Interview: David Byrne on his new book How Music Works

Music memoir/manual from ex-Talking Heads polymath musician/artist/bike rack designer

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David Byrne tells us How Music Works

Photo: Catalina Kulczar-Marin

There’s just one small caveat before The List gets the green light on an interview with David Byrne. One thing Mr Byrne most definitely won’t be talking about, comes the polite but firm message, is Talking Heads.

From anyone else, a request to not talk about the single biggest thing they are famous for might seem churlish, a bit awkward; the uncooperative demand of a pop diva. But coming from a shape-shifting polymath such as himself, coming from David Byrne, it makes perfect sense. Byrne’s CV reveals a man constantly on the lookout for new ground to break, new skills to master, new projects to complete; the polar opposite of laurel-resting. Yeah sure, David Byrne was a singer in one of the most influential new wave pop bands of the 70s and 80s, whose hits (‘This Must Be the Place’, ‘Psycho Killer’, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, insert your own favourite here) still sound fresh as daisies nearly 30 years later. But he’s also been a film soundtrack composer, bike rack designer, photographer, illustrator, writer of non-fiction, record label runner, visual artist … Byrne has built a career out of creative ADHD, and thrived on it, so it stands to reason – why would he want to get misty-eyed and revisit old ground?

‘Yeah, I declined an interview with Mojo for that reason,’ Byrne confesses, leaving only a second before letting out a laugh, something he does a lot during the chat. He’s in his New York office, waiting on a lunchtime delivery of sushi, and he’s in good spirits.

‘I have no embarrassment about Talking Heads stuff, of course I don’t. It’s just there’s an awful lot of other things going on, especially at the moment. I thought, “Oh god, they’re probably gonna want to masticate the past. Mull things over somehow.” I would just rather talk about other stuff.’

It’s safe to say Byrne is a fan of forward motion. Right now, he’s being propelled forward in several directions. He’s just put out the excellent Love This Giant, a record made with fellow New Yorker St Vincent, real name Annie Clark, and backed by a brass band. He’s also writing music for theatre, designing more bicycle racks – this time alphabet-inspired ones for the Brooklyn Academy of Music – and prepping himself for a book tour. Oh yeah, he’s written a massive book too.

How Music Works is music-geek heaven. It’s Byrne’s very enjoyable alternative to a cheesy popstar memoir – a sort of intelligent storybook for music fans crossed with a manual for emerging artists. In it, he examines music from several angles – as a recording artist (with anecdotes about Brian Eno’s unconventional but clever methods; and their pots and pan percussion on joint album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts). As a businessman (with a chapter dissecting the motives behind money-making from art, his own record label, Luaka Bop, plus the practicalities of touring/ making CDs/ selling t-shirts), and most passionately, as a man still madly in love with music. Electronic music, world music, folk song, religious chants, ballet scores – the ritual, the craft, the urge to dance along while cooking in his kitchen – Byrne’s refrain is clear: he can’t get enough.

‘A large part of my life is tied to something that is completely ephemeral,’ he writes in the book. ‘You can’t touch music, it exists only at the moment it is being apprehended. And yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world. It’s powerful stuff.’

Besides innovation, a big part of Byrne’s enthusiasm comes from collaborations – as he playfully points out, Pitchfork once said he’d collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. So what does he look for in a collaborator?

‘I wouldn’t want someone that does what I do,’ he answers. ‘That would be redundant. You’re not going to get anything new out of that. You want someone who understands what you do, but is coming from a different place. Then you find the connection between the two. I love getting out of my comfort zone. It’s an incredible thrill when I learn something and it starts to work.’

So, as a multi-disciplined artist, with what he self-diagnoses as ‘very mild Asperger’s’, is keeping himself on his toes as much a part of the appeal as creating something new?

‘Yeah, I like to keep myself interested – I’ll kind of throw myself into some area that I don’t completely know or understand, that I’m not adept at, so I’m forced to swim in order to stay afloat. There’s a good feeling that comes from that.’

When he’s not studying music’s patterns, communicating with other music makers (in myriad different ways), or jump-starting some new music genre into life, he’s also a fan of the simple bit – listening to it.

‘I like to listen in a concentrated way – that’s the best way to take it in. I’ll put on headphones while cycling or jogging through the park. I usually sing along – I hope I’m going fast enough that no one can hear me.’

While others bemoan the ‘death of the music industry’, Byrne stays steadfastly on the other side. ‘There’s more good music being made now than ever before,’ he states simply.

It’s the short version of what his book explains over 300-plus pages. In his 60th year, and fourth decade as an artist, can Byrne ever see a time when he’ll get bored of music? The answer comes with a laugh. ‘It’s just not gonna happen.’

How Music Works is out now, published by Canongate.

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