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David Byrne, Rock Master of Multicultural Sound: The Rolling Stone Interview

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Do you think that America at large can learn from these religions?
Oh, yeah. Of course, in a way I think it filters in through music and speech patterns, all kinds of ways, even without people knowing that it has its roots in Africa. I mean, rock & roll probably owes as much to that tradition as it does to country & western and anything else. So it's already in there, and it's already had, and probably will continue to have, a big influence. It's just a question of how much it's acknowledged. And that's maybe where things will change.

The strong part about that kind of spirituality is that a lot of it is improvised. Because of that, it can mutate into something that has a direct bearing on contemporary life in America. It doesn't have to remain as something exotic.

So you think rock & roll will fuse more deeply with the spirit of Afro-Atlantic religions?
Well, they all come from the same roots, which is where the hope lies. Even us white kids who grew up on rock & roll have a common linkage with rhythms from Kongo, and the orisha are not as distant as they might seem.

I hear you. Eshu-Elegba, as the god of the crossroad blues. Ogún, out there with the heavy metal. And Obatalá, god of creativity, would march with the digital samplers.
I don't know if it was in one of your books, but there was a photograph of a man who was being possessed by – is it Ogún? And he was smoking a cigar, and he had very "bad" body posture. I thought, "This is very rock & roll body attitude."

Well, rock comes from blues. Blues comes from work song. Work song comes in part from Kongo. But how do you define rock & roll, and where do Talking Heads fit in?
This guy named Timothy White said that rock delivered a personal truth. That the musician and the singer were delivering a personal truth to the listener. In that sense you could say that reggae is the rock & roll of Jamaica because it performs the same function: it delivers a personal truth. That's a nice, broad definition. But I tend to think of rock & roll as being a specific musical form: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran, who were blues based and embodied a kind of attitude – body attitude and stance. Now that's a much narrower definition. If you take that definition, then a lot of what Talking Heads have been doing is outside of that tradition, trying to break out of it. But if you take the broader definition, then we're in, we're inside the definition.

When did you get hooked on rock & roll?
I think it was in my teens, when a lot of us felt that rock was a very direct kind of communication and not just music. There was also a lot of visual things that went along with it, a lot of the things that were making very direct connections and bypassed any need for translation. For me it was stuff in the mid- and late Sixties, which happens to have been the time when I first heard certain things. And I think it was just the sound. Sometimes the words would be good, but it almost didn't matter.

I tend to think of the pop music I grew up with as communicating through texture. The Miracles, the Temptations and the Byrds were pretty separate kinds of things, but to me it all had the texture of bells ringing; it sounded very metallic, like ringing metal. Which is what it was: striking the strings. You'd think of a pleasant sound as coming from a violin or something softer. And here was all this clanging!

Where were you picking up on it?
In the bedroom, you know, on the radio. And then I'd go to local dances.

Where did you hang out in Baltimore?
At that time, it was called a teen center. I think it was one of the school cafeterias. Then, in the evenings, there was this place where local bands played. Kids my age would sometimes, you know, drink more than they should have [laughs].

Let's review some Talking Heads songs. How about "Psycho Killer," from Talking Heads: 77?
This song is about the psycho killer's mental state. It's not about a violent act. It's about how he imagines himself and how he feels. Tina [Weymouth, Talking Heads' bassist] was most involved in the French; her mother is French. I talked to her about what kind of thing I wanted it to say, and she came up with the words. There's a little Otis Redding in there, too.

"I Zimbra," from Fear of Music?
To tell you the truth, I couldn't think of words, in this instance, that beared repeating. A lot of the music was based on some African records I'd been listening to. The melody came from Brian [Eno], and he noticed that this dada poem fitted the melody. It's a dada sound poem – poems that were meant to be read aloud. The dadaists were doing the same thing we were doing: trying to get behind the language to the meat of the expression. It was all in the sound of what was being said.

"Once in a Lifetime"?
This is one of the songs where you do a cinematic jump cut, an abrupt transition from one sensibility to a completely different one. Then you put the two next to one another, and they play off one another. In this case, the man was bewildered: Where and how did I get here? And in the chorus this same man seems to have found blissful surrender coming out from under water, water washing over him – blissful surrender in the Islamic sense.

Now let's try some riffing, a bit of call and response, starting with God.
Oh, my goodness.

You said at the outset that you wanted to deal with deep, metaphysical questions. Here they are. How do you envision God?
Well, I certainly don't believe in an old bearded man up there. I see God as a force that guides and unites our finest actions and sensibilities. We might call it God because we have no other way of explaining it. And it doesn't fit causal rationality, where you say, "Well, this happens, and that causes this, and this causes that." It's a more poetic reality.

How would God operate through the medium of rock & roll?
It's the principle that unites all the elements: the text and the sound, the rhythm and the attitude. It's an immediate understanding. I've spent years and years trying to put it into words, but the basic understanding comes in an instant.

The fact of it being kind of an epiphany still remains unexplained. I'm not trying to be mystical, but they could be within ourselves. They could be, you know, Jungian things, collective-unconscious archetypes. That kind or rationalizing of it is something I can accept more easily than deities that are out there and separate from us.

I once listened to Chet Baker, in a West Side jazz boîte, and in a certain phrasing of his trumpet, I thought I heard heaven. Have you had a similar epiphany?
[Laughs] Yeah. Sometimes I come upon a lyrical phrase, a key to unlock the words to fit a song, and the initial reason for it defies rational analysis. Yet in retrospect it makes perfect sense. Other times, in concert, where all the musicians are playing, and you kind of subsume yourself and become part of the community of musicians. They, in turn, become part of the audience. And everybody senses that. It's not a rational realization. It's a visceral realization that you're part of a larger whole.

In the heat of activity, the vision comes and . . .
That's the whole dilemma about the little sparks that result in creation. It's hard to attribute them. They kind of come from the spaces in between people.

What about the devil?
I have a lot of trouble with that concept. It's so powerful – not the devil, but the concept of evil. It's so powerful, but I haven't been able to come to terms with that. I think I persist in thinking that what we might call evil, or the devil or whatever, is people just not listening to themselves. That might be naive. But I persist in having this optimistic view.

What did you think of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"?
I took it as kind of raising a question about the potential for becoming disconnected from the energy source or whatever, becoming disconnected from yourself. That potential is in all of us. That's what I thought the song was about, that Mick Jagger and the Stones were saying it's not something out there. It's in us and everywhere, so have respect for it.

Hating and falling in love.
Sometimes they're mirror images. They're both obsessive states. They're two sides of the same coin. That's why the lover scorned, or the suspicious lover, can turn into a really vindictive person.

Do you think we learn from daring to go through the obsessive state?
Yeah, yeah. Learning that you can do that is respecting things outside the rational. Respecting things outside of daily living.

Rock & roll is an obsessive state. You dared to enter into that obsessive state. What kind of insights have you gotten from it?
Rock music makes the obsessive okay and turns it into a creative act. Rock deflects that energy and channels it into something creative. Which is odd, because at a certain point you realize that it's not enough to just be obsessive in front of an audience. There's also craft to it. You have to achieve a balance between obsession and craftsmanship. Otherwise, you're just screaming in somebody's ear.

What about the phrase on that Texas-mineral-water bottle at dinner: "Partake, enjoy, proceed."
Elizabethan Africanism! [Laughs.]

Yeah, Elizabethan Africanism: that's rock & roll! But if that's rock & roll, how do we partake in joy and proceed through this medium that links you with Elvis and U2 and Linda Ronstadt?
[Laughs] Could you ask the question another way?

Okay. Partaking, enjoying and proceeding is this the gist of rock?
Boy, in three words, it's the whole message of the music.

We clearly enjoy and partake of rock. But proceeding that seems to be the critical word.
To proceed is to take your own initiative. It's kind of like we've done our bit, now translate it into your own terms and go ahead with it.

There's going to be a lot of that in the Nineties, when digital equipment will make it possible for the man in the street to seize the purest sounds from any scene and make his own creation.
It's just amazing what can happen that way. It carries one step further the idea of splicing together different cultures – words, phrases, textures, everything. With a kind of technical perfection, anything can be mixed right in with anything else, somewhat like this fabric. You get this massive rhythm going, and it's bigger than any song or musical entity.

Fabric? You mean this kente cloth that I'm seated on?
Yes. And reading things you've written about the musicality of African fabrics and textiles, it was an affirmation for me. So when I saw it [the cloth], I just thought, "This is obvious: this is a score." Like when modern composers, like John Cage, were abandoning the staff notation and seeking notations that are more direct.

But what else do you think is going to happen to rock in the 1990s?
Rock's probably going to go two ways. There will be music from many cultures that crosses the generations, that speaks to the greater humanity that we are. That's one kind of thing. And I think we and other musicians are searching for a way to do that. We're certainly not alone. And I think, at the same time, there will always be younger musicians who have a more frantic set of hormones rushing through the body.

What kind of hormones?
A more frantic set. They're going to be saying that we're irrelevant. And they'll have something more immediate and more energetic, more of the moment, to contribute. I think that's inevitable. It's about time for that to happen again.

Let's talk about love, about which you can't talk too much. The late poet Marianne Moore essentially defined it as taking responsibility for somebody else's happiness.
And feeling that it's absolutely linked with your own.

One journalist noted that your songs changed noticeably after you fell in love with your wife.
That assessment seemed too pat to me, too simple. Seems to me there were other factors involved. But it would also be stupid of me to deny that my creative work wasn't affected.

When you're out there wildcatting on the frontier of love, how do you play with sexual fire in your lyrics without getting burned? How do you write about love without getting mawkish?
That's it. It's a real challenge to not bring it down to sentimentality. It took me a long time to feel I could jump into that, because it's dealt with so much in popular songs in a very saccharine way. Often those saccharine sentiments have a strong impact. Nobody's immune to it. But I felt other people were covering that; they had that part covered. I thought I should try to get to some of the other resonances of it – as if ripples were going out from this intense feeling that everybody has, but only certain parts of it have been touched.

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