CSI: David Byrne


David Byrne at Bonnaroo in Manchester Tennessee, 2004.

If you listen to music too soon after reading David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, especially Chapter 5 (how recording studios shape what we hear), Chapter 6 (how collaborations shape what we hear), and Chapter 7 (how recording budgets shape what we hear)—you might be in for a disorienting experience, like watching a magic show after you’ve been taught all the tricks.

I happened to put on Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, an album I’ve enjoyed repeatedly over the past few months. Suddenly, instead of the songs I’d come to know by heart, with their minimalist but emotionally brutal stabs at self-analysis that it took Apple seven years to complete, I heard an assembly of parts. I became obsessed with microphone placement and where each song was recorded, debated whether I was hearing an upright piano or an electronic keyboard, tried to picture the number of musicians, imagined Apple’s writing process (words first? music first? spread out over seven years or in spurts?), and wondered what it cost to make something sound so expensive yet so lean.

When I reached for Love This Giant, Byrne’s just-released collaboration with chamber-pop singer and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark—better known as St. Vincent—the wondering got even worse. I could barely focus on the album’s punchy musical geometry of warm swaggering horns and icy, snapping beats, a difficult mix of contrasts that works its way under your skin. Who wrote what, and were the two artists ever in the same room? Did they split the advance? Was there an advance? If not, how did they hire producer John Congleton?

I went to the album’s website. Sure enough, all these questions are addressed by Byrne, with detail-packed answers that added to the obsessive-compulsive disorder that had now become my listening experience: 

The writing was truly collaborative: sometimes Annie would send me some synthesized versions of brass or guitar riffs and I would arrange them a bit and write a tune and words over them; other times this process would be reversed and I would send some musical ideas to Annie for her to write over. This material would get passed back and forth—each of us adding and elaborating on it. There are songs on which one of us sang on the demo and the other ended up singing the finished version.

How Music Works is full of this kind of detailed deconstruction. A personal and scholarly reflection on music as a social, technological, and economic product (with a bibliography that ranges from Jane Jacobs to The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America to E.O. Wilson), the book also reveals the intellectual blueprint and techniques behind Byrne’s career. Since becoming a fixture at the Bowery club CBGB in the late 1970s, as the lead singer and songwriter for art-rock experimentalists Talking Heads, Byrne has grown into one of music’s most tireless polymaths. He’s made a documentary on Afro-Brazilian religion, cut a concept album about Imelda Marcos with Fatboy Slim, written a book about bicycling, and played the pipes and girders of New York’s Battery Maritime Building like a musical instrument in a 2008 installation. Which is to say he’s been a post-genre guy from the jump, a sly cartographer of the invisible paths linking punk clubs to art galleries and avant-garde dance to Nuyorican salsa and Brazilian pop.

Byrne’s approach to music has always been studied, not in the quote-the-right-sources-for-a-good-grade sort of way but in the stay-up-all-night-devouring sort of way. Intense musical homeschooling runs throughout How Music Works, just as it did through the landmark Talking Heads’ albums (Talking Heads: 77, More Songs About Buildings and Food), Byrne’s later hit-and-miss solo projects (Rei Momo, Feelings), and his noteworthy collaborations with British producer Brian Eno. Byrne’s first effort with Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a 1981 attempt to make field recordings “based on an imaginary culture,” was assembled as a pastiche of samples before the advent of digital sampling. Their second album collaboration, 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, came together over e-mail. Byrne has been at this for a long time, in other words, and his playful approach to change makes him a cheerful guide through the musical upheavals of the aughts. The book is free of the artistic nostalgia and generational backlash that could easily befall someone who made his first major-label album 35 years ago.

Talking Heads: 77, Byrne tells us, was recorded with each member of the band in isolation, wearing headphones in order to hear the others (he calls it “by and large a miserable experience”). If the recording didn’t capture the raw energy of the band’s early CBGB shows, it set a stylistic precedent. Talking Heads was not just any art-rock band: It was, Byrne writes, “minimalist or conceptual art with an R&B beat.” The group’s follow-up, More Songs about Buildings and Food, was recorded live in the studio, while Fear of Music was captured in the band’s loft by a mobile studio parked on the street below. Changing the technique changed the sound; the less isolated the musicians, the more alive and loose the recording tended to be. Of one song from Fear of Music, “Drugs,” Byrne writes, “We had initially recorded a fairly straightforward backing track that seemed a bit conventional, so we began to mute some of the instruments, sometimes just silencing specific notes.” Then Byrne added recordings of koala grunts and snorts, “an arc-like melody created using an echo machine,” and a guitar solo built from parts of other guitar solos. When it was time for the vocals, he went for a jog around the studio to sound out of breath.

Be forewarned, with its session re-enactments—plus copious historical research dipping back to Johannes Kepler on music and the solar system—all this can get a bit CSI: David Byrne. But the point of Byrne’s musical forensics is not to be a spoiler. His enthusiasm for the art’s power and wonder is there on every page. “We’re fascinated and drawn to stuff that science can’t explain,” he writes, “and music both touches on and emanates from those mysteries. It reconnects us to that lost time of enchantment.” Byrne just wants to debunk any lingering belief in musical genius—the fantasy that songs fall in a burst of divine inspiration from the sky directly onto our iPods. He spends more than 50 pages following technology’s impact on music from the days of Edison cylinders to MP3s; he compares the effects of the architectural designs of CBGB, La Scala, Bayreuth Festival Theatre, and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. On the question of what music is and what it’s become, Byrne toes a nonjudgmental line. Is the future to be found in old-school song craft or in the randomly generated melody moods of The Buddha Machine? “I like a good story,” he concludes, “And I also like staring at the sea.”

Byrne’s career straddles the era of the music industry’s old centrist major-label regime and its recent digital fragmentation into crowds of self-financed amateurs. As a working musician, he’s been figuring out as he goes along how to stay creative and pay the bills. The book’s most revealing section, and the most helpful for aspiring musicians funding albums through Kickstarter, is his accounting of what it’s cost him to make his music (there are so many graphs and pie charts, you almost expect to see his 2011 tax returns on the next page). After surveying the most commonly pursued business models, he walks us through budgets on a pair of recent projects: 2004’s Grown Backwards (a royalty deal) and 2008’s collaboration with Eno (self-distributed online). The two albums sold almost exactly the same number of units, but the latter garnered nearly five times the profit.

But who wants to think about a Quicken spreadsheet when we can listen to an album? Love This Giant, Byrne’s long-distance collaboration with St. Vincent, glows with the melding of pop confection and aesthetic idiosyncrasy both artists are known for. I like the beats that pump like pistons, the way St. Vincent stutters the phrase “ice age” across a valley of loneliness, the way Byrne drolly narrates a dinner party (“Harry’s gonna get some appetizers”) as if it’s happening on a dance floor in the middle of a forest, and the way the horns on “The One Who Broke Your Heart” sound like they are dying to meet the merengue that gave birth to them. I don’t care all that much about what it cost to make—I care how it makes me feel and how, if for just three minutes, it alters the way I move through the world.

For all of the analysis in How Music Works, you can tell that music’s power to inhabit our lives unpredictably is what still matters most to Byrne as well. Openness, curiosity, and the unexpected inspiration of a cross-cultural encounter have energized his work since the beginning. Japanese Noh theater inspired him to design the oversize business suit that became a visual staple of Talking Heads live shows. Japanese street dance styles were channeled in the convulsive moves Toni Basil choreographed for the band’s iconic ’80s MTV video of “Once in a Lifetime.” Beijing Opera star William Chow gave Byrne performance tips (“Tell the audience what you’re going to do, and then do it”) before Talking Heads and director Jonathan Demme filmed the tour that became the famous Stop Making Sense documentary. The progression of those shows—an empty stage, gradually filling in with the gear and musicians needed for each successive song—grew more and more “codified,” as Byrne puts it, driven by improvisations that were anticipated by the band and telegraphed to the audience right before they happened.

All music may be born of, and ultimately tied to, the conditions that produce it, but Byrne also reminds us that music will always aspire to go beyond conditions—“Outside of Space and Time,” to borrow the dream and the title of Love This Giant’s final track. This may be the best song to listen to while you read How Music Works. Delicately framed by a regal brass fanfare, Byrne and St. Vincent sing of secret places and shaky galactic ladders over a heartbreaking melody the Righteous Brothers would have killed for. You’ll be thinking about the mechanics of how it ended up in your ear, without sacrificing the magic of the unknown.

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