Former Talking Head David Byrne has been a herky-jerky icon of paranoid ’70s rock, Brian Eno’s polyrhythmic partner-in-crime, and a champion of Latin brass and African drums in his solo work as well as with his former label, Luaka Bop. Now a graceful 60, he’s collaborating with younger artists—e.g., St. Vincent, with whom he’s just released Love This Giant—while still wrangling with big, artistic ideas in his writing. Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, is a kaleidoscopic mix of memoir, music history, musicology and some of his own credible pet theories about the development of the art form.
You mention that you don’t get writer’s block writing music, but did you find writing about music more difficult?
I didn’t sit down to write a book. I had done a piece about architecture and acoustics as a little blog post, and then I suggested to the people at TED that I could do it as a TED Talk. And I thought, Okay, I have to be really serious! [Laughs] I have to get all my facts straight here, all my dates right. That one [essay] on finance and on business, that began as a much shorter piece in Wired magazine. That and a few other things. I realized I had kind of the beginnings of something. I thought, Maybe there’s a book there if I kind of fill in the blanks.
The notion of context—the specific circumstances under which an artist is creating something—is important in this book. But how easily can an individual escape their own place and time to create something different?
There are plenty of exceptions, but for pop songwriters, you tend to think in three-to-four-minute chunks. You don’t sit down to write and wonder, Is this one going to be fifteen minutes long? Maybe that three- or four-minute thing is determined by, say, the size of the vinyl and what works best on radio, and so many other factors that have nothing to do with what you’re trying to express. But we kind of fit ourselves into whatever parameters that seem to be around, whether it’s acoustic or technical or whatever.
You write about dance and theater in foreign countries, and the ways in which performances you encountered while traveling influenced your art. Why was this so important to you?
When I started, I wanted to eliminate everything that had come before. I thought, I don’t want to move like the other rock stars out there, because they’re doing it. What has meaning for us? Can we borrow and be influenced by certain things or not? What happens when you’ve stripped everything down to nothing, and you have a whole world of possible influences?
Let’s talk about Japan, specifically, because you mention the theater there. How much did the degree of otherness in Kabuki or Bunraku impact on your early ideas about stage movement?
Well, it was different, but there were a lot of similarities between it and downtown New York avant-garde theater, too. The formalized dance and movement here, whether it was Robert Wilson or whatever, didn’t pretend to be anything else, and sometimes showed how things were done onstage while they were being done. That stuff is very big in Asian theater, traditionally. And so it seemed like, Oh, here’s a culture that’s been doing this for 1,000 years.
At a certain stage in your development, you say the “music geek” in you would not allow you to write three-chord rock anymore; yet you make an argument that any critical divisions between highbrow and lowbrow music should be eliminated.
You start by playing that three-chord stuff, and by the time you learn that fourth chord or fifth chord you go, Oh God, this is a slippery slope; how much sophistication do you go for? I’d judge myself and say, “You have to do something more musically challenging or interesting.” And you don’t, really. For me, sometimes it took a collaboration with somebody who only used two chords or whatever, and then I’d realize, Oh! [Laughs] I know how to do this, and I didn’t make that decision. They did it. I don’t think I’m as dogmatic about it anymore.
How have the nature of your collaborations changed over time, and how does it inform your understanding of creating within a community?
Quite a lot of [collaborations] are very formal. Someone else has some music, and they want me to write words and sing over it, come up with a melody, something like that. My first instinct isn’t necessarily what I’m going to present to them, and I can work on something for a couple of days before sending it back. But when you’re in a band, you’re working face-to-face with people and you’re expected to react right away. [Laughs] You can’t really go, Let me sleep on that. Often the lines get crossed more, and it becomes a lot fuzzier. But sometimes you’ll end up with something really unexpected that no one in the group would have thought of.
You talk about your anger during the George W. Bush era, but you also mention that you avoided protest songs because you feel they’re an act of hubris. What do you think of Pussy Riot? Would you say they’ve made an effective protest song?
That’s really been something. But nobody knows Pussy Riot’s song, here or in Russia. It’s the idea of the song, or the idea of the video shot inside the cathedral, that’s galvanized people. It’s weird—I remember during the Gorbachev era, anything went. Bands could take their clothes off onstage, do all kinds of stuff. Putin has so many people locked up, that nobody knows who they are. We’re only told about the famous ones.
How much do you think bringing music into our homes changed the way we take in actual live performances?
Our immediate expectation is that we want to go to a live thing and basically hear the record, but a lot louder. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. I’ve been to those Bob Dylan shows where you have no idea what song he’s singing. It’s disappointing. It’s the rare kind of performer that can mess with their own stuff live and make it new, and make it so you don’t miss the recorded version at all.
In a section about music and ritual, you bring up an ethnomusicologist who argues that many moments of life—birth, puberty, death—are punctuated by song. I think for your next project, you should consider doing an album of toilet-training songs.
[Laughs] I don’t think so! I would like to hear them, though.
David Byrne’s How Music Works (McSweeney’s, $32) is available now.
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