INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Uncut AUGUST 2001 - by Nick Johnstone
Talking Heads were the Radiohead of their day, setting new standards with their blazingly intelligent dance-rock. A decade after they split, nervy frontman David Byrne, once considered the third man to Bowie and Eno, has recorded his best album in years.
On a sunny April morning in west London, David Byrne walks into Virgin HQ. He's dressed all in brown, and sports a pen clipped into his shirt pocket. He begins sipping coffee and reading e-mails on a state-of-the-art laptop. Tanned, healthy and, for the next hour, unfalteringly polite, funny and friendly, the former head Talking Head, one year shy of his fiftieth birthday, is one of the most passionate music fans you could ever hope to meet.
Byrne is in town to promote his latest solo album, Look Into The Eyeball, an accomplished, determinedly eclectic album that marries his love of South American music, funk, soul and Beatles-esque harmonies to ingenious, watertight song structures. Ever since he began his solo career in earnest (with 1989's Braziliaan-inflected Rei Momo), he's avoided writing overt pop songs and concentrated on satisfying his own agenda, which is mostly prompted by the day-to-day running of his record label, Luaka Bop.
He founded the label in 1989 and, aside from turning English-speaking music audiences onto Brazilian and Cuban music via various successful compilations, he has put out albums by artists as diverse as Tom Zé Mimi Goese, Cornershop and Jim White. Everybody knows that Byrne's label pre-dated Buena Vista Social Club becoming the soundtrack to a million affluent white dinner parties by about a decade. Which has always been his problem, all the way back to the early days of Talking Heads: being one step ahead of popular culture. Once in a while, though, he will find himself, or those he champions through Luaka Bop,flirting with mass appeal.
"I realise that I'm on the fringe," says Byrne. "But sometimes you can convince the public that you're actually the centre and they'll all just shift over for a minute and take one step over from the centre and then you can have a popular record - whether it's a Talking Heads record or a Cornershop record. But that's not my intention. Those artists, myself included and some on my label, work within broadly defined popular forms. Most of them are not writing symphonies or noise suites, they're writing songs that are directed to a popular audience. Sometimes you get the masses to shift their ears a little bit and then they go back to doing whatever they were doing before."
In many ways, this game of kiss-chase with the mainstream neatly summarises Byrne's career with Talking Heads. The tension that made them a great band stemmed in part from their polarised hunger for both credibility and chart success; after all, how many bands at that time notched up hit singles (Once In A Lifetime) while hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg?
But of all the bands that made a name for themselves playing at the CBGBs club in New York between 1974-77, Talking Heads were arguably the most cerebral, and certainly the most consciously conceptual. Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids: no-one playing in these bands had been to college. Yet Talking Heads were, and probably still are, one of the best-educated bands ever to pass through the music industry. Singer/guitarist Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz had all studied at the Rhode Island School Of Design (RISD) while guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison had studied architecture at Harvard.
Although Smith, Hell and Tom Verlaine prided themselves on being well-read, their IQs weren't in the same league as Talking Heads, who also defied the scene's ripped jeans/black leather punk chic by espousing '50s Americana preppy/nerd chic. "We were always outside the CBGBs scene," recalled Weymouth in Clinton Heylin's book From The Velvets To The Voidoids. "They were very snotty to us there because we didn't dress like the New York Dolls." The music didn't exactly suit the venue, either: in the early days (see Talking Heads: 77) they offered a curious blend of musical styles, allied to obtuse/quirky lyrics (the very antithesis of Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue) that betrayed a collective interest in bubblegum, funk and soul (they all loved Otis Redding), garage rock (Nuggets compilations a must), British Invasion (especially The Kinks) and classic rock (Neil Young, The Beatles).
The band, who started life at RISD as The Artistics in 1973, morphed into Talking Heads during 1974 after Byrne and Frantz moved to New York and Frantz's girlfriend Weymouth was given a bass guitar and told to learn how to play it. It wasn't until Jerry Harrison (who had played in The Modern Lovers) joined in Spring 1976, that Seymour Stein finally felt comfortable enough to sign the band to Sire Records.
Their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, was compared with other debuts by CBGBs artists such as Television (Marquee Moon) and Patti Smith (Horses) even though all three had little to do with the nascent punk scene. If anything, Talking Heads: 77 (aside from the off-kilter garage rock/funk of Psycho Killer) was a controlled album of smart New Wave pop/rock songs. The white funk sound that they would later hone to perfection didn't come to the fore until their second album, More Songs About Buildings And Food (1978), an album that included a blazing cover of Al Green's Take Me To The River.
By then, they were moving away from the CBGBs scene and skilfully mixing intelligent lyrics and dancefloor rhythms, giving the beat a brain rather than beating on the brat. That second LP was recorded in the Bahamas with Brian Eno (who they met in London while on tour) - a working method about as un-punk as you could get.
This teaming up with "Fifth Head" Eno lasted across Fear Of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980), two of the most influential albums ro come out of the whole of post-punk/New Wave, records that positioned Byrne as the third man to Bowie and Eno in the art-rock/proto-electronica stakes. Critics and fans have since argued that, although Eno turned the band on to left-of-centre sounds (notably African music) and upgraded them from an erudite white rock band with a passion for black music into boundary-breaking, peerlessly funky avant-dance pioneers, he also put distance between Byrne and the band (Tina Weymouth in particular) that would eventually lead to their breaking up. The alliance wound up with Byrne and Eno's collaboration My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (198I), one of the few great listenable avant-garde recordings (not to mention a big influence on Public Enemy's Bomb Squad production team). Meanwhile, Jerry Harrison cut a solo album (The Red And The Black, 1981) and Weymouth and Frantz (married since 1977) formed the commercially successful Tom Tom Club. There was a shift back towards the pop mainstream with Speaking In Tongues (1983), which the band self-produced, after which their fondness for conceptual art blossomed into a highbrow concert tour (enter Byrne in that giant outsized suit), film (Jonathan Demme's 1984 rockumentary Stop Making Sense) and a live album of the same name.
This is pretty much where things peaked and the band stopped communicating. Everyone busied themselves with side projects until Little Creatures (1985), whose commercial, polished sound earned the band two hit singles: the sublime Road To Nowhere and the infectious And She Was. The seventh album, True Stories (1986), a bland soundtrack to Byrne's David Lynch-esque film, was almost as insipid as eighth and final studio album, Naked (I988). There followed a protracted period of uncertainty and then a news piece ran in the Los Angeles Times in December 1991 confirming that Byrne had formally left Talking Heads.
Byrne's solo career since has been a hit-and-miss affair, kicking off with the brilliant Rei Momo (1989) and the excellent atmospheric project The Forest (1991) before sliding into a trio of uninspired and often bland albums: Uh-Oh (1992), David Byrne (1994) and Feelings (1997).
It's a pleasant surprise, then, that Look Into The Eyeball (he says he chose the title because it sounded "like a scientist's declaration of love") is a major return to form. It started life with Byrne writing material on his own in Spain. "Since I have this job with my record label," he says, laughing, "I have a lot of music playing around me and there's nowhere to escape to. There's noise in the house so I have to go away somewhere and lock the doors."
Back in New York with a rough sketch of what he wanted the record to sound like, he drafted in various musicians and worked painstakingly in the studio to get his trademark considered sound.
"In some ways," Byrne says, talking about the recording process, "I'm like an ordinary listener in that I have the same criteria. If something sounds superfluous then I just cut it out. With this new record, we got down to just cutting out one bar here and there. The unforgivable sin in pop is boredom. You have to keep people entertained. And then you can do anything you want with them once you've tickled their funny bone. You have to provoke them or confuse them and then they're yours. With all my records, when I'm working in the studio, I try to step outside and listen to the songs as an ordinary listener, and then if there are any moments where I get a little bored or a little twitchy, then I think, 'That's got to come out.'"
This is Byrne the pop scientist, the Eno protegé, the studio wizard. It's a by-product of his life-long love affair with music's possibilities. Throughout the interview, he dodges any analysis of the romantic disappointment at the heart of the new record ("There's a lot of stuff about relationships," is all he'll say) and questions about Talking Heads, preferring instead to rave about the music that floods daily into the Luaka Bop office (where Byrne works every morning from Monday to Friday before holing up in his home studio to write) from all over the globe.
Whether talking about getting into Latin music in the late '70s, his daughter blasting our Christina Aguilera at home or cassettes that he received recently from a DJ in Guatemala, his enthusiasm is contagious. Even now, at forty-nine, his approach to music is no different to when he was a teenager growing up near Baltimore and checking John Cage, gospel, Indian music, Stockhausen, Folkways recordings and Balinese temple music out of the town library. Maybe his youthful fear of music was that one day there would be nothing left to hear. If the excitement in his eyes is any measure, it would seem that he's finally overcome that phobia.
NEW FEELING: FIVE PIONEERING TALKING HEADS-RELATED ALBUMS
TALKING HEADS: More Songs About Buildings And Food - Funk, garage rock, soul and art-pop fight it out on this literate white funk masterpiece. The then radically new sound surely inspired white Brits such as Gang Of Four, Fire Engines and ABC to experiment with funk rhythms.
TALKING HEADS: Fear Of Music - Years ahead of its time, this album's pervading mood of sinister, cartoonish paranoia coupled with Eno's infatuation with claustrophobic, dub-inspired production paved the way for tricky, Massive Attack, Portishead, Morcheeba and The Wu-Tang Clan.
TALKING HEADS: Remain In Light (1980), two of the most influential albums ro come out of the whole of post-punk/New Wave, records that positioned Byrne - From DJ Shadow to Unkle to Moby, there's barely anyone working within the limits of DJ culture who hasn't cited the percussive pop brilliance and Afro-funk rhythms of this album as a seminal influence. Worth picking up just for Once In A Lifetime, which still boasts one of the all-time great basslines.
BRIAN ENO & DAVID BYRNE: My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts - This groundbreaking Afro-ambient project has had an immeasurable influence on DJ/dance culture, ambient/industrial scenes, post-rock, electronica, all things avant-garde and specific artists such as Sonic Youth, Tortoise, Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails and Talvin Singh.
TOM TOM CLUB: Tom Tom Club - This album explains Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz' unique contribution to Talking Heads. Although Weymouth's rapping on Wordy Rappinghood (compare it with Madonna's later "rap" on Vogue) now sounds dated, the album's synth/bass/electro/disco/funk grooves played a part in introducing rap/electro to white audiences.