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Q&A: David Byrne Explains 'How Music Works'

Music is 'kind of a gateway drug to other people,' he says about new book

David Byrne
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
September 12, 2012 11:30 AM ET

Just as he's debuting his new work with St. Vincent, the creatively insatiable David Byrne is also publishing a book, called How Music Works. Beautifully designed by Dave Eggers' McSweeney's publishing house, it's a smart, accessible survey of the ways music is affected by circumstances – time, place, money, technology, human relationships – and how they can change the way we experience it. "Genius – the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work – seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context," writes the former Talking Head, who has hit that mark many times over.

You are very busy at the moment.
Yeah, everything kind of happens all at once. Both [projects] were things that had a long gestation.

Have you felt particularly inspired or creative leading up to these two releases?
Uh . . . gee. I don't know. Sometimes, you kinda get lucky. I've never had writer's block. I guess it's good, but it means sometimes not everything is as good as everything else. I find you have to keep the muscles working, keep churning it out. I guess it's a tricky subject for some people, that they might get stuck, or overly self-critical. Or maybe they've had a recent success, so they compare everything – "Is it as good as what I just did?"

So your self-editor is not particularly critical?
Well, sort of. Yeah. Yes. And sometimes you go,"Wow, I really kind of fell into a good one there." I can tell when it seems to me I've hit gold, whether on my own or working with someone else. But I can't always tell, or maybe I won't admit to myself, that something isn't all that exciting.

How easily did the writing for this book come to you after building up so many years of experience in music?
Well, some of the writing got a start because I'd written various articles – for Wired magazine, and I did a TED talk, which ended up being the first chapter, that sort of thing. They kind of laid down the bones, and then I realized, "Oh, there are three or four things I'm interested in, and they all seem to have to do with how context affects music."

There are other chapters that are pretty much straight autobiography.
Those came easily, the more anecdotal ones, where I used my own experience to talk about performing and recording. But it's definitely going to disappoint people who are nostalgic, or have a desire to know all things about the CBGB period.

But there's still great stuff about that period.
Yeah, but there's people who – that was the glory years for some of them. OK, but I'm not gonna deliver that.

So will you one day write an actual memoir?
I haven't thought about it, really. There's going to be such a glut of these things, the "aging rocker" memoir. There already are, and the pipeline is open, and it's pouring out now.

Can you talk about your use of the term "evanescence" – that hard-to-define idea about music that sets it apart from all other art forms?
I feel like I have to remind myself and the reader that music is not something they hold in their hand. It's not a laser disc, or vinyl, or MP3. It's not any of those things. It's what you hear. And when it stops, it's gone. The experience is over. We tend to mistake music for the physical object.

You mention in the book you're self-diagnosed with mild Asperger's. Do you feel like your intense interest in music helped you unlock human emotion?
Well, yes, in a way. It was definitely a place you could go, as a teenager, into your own world, where you felt some kind of solace. It was really super helpful. Anyone who's had a strong musical identification with some band or artist as an adolescent will know that feeling. I was barely along that spectrum, but I eventually became aware that, oh, other people find it very easy to be social, and I tend to . . . watch. Not in the Chauncey Gardner sense. [Laughs] And music became a way of having a voice. Later on, I realized music was allowing me to experience emotions, to communicate them. It was like self-therapy, unlocking parts of me, little by little – making music or listening to it. I could tell it was changing me. It could be that I'm aging out of that thing, as people often do. But then I thought, well, music really seems to be helping me along that way. It's almost very concrete, the way it helps you. It's not just vague. It's really doing something.

You write how music has also taught you about the world around you, culture and history. The more you open yourself to music of different cultures and styles, it can provide some profound cultural lessons.
I would like to think it can, that music is kind of a gateway drug [laughs] to other people whose lives are different than yours. And it certainly does, whether in other cultures or different parts of our own culture. But it's really tricky. There are plenty of people who are, I think, completely racist who love hip-hop. So there's no guarantee if you like the music you will empathize with the culture and the people who made it. It doesn't necessarily happen. I think it can, but it doesn't necessarily happen. Which is kind of a shame. It would be nice if music was a cure-all that way. But it doesn't seem you can count on it, totally.

How did you begin working with Dave Eggers and McSweeney's? They have a great aesthetic that seems like a perfect match for you.
I was a fan of the McSweeney's journal. I was working on this art book project, kind of a fake religious tract, a Bible-type thing called The New Sins that was meant to be placed in hotel drawers. I thought, whoever does the design for McSweeney's, that person might be very appropriate. I wrote out of the blue to them. And I got an email back from Dave, saying, "Oh, I do a lot of that. I'd love to design the book." He's an incredible designer. I did some McSweeney's events, and I did another art book with them . . . It does feel like, these days, in the era of e-books, if you're going to make a physical book, you may as well make it into a really nice physical object. Otherwise, not. [Laughs]

And the two of you have a shared love of bicycles.
We have gone biking together. He mentioned in [a recent New York Times review], he asked someone, "Let's go for a ride," and the guy showed up in the Spandex and everything. And it's like, oh my God, we're just riding around the neighborhood here.

You write about collaborating. Can you talk about challenging yourself that way?
It sort of goes back to the writer's block thing – it's a really interesting way to keep the creative muscles active. People whose work you like, who are different than you are, you've got to meet them in the middle and adjust what you do to what they do to make it successful. Sometimes you have to stretch, do something you haven't done before. Yeah, like Pitchfork said, I will collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. [Laughs] That's not quite true, but I'm definitely not doing it for the money. It has totally paid off, creatively. Weirdly enough, occasionally you hit something and it becomes really popular, and you're not even trying.

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