There may be no other artist in the world of modern music quite as versatile as David Byrne. As one of the founders of Talking Heads, he revolutionized the New Wave movement with his histrionic performances of songs like “Life During Wartime” and “Burning Down the House.” Today, he continues to polish his polymathic skills with forays into film (This Must Be the Place, 2012) and literature (Bicycle Diaries, 2009, etc.) as well as theater, art and music—Byrne is currently between tours for his newest collaboration, Love This Giant, recorded with Annie Clark, known by her stage name, St. Vincent.
In a starred review, Kirkus called his latest book, How Music Works, “A supremely intelligent, superbly written dissection of music as an art form and way of life.” We caught up with the enigmatic singer in the
You mention in the acknowledgements that you shared some journal entries with Dave Eggers of McSweeney’s some years ago. How long have you been writing your thoughts and perceptions on the musician’s life and the mechanics of making music?
I've been writing down odd notes since before Talking Heads' days—some of them from that period are pretty strange. One is trying to imagine some perfect transmission/reception of sound, direct into the brain—really nutty stuff. The things I sent Dave Eggers years ago were more anecdotes from the road. I think I was touring
Did How Music Works grow from those exercises or from your extensive journal, or was it composed independently?
This book really grew out of some commissioned pieces, a TED talk and a couple of blog posts—all of which, in retrospect, I realized had to do with how various contexts affected the music we hear. Some of those early pieces and directions were abandoned in the process, but they made me realize there might be enough angles on the subject to justify a book.
How Music Works is marvelously diverse. At times it reads like a richly composed textbook, and at other times, it’s nearly confessional. What tone were you trying to strike as you were writing the book?
I hoped that it would feel like me telling you some interesting insights or anecdotes that I remembered, or that occurred to me. Though some chapters are pretty heavily researched, I hope I balanced those bits with personal reactions to that information and vice versa, I hope that the more autobiographical parts are a way of explaining how I got to where I am and my decision process in getting there.
You have this wonderful observation in your chapter on studio recording: “We don’t make music—it makes us.” How does that thought encapsulate the ideas and themes that make up How Music Works?
A bit like trying to explain a joke here, but as we (composers and writers) begin to work on a piece of music, it has its own effects on us; it draws out emotions, if it's well done, and makes specific compositional demands. It's almost as if one is making a machine that is designed to have a powerful effect on us.
How does the e-book version of How Music Works enhance the reading experience?
The enhanced e-book version (which only plays on certain devices and formats) has loads and loads of music snippets to illustrate what I refer to in the text. It seems a perfect use of the possibilities of those devices; I'm curious for feedback from readers who've messed with those versions. In collecting and choosing the sound snippets, I'd generally ask my office if each one really made the idea clearer. In most cases, they said they did.
One chapter is devoted to performance. How do you think your performing has changed during your numerous iterations?
In the beginning, I wanted to wipe the slate clean, to start from zero and not allow any elements of stagecraft or performance in. But I soon realized that just the act of getting on stage is an artificial situation, so pretending that it's "real" involves a bit of denial.
That said, when I do include elements that are stagy or performative, I try to be transparent about it. I try to let the audience see what we're doing and how we do it.
Your tour for How Music Works is unusual and includes conversations about different aspects of music with people ranging from Cory Doctorow to Trent Reznor. What can people expect from one of your events?
People can expect a conversation about some aspect of music and performance. Usually, we specify what we'll be talking about in the title of the program. Sometimes we end up barely referring to the book, which is fine by me. The idea is to stimulate discussion, and I think it's working.
You obviously maintain a deep and personal love for music. What helps keep you interested after all this time?
I would turn that around and ask how in the world anyone could get bored with music, or lose their curiosity about new artists who are exciting. What I do seems very ordinary to me.