Alexis Taylor and David Byrne: in conversation

The Hot Chip frontman and Talking Heads legend fire up Skype for a candid chat about collaboration, cybernetics and how best to cover Prince

Alexis Taylor: Recently I’ve been hearing music coming through my neighbours’ wall, but I can’t quite hear it well enough to know what it is. Sometimes I think it’s some of the best music I’ve heard in ages. And then I sometimes like the chords that my cat accidentally plays while walking across the piano keys in my music room early in the morning. These things remind me of some of the words in Strange Overtones, the song you did with Brian Eno [from 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today] about hearing someone’s feet on the stairs in the next apartment, or hearing them singing. Are you inspired by these kinds of found sounds, and mishearings?

David Byrne: Yes, “mishearings” is absolutely it. You can’t quite identify it, and so you mentally fill in the blanks. And if you’re generous, it ends up being better than the thing actually is! But there’s also misinterpretations, where you’re inspired by a song or an artist; you try and do something like that, and you miss by a mile, but as a result you come up with something completely new. And no one recognises it as being this other thing because you missed by such a wide margin.

A: That’s something I’m really familiar with in Hot Chip. We’ve made an entire career out of not being quite good enough to imitate the music that we really love. The things that we expect people to hear in our own music, they actually miss.

D: Oh yeah! On the very first Talking Heads record there’s a song called The Book I Read where I was trying to sound like KC & The Sunshine Band. That was the target that I was aiming at [laughs] and no one ever picked up on that.

Strange Overtones

A: There were times we thought we’d made a record that was inspired by, say, Destiny’s Child, and that people would be able to play it in a club next to a Destiny’s Child record, but obviously it was a badly mixed track with some middle-class English guys from south-west London singing over the top. How about misunderstandings between you and collaborators? Do you try to put yourself in a different frame of mind, somewhere outside your comfort zone?

D: One of the last collaborations I did was with St Vincent. We’d pass the tracks back and forth, building up tracks, ideas of vocal melodies and so on. And I remember one time she sent me something that was the same chord over and over again, and I was thinking: “Well, this has a great sound to it, but is she serious? Is this a joke, and she’s going to see if I fall for it and actually try and write something over it?” But you have to take the other person’s intent seriously, no matter how ridiculous it seems. [Laughs] Even if you think that it completely destroys the notion of the song and the way you thought it was going, you now have to readjust where you think it’s going. As a result, you get something where it’s hard to tell what you did and what the other person did.

A: It’s a great feeling, when it’s no longer clear who contributed what, or how it’s ended up the way it has. Sometimes I can’t remember or tell who’s done what on certain records with Hot Chip, but through that collaboration you’ve turned a different corner that you might have never turned before. Was Eno good at being provocative and asking something different of you, outside your comfort zone?

D: He does that kind of thing intentionally, seeing how far he could push it to see what happens. He’d throw things at me as if to say “Let’s see if he can make a song out of this”, something where the musical structure almost seemed completely random.

A: I’m very affected by the people I’m working with, and I enjoy putting myself in different situations as often as possible. The Atomic Bomb! Band [in which both Byrne and Taylor play] is a good example of that; it’s someone else’s voice, someone else’s authorship. I find those kind of things interesting, partly because I don’t really know where I stand with them. I found the music of William Onyeabor so fascinating but I didn’t really know how I felt about all of us presenting it to the world. It opened up a lot of questions for me... and that was part of the process, part of what was interesting.

D: Yes, it’s a confusing idea! To have all of us doing this guy’s music, who is still alive… it’s not like we’re celebrating a guy who passed on a decade ago. He’s like a ghost that hovers in the background, but he’s not there.

A: And once we start doing it, more of ourselves will start coming through in the performances, which is a good thing but it’s also quite confusing. There’s this guy who’s absent the whole time, but represented through other people. At some of the gigs there wasn’t that much mention of his name, so I was hoping it didn’t feel like we were taking over. But at the same time you can’t help but take over, because you’re performing the music! Some of the musicians involved are doing a very good job of trying to stay true to his recordings, but I don’t know how you stay true to someone beyond that when you don’t know what their intentions were. It makes you think about whether they would want it to happen in the first place, I suppose. I’m not trying to put a downer on it [laughs]. But yes, putting myself in positions that are alien or uncomfortable is part of what I enjoy about music making. It’s good for me – and the music I’m involved with – to not really know the answer to things.

D: Yes, to be put into a position that you’re not familiar with, where you can’t fall back on tried and tested tricks of the trade... You have to actually think: “Oh, what works best here? What am I going to do?” instead of just going on autopilot.

A: There are things outside of music that I think about a lot, but never really know how they’re impacting on the music itself. Like the Italian film-maker Pasolini: I always liked the really crude editing in some of his early films. Music might stop very suddenly or a scene might change very quickly, and I remember finding that quite powerful. It has felt very relevant to what you can do with music and how things don’t necessarily have to smoothly co-exist. Other than that... there’s a song [Huarache Lights] on the new Hot Chip record that’s about some trainers. So there’s an influence there!

D: I remember that around the time of early Talking Heads I was reading a lot of books about cybernetics, how systems are organised, how they flow and self-regulate. And I remember trying to write songs that were lists of things. Cole Porter does that a lot, but it didn’t work so well for me. I also remember writing lists of my own that were basically assignments. Write a song about this, write a song from this point of view. So that was maybe a way in which my outside interests – what I was reading – would seep into my songwriting. More recently I read a book called The Tell-Tale Brain [by VS Ramachandran] which is a neuroscience book, and another called The Invisible Gorilla. But in between that, I’ll read, say, a HP Lovecraft story, which is from the other side of the universe, completely made-up shit that is completely bonkers. That’s my reading list!

A: The thing I’ve been reading recently was Labyrinths by Borges.

David Byrne, Money Mark, Jonathan Lam and Alexis Taylor in Atomic Bomb! Band.
David Byrne, Money Mark, Jonathan Lam and Alexis Taylor in Atomic Bomb! Band. Photograph: Other

D: Such a great book.

A: Yeah! The story I always think of from that book is the one called Pierre Menard, Author Of The Quixote. It’s about somebody who’s arrived at the same book: it’s like he’s rewritten Don Quixote, but it’s not that he’s rewritten it, it’s exactly the same text. And you’re drawn into thinking about how different two identical texts could be because of the context, the time that they’re written... That’s confusing and amusing to me. I recently went to a gig in London which made me think of that story; it was Neil Hagerty from Royal Trux, playing his first European shows in over a decade, and he played two sets at Cafe Oto in London. The performance was billed as two sets, but he just played the same set twice. To the same audience.

D: [Laughs]

A: No one really saw that coming, but it was kind of amazing. And to me the two sets seemed really different, even though they were in the same order. And I wondered whether he was drawing attention to what’s different about two things that on paper are exactly the same.

D: I can definitely see a musical connection there. You can easily imagine: what if a cover artist covered somebody else’s song and did it so perfectly that you could barely tell the difference at all… Would you prefer one over the other? People would say: “Well, this one’s obviously better, because it was done five years earlier, and this one is inferior” – but it sounds exactly the same! You can imagine the same things with paintings. If someone does a perfect copy, what makes it not quite as good as the original?

A: There are also records that serve exactly that purpose. In the 1970s you’d get, say, a Wings record remade perfectly by a studio session band so you could buy a cheaper copy of the new Wings album at a truckstop. I remember being in Hamburg, going to a record shop and finding a copy of the Black Album by Prince, but with different artwork. And because I’m a bit of a collector of his music I bought it. But when I got it home it turned out to be a complete facsimile of the Black Album. Some people had obviously made their own version after having heard the real record. Every single sound was made to sound as close as possible. I couldn’t put my finger on why, but it was completely unsatisfying to listen to. Changing tack slightly: what makes you laugh?

D: I laugh at myself a fair amount. Sometimes I intend to write something funny, in an email or in a song or something, and I’ll sort of think: “Oh, I’m very clever, look how funny I just was”, and I’ll laugh, and it’ll come back to me the next day and I’ll go on laughing... It’s a good thing to be able to amuse yourself. If someone else isn’t there to cheer you up, writing something funny is not the worst thing in the world.

A: I cry more often than maybe some people do. It’s usually just listening to music. So many different pieces of music have made me cry, but sometimes it’s other things, like being on a long-haul flight and watching a really terrible film that shouldn’t really be moving at all. Is there something about being at high altitudes that leads to that?

D: I get that too! I remember being incredibly moved by that Angelina Jolie movie Maleficent. I watched that on a long-haul flight, and said to someone: “I thought this film was really good!” and I got some looks [laughs]. And if a song has some kind of story to it, or if there’s a phrase or two that burrows into your psyche and somehow connects to your own story, a little bit of a narrative will push me over the edge.

A: There’s a piece of music by Alasdair Roberts called Lord Ronald, which is like a traditional folk song, a very long, narrative-led ballad. It’s a very shocking and sad song. Every time I listen to that, even though I know the pay-off is that he’s been poisoned by his partner, it still moves me to tears. There’s something about the idea in a tragedy that you know the outline, you know the story, you can still be waiting for the inevitable, but feels like it’s a new experience, or grief, each time.

D: It’s incredibly pleasurable to get that overwrought about something. And I agree that sometimes knowing the pre-ordained ending, knowing what it is in advance, just makes it more devastating as you see the pieces fall into place along the way, because you know where it’s headed. The character doesn’t, but you do, and it’s incredibly moving as you see the character taking inevitable steps towards their own doom…

David Byrne’s Meltdown festival is at the Southbank Centre, SE1, 17th-30th August; the Atomic Bomb! Band featuring Sinkane, Money Mark and more play Royal Festival Hall, SE1, as part of Meltdown on 20th August

Alexis Taylor and David Byrne
Hmmm… Photograph: PR


Rhodri Marsden

The GuardianTramp

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