David Byrne: 'It feels like the end of history in pop music'

David Byrne has gone from Fear of Music with Talking Heads to theory of music in his new book. Here he tells us about the hidden forces that lie behind everything we listen to

In your new book, How Music Works, you begin by asserting that context is an overlooked element in creativity…

Context is much more important and ubiquitous than I'd realised. Forces that you might think are utterly unrelated to creativity can have a big impact. Technology obviously, but environment too. Even financial structures can affect the actual content of a song. The making of music is profoundly affected by the market.

That sounds close to a Marxist reading of music production.

[Laughs] Well, Marx is having a comeback. I hear him mentioned a lot in terms of the global financial situation and the general sense of injustice out there. A lot of economic experts in America refer to him without actually using the M word, but he's around.

The notion that environment determines creativity is interesting in terms of the audience as well as the performer.

Oh, yeah. I write about certain venues in the book, from a dingy New York dive like CBGB, where Talking Heads played their early shows, to auditoriums or opera houses or the great outdoors. All those physical contexts affect the way music is played and heard. That is self-evident to me.

What about your notion that musicians are almost programmed to make music for certain contexts and formats?

That's where it gets interesting, yes. With pop music, the format dictates the form to a big degree. Just think of the pop single. It has endured as a form even in the download age because bands conform to a strict format, and work, often very productively, within the parameters. Dance music stretched that form with the extended remix but it's the form that drives the content as much as the other way around.

You believe that context is of equal importance as having something to say or expressing emotions?

Yes. Emotion is moulded by the format, too. The format is the starting point. It pre-exists. In a 3 minute pop song, the form exists first to the point where we hardly even acknowledge it. In an interview format, say, the journalist and the musician tend to talk about the meaning of a song in terms of the lyrical or emotional force. That is often elevated above the form, but, to me, the two are of equal importance. A song might be about a divorce or a death or whatever, but the emotion is always expressed within the form. The two are of equal importance.

How does that apply to maverick geniuses like Sun Ra, say, or Ornette Coleman, where the song is, to say the least, a very flexible concept?

Oh yeah. They are the beautiful exceptions. Unconventional geniuses. There is a great beauty in their music because they think differently about the form and the idea of composition. They are working so far beyond the things that we take for granted. I mean, you could not point to a Sun Ra song and say, "Oh yeah, that's the one about the divorce".

You lay out the ground rules for creating a music "scene": the right venue to suit the music; an audience that is alienated from the prevailing music culture; cheap drinks. You seem to like rules.

That surprised me too. In writing this book, I realised I'm very fond of rules. I was really interested in discovering the underlying conditions that generate a scene.

Do they still apply in today's music culture?

Yes, the word certainly gets out a lot quicker now about the hip new band.There has been a huge change in the way music is discovered and then disseminated in the past decade. It used to be so word-of-mouth and you had to seek stuff out that you heard or read about. So in terms of creating a scene I do think something has probably been lost. One of the benefits of playing to small audiences in small clubs for a few years is that you're allowed to fail. For Talking Heads I can now see that was a crucial element in our development. But things move very fast now. Groups do seem to come and go.

Yet people still gravitate towards a scene…

People still need a scene, yes. But now it could grow around a person making incredible music on a laptop in their room. And yet there's something about the communal thing, the performance thing that draws people to go out and see a band. As people feel isolated in the online world, perhaps they need that more. Physical contact is a human necessity. That's my sense of what's happening as I travel around. There are still lots of little scenes, all vibrant in their own way, all based around performing.

Could you envisage a scene like punk ever happening again? Something that had a wider cultural significance than just playing and consuming music.

I could see something like punk, yes. Not the same, of course, but some kind of eruption. I mean, with the economy tanking and that sense of anger that was around the whole Occupy thing ... But I think punk was also about young people being completely alienated from the music around them. There was a sense of cultural, as well as economic discomfort.

The music you made with Talking Heads is still one of the touchstones for a lot of the – how shall I put it – artier young groups. Do you have a young audience coming to your gigs, though?

I meet young people who know me and are familiar with my stuff. They know the package. They might have cherry-picked five or six key tunes. That's how it seems to work. I sometimes wonder if they realise they are not getting the whole context.

The album?

Yeah. The album was a context too, of course. You lose a lot of the world view if you just cherry pick songs. The experiential thing is entirely different.

In one chapter you cite a feature on Pitchfork that criticised you for collaborating with anyone and everyone at the drop of a hat. Any truth in their accusation?

I guess so. But I like collaborating. It's what music has always been essentially about. Even a band is a collaboration. I do like collaborations that are unlikely and therefore might yield interesting results. But I would have to say that there have

been some that have not worked as well as others.

Any real disasters?

There was one with Paul van Dyke, the techno DJ. I sent back his track to him at the wrong speed. Accidentally. It was a technical glitch. It had been reconfigured by the software and I didn't know it had happened. The thing is, I liked it but, perhaps unsurprisingly, he didn't. The boundaries are pretty fixed in that kind of dance music.

You've collaborated with Brian Eno both as a solo artist and with Talking Heads.Could you sum up his way of working?

Probably not [laughs]. He's good at making suggestions. Often with a band, he will come in and make a few sweeping changes quickly, then leave the room. It can be disorienting at first but he definitely has a transformative impact. No one else I have encountered has it in the same way.

Your new collaboration with St Vincent (Love This Giant, released last week) is a concept album insofar as all the songs are built around a brass band. Do you still think in terms of albums?

Yeah, I do, which probably makes me old-fashioned. And a concept album? That's a kind of scary term.

It runs counter to the prevailing drift in which the listener-consumer seems to have a curatorial role, picking and choosing songs from the past and the present. How do you feel about that?

With pop music now, it sometimes feels like the end of history. You can shuffle and reconfigure continuously. But it's interesting that in the midst of all this technologically-driven creativity there is a surge towards performance. In a way, we're going back to how it was before there was recording technology, when the song or piece of music existed only in performance and reinterpretation. People seem to want the communality of the live experience. They want to get out and be together as opposed to sitting alone, looking at a screen. The neurologist, Oliver Sacks, says that music is something that is never an isolated thing. You can organise a group and play and it can make you feel better in all sorts of ways. It can spread out into your whole life. That's an incredible thing.

What is the biggest change in pop music in your lifetime?

Wow. That's a big one. I've just been talking about the surge towards performance but with a lot of music being produced now, you don't need to be a performer at all. When we formed Talking Heads, everyone had to be a performer. That's no longer the case. I mean, just the laptop scene. People make incredible music without ever setting foot on a stage. Or outside their bedroom. That's a great thing too. It means you don't even have to have an image. We forget how important the look was to punk and to glam or whatever. The look was the attitude as much as the music. The look was a kind of context too.


Interview by Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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