A Chat with David Byrne About 'How Music Works'

By Blake Butler

Photo by Catalina Kulczar

If you’ve never read any of David Byrne’s books, his newest, How Music Works, might be the best place to start. The book is an encyclopedic compendium of mini-essays spanning a huge range of musical subjects from the history of venue architecture, aspects of performance, how a music scene develops, the anatomy of recording contracts, as well as in-depth reflection on his career with the Talking Heads and beyond. As I was reading the book, I kept imagining David Byrne standing inside my face in the big suit reading aloud. Sadly, that strange daydream was better than a lot of live bands I’ve seen lately.

VICE: You write early on in How Music Works that “Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike.” Do you think of yourself as channeling something when you are writing a song?
David Byrne: Well, lots of people use that metaphor that they’re channeling something, or that they’re a conduit and they don’t know where the inspiration comes from and they’re just a pen that writes it down or whatever. That’s pretty common. And yeah, there’s definitely something to it. I guess what I’m also saying is that it is usually presumed that the emotion is something that’s put into a song, that it comes from the person and goes into the song. And there’s probably a lot of truth to that, but I’m saying that just as much as that happens, I think it happens in the exact reverse way, where a person makes a song and the song makes the writer feel emotional. The song brings out the emotions in the writer. You realize that this chord changing and singing this melody and these words, it takes you to a place. As a writer as well as a listener. I mean, we all share that in common. And so the song becomes the thing that does it. It’s not that the writer necessarily channels the emotions or the ideas or whatever and puts them down on paper. What got put down on paper is also a thing that reaches inside the writer or the person listening and brings that stuff out of them.

Is that why you refer in the book to the big major chord as a trick?
Yes. [laughs] And that’s not a value judgment. It doesn’t mean the major chord is bad, or that you should never use it. But it is, it’s like a guaranteed thing. You do that, and you get this kind of feeling. You start to learn things like that. You do this, you’re going to get this kind of feeling, and it’s going to make you feel that way as a writer, and it’s going to make the audience feel that way, and in that kind of way you kind of learn tricks of the trade. And they’re valid. But if you fall back on them too much, if you start using only those and nothing else, it becomes pretty shallow after a while. It’s one device after another being thrown at us and you go, “Oh, wait a minute. There’s nothing behind this.”

I think you put that very well in the book when you said that people want to hear something familiar in a new way. 
Yes. In a live performance, musicians—or at least popular musicians—are in a kind of difficult place in a way. They’re expected to play the hits, to play a certain amount of stuff that people know, and then if they do only the hits, then they’re a wedding band. They have to find some middle ground where they introduce something new that gets the audience excited, but they also have to give them enough that’s familiar. We all know bands that have gone out and say, “I’m not going to do any of my old stuff, I’m only going to play the new record.” And god bless them if they can do it. I’ve been to those shows too, and it’s sometimes great to hear new stuff, but sometimes you just want a little bit of sugar to go along with all of that. And it’s a difficult thing for us. You wouldn’t go to the movies and say, “Well, I love this director, so I want to see some new stuff, but I’d love to see some of my favorite scenes from some of his older films as well thrown in there. Give me some of that.” [laughs] That would just seem ridiculous.

Do you think there’s a difference in the feeling of exploration when you’re writing a love song like “This Must Be the Place” versus something perhaps more directly dance-oriented? 
Well, with “This Must Be the Place,” like a lot of songs, the music was written first. When the band and I were coming up with the music we had no idea what it was going to be about. But I had a girlfriend at the time and I was very much in love with her, so when I did start to write words that would fit the melody that I’d already come up with, that’s where they went. But the whole melody and the song structure and everything else, that was already there. That had nothing to do with my relationship with this person. I don’t know if that helps or not. You end up putting your personal stuff in there at some point, but it wasn’t really guiding the whole song. The whole big part of the song had no relation to my personal life at all.

But then the music brought the lyrics?
Yes, if you do it well, it doesn’t sound like you kind of stuck something on top. If you do it well it sounds like they emerged at the same time, that they belong together, that the words you come up with sound like they fit the music so well that you can’t imagine it being some other way.

I’m interested in how you sort of map the way you’ll sing first—you sing gibberish, and make the words out of those sounds. There’s that outtake track “Dancing For Money,” which ended up not being on an official record, where we hear the gibberish. You never actually replaced most of the sounds, right?
[laughs] Yeah, I did actually try to write words for it, and I just discovered some of those lyric attempts yesterday and I realized, “Oh god, no wonder they didn’t work.” They were pretty interesting, but they didn’t fit the melody that we’d worked out for that. So that wasn’t going to fit. It was something about how we used to go out dancing and have so much fun, but now we get paid to dance. It was just some kind of imaginary scenario. Every time we go out we get paid, and it’s work. It wasn’t about pole dancing or anything like that, it was just about ordinary dancing.

You talk in the book about seeing the Sex Pistols, and how clear it was that they were in some ways a comedic act. To me, sometimes it’s almost like the band on record is different than the live one. When you see them play it doesn’t seem like they could have written those songs.
Ooh, I’m not going to go there. [laughs] I mean, I will say, yes, they had a very slick producer, Chris Thomas, on that record, who did Roxy Music and Pretenders and all these other things. It was pretty well-produced. It’s a little bit of a stretch to believe that they played everything on there, but whatever. Let’s assume that they did. I don’t know, I was looking at the videos, not listening to the record really, and it was kind of a comedy act. Come on, they could hardly stand up. You can understand a little bit of what Mr. Lydon was singing, but it was sort of hard to make out. And there’s all this lurching and stuff going on…

That kind of made them who they were, right? The album probably would have been gotten forgotten if they weren’t that ridiculous.
Well, who’s to say? I think Malcolm McLaren was just a brilliant publicist also. He made no bones about it that he was going to market the shit out of this thing. And he did. Then he moved onto something else. [laughs]

In the book you wrote that every musician is a potential virtuoso if they can just find where they belong, which you called “their personal slot in the spectrum.” How does an amateur without Malcolm McLaren behind them discover their place?
I mean, it’s like that blues guy, Burnside, or one of those guys, it might be somebody else, who does these songs where you’ve just got one chord, and grooves on one kind of blues chord for the whole thing. Somebody else might not have the nerve to do that and go, “I’m feeling this, I’m good at this, it feels good, I’m going to stick with it.” Somebody else might feel, “Oh no, you can’t get away with that. You have to go to another chord at the chorus, or nobody’s gonna… people will think I’m stupid if I just do this.” You know? Often, I think to find that stuff you just basically have to throw out accepted wisdom, or the consensus, and go, I’m going to do this because it feels right to me and it’s something I can do, and not feel like you’re supposed to do this other thing, whatever, a guitar solo, or play drums like this. You don’t have to. You can figure out some other way to do it that works for you. It’s a big step, though. I don’t think there’s a formula for it.

Maybe part of it has to do with whether or not your natural way of approaching it is something that people are ready to see.
Yeah, once you kind of dig in there people might start to go, “Oh, this person discovered a whole new way of drumming that none of us thought of.”

I really appreciate that one of your major factors for how a scene develops was that “It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary.”
And sometimes if you don’t feel like you have to be paying attention the music can kind of get to you and move you and seep in, and it will affect you because maybe your defenses are down. When you’re standing right there in front of the stage, your critical defenses, unless you totally love the band already, are sort of up. You’re being aware of every little thing that’s going on, but maybe if you’re over by the pool table playing and you’re only half listening it can kind of move you because your critical screens are down and it just gets in.

Do you think it’s harder now to get the relative silences between all the noise than it was when you were coming up? Are silences different now even?
Well, sort of. I mean, once a band gets a little bit of attention, using the internet and everything else, all of a sudden a little bit turns into a lot. Sometimes it’s good for a band to have only a little attention for a while, just so they can develop and really be allowed to make some mistakes and play some stuff that’s really bad. They should be allowed to go down those dead ends and not be publicly castigated for it. They’ll know when it doesn’t work, but to do something and then hundreds of thousands of people know that you did this thing, that can be kind of deadly. And there’s nowhere you can go. It’s not like you can go, “OK, I’m going to move to Idaho so my band can play in a little bar there and develop our sound.” That’s just not going to happen.

Also by Blake Butler:

People Who Wrote Books Because They Were Pissed About Writing

Famous Authors' Thoughts While Being Photographed

Books with Blurbs by Bono, Thomas Kinkade, and Tyler Perry