When the Bonnaroo poster went online earlier this month, many were surprised to see Jerry Harrison’s name listed on the fifth line of the Friday lineup. The Talking Heads guitarist hasn’t gone on a tour of any sort since the ill-fated, David Byrne-free No Talking, Just Heads tour of 1996, instead working behind the scenes as a producer for the likes of String Cheese Incident, No Doubt and Live.
That changes this summer. Harrison will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking Talking Heads LP Remain in Light with a tour featuring the Brooklyn-based funk band Turkuaz and former King Crimson/David Bowie guitarist Adrian Belew, who was a key part of the Remain in Light album and tour.
We spoke with Harrison about what fans can expect from the tour, his current relationships with Byrne and fellow Talking Heads alumni Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, and why that elusive reunion seems as unlikely as ever.
A lot of people are surprised by this tour. How did it happen?
People have gotten frustrated that [Talking Heads] haven’t reformed and they say to me, “Why don’t you and Chris and Tina do something?” Nothing ever seemed to come to fruition, though. I think it was when Adrian Belew came here [to San Francisco] and played and we got into talking about how the touring band for Remain in Light was so special. It was sort of a different feel than the Stop Making Sense band, which is sort of captured in that Rome 1980 performance you can find on YouTube. I think it was recorded by an Italian radio station. Adrian was saying how his fans often say, “I’ve never seen a more joyful concert on YouTube.”
We said, “Why don’t we go do this?” And then Adrian and I had a number of discussions. I always thought that joining forces with a band like Turkuaz made sense. They already have their own audience and also has a real familiarity with Talking Heads since they do those songs in their show. I then helped organize connecting everybody and I’m excited about it. Obviously, it being the 40th anniversary of Remain in Light it felt very appropriate.
Are you playing the album straight through in sequence?
I don’t see a reason to do that. I don’t think that the order on the album is the order that I would want to play it live. A song like “Seen and Not Seen” has a great groove, but I need to hear it after we play it to see if it’s going to be really effective live. Since we’re playing festivals, we have maybe 45 minutes to play. We definitely want to give Turkuaz a chance to play a couple of their songs. I think Adrian and I both probably want to play something of our own, too. Let’s just say we don’t feel obligated to play every song.
If you go back to Talking Heads, we hardly played any of the latter songs [on Remain in Light] live ever. They are more ballad-like. I do think we will do “Listening Wind.” Peter Gabriel sometimes puts that in his show. I’m kind of excited about that. Of course, I listen to it now and go, “Within the context of our current world, this would seem like the breeding ground of a terrorist.”
Are you going to play Talking Heads songs that aren’t on Remain in Light?
I think we’re going to do that, but we’re also going to go into the vast repertoire of Turkuaz. I produced one of their albums and we’ll do one of those songs and a song that Adrian is going to do. I think it’s going to be a really great show. I think doing it at festivals, it really fits the mood of wanting to dance and let loose. I think Brian [Eno] really captured that.
Are there going to be any non-festival dates where you guys just headline somewhere?
I think there’s a couple. It’s just coming into focus. There’s tentative commitments and then there’s commitments, so it’s a little early to be at that point.
Have you guys rehearsed yet?
We did one in Nashville where we really just did one song at SIR. It was great because we did a bathroom break and found all these people listening in the hall, so it obviously captured a lot of people’s attention.
What song did you do?
“Crosseyed and Painless.”
I’m sure a few of these songs you haven’t played live in decades.
Do you still remember all the parts, or do you need to go back to the records to re-learn stuff you played back then?
I remember the parts I played, but I feel like I’m going to be the person who tells everyone else what to play. I even found that in working out the arrangement of “Crosseyed and Painless” that I remembered some details I told to the various other people. Also, we now have a horn section and that is so exciting because there are places [on the album] where the synthesizer is doing horn parts. To be able to have real horns will be so much fun.
The Stop Making Sense period gets so much attention because of the movie. But that often means the 1980 tour is often overlooked. It was amazing in a very different way.
That’s what we feel. It was partially because of the way we set up onstage. We set up in a line like King Sunny Adé’s band. David [Byrne] and I felt the need to have two bass players, but that was a little unwieldy onstage. So there were moments where one side of the stage and another side of the stage went off on divergent improvisations. I’m sure that was amazing onstage, but probably even more amazing for an audience member who had an even better listening position to be able to hear these related, but sometimes very different things going on simultaneously.
I’m sure having Adrian onstage with you back then really upped your game and will again this time.
Yeah. It’s going to be wonderful. And there are so many talented musicians in Turkuaz. One of the big challenges for me is that I’m going to end up singing songs that I only know as songs that David sang. That’s a very tricky thing for someone that has been in a band with someone else. You have to find a way that you feel comfortable, that is making it your own song.
So how exactly will the vocals be handled? Will you take turns singing lead?
Yeah. We’re going to share it. I also think that the two women singers, Sammi [Garett] and Shira [Elias], I can imagine them singing lead on one of the songs. I don’t feel any need to reverentially capture everything that was on that tour. I just want to do great versions with this group of musicians, but that captures that feel.
You haven’t toured in nearly 25 years. Have you missed the road?
I’ve been doing shows where I sit in with people. When [Grateful Dead lyricist] John Perry Barlow got sick, I got very involved in a number of fundraisers for his medical treatment and then a number of memorials. I did a show where my daughter joined me up with Lukas Nelson, Sean Lennon and Bob Weir and all these other fantastic musicians. So yes, I do miss playing. The rest of the elements of being on tour, we’ll have to see [Laughs.]
Right. Touring is often just a lot of waiting around and traveling.
This tour is being set up in a way that it’s spurts and not just a continuous grind.
If it goes well, might this keep going? You could do different albums or different corners of the catalog. Are you open to that?
Sure. I also have three solo records, many of which I’ve never played live. I could also do more writing. I’ve gotten very involved in a lot of companies over the past few years as well as producing. I’ve co-founded a company that’s trying to create an antidote to snakebites. Basically, mosquitoes kill the most people, humans kill the next most people and then snakes. There’s 125,000 deaths a year and 800,000 maimings. The company is called Ophirex. The scientists I have been working with have discovered a totally different approach than anti-venom. It’s really revolutionary. We have gone for over six years now.
Do you still talk much to Chris and Tina? Were they approached about being a part of this?
Chris is really involved in writing his book right now. I see that it’s coming out in the spring. If they are nearby and want to join us, that would be great. I’d say the same thing about David. I’m not expecting it, but if it happens that would be wonderful.
Did you see David’s Broadway musical yet?
I haven’t seen it on Broadway yet. But I saw it when it was touring around and it came through San Francisco.
What did you think of it?
I thought it was beautiful. I want to see it on Broadway because I know the precision with the choreography and the lighting will be that much more when you’re playing in the same theater every night. My wife and I were in New York right after it opened and I’m very familiar with the nightmare of people asking for tickets in your hometown. I wrote David a letter saying I’d be back and that I basically knew what it was about and I’d see it further into the run.
How did you feel watching him play so many Talking Heads songs without the rest of the band?
Well, it’s impossible to not have a certain wistfulness when you hear things like that. But there’s also the pride of, “That’s a song that I helped create.” That’s something that’s been there for quite a long time and I kind of made my peace with it a long time ago. It’s not something I dwell upon.
Do you think the fans need to get over their fantasy of a reunion and just accept that it’s never going to happen?
I don’t want to speak for the fans. They can do whatever they please. I think that people really seem to enjoy David’s show. I think they are really going to enjoy the show I do with Adrian. I don’t think it’s ever going to take away from the wish to see the original people doing it. But you’ve seen shows where a band has reformed, but they come on and it’s clear they were inspired by the money. It can mean the music isn’t quite as good.
Yeah. The Police reunion sort of felt that way at times to me. It was the same three guys playing the same songs, but it felt sort of mercenary.
That’s something we would never want. I know David would never want that. We feel the same way. We all still play music and we would all enjoy doing it. And I wouldn’t want to do a reunion that felt that way. I wouldn’t want it to feel mercenary. They [the Police] also charged enormous amounts for their tickets. I think the Eagles are that way as well. You don’t want to feel like people are going through the motions. And when we played a few songs for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2002], we really rehearsed for it and did it as well as we could and people in the audience really felt it. I wouldn’t want it without that commitment from everybody.
And David has made it very clear he doesn’t want to do it.
He certainly has.
Playing Bonnaroo this summer will be a blast though. You’ll be playing to tons of young people that never had any chance to see the band.
I’m really excited about it. I’m excited about the other people on the bill like Tool. It should be a lot of fun. I also think that the [original] Remain in Light band was before we got into having any sort of complicated lighting. If you look at the show in Rome, you can see the people onstage playing and feel the energy. One of the things when you think of festivals is, “What sort of music will work on afternoons and what sort of music will work just in the evening?” I think this show will work at any time.
Right. You’ll probably be playing before the sun goes down at some festivals.
Absolutely. The bigger the festival, the more we’ll be earlier [laughs.] But I think it’s a great way to re-introduce us. I think the festival format leads to music that grabs your body, grabs your soul and gets you grooving. We’re going to do a great job of capturing that energy and excitement that we had back then.
A lot of people were confused a few months back when Talking Heads official Instagram account went online. What happened with that?
It was basically a move to stop all of the false Talking Heads Instagram accounts. There’s already the Talking Heads website that’s run by this couple out of the Netherlands that is incredibly uncoordinated with the band. I mean, we can send stuff and they are very nice people. We have official t-shirts we sell, but they wind up having other things on that site that are competition to the ones we’ve officially approved of. It’s messy. Let’s just say, we don’t have control. This was just an attempt to make people realize they were getting information from someone…that there is a place where if the band wanted to communicate they could. I know some people falsely thought that was an indication that we were going to reform.
There was a lot of speculation about that.
Other bands that were reforming used Instagram as a way to announce their presence, so people took other’s people use of it and assumed we were doing the same thing. We weren’t.
The sense I have is that you’re closer to David these days than Chris and Tina are. They sometimes speak ill of him to the press. You don’t really do that and you say you still speak to him somewhat regularly.
I would say probably, but I can’t speak to it. I don’t know the last time that David spoke with Chris and Tina. I know that David and I have a cordial relationship. If I’m in New York I’ll call him up and ask if he wants to get dinner. If he’s coming to town for something…we have a friendship that goes back a long ways. I think we have worked hard…maybe we have different opinions about various things dealing with the legacy of the band or dealing with other things. But that doesn’t stop the fact that we did a lot of wonderful work together. For instance, I organized a whole thing about having t-shirts. I also did the whole thing with the surround sound mixes [of the old albums]. In both cases, I need a sign-off from David to see if he was happy with the design and the mixes. I did the same thing with Chris and Tina. That put me in the position of reaching out to them, but it was separate. It wasn’t like, “Let’s all get in a room together.”
I’d love to see the show. Is it coming anywhere near New York?
You’re asking at a time where I just don’t know when all the dates are. I know some definitive ones. I know we’re playing Peach Fest and Bonnaroo and BottleRock out here. I know we’re playing some other ones, but I don’t know any that are close to New York City.
It’s great you’re finally playing this music again. These songs are too good to not be played live. They belong on a stage.
I agree. I think the album is wonderful, but we took it up a notch when we did live performances. I’m really excited to be doing that again. You could really feel the energy and excitement when we did this rehearsal in Nashville.