When the chance to interview David Byrne presented itself, the first thought I had was how enjoyable it would be to talk about David's work over the years with Brian Eno. Sure, Eno produced some great Talking Heads records back in the day, but my favorite collaboration was 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a Byrne/Eno record that fit "flown in" found vocals over groove-based studio experiments. And to top that off, in 2008 they collaborated again on the excellent album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, comprised of more straightforward songs than ...Bush of Ghosts. We did discuss these albums, but we also were allowed plenty of time to delve into numerous topics, including David's recent and ambitious collaboration with Fatboy Slim and an army of female vocalists on the epic Here Lies Love, a double album based on the life of Imelda Marcos. After a quick photo session, David and Pat Dillett, a producer/engineer who has worked with David frequently (see his own interview this issue), joined me in the front room of Kampo Studios in NYC (R.I.P.) and we chatted away.
What would have been the first session that you guys worked on together?
David: I seem to remember that I had known Pat for a while through other artists that he worked with and other stuff that he had done.
Pat: The Red Hot [benefit albums] — we did stuff together where I either mixed it or such.
D: Yeah — odds and ends, this and that. So when we did start working together in earnest on a whole record it wasn't brand new, where we had to figure out, "What is our working relationship?" We already had some of that worked out, which was great.
P: I guess Grown Backwards [released in 2004] was the first record of yours that we had done together. Probably through Arto [Lindsay] and people like that were relationships of Brazilian things, since Luaka Bop [Records] was so instrumental in that.
Pat, you did quite a bit of Brazilian stuff for a while. Was that in conjunction with Luaka Bop?
P: No, not really. I think I mixed that Tom Zé thing [Brazil Classics 5: The Hips Of Tradition]. It was great. D: Yes, that was one of ours. But the other stuff was more mainstream than Tom Zé.
So both of you have done records and sessions in studios all over the world. What kinds of things have you come across in studios?
D: I did a couple days of sessions in a studio in India, in Chennai (which used to be called Madras) with a soundtrack composer. I had written a song, and I asked him to arrange it as if it was an Indian soundtrack.
Like Bollywood, exciting kind of stuff?
D: Exactly — make it go from one kind of genre to another and then imagine all these things happening. We found out mid-session that after they would do all the recording — maybe one or two days, it was a 10- minute long track — they would mix it and then erase all the multitracks. "It's done. You've got the stereo mix. Okay, you're good. We need this multitrack for the next session that's coming in for tomorrow." You can imagine how many songs, how many pieces of music had been recorded on that. So we said, "Wait a minute. See if we can buy them a couple of reels of tape and we can bring it in. That way we can leave with the tape." That was another thing — bringing in tape. India was very self-protective about that type of technology. They wanted to encourage homegrown tech stuff, which has really worked for them. So bringing in a reel of tape turned out to be a really big deal. The other part was [that] the session and the actual studio costs were not that high, but there were all of these extra costs that kept piling in — like the guy who would bring tea. The "tea wallah" would bring in big trays of tea. Every hour he would appear with trays of tea for all of the engineers and all of the musicians. At the end there was this bill for tea and it was like, "Woah! Look at that — he's charging us for all that tea!"
That's pretty crazy. Did you lose some of the multitracks too?
D: No, we got them and then remixed them here in New York, although the alignment was totally wacky. It was like, "Holy shit. This can't be." It was so wacky that the studio said, "No, this can't be right." I said, "No, you have to do it because it doesn't sound right."
P: In Brazil we went to one of those places in Bahia years and years ago where we said, "Okay, we need to align the machine." They said, "We aligned it when we got it."
D: If you only work on that machine, then you're fine. It would play back as you had recorded it as long as you stayed on that machine.
P: We aligned it and fucked up their whole thing. Everybody who ever worked there for the next five years... that's one of the beautiful things about digital. You can screw it up, but it's harder to screw it up that bad.
D: And people everywhere like recording at home, mixing home stuff and studio stuff.
On the record you did with Brian Eno a few years ago [Everything That Happens Will Happen Today] — that was done by passing things back and forth and then coming to studios and adding things and mixing.
D: A lot of passing back and forth — at first not even session files. He'd send me MP3s of these tracks. I would slice and dice them and make a structure, improvise a vocal over it — that kind of stuff. We really didn't start to see multitracks until we were mixing. It was a real thing because some of the tracks I got from Brian were relatively recent, but some of them went back a number of years. They were instrumental things that he had done, and he would go, "I can't figure out how to turn this into a song." So it would end up on the shelf. But the track would have used these plug- ins, virtual instruments or stuff that he had that only worked on OS9 or on this particular Mac and wouldn't work on a newer Mac. Luckily, he saved all of his own computers. So he went through a month of what he called "forensic audio." I think it was Leo [Abrahams], the guitar player, who basically had to come in and regenerate sessions based on pulling out these old computers, trying to get the session for that particular piece of music to play again the way it sounded, and then make that into a multitrack session. He succeeded in getting pretty much everything.
P: Was it "The River," where right up until the very end there were pieces that we couldn't recreate?
D: Oh yeah.
So were you having to take multitracks and line them up with chopped up MP3s?
P: Sometimes. It wasn't so bad that way. By the time they reached the point where we were finishing them — the things he would send were full songs, or you were working on a full song that you would send back to him. The things that David would make out of the original pieces — like he said, he would make a full song out of something that was just parts, and then added his own parts to it. By the time he was sending that back to Brian, we were already at a song structure that he would then recreate if he had the sounds.
D: Leo was helping to do all of this forensic stuff. He had to conform some of those multitrack sessions to the structures that I was sending back. There were a couple of places where you could tell where I did a certain kind of edit, and we would futz with it and make it work. But for the most part, when we got the multitracks from him they were pretty much conformed to the song structure that I worked with. It's a pretty crazy process. Usually when people are doing stuff, all of the recording is within the last year, and some of this went back ...
P: It's still a conversation, though. It sounds like it's all technical, and it is, but it is also a musical conversation when David edits the things and sends them back. Sometimes they had to interpret what they had made before because they couldn't actually get it back. Sometimes they were actually recreating things and changing them a little. It was surprisingly exciting to see.
D: I like the process of passing tracks back and forth. I had done it before that record. The most successful song was this song "Lazy" that deejays [X-Press 2] in England had done. They sent me a track and said, "Will you write something over our track?" It worked out great, but the track they sent me — again, just a 2-track — sounded a little bit reminiscent of a Talking Heads song, like "Life During Wartime" or something. I thought, "Oh, that's why they sent it to me. Okay." So I wrote over it. But when they were done, they ditched all that stuff and made it more of a house/club track, which worked great. It was really successful. My vocals and harmonies and some other little things I added I think were all done on a [Mac] G3 laptop — one of those clunky, black plastic ones with one of those little things you stick in the side. It worked, and I thought, "Wow."
P: And you took that back, and we cut that for your other record with a band doing it, and then did some machine stuff on that.
D: Yeah, so my part/contribution was done on a laptop and I thought, "Wow. This is really changing things that you can do this." Of course they were doing all of the work — the mixing part. But I had done that and a few other things like that — not all so successful musically or as popular.
P: It's interesting to see how other people work.
D: Exactly. It's fun to see what they come up with, as far as tracks and how they react to stuff and how different people work. So the Brian thing was a whole record's worth of stuff, though it started off with two songs. If I wasn't able to write anything, or I wrote something and Brian said, "Oh no, this is all wrong. I hate it," then we would quietly pretend that it had never happened.
You'd had a history of working with Brian from way back. Did the Everything... record come out of revisiting My Life in the Bush of Ghosts for the remastered reissue?
D: Yeah, that got us communicating a lot more and visiting one another either here or in London. It was one of those trips to London where Brian was playing me tracks, and at some point I remember saying, "If you want me to have a go to writing a melody or words for this I can give it a try, and if you don't like it that's the end of it."
This takes us back to the Talking Heads being more "rehearse, write songs, perform them, go into a studio, capture them." But by Remain in Light you start seeing a very different studio process.
D: Then you run out of songs — your catalog is depleted. You start writing in the studio, writing in rehearsal or some bands take a long break, where the writers in the group have to woodshed and come up with some songs and rehearse them. But I think with Brian's encouragement we discovered that we could improvise stuff in the studio, make a structure out of that. You can only do it for certain kinds of music. You aren't going to come up with that kind of stuff that has really complicated, convoluted chord changes. You're not going to jam on stuff like that. Jazz people might, but we're not going to do that. This worked for us.
I think of that period of music as being more "steady state" kind of songs that hold a mood or a groove.
D: I figured out how to write a verse and chorus that sounded like a chorus and a verse that still had tunes and hooks in them, even though the music was kind of steady state. That's what we did for a while. It worked fine.
It was my understanding that on that album you recorded the tracks, then took a break and finished up lyrics and other ideas.
D: After all the improvised stuff was recorded, and also by switching the tracks on and off, you could say, "Okay. When this group of tracks is playing it's a chorus. When this group of tracks is playing it's a verse. This may be a middle eight or a bridge or whatever you want to call it." So we'd make a 2-track rough mix of an instrumental thing and I would maybe write some melodies over that, and then I would go away for a month and come back with words for all the stuff, which didn't always work. Sometimes there would be tracks where I would go, "I can't get anything for this." Then there's somewhere I would try something and it wouldn't work, and I would come back a couple weeks later with a new idea.
P: Did you come up with things where other people said they didn't like them and you had to go back to square one, or is it always your realization that you weren't happy with them?
D: It wasn't always me. "Once in a Lifetime" — a couple of times that track was way down on the list of priorities and I was sure that I could get something for it. So I persevered on that one. I kept going, "No, no, no. I like this track. Something's going to happen with it."
P: Was that the one that ended up having two different mixes right up until mastering?
D: Yes it did.
What were the different mixes involving?
D: For some reason, it seems really odd to me now. To a lot of artists it will seem very common. We had an absolute deadline when we had to get the record finished. I think there was a tour booked. Maybe it was the record company saying, "This is when we want to release it." They had real schedules. So in order to get it done on time, Brian was mixing tracks here in New York and Dave Jerden, who went on to produce and engineer a lot of metal acts, took some of the multitracks to California, and he was mixing some out there. So that particular song got mixed twice, and it ended up being [mastering engineer] Greg Calbi that made the call.
P: David literally took both of the mixes to mastering and said, "Whatever he decides, that's the one."
D: Yeah, I said, "Greg can figure this out, and then it won't be anyone playing personal favorites."
That was a very democratic band from the get-go. I can see how things would drive you crazy within that context at times, but also it does bring a special energy to the project.
D: Yeah, when it worked it worked really well. When it didn't work it was a total nightmare.
I know that Tina Weymouth [bass] and Chris Frantz [drums], with the last couple of records that the Talking Heads did, talked about feeling like they were treated as session musicians. They said you would bring in songs to the studio and say, "Here's what we're doing." Is that accurate?
D: Yes and no. Yes — at the very end I brought in a whole batch of songs and played it for them. They were demos, some kind of bare-bones loop and one instrument, or something and me singing on top of it. It wasn't like, "You play this." But it was like, "Okay, there's a song there." They rejected them all. They wanted to go back to the improvising thing where they all were involved in the creation of the music. That was more than I could deal with, because I thought well, "Here are some songs. I am not telling you what to play, but these songs have worked for the band in the past." It was like, "Well, I don't see anybody else bringing anything to the table."
P: It seemed like as the band progressed they got better at doing the groove thing, and you got better at writing songs. It was like you don't necessarily need to jam with the band to write songs, and they need to jam to write songs.
D: Yeah, I can understand that in a way, but that was not going to work out as far as I am concerned.
Since the end of Talking Heads you have done many different records — a lot of your solo records have worked in different directions. On Rei Momo it seems you had the idea that this was definitely going to be a Latin feel and style. But on the other records, have you had a distinct idea of a style going into it or has it been, "Let's see what starts gelling," when you start a record?
D: I have not exactly too much of a style, but an idea of instrumentation in a broad sense. On Grown Backwards I knew I wanted to use all these string charts. I had toured with some strings before that a little bit — not playing on every song — a few things. I liked it and I heard what other people were doing in that way. I thought, "I think I can do this and make it so it doesn't turn into sappy, sentimental stuff," or pretentious like, "Now I am being serious." It brings an interesting thing that is pleasant to the ear as strings sometimes are, but still isn't all mushy and syrupy.
I saw you on tour with the Tosca String Quartet.
D: Having worked with those guys I decided, "I will do a record with that kind of sound." Although that didn't dictate the melodies or how the songs were structured, I think that was maybe a couple of more groove tracks in there. But a lot of the tracks had chord changes that wouldn't have come up if you were sitting there jamming. They were more like where you sit at home and figure out a melody. Sometimes I would sing a melody into a little tape recorder — not with words — and then figure out the chords, build the harmony around the melody. I thought, "Wow I have never done that before!" Usually you come up with the cycle of chords and then you start humming over it. I had to push myself to learn how to do that kind of stuff.
One thing I noticed about that record is a very nice sense of space. It doesn't feel like a cluttered album.
D: There's a lot of percussion and groove stuff, but there aren't a million keyboards and a million guitars.
P: It's almost like cheating with that setup, though. Stephen Barber did most if not all of the string arranging stuff, and Mauro [Refosco] is an incredibly tasteful percussion player. You'd think with strings and percussion it would be crowded, but given the people involved — they are all respectful of what's important in a song — not, "What can I play?" but, "Where does this work and how can I fit in?" None of them are show-offs. Even Stephen can do some pretty unusual stuff, but it's always in service of the song.
I feel like a lot of music these days gets very full and cluttered and attention grabbing, and everything is pushed to the fore.
P: It took a long time for me to appreciate anything beyond mono. It's really hard. I'm not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing that the record is a good example of it, but it's the hardest thing. The easiest thing in the world is to balance things in mono, and I like to do it. I like to check for where it is, in an energy sort of way, in mono. It's a real eye opener to move things around and see how much the whole thing changes. I am still learning how to do that.
David, what was the first home recording setup you had?
D: Let's see — at one point I had that little 4-track cassette thing. Some Talking Heads stuff, like "Road to Nowhere," were written on one of those. Sometimes I would record the guitar part — the chords — on a cassette on a boom box. Then I had a second boom box — I'd play that and then sing along with it and record it on the next one. [laughter] Then I got one of those Fostex 8-track reel-to-reels. I think around Rei Momo I used that to demo up a lot of the stuff. It was kind of unwieldy. Shortly after that there were all these formats proliferating really quickly. Then ADAT came out, where you would use a videocassette. Shortly after that people started using ADATs and DA88s. I used that for a while for some stuff. Oh my God — those formats.
Along the way you were navigating how to hook up a multitrack and a mixer?
D: Yeah, which is a lot more than you want. If you are writing and not really wanting to do a great recording or spend a lot of time doing that, it's a lot to crank up and a lot to figure out. "Why can't I hear that instrument?" You are spending a lot of time behind the thing checking your plugs, which really wasn't working.
What kind of system do you have now?
D: Before I went to laptop computers, there was this other thing. It used a hard drive. It had eight tracks, a hard drive and a little, tiny screen. It might have been a Roland. You had to go through all these menus and you could sync it to stuff. You could have MIDI stuff coming into it. But it was little tiny menus and a little tiny screen. [laughter]
I found it really frustrating to navigate or figure out those.
D: The laptop stuff — when that started to get easier, then I completely went for that. Now it's not a laptop anymore — now it's the tower and one nice mic and a nice preamp and compressor.
How did you decide what kind of stuff to purchase?
D: I didn't want to go for anything incredibly expensive, but let me get something — I'd be reading Tape Op or some other magazine that's sitting around in a studio and I would go, "Oh, that looks like it will work for me. It's kind of affordable." The mixing board doesn't have to be great, because I know that I am not going to be the one mixing. It's really just for monitoring.
Where is it set up in your house?
D: It's in a special room, a corner room. I put absorbent sheetrock stuff on one wall so that it wasn't all hard wall, because the other walls are windowed. There are no other sound issues, because it is carpeted — there is one wall that is squishy stuff, but the other walls are glass and they look out on the street. There have been occasions where when the compressor kicks in you can hear all the traffic noise coming in, the police station — you can hear trucks backfiring and stuff like that.
In the case of the Everything... album you used takes from there?
D: Often, yeah. I would use the vocal takes. I would do a bunch of them and if I felt like I wasn't getting it I could come back later in the afternoon or the next day. It was great because sometimes changing a note here or changing the phrasing of a line would really help. That's not something you would always do if you felt the pressure to get the vocal.
It seems like technology and recording have become part of your songwriting process over the years. Obviously you can sit down with a guitar and write a song, but being able to play with it and record it and listen to it and think about it and change ...
P: David seems to still write in a pretty traditional way. He's using the technology to open up more possibilities.
D: Yeah, to structure a song really quickly — but it's still really bare bones. It's usually a rhythm loop that I create or grab somewhere and a guitar — I'm playing chords sometimes on the downbeat. I will have improvised some little melody that goes against it. If that works, "Boom!" That's a song. I will sometimes try and chart it up.
P: You can do a fair amount of programming in Logic and stuff.
D: I can do some programming, but I don't try to figure out all the different parts. I feel like that's part of the fun — bringing it in to Pat and figuring out what it needs and, "Who do we call for this and what players to we want for this?" I feel like if the song has strength in that bare-bones form, then all we can do is ruin it. [laughter]
The previous collaboration with Brian Eno, ...Bush of Ghosts, was a real different beast obviously. A lot of that must have been created in a studio — building things up?
D: Yeah. We kind of learned how to do the steady state thing on that record, applied it to Remain in Light after that and said, "Hey, we figured out a way to improvise stuff and make it work in the studio." But that was the thing — lay down the track from beginning to end of playing the bass line — not a loop. There was no way to make loops unless you wanted to splice tape together. You had to play the same bass line for three minutes and then play the same rhythm guitar part for three minutes straight and then again switch things in and out and make sections.
At that point with ...Bush of Ghosts, were you using automation to turn things on and off? Say you've got a bunch of tracks that all have information, and you are trying to create changes and shifts ...
D: I think eventually there was automation.
P: There were probably groups of faders at that point. This was like 1980 or 1979 or so.
D: Yeah, I think it was groups. For most things you could assign that to one group and basically go from one group to another.
I find that's the neat thing about working in a computer — you can start arranging visually by muting blocks of things and turning things off and on, like a music score.
P: Ableton and Logic are set up really well. That's why they are so popular, especially with musicians.
D: You might not know about it, and we need to get you some of the stuff, but Pat and I were working on Here Lies Love - the Imelda Marcos project.
P: It's four years of actual recorded stuff.
D: The year before that had been research and writing stuff. Not on every song, [but] quite a few songs are collaborations between me and Fatboy Slim or me and a guy that works with Norman [Cook, aka Fatboy] — Thomas Gandey [aka Cagedbaby]. Eventually I came in with pretty sparse demos. Sometimes I would slice and dice stereo tracks and loops that Norm would give me and I would write over those. Other times I would do those chords over a loop that I had and send it to Norm and Tom and say, "Can you flesh this out and add more stuff to it?" Sometimes they would do a little bit of that, and it would come back here and we would add more. So it was a lot of back and forth.
P: Originally it was going to be a staged, theatrical thing — whether it was mixed media or something else.
Why isn't it going to happen?
D: Well, it might happen now, but it wasn't going to happen. I tried to go the arts festival route for funding, which means that you book a year ahead — a week of dates at BAM and a week of dates at Manchester and a week of dates in Australia. You needed about four or five of 'em, and they would give you enough money up front that you could use that, put all that together and cover costumes, rehearsal and all the other costs to create the thing and get it running. But we could only get two or two and a half of the commitments, so it was like, "No. We can't even accept these, because without all of them it will be a crappy thing." So I said, "Well, let me try doing one where we basically do a record of the songs, and we will cast a different singer for each song based on how the song feels." If it felt more like an R&B shouter, we went to Sharon Jones.
P: Just a background — the songs are almost all female- sung, and they are all one of the two characters, which are Imelda as the protagonist and then her nurse [Estrella Cumpas] is the antagonist.
D: Yeah, it becomes this weird thing where it's a collaboration with Norm, but it's not a David Byrne record. I think I am singing one and a half songs out of 22. It worked out great, but it took a while.
That must involve a lot of time ...
D: Sending things around — a lot of like, "Okay, I have a couple of days available here," or, "I am going to be in London for a week. Can I hook up with this singer and get an afternoon in a studio?"
P: The one thing that was fixed about this that was not fixed with the stuff with Brian was that the lyrics were written for this well in advance. They were not changing much, because they are semi-historical and the story is there. A year before we started recording you had the story put together — a lot of it based very literally in things that Imelda said. So that was not really an issue. There was not a collaboration on that level, where you had to get somebody to write something. They had to like it or not. The song styles run from disco to ballads — picking the singers was based on what we thought they were capable of or what would be interesting to hear them do.
D: The songs were pretty much fleshed out when they get sent to these singers. It wasn't like they were being asked to come up with anything. They were being asked, "Will you sing this?"
Would there be a guide vocal with the melody?
D: Yeah. There was a guide vocal. I had done a couple of live shows — one in Australia trying to figure stuff out, and one here at Carnegie Hall. I used some of those singers to do the demos with a female voice on there in the right key. It wasn't me doing it!
In your book, Bicycle Diaries, you talked about this project. What drew you to the subject?
D: I am interested in really powerful people and what makes them tick. How do they justify the things they do? What's going through their mind? I didn't think about it much for a while until I read that [Imelda] loved going to discos. She loved it so much that she had a disco ball installed on one floor of her New York townhouse. I thought, "Wow, this is pretty extreme." I thought, "Maybe that is a key to the soundtrack of her take on being a powerful person." What if you could do an evening at a huge disco, a huge dance club, and in the course of the evening — it had its usual ups and downs with the DJ — but you also got a story. So you had this emotional story being told as well as grooving. I don't think that will ever happen exactly like that, but that was the inspiration.
You have done a lot of soundtrack work too. Do you read and write music?
D: Not well. I can follow a score, but I can't read it or write it. I can follow it and say, "Something's wrong at that bar right there." I can see where everybody is playing, but I can't sit down and write it out.
On Lead Us Not Into Temptation [the soundtrack to Young Adam], how did you get the songs to the performers?
D: The ones that are kind of more melodic I demoed. We would put the demo on and have people play along to it or add to it — those kinds of things. Then there were other ones where there were string charts, actual charts that Malcolm [Lindsay] in Glasgow did. There were a lot of them where it was kind of improvised, because a lot of the players I brought in were from bands as opposed to orchestral folks.
Like the Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai people.
D: Yeah, they were all local, so I could bring them in and say, "Okay, we are going to do a drone thing in this key. Here is the choice of notes and come in like this — you come in first, you come in second." You could structure these little things like that, or assign people textural things to create. Being band players they could go along, and they understood that really easily, because they are used to doing that when they are working out an arrangement with their band.
You don't always get that with a classically-trained person.
D: No, they won't do that at all. It's either written out or not.
Did you have a list of specific things, like incidentals?
D: Yeah, the director would say, "I want something to begin here."
P: Were you doing any of this to the picture or not?
D: Yeah. We did stuff to picture. It wasn't final edits and things changed along the way. For the most part it wasn't, "I need something right when he turns his head there. When the door opens we need this." It worked out. It was fun.
I really liked the sound of that. I think Tony Doogan [issue #72] is a good engineer as well.
D: It was great, because he could go with whatever was happening. He knew everybody, so if I would say, "Do you know somebody that plays this?" or, "What other kinds of instrumental players do you know around here?" He would say, "This guy plays this instrument. Let's bring him in and see what he does." One guy came in with his instrument and it was broken!
On the Big Love soundtrack you did, what was the process for that?
P: We did some of that here.
D: It was kind of the same thing. I did rough demos, sometimes playing really clunky piano chords, sometimes playing them on guitar, sometimes humming the melody and playing it with a guitar on top. I went to Tony Finno to do the arrangements. We decided we would use the same number of horns and strings on every cue. It ended up being a huge mistake for me. I thought, as sometimes soundtrack people do, that we could create this library of stuff that would be usable. I didn't see a picture. I read some scripts, looked at the previous stuff, saw some rough cuts of some of the shows, and I wrote all this stuff that sounded vaguely like hymns. So we did arrangements for strings and this brass ensemble ...
P: Actually it was really involved. For somebody making a catalog that they might draw from, it was pretty ambitious.
D: It was too ambitious. It was much more than they wanted, much more present.
P: Some of them had vocals.
D: I thought, " Well, we will separate it into stems. We will give them a stereo track of just the horns, the piano, the guitar or the vocals and they can use that." They could use this one for a cue or that one for a cue or use the section for a cue, because it sounds different than what is played in the other section of the song. I thought, "I will let them slice and dice to their heart's content." Basically they said, "A few of these are going to work for us, but the rest of them are not going to work. We need you to write to picture." They wanted stuff that was much less present — more incidental music. "We want a creepy, mournful, slightly romantic vibe when these two meet," or, "A little ominous stuff happening here." Most of that stuff I did at home with samples.
So is the record [Big Love: Hymnal] mostly the earlier stuff?
D: The record is maybe two-thirds of the earlier stuff and maybe a third of the incidental, atmospheric stuff mixed in. There was a lot more of the atmospheric, incidental stuff, but I don't think a lot of it bears repeat listening.
It's hard sometimes because it fits the scene, but there is not as much movement as you would do for a listening piece.
P: But the record was a good way to get some of the stuff fully cobbled together, rather than in its pulled apart form. You could get some stuff that they didn't even use.
In Bicycle Diaries you talk about going to San Francisco for an art exhibit that was done by people with Down's Syndrome. You wrote, "Raw art elicits a more honest and real response. If it's rough, it must be more real and authentic." How would that apply to music and recording?
D: I'm saying that's the common assumption — that if it's rough, it's more real. It's not necessarily true. Maybe I wasn't clear enough. Sometimes when it's rough it's just rough, and I also feel like there's this mistaken impression, especially in the music world, that if the musicians get too good or if it sounds too good it's not real, it's not honest and it's not authentic. Sometimes it's true — the musicians get too good for their own good, and they end up sounding polished and there's no heart. But sometimes it's not necessarily true. Sometimes something is well recorded, well played, well produced and it's totally heartfelt.
Where do you hold your cut-off point? Does it change for every single project you do?
D: I trust Pat, because he's usually at the point where we're starting to really fill up the tracks and see how the arrangements work. It's important that both of us don't lose track of, "Well, this is turning into an elaborate spectacle, but we are losing track of what's being said here?" I feel like I have, with Pat's help, gotten a grip on that, but there have been times in the past where sometimes the demo did sound better than the finished song. Sometimes something got lost. Sometimes that's musical snobbery as well — the people who will come up to you and say, "You like that song? Well you should have heard the demo. The demo was so much better."
In a Wired article you wrote a couple of years ago — "Survival Strategies" — you mentioned that recording costs had declined to almost zero. What are your thoughts on that at this point? You can record at home on a modest system, but you're also working in studios.
D: Looking back I think I exaggerated there a little bit. It's not zero. You can record on your laptop. It can be pretty close to zero, but I don't actually work that way. I record at home for nothing, but then I record with Pat in the studio here, and we mix on a real mixing board.
P: He does pay me.
D: It adds up to more than zero, but it's nowhere near what it used to be, where you would go in with a band and be in the studio every day. There is no comparison whatsoever.
You mention in the notes for the live EP [Everything That Happens Will Happen on this Tour] that most time the music listeners are blissfully unaware of the contributions of a record producer, sometimes even which musicians play on a record. I thought that was a nice way to put it.
D: Yeah, but I guess I was saying I don't know how meaningful that is to a lot of people.
To our readers it is.
D: To your readers, yes, it's going to be meaningful. But to others it might not mean anything. They might not realize that Brian Eno didn't produce "Burning Down the House," for example. In the end it doesn't really matter, but for us we pay attention to that stuff.
P: You say that people don't necessarily know, but [in the past] people who wanted to could easily find out by looking at the record cover. But now it's getting even harder.
I feel like I have gotten less work since iTunes and downloading began. I have had people walk up to me and say, "This record is great." And I'm like, "Yeah. I know. I recorded half of it."
D: This information would be so easy to attach [to an MP3]. Which as a writer and musician is really useful too — it's just a tool. You go, "Who recorded that? It sounds great. I want to track that person down because I like their sound."
When was the first time you ever went into the recording studio?
D: With Talking Heads. It was not a good experience. [laughter]
Most of our first ones never are.
D: It was one of the guys who worked with this band in Brooklyn called The Shirts, [who] had also played CBGBs. He had a home recording thing with a Tascam 8-track or something like that. We went and tried to do some demos in there. It was kind of weird. There was another guy named Matthew Kaufman, who ran a label called Berserkeley that put out the Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman stuff. They recorded three-song demos with us in a studio on Long Island, which is the same studio that was used for a lot of bubble gum recordings. We recorded with [producer] Jeff Katz (the Archies and the 1910 Fruitgum Company). They'd recorded all of that stuff, so that was a little in-joke. That was our first time in a real studio, and then we went and recorded our first record [Talking Heads: 77], and both times it was really uncomfortable. We didn't love the way things sounded. Everything sounded small and tinny.
P: Were you overdubbing vocals or playing live?
D: Probably singing live — maybe overdub a little bit — but a lot of it was probably done live in studio, and then there would be one or two little overdubs, a guitar overdub to fill things in. We had pretty sparse arrangements, but live they filled up enough space. There was the energy and acoustics of the room, which seemed like enough. But then in the studio it got sucked out a dried up, and it was like, "Oh, this sounds kind of small and puny. The engineer was Ed Stasium. He also ended up working with The Ramones and other people like that. He was great, very sympathetic and tried to make us feel more comfortable, but he had his hands full. I mean, making any band feel comfortable the first time in the studio — you have to have the headphones on and everything. You are used to this live sound, and all of a sudden it's reduced to somebody else's idea.
Who produced the first record?
D: Tony Bongiovi — the other Bon Jovi. This was before [he started] the Power Station studios. Towards the end of the record Tony was going, "I'm going to open a really great recording studio. I've got this new venture. Power Station — what do you think of that name?" When we recorded our second record — the one that Brian [Eno] produced [More Songs About Buildings and Food] - there weren't very many overdubs. There were a couple of treatments and things that he did, but not a lot. What he really did was let us play live in a room. He took away as many baffles — we could play without headphones in a room. He wanted to make us feel more comfortable musically. He liked the idiosyncrasies of what we were doing, so he wanted to capture that. We were a tight live band. He basically said, "We'll just record you." He put more ambient mics up to capture the live sound of all of us playing together, so to us it sounded more like what we sounded like live.
Instead of a close, dry sound.
D: Yeah. That made us feel more comfortable. Not 100 percent, but it helped. [laughter]
What other producers and engineers have you worked with over the years? You worked with Eric "ET" Thorngren.
D: He did some Talking Heads stuff, then Nick Launay and Arto [Lindsay] and Susan Rogers on a solo record.
P: Who did Naked?
D: That was Steve Lillywhite.
That is a real variety of people with different approaches.
D: It keeps it interesting. Everything didn't sit with me well all the time, but it was fun. You have been a producer before.
D: That isn't my strong suit.
P: You did The B-52s' Mesopotamia, didn't you?
D: I was a much quieter, shy person, and they were all (outside of maybe Kate [Pierson]), very quiet and wouldn't say what they wanted or what they needed.
P: But they would talk to each other about what they wanted. They would settle a lot of things among themselves that you may or may not know about. D: Yeah, I had no idea what was going on.
P: It's a very band thing.
D: Lots of bands are like that.
They circle the wagons.
D: I did this British band called Fun Boy Three [Waiting]. That worked out better, but I think it only worked out better thanks to the engineer/mixer I was working with at the studio in England [Jeremy Green]. He got a great sound — really nice mixes. He could interpret and get the basic stuff done. I could throw in wackier ideas.
P: I think the collaboration stuff you do now essentially is your outlet of production — what you send to people and they send back — this back and forth is production. I think David respects the artistic process — his and others' — too much. It requires a sometimes heavy hand if you want to achieve something that isn't necessarily the artist's vision at that moment. They may appreciate it later or not. But from what I know of David, it's not really something he is looking to impose on people. "No kid, this is what you do! I did that in Talking Heads and it never worked! Listen to me."
D: [laughter] It's this whole skill set. I think I can touch on some parts of that skill set, but not enough of them to really do that job.
Makes sense. You learned how to produce yourself and to collaborate.
D: Yeah, and I feel like that took a really long time. [laughter]
Many thanks to Stacey DeLorenzo for setting up this interview! Check out www.tapeop.com for more material from this interview. Photos by Brian Silak — www.silakimage.com