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David Byrne
, L.A. Weekly, November 9, 1984

 
 
Was there anything particularly special about this last tour that made you want to get it down on film?
Yeah, I thought so. I thought I'd gotten something happening visually onstage, with the lighting, and the risers moving out, and that sort of thing, that solved the problem of -- when you're playing to 3,000 or 4,000 people -- "What can the audience look at other than musicians standing there playing?" I thought I solved that in a way that was interesting and had integrity. I think that's a big problem. I think there are a lot of people who give good performances that don't work in bigger venues. At least not for me. And when we started the tour, it was going real well -- we were really happy with our performances, we were having a lot of fun. And so we thought we should try to capture it. Because I don't want to keep touring for a long, long time. I didn't want to do a six-month tour that included Europe and all that kind of stuff. And so I thought this was one way of letting those people see what we were doing, people who couldn't make it to the concert. Or don't like going to rock concerts. There are plenty of people who don't like doing that.
Talking Heads get across to larger audiences as well as any band I've ever seen, but do you ever miss the close quarters of clubs? Is it harder to establish a kinship with a great body of people who are farther away?
Not so much. If the venue is kind of ... comfortable, if it's not too unreasonably stuffy and the sound is pretty decent, then it seems to work all right. Even the technical things seem to help that out. For instance, we usually point some of the lights so they kind of spill out into the first ten rows or so, and that helps a lot. 'Cause we've had some situations where we're playing to a black void, and that's really frustrating.
Are you pretty methodical about figuring out that technical stuff, about making it work?
Yeah. The whole thing was storyboarded before touring. Then I worked with people about how to technically do what I had drawn. We pretty much got everything that was drawn. Some things couldn't be done.
Such as?
The ideal would have been to return to the beginning at the end, to have a blackout and in a matter of, say , 30 seconds or a minute, have everything removed from the stage so that the stage was bare again. That was a dream. Couldn't be done.
But you could have done it in the film.
Yeah, but so what we have is during the credit roll, the stage is not bare, but it looks pretty bare, and the lights go through a lot of changes, back to the flat lighting of the first few songs. And the curtains come up and you see the back wall again. I wanted to have that happen while the audience was still in there, to have a return to an audience looking at an empty box. But that was impossible. That's okay.
Are there specific meanings to the visual props other than "This would look good here"? Are there sort of textual intentions to the floor lamp in "Naive Melody" and the big suit?
Well, the lamp -- that song is I guess the ... warmest song I've written in a long time, and uses the word "home" a lot, so I thought I'd use "home-style" lighting. [Laughs.] So a lamp seemed pretty perfect for that. The suit doesn't have as much to do with the specific songs as it does with my onstage persona -- coming through all the angst and tension and whatnot that's in a lot of the songs and kind of giving it up at the end. And I guess part of giving that up is the ability to wear a costume, which is something I never would have done before. It's a costume that I think is kind of elegant but kind of silly at the same time. It's a suit because I like the idea of a costume that's so simple it's a non-costume. You can describe it in one phrase. It's like a regular businessman's suit almost. But huge.
Seeing this last show, in person and on film, I had the feeling you were setting yourself a series of challenges: How far can I take this? How far can I let this lamp drop before catching it? How far can I bend backward without falling over? How hard can I run in circles without collapsing?
That's actually a fault of mine as a performer, I think. That's probably a drawback. I get excited onstage and feel like I can do anything, like I can push it, do it farther than I have, that I can run around faster than I did the night before. When a better performer, one who is more craftsmanlike, would be able to give that impression without putting out the actual effort.
But isn't the effort what makes it valuable?
If it's apparent to the audience, then that's fine, then that's great. But often people put out an incredible physical effort onstage to no effect. It's just misdirected energy, energy that they're throwing out, that doesn't say anything. And that can be just tiring for an audience. Of course it's tiring for the performer, but it can be exhausting for an audience to watch something like that.
Is work important to you?
Yeah, I guess. But I don't think of it as work most of the time. I try to figure out a way, whatever it is I'm doing, to make something interesting out of it.
When you were growing up, did you have the notion that there was a certain kind of work you wanted
to avoid?
I guess I knew at some point I didn't want to have a regular 9 to 5 job, though the hours don't bother me. I wanted to do something that was creative in some way. But I couldn't decide whether it was going to be in the sciences or the arts.
Which sciences?
Gosh, it didn't matter to me which one. It would have been some kind of pure science or research, where I felt something interesting or creative was happening.
You weren't one of those kids who played with bugs?
A little bit, but not much. I guess I was real curious about that kind of stuff. I thought it could be a kind of creative enterprise. But then it seemed that to get to the creative end I had to go for the arts. And that was the same kind of thing. I knew I wanted something that was kind of loose and vague, in which you could do whatever you liked, but it didn't matter to me what field it was in. It was all the same to me, and it still is.
So in a sense, there's really no difference between making a painting and making a song?
Nah, I don't think so. I mean there's a technical ability that's different. If you can mix colors that doesn't mean you can play guitar. But I think you can translate the ideas you get from one into another.
What was the first music that made an impression on you?
I remember hearing The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" and The Beatles' "Day Tripper" and a couple of things around that period on a transistor radio. I think that was the first pop music I got really excited about, the first time I thought, "Here's something that sounds like nothing I've heard before. Doesn't sound like the music from Walt Disney movies I'd been listening to. It sounds like something that's worth speaking to." My generation, I guess. It seemed like something where there were no holds barred. It seemed like every song sounded different from another one then, and that you could do almost anything. And if you could make it into a song, then people would listen to it. I think that was my first introduction to pop music. And that impression stayed with me. I still think you can do anything, and if there's a way to make it accessible -- I don't mean water it down, I just mean there's a way to make a song out of it or whatever -- people will like it. Or they might, anyway.
Is there anything you thought was either true about music or that you could do with music when you were starting out that you've since found to be false or impossible?
Not yet. I think some of the things I had ambitions to do -- like, when we were playing clubs, I thought there were elements of humor in some of our songs and some of the performances that didn't come across as that. They came across as me being weirder than ... ever. [Laughs.] So I thought that was a failing in the writing and the performing, because what was intended wasn't coming across. I think some of that comes across now. There are things I still think are possible, but which I haven't yet been able to do. Like in that song from a long time ago, "Don't Worry About the Government," I really wanted it to portray a sympathetic viewpoint toward people who were excited about the possibility of living in apartments that had garbage disposals and whatnot, and could work in a clean office and that sort of thing. And it came off as some kind of freak show. Or it came off that I was doing a sly criticism. And I didn't want it to be that way at all. And so I thought that was a failure on my part. But I still think that's possible -- to write a song that's sympathetic to small desires like that, that are kind of ordinary, and be really sympathetic to them without being critical.
Do you think it's important to speak for those small desires?
I don't know if it is so much for me now, but I thought so at the time, because it was something
that was not being said. Because most pop music and rock & roll was either about sweetness and light and real sappy, or it was about a kind of perverse mythology of rebels and "Let's get out of our heads and outrage our parents." Which is fine, but there's plenty of people doing that better than I do.
Lyrically, your songs have become a lot less narrative.
I've been writing narrative songs for [the project that became True Stories]. They don't always tell a story, but they're a lot more conventional. But it doesn't matter to me that much. I think a lot of pop songs are less narrative than they seem. People tend to impose their own meaning on them. But I guess that was a little goal for a while -- to do songs that had absolutely no literal meaning whatsoever and yet, by carefully choosing phrasing and placing them next to other phrases, to do it in such a way that it had an emotional impact, in the same way that telling a story would. That's the way you see the world a lot of the time. You see things layered on top of one another, and things in the foreground, and other things in the background, and things next to one another that don't belong next to one another.
If there's a meaning to Talking Heads other than a purely musical meaning, if there's any sort of subtext, what might it be?
Phew... Yikes! I guess it has to do with what our ambition's always been -- that you can do something interesting or innovative and it can be accepted, and it can compete in the marketplace and all that kind of stuff. That there doesn't have to be a separation between art and life. That you can go ahead with your better instincts. And if something sounds good to you, go ahead and do it. Something like that. [Shaking his head, almost in wonder.] It sounds corny. It sounds like Mr. Rogers or something.
You spoke earlier about "giving up" the "angst and tension" of our onstage persona. Has performing been, for want of a better phrase, any sort of growing experience for you?
Yeah, I guess. Particularly when we doubled size and became the big band. Then all the stuff I'd been reading about and feeling when I listened to music that was more rhythmically oriented or groove oriented, a lot of the ways I'd been feeling and thinking about, became manifested. The whole feeling onstage when there was a bunch of people playing became a lot more ecstatic. Which is what it was designed to do; the music was designed to generate that kind of feeling. But it was still surprising how much it happened.
But apart from the stage -- do you learn things onstage that you take away into the rest of your life?
Uh-huh. I guess so. I guess that's why you do it, and why an audience goes to see a performance. It's pretty hard to put into words. To me, what it's about is kind of giving up your ego or giving up whatever this psychological thing is and surrendering to the community and to the whole social animal. And sometimes that transcendent thing may only happen for, oh, a minute out of a whole performance. But that's enough. You only need a glimpse of something like that to realize that it exists. And then it's worth it. And I think when that happens, the audience and stage performers are sort of united in one feeling. Which is kind of an extraordinary experience that you can reflect on, but you can't ... do it at home. [Laughs.]

 
 

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