David Byrne on a lifetime of innovation and finding American Utopia – The FADER

Posted: May 27, 2021 at 8:09 am

The thing I love most about Byrne's book, How Music Works, is his incredibly smart yet simple, Zen-like approach to describing music and the process of making it and listening to it. I find the greatest comedians, people like Chris Rock, will say something we've all thought of 100 times but just way more funny and succinct. I feel like Byrne does this over and over again in his book. In fact, if someone asked me to recommend one book that describes modern music the best, there's no doubt I would pick his.

2009, I guess, when the FADER cover was ... I imagine you were working on How Music Works for quite some time. I mean, it's so well put-together, and it covers such a vast range.

Yeah, I worked on it for ... It was at least a few years. The chapter about music and architecture and acoustics, that had been already done as a TED Talk. I think maybe at least one of the other chapters I maybe had written up as a blog post in a sketched-out form, and I realized, "Oh, there's more. I could do a chapter on this. I could do a chapter on this and all these things that affect how music sounds and how it gets to us that are not about, 'Well, I wrote this song because I was breaking up with my girlfriend,' but what recording technology, how recording technology affects the kind of music that we hear, and all that kind of stuff." I thought that would be an interesting kind of book because most of the books about music are about the other thing, like what the music actually sounds like and what it makes you feel. I thought, "I'm going to talk about the stuff outside of the actual music and how that affects the music that we hear."

Just in case there's people listening that haven't read the book, it talks very much about how early music and religious spiritual music was played in these giant cathedrals, so, tonally, it had to leave room for all that reverb so there's no discordance, and then as places get smaller ... Basically, the places music was played changed the compositions. Is that fair to say, a very basic nutshell?

Not only allowed other kinds of writing and composing to happen, but it almost demanded it in some ways.

So one thing that you said in the book that I wondered since then, at that time, you weren't sure if there's been a compositional response to the MP3 itself in the way that there was a compositional response to halls, cathedrals, clubs like CBs. Has anything happened since then that's made you change that? Have you heard of anything that feels more like that?

Wow. Lately, I've heard quite a few productions where things are really, really stripped down. There might just be a beat and a bass and maybe a little hint of a keyboard or something and, of course, a voice. But, sometimes, that's all there is. Sometimes, the beat will be really, really sparse, and I've thought, "Wow, I don't know if you could get away with that 10 or 20 years ago." This might be the result that we listen in cars, we listen in headphones, and so we can have that space in the music now that we maybe couldn't have before. I don't know. I'd be interested if you have any ideas.

I hadn't thought about it in this context of this question, but now I remember, I've always thought one of the most dominant colors in all of modern music, hip-hop, which is essentially pop music, is the hi-hat now and the very busy hi-hat and the tickiness of the trap hi-hat, the ... all that. That is one of the main frequencies that you can hear out the speaker on your iPhone, so I definitely think that there's something about the sounds or the things that are going to cut through, almost like they used to have the loudness wars of who could master their things to sound the loudest on radio. Now, it's like what are the frequencies that are going to sound the most distinct and pronounced coming out of somebody's phone speaker, which is essentially probably where they'll be listening to their music, I guess.

Yeah, so it's going to be those frequencies and then sub-bass for people in cars.

Okay. Just to cover other ground, too, there's a section in your cover story about where The FADER picks artists that they see influenced by you. So, at the time, it was Grizzly Bear, Micachu. Because you do seem like such a generous fan to new music and you're not really the kind of person that I feel like sits around pointing a blog going, "They stole that from me, they stole that from me, they stole that from me," do you hear yourself in artists? You must hear yourself in current-day artists. Are you kind of psyched? Does it give you a bit of pride, or do you want to be like, "Hey, go find your own thing to do?" I'm just curious, and maybe some of your favorites today.

Occasionally, yes, I'll hear something and I'll go, "Is that me? Does that have a little bit of me in it? Is that really there?" Then, sometimes, I go, "Is that what they think I sound like? I don't think I sound like that. Do they think I sound like that?" It's really confusing. The other thing that happens is I go, "Oh, I really like this band," or, "I love this artist," and then I'll have a friend go, "You like them because they sound like you. That's why you like them." I thought, "Oh, that's kind of predictable." I don't think it's always true.

Well, there was an article I remember in The Times. I don't know where it was, but it really just felt like the last wave of bands ... And we always say these different things, is band music on its last leg, whatever. But certainly the last wave of weighty, important bands, LCD, Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend, you're certainly the patron saint of these bands, whereas, at one point, you could tie things back to The Beatles, the Stones, Stevie Wonder. In some ways, the last remaining important guitar music kind of points back to you. I know that you've talked about those bands. You have good relationships with these guys.

I know those people.

Yeah.

Yeah. As my friends say, I like their music, too. I don't have my playlist in front of me, but I remember a few months back I did a playlist. I'd been hearing all this really glitchy-sounding music. What was that group? 100 gecs. There's the person that just passed away, SOPHIE, and there's a bunch of other ones. There's a whole lot from Japan, of course. I thought, "Wow, is this a thing, or is it just me collecting this stuff that makes it a thing?" Is this really something that's happening, where it's just like the beats and the sounds, everything sounds really kind of fucked up. There's no straight beat in there. Everything was kind of fractured. I thought, "I really like this, but what does this mean? Does this say something about how we're feeling these days, the fact that this music is so jagged and fractured?"

I remember the first time I heard some of Arca's production, this is 10 years ago, 11 years ago, for FKA twigs. I was like, "How much can you play and stretch time and syncopation before ... Is there a point where I no longer how to move my body to it, which this is awkward, or am I afraid of this because it's a new thing?" I do think there's only 12 notes in the scale or the Western scale and all these things. Yes, for music to progress, people have to break down the foundation of the roots of some of the foundation, rhythm and things like that, the glitchiness you're talking about.

Yeah, and I remember hearing those tracks as well. Those were also some of the ones where it feels very, very stripped down, and I've thought, "Do I like this because I like listening to it just at home while I'm wearing headphones? I can't imagine hearing this at a club. I can't imagine people dancing to this." But maybe they do.

I remember the first time I went into the dubstep tent at a festival. I was playing a festival in England. This must've been 2005. I walked into this tent, and it was packed. Everybody was losing their minds, but at the same time nobody was moving. There was just this slow-bodied through the whole thing. Then dubstep became a bit of a different thing, it almost met up with Rage Against the Machine somewhere. But this was this moment where it was this very somber, solemn music, and people were just losing their minds. I was like, "But they're not dancing." As a DJ, you feed off seeing the rise and the ebb of the crowd, and I don't know how I would know when people are enjoying it or not. Obviously, it was just a new scene and something that was out of my wheelhouse, and it was exciting. It's like the way people dance to juke music and stuff. I mean, I can barely dance to Michael Jackson. But I love watching it, and as a curiosity ... I was speaking to Santigold last night, and she said to say hi, obviously. She-

Oh, yeah. I miss her.

She told me a really beautiful story, that she said that you had come to a gig of hers, because I know you love to go to at least one gig a week, and she had no idea that you went, and then you sent her a really sweet email. Of course, if she had known that you were there during the show, it probably would've terrified her because so many people look up to you so much. Then there's also this vulgar thing of going backstage after to say hi to the artist and let them know that you came. You did none of that, and then you just sent her a message after. I thought, "That is quite emblematic of who you are." I just wanted to talk about that thing, going to shows every week, obviously, we can't do that now, and how you're filling the void. Are you just a little bit miserable over it or ...

Yeah. A lot of us really miss that, going out to the club, hearing live music, DJ music, whatever, yes, being with other people. It's been a year without that, pretty tough, pretty tough. I think, somehow, I don't know exactly how it's happened, people have continued to release a lot of music in the last year. There's a lot that's come out. So I've been doing, yes, a lot of listening at home, sometimes exchanging playlists with friends and that kind of thing. But, yes, a lot more listening at home than I ever used to do, just listening or listening while I'm cooking because now we cook at home a lot more than we used to. People are desperate to get out.

The cooking, it's crazy. I've only really learnt to cook since COVID. I could make an omelet, but I just mean as far as, like you said, we're all cooking at home. I've enjoyed and discovered music in a way I've never discovered it and loved it at home. I have a little record player in the kitchen, and leaving that record on from start to finish, and whether you're listening to a playlist or a record, it doesn't matter, this period has made me love music in a completely different way and made me stop ... Of course, that's why I have a job, because people like listening to music at home, but I don't ever see myself that way. When I'm listening to music, it's more ... I know what you mean. This period has made me appreciate music in a way that I haven't before.

It's true, yes. I now have a turntable in my kitchen.

Do you? You have one as ... You as well?

Yeah. I mean, I also listen to playlists that I've made and streaming music and everything and play it through the speakers. But, yeah, just put something on and start slicing onions. Yeah.

Yes. And then I have to turn the music down while I Google how to dice an onion. Then I turn it back up. But, yeah, bands that I know one song by that I like, like Prefab Sprout or The Durutti Column, and who I never would have listened to their album otherwise, I would've probably put that song I really liked on a playlist. Now, I'm just ... By virtue of leaving the record on, it's been kind of nice. I feel like I'm in 1985 or someone discovering that band for the first time again.

Oh, yeah. What was that Prefab Sprout record? Was it called Two Wheels Good or something like that or ...

I'm not sure.

I think it had somebody on a motorcycle on the cover of the record. It was-

Oh, yeah. The whole band is on the motorcycle, yes.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love that record.

Yeah. Me, too. Then one other thing that you said in the FADER article, you said you're not usually nostalgic except maybe occasionally when a building comes down. I think of you as such a New Yorker at this point, I mean, you are a New Yorker, that maybe there are no buildings coming down, but New York has changed so much, the landscape, storefronts, everything, during this time. But there's still something pretty great and exciting and there's the feeling of just whoever stayed here, at least, is in it for the long haul. In June, when a lot of people left following the riots and stuff, I was like, "Okay, that's kind of great. Downtown looks a bit like a freak show again, or at least when I started going out in the early '90s." I wondered how you felt about that.

I first noticed it when ... It was probably late summer or summertime. I would often go for fairly long bike rides, just to get out. Sometimes, I'd meet up with band members or friends or whatever, and we'd go explore some neighborhood that we didn't know about. I remember coming back home and riding down 5th Avenue from Central Park, and almost every store was boarded up. It was like the whole avenue was made of plywood. It had kind of gone up overnight. I'm not sure exactly. This might've been just before the election. It might've been before something else, but the day before something else was going to happen, and they expected people to come smash windows, which I don't think it ever happened. It happened that once and kind of went away.

It was kind of extraordinary. People were then painting a lot of the plywood, which a lot of it's still up. People are now selling or archiving some of these paintings that were done on the plywood. Yep. Coming down 5th Avenue, with a lot of luxury stores and things like that, I thought, "Oh, this really looks like a city under siege. This is a city that's afraid of its own citizens. They're barricading it against their own citizens." I thought, "And I live here. How's this going to be?" Yeah.

Yeah. And now, with a few months since then, and then, obviously, there wasn't the same apocalyptic, like you said, the siege mentality, how are you feeling about New York right now?

Every couple of weeks is a different feeling. Right now, we're in the feeling where some people are getting vaccinated. I'm old enough that I qualify, but, of course, like a lot of other people, you'd go on the websites and just forget about it. It was like trying to get the hottest concert tickets in the world. It'd be gone the minute that the new batch came out. I eventually got-

Oh, you did? Okay, good. Good.

I eventually get it, but it was ... Like the stories of some of my friends, it was through a friend of a friend who said, "Oh, there's this high school in Brooklyn where they usually have a few shots left at the end of the day. If you can get out there at 6:00, they'll give you a call, and if you can get out there, they'll give you one of those shots," which is what I did. So, right now, it feels like we're in this in-between period where there's this really clunky, chaotic rollout of the vaccines and people are wondering, "Okay, when do we all get this? Then we can start going out to restaurants. Can we do that again, after we all get vaccinated?"

Yeah.

Yeah. We're in that kind of period where it's kind of hopeful but also kind of like, "Can we do this a little faster so we can get there? We see that there's an end to this. Can we get there? Can we get there a little faster now," whereas there was a period there where it just seemed like, "Oh, this is never going to end."

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David Byrne on a lifetime of innovation and finding American Utopia - The FADER

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