious when it happened. We just chose the kinds of musicians that happened to be the most appropriate to what we were doing. Actually it's more than happened to be; a lot of it's in the nature of the sensibility implied in that music."
Well, Talking Heads have always been a funky band.
"Yeah, there's precedents for it in our previous stuff. But in the moments when this group really works, the underlying sensibility is very different from what it was before, a real radical shift. This music, when it really comes together right, has a transcendent feeling, like a trance of some sort.
"That's exactly what happens in traditional African music and other Third World music. It's something that isn't sought after in most pop music. We're aiming at something different, although some of the elements may be the same. When it works, you get the feeling: forget yourself and become part of the community. It's wonderful, and it doesn't happen every night."
Does the rest of the group feel the same thing?
"I haven't talked about it with the others, although I know for instance that Bernie knows exactly what I'm talking about, though he might express it differently. It's a sort of funny thing to discuss... without coming on like a convert."
Do you feel any twinge of colonialism? "As far as that goes...
I realise that's a little bit of what we're doing, but I can't help it. That's some of the music we're most excited about. If it didn't originate out of a western tradition, I don't feel I can be blamed for that."
Do you think it's possible to perform this function for your audiences?
"Yeah. Sure I do. It's possible. There's other people that do that kind of thing, but we've added other elements, the kind of lyrics I write and the kind of textures we use. But people like James Brown and George Clinton's P-funk... it's all based around that idea; they just use street language to talk about it.
"For something to have the effect that it's supposed to have, it's not necessary to understand all of it. I read in a book on voodoo that the structure of the rituals, the drumming, the singing, the chanting... the symbolism of the rituals isn't understood by half of the people that are participating."
You mean like a church service or a heavy-metal gig?
"Er, yeah. It isn't necessary for them to understand. I'm inclined myself to think about it, to try and understand it, but that's not necessary. And what's even more amazing, I think, is that it's not even necessary to believe in it.
"For instance, if I were to get involved in one of those things, I wouldn't have to believe in Jesus or whatever, I would probably just get carried away along with the rest of the people, which is really a testament to the power of those things. The feeling one gets from it isn't cathartic or purging, it's not that you let off steam or whatever; it's more like a mystical communion... And it's not some sort of psychological thing, it's more social in a way. The nature of that kind of music implies different parts and different rhythms, that all mesh... Not some sort of personal explosion, which tends to be what a lot of rock music is about."
Byrne has changed a lot in just the two years since I first met him. He's almost normal nowadays. Either he has come around to society or more likely society has come around to him. Being photographed and interviewed is part of his routine, yet he still finds it hard to express himself in his own words. He answers questions slowly and painstakingly, quoting indirectly from books a lot of the time. It's his particular misfortune to have become a popular introvert.
He accepts the role of the head Head without too much complaint. Yet if Talking Heads is still the democracy it was, it's not without duress. I was taken aback to hear Byrne blithely admit that he hadn't talked about his feelings towards their new music with the rest of the group. Maybe he's just like that, and their internal balance is stronger than it seems, but someone who saw the new band on stage in LA was moved to remark that it looked as though Byrne had got himself a new band and forgotten to get rid of the old one - a suggestion all four of them shrug off.
"I think Jerry puts it best," says Tina Weymouth. "When we were discussing this record... Brian wanted to say it was his record, David wanted to say it was his record. They both thought it was the greatest venture of their lives. We were saying no, we all had the same idea, but Jerry said no, we didn't all have the same idea. We all came in with different ideas of what we were going to do. It was the collective influences that created the result. No one could put an individual claim to it.
"Certainly we were listening to African records long before David and Eno were, because Chris and I are into rhythm, and it's great rhythm, primarily. We turned them on to it. We'd already done that song I Zimbra and I felt sure when we did that - we actually did two like that, but Dub didn't get onto the record - I felt sure that would be the direction of the next record.
"Plus, Eno had always said that he wanted to go into the studio cold with us, without any material, so that we could learn the way he makes albums, simple things layer upon layer. It's really not novel at all; it's just the old idea of jamming, one key, no chord changes... and everybody played and everybody produced. The songs were written by the five of us."
"Yeah," agrees Chris Frantz, "but there's a mistake in the text on the first pressing of the record. On the next pressing the credits will read: 'Lyrics Byrne with the exception of Byrne/Eno two songs, music by Byrne, Harrison, Frantz, Weymouth and Eno.' We just had to put our foot down and say, 'Look, we don't just want to get paid a percentage or whatever because money is... let's face it, I'm not worried about money. That's one of the luckier aspects of my life. It wasn't that; it was for the record. I wanted somebody to know that even if I didn't write a whole song I did make a contribution...
"It wasn't an administrative error, it was an error by a member of the band who is used to taking credit for everything that happens. And when it was put to him that this was not the right way to do things he had to admit that it wasn't."
"David does not come to the band with a full-blown song," says Tina, as always at pains to explain things fully. "He comes with a riff, maybe, if that, maybe nothing. The whole band puts it together and then David writes really terrific words. I really love his writing. He's so good at it and it's something he won't give up as long as he's singing the songs, because he feels he can sing them with more conviction if he knows what they mean.
"After the first two albums, which with a couple of exceptions were essentially written before the group ever went on the road, before even Jerry joined the group... Jerry wanted a little more credit even though all he was contributing was a part or an arrangement. But it could be like, say, in the case of Life During Wartime where it started out with just bass and drums, which seemed to fit with something Jerry and David had been working on before.
"That was one song where it was quite clear to at least three of us in the group that we had all written the music, and David had written the words, and we were getting royalties on the parts that we'd written! So we said with this album it has obviously been written by everyone, including Brian, and we should break with the tradition of singer-songwriter in the credits because that's not the way it happened.
"But I think that it's not... A big problem. I feel weird talking about it, because it's like a family's dirty laundry, but it's not a huge conflict. David needs to have a lot of credit; that motivates him. And it's not a bitter thing. What you wrote in that review of Fear Of Music made it sound bitter, but it's not."
Let's leave it at that. The future is flexible. Logistics are such that the extended band will have to dismantle at the end of this tour. Eno probably won't be working with them on their next album, which I humbly suggest they should do on their own... "Eno taught us to relax in the studio," says Tina, "which I think was his intention all along. He found that we were very willing to be experimental, as he was, and he was delighted with that... to find a band that would allow him to race everybody's track and not get artistically sensitive and precious about it.
"And I think we've done it, now. I told him that I always envisioned doing a trilogy with him, and once we'd done this studio album, that would be the end of our collaboration. He said I think that's quite right, and probably we won't be working with him again, although hell if I know who we would work with..."
Remain In Light is, as others have pointed out, a transitional album. Talking Heads keep making transitional albums. But they follow a certain path. It's hard to believe that four years ago they willingly let producer Matthew King Kaufman try to turn them into the perfect bubblegum band on a set of demos that have since been lost. "And they were really good, too," says Tina...
If the rock'n'roll cult of personality they once claimed to want to disgrace has come to surround and frustrate them, they've at least learned how to live with it. They have their triumphs - this new band is one - and they have had their effect.
It's almost commonplace now, but can you recall how extraordinary it was even in '77 for a band to have a female member who actually played an instrument? But like a lot of people I know, Talking Heads have simply found out that the old rock routines they wanted to break could break them first.
"Lee Perry says he's not doing screwface music any more," says Tina. "In other words, political messages. He says music comes from love. And I think that's really true because one thing you find when you're working with a lot of different musicians is that they have a particular attitude, no matter where they come from or what colour or religion they are. It's very different from that of new wave people, who usually aren't especially musicians; except that people like us who started out being called new wave have since become musicians.
"Nowadays it seems very funny when you read interviews and there's a new group who are afraid of success or afraid of learning to play their instruments, or afraid of becoming heroes and all of those things. It's very hard to relate to, because at this point I relate better to people who just appreciate music and who just love to play, and that's their only motivation. It's not a rebellion against something any more and it is kind of a closed world, but I think it's honest.
"When I was in art school, somebody once said to me that the problem with you young artists is that all you want is to be famous. When you get older you realise that what's important to you - and Ralph Steadman, the cartoonist said this - what becomes important to you is the charm of the activity. You live for the work, not for the money or for the fame. The success that is perhaps obvious to someone else is much less obvious to you."
Does it annoy you to be regarded as the head Head?
Byrne: "I enjoy it. I don't want it to get in the way of everybody being able to work together. But I certainly like getting recognition for what I've done."
Have you fulfilled all your ambitions as they were, say, five years ago?
"Yeah, I guess so. Five years ago I thought it would take us a lot longer to be as popular as we are now."
Do people still see you as an outpatient?
"Yeah, probably, but less than they used to."
Do you still feel like one?
"No. Much, much less than I used to."