"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Trouser Press MAY 1981 - by Scott Isler
GOING, GOING, GHANA!
David Byrne and Brian Eno bring Africa to Soho...
Jealousy, rage, tension. You won't find them here... This article concerns two musicians whose friendship is based on a mutual interest in plumbing the meaning of rock music to unusual depths, and on fearless experimentation with the music itself.
The square-shaped, peeling loft high above New York's artist-riddled Soho district is just the place where you'd expect to find Brian Eno - self-confessed amateur musician, maverick record producer and leading rock theoretician. Rows of windows facing north and east offer breathtaking views of the glorious clutter of factory buildings and old tenements that fight for space in lower Manhattan. The concrete jumble outside is in striking relief to the loft's near-absence of furniture. Stranded in the middle of the room, a white sofa faces outside, inviting contemplation. Across from it and under the windows, a divan is loaded down with an eclectic record collection - a boxed Motown Story collection, actual voices of ex-slaves, Miles Davis, Robert Wyatt, Olatunji - cassette tapes (some labelled "drones," others in Arabic), and audio and video equipment; on the side, a video camera on a tripod stares out the window. A small bookcase holds a Polaroid camera and some paperbacks (Music of Africa, Godel, Escher, Bach). Kitchen and bathroom are tucked discreetly out of view, and no bed is visible. Seated at a long table in the corner, washed by the early afternoon light, Eno finishes an omelette and shares lemon scented tea with David Byrne, singer, writer and guitarist of Talking Heads and partner with Eno on the just-released My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
A zen-like peacefulness pervades the room, but things aren't quite as calm as they appear. Eno, just returned from a trip to Ghana, has to yield the loft (a sublet) in a matter of days and doesn't have another place lined up yet; he's been scouring The Village Voice apartment classifieds. Byrne, himself in the process of moving (he lives on the less fashionable lower east side), is in New York between visits to Los Angeles, where he's working on a video. Four weeks later Talking Heads will tour Japan.
Eno's African sojourn - his first time there - reflects a continuing obsession with that continent 's culture. While in Ghana he even produced some recordings by a local band, whose punchy riffs, bobbing rhythms and chanted vocals are undeniably related to Remain In Light, last year's Talking Heads album. Byrne was also bitten by the African bug, proven not just by the Heads LP but by the expanded band he introduced with it; the basic quartet was more than doubled with the addition of another guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, percussionist and vocalist(s).
Suspicious rock journalists assume that Eno, who has produced and played on all Talking Heads albums since the second, is calling the band's shots. The fear isn't allayed by seeing Byrne and Eno together. They make an odd couple: short, slight Eno is relaxed and self-assured; he chooses words carefully but is rarely at a loss for them. Byrne, taller but no less thin, fidgets and looks nervously out the window while talking in a tremulous whisper, pausing to track down fugitive ideas.
Eno, thirty-three this May, has been in the glare of the rock press spotlight since 1971, when he burst flamboyantly into international consciousness via Roxy Music. (He was an all-purpose electronics man.) Byrne, twenty-eight, began to be noticed in 1976, when Talking Heads shared CBGB's stage with The Ramones and Blondie during New York's primal new wave rumblings. Shyness can't conceal Byrne's intelligence, and despite their different experiences, Byrne and Eno's is not a one-sided relationship. They're hardly hot-headed romantics, but their art is no less passionate for being carefully thought out.
So why Africa? "We both grew up listening to music that had its roots in Africa," Byrne explains. "The African music we listen to isn't that different - in spirit, anyway - than a lot of rhythm and blues, or funk, that we're quite accustomed to and that most of [Talking Heads'] music is based on. It's not that big a leap."
"It has melodies you can understand, rhythms you can understand," Eno says; his accent is barely British. "The other thing about Africa is that both of us, and many other people in the world, are interested in discovering whether there are other moral philosophies - not a word one bandies lightly in the contemporary rock press, I must say." A little sarcasm there, but he elaborates:
"The way I see it, during the '50s and '60s people were very impressed by Eastern philosophies because they seemed to represent another option about how you could think about or organise things, your life being one of them. They also had an important musical connection; there was a whole group of composers, both rock and 'serious', who were very influenced by Eastern ideas. It's become a rather unpleasant part of the currency of '70s thinking.
"We were both attracted to the African thing initially for musical reasons. We began reading about African music at first but you can't read about African music without finding out about African society because they're so closely interwoven. Music stands as a crystallisation of cultural standards."
"There's a very different kind of spirituality in Africa than what we grew up with", Byrne notes. As opposed to our "sober, very serious" approach, "in Africa and a lot of other cultures, probably most of the cultures in the world, things that are considered spiritual - performances, music - are also exciting and fun. People have a good time; it's not sacred in the sense that you can't talk while a performance is going on, or have a drink or smoke a cigarette. There isn't that separation of pleasure and spiritual things."
Moral philosophies aside, Talking Heads' tilt towards Africa with Remain In Light shouldn't have surprised astute Head-watchers. The band's preceding album, Fear Of Music, already featured four-square beats and prominent rhythm section - none dare call it disco - and I Zimbra, a nonsense poem set to shifting musical phrases, sounded quite subtropical. Heads bassist Tina Weymouth has claimed that she and drummer/husband Chris Frantz's interest in African music predated Byrne and Eno's, and that they even "turned them onto it."
Eno won't go that far, but he does admit "all the Talking Heads and myself have been listening to African records. You can't steer anyone in a direction they're not already going in; there has to be momentum or it isn't going to succeed. David and I did articulate a way of working - we said, 'This is the way we want to work,' rather than all other possible ways - but it wasn't an idea that was foreign to everyone. Nobody said, 'God, what's this?'"
"It was more a case of everyone going, 'Oh yeah, exactly,'" Byrne adds. "I think it was something that everyone in the band was interested in to some degree, but Brian and myself were more actively involved in reading books and listening to records."
Eno points out (while methodically tearing the filter off a Triumph cigarette before lighting it; later he'll wheeze consumptively and complain he smokes too much) that the current Talking Heads are not interested in senselessly recreating an ethnic music from five thousand miles away. "We weren't trying to do African music. We were trying to use some of the things we thought we'd learn from that in making a newer version of our own music. I don't think it's like putting on a new set of clothes and 'here we are, it 's all new.' It's saying, 'This might be a clearer version of what we've been trying to do anyway' - or a more refined version." Byrne mentions that the songs on Remain In Light's second side "don't immediately sound as African but they were just as influenced" by the same ideas.
Talking Heads' Afrophilia could be viewed as elitist displeasure with their own pop music culture, and Byrne says the thought has occurred to him. "Then I saw more and more similarities between African music and black American music. I thought yes, it's discontent with a lot of white music and a lot of the sensibility that white music is about, but [African music] is not as exotic as it initially sounds."
"Also," Eno says, "it's not so much that you go to another culture to discover some thing entirely new; it's to discover a different emphasis on things. I think we were interested in finding some way to emphasise different aspects, not suddenly to present us with a whole lot of new ones. Most of the things we ran into as we were reading and listening were not totally exotic but a different balance - a balance that seemed quite attractive to us."
"There's quite a lot of elements in that music and in that culture that we have a little similarity with," Byrne says, "but there you get a purer strain of it. It's a little more intense."
Remain In Light is not Byrne and Eno's first foray into tribal music together. That album was preceded by the Headless My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, whose most novel aspect - the use of found vocals, mostly taken from radio - doesn't completely explain the record's nine-month holding period.
"There was a legal reason that actually disguised an artistic reason," Eno says of the delay. The former was an objection from the estate of the late evangelist and faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman to the use of her voice on one of the album tracks.
"The whole thing was ready," Eno continues. "We knew that if we tried to release it there would be an injunction stopping its sale, so we just had to rework that track. This came up after we'd done Remain In Light, and doing that record gave us quite a lot of new ideas about how we could approach ours as well. The two records really helped each other along; the Talking Heads record was influenced by early My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and then, having done Talking Heads, we learned a few things about how we could do our own record better. This Kathryn Kuhlman episode was really the perfect cause to take the record apart and do some things again."
"It wasn't that planned out, really," Byrne says of his first solo project. "We had these mutual interests, and we talked about various things we'd like to do. It wasn't real formulated; we just started working." Didn't the rest of the band feel left out? "I hope not," Byrne answers quickly. Eno fills in some details on the album's evolution. "Initially I was going to make a record of my own. I was thinking of doing my next solo album, so I started recording with David and other musicians. The first piece I did was Mea Culpa, which started off with just synthesizer and a voice off radio. I thought that worked very well, and I was very excited with carrying on with that idea."
Nevertheless Eno says he then became indecisive - worried about his lack of musical skills - before recruiting Byrne as a partner. On the finished album the pair play the "vast majority" of instruments (according to Byrne), supplemented by bass players and percussionists, including Chris Frantz on one cut. Eno's pragmatic approach to sonic source material results in percussion "instruments" like tables, tape boxes, Leslie speaker cabinets as bass drums and the recording studio floor as a tom-tom. Eno relied on his famous electric treatments "to get interesting sound from them."
Bizarre instrumentation is typical of Eno, but found vocals are a new element in his work. "Neither of us were interested in writing ordinary songs anymore," he says with no trace of ironic understatement. "We hadn't yet evolved any new formats that excited us for writing songs. This seemed to be a very good solution for that problem."
Very well, but what does it mean? "If you want to get into that," Byrne says in hushed, reverent tones, "it means an awful lot. You can probably talk for a long time about what that implies. The most obvious thing, for me anyway - it's obvious on some of the tracks - is that the vocal can be quite moving without literally meaning anything. That alone implies a lot: the phonetics and texture of a vocal have their own meaning. I'm sure no one would disagree with that, but most people tend to think that lyrics are most important."
"I'm interested to see what happens when this album comes out," Eno says, "because rock critics always analyse words in a song; they regard that as the apex of meaning. There's all this other stuff underneath but the meaning is supposedly invested in words."
"A lot of people don't realise," Byrne takes over; "that the sound of a voice, phrasing or phonetic structures are affecting them at least as much as the words. Usually lyrics that are a little bit mysterious, that don't quite come out and say what they mean, are the more powerful. They deal with things in a metaphysical way."
Byrne's incisive, offhand comments on words and meaning illuminate Talking Heads' own work as well as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but Eno maintains that - for him, anyway - the album was basically a technical exercise in using pre-existing vocals "to see where that takes us." He discovered it was taking them "somewhere quite interesting": "It wasn't a conscious decision when we started doing the album, but we nearly always found that the vocals that sounded the best came from spiritual or religious sources. It's one of the only obvious places on radio where people are passionate. On radio, people train themselves to be cool, monotonous - to be in control. The only voices you hear that aren't like that are voices in a passion about something, and on radio that nearly always means religion. Those were the most interesting voices on radio. Gradually, we started to notice that the album was shaping up to have that identity, so it became a conscious decision to work on it that way, with that spirit running through the album. Interestingly enough, the title - which I think is pretty spiritual - was chosen ages ago, almost before we'd recorded anything."
(The lyrics to at least one song on Remain In Light, Once In A Lifetime, are also drawn from radio preachers, another indication of the two albums' interdependence.) Before it was a record, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was (and remains) a novel by African writer Amos Tutuola; another of his works, The Palm Wine Drunkard, is on Eno's bookshelf. Byrne admits, a bit sheepishly, that when they picked the title "we hadn't even read the book yet." Eno explains that it concerns someone in touch with the spirit world who journeys through twenty towns, each peopled by a different ghost. "These, in a sense, were our ghosts," he says of the record's disembodied voices, "but we didn't plan it that way. It sort of locked together."
Besides radio evangelists, the other source of vocals on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (the record) were Middle Eastern singers. Byrne considers them equally "spiritual," but they also fit for the practical reason that Islamic music, like R&B funk, revolves around a tonic drone. "Just as we were attracted to African music because it has a very strong emphasis on rhythm," Eno says, "we were attracted to [Middle Eastern] music because it has an incredibly strong emphasis on melody. They've taken melody as far away from our sense of it as the Africans have taken rhythm, so it's like going to two extremes." He likes that idea.
The next move after found vocals would seem to be found music, but Eno considers that a very difficult step. He should know; he experimented with it - unsuccessfully - on Bush Of Ghosts. "We tried putting in a flute solo but it just sounded very normal, like someone dithering around playing flute - jamming away. It didn't have the impact of a collision of two different things, the friction you get from that." "Vocals are really a charged element," Byrne agrees. "You can't deal with them lightly."
"On a lot of these tracks we tried many vocals before we got the one we finally used," Eno adds. Mea Culpa - the first track he worked on, before teaming up with Byrne - is the only piece where music was fit to a specific voice. Eno feels it's a difficult technique; "people will realise that when they try to copy it. I can see this as a very potent feature for a lot of groups. I hear so many whose music is great but whose songs are throwaway. They obviously put words on because they think they ought to sing something. It seems to me that a lot of those people would rather not have to do that. Here's their answer," he laughs. "That some of these vocals fit so perfectly" - he offers Regiment's Arabic singer as an example - "is a testament to the fact that we worked quite hard on it."
Byrne and Eno are both happy with the way My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts turned out, and future collaborations seem a certainty. Ordinarily, when a group's leader starts flirting with solo projects, it's time for the band to call it quits. Talking Heads, however, are an exception to many rules, and have enough creativity to funnel through band and solo albums. Last year's group population explosion, for example, was born of artistic restlessness.
"I was fed up with touring as we had been doing it," Byrne says - the Heads had been through some gruelling schedules - "so we did it differently, and it was fun. This last tour Talking Heads did, with the big group, was the only time I really felt, 'This is what touring should be.' Every night - or at least as many as possible - should be an uplifting, ecstatic experience. You should get something at the same time you're giving something to the audience. That happened with that tour. Of course, that tour wasn't very long either." The critical praise heaped on that band, Byrne adds, "made me feel I could trust my own instincts." A distaste for routine has coloured Talking Heads' actions from the beginning, which accounts for their challenging unpredictability. When asked what he's written recently, Byrne chuckles. "Oh, I stopped writing things a while ago. But I've made lots of notes - of little phrases I like, and of musical approaches that interest me. Some times it's just a vague idea about a way of working or putting different sounds together in the studio. When I've got enough ideas I'm real excited about and can 't wait to try out, that's the time to go ahead. I've written songs just about every way you could think a song could be written," he says with no discernible pride. "I don't stick to any one process."
The band's hook-up with Eno may be confusing to those who wonder just where a producer's job starts - or stops. "I wouldn't call myself the fifth Head or any other number Head," Eno laughs, but he admits there's no other band he's linked with so closely. His preference for this group is undoubtedly related to Talking Heads' loose methods of music making; about the only constant is Byrne's lyrics.
"The relationships aren't well-defined and clear-cut," Byrne tries to explain. "They always change and they're always a little bit confusing to people who aren't involved in the process. They're confusing to us if, in retrospect, we try to figure out what everyone did. We don't sit at home and bang out a song on the piano..."
"...And take it in to other people who add their things - it doesn't go like that," Eno affirms. "For each song you'll find the roles shifting. One person might be dominant on one song and almost unimportant on another. The songs are written - 'arise' is a better word - by all sorts of techniques. One of those techniques is to constantly change the roles of people within the group."
"Often Brian and I might have a very strong feeling about the way a piece should go," Byrne says, "or the sensibility behind a piece, but we may not play much on it - or we may play on it and then erase our parts." "That often happened in the making of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts," Eno adds. "We would start with four or five instruments playing a fundamental basis, and work on top of that. As we added things they made certain other things obsolete, so those would get erased. They were invisible ladders to what we ended up with. Some of those tracks went through incredible transformations; you wouldn't recognise them as they started out."
Outside, shadows are lengthening as a mid-winter afternoon gives way to twilight. Byrne leaves and Eno begins to ruminate on himself and his semi-adopted US. He's still a British citizen, for all his high visibility here - prior to New York he was staying in San Francisco - and avoids visa problems through international shuttling. He gets up from the sofa periodically to pace around the loft, opening windows to disperse cigarette smoke and staring outside silently. The buildings are now reddish with fading sunlight; the sounds of another rush-hour traffic jam reverberate off their sides.
Eno, like so many others, is seduced by New York's non-stop hustle and bustle, but he's not blind to this city's - and country's - shortcomings. He was in Ghana when John Lennon was shot, but he finds the murder "symptomatic of America. There are many things that are symptomatic of America that one tends to overlook - like the fact that people can get hand guns so easily. [Mark Chapman] would have had a hard job doing that in England because he wouldn't have a gun. You can't get guns very easily there.
"What I dislike most about this country is its lack of a sense of honour. It's very clear to me the more I live here. People do humiliating things here to get on; they'll undergo transformations of character if they think it will get them up the ladder. I don't like this country very much, I must say. In terms of society, it's got a lot wrong, you know. It's been able to shield itself by constant expansion of wealth; you can buy your way out of problems.
"People here don't really know much about the rest of the world. I avoided saying this for years but I know it's true: Americans have a childish attitude, a kind of powerful, thoughtless over-expressiveness. Unfortunately, I think the identity of America abroad is a big lout, a big bully. Americans are more willing than anyone else to bare their hearts to you - as if you want that, as if that's a good thing. The idea of exposing yourself too much is something you just don't have here, particularly in this city. The whole idea of this city is people walk round exposing their neuroses to you - just all this crap coming out at you all the time that you really don't want to know, on the assumption that this so-called honesty is good for everyone. One of the aspects of a sense of honour is withholding, keeping certain things as your own secret, part of your identity. I'm sure that in parts of America I've never been to there's quite a different sense of those things - rural America I don't know at all - but not in coastal America."
"This is a country where a lot of the most powerful movements are inward-looking. Gay rights, black power; women's lib, the Jewish movement - they're all based on this sense of 'what about me?' I don't trust a movement based on self-pity, That doesn't mean I don't sympathise with some of its intentions, but it has a cloying quality to it. It sets very quickly into bitterness.
"These problems aren't exclusive to America but they're very pronounced here. Like the [sneers] disgusting greed that typifies Los Angeles, I've never seen that anywhere else. I made a vow never to go back to that city, and I never will. I hated that city, and I thought the only positive contribution I could make was by vetoing it - so I could say, 'I am not involved with that.' I've got a clear conscience about it, at least. If I go there I know I would compromise myself some way or another, because the whole situation is set up to induce you to do things you wish you hadn't done, things that are cruddy and cheap and contentless. I see people there as having very shallow concerns. I've got nothing against hedonism but I do have something against this cultural urge to strip everything of its greatness and replace it with a glue that covers the whole thing. Los Angeles is like one of those machines that treat flour: when the wheat comes in it's full of interesting ingredients; it looks a bit funky. It goes through this machine and what you get out at the end is this perfect white crap.
"San Francisco is a beautiful city - that helps a lot - but I got disenchanted with it. The problem there is a low threshold of criticism. My own standards must be rather high, because I'm always criticising long after other people have stopped. Whoever I collaborate with, I'm the one who says, "No, this could be done better." In New York they drop off at this point [indicates a level with his left hand] and I'll carry on to that point [indicates level several inches higher with his right hand]. In San Francisco they drop off about there [lowers left hand several inches], which makes it even more difficult to carry on the rest of the way. I think it's a drug problem. If you take drugs your creative threshold drops - simple as that. I've smoked and dropped and what have you, but I don't now. The feeling's always the same: how wonderful everything is, followed by six hours of 'Christ, why did I do this? I wish it would go away.' I can't stand being in a room full of people who have taken drugs, whoever they are.
"I'm not a very sociable person. I seem to get trapped in semi-conversations with people jabbering incessantly at me, and I'm too polite to say, 'Fuck off.' The truth is, most of the things people say to me I don't want to know. I wish they'd shut up and leave me alone. Most of the things you want to know you won't find in what they say anyway."
After half-apologising for talking so much himself, Eno gets up, walks over to a captain's bed used as a catch-all and brings back a cheap electric bass. He plays a few runs on the unplugged instrument, which he used on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. At certain pitches the guitar's bridge buzzes; Eno says he's trying to figure out how to prolong the vibration.
"I think I'm going to do some work now" he announces firmly but not discourteously. "This is my favourite time of day so I make use of it." He resumes his position on the sofa with the bass - a man and his video camera facing north in the Manhattan afterglow. Later that evening Eno will go out to the movies.