A Chat with David Byrne About How Music Works
If you’ve never read any of David Byrne’s books, his newest, How Music Works, might be the best place to start. The book is an encyclopedic compendium of mini-essays spanning a huge range of musical subjects from the history of venue architecture, aspects of performance, how a music scene develops, the anatomy of recording contracts, as well as in-depth reflection on his career with the Talking Heads and beyond. As I was reading the book, I kept imagining David Byrne standing inside my face in the big suit reading aloud. Sadly, that strange daydream was better than a lot of live bands I’ve seen lately.
VICE: You write early on in How Music Works that “Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike.” Do you think of yourself as channeling something when you are writing a song?
David Byrne: Well, lots of people use that metaphor that they’re channeling something, or that they’re a conduit and they don’t know where the inspiration comes from and they’re just a pen that writes it down or whatever. That’s pretty common. And yeah, there’s definitely something to it. I guess what I’m also saying is that it is usually presumed that the emotion is something that’s put into a song, that it comes from the person and goes into the song. And there’s probably a lot of truth to that, but I’m saying that just as much as that happens, I think it happens in the exact reverse way, where a person makes a song and the song makes the writer feel emotional. The song brings out the emotions in the writer. You realize that this chord changing and singing this melody and these words, it takes you to a place. As a writer as well as a listener. I mean, we all share that in common. And so the song becomes the thing that does it. It’s not that the writer necessarily channels the emotions or the ideas or whatever and puts them down on paper. What got put down on paper is also a thing that reaches inside the writer or the person listening and brings that stuff out of them.
Is that why you refer in the book to the big major chord as a trick?
Yes. [laughs] And that’s not a value judgment. It doesn’t mean the major chord is bad, or that you should never use it. But it is, it’s like a guaranteed thing. You do that, and you get this kind of feeling. You start to learn things like that. You do this, you’re going to get this kind of feeling, and it’s going to make you feel that way as a writer, and it’s going to make the audience feel that way, and in that kind of way you kind of learn tricks of the trade. And they’re valid. But if you fall back on them too much, if you start using only those and nothing else, it becomes pretty shallow after a while. It’s one device after another being thrown at us and you go, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s nothing behind this.”
I think you put that very well in the book when you said that people want to hear something familiar in a new way.
Yes. In a live performance, musicians—or at least popular musicians—are in a kind of difficult place in a way. They’re expected to play the hits, to play a certain amount of stuff that people know, and then if they do only the hits, then they’re a wedding band. They have to find some middle ground where they introduce something new that gets the audience excited, but they also have to give them enough that’s familiar. We all know bands that have gone out and say, “I’m not going to do any of my old stuff, I’m only going to play the new record.” And god bless them if they can do it. I’ve been to those shows too, and it’s sometimes great to hear new stuff, but sometimes you just want a little bit of sugar to go along with all of that. And it’s a difficult thing for us. You wouldn’t go to the movies and say, “Well, I love this director, so I want to see some new stuff, but I’d love to see some of my favorite scenes from some of his older films as well thrown in there. Give me some of that.” [laughs] That would just seem ridiculous.