INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Age FEBRUARY 6, 2009 - by Dan Ziffer
CONCERT HALLS? NOW WE'RE TALKING
The former Talking Head frontman is touring a new album, crafted with Brian Eno.
David Byrne released his new album on the internet to a globe full of iPods and a radio industry promoting digital music downloads,but people barely flinched until the CD appeared months later.
"I was surprised that when the actual physical CD came out, the reaction was 'now it's a real record'," he says. "I thought: wait a minute. They have the technology, they could download it and burn it and make their own CDs. But (people) didn't and they felt like it's not really there until it's in their hands. I thought: 'Wow, OK. The change hasn't quite happened, yet'."
Byrne knows change. Whether recording in his home studio or in his downtown New york office, toiling on projects ranging from albums to artistic bike racks for the city's streets, the fifty-six-year-old rarely slows down.
The pair enjoys a long history, with Eno helping to create the lush sound and world beats of early Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light. Eno has shaped everything from U2's biggest albums to Coldplay's Viva La Vida.
In 1981, between Heads albums, Byrne and Eno released My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an early example of the sampling and splicing of vocal and other sounds that was popularised as electronic recording improved. As they collaborated for that album's re-release in 2006, Eno mentioned some "unfinished" songs for which he had no lyrics. Byrne started writing.
The result is a record so modern it could not have been made as a 1980s sequel to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - and could barely have been created in 1991, when Talking Heads broke up.
In New York, Byrne constructed lyrics to tracks Eno, in London, had almost completed. They then emailed each other increasingly complete works for twelve months. For its initial release, the two didn't use the muscle of a major record label, instead selling digital versions on a website. It is now available on CD. And it has been an unusual collaboration, with the pair spending just a week, and later a weekend, working in the same location. They took a year to complete the album but the luxury of time and benefit of distance brought the challenge of making the collaboration sound full.
Byrne waves his hands searching for the right way to describe the process: "You don't want it to sound as if you've just plopped something down on top of somebody else's things," he says.
"You just have to make your melody and vocals sound like they kind of emerged from the same womb." There is a short pause. "Sort of."
The entire project is something different, an attempt to feel a path into the new economy of the music business. Music has never been so accessible to the listening public but piracy has caused album sales to plummet. Byrne and Eno's download-it-yourself site is their experiment in a changing market (Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is also available at iTunes Music Store)..
Talking Heads benefited from the monolithic industry structure in which multinational corporations enjoyed links to a sprawling radio networks and chains of stores. But the times were different.
"One of the nice things about then was there was much, much less music out there. There was much less for the people to pick and choose from," he says.
The number of bands and artists out there now is just unbelievable. So it would be nice not to have to shout above all that - but you can't have it all."
Now the time need to fumble from bar band to greatness is less, but the space to experiment quietly doesn't exist.
"The first show we did (on this tour), the next day half the stuff was on YouTube. But you can't take it back. So you have to have it sort of together, right from the beginning."
Instead of the stadiums he once filled, Byrne is now in symphony halls and concert venues. But you won't find him complaining.
"Arenas? Oh, that was the end for me," he says, before laughing quietly. "I started to feel kind of alienated when Talking Heads started playing really big places. I felt like I was losing touch with the audience."
Byrne has more control now. The show keeps evolving, with the addition of dancers and choreographed elements keeping the experiences fresh for the tour veterans.
"I'm lucky too that this band, and the dancers and the singers we've got, they're more kind of willing to... get out and do things than bands sometimes are," he says. "Bands are notorious for drinking themselves into oblivion after the gig and then basically sleeping it off the whole next day until the next show."
Now the band members bring their bicycles with them and make day-trips to break up the hotel-soundcheck-hotel-gig grind.
"That keeps it from turning into that routine. We go: 'OK, tomorrow we're going to be in... Louisville, Kentucky, and this guy wants to invite us out to his bison farm. Anybody want to go? Show of hands.' And we'll go for this little class trip. And it keeps it from getting tedious."
David Byrne plays Hamer Hall on February 9 and 10. Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is out now.