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.