INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q APRIL 1988 - by Steve Turner
TALKING HEADS: STILL MAKING SENSE?
Talking Heads were once unconventional art-school types looking for an audience on the underground rock circuit. Now they're unconventional multi-media types who convene annually for the making of a long-playing record. Which suits one of them fine...
Appropriately, David Byrne has the appearance of a casting director's notion of a space-station boffin. He's as thin as a reed (must feed on liquid proteins), wears a steel-grey roll-neck beneath a smart black cardigan and doesn't look at all at home in the Victorian grandeur of his suite at the Hyde Park Hotel.
The only clues to his brief tenancy are the sounds of Duke Ellington coming from a pair of portable speakers, the cassettes of rai, zouk and samba music lying in a case on the table, and the green plaid jacket hanging over the back of a chair.
I say appropriately because Byrne is popularly perceived as both alien being and man from the future. His personal style - the detached lyrical point of view, his deliberately sexless performance, the deadpan vocals - suggested a man not fully integrated with life on planet earth.
His band, Talking Heads, have for the past eleven years been a pointer towards interesting areas of exploration in rock. Listening to them has been to hear tomorrow's music today. Talking Heads: 77, jarring in its time, still sounds contemporary; I Zimbra , the final track on Fear Of Music (1979), and their first flirtation with sounds African, anticipated the '80s trends in world music.
My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981, but recorded earlier), Byrne's experimental album with Brian Eno which "recontexted" radio voices to modern dance sounds and in turn inspired Talking Heads' Remain In Light (1980), proved a precursor to singles such as Paul Hardcastle's 19 and the sampling technology of hip hop. As Tina Weymouth notes, "When we first came out we sounded weird. The radio stations wouldn't play us. Now our earlier sound has become absorbed into the pop culture and it's understood."
So what makes David Byrne run, and can Talking Heads remain ahead of the game? Byrne and the rest of the band appear less concerned about their reputation as style leaders than they are about maintaining their own level of interest in the project at hand. Of the new album, Naked, which was recorded in Paris during the summer, Byrne says, "I just knew that I wanted it to be something that gave me the kind of excitement that I've been getting from a lot of the records I've been listening to. I definitely didn't want to do what was happening in American music at the moment."
And what exactly has he been listening to? Music from Cuba and Brazil, Arabian music, Debussy, zouk and tango... Duke Ellington. "A whole list of things a little bit outside of standard American pop. I thought it would be nice to do something that didn't imitate those kinds of things but which gave me the same kind of pleasure. I like music that surprises me."
The approach to writing and recording Naked allowed for the maximum of surprises. For two weeks the band jammed together in a New York rehearsal studio and forty possible "grooves" were recorded on cassette for possible development. Of these, fifteen were eventually taken to Paris to form the basis of album tracks. The lyrics were written later to fit the phonetic gibberish Byrne filled in with while recording. Vocals and over-dubs were added in New York.
It was a return to techniques they'd used with Brian Eno and an obvious reaction to the "songs by David Byrne" tack of Little Creatures (1985) and True Stories (1986). For these two albums (Little Creatures has been their best selling record so far) Byrne had taken control and was consciously exploring more accessible ethnic American music. Now it was time for a return to uncertainty. And democracy.
"It's an interesting way to record," says Tina Weymouth, "because we never knew what was going to come. Abstract Expressionist painters must have had the same experience. Not knowing what the result will be generates an excitement and is much more stimulating than the conventional way of writing. It never gets boring. It's never formulaic. It's never so obvious to everyone."
The result, produced by Steve Lillywhite (brought in because of his work with XTC rather than the albums with U2 which Byrne hadn't heard), is predictably unpredictable, avoiding formulae and yet undeniably Talking Heads.
Byrne discusses the songs as though they were paintings, suggesting impression rather than detailing instruments or deciphering lyrics. "I tell you what I see when I listen to Blind," he announces, referring to the opening track. "I see civil strife, a Sammy And Rosie Get Laid kind of scenario, and someone badly hurt. A woman looking out of a window is scared. I use the word 'blind' to mean indifference. I don't think it takes place in New York. I think it takes place in South America or some place." The track Mr Jones "takes place in a hotel in some city in America. It takes place both in the lobby and the room where a bunch of businessmen are on a convention". Ruby Dear is "a Southern white-trash scene with a little bit of doom and destruction on the edge."
Tina says Nothing But Flowers, one of the album's most approachable numbers, is a "complete phantasm of what would happen if the predictions of Nostradamus are true and in the year 2000 it's all over", but Byrne says it isn't, and that he's never read Nostradamus. What is it about then? "It's self-explanatory," he explains.
• • •
Talking Heads have never owed much to rock'n'roll as originated by Chuck Berry and his contemporaries. When they emerged in 1975 they appeared to be more a musical arm of the downtown Manhattan gallery and performance-art environment than an eruption from the streets. Clearly there were major difference in approach between them and the bands they first supported such as The Ramones (in New York and on their first European tour in 1977) and bands who later in turn supported them, such as Dire Straits (on their second British tour).
Their music made more immediate sense to those familiar with modern art movements such as minimalism and conceptualism than to teenage proto-punks. They were performing for people like themselves, educated adults in their early twenties from professional backgrounds. Tina Weymouth (bass) ad Chris Frantz (drums) came from military families. Jerry Harrison (keyboards) was a Harvard graduate. Byrne's father was a Scottish electronics engineer relocated in Baltimore.
The band had in effect been founded at Rhode Island School of Design in 1974 when Byrne, Frantz and some student friends called themselves The Artistics and played garage rock numbers such as I Can't Control Myself (Troggs), Lies (Knickerbockers) and 96 Tears (? & The Mysterians) at college functions. Those who saw them did not mourn their almost immediate break-up.
It was the following year in New York that Byrne decided to pick up the remnants, asking Frantz to join him in a "real" group and encouraging Tina Weymouth (another former RISD student and Frantz's girlfriend) to study bass guitar. It was as a trio that Talking Heads first started playing at CBGB's - the club where Byrne had earlier been encouraged by seeing the likes of Patti Smith and Richard Hell - and gained recognition in influential New York papers like The Village Voice. (Jerry Harrison joined in April 1977 when it was realised that the transition from clubs to arenas required a beefed-up sound.)
Jerome Davis, in his 1986 Talking Heads biography, quotes a college associate of Byrne's as saying, "David saw a gap in the market. You might say he anticipated yuppies. He anticipated the whole baby-boom generation growing up. When he went down there [CBGB's] there was glitter rock and stuff, but that music appealed only to people of a certain age. It was obvious these people were getting older and were ready for something new and different."
Talking Heads messed with rhythms and song structures. They reached outside of conventional rock subject matter and sang about moon rocks, babies, animals, business, education and family arguments over television. Brian Eno, who first saw them at Covent Garden's Rock Garden in May 1977, inspired them to explore randomness as a key to creativity. He co-produced with Talking Heads) More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), Fear Of Music (1979) and produced Remain In Light (1980) for which he also shared writing credits.
Eno, who had himself started out with an art-college band in Roxy Music, wrote out aphorisms such as "Emphasise the flaws", "Do something boring" and "Honour thy error as a hidden intention" which he held up in the studio whenever proceedings were becoming predictable. This apparently had the required effect. "Eno gave me confidence in the studio," said Byrne. "He encouraged me to go in with nothing prepared."
Where most bands extended either a hand or a fist, Talking Heads perfected a sense of detachment during this period, a feeling accentuated by Byrne's flattened vocal style and the matter-of-fact labelling of both songs (Air, Paper, Cities, Drugs) and albums (More Songs About Buildings And Food, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads).
Byrne developed the vocal style in order to feel more natural with his singing voice. There's a possible debt to Lou Reed (he sang Velvet Underground songs in The Artistics) but he denies that Bryan Ferry affected him. "I wanted to discover a way of singing that didn't seem as though I was trying to sound like Little Richard or Mick Jagger," he says. His impressionistic lyric-writing was arrived at in a similar way. "I found that when I made everything very clear in the lyrics or said things in the way songs usually said things it didn't really engage me. I'd lose interest after a while."
Put together it produced an impression of emotional sterility with Byrne looking like the dreaded Organisation Man of the 1950s and the songs sounding more like wire-service copy than personal communiqués to a beloved audience. Byrne disagrees, "I find it interesting that that is what you hear, but that is not intended."
"I often think that if it wasn't us playing the music so lovingly, these very unloving, unemotional lyrics would make no sense," says Tina Weymouth, "but it is by putting those two things together that we're able to create an effect which explains the ambivalence about how we feel.
"We hope that if we keep ourselves interested the music will keep other people interested. In some ways we have stood for something larger than the humour, the social commentary in the lyrics or the silliness. I think it all ultimately becomes bigger than the parts."
Byrne says that Talking Heads music "acts as an oral model for a way of thinking or a way of looking at things. The words and the music, the attitude and the rhythm all function to make a model for living."
But does even he know what that means? "I know exactly what it means," he says rather testily. "It's not bullshit. I'm really saying something. I'm trying to explain what on the highest level music is. You can say it's for dancing but why dance? Why waggle your legs around and get sweaty when you hear music? Why do some tracks make you want to move while others don't?"
Jerry Harrison offers another perspective. "Some of it is for dancing to. Some of the songs, like City Of Dreams, I think are really beautiful. But Eno described Talking Heads as 'music for hoovering' and I think that in a way he's right. Talking Heads music is for listening to while you're doing something else, especially if you're doing work."
• • •
These days Talking Heads are a band who reconvene annually to make long-playing records. They each have solo projects that have either just been released (Jerry Harrison's Casual Gods LP and David Byrne's soundtrack to Bertolucci's The Last Emperor are on the verge of release, and there's a new Tom Tom Club album in June, a Frantz/Weymouth production of Ziggy Marley due in April) and they haven't played together on a stage since 1984 in New Zealand.
The Tom Tom Club and Jerry Harrison are both slated for European visits this summer but Byrne, whose time has been taken up with soundtrack-composing, writing for ballet (The Catherine Wheel) and filmmaking (Stop Making Sense, True Stories), has remained the sticking point whenever a Talking Heads tour has been suggested.
"I'd love to tour and be more like a band for the public," says Frantz. "It's just that David doesn't feel like it. He feels that if and when we do go out we should do something special. I'm not sure that he's got an idea of what that is yet. We've tried to pressurise him once or twice but we gave up. There's no point in it."
"I think it's my fault," admits Byrne. "It's because I've been doing films. The others have made suggestions but now they're going on their own. The band is lucky that we don't have to tour to sell a record."
But reports of internal strife over songwriting credits and Byrne's high profile - the subject of a Rolling Stone front-cover story last year ("Is America's Best Band Byrned Out?") - are exaggerated, according to Tina Weymouth. "The disagreements have been made too much of," she says. "The Rolling Stone story was intended to be a hatchet job. I knew that going in. I guess that if they can't catch you with your pants off or doing drugs in the bathroom they've got to find something."
Now all in their mid- to late-thirties they lead the lives of privileged young media folk. Frantz and Weymouth, who married in 1977, spend most of their time in a large barn-like home in rural Connecticut fronted by a two-acre pond where they moved two years ago for the sake of their sons Robin (five) and Egan (one). "I stopped going to nightclubs for health reasons, both physically and mentally," says the ever genial Frantz with a deep chuckle. "That lifestyle can actually be more of a drain than an energiser. I'm not a teetotaller or anything but I don't mind it one bit out here."
Links with Manhattan, an hour away by rail, are kept by maintaining the Long Island city loft where they lived during the late '70s and where Fear Of Music was recorded. In addition, they have a small apartment on Providence Island in the Bahamas which they use when they take extended breaks and sailing vacations. "Sailing teaches you self-reliance," says Frantz. "For me it's a whole other world outside of music."
It was while in the Bahamas in 1981 that Frantz and Weymouth put together the Tom Tom Club and cut an album which spawned the hit single Wordy Rappinghood (it reached number seven in the British charts). In 1983 they put out Close To The Bone and now they're "three-quarters" of the way through an as-yet untitled third effort. "It's just this urge to create stuff," says Tina Weymouth. "I'm no more proud of a Tom Tom Club album than I am of a Talking Heads album. To me any project which is good and which I'm involved in is a good learning experience."
Jerry Harrison, who has spent the past four years working on his second solo album in between producing Violent Femmes, The BoDeans and It's Immaterial, lives in Manhattan's SoHo district with his girlfriend Carol Baxter. He too has a son, Griffin (one), and confesses that domesticity has taken the edge off his night-time activities. "You think about going out but then you just end up having to eat and then it's time to come back and change the diapers. We don't yet have a live-in nanny like Chris and Tina."
Byrne is, in his own words, "fidgety". SoHo is his home but he's seldom there. He has a house in Los Angeles (Laurel Canyon) but in recent months has found himself in London, working on The Last Emperor and in Berlin writing a screenplay. Because of this mobility he finds it hard to name close friends besides his long-time girlfriend Adelle Lutz, a costume designer who shares his loft and often travels with him.
Unlike Frantz and Weymouth, Byrne isn't working on his tennis serve or learning self-reliance in a sail boat. Unlike Harrison he's unlikely to be spotted windsurfing off the coast of Maine. "He's intensely artistic and probably a workaholic," says Frantz. "He's a goofy kind of a guy who has fantastic health and energy," says Weymouth. "He's a nice guy who lives round the corner," says Harrison.
"I'm jealous of people like Chris and Tim in that they can go and relax," says the man himself. "I can only do it for short periods. I'm less of a workaholic than I used to be, but I like to be doing something."
He's just completed a compilation of Talking Heads videos, Storytelling Giant, where songs are linked with random interviews with anonymous Americans, a technique he's been pursuing since his days at Rhode Island School of Design, where he handed out questionnaires on UFOs and wrote to car-accident victims for detailed accounts.
It's hard to see though how a teenager's recounting of trashing a friend's bathroom or a middle-aged woman confiding about a late sexual awakening while on a sunshine cruise can enhance our understanding of Once In A Lifetime or Born Under Punches. But Byrne thinks so.
"They are things that happened in people's lives," he says. "I think they often have something to do with the song that comes before or after. Sometimes they bounce off the subject of the song. They bring the song into the real world."
His fascination with film will continue when his screenplay for The Forest is shot in Germany during the summer. Then, after the recent Oscar nomination for The Last Emperor soundtrack (which he shares with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su), he's likely to receive more offers to write film scores.
But Byrne sees these not as distractions from his main career with Talking Heads but as necessary means of enhancement. "Just as you can get trapped by an image, it is very easy to get trapped in doing whatever it is you do," he says. "I've always found that to do records, whether with Talking Heads or otherwise, I need to get inspiration from elsewhere. That has been either by doing a different kind of music or by doing something else. That has been by doing painting or films or whatever. I need to do something outside and then bring back that freshness."