The Phoenix NOVEMBER 26, 2008 - by Michael Atchison


David Byrne on working with Brian Eno, the new music industry, and his time in Providence.

Thirty-four years after forming the legendary band Talking Heads with fellow Rhode Island School of Design students Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, David Byrne returns to the area to perform "The Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno." Inspired by the duo's 2008 release Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the concert also features music from four previous landmark collaborations, including three Talking Heads albums produced by Eno between 1978 and 1980, and 1981's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, an aural collage of found sounds, stacked rhythms, and samples that blurred the line between popular and experimental music.

In 1986, Time magazine put Byrne on the cover and dubbed him "Rock's Renaissance Man." The tag still sticks. In addition to the tour and the collaboration with Eno, Byrne released his score for the second season of the HBO series Big Love, and his whimsically-designed bike racks (shaped like dogs, dollar signs, and high-heeled pumps) have sprung up all over New York City. The Phoenix recently talked with Byrne by phone.

You collaborated on four albums with Brian Eno between 1978 and 1981, but then you didn't work together for more than twenty-five years. Did you find it hard to get back into sync with one another?

It was very easy. I think that the time and the distance between us - the fact that we worked transatlantic - I think all of that helped, too. We both have lots of projects going simultaneously, so the fact that we could still keep our other projects while working on this, and keep our own schedules, made it really easy for us. Whether we were still in sync? We kind of put our toes in the water slowly at first. When we were working on the Bush Of Ghosts re-release [in 2005], we had a lot more social contact, co-ordinating the website and that sort of thing. We found that that went pretty smoothly. So that was a good start.

You mentioned working transatlantically. For the most part he was in the UK working up tracks that he would send to you, and you would do your own thing on top of them in New York.

Yes, although, to be honest, he didn't work on the tracks that much. These were mostly tracks that he already had, and he just wasn't happy with how he had tried to finish them, or he hadn't even tried to finish them.

So he sort of accidentally walked into a Byrne and Eno album.

Yeah, I remember one time we were there, he started playing me some of the stuff that he had, and somehow the conversation came around to, "If you want me to try to help you and write words and melodies on top..." By the time we did the Bush Of Ghosts thing, we were hanging out more, we worked together a little bit more, we found out that we do still get along, we enjoy one another's company, and we see eye-to-eye on most of the kinds of the aesthetic stuff on records and packaging. It wasn't that much of a big step to say, "You have some tracks that you don't know how to finish. I might be the guy to help you finish those."

You both have such strong points of view that it seems like it might be hard to get your ideas to coexist peacefully, but you seem to have a natural sympathy as collaborators.

I really respect the stuff that he does. I'm a fan. That really helps a lot. You kind of give someone the benefit of the doubt. If you don't like something one hundred percent right away, you cut them a little bit of slack, and you go, "He's going somewhere with this. I'm not sure I see it yet, but I've got to let him take it where he sees it going." I think Brian probably feels the same way about me. That makes it really easy, and I think the artificial separation that we made, where I tried to stay on my side of the fence and just do words and vocal melodies, and I didn't go like, "Oh, I'm going to overdub a whole bunch of guitars on here." Occasionally, I couldn't help myself, and I'd add something somewhere, but for the most part, I really stayed on my side of the fence. And he did, too. Occasionally, he'd give me a track and it would have the remnants of some vocal attempt that he'd begun but didn't finish. So sometimes I would ignore that, and sometimes I thought that if there was something worth following up, I'd take a line or I'd take part of his melody and take it further. But for the most part, he never came back to me and said, "Here's a different vocal melody, or here's some other words for this." He stayed on his side of the fence. We didn't get in each other's business that way.

Your previous collaborations featured lots of dense layers of rhythm and in places a real palpable sense of darkness. You could feel the walls closing in. The new album sounds so different. There are wide open spaces. It takes off in completely different directions.

I agree, except for a couple of songs, like Poor Boy and I Feel My Stuff, are reminiscent of the stuff we've done in a way. I can see the connections between some of the Talking Heads tracks and the Bush Of Ghosts stuff that we did before.

I was going to note that I Feel My Stuff would fit right in on Bush Of Ghosts. Play it back-to-back with the song Regiment from that album and the connection is obvious. But on so much of the rest of the new album your voice opens up, it gets big and expansive. And instead of the focus being as heavily on rhythm as it was on those previous records, it's really lush and melodic.

That's kind of what I heard in a lot of Brian's tracks. I sat with them for a long time, because they were so different, and I thought, "How do I connect to this?" So I sat with it for a long time before I wrote back to him and said, "I'm kind of hearing a spiritual, gospel, open kind of thing happening, that's almost kind of some uplifting gospel-folk approach, as opposed to the dark, funky approach." And he said, "OK, show me. What exactly do you mean by that?"

First the album was available only as a download through your website and it's now out in physical form. You've been on a big label, you've even run your own label, but now we're in this world where you can make a recording without spending a dime on manufacturing or packaging. There must be benefits to having such full control, but are you comfortable with this model? And is this the new model?

I'm comfortable with it. In a way, it's experimental. There are certain things we're figuring out as we go. By nature, we're not going to sell as much as the U2 or Coldplay records that Brian works on. So he's not going to get that kind of income.

But at the same time, you don't have to share it with as many people.

That's true. So you can sell a lot less and pay your rent. So in a certain way, that model, for us, seems to be working. We're still trying to figure out things as we go along. There have been no ads. Usually, if there's a record company, there are ads in the magazines or newspapers. There's been nothing.

It's been sort of a viral internet campaign, where the first single was posted and every web magazine or blog picked it up, and then people start talking about it to their friends and on message boards.

We're lucky. That didn't cost us a cent. I mean, it cost us to set up our own little marketing thing and hire some marketing people and set up the website and credit card accounts and all that kind of stuff. And that cost a considerable amount of money, more than a starting-out band could afford. That's really important, because a lot of starting-out bands are thinking, "I could do this." And we have the advantage of having some money in our pockets to fund that, and we have the names, so that if we say that we did a record together, people are automatically going to be curious. We knew that we'd get some attention, so we weren't taking too much of a risk. It's a little bit unfair that way, but that's the way things are right now with everything kind of up in the air. Everyone is kind of figuring out, "Well, this kind of approach will work for this project, but it's not going to work for this project." But the major thing is, especially with being able to sell things online yourself, or dealing directly with iTunes, Amazon, and all that kind of stuff, it's pretty hard after you've done that to go back to a record company - "Wait a minute. You're going to take seventy-five percent of everything? For what? What are you doing for that?"

Everything That Happens isn't the only album you've released this year. You also scored the second season of the HBO series Big Love, and that music has been released as Big Love: Hymnal. It's nothing like the music most people associate you with.

Yeah, the guy at the New York Times thought there was a connection. He thought that they both had kind of vaguely spiritual, gospelly kinds of harmonies.

My guess is that if he had been given the disc without your name on it, he wouldn't have made the connection.

[laughs] That's probably true. Maybe he was looking for an angle for his story.

I want to talk about the tour, but first I should note that you've recently become New York City's most prominent designer of bicycle racks. [Laughs] yeah, okay. I've seen them, and I'm sure it's an idea that has made a lot of people slap their heads, like, "of course. Why couldn't you make those things both functional and whimsical?" What has the reaction been?

It's been like that, people going, "Oh, this is such a great thing for you to do." The sad part is that mine are sort of "one-off" things because of the complicated shapes that some of them are, and they're for specific neighborhoods. And they're expensive to make. They don't solve the specific problem of having enough bike racks in enough places in the city.

They work as pieces of art.

Yeah, and they also do what you said. They kind of say, "Look, this doesn't have to be boring and serious." It can reflect the excitement and wackiness and unexpectedness of life in this city. Civic stuff doesn't have to put you to sleep.

Ok, the tour. One question everyone asks: why couldn't Brian Eno be coaxed out on the road?

I don't know. You'd have to ask him.

He's sort of notoriously reticent.

I've heard that he's stage shy, but I also can see all the reasons. He can make a lot more money working with U2 or Coldplay, and put a lot less effort in. It's a lot of work going on the road. And there's not going to be much to see. You're going to see a bald guy sitting behind some gear, twiddling knobs and shit. That's about it.

I saw the show a few weeks back. I noted before how different the new album sounds than your previous collaborations, and you play most of the new songs in the show. Still they seem to fit perfectly with songs that are more than twenty-five years old now. Was it hard to make it so seamless?

No. I'm lucky I have quite a backlog of material to draw from. I could kind of rewrite my own history every time I go out, and say, "If I do this song and this song and this song, it's gonna fit with the current stuff." And if I do The Great Curve or some of these other songs, the singers that I have to do the new stuff, they're going to sound incredible doing the old stuff.

Despite the fact that many of the songs in the set come from deep in your past, the show doesn't seem nostalgic in the least. What's it like for you to revisit an early stage of your career in such depth?

It's been fun because I haven't done it in a while. There [are some songs] that I've done quite often on tour, but there are other ones that I haven't done for thirty years. So it's kind of fun, with this band, to pull them out, and go, "Wow, that's a pretty great song or a wacky song" and see what you have.

The audience is clearly hungry for those songs. You play Crosseyed And Painless or Houses In Motion and the place explodes, and you seem genuinely gratified by the response.


It's good to be loved, I suppose.

[laughs] Yes, it's a pretty nice response.

I don't want to give too much away for people who haven't seen the show, but it features dancers, and some of the choreography includes you. The staging is simple, but the production is inventive. I think that's a recurring theme for you, perhaps most famously presented in stop making sense - the ability to get big impact out of simple lighting or movement.

What's the question there?

What I'm getting at is that there's an immense amount of work put into it, and I don't think the audience realizes it until you're about halfway into the show, and you see how all these things fit together without explosions or effects. I assume there were some choreographers involved in putting it together.

Yes, three different ones. That was a relief that that all worked together. That was a big relief. I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and then bringing in the choreographers, auditioning the dancers, and we spent a really solid month creating and rehearsing that stuff before putting it in front of any audience. I thought this is either going to fall flat on its face and people are going to say, "What the fuck? This is the most pretentious piece of bullshit I've ever seen," or they're going to love it. And thank God, for the most part everyone seems to like it.

I think it takes them a song or two to adjust, to kind of figure out what they're seeing.

Yeah, yeah, I can sense that - that the first time the dancers come out, they go, "Oh, yeah, that was kind of cool, but is that it? Is that what we're gonna see?" And then it takes at least one or two more songs before people go, "Oh, it's gonna be slightly different all the time, they're gonna do different kinds of things," and then they go, "Ohhhhh," and you can kind of sense that moment where the audience goes, "This is what we're gonna get."

You'll be playing in New Bedford, Massachusetts, just outside of providence. People normally associate you with New York, but folks in and around providence have a provincial feeling about you. Enrolling at RISD was an unconventional path to rock and roll immortality. Does it feel at all different to go to a place you're connected to so deeply in your past?

I'm aware that there's that perception that I have that connection there, and I did live there for a couple of years at least. I kind of know the town from that time, and it's changed a lot. The town has opened up a lot. It was a really weird place then. The river was pretty much completely paved over. There were a couple of little spots in the concrete where you could look, little slots, and go, "There's the river down there. "That's the river. That's the reason for this town's existence. There it is, down there." Now they've opened it up. Lots of cities are having hard times, but at least they're trying.

I've saved this question for last, but I am compelled to ask. It is deeply rooted in local lore that the forearm-chopping movement immortalized in the Once In A Lifetime video is, in fact, a nod to your days working in a providence wiener joint.

[laughs] Well, I did work in a wiener joint, but if you look at the video, the source of the movement is right there in the video. It's from Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. They had all these street dancers - they still have street dancers - in the park, and I videotaped some of them. And there's a whole group that does kind of rockabilly stuff, and there's other ones that do this kind of weird, spacey stuff, and that's what I gravitated to. And some of them were doing that movement and other movements, and I just thought, "Where the hell did that come from? What is that? That's completely unrelated to any kind of movement that I've seen before." But yeah, I did work in a hot dog place where you'd put hot dogs up your arm. You'd kind of extend your arm and stack, like, eight hot dogs up. And then drip hot chilli sauce all over them. Pretty disgusting.