In his third book for the McSweeneys imprint, How Music Works—excerpted in the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian—David Byrne, the former frontman of the Talking Heads, goes out of his way to avoid writing about himself. In fact, he talks about almost everything else: How the economic bottom line of the music industry affects what we hear, how the halls built for live performers can alter the social function of music, and how the digitization of recorded sound changes our relationship to live performance. It’s a fascinating work that reveals the rock star’s flexible, curious mind. We sent Seth Colter Walls to Byrne’s Tribeca studio to talk to Byrne about his own history with music—from before Talking Heads ever played CBGBs, to the present-day realities of music in New York as he sees them.
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This book is admirably wide-ranging. I came away with the sense that you’re concerned about the destructive social power of elitism as it relates to culture – whether that be about how we relate to “classical” music, or else how we treat “professional” rock stars—and that you’re very much in favor of the self-professed amateur. Is that right?
I’m very suspicious of the “great man” theory of history. But there certainly are artists I totally revere. I will go out and get their next record without listening to it or anything—I’ll just buy it. But there aren’t too many of those. And I’m aware that some of those people borrow; they didn’t make everything up from scratch.
I encourage people not to be passive consumers of music and of culture in general. And feeling like, yeah, you can enjoy the products of professionals, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to completely give up the reins and give up every connection to music or whatever it happens to be. One’s not “this is the real stuff” and this is “not.” They’re both real! [Laughs]
And yet this is interesting in the sense that one of the reasons a reader would turn to you to find out about “how music works” is that you’re David Byrne, famous rock star.
Yeah, I’m aware to some extent that people would be listening to me or my opinions because they know my music or they know what I’ve done or they know who I am or something like that. But at the same time I’m saying: I don’t matter that much! All these other factors matter more than me.
Toward the end you also make a strong defense of early music education. And because this book is filled with references to an impressively diverse roster of amazing musicians who are obscure to many—I’m thinking of the jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Greek modernist composer Iannis Xenakis – I’m wondering: In the era before the Internet, how did you discover all this richness, as a relatively young man, headed off to college?
Well I think I was a little bit off on my own, you know, in the small town of Arbutus, outside of Baltimore. It’s not a place like New York, where all this stuff is just kind of in the air. I had a couple of friends who were music fans; we’d trade records. I think my parents maybe got the Sunday New York Times and occasionally there’d be mention of, you know, like [composer] John Cage or different things. And you’d go: “Oh, what’s that?”
It was a period—this would be like [the late] ’60s,early ’70s—it would be a period when to some extent that kind of open-mindedness about music was considered to be something that was cool. It wasn’t discouraged or frowned upon. I wouldn’t know; I was sort of isolated! But that’s the perception I had. So I thought: “Oh, this is OK.” And I guess at some point in the early ’70s, maybe there were music magazines—Rolling Stone—around to tell you a little bit more about some of the stuff. But they tended to focus more on rock music than jazz or any other … although they would sometimes mention those kinds of things.
You’d just pick up little things: you know, like Frank Zappa would give a quote from [composer Edgard] Varese, and you’d go: “Oh, who’s that?” And I’d go to the public library, and the public library had a lending thing where you could take out records, vinyl, for three days. … So if you heard about it, if somebody dropped a name like that, you had no Internet or way to find out about it. You had to go get the record and listen to it and read the liner notes. And one thing would lead to another: Sometimes the liner notes would, say, mention somebody else.
But you have to be pretty diligent to follow all those trails, too. Most people, if they see it, read Zappa quoting Varese and just leave it at that.
That’s true! I can’t deny that. But this is how I did it. … You had to be pretty diligent about following all those leads and being curious and open-minded enough to find out. … It doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. That was an interesting process too, to find out that somebody might rave about something and you’ll get it and go “Ew, I don’t get this at all.”
You mention in the book that you’ve never been able to get into Bach or Mozart.
Yeah, that’s been [true] forever! … There were probably a ton of things where I thought, “I’m supposed to like this, I’m supposed to like this!”
And even though you have some harsh words for the amount of funding that goes into opera and classical music culture, you also name check a lot of today’s composers. That list includes John Adams, the composer of the opera Doctor Atomic, and his near-namesake, John Luther Adams, whose recent piece Iniksuit you report enjoying.
Just because I rule out Bach and Mozart doesn’t mean I rule out everything played on those instruments! … That’s going to be a contentious chapter, and I won’t claim to have gotten it all right.
It struck me that you were positioning funding for, say, music education, versus subsidies that allow people to buy cheap tickets at Lincoln Center or other urban arts venues. But one doesn’t have to exist at the expense of the other, right?
It’s a sense what I’m saying is unfair: They shouldn’t be in opposition. But … the school programs have just been gutted.
The way you talk about jazz is interesting, too, because here’s an American cultural invention that starts in a popular dance-hall context that can support itself commercially, and then moves to the halls of academe, where it finds some protection from the market.
Yes, it’s really… it’s an ever-evolving thing. For instance, jazz is a pretty good example. As I said – I don’t know if I was an adolescent, I might have been in college—I might have just been going to college when I saw [jazz musician] Roland Kirk at this thing. And you know, it was raucous, and there was drugs, and there was a show. It was the equivalent of a guitar player playing a guitar with his teeth: He would play two instruments at once. … It was show business. That wasn’t to take away from the music at all, but you realized that there was not … it wasn’t pure, like, stripped away. But all kinds of things could be thrown in here.
I was interested because this was the kind of fringe of jazz that was more experimental. But I realized it was also on a borderline, because it was also kind of popular: It was playing at a ballroom; he wasn’t playing at the symphony hall or some kind of pristine supper club. Not at the Blue Note or anything like that—not that they wouldn’t have him. Then I would see other acts when I was young – like Duke Ellington was playing Carnegie Hall – and you realize that as much as you might like some of the music, you had no experience of him playing on a bandstand with people dancing. That was not something I ever experienced. You only saw this person who was now revered as this deity. …
And so you go somewhere else. I remember going to a club in New Orleans and hearing Dirty Dozen playing just for hours, and people just dancing. Of course it’s New Orleans, they’re dancing all the time, and its people are loving the band but they’re not like sitting there reverentially paying attention to the band. And so I started to realize: Oh, this is what jazz used to be like. And whether it was a survival instinct or whatever else – it has now, for most of us, become something else. I thought: ooh, my perception of what the music means – how you enjoy it, how you perceive it physically as well as intellectually—is being completely skewed by the context that we hear the music in, not by the music itself. Anyway, I realized: Oh, that must happen with other kinds of music too.
You lament a bit how the nostalgia industry eventually eclipsed what happened in those early years of the American punk movement, at CBGBs. But that was, as you note, a place where a lot of different artistic practices were being made newly accessible to a young audience. Talking Heads included
There was a little bit of a spike in the idea that anybody who could figure out to do something—they didn’t have to have hardly any musical skills whatsoever—but if they could do something and work it out, that could have value. It came out of a cultural moment of people being ignored and not listened to and being alienated. And financially, you know, the economy was in terrible shape, as it is now, but all those factors helped push people into feeling like then we’re going to make, if no one else is doing it, music for ourselves anyway.
But I don’t think it was a unique moment. I think it happens a lot.
Still, you do lament the contemporary rise of the commercial radio conglomerate Clear Channel, which you basically blame for turning the mass airwaves into pablum. What affect do you think that has had on musical adventurousness?
People can find their way out of that walled-in thing. But it just makes it harder. You have to really go looking and make a decision that you’re walking away from that. Which is not just walking away from a radio station, it’s walking away from a social network. All your friends know those songs, and everybody hears this new song when it comes out. And if you’re walking away from that to go somewhere else, it’s kind of like you’re not sharing the values of your friends anymore.
That’s more difficult than just being curious, I think. The big kind of corporate cultural things kind of prey on that we’ll all be happy when we all like exactly the same things. [Laughs]
You mention in the book that the best-kept secret in the New York cultural scene is the bounty of fantastic Latin-American music here, which is hard to argue with.
It’s incredible. You know some of the best musicians of that style in the world are all here. But there’s this willful ignorance of all that; we don’t want to hear about that. There’s just this incredible richness of music, great popular stuff and great kind of sophisticated stuff. So I find there’s a kind of boundary there, [and] I crossed that boundary some years ago. And I alienated a lot of fans. But oh, whatever! [Laughs]
I don’t think you’ll find a lot of the bands in Brooklyn talking about [that music]. There might be more awareness of Xenakis and Ligeti and stuff like that.
What’s impressive is your optimism, throughout this book—even as you grapple with changes in musical culture that are disturbing or that the jury is still out on.
Byrne: To some extent, yeah. I want to accept things; I want to be realistic about what’s going on, and what’s being done to us and what’s changing. But I don’t want to just rule something out and say, oh it was better in the old days. That’s just death.
Interview has been condensed and edited.